Friday, July 23, 2010


My scholarly background is in a social science discipline, not math. I have no particular pet theory on the right and proper way to teach math. Frankly, if someone convinced me that counting sheep were the most effective way to do it, I’d gladly requisition a flock or two and tell the soccer team to practice someplace else.

That said, it’s pretty clear at my college -- and at many, many others -- that lower-level math classes (especially developmental) are the most difficult academic obstacles many of our students face. The drop/fail rate in developmental math is embarrassingly and stubbornly high, and the national literature suggests that students who drop out because they feel overmatched in math are among the least likely ever to return. (The same does not hold true of developmental English, interestingly enough.)

In a discussion this week with someone who spends most of her time working with students who are struggling mightily in developmental math, I heard an argument I hadn’t given much thought previously: students who have passed algebra and even pre-calc in high school frequently crash and burn when they hit our developmental math, because the high schools let them use calculators and we don’t.

Among math people, the calculator/no calculator divide seems pretty strong. I’ll admit an uninformed sympathy with the ‘no calculator’ camp, just because I’ve had several experiences in which the ability to guesstimate the ballpark of a correct answer helped me recognize a ludicrous answer when I saw one. Calculators offer precision, but they’re just and only as precise as the numbers you put in. If you hit a number twice, or leave out a digit, or place the decimal point wrong, you’ll get a precisely wrong answer. If you can do the basic math in your head, you’ll have a better shot at recognizing when something is wildly off.

That said, part of me wonders if we’re sacrificing too much on the altar of pencil and paper. It’s great to be able to do addition in your head and long division on paper -- yes, I know, I’m old -- but is it worth flunking out huge cohorts of students because their high schools let them use calculators and we don’t?

At my job, I use statistics all the time. Most of the statistics I use are computer generated. Excel and its progeny (I’m an OpenOffice fan, myself) can crunch huge sets of numbers much faster than I ever could, leaving me free to do other things. Although I like knowing that, in a pinch, I could do a whole bunch of arithmetic myself, I typically don’t. And in most jobs, most people don’t. I agree that it would be better to have the ability than not to have it, but if the cost of holding the line against calculators is turning half a generation away from college, is it worth it?

At this point, the local high schools seem largely to have moved into the calculator camp. Wise and worldly readers, should we follow?

(Program note: next week the gang will be tromping through woods in another state. I’ll resume posting on Monday, August 2.)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Professor Plum, With a Candlestick, In the Study

The comments to yesterday’s post shed more heat than light, but I’ll concede one point: the piece was snarkier than necessary. It was a reaction to the persistent and fundamental failure of our major opinion leaders to even understand the question. Sometimes my frustration at their obtuseness boils over, as it did yesterday.

That said, though, a few commenters raised the serious question of transition. How would we get from a tenure system to a contract system? What are the likeliest sources of change? If tenure gets killed, who will have killed it?

I’ve thought about this off and on for years. A few scenarios, with annotations:

1. The Class Polarization Hypothesis. I consider this the likeliest. In this scenario, tenure fades away to irrelevance at all but the most elite institutions, driven almost entirely by cost. The Harvards of the world can keep it forever if they want to, but the St. Somebody Colleges in the East Wherevers of the world just can’t. I’d expect that a combination of program closures, campus closures, and generational rule changes will continue the trend of reducing the presence of tenured faculty outside the elites. It’s basically an extension of the trend line of the past forty years or so.

2. Judicial Fiat. Although some like to claim that tenure is nothing more than an entitlement to “due process,” the courts have consistently recognized it as a property claim. Of course, courts can change their minds. If a high-level court of appeals were to reconstrue the meaning of tenure, all bets would be off. I consider this unlikely in my neck of the woods, but in the South or Southwest, I wouldn’t rule it out. Get a conflict going between federal circuits, and things could get unpredictable.

3. PATCO. In the early 1980’s, the Air Traffic Controllers’ union (Patco) went on strike. President Reagan hired permanent replacements for the striking workers, and the precedent has stood since. Imagine a tenured, unionized public faculty going on strike, and the governor declaring that he’ll just hire permanent replacements. It would be horrendous on the ground, and would probably only occur if a governor were Republican, desperate, and prone to confrontation. In other words, I’d look at California or Arizona, or maybe South Carolina.

4. Displacement. It may be that tenure survives in many lower-tier institutions, but those institutions themselves become largely irrelevant. Nobody seriously disputes that the major growth sector in higher ed for the last two decades or so is the for-profits, and I’ve never heard of a for-profit with a tenure system. (Some of them have full-time faculty, but not tenure.) Since the for-profits thrive on growth and the publics choke on it, it’s unsurprising that the for-profits are becoming progressively larger and more important players. Over time, this could feed into scenario 1.

5. Everything is Fine. This strikes me as the least likely by far, given the trend lines of the lasty forty years. It’s also the majority position in higher ed. Every so often the cognitive dissonance gets a little wearing.

I recognize that many of my wise and worldly readers think I’m mistaken. So I’ll pose my question to them. What will keep tenure alive and widespread? (The key word in that sentence is ‘will,’ as opposed to, say, ‘should.’)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Tenure/Adjunct Dialectic

The New York Times published a colloquy on the future and desirability of the tenure system. Per usual for the Times, not a single contributor there has any experience actually managing in a tenure-based sysem. None. Not one. Nor does any of them work at a community or state college. Honestly, it’s like they’re not even trying anymore...

Anyway, the officially sanctioned view from on high misses the point.

Cary Nelson weighs in for the AAUP, contrasting “tenure and academic freedom together” with adjuncts, as if those are the only two options, and as if they were somehow opposed. The various other contributors note more rationally that other options exist -- Mark Taylor at least mentions renewable contracts, which don’t even exist in Nelson’s piece -- but none of them sees the causal link between tenure and adjuncts. Which isn’t all that surprising, given that none of them have ever actually tried to manage the system.

The cost of tenure goes far beyond the salary of the tenured. It includes the opportunity cost of more productive uses that had to be skipped to pay for a decision made decades earlier in a different context. (We actually have people for whom staff jobs were created when their tenured speciality went away. That’s a direct cost of tenure.) It also includes the cost of the various bribes that have to be paid to the tenured to get them to step up to acknowledge institutional needs: course releases (a direct cause of adjunct hiring), preferential scheduling (whether it makes sense for students or not), and even cash stipends (which have to be paid for somehow).

Whenever we allocate course reassignments for full-time faculty, we hire adjuncts to make up for it. Sabbaticals? Adjuncts. Grant work? Adjuncts. Someone has to teach the classes the tenured faculty won’t. (As one embittered adjunct put it in a department meeting, “I teach so you don’t have to!” Exactly.) Aristocrats need serfs, and the tenured need the adjuncts.

It starts earlier than that. The ‘bait’ of tenure is part of what lures so many young idealists into graduate school, replenishing the reserve army of the adjuncts. That oversupply allows the adjunct trend to continue. The crushed dreams of a generation of underemployed academics are a cost of tenure.

And that’s not even counting the absurd, over-the-top, you-wouldn’t-believe-it-if-you-hadn’t-seen-it procedures necessary to get rid of someone with tenure. Since the courts have interpreted tenure as ownership of the job, you need to meet what amounts to a standard of criminal prosecution in order to ‘expropriate’ someone. But the job doesn’t belong to the employee. That’s a fundamental, and egregious, category mistake. The job belongs to he who pays for it, not he who is paid. Most people understand that intuitively. Combine an ownership interest with the lack of a mandatory retirement age, and you get some pretty entitled, embittered, ineffective people lumbering around, their life support paid by the surplus value created by the adjuncts who teach they courses the cranky veterans would rather not. And do you know what those seventy-somethings are waiting for? Retirement incentives! Another cost of tenure.

Then there’s the cost in the world of public opinion. Given the increasing costs of higher education, the argument from impunity is getting progressively harder to make with a straight face. “Trust us, we’re experts” is not a winning argument, especially when it’s somehow combined with the claim that administrators -- that is, the people charged with actually managing the taxpayers’ money -- are evil and incompetent. (That’s why you need the protections of tenure, the argument goes.) Explain to the rational taxpayer why he should continue to pay progressively more for someone unaccountable (faculty) managed by someone incompetent (administrators). That is the AAUP’s actual position, and it’s insane on its face.

A more rational system would abolish the tenure/adjunct dialectic as a dysfunctional model, and would move to renewable contracts with academic freedom stipulated in the contract language. Contracts could shift over time to reflect the changing needs of institutions -- no more making up jobs -- and nobody would be forced into the artificial “up or out” moment that does so much to squelch real academic freedom. (Ask the typical assistant professor aiming for tenure how much freedom she has to explore where her interests take her.) Faculty incentives could be aligned with institutional incentives -- in any other industry, that’s so obvious as to be almost tautological -- so we don’t hire people to teach and fire them for not publishing. Jobs could change as institutional needs change. Nobody would have to try to guess how productive someone else would be in thirty years, which is the system we have now.

Bring the system back to earth, and we might start to see some rationality in it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the appeal of grad school fade a bit, which would clearly be to the good. The unproductive could be put out to pasture, thereby freeing up resources for the productive. Colleges could staff for actual need, rather than to compensate for decisions made decades earlier in very different contexts. And nobody would be expected to be able to see decades into the future. It’s easier to get out of a bad marriage than to get out of a bad tenure decision, yet the supporters of tenure seldom crusade against divorce. If people can’t get marriage decisions right, why do we expect them to get tenure decisions right?

No. This isn’t about “lifetime earnings,” since people will accrue those either way. It’s about recognizing that the tenure system feeds the adjunct system, and that the only way to get rid of the latter is to get rid of the former.

Note to the Times: next time, just ask. Seriously.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Picking the Perfect Search Committee

Although it doesn’t happen as often now as it once did, we do still occasionally hire full-time, tenure-track faculty. And when we do, we have a pretty well established search process.

But some parts of the process are as much art as science. One of those is picking the members of the search committee in the first place.

We don’t delegate hiring to HR, the way some companies do, or allow department chairs or deans to make unilateral selections. The idea is that it’s important to recognize the disciplinary expertise of the existing faculty where possible -- easy in large departments, harder in small ones -- and that nobody should have unilateral hiring authority.

In practice, we usually have five faculty on a committee. But you can’t just pick any five. Considerations include:

- Disciplinary expertise. Of the five, usually four will be from the department in question, and one will have the mixed advantage of being from outside. In my faculty days at PU, I frequently served as an outside person for hiring technical faculty, and kind of enjoyed it; my colleagues judged content expertise, and I offered feedback on clarity to the novice.

- Of course, it isn’t always that easy. Smaller disciplines (at least as measured by enrollment) don’t always have that many members, and sometimes they get spread so thin that they really don’t want to serve on any more committees.

- Demographic diversity. A committee of all men in the sciences, or all women in Nursing, could tend to replicate itself without thinking. We also try for at least some racial or ethnic diversity, though there, too, you have to be careful not to go to the same few people over and over again.

- Personalities. This probably shouldn’t matter, in a perfect world, but there’s really no way around it. Some people just don’t play well with each other, and a few just don’t play well with others generally. I’ve seen committees torn apart by personality conflicts, and it’s just not worth the institutional cost. If you want to be excluded from key decisions, making yourself difficult is a pretty effective way to do it.

The idea is blend something like ‘peer review’ with something like ‘safeguards against inbreeding.’ Since peer review is a form of inbreeding by definition, it’s a necessarily messy process.

Departmental reactions to search committees are revealingly different. The English department, which is the single largest on campus, has internal competitions to see who gets to serve. Most of the smaller departments have internal competitions to see who has to serve. The difference says a lot.

Wise and worldly readers, how does your college select the members of faculty search committees? Have you found an elegant solution? Alternately, have you seen a seemingly rational method crash and burn?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Lost Illusions

I’m working with a colleague who’s going through the shock that hits every new dean the first time she has to deal with someone being a colossal jerk.

It brought back memories.

In a perfect world, people who move into administration have established themselves as credible, hardworking, intelligent people in their earlier roles. (Admittedly, this doesn’t always happen, but bear with me.) They’ve earned respect by being conscientious and productive, and at some level they expect that others will be conscientious and productive, too. And most of the time, that’s mostly true.

But sooner or later, someone who thinks of the new dean as goodhearted but basically irrelevant will try to take advantage of her good nature. And the new dean will discover that appeals to the better angels of one’s nature don’t always work.

My colleague, bless her, is having trouble believing that the high road won’t prevail. She’s a dedicated traveler of it, and has always succeeded with it. But she has new responsibilities now, and some of the people for whom she’s responsible simply don’t share her high-mindedness. Worse, they read it as exploitable naivete, which it can be. So she’s finding herself painted into a corner in which her options are increasingly distasteful.

I went through the same thing. It’s a painful process.

In a way, it’s a variation on the good student who becomes a teacher, only to discover that she has no idea how students without her own gifts actually learn. Suddenly, some of the teacherly behaviors that had previously seemed inexplicable make sense. As a student, she found them redundant or pedantic, but as a teacher she finds that not all students are just younger versions of her.

In this case, someone who has been blessed with a great work ethic and the respect of her erstwhile colleagues has inherited a turkey farm. She’s such a non-turkey herself that she doesn’t quite know what to do.

Overheated union rhetoric notwithstanding, many administrators take these jobs because we honestly want to help the institutions run better. We try to be fair, and we work hard to walk the walk. If that’s your outlook, then being pushed into a situation in which you have to be the bad guy can be really draining. You don’t want to do it, you try not to do it, but you finally run out of excuses. Invariably, the first time you actually play the heavy, you get monstrous pushback. You get accused of procedural irregularities, of discrimination against whatever category the person can claim, and of a personal vendetta. The hurtfulness of the accusations is real, even if the content isn’t. But you learn, slowly, not to take it personally, and to let the process play itself out. You learn how to interpret certain behaviors. Cornered animals attack. It’s what they do.

If you’re lucky, you’re able (both personally and organizationally) to compartmentalize, and not to let the poisons you have to use in one area seep into others. You learn not to jump to extremes, or to react to your lost illusions by swinging too far in the other direction. In a sense, you cherish the illusions all the more out of recognition of their painful fragility.

But once you’ve gone through it, you can’t un-know it.

My colleague will make her peace with it; she’s bright and dedicated, and she’s in the right. But it’s taking a toll on her, in much the same way it did on me years ago. It just comes with the territory.

Friday, July 16, 2010

What Runs Through My Mind During a Software Demo

- Good God, I'm bored.

- Maybe if I shift in my seat...

- Nope. Still bored.

- Ooh! A dropbox! However might it work?

- Ayup, it drops. Color me impressed.

- Why is the presenter staring at me? Am I rolling my eyes?

- Try to look interested. Try to look interested.

- Good God, I'm bored.

- I bet celebrities don't have to watch dropbox demos.

- I bet Lindsay Lohan doesn't have to watch dropbox demos.

- I bet they don't even do dropbox demos in prison.

- They should.

- Naw, that's cruel and unusual.

- What's she in for, anyway? Doesn't crime at least require actually doing something?

- Maybe I should have turned to a life of crime.

- Cool crime, though, not lame crime.

- To “save,” hit “save.” Got it.

- I wonder if those Witness Relocation people get to pick where they go.

- I'd request San Francisco, maybe. Or Seattle.

- And a cooler name, like “Brock Codpiece.”

- Naw, then the kids would be little Codpieces. That wouldn't be right.

- I wonder what the kids are doing right now?

- They're probably swimming. That sounds fun.

- I hope TG actually goes in the water this time.

- She takes after me, poor kid.

- Hey, it can add up numbers! Nice use of server space in 2010!

- I wonder if I should get a Droid.

- Nah, too big. Besides, what would I use it for?

- Other than games during software demos, anyway.

- At least I could hold it left-handed.

- I don't know why they say only lefties are inconvenienced by the iphone. I sometimes hold phones in my left hand, too.

- Does that mean I go both ways?

- Just like Lindsay Lohan! But she doesn't
have to sit through a software demo.

- Look at all of us in here. I wonder what the hourly wage of everyone in this room adds up to.

- Your tax dollars at work. Look, you can refresh the page!

- He's looking at me again! Look like you care, look like you care...

- I wonder if the tech guys think we're losers, running the demo on an xp machine.

- Yes, I know how to type in a box. You can stop demonstrating now.

- Anyone who misbehaves spends the night in the box.

- Whatever happened to Broderick Crawford, anyway?

- “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” God, that's true.

- Didn't Broderick Crawford do some sort of California cop movie or something?

- California. I'll miss it when it falls in the ocean.

- Poor bastards.

- Of course, in the ocean, you don't have to sit through software demos.

- I'd like to be under the sea, in an Octopus' garden...

- TG used to love that song. What is it about girls and Ringo?

- Zooey Deschanel liked Ringo in that movie.

- How the hell did the dweeb from Third Rock get Zooey Deschanel?

- Third Rock was a good show. Surprisingly accurate about college faculty.

- “Alpha order.” Nice. Just say “alphabetical.” Nobody's impressed.

- Click “save.” Okay. Learned that one in '86, thanks.

- They should 86 this presentation.

- What does that even mean, anyway?

- Brock Codpiece would know. He'd google it on his Droid, on his way to bust Lindsay Lohan out of prison. Then Broderick Crawford would catch him, and he'd spend the night in the box.

- Sigh.

- I wonder if I'll have time for lunch...

- Click “close.”

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I Heart This Story

This piece in IHE went uncommented the day it was published, which, I’ll admit, surprised me. It was one of the most hopeful pieces I’ve read in a long time.

It’s about the Community College of the District of Columbia, a new institution growing out of the University of the District of Columbia. As many people know, the District of Columbia has some issues with poverty, crime, and public school performance. Just a few. Not like you’d notice. So a new community college there makes a world of sense.

But what’s especially heartening is that, as a new institution, it’s actually taking the (vanishingly rare) opportunity to build all of its systems from the ground up around a robust assessment program. Put differently, it’s building an experimental ethic into its design.


Too often, assessment measures are appended as afterthoughts, which, in fact, they were. Departments generally consider themselves the unquestionable local experts in their fields, above being told anything by anyone about what they teach. Accordingly, they don’t see much point in assessment, and treat it as meddlesome busywork to be minimized when it can’t be entirely ignored. They assume they already know the answers, so they don’t like being asked questions.

CCDC is reversing the order. The burden of proof is not on the data; it’s on the programs. If the programs fall short, presumably, they’ll have to adjust. Expertise will be in the service of the mission.

It’s still early in the game, and I’d expect to see ‘pushback’ in various areas gradually get stronger over time. Some people will try, sincerely or not, to explain programmatic failures by reference to lack of funding; if the college falls for that, it will quickly fall into the same sinkhole that has swallowed much of the rest of higher education. The inevitable lag between when you need to make decisions and when the data actually comes in will create some awkward moments. There will be honest and real disagreements over the interpretations of some of the findings, some of which will probably become heated. To the extent that destination colleges make their acceptance of transfer credit decisions based on other criteria, there may be gaps between what the data says and what’s politically possible. And probably some interpretations will be unfortunate, reductionist, or otherwise flawed.

But still. This is absolutely the right way to go. The community college exists to serve the students and the community, rather than the faculty. That means relocating ‘truth’ from ‘he who huffs and puffs the loudest’ to ‘what actually happens with the students.’ Allocating resources based on data is much easier if the data measures are built in from the beginning. The students are too important, and too vulnerable, to trust their fates to the way things are usually done. We know perfectly well how they’ll fare if that happens.

If anything might help, this might. Best wishes, CCDC. I’m rootin’ for ya!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

When Students are Homophobic

This happens about once a year, even here in blue-state land.

A student shows up to complain that his professor is gay, and that s/he is “trying to convert everybody.” When I ask for specifics, the student quickly shifts gears to clarify that “I don't care what you do at home, but you shouldn't wave it around in my face.” Seeing a complete lack of response, the student then asserts victimhood, alleging that the professor won't give a fair shake to students who don't agree with her.

I've tried a number of different responses over the years, with varying degrees of success.

There's the basic “well, you know, we don't discriminate. If you have a concern with the professor, you should talk to her directly.” There's a certain legal clarity to that, but it doesn't seem to defuse the anger. Since it essentially replaces one accusation with another, it doesn't do much to build trust.

Then there's the “Columbo” approach. “Help me understand. How, exactly, is she trying to convert you?” This works a little better, since frequently “efforts to convert” amount to little more than “acknowledging the existence of gay people in the historical record.” When I've allowed students to try to piece together a bill of particulars, I've seen them slowly retreat in embarrassment when they realize that there's really nothing there. Sometimes it's nothing more than a short haircut on a woman. (I'm also struck at how frequently the accusations are false, but that's another post altogether.)

Once I even decided to roll with the absurdity to see what would happen. “What solution do you propose? Should I write a note to the professor asking her to stop being gay? Would that help?” The student's eyes were the size of dinner plates for a moment before he backed down, even laughing a little at himself. In retrospect, this approach probably assumed a little more common cultural ground than was wise, and I haven't tried it again, but it worked pretty well the one time I used it. I don't recommend it, given the potential for ruinous misunderstanding, but it made a hell of a teachable moment.

Lately I've been experimenting with the “put it in writing” approach. It's only fair, I explain, that a professor being complained about has the right to respond. Please write out your complaint, being as specific as possible, and we'll go from there. So far nobody has actually taken me up on that.

As silly as the complaints are, though, they inadvertently raise a real issue. Most of our discrimination procedures and policies are based on the idea that bias occurs between peers, or from the top down. Those are both real, of course, and they need to be addressed. But bias from the bottom up exists in a weird nether zone.

At some level, of course, students have always complained about professors, and always will. There's a certain degree of gossip and static that simply goes with the job, and a certain thickness of skin that any authority figure – in the classroom, the professor is clearly the authority figure – has to have. The student grapevine is real, and inevitable, and even healthy to some degree. But to me, there's a difference between students in a class blowing off steam together and a student complaining to a dean. The former is a cost of doing business, but the latter is serious.

In my cultural studies days, I learned that discrimination was really about power. But in these cases, the bias is among the disempowered. That doesn't make it any less real, but it does put many of our policies in an odd light.

I've read that student bias frequently surfaces in course evaluations, where students will punish non-traditional gender performance. Alpha males and nurturing females do well; nurturing males and alpha females get punished. But this is both more specific and more severe than that. There's a difference between 'liking someone a little less than someone else' and 'going to her boss to get her fired.'

(For the record, no, nobody gets called on the carpet here for 'suspicion of gayness.' I recognize that there may be regional variation in this.)

It has also occurred to me to wonder if I get more of these complaints since I look 'safe' -- a straightlaced, short-haired white guy. There's no real way of knowing, but I've been discomforted by some of the assumptions the complainers exhibited when they tried to bond with me.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen (or do you have a suggestion for) a more graceful way to handle the next student who takes grave offense at a visibly (or apparently) gay professor?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

When Technology Doesn’t Help

Joshua Kim’s piece yesterday reminded me of a basic, but widely ignored, truth.

In most industries, new technology is adopted because it’s expected to lower costs and/or improve productivity (which lowers costs over time). It doesn’t always succeed, of course, and the usual vagaries of faddism are certainly there. But by and large, the point of adopting a new technology is to make the underlying business stronger.

But that doesn’t apply in either higher education or health care. In both of those, institutions adopt technology to meet rising expectations, whether it helps with cost or not. Much of the time, it actually leads to increased costs.

For example, take the typical college library. Libraries don’t bring in much revenue on their own, if any; they’re pretty pure ‘cost centers’ for most colleges. They’re central to the educational mission of the college, to be sure; I’d suggest that in the context of a commuter campus, that’s even more true than elsewhere. But income is tied to credit hours, and libraries don’t generate credit hours of their own.

In the past, typical library costs included labor, acquisitions, utilities, and not much else. Tables, desks, chairs, and carrels could be expected to last decades (and judging by some of the graffiti I saw at Flagship State, they did.) Yes, you might find microfilm or microfiche, but even there the space requirements were minimal and the purchases could last for decades. (For younger readers: microfilm was sort of like cassette, wait, you wouldn’t know was sort of like movies watched really, not like dvd’s...ah, screw it, I’m old.) It wasn’t at all rare for the highest-tech thing in the library to be the coin-operated photocopier.

Now, students expect/demand that the library offer plenty of computer workstations with high-speed internet access, good wifi everywhere, all manner of ‘assistive technology’ for the visually or otherwise challenged, and access to proprietary (paid) databases for all sorts of materials. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but none of it displaced what had come before, and none of it came with its own revenue sources. And that’s before mentioning the price pressures that publishers have put on traditional acquisitions.

As a result, the library is far more expensive to run than it once was. It isn’t doing anything wrong; it’s just doing what it’s supposed to do. The problem is that the technological advances it adopts -- each for good reason -- don’t, and won’t, save money.

Something similar holds true in the health-related majors. As medicine has adopted more high-tech equipment and methods, we’ve had to adopt them, too, to train the students on them. But we don’t get any of the gains from that. We have to pay for it, but the productivity gains, if any, accrue to the industry rather than to us. Worse, many of the purchases are so complex and high-maintenance that they require dedicated staff, thereby adding higher labor costs to the equation.

There are excellent societal reasons why that’s a good idea. I like the idea of the rookie Nursing student making his first medical mistakes on simulators, rather than on people, for the same reason that I like pilots to use flight simulators before they first fly planes. Fewer casualties that way.

But the college doesn’t capture the gains from that. It’s saddled with the costs, heaven knows, but not with the other side of the equation. And in an era of declining state support, there are only so many places to go to find the difference.

I agree that certain applications of technology can save colleges money, and that colleges should take those opportunities seriously. But to assume that it will only be deployed where it saves money, or even that it will be a net financial gain, strikes me as reaching. We train people on the latest stuff because we have to, whether it saves money or not.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Summer Bonus

Put down the flamethrowers, I’m not talking about money.

In the summer, with fewer people on campus and some of the committees that usually fill my calendar on hold until September, I’ve discovered an unexpected bonus: time for wide-ranging, unstructured conversation.

I don’t just mean shooting the breeze, either. I mean the kind of discussions in which people have the time and implied permission to go off-agenda and really explore a topic.

Last week I had a long and unexpectedly meandering conversation with a colleague in which we gradually realized that the college was missing something pretty fundamental, and not all that hard to implement. It wasn’t part of the agenda for the original meeting; I don’t think I’d heard it discussed before at all. But since we both had time to actually follow ideas where they led, we were able to move from the planned topic to an unplanned topic to an actual (potential) solution. We had time to explore, and complete, a thought.

That’s hard to do during the regular semesters. Then, meetings are six to a day, and they need to be pretty tightly planned. Just getting all the relevant people together in a room takes planning; with time at a premium, we have to get to the issue quickly. That’s not to say that the meetings are entirely free of tangents -- we are academics, after all -- but the tangents are more a form of social glue (or comic relief) than real exploration.

With the faculty away and with staff and administrators staggering vacations, though, the summer is a different animal. I wouldn’t call it slow, but it’s less fast. There’s time to ask the second question, and even the third.

Some people try to achieve the same thing with retreats, but in my experience, even the better retreats fall victim to too many people in the room. With that many people competing for floorspace, you still don’t have time for free-floating discussion. The most effective venue for the free-range conversation is two people; three can work if you’re really, really lucky. Go beyond that, and it’s just not the same.

I used to think that the best breakthroughs came from individual reflection. But experience, and blogging, have taught me that the best breakthroughs come from unpredictable interaction. Sometimes I don’t know what I think until I say it; I’ve actually surprised myself in conversations. In formal meetings, that doesn’t work, but when there’s time to hash something out one-on-one, the openness can lead to good surprises.

I’ll call that my summer bonus.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found the same thing? Have you found a setting in which your best breakthroughs happen most often?

Friday, July 09, 2010

Busting Perps

I have to admit enjoying this article a little too much.

Anyone who did time with Foucault will immediately think ‘panopticon’ when reading this piece about the anti-cheating technologies at the University of Central Florida. But I remember vividly the frustration as a teacher when students would cheat, and I remember the palpable sense of relief among the better students when I interrupted a cheat in progress.

At least for me, student cheating was a serious morale issue. It made me feel foolish for having poured so much energy into teaching when the students couldn’t even be bothered to try to learn. And I had good students tell me that faculty indifference to obvious cheating bugged them, because it made them feel like dupes for actually doing the work. When the ones who follow the rules feel like suckers, something is fundamentally wrong.

I served for several years on the academic dishonesty review board, which ‘tried’ cases in which students were accused of plagiarism or other cheating. (The majority of the board was faculty, but it needed a token admin.) Based on what I saw there, I have to admit a certain impatience with the idea that Gen Y doesn’t grasp the concept of plagiarism. Granted, things sometimes got murky on ‘group assignments,’ in which one member would coast on the labor of others, but the whole “copy my paper off the internet” thing wasn’t ambiguous. In those cases, when presented with the evidence, there wasn’t really much argument either way. Nobody even tried to argue that copy-and-paste was kosher.

I’ve heard arguments to the effect that in-class tests are artificial environments and not reflective of what students will encounter in the real world. There’s some truth to that, but there’s also a basic truth to the assertion that any environment will have rules of the game. Certain rules are necessary for the integrity of the game. And showing the ability to adapt to rules and work hard seems like it should carry some weight in the real world.

Policing cheating can be a real challenge with online classes, since you don’t know who’s sitting at the keyboard. (“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”) Anecdotally, the biggest threat there is usually the spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend. But that doesn’t strike me as an argument for giving up; it strikes me as an argument for cleverness.

Call it the broken windows theory of plagiarism. If it looks like nobody else cares, then following the rules can seem like selling out. But if you see people get nailed, and the flagrant cases lead to real punishments, then following the rules looks like a better deal.

This is where the “law and order” part of my “law and order liberalism” comes through. I define “law and order liberalism” as the simultaneous belief that laws should be both fair and enforced. Banning copy-and-paste papers strikes me as utterly fair, and therefore enforceable without apology. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.

So bravo, UCF! May you make “just doing the work” the easy way out.

Thursday, July 08, 2010


This piece, and its attendant comments, stuck in my craw a little. It’s a discussion with an author of a book about the obstacles to low-income students’ success in college.

The author obviously means well, and wants to see students succeed. And there isn’t much arguing with much of what he mentions: complicated family lives, shaky academic preparation, and finances all pose real obstacles. Yup, they do. In the cc world, we see that every day. And I absolutely agree with him that community colleges have a key role to play, especially when the K-12 system in some areas just isn’t getting the job done.

All of that said, though, sometimes I wonder if we’re asking higher ed to do too much.

It’s great when we’re able to help students become truly competitive for the good jobs out there. But when the economy just isn’t producing those jobs in sufficient number, getting even more students prepared is of limited short-term value.

Of course, economic mobility isn’t the only ‘good’ that education serves. I like to think that, say, a literate and numerate electorate will generally make better choices; a literate and numerate population will make for better jury pools; and that the very real expansion of mental horizons that good education can foster is a good in itself, in addition to whatever eventual economic payoff it may generate.

But to the extent that ‘income polarization’ is the problem and ‘higher education’ is the solution, I suspect we’re outgunned.

To see that, we don’t have to go much farther than higher education itself. For a putatively liberal population, we have a markedly inegalitarian reward structure. That’s true within institutions -- compare the salary per course of senior tenured faculty to the pay adjuncts receive for the same courses -- and between them; the salary scale at the typical cc is far below that of a state university, even with higher teaching loads. (One of my recurring fantasies has Gail Mellow achieving high political office and actually enacting the per-student funding parity between sectors of higher ed that she has advocated for years.)

Outside of higher ed, the trend is actually somewhat less pronounced, but it’s still there. Routes into the middle class from below are fewer and slipperier than they once were. More education can help with that to some degree, but at some level, if the demand for employees just isn’t there, it just isn’t there.

Put differently, student loans don’t seem so burdensome when you have a well-paying job upon graduation. When the job isn’t there, the loans suddenly loom large, but they’re really more a symptom than a cause. The lack of the job is the cause.

This is probably obvious at some level, but political discourse sometimes skips important steps. I’d hate to see higher education punished for the sins of the broader economy. Assuming that Achieving the Dream and the Gates-funded projects bear fruit, and colleges do a better job of helping struggling students brush up their skills and complete degree programs, I wouldn’t necessarily expect the jobs to follow. Over time, I’d guess that an educated workforce would be more productive than an uneducated one, but there could be a delay long enough to obscure the connection. And in the meantime, those student loan payments don’t win many friends.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

When Students Can’t Get Broadband

I’ll stipulate upfront that this will vary by region.

In my neck of the woods, broadband coverage is just common enough for people who have it to assume that anybody who wants it can get it. But that’s not the case. Some of the smaller, more isolated parts of the college’s service area still don’t have a meaningful broadband option. They can get dialup, but most of our online courses (and many of our online self-service modules) are complex enough that dialup really isn’t a satisfactory option. And ‘mobile broadband’ -- whether in the form of air cards, mifis, or smartphones -- is both spotty and well beyond the budgets of most students. (Microsoft discovered that with the failure of the “kin.”)

In many ways, my college (and most others) has moved to embrace online delivery of both courses and services. It enables a certain independence from the constraints of time, place, and facilities, and in some cases it’s clearly an efficiency gain. (I remember the unmitigated glee when I discovered in grad school that I could check on the presence or absence of a book in the university library by logging in from home. The time saved was astonishing.) It also allows students to get business done when they’re actually available, rather than just during normal business hours; for students with jobs and families, this is no small thing.

But we still can’t take the ubiquity of broadband for granted. Which means we still have to duplicate many of our services. Cost and productivity gains will remain ephemeral until we can stop duplicating.

So, a thought: why don’t mobile ISP’s offer meaningful student discounts? (I say ‘meaningful’ in the sense of both ‘substantial’ and ‘visible.’ Right now some of them offer small discounts if you know to ask, but you have to know to ask, and the discounts aren’t much.)

I can imagine a college including an optional discounted mobile ISP account in student fees, and students choosing the ISP that best covers their own area. Then, the students could access needed services, and they’d also become accustomed to the amazing convenience of having broadband where you want it, when you want it. As a mobile broadband user myself, I can attest that once you get used to it, you’re hooked. It’s remarkably handy, often in ways you wouldn’t have anticipated at first. But I love the idea that even a student in the middle of nowhere could slip a modem into the usb port of a cheapo netbook and be able to do whatever she needs to do.

Ideally, of course, we’d have a fully built-out wired system with substantial public subsidies, so mobile would be largely redundant. But we’re not there, and in some areas, it will be years before we are. In the meantime, we have entire cohorts of students whose options are markedly more limited than their peers’, and we have duplication of services at a time when budgets are inadequate and shrinking.

The business case for an ISP offering a student discount seems straightforward enough. With four major carriers nationally (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon) and a bunch of smaller regional carriers, there typically isn’t much separating one company’s service from another’s. The internet is the same no matter whose service I use to get to it. But a company that offered students half off during the academic year would be able to distinguish itself from its competitors, and inertia is such that once people pick a carrier, they tend to stick with it. Build brand loyalty -- or at least inertia -- and you’ll make money over time.

Until something like this comes along, we’ll still have to duplicate most of our services, paying for the new while still supporting the old. Worse, some students simply won’t have the access to what’s becoming increasingly essential, and others will eat their lunch.

Eventually, of course, the ideal would be cheap and ubiquitous broadband, much like the cheap and ubiquitous phone service before it. But until then, this seems like a good bridge. Verizon, can you hear me now?

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Preparing for Dying Industries

Should a community college train people for the industries that are currently there, or for the industries that seem likely to be there in the near future?

I’ve been chewing on this one in light of some recent proposals floating around to get students prepared to certain kinds of manufacturing firms that, in my humble estimation, may not be much longer for this continent. (To be fair, a similar objection could be lodged at certain kinds of journalism programs, though I suspect that journalism will morph rather than die.)

I can imagine arguments on both sides, and I’ll admit being half-convinced by each.

On one side is the perfectly valid argument that students need jobs now, not years from now, and there’s an inherent difficulty (if not arrogance) in trying to read the future. While some broad, system-level trends may be legible, they don’t necessarily tell you what will happen in any given local market, or with any given company. Even if, say, manufacturing is on the decline nationally, that doesn’t mean that every single manufacturing company will either go under or go overseas. And if a few of the survivors are local, why the hell not prepare students for them?

There’s some truth to that. Even if the job only lasts a few years, that’s still a few years of gainful employment that might not have occurred otherwise. And who’s to say that one opportunity won’t lead to another?

But then there’s bitter experience. Having gone to grad school in an evergreen discipline in the 90’s, I saw and experienced firsthand the frustration of doing everything right only to emerge with a credential nobody wants. Having grown up in a city that’s still paying the price for putting so many eggs in the basket of a single industry, only to wind up with egg on its face, I’m a little nervous about pretending not to notice industrial decline. As late as the 90’s, the American car industry was doing great, riding the wave of SUV’s (and the undercurrent of cheap gas) as far as it could go. We know how that turned out, and it’s not like nobody saw it coming.

It’s one thing to be blindsided by change; it’s quite another to shut your eyes to it and pretend it’s not there.

Even the “buying time” scenario -- a few years of gainful employment will give you time to adjust to the next big thing -- seems more optimistic than history suggests is warranted. What seems to happen instead is that as the immediate crisis recedes, people turn their attention elsewhere and just assume that everything is back to normal.

I don’t want to contribute to a false sense of security, but I don’t want to sacrifice other people’s real opportunities to my own intuitions, either.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Should cc’s spend resources on training people to work for dying industries?

Friday, July 02, 2010

Taxi Medallions and Midwestern Zombies

Credit where credit is due: this story suggests that the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association -- the regional accreditor of record for much of the middle of the country -- is finally righting a longstanding wrong.

As this story from IHE notes, several for-profit companies have built a wildly lucrative business model on treating regional accreditation as a taxi medallion. I don’t know if the taxi system still works this way, but for a long time New York City rationed the number of taxis, requiring a medallion issued by the City as a condition of operation. Medallions could be openly traded, and often went for six figures. The City didn’t especially care who had them; it only cared about the overall number. In that setting, the system made a degree of sense. (One could always argue about the morality of limiting the overall number, but that’s a separate issue.)

For reasons I won’t pretend to understand, some regional accreditors have chosen to treat accreditation the same way. When a tiny, struggling, traditional college gets bought by an entrepreneur and immediately transmogrified into an online behemoth, it gets to carry over the accreditation as if nothing happened. An accreditation saying that it had resources and processes sufficient for 350 students on a nonprofit basis gets used to educate 30,000 students on the internet for profit, as if it were still the same thing.

The incentive for the investors is that getting a new accreditation for a new institution is time-consuming and expensive. Buying a ‘used’ one is much faster and cheaper, and gets you immediate access to Federal (and usually state) financial aid. That gives you the operating income for rapid expansion and double-digit profits.

If the only purpose of accreditation were to limit the overall number of colleges, the outright sale of accreditation medallions could make sense. But to the extent that accreditation is supposed to attest to a certain level of quality, their outright sale is absurd. It would be like me selling my Ph.D.

Several commenters to the IHE story raised the spectre of some struggling colleges dying, and of the rationality of a college changing its strategy when its current one doesn’t work anymore. But those both miss the point.

Under the rule change, colleges can still change strategies, and they can still sell themselves to for-profits. The only change is that sale to a new owner will trigger a new review of the accreditation. If they pass the new review, they’re good to go. Nobody is blocked from making changes; they just don’t get a rubber stamp saying they’re still the same institution afterwards.

Of course, having to prove that the new college is worthy of accreditation would take time and money, and would therefore reduce the economic appeal of struggling colleges to investors. But that strikes me as reasonable. Their economic appeal now is based on what amounts to fraud.

Will some colleges die on the vine? Yes. Frankly, there’s no way around that. If anything, I think there’s a perfectly reasonable argument for letting some die, rather than letting them walk among us as bloated, hollow, undead shells of their former selves, wielding unearned stamps of approval as talismans against sunlight. I say kill the zombies, and make room for the new kids.

Bravo, North Central. I hope the other regional accreditors do the same thing.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Bingo for Books

Last night TW and I took the kids to the local library for Bingo for Books. (It doubled as an excuse to return a pile of books we all had finished, and to get some new piles.)

On the way into the library, we ran into a family whose younger daughter is in TB’s class. When she saw TB, she immediately hid behind her older sister. Her sister shoved her out in front, and she smiled at TB. It was a classic embarrassed-to-see-my-crush move. TW and I decided that his charm comes from double recessive genes.

We got there early to comb through the stacks. The Boy found a series of adventure novels, and The Girl found a book about wild animals in Africa. (TW found several novels, and I found a characteristically nerdy nonfiction piece about political economy.) Then we filed into the Community Activity room for Bingo.

Anyone who has kids knows the drill. It’s a rectangular multipurpose room with long rectangular folding tables and stackable plastic chairs. The kids found their friends, and TW and I sidled in alongside.

Each kid got three sheets of paper with a bingo grid on it. Each square had the title of a children’s book or a well-known children’s author in it. As kids got Bingo, they’d go up front and get to choose a book as a prize.

Watching the kids with their friends was worth the time. TB and the girl with the secret crush sat facing each other, making faces and making each other laugh. They haven’t figured out self-consciousness yet, so their interaction was sweetly unguarded. Crush Girl referred to her sister at one point as “Butthead,” eliciting approving laughter from TB.

TG, meanwhile, sat across from Crush Girl’s younger brother. As TW put it, the younger brother looked like he belonged in a creek, jeans rolled up, triumphantly holding up a giant frog he had just caught. He was squirmy and silly and incredibly animated; TG tolerated him, but proved mostly immune to his wiggly charms.

Every kid won something. TB picked My Side of the Mountain, which struck me as an unusual choice, and TG picked a Cam Jansen mystery. Crush Girl picked The Other Side of the Mountain, the sequel, and told TB they’d have to swap after they were done. He agreed, suspecting nothing. I just smiled.

In a cruel trick on the parents, the events concluded with a panoply of sugary snacks. Sugar ‘em up and send ‘em home. What could possibly go wrong?

As we walked out to the car, Crush Girl’s younger brother yelled “bye, TG!” with surprising poignancy; TB suggested that he was thinking “goodbye, my future wife!” TG let it slide.

It was a small evening in the scheme of things, but as a parent, it was a real win. We’re such frequent customers at the library that the children’s librarians greet the kids by name. The kids already know their favorite shelves. They were excited to go, and excited to start reading their latest acquisitions when they got home. They enjoyed the activity, behaved well, and had fun with their friends. They’re growing up, but they haven’t hit the self-conscious “shut the parents out” stage yet. It’s all just there. It all just worked.

I just wanted to capture that in writing before it fades.