Friday, July 29, 2011

Where the Boys Are

And the men aren’t.

Sometimes just a few statistics can tell a story. Here’s a pair I found fascinating.

Our students a year or less out of high school: 48% males

Our students as a whole: 38% males

The skew gets progressively more pronounced as you move up the age scale. By the time you pass the early twenties, the students are overwhelmingly female. But the fresh-out-of-high-school group is almost even. And to the extent that I’ve seen national statistics, they pretty much tell the same story.

Women will come back to school at any age. But with the guys, if you don’t catch them early, you probably won’t catch them at all.

I haven’t seen these data broken out by race, though I’d like to. My guess is that the gender gap is more pronounced among ALANA groups, but that’s just a guess based on walking around.

What I don’t know is why the older men just aren’t to be found here.

I don’t think it’s the “feminization of the curriculum” or any such thing. If it were that, I’d expect to see the older guys clustered in engineering and CIS. They aren’t; they aren’t clustered anywhere. And “women’s studies” barely exists here.

And I have a hard time imagining that it’s fear of women. If I remember my early twenties correctly -- the halcyon days of dual cassette decks and Doc Martens -- clusters of young women would have been a draw, not a drawback.

No, there’s something else.

I’ve heard two theories that have made some sense, even though they’re at least slightly contradictory. One is incarceration. Far more men are incarcerated than women. The other is employment; men are better able to find well-paying jobs without a degree than women, so the value they place on degrees is less.

Since the Great Recession kicked in, I’m inclined to discount the second theory pretty heavily. In my neck of the woods, well-paying jobs for twenty-three year olds with high school diplomas don’t grow on trees. And while the “he-cession” did narrow the gender gap for a little while, the narrowing didn’t occur at the higher ages.

Whether this is a problem or just an observation depends on your perspective. If the guys aren’t here because they’re off doing startup companies, then that seems fine. If they aren’t here because the place doesn’t seem welcoming, then that’s not fine.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a good explanation of the absence of the older guys? Is there a constructive way to address it, or is it just the way of the world?

Program note: Next week the gang is taking a badly-needed week off. We’ll be tromping through woods and going entirely without outcomes assesment rubrics. The blog will be back on Monday, August 8.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

An Open Letter to Congress

Dear Congress,

As you know, I spend a disheartening amount of my time benchmarking, quantifying, and planning initiatives with measurable outcomes, in the name of accountability for my stewardship of public funds. It’s not how I would have chosen to do my job, but I understand that there’s an irreducible element of public trust that should not be violated. As long as people are required to pay taxes to support the college -- even granting the precipitous decline in taxpayer support over the last several years -- it’s only fair that those of us who manage budgets are held accountable.

I get that. And while I grumble about “metrics” and “value added” and whatnot, I get the concept; with public money comes public responsibility. Okey-dokey.

So in the spirit of “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” I have a measurable outcome to propose for you. Since you guys control much larger budgets than I ever will, almost all of it from taxes, it’s only fair that you have goals, too. So here’s one.

How about if you STOP PLAYING CHICKEN WITH THE FULL FAITH AND CREDIT OF THE UNITED STATES AND RISKING TOTAL ECONOMIC COLLAPSE. Fair being fair, in return, I will gladly redouble my efforts to ensure that students graduate with employable skills ASSUMING THAT THERE’S STILL AN ECONOMY WORTH TALKING ABOUT AFTER YOU JEOPARDIZE OUR STANDING AS THE WORLD’S RESERVE CURRENCY AND WIND UP GETTING OUR DEBTS DENOMINATED IN EUROS OR YUAN. For the love of all that is holy and good, it is not “fiscal responsibility” to blow the national credit rating when WE OWE MORE THAN WE EVER HAVE and higher interest rates would MAKE THE DEBT EVEN BIGGER. So, stop it. Just stop.

You’ll notice that the goal is both specific and measurable. If you need help understanding it, you have no business representing the people of the United States.

Yours in reciprocity,

Dean Dad

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

If I Could Get Away With It...

I’d have everyone on campus read Moneyball, by Michael Lewis.

It’s several years old now, but its point still holds. It was about a general manager of a baseball team who figured out years before his colleagues that he could test the ‘folk wisdom’ of scouts against actual statistics. In some cases, the stats showed that what the scouts took as received truth didn’t hold up. But there’s no way that an individual scout, looking only at his own players, would ever know that; the patterns only showed up when you abstracted from individual experience and looked at large numbers of cases over time. (For example, this general manager realized before most others did that “on base percentage” mattered more than “batting average,” so he was able to make some lopsided trades.)

Some people within baseball read Moneyball but missed the point. They replaced the old rules of thumb with the new ones. The point was that all wisdom needs to be tested empirically, and that what works can change over time. On-base percentage was an example of the point, rather than the point itself. Once the rest of the sport wised up to on-base percentage, that measure lost its usefulness for improving a team. (Now they’re trying to develop good stats for fielding.)

Although the context for the argument is baseball, the point is true outside it. Empirical data over large numbers of cases can contradict folk wisdom that seems right. And when it does, it’s time to call that folk wisdom into question.

I mention this because I keep running across a few programs that believe, with all sincerity and more than a little self-righteousness, that they are the absolute best at what they do. They’re quick with anecdotes and testimonials, and they can tell stories that go back decades. And the numbers -- the actual, honest-to-blog numbers -- show they’re wrong.

But these are the kind of numbers that require looking at a decade of performance and hundreds or thousands of students. You won’t see those, or figure them out, through the daily experience of teaching classes. They aren’t apparent at ground level. The folks who honestly believe that the programs are successful aren’t lying, any more than the scouts who picked the wrong players were lying; they’re just wrong. Sincere and well-meaning, yes, but wrong.

This is one area where I believe that administrators have something very real to contribute to discussions of curriculum. If a program that, say, is supposed to improve graduation rates actually harms them, it’s easy not to see that in the face of real success stories and impassioned advocacy. But not seeing it doesn’t make it go away. Having someone whose job it is to give the view from an external perspective has real value. That’s not to discount the experience of the folks in the trenches, but sometimes the aerial view can show you things that the folks in the trenches aren’t well-positioned to see.

Culturally, this has proved a difficult argument to make. It’s hard to tell a proud staff with years of confirmation bias behind it that the numbers don’t mesh with their story. They react defensively, and some decide that the best defense is a good offense. But reality is stubborn.

It’s becoming clear to me that there’s cultural work to be done before the statistical work can show its value. People have to accept the possibility that what they see right in front of them, day after day, doesn’t tell the whole story, and that it can even lie. They need to be willing to get past the “I’m the expert!” posturing and accept that truth is no respecter of rank.

And that’s why, if I could get away with it, I’d have everyone read Moneyball.

Wise and worldly readers, assuming that there’s little appetite for allegories drawn from professional sports, is there a better way to make this point? A way that fits with academic culture, and that allows everyone to save face, but that still gets us past the discredited legends of the scouts?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

8 a.m. Classes

This piece in IHE last week set off quite the firestorm. It’s about the felt futility of teaching the dreaded 8 a.m. class. I would have written it differently, but it raised a valid issue.

Been there, done that. Hated it. And it raises one of those questions for which nobody has a great answer.

If the Feds would back off long enough to let our Institutional Research staff catch its collective breath on “compliance” reporting and actually do some inquiry-driven stuff, I’d love to see the numbers on student success rates in classes at different times of day. Is the 8 a.m. timeslot actually an attrition machine, or does it just feel like one? (Even if the first-blush numbers were awful, we’d still have to sort out the issue of self-selection. Typically, the early-morning sections fill last, meaning they’re often the only options left for late registrants. We know that late registrants have higher drop/fail rates than students who sign up early. So do worse numbers at 8 a.m. reflect the timeslot itself, or the higher proportion of late registrants?)

In my teaching days, I remember the bleary faces and the late arrivals at 8. It was bad enough at Flagship State, where Friday 8 a.m. classes were populated mostly by the hungover. (Thursday night was the big party night, since so many students went home for the weekend.) At Proprietary U, it was just empty. Out of a class of twenty-five, I’d usually have three to five students present at 8. We’d hit the halfway point around 8:20, and finally get a non-embarrassing turnout around 8:45. Students weren’t even apologetic; they seemed to take the timeslot as an affront, and they responded accordingly.

Yes, many jobs start at 8, but it’s one thing to show up, and quite another to be alert and ready to learn. That’s especially true for folks who are still on the teenage circadian clock, which starts and ends a couple of hours later than for the rest of us. Even the relatively well-behaved and self-disciplined ones are at a biological disadvantage.

I remember reading a few years ago that a couple of forward-thinking high schools experimented with starting and ending the school day an hour later. It causes some issues with after-school sports, but it did wonders for test scores, absenteeism, student behavior, and (eventually) faculty morale. (Apparently, teaching students who aren’t tired and cranky makes for happier teachers. Who woulda thunk it?) It certainly sounded right to me, and it seems like one of those relatively easy reforms that we could choose to enact just by choosing to enact it. Leave the sunrise classes to the little kids, since they’re up at dark o’clock anyway, and give the teenagers a fighting chance to get some sleep.

The major issue with abolishing 8:00 classes, obviously, is capacity. If we didn’t start until, say, 9, we’d have to squeeze the extra sections into classrooms that are already stuffed at prime time. (Alternately, we could replace them with online classes, but that isn’t yet an option for everyone.) But it’s fair to ask just how much the capacity argument applies if real learning isn’t really going on at that hour.

Wise and worldly readers, have you had good experiences with 8 a.m. classes? Does anybody know of any useful empirical studies done at the college level of the effects of 8 a.m. classes? Is this basically solvable with caffeine and nagging, or are we shooting ourselves in the collective foot here?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Ask the Administrator: If It’s Tuesday, You Must Be Steve...

A frustrated correspondent writes:

I work at a large regional public university, on a unionized campus with about [several thousand] staff/faculty employees in [multiple] different unions. I am the contract administrator for my union, one of the larger ones on campus, of about [over 1000] faculty. In the [10+] years I've been here, administrators at all levels have come and gone with regularity, with lots of "interim" appointments. This has some advantages in terms of fresh perspectives, but from a contract administration perspective, it is really frustrating. We've dealt with 6 top-level administrators in the HR office that handles contracts, in the last 5 years. Each of them requires a break-in period, where they don't accomplish much because they're "just getting their feet on the ground." At the end of their time they tend to take lengthy vacations and push off new (or long-term) issues onto their successors. Since most of them only stay on the job for a year (or less), that leaves very little time to accomplish anything, or build real relationships. They frequently know next to nothing about the contracts they are in charge of enacting and worse, when they come from the ranks of the tenured faculty they tend to make very wrong assumptions about all of the other unions on campus, particularly my large non-tenure union and our contract. Most have no background in contract administration or negotiations, either.

DD, this is getting exhausting. We end up doing a great deal of education and attempting to build relationships, all of which goes down the drain when, 8-10 months later, the person abruptly leaves the position. With the lack of stability at the top, mid-level admins like Deans and Department Chairs seldom get good insight or advice about contract issues, leading them to wing it when issues arise (usually not with good results). All of this leads to a climate of distrust and futility between the unions and the administrators.

Do you have any suggestions about how unions can build a more positive, solid relationship with our administrative counterparts, when it feels like new riders are getting on and off the administrative merry go round at every turn?

A few thoughts leap to mind, beyond the obvious “damn, I’m glad I don’t work there.”

One is that the climate for the folks in those rotating jobs must be terrible; otherwise they wouldn’t keep leaving. (That’s especially true in this market, where the housing bust has pretty much frozen senior administrative hiring. People who are qualified for senior positions usually own their own houses, and many of them are unable to sell for a price they can accept.) If people are chewing their own legs off to get out of the trap of working there, I have to imagine it’s pretty bad.

What the cause of the badness is, obviously, I don’t know. Could be awful top-level leadership, could be horrible finances, could be toxic labor relations, could be a heady stew of all that and more. In any event, it’s probably beyond your control.

So instead, I’d take a page from the old Italian and French bureaucracies. Back in the day, I’m told -- I don’t know if this is still true -- partisan control used to flip frequently, so much of the actual decision-making power came to rest, by default, with the career civil servants. They were the only ones who stuck around long enough to actually know anything. So savvy people looking to get stuff done might pay lip service to the elected leader du jour, but would quickly figure out which staff person had the real power and would go to her.

I’d try a similar approach.

If the folks in the “right” offices turn over too quickly to be helpful, you might want to look for the longstanding and knowledgeable people in the “wrong” offices (or the wrong levels of the right offices) who actually get the work done. This will take some diplomacy upfront, but it may be well worth it. If the director-of-the-month listens to Senior Staffer to actually get things done, then you want to be communicating with Senior Staffer.

Another way to go would be to work directly with the Deans and/or VPAA/provost. Again, some diplomacy will be required. But if you can present yourself -- truthfully -- as trying to prevent needless drama, rather than as trying to cadge something to score political points, they might find it worthwhile to work directly with you. Depending on local context, there are probably real limits that must be observed, and you should be prepared for that. But in the conditions you describe, it’s probably better to seek out what stability there actually is than to wait for the senior-level dysfunction to subside. That could take years, and untold damage could happen in the meantime.

On a side note, I commend you for trying to make lemonade out of lemons. Yes, there’s an irreducible element of conflict in labor-management relations, but the conflict that actually exists often goes well beyond that, causing unnecessary collateral damage. (And from my side of the desk, I can attest that vague and/or complicated contracts lend themselves to accidental violations, even with good intentions.) Sometimes it’s as simple as giving people a “heads-up!” that a deadline is approaching.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, do you have any suggestions?

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

Friday, July 22, 2011

Orienting Parents

Should there be a separate orientation for the parents of new students?

The idea is gaining some traction locally, and I have to admit seeing some logic to it. It represents an intersection of separate trends, but it also raises some tricky issues.

Addressing parents as a separate part of new student orientation is helpful for first-generation students, since frequently neither the students nor the parents know quite what to expect. For many, their only frame of reference is high school, which is a fundamentally different animal. The family may not understand the time commitment involved, for example, or some of the unwritten rules (like the need to buy your own books).

I’m told that there’s also a different cultural orientation to education; in some communities, one person going to college is understood as the family going to college. And that makes sense when people rely on each other for childcare, supplemental income, transportation, and the like. I was raised with the idea of “going away” to college, which is what I did, but that isn’t universally true.

(At Snooty Liberal Arts College, we had “parents’ weekend” each year, when parents would appear from afar to take their kids out for dinner. It was a chance to show appreciation to the folks who actually paid the bills, while still implying a respectful distance. Nobody would have called it an orientation; it was assumed that everyone knew the rules.)

On the other end of the spectrum, parental orientations can help set boundaries for the generation of helicopter parents. Having learned, over the years, to be zealous advocates for their kids every step of the way, some of them have to be told to back off. Every year I have a conversation with some parent who just can’t accept that paying the tuition bill doesn’t entitle her to a report card, but it doesn’t. Best to know that upfront.

Where I bristle, though, is at the (perhaps necessary) acknowledgement that the traditional default expectation of college -- students are adults -- is falling away.

To be sure, that expectation has always been a bit of wishful thinking. In the grand sweep of time, it wasn’t that long ago that “in loco parentis” was the way of things. But in the second half of the twentieth century -- when most community colleges were born -- the default assumption was that students are independent monads, making the choices that make sense to them.

A recent paper from the CCRC casts useful doubt on this assumption. Drawing on behavioral economics, it suggests that too much choice can lead to suboptimal decision processes and thereby to suboptimal outcomes. Put differently, it suggests that a soft paternalism -- a deliberate winnowing of choices -- is likely to lead to the greatest levels of success.

If we take that perspective seriously -- and there’s good evidence that we should -- then the argument for acknowledging a greater parental role upfront is hard to deny. Even though some of us aren’t entirely comfortable with the theoretical implications, the facts on the ground suggest that a much more explicitly directive role for the institution will help the students who most need help.

If it must be done, it must be done. Wise and worldly readers, if you were putting together an orientation program for parents of traditional-aged students, how would you do it? What would you include?

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Sometimes I feel bad for Illinois. It has had some issues with its state government -- cough -- that have prevented it from coming to grips with, say, a catastrophically underfunded public employee pension system, or with the reality of biweekly paychecks.

That said, its recent proposal to use student aid as an incentive for transfer students to start in community colleges is intriguing.

The idea seems to be that tuition at community colleges is much lower than at four-year colleges, so students who enroll first at cc’s leave financial aid money on the table. The state is considering sending some of that money to students as a reward for saving the state money. In essence, it will let students apply the excess to the third and fourth years of college, thereby reducing their eventual loan burdens.

I’ll give the idea two cheers.

The first cheer, obviously, is because students who are in tough financial shape will get some money to help them along. And the second is for belated and welcome recognition that community college’s aren’t just in the business of workforce training or remediation. To the extent that the state knits the various elements of higher education into a coherent system, complete with well-specified paths for successful transfer, I see a real (and affordable) gain for the state.

But I’m concerned that directing ever-more enrollment to the community colleges, while directing money to students instead of institutions, will squeeze quality even more. That’s because community colleges charge students far less than what it costs to educate them. Add more students without adding more state aid -- in fact, I could see this program actually adding to the pressure to keep tuition down, making the squeeze even worse -- and the shortfall will come out of service delivery.

IHE recently had a wonderful article detailing the efforts to which colleges are struggling just to keep up with the ever-increasing and ever-changing financial aid compliance rules. Every time the feds change the rules, local resources get diverted from quality improvement to keeping the feds happy. (We recently added staff to the Institutional Research office, hoping to finally get ahead of compliance-driven reporting and actually move to evidence-based decisionmaking. Then the feds changed rules again and hoovered up the new person’s time. Thanks, guys.)

I could see the Illinois program doing something similar to the community colleges. In the absence of a serious and sustained increase to operating funding, new programs like these divert resources from already-existing programs.

I”d like to be wrong on this one. I’d like to hear that this new policy is just a small part of larger policy of appreciating community colleges as the linchpins of public higher education that they actually are. I’d like to hear that we’ll move to per-student funding parity with the four-years, sustainable and predictable budgets, and a new sense that people with money and choices would choose community colleges deliberately.

But I”m not holding my breath on that. So two cheers for Illinois. To use language they’ll recognize, the jury is still out on the third.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Asking By Listening

A former boss of mine used to say that the key to management consisted of asking “the second question.” The second question was a variation on “why?” In his estimation, when confronted with “pushback” -- the approved euphemism for “no” -- your job was to ask the person the basis for his opposition. In theory, you could then get around the pushback by getting at the underlying causes.

It’s one of those theories that works perfectly about five percent of the time. The glaring flaw is that it presumes that your interlocutor is both self-aware and naive. Most aren’t.

A recent exchange on campus has convinced me that it’s often more effective to ask simply by shutting the hell up for a while and listening. Let the person answer the second question in the course of explaining something else.

Without giving too much away, the gist of the exchange was that I was discussing a project with a department chair. He wasn’t buying it. I explained why I thought it was a good idea, offering several reasons I thought were both true and persuasive. He didn’t budge. For lack of any better ideas, I let the discussion wander for a while, led mostly by him. We discussed the history of this and the unintended consequences of that, going nowhere in particular.

As the discussion unfolded, I started to notice a pattern: he was far more concerned about departmental voting than he was about the merits of any given proposal. In other words, the reason he wasn’t buying anything was that he didn’t think it was his place to; to his way of thinking, nothing is valid until the department votes that it is. That was why he conceded many of my arguments, but didn’t shift his position; my arguments didn’t address his unspoken assumption.

Once I figured that out, the discussion became far more productive. I realized that I was asking him the wrong questions. Instead of asking for support or endorsement, I should ask for a spot on a department meeting agenda to bring up my proposal. Only then could arguments from the merits really be heard.

His perspective is perfectly valid, but it didn’t occur to him to spell it out; he just assumed it was obvious. In the absence of spelling it out, what was actually a procedural objection just looked like crankiness for its own sake. But I wouldn’t have put that together if he hadn’t had the chance to talk open-endedly for a while.

Direct questioning would have been perceived as hostile. Interrogation doesn’t encourage candor. Had I asked the “second question” upfront, he probably wouldn’t have answered it.

In my experience, the “asking by listening” technique works best when it’s one-on-one, or, at worst, in a very small group; it’s nearly impossible in a large group, since nobody holds the floor long enough and people start playing to the crowd. The theatrics of the setting make candid free-associating much more difficult.

The beauty of the technique, when it works, is that it allows for the emergence of an answer that works for everyone. Once I realized the basis of the objection, I had no problem shifting what I was asking for, since the essence of what I wanted wasn’t at stake. And he had no problem shifting his position, since in a meaningful way, he already won on the issue that mattered to him.

The approach has obvious limits. It won’t work when the interests are fundamentally opposed, for instance. Nor will it work when one side doesn’t grant the legitimate existence of the other. And it requires a level of self-confidence that allows you to shut the hell up for extended periods. (When you’re working with people who give lectures for a living, the periods can be very, very extended.) But if you’re reasonably confident in your ability to discern patterns, and you’re willing to sit and listen, and listen, and listen, it can be a hell of a lot more effective than just asking the second question.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Broadcasting and Narrowcasting

Like many colleges, mine is wrestling with a twofold issue: how to improve student success rates generally, and especially how to improve the success rates of students from underrepresented groups (typically defined by race and income, though “first-generation” status would also count).. While the two issues obviously overlap, they aren’t interchangeable.

Some programs are designed with specific populations in mind. Many grant-funded programs, for example, will identify as serving only ALANA students, say, or only women over 25. These programs typically bundle a set of services -- academic advisement, personal counseling, group social activities -- for a given subset of the student population, with the goal of improving the outcomes for that subset. (Demographically-specific programs tend to be clustered in the “student affairs” side of the house; the academic offerings are open to whomever is qualifed.)

Other interventions affect students as a whole. Changes in course scheduling, for example, affect the entire student population. Parking is a great equalizer, too. (Generally speaking, colleges get to choose between declining enrollments and a parking shortage.)

Given limited resources, possible interventions compete with each other for funding and attention. The dilemma goes something like this:

Generalized interventions tend to affect everyone a little bit, but they don’t close achievement gaps. Narrowly targeted interventions make large differences on a small scale; they help close gaps, but they don’t do much for the overall completion number.

I’m trying to find a happy medium by looking at interventions that affect everyone in a positive way, but that disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged. For example, while it’s true that developmental math is open to anyone who needs it -- and most of our students do -- it’s also true that underrepresented groups are disproportionately concentrated in developmental courses. So improving the outcomes in developmental math, while not demographically specific, will redound especially to the benefit of the least advantaged. (For those keeping score at home, this is pretty much John Rawls’ “difference principle” in action. Rawls argues that differential treatment is okay only as long as the benefits accrue most to those who have the least.) The key here is that the gap-closing benefit is a side effect of a larger benefit. If we do a better job with developmental math, then everyone in it will benefit; if that “everyone” happens to be more low-income than the student body as a whole, then so be it.

It’s a tricky position to get funded in grants, since the demographic payoff is indirect. Grants are much easier to get when the target is defined narrowly and specifically. It’s also a difficult sell internally to the folks who identify most strongly with underrepresented groups. But it strikes me as a reasonable response to a difficult circumstance, since it elides some of the trickier elements of demographic specificity (“you don’t look...”) and it sticks to the basics academically. Math is math, and it’s quite independent of the person trying to solve it.

I’m looking for more effective or accessible ways to make the case for this kind of intervention. Is there a sexier way to explain the difference principle?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Advice for Incoming Students

The son of some family friends is starting college this Fall. They know where I work, so they’ve asked for pointers, and I’ve shared them freely. It occurs to me that some other folks might find them useful, too. So in the spirit of openness, some advice for students starting at a community college this Fall:

1. Register and schedule ASAP, if you haven’t already. The most popular timeslots fill fast; if you snooze, you lose. A secret that many newbies don’t know: most cc’s won’t actually bill you if your financial aid application is in process. Apply for aid and register. Get a schedule that reflects your preferences and needs, rather than whatever is left over. Good intentions are great, but if you’re just not a morning person, I don’t like your chances of sticking with that 8 a.m. class for four months.

2. Let your employer, if any, know ASAP about your class schedule. The sooner you give a heads-up, the likelier you’ll be to find a mutually acceptable compromise. Drop the bomb at the last minute, and you may find yourself in a world of pain.

3. If your placement test indicates that you need “developmental” or “remedial” classes, first, ask if you can re-test. If you can, especially in math, then schedule the re-test for a week or two later and cram like you’ve never crammed before. Yes, it will hurt, but it will save you a semester and hundreds of dollars. If you can’t, or if you’re honestly so lost that you know the results are accurate, ask about “summer bridge” courses. Some cc’s offer “catchup” developmental classes over the summer, so you can start in the Fall already on track. These courses have surprisingly good success rates, and they can save you an entire semester. They’re one of the best, if least known, deals to be had in American higher education. Seek them out.

4. Once you have your schedule, go to the bookstore and find out the ISBN numbers of the books you’ll need. Then go online and look them up at Amazon, Powells, etc. In most cases, you will save a surprising amount of money. Here, again, speed is the key. If you wait until the day before classes start, you won’t have time for them to ship. Do it in July, and you’re golden. The savings could easily go well into three figures for a single semester. That’s a lot of hours at your crappy job. It’s worth the extra effort.

5. If you’re sulky because you feel a stigma attached to being at a community college, make an appointment ASAP with the college’s transfer counselor. Learn exactly which courses to take to transfer to wherever it is you’d rather be. Then sign up for courses that will get you there. In September, join a student organization or two. You’ll get much more out of school if you get involved, and the students who join those groups tend to monopolize the transfer scholarships. (Yes, there are such things.) Spend a year or two building up credentials that nobody can dispute, then cash in. Getting a four-year degree with two years at the cc tuition level, and two years with a transfer scholarship, is a damn good deal. When you get out in the real world, you’ll find that student loan payments really suck, so it’s a good strategy to minimize them upfront.

6. Transportation. Most cc’s don’t have dorms, so chances are that you’ll have to commute to and from campus. I VERY STRONGLY recommend having multiple contingency plans. If you’re like most college students, your car, if any, is an unreliable piece of crap. (Don’t be offended -- I didn’t have a non-embarrassing car until I was thirty.) That means that “car trouble” is likely. While you’re in non-emergency mode, look at alternate plans. What are the local bus routes? Do you have friends taking similar schedules to yours? To the extent that you can carpool, you can reduce the damage from any one car being in the shop at any given time. It will also reduce the cost of the inevitable parking tickets, since you can split them.

7. Professors. At most colleges, professors are required to keep “office hours.” This is time specifically set aside for meeting with students. Most professors actually post their office hours on their doors, so you can find out what they are without even having to ask. Once you’ve been in for a few weeks and you have a sense of the professor you’d be most comfortable talking to, make an appointment with her to drop by during her office hours. Use that first appointment to talk about where you want to go -- future major, career plans, transfer plans, whatever. They can be wonderful resources if you let them. If you’re a conscientious student, most professors -- okay, not all, but you’d be surprised -- will be happy to talk with you.

8. Skipping class. For the love of all that is holy and good, don’t. Just don’t. Yes, I know, it’s legal now. But it’s a terrible idea. You’re paying for this, and you’re making impressions on people. Show that you have a work ethic -- especially if you’re struggling -- and people will help you. Show that you don’t give a crap, and they won’t, either.

9. Ego. At some point, it’s entirely likely that you’ll struggle with something. It’s college; it’s supposed to be hard. The best thing to do is to swallow your ego and go to the professor’s office hours, and/or the tutoring center, for help. These are free, and they’re there to help you. You don’t get demerits for using them. Yes, it can be embarrassing to ask for help, but you’re not the first and you won’t be the last. And you know what’s even worse than asking for help? Failing.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what tips would you add?

Friday, July 15, 2011

This Week's Tech Wish List

Okay, this is really more Joshua Kim’s territory than mine, but a guy can dream. Some tech developments I’d love to see in the very short term:

- A meaningful competitor for Comcast. Locally, my choices for home broadband are Comcast or DSL. Accordingly, Comcast acts like the monopolist that it basically is.

- A meaningful competitor for Verizon. Nationally, there are basically three telecoms with any significant mobile broadband capacity; locally, there’s one. Naturally, it’s the most expensive one. Given the barriers to entry, I don’t expect new competition to come along anytime soon. If ever there were a case for a disruptive technology, this is it. I would love to see some startup come along with a cheaper and better alternative, leaving Verizon in the dust, or at least forcing it to become more customer-friendly. The texting rates alone are indecent.

- A seven-inch ipad, weighing less than a pound and costing around 300 bucks. Something about the size and thickness of a steno pad. (I find the ipad size to be an unhappy medium: too big to carry easily, but too small to type well. No, thanks.) Failing that, maybe an Android version of the same idea, but one that doesn’t drop wifi connections or require a multiyear contract. (I’m too chicken to try rooting a Nook Color, though I’m told that would come pretty close.) Something basically kindle-sized, but with the ability to run apps and to annotate ebooks easily. Amazon, I’m looking at yooouuuu...

- Hell, while I’m at it, how about a webOS tablet that doesn’t suck? One that’s good enough that developers finally write some %^&#)^&#^ apps for it? Sheesh.

- Book publishers realize that if the hardcover is twenty bucks, the ebook shouldn’t be eighteen. If the book industry continues to behave like the music industry circa 2000, it will come to a similar end. Quantity, guys. Sell ‘em cheaper, and you’ll sell more. Scarcity is the wrong assumption with digital information.

- A voicemail system that lets me delete a message halfway through hearing it. Failing that, a voicemail system that only allots, say, thirty seconds per message. If you need to make a speech, write it in an email.

- Speakerphones that don’t sound like you’re under water.

- Plug-in hybrid cars that cost roughly what regular cars do.

- Monorail! Monorail! Monorail!

- A “fashion victim” app. I could show it a given clothing combination, and it would tell me if, say, a particular tie works with a particular shirt. Sort of live-action garanimals, for those who remember garanimals. For the younger set, think of it as a GPS for the closet, steering you away from accidents.

- A roomba that cleans gutters. Someone will make big money on this. Hell, how about a roomba that mows lawns? Sort of an automated goat, but with better hygiene and less biting. Add leaf mulching and you’ve got a winner. Decorate it like R2D2, and watch it fly off the shelves.

- A search engine that works with actual paper. My desk would finally make sense.

Wise and worldly readers, what’s your short term tech wish list?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ask the Administrator: How to Spot Bloat?

A thoughtful correspondent writes:

I really wish someone would figure out a useful guide for identifying bloat, so I can know it when I see it and know whether to get rid of it. I used to think, for example, that the lab techs were just people who scrubbed out the test tubes because lazy students didn't do it, and prepared slides because lazy profs didn't do it. Then I found out that some of those lab techs also ensure compliance with federal safety regulations. The last thing I want to do is to cut our compliance staff.

What I have in mind is a series of questions to ask of administrators in a spot-the-bloat exercise. How many hours a week do you work with students? How many students do you work with per week? How many hours a week do you spend on compliance with local, state, or federal laws and regulations? How many hours a week do you spend on compliance with accreditors' requirements? How many hours a week do you spend on compliance with regulations of voluntary organizations (I'm envisioning the NCAA or NAIA, but there might be others)?

But I don't get very far before I start bumping up against questions that are harder to resolve. Is this department secretary there to guide scared students, to manage the flow of paper for conscientious faculty, or to type up endless drafts of the department chair's cherished, and unpublishable, novel? Most schools desperately need development officers, but how many is too many? Does the college need an archivist? Two? Three?

Can you, or perhaps your wise and worldly readers, help out?

As it stands now, "eliminate administrator bloat" is an empty slogan. It allows people to fall back on one of several unproductive answers (all administration is bloat, lots of administrators are bloat except for the ones I personally know, nobody understands us poor embattled administrators). People who want to cut administrators should give us tools for separating the wheat from the chaff.

There’s a lot here, but I’ll start with a basic fact. A recent study showed that the growth in “administration” has not, in fact, been in people in high-level or supervisory roles. In fact, the number of people in those roles has decreased even more rapidly than the number of people in tenure-track faculty lines. So the Marc Bousquet-ish cartoon of rapacious deans living high on the hog while hollowing out departments is exactly wrong.

The actual growth has occurred mostly in three areas: IT, financial aid, and students with disabilities. The former is a predictable outgrowth of technical change, and the latter two are entirely compliance-driven. Critics of “bloat” are invited to specify which of those three areas is inessential.

The external argument from “administrative bloat” has resulted from a category confusion. If you lump all salaried non-faculty employees into a single category and call it “administration,” then yes, you see growth. But conflating financial aid staff or the people at the computer center helpdesk with deans and vice presidents is mystifying at best.

I’ve also heard ‘bloat” used to describe people who coordinate outcomes assessment or diversity programming. But those are really objections to outcomes assessment and diversity programming. If you’re going to do those things, you need people to do them. (And if you don’t do the former, good luck keeping your accreditation.)

I can’t imagine an intelligent way to identify “bloat” without knowing what people actually do. In my first couple of years as faculty, I had no idea what Human Resources did all day; my only dealings with them involved signing up for direct deposit, which hardly seemed to require a full staff. Now, of course, I see the necessity.

All of that said, the reason the “administrative bloat” argument feels right to so many people is that colleges and universities have taken on many more functions than they have in the past. Most community colleges are spared the administrative nightmare of dorms, but even here, we have to deal with ever-more-onerous regulations, increased student needs, increased reporting requirements, ever-tighter record-keeping and compliance requirements, and basic technological advances. For example, we have someone whose full-time job it is to manage and coordinate the human patient simulators for Nursing. When I was in college, those simulators (and that job) didn’t exist. Every grant-funded program needs a dedicated Director as a condition of the grant. (If you really want to strike a blow for efficiency, replace grant-funded programs with significantly higher sustained operating budgets, and let colleges figure out for themselves how best to use the money. But nooo...)

I’d suggest that the real issues are twofold.

The first is Baumol’s cost disease. As long as education remains a personal-service industry, its costs will increase more quickly than the economy’s as a whole. That is nobody’s fault, and there is no villain; it’s just a basic fact of economics. The adjunct trend has been an especially hamhanded and unfortunate way of dealing with Baumol’s disease. But objecting to the adjunct trend doesn’t make the underlying issue go away. Until we address that -- which means looking directly at such sacred cows as the credit hour -- costs will continue to go up.

The second is mission creep. Back in the day, even many community colleges used a “sink or swim” approach to teaching. We teach, they learn or they don’t, end of story. Now that colleges are charged with improving completion and graduation rates, we have tutoring centers (with directors), student support programs, disability services, and the like. Those all require people. On the curricular side, too, it’s soooo much easier to add programs than to subtract them. SUNY Albany took body blows in the national press for eliminating a few programs; nobody takes any for adding programs. If we’re really serious about getting costs under control, I’d advocate colleges making decisions about which programs they can actually do well, and pruning accordingly. That’s politically dangerous, but economically obvious. Yes, some senior people will be let go, just as happens in every other industry. But the alternative is just to mindlessly continue the hollowing-out trend of the last forty years. How’s that working out?

Railing against administrative bloat is an easy way to get mad about costs without actually having to make any tough choices. It’s a copout, and an increasingly expensive one. I’d encourage anyone who’s actually concerned about college costs -- a very real issue -- to direct their energies at the real causes instead.

Thanks for the note! I hope that helps.

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Academic and Financial Officers

Sometimes I think I’ve been blessed. At my college, the academic and financial sides of administration work well together. This is not a universal condition, nor has it always held throughout my career.

Based on having seen the relationships work and not work in various places, I have a few suggestions for a successful working relationship.

Obviously, the first is mutual respect. The academics need to understand, in a more-than-theoretical way, that institutions have to make payroll. Discussion of budgets cannot be out of bounds, and it cannot be taken as just another excuse to say ‘no.’ Money spend on initiative A is not available for initiative B, and saying that is no reflection on the worth of initiative B. It’s just true.

The finance folk need to understand that the college itself is not for profit, and that its point is to provide a public service. While that can’t excuse indifference to costs, it does sometimes mean accepting some money-losing elements to the operation simply because they’re important. The tutoring center, for example, is a major cost center that generates no new revenues in itself; a for-profit would kill it quickly. (Proprietary U didn’t have one.) But it’s essential to the community college mission, so we support it.

The second is a sense of the constraints under which each side operates. The finance folks have to deal with shaky state budgets, unfunded mandates, ever-shifting regulations, and the challenges of a heavily used physical plant, none of which they chose. (Yes, someone chose the physical plant, but that was generations ago. The current folks inherited it.) They get audited periodically, and have to be able to show where the money went. They have to keep some “in case of emergency” money on hand for those times when a water main breaks or the HVAC system goes kaput. Some will demagogue that as a “slush fund,” but it’s actually a sign of good management.

The academic folks have to deal with accreditation and transfer, but also with some fairly unquantifiable -- but still real -- concerns about quality. While a category as broad as that can be used to hide all manner of sins, the category itself is still quite real. An academic administration that can distinguish productive spending from vanity spending will go a long way in building bridges.

I’ve worked in settings in which the two sides regarded each other as adversaries, and it worked to the detriment of the college as a whole. At Proprietary U, for example, upper management routinely referred to Admissions as a “profit center,” and Academics as a “cost center.” That didn't do much to endear it to the faculty, who rightly wondered just what the students were being admitted to.

At some level, some basic education in each other’s realities would go a long way. At my current position, I remember being struck that many faculty didn't have any sense of the difference between a capital budget and an operating budget, for example, so they'd make angry statements along the lines of “you have money for a new building, but not for full-time faculty?” They assumed, falsely, that money available for the one was alternately available for the other, and therefore drew unflattering conclusions about the ethics and/or intellect of the folks in the budget office. Some of them still manage to believe that course releases are moneymakers for the college, which would be amazing if it were true. If you believe that, then of course the only reason to say no to a course release would be meanness. On the flip side, folks on the staff side need to learn to lay off the “summer vacation” comments. They don’t help. And we need to accept that travel is a cost of doing business, and not just reflexively cut it every time the legislature sneezes. Say “no” to someone enough times, and they just stop asking. That is not a good thing.

This isn’t an exhaustive treatment, by any means, but it’s a start. Wise and worldly readers, have you seen effective ways for the two sides of a college to work together?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Girl at 7

The Girl had her seventh birthday yesterday. TW’s parents made the journey for the occasion, and we did the whole cake-and-presents celebration.

Even allowing for my bias, she’s a remarkable kid. Last week we caught the end of a documentary about feats that people have performed in emergency situations when the adrenaline was pumping. The narrator ended with “Superman isn’t from the planet Krypton. Superman is inside each of us.” TG sat bolt upright and declared “Or SuperWOMAN, Mister!” I gave her a high-five.

For her birthday, the only thing she asked for was books. (She got nine of them, which should get her through the week.) We threw in a couple of games for the wii, just for balance, and she liked them, but it said a lot that it never occurred to her to ask for them.

She’s more subtle than her brother. The Boy makes his presence felt through volume and energy, and his humor runs to the slapstick. TG flies a little more below the radar, but she fires off one-liners and “slow burn” expressions worthy of a comedian. And she does it with a self-possession that you wouldn’t expect in a girl her age. Last year, when her grandparents were visiting, she deadpanned that the upstairs bathroom “smelled like something crawled in there and died.” Her grandfather laughed out loud.

For all her sense of irony, though, she’s a fundamentally optimistic kid. Her world makes sense, and when something doesn’t make sense, she narrows her eyes, crinkles her nose, and holds her ground until she gets an explanation. Sense will be made, thank you very much. And, eventually, it is.

We’re hoping that she can keep her optimism and sense of sanity when she hits those difficult years. She’s a cute kid, but we’ve taken pains not to make too much of that. She doesn’t do the girly-girl stuff that some of her friends do, and we don’t push it. But she’s disarmingly sweet, and the sweetness isn’t affected.

As the younger and last child, her milestones bring with them a sense of finality. When she went to school, we were done with preschoolers. When she learned to ride a bike, that was the last time we’d teach someone to ride a bike. When TB hit a milestone, it was a breakthrough; when she hits one, it’s a breakthrough, but also an ending. Luckily for us, she’s so darn sweet about it that we don’t feel the loss until later.

Happy birthday, TG. Next week we’ll replenish the book supply again.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Discretion and Discrimination

A longtime reader writes:

I've noticed that in your posts you often (in passing) mention lawsuit risks, it seems usually having to do with behavior that can be construed as discrimination against one protected minority or another. Most recently on June 29th you wrote about "Teach" begin unsystematic in trying to catch and punish cheaters, a policy which probably leads to "disparate impact". I'm definitely guilty of this, and more generally in my teaching I tend to resolve problems ad hoc. If somebody needs an extension on an assignment (or is already late with it), or if someone needs to miss an exam (or already missed it) I decide what to do based on the circumstances and the student. I'm generally strict on paper but lenient in practice, but the specific accommodations I arrange vary. I understand there's some risk to running a class this way, but how serious is the risk? How often do lawsuits arise from this kind of teaching style? I certainly enjoy teaching much more when there are fewer systematic policies and procedures to deal with, and based on student evaluations and test scores I'm a pretty popular and successful teacher in my department, so I think this style has something to be said for it. Maybe it's only very egregious disparities in treatment that are really risky?

First, the obligatory caveat: I’m not a lawyer.

That said, there’s no way to do this job for an extended period without becoming acquainted with a few aspects of relevant law. Discrimination law is one of those.

The rule of thumb I’ve followed, successfully thus far, has been that most vaguely reasonable policies will be upheld, as long as they’re applied evenhandedly. Uneven enforcement is where you can easily get into trouble. If you can be shown to have applied a rule arbitrarily and capriciously, to the detriment of someone in a protected class, you are in a world of hurt.

Of course, one person’s “arbitrary and capricious” is another person’s “discretion.” And that’s where things get sticky.

It’s easy to err on the side of Dilbert, and to reduce administrators to rule-bound automatons. When I talk to the college attorneys, that’s usually the strategy they prefer. This approach has the virtue of consistency, and it establishes a kind of minimum threshold for intelligence. As long as you’re going by the book, you won’t generally be any dumber than the book.

The problem is that the book doesn’t cover everything. Last week’s case of the tenured professor who got to keep his job after exposing himself to an underage girl shows the limits of the “by the book” approach. You couldn’t possibly think of every single thing someone could do wrong, nor could you imagine upfront every possible combination of extenuating or aggravating circumstances. It could not be done. There has to be some elastic language in the rules to cover unforeseen events; by definition, that means there has to be some discretion in the enforcement of those rules. Discretion in enforcement is a necessary precondition for just outcomes. Without discretion, it’s easy to fall into spirals of absurdity.

Discretion relies on what Aristotle called “practical wisdom.” In a recent book by that name, Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe outlined case after case in which fear-based rule-following led to obviously stupid outcomes, and used those cases to argue for a renewed appreciation of the role of discretion in decision making. “Zero tolerance” policies that result in a kid getting suspended from school for a week for carrying aspirin in her purse are direct results of a distrust of local discretion. The fear of arbitrary individual power leads, oddly enough, to arbitrary depersonalized power. Someone needs to be empowered to stop the madness.

Since it’s difficult to specify in advance what the precise boundaries of discretion should be, courts have adopted a “disparate impact” standard. In other words, rather than trying to suss out what someone was thinking, they try to suss out the impact on the ground. Does your flexibility extend only to white students, or is it distributed evenly? If it’s the latter, you should be fine; if it’s the former, you’re in trouble, and rightly so. If you’re not sure, you might want to start keeping track; if you notice a disturbing pattern, you should ask yourself some hard questions.

Actual danger of lawsuits varies by local legal and political climate. In my observation, there’s little correlation between the merits of an argument and the likelihood of a lawsuit, so it can be tough to predict. What I would not do is start, say, grading “defensively,” to avoid conflict. Instead, I’d go with evenhandedness as a general rule, and I’d encourage you to document the reasons for any exceptions you make. That way, if you’re challenged later, you can demonstrate what the basis for your exercise of discretion was. (“I always drop the lowest quiz” is bulletproof; “she was really hot” isn’t.)

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, I suspect there’s much to be said on this one. Have you seen absurdities arise from overly-literal applications of broad rules? Alternately, have you seen discretion abused in serious ways?

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

Friday, July 08, 2011

Class and Summer Classes

The kids who most need summer classes are the least likely to get them.

The folks who study student success in the K-12 system routinely report that much of the learning gap between lower-income and higher-income students is a function of summers. The upper-income students have culturally enriched home environments and activities, so the academic backsliding over the summers is minimal. The lower-income kids, on average, get much less enrichment at home, so they backslide over the summers.

I’ve never seen a reason to suspect that the dynamic stops at twelfth grade.

My community college, like many, offers summer classes. They’re fairly popular among the faculty, who can pick up some extra money by teaching them. Part of the reason for the popularity, though, is that the summer students are different. Outside of a few designated “summer bridge” programs, the summer students are generally more affluent, more prepared, and easier to teach. Many of them register as “visiting” students, since they’re actually full-time someplace else and just home for the summer. The use the cc to pick up a few extra credits on the cheap.

There’s nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. But it’s hard not to notice that the students who most need the continuity are the least likely to get it. Even the “summer bridge” programs typically only target students between high school and college; once they’ve completed their first year of college, the students are pretty much on their own for the summers.

I was hopeful for a while that changes in the Pell programs would level the playing field a bit, but those changes have been repealed. For a couple of years, it became possible to use Pell money for summer classes, but that rule has changed. Now, the folks who are likelier to use “summer” as a verb -- “where do you summer?” -- will once again have more access to summer classes. The rest will interrupt their lives again and go on the unique hell that is the summer job circuit.

Class reproduces itself in ways both subtle and obvious. Time to completion is a strong predictor of the likelihood of success -- simply put, the longer it takes, the fewer will make it. (I’ve seen this in micro ways at my own college. For example, our course completion rate for last January’s intersession was over 90 percent. They didn’t have time to drop out.) Students who use summers to speed up the process finish sooner. Students who don’t have the option to do that pay a price in time, and time wears them down.

The for-profits figured this out some time ago, and mostly went to twelve-month academic calendars. We haven’t, and’ probably won’t, but there’s still a perfectly reasonable social justice argument for a robust slate of summer offerings. But that argument is harder to make when the summer offerings are largely populated by the students who would probably succeed anyway.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a campus with a fiscally sustainable way to level the playing field in the summer?

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Gainful Employment, on the Ground

In an effort to crack down on unscrupulous for-profits, the Feds have passed a massive unfunded mandate on community colleges. We’re supposed to report a series of statistics on “gainful employment” certificate programs. The idea is to give prospective students a realistic sense of what they would actually get for their money, were they to enroll. It’s a sort of nutritional labeling for a certain kind of education.

But it’s a real pain in the neck here in the trenches. (I know, I know, trenches don’t have necks. Just go with it.)

The first issue is defining which programs are covered. As near as I can tell -- and I endured a webinar sponsored by the federal government, which was about as exciting as the phrase “webinar sponsored by the federal government” would lead you to believe -- it doesn’t apply to degree programs, to certificates with fewer than ten students enrolled, or to certificates earned in the course of earning a degree. (An example of that might be a CNA earned on the way to a Nursing degree.) The “fewer than ten” rule is intended to screen out any personally identifiable information. If Steve is the only graduate a program has ever had, then knowing the average salaries of graduates would tell you what Steve makes. Steve could argue, with merit, that his salary is none of your damn business. So we have a threshold of ten.

Having narrowed down the scope of the certificates to which the new mandate applies, though, gathering the information is a nightmare.

For one thing, we’re supposed to go back five years in reporting graduates’ salaries. How, exactly, we are to do that is left unspecified. In most programs, we’ve never bothered collecting salary information, since there wasn’t a reason to. It’s hard enough getting students to report that information in a timely and truthful way; adding time travel to the task makes it that much harder.

We’re also supposed to report median student loan levels of students in the programs. That sounds easy until you realize that students routinely switch programs or majors while they’re here. If a student switched from practical nursing to culinary after two semesters, which debt do you count? (Another quirk of using the “median” as a measure: if less than half of the students received loans, then the median is zero, by definition. That’s not uncommon when you have a significant Pell grant population. Not sure how much that statistic helps anyone, but there it is.) We also have students who think they’re dropping out of a degree program, only to discover that they’ve inadvertently fulfilled the requirements for a certificate along the way. Do we count them, even if they took a bunch of additional credits that had nothing to do with the certificate? Although the rules are based on the assumption that students pick a program and then follow it, in practice it sometimes goes the other way. It’s not the most efficient path, but it’s real.

Conceptually, most of these (except time travel) are surmountable. But they take staff time, which means money. Since we were never previously required to capture much of this information, the first round of data recovery involves significant archeology. It’s doable, but the money and time spent doing that is money and time lost from other things. Coming on the heels of three consecutive years of cuts, though, the mandate forces other cuts to be even worse than they already are.

None of this is to argue against the philosophical goal of the regulations, which is to empower students to make informed decisions. It’s just to point out that the data that will be generated will necessarily be partial and noisy, as well as time-bound and expensive. Ironically enough, the sector whose abuses started the whole thing -- the for-profits -- are in much better shape to comply with the mandates than community colleges are. With many fewer programs per institution, and with much greater emphasis on job placement, they can likely produce most of what’s required without breaking a sweat.

My unsolicited suggestion: if the Federal department of education wants us to spend money on data gathering and reporting, it can pay for it. Send grants to the colleges to which the mandate applies. Alternately, narrow the mandate to the for-profits. But this is just expensive makework at a time when every dollar counts.

We’ll do our best to comply, since we have to. But this is a costly diversion from the main task at hand, and one that will generate data of limited validity. If the for-profits are a problem, address them, but this approach is counterproductive and costly.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

...And Don’t Report Back

This one is particularly for my fellow administrators out there. Strategic ignorance can be a wonderful thing, if used correctly. This is one way I’ve found it useful.

Let’s say you have a professor whose classroom performance seems to be slipping. Her student evaluations are conspicuously lower than they’ve been over time, students are starting to complain, and there’s no immediately-obvious cause. This is someone who has done well in the recent past, so you know the ability is there, but things just aren’t clicking now.

What do you do?

My new favorite technique involves asking the struggling professor if she would accept a constructive peer observation, on the strict condition -- in writing -- that the observer NOT report back to anyone in administration as to what she saw or recommended. All I want to know is that someone was hired, so we can process the observation stipend. If there’s a yes, then we discuss who might be a good peer observer. We usually try to find a respected senior professor who isn’t too close to the administration.

So far, this technique has worked remarkably well.

In a perfect world, the usual dean’s observation would do the trick. But it’s hard -- and any teacher should know this -- to use the same instrument for both evaluation and improvement. (That’s the classic dilemma of grading, but it holds here, too.) When you’re being evaluated, you tend to put your best foot forward; when you’re trying to improve, you highlight the trouble spots. Formally separating the two allows for unpunished candor, which is the prerequisite to real improvement.

In the better cases, I’ve seen significant improvement after a visit or two. Anyone can fall into a slump, and sometimes it helps to have someone both competent and sympathetic to point out if you’ve developed a bad habit. (“Y’know, you were a little quick to cut that student off...”) When the visit gets the professor back on track, everybody wins. The struggling professor is back on track, the mentor feels respected and important, and the administration doesn’t have to do anything sticky. And if multiple visits don’t seem to help, well, at least we tried.

The fundamental requirement for this to work is a basic level of trust that you will actually honor the confidentiality you promised. Without that, you’re sunk. But if you have the self-discipline not to ask -- even better, if you have decent rapport with some anti-administration senior faculty who are devoted teachers, since they make the best observers -- you can turn a potentially ugly scenario into an easy win-win.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen (or experienced) another effective way to help a professor in a teaching slump to get back on track?

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Holiday Highlights

- Once in a while, it’s good for the soul to forget about all the bureaucratic stuff and just careen madly down a waterslide.

- One upside of middle-aged weight gain is that it adds to your waterslide speed. Okay, that’s probably not an even trade, but I’ll take what I can get.

- It’s even better when your six year old daughter, formerly afraid of waterslides, finds the courage to go, too. The look on her face at the bottom was worth the trip.

- Huge theme parks are more fun with friends. TB discovered one of his friends from school in the wavepool, and pretty much went off on his own for a couple of hours. Bliss all around...

- Watching long, televised trials just makes you want to take a shower later.

- Miniature golf works better with a goalie. TW and I took The Girl to play mini golf on Saturday, while TB was at a sleepover. The mini-golf course has a series of creeks running through it, working as de facto water traps. TG’s putting skills are, uh, in development, and we lost the first ball at the third hole. After that, we developed a policy that for every hole near a water trap, the folks who weren’t putting would play goalie. The goalie’s job was to block the water trap, keeping the ball on the green by whatever means necessary.

- Miniature golf is also improved by a mercy rule.

- Public swimming pools have many upsides: they’re free to use, but maintained by other people. They don’t take up backyard space. They provide common ground among social classes. This is all to the good. However, they have a potentially fatal downside: the public.

- On the holiday itself, we had to leave the pool because someone pooped in it. Seriously. I am not making this up.

- Lifeguard, overheard: “And you know what’s really gross? I have to pick it up!” Yeah, I remember summer jobs...

- To a ten-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, nothing is funnier than someone pooping in a pool. The entire ride home was devoted to coming up with funny ways to describe what had happened. “Someone dropped some friends off at the pool!” “Someone dropped a deuce in the drink!” It went on for some time, interrupted only by TB’s and TG’s laughter. As we got home, TG announced happily “Finally we have a REASON to talk about poop!” Sigh...

- The Dog is unperturbed by fireworks, but creeped out by the sound of someone turning pages. Thunderstorms are a non-issue, but the arrival of the UPS guy is a crisis. I don’t get it...

- Several days of not thinking about anything academic or administrative or bureaucratic can be amazingly restorative. I’m thinking now that what we really need for the big kickoff meeting in September is a waterslide...

Friday, July 01, 2011

College Radio

Apparently, college radio has fallen on hard times. This should come as no surprise, since radio generally has fallen on hard times.

I was a denizen of college radio in the late 80’s, just before the music we played broke out as “alternative.” In those days, a new release by R.E.M. or The Replacements was a Very Big Deal. (I vividly remember the disappointment when Don’t Tell a Soul came out.) It was a blast, but it was the kind of blast that relied on a specific historical moment.

In those days, platforms on which to be heard were scarce. Radio stations were few, and the web didn’t exist. (The internet did, but for most of us, it didn’t go much beyond email, and even that required going to the campus computer center for access. Few of us did.)

The freewheeling FM radio scene of the 60’s and 70’s had collapsed by that point, and the web had yet to be born. That meant that college radio had a niche all its own. For all intents and purposes, it was the only place left for experimentation. Since listening options were few, you could be staggeringly incompetent and still find an audience. That freedom to fail meant that you got a chance to improve. (Admittedly, it also made for an, um, let’s go with “eclectic” listening experience.) If you were in a geographically isolated area, you had an audience largely by default.

The advent of streaming audio and podcasting has fundamentally changed the environment. Now, platforms are plentiful. If you want to do a show, you don’t have to find a radio station willing to give you a timeslot, get your FCC license, and pay your dues in the wee hours. You can just get an app and a microphone and go for it. And your potential audience isn’t limited by the broadcast range of the typical low-power FM station; the whole point of the world wide web is that it’s worldwide.

By the same token, though, the default audience is gone. There’s such a surfeit of listening options out there now that the challenge isn’t finding a microphone; it’s finding listeners. Back then, the fear was that you’d get shut out by gatekeepers; now, it’s that you’ll get drowned out by other providers.

While that shift is mostly good from the audience’s perspective, it does make it harder to get that key audience feedback during the early I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing stage. And while we were sometimes prone to bouts of self-importance -- cough -- there’s also something intoxicating about feeling like you’re the last holdout of artistic freedom. We may have been full of ourselves, incompetent, and painfully naive, but at least we felt like we mattered. Now, that crucial sense of “we matter” is harder to come by. There’s no shortage of podcasts out there.

Inevitably, college radio stations have been caught in-between. Fewer people listen to FM radio than they once did, since they have the options of satellite, Pandora, Slacker, podcasts, and whatnot. The music industry that once provided stations with free music has fallen on hard times, too, so the gravy train of content isn’t what it once was. Many stations have migrated online, but with a few exceptions (WFMU!), it’s just not the same. It feels like newspapers moving online; they’re just delaying the inevitable.

Ironically, just as the programming of college radio has become less valuable, its spectrum has become much more valuable. Cash-strapped colleges are increasingly selling their spectrum to forestall other cuts. As much as I’d hate to see it happen, I can absolutely see the logic. Back in the day, spectrum was cheap and content rare. Now content is cheap and spectrum valuable. The entire economic underpinning has capsized.

My college still has its station, and I’m glad it does. But it’s feeling more like a tribute to the past than a farm team for the future. When the local station is the only listening option not owned by Clear Channel, it matters; when it’s one of thousands of streams available at any given time, not so much.

Back in the day, the one threat to college radio I absolutely did not see coming was abundance of listening options. At that point, we were concerned about consolidation and gatekeepers. Now, the very plethora of options that college radio held dear is drowning it out, and suffocating its reason to exist.

Farewell, college radio. You had a hell of a run, and I’m proud to have been there for part of it. But the problem you solved has been solved in other ways. In the spirit of the late 80’s, I’ll pour out a wine cooler for you, before I fire up some podcasts for the drive home.

Program note: I’ll be taking the Fourth of July off; the next post will be on Tuesday the 5th.