Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Texting and Teaching

I suspect this one isn’t unique. A new correspondent writes:

I teach at a community college and find that many of my students text in the classroom. My policy, which is stated on my syllabus, is that I ask students who use the phone to leave the class for the day. This doesn't seem to discourage cell phone use. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

A few thoughts, before I open the floor to my wise and worldly readers, many of whom have been in the classroom more recently than I have.

First, it’s great that you have a policy stated in your syllabus. From this side of the desk, it’s easy to stand behind a professor who sticks to the rules she set out in the first place. My nightmare is the professor who changes the rules midstream or applies them with obvious selectivity. A blanket ban is clear, easy to describe and defend, and obviously well-suited to a smallish class.

That said, sometimes there’s a gap between what’s clean on paper and what works in class.

One issue may be clarity. Those of us of a certain age -- sigh -- may think of ‘texting’ as included in the phrase ‘cell phone use,’ but some youngish students may see the two categories as separate. To them, ‘cell phone use’ may imply voice calls or web surfing, whereas texting is texting. They may think of texting as a less intrusive alternative to calling. If that’s all it is, then a little clarification may help. (And just having a policy on a syllabus usually won’t cut it, since students tend not to read syllabi. Make sure you announce in class the parts you want to emphasize.)

If clarity isn’t the issue -- that is, if they know perfectly well that you don’t want them texting but they keep doing it anyway -- then things get trickier.

It’s tempting to try to channel John Houseman’s character from The Paper Chase, but outside of a few select settings, that’s just not realistic anymore. And given cell phone ubiquity, student solidarity, and the reality of limited political capital, adopting a hard line position may wind up being more trouble than it’s worth.

Instead, I’d recommend thinking through what you’re trying to achieve with the ban, and then sharing your thoughts with the class. Presumably, most of us would be okay with exceptions based on childcare or medical emergencies, and it’s increasingly true that students often have such complicated lives that just trying to define “emergency” can become neverending. But it’s also true that it’s hard to have thoughtful class discussions when half the class is distracted by little screens in their hands. (In our house, we have a “no technology at the table” rule during meals. We’re not Luddites by any stretch -- regular readers know that I enjoy my gadgets -- but family mealtime is human contact time.)

I’d recommend sharing your concerns with the class, and moving from “police” mode to “problem solving” mode. If it’s you against them, I don’t like your chances. I won’t go all Cathy Davidson on you and suggest incorporating texting into the class, but incorporating the students into the class as adults, rather than treating them as recalcitrant children, may get you about 80 percent of what you actually want. Share with them what you envision a great class looking like, and let them know you think they’re capable of achieving that, but you’re concerned that they won’t get there if they aren’t looking. See what they have to say about it. Best case, you avoid the “police state” atmosphere that can easily poison the class dynamic, and actually improve the class climate through some thoughtful reflection on what you -- and they -- are really trying to achieve.

Good luck! I know you’re not alone in this.

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those currently teaching -- what would you suggest? Is there a more effective way?

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

States and Regions

Culturally and economically, Buffalo is closer to Toledo than to New York City. But Buffalo is part of New York State, and its legal and political realities reflect that.

New York is an extreme case of a state in which a single city overshadows the rest of the state. It’s easy to come up with other examples, of course: Atlanta isn’t typical of Georgia, Baltimore isn’t typical of Maryland, and so on. (New Jersey has the unique distinction of being dominated by not one, but two, cities outside of its own borders.)

I was reminded of these intrastate imbalances in looking at Richard Florida’s recent series in The Atlantic about interstate mobility. Florida compares rates of native birth in various states, and notes correlations to economic class, physical health, religiosity, and the like. Broadly, folks in states with relatively little in-migration tend to be more religious, more extroverted, and less open to new experiences than folks in states with higher interstate migration rates. In a sense, he’s mapping the creative class/blue collar divide onto the states.

I have to concede his point as he made it, yet it doesn’t describe much of my daily reality. That’s because I’ve spent much of my life living in regions that tend to get overshadowed by major cities. Politically and economically, they get treated as afterthoughts.

When you’re in the Uticas or Rockfords of the world, it’s easy to regard statewide policies as stalking horses for the agendas of, say, the Manhattans or Chicagos. (I’d guess that many of my non-Northeastern readers would have an easier time identifying the mayor of New York City than the governor of New York State.) That gets even more true as the major metros experience significant in-migration, and the outlying cities don’t. Over time, it’s easy for policymakers -- both offficial and unofficial -- to conflate the large cities with the state as a whole. But what makes sense for Seattle may not make sense for Richland.

That can have real consequences for the overshadowed regions. Just because insurance is huge in Omaha doesn’t mean that it can be duplicated in Hastings, which presumably has needs of its own. Whatever efficiencies centralization might promise could easily be overwhelmed by deadweight losses caused by blindness to local conditions.

Even the folkways are different. I’ve found that it’s harder to break into social circles in areas with lots of people who were born there than it is in higher-turnover areas, just because people in the more settled areas already have what they need. They already have well-developed networks, so they aren’t particularly looking to expand them. That’s not meanness, even if it can sometimes come off as chilly; it’s just satiety.

Politics in the more settled areas tend to be much harder to shift, too. This year’s battles carry echoes of last year’s, which, in turn, were proxies for battles fought a decade before. When the same ruts get run year after year, they get pretty deep and hard to break. That can look like stabilty, or it can look like stasis. Worse, a sort of provincial chauvinism can arise as a defensive response to feeling overshadowed. That kind of insularity -- even if well-intended -- is actually a handmaiden of decline. Breaking that pattern is no small feat, but it’s a necessity if the overshadowed regions hope to rise anew.

Community colleges straddle an awkward divide in places like these. Most community college students intend to stay local after graduation and, in fact, most do. But in the afterthought regions, opportunities tend to be pretty limited; often the only way to move up is to move out. The afterthought regions often export their most talented young people to the metro cities, simply because the metros can offer things other places can’t. That “springboard” function serves a real social purpose, and I’m glad for it, but it can lead to some awkward political moments locally.

Statewide policies written with a single dominant metro in mind can do real damage to the rest of the state. Rochester isn’t just a smaller version of New York City; it’s an entirely different animal. It would be lovely if state lines matched economic and social lines, but they don’t. (Practically, they couldn’t; the economic and social lines move too often.) As long as they don’t, I just hope that the lure of economies of scale won’t tempt states to mistake single -- albeit important -- parts for the whole. Some of us live out here.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Joaquin Luna DREAM Act

This story makes my heart hurt.

Joaquin Luna, a high school senior in California, committed suicide on Friday. He wanted to become an engineer to provide a better life for his mother, but realized that his status as an illegal immigrant made that impossible. Despondent over the failure of the DREAM act to pass, he dressed up in a suit and tie, said goodbye to his family, and shot himself in the head.

Any parent knows, intuitively, that the death of a child is the single worst thing that can happen. My condolences to his family, and to all who knew him.

I’ll concede upfront that it’s impossible to know everything that was going on in someone’s mind. Many people face obstacles and disappointments and don’t respond the way he did.

But it’s hard not to admit that he had a point. That’s what makes the story even more wrenching than so many others.

The DREAM act offers legal status to people who came to this country illegally as young children, conditional on their attainment of a college degree or on performing military service. It gives people who simply came with their parents a chance to attain full membership in the society in which they grew up. Since many of the people covered by the act came across the border as toddlers or young children, the United States is really their home. K-12 districts are required to educate these kids, so many of these kids go all the way through and graduate, only to hit a wall at the end of high school.

I recognize that there are complicated issues around adult immigration. But around kids who come with their parents, I have a hard time seeing it. Joaquin saw, correctly, that he was essentially confined to a lower caste through no fault of his own. He got the message -- again, with some warrant -- that the United States didn’t really want him. And since he wanted so badly to be here and to work hard for his family -- values that, in other contexts, we claim to hold -- he just couldn’t accept a life sentence to being the working poor.

It’s fashionable lately for people with highfalutin’ degrees to ask whether college is necessary. But on the ground, it clearly is. Yes, student loan debt is a serious issue, but the basic truth still holds that you’re economically better off with a degree than without one.

Yes, there should be economically viable alternatives for people who don’t go to college. But that category shouldn’t be decided by the time a kid is six years old. The way to tamp down the student loan bubble isn’t to ban brown people from college; it’s to get costs under control and restore subsidies through progressive taxation.

Joaquin Luna was, I’m sure, a complicated, three-dimensional person. It would be a mistake to reduce his suicide to a simple political statement. But it would also be a mistake to ignore the message that he was apparently trying to send. He saw that his adopted country was willing to visit the sins of the father upon the son, and the burden was too great for him to bear. Now a family is grieving, and a country has lost a driven young man cursed with insight.

I hope that when the act comes up again -- and passes -- it bears his name. Let the Joaquin Luna DREAM act ensure that we never consign anyone to a lower caste because he followed his parents here as a child.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Wait for It...Wait for It...

I was never much of a batter. I wouldn’t make contact terribly often, and when I did, I only ever hit down the third base line. If you’re a right-handed batter like me, that’s a sign of swinging too early.

Far too late to make much difference, I picked up a tip that helped. At the plate, I started actually saying the words “wait for it...wait for it...” before swinging. The reminder corrected the too-early swing at least some of the time, thereby opening up the other three-quarters of the infield. My swings may still be slow and weak, but at least they’re better timed.

I’m learning to apply the same forced patience on the job.

There’s a school of thought around strategic planning or project management that says that the way to plan is to draw up an outline at the outset, with subtopics and sub-subtopics, and to attach deadlines to each. The idea is to create legibility and accountability.

But the flaw of that model is that it assumes omniscience. It assumes that you know upfront what all of the relevant variables are, how they’ll interact, how long they’ll take, and what the outcome will be. That’s fine if you’re dealing with a mechanistic system, but it has a way of not working when the raw material is people.

Instead, it’s useful sometimes to build in gaps. My plans are increasingly looking like this:

1. Specify a broad, long-term goal.
2. Assemble the folks who could help achieve it.
3. Explain what you’re trying to do. Repeat step 2 if necessary.
4. Provide resources.
5. wait for it..wait for it...something good will happen...
6. Celebrate successes and tweak failures.

That crucial step five can’t be rushed or micromanaged. It’s the step during which you have to suppress the urge to swing.

Obviously, step five doesn’t always work. Some projects just don’t gel, for various reasons. But the most glaring successes usually come from an extended period of staying out of the way while creative people connect with each other.

That can be a difficult step to explain to people on the outside of the process. Grants, for example, prefer very specific timelines with pre-defined breakthroughs happening on an evenly-spaced schedule. Which would be lovely, if things worked like that. Academic calendars can be pretty rigid, too, especially at teaching-focused places. The trick is in using deadlines as tools, rather than rules. Any writer can tell you that nothing gets the words flowing quite like a looming deadline. The same is true of group projects, as long as the deadlines have some wiggle room.

I just have to figure out a way to write “sandbox time” into grant applications. How hard can that be?

Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways to build sandbox time into your institutional routines? I’m hoping there’s a way to honor and sustain a productive practice that gets too often confined to the interstices of the day.

(Program note: for the rest of the week, we’ll be on a multi-state Thanksgiving trek. Best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving, or, as my Canadian friends call it, Thursday. The blog will be back on Monday, November 28.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

“General Education,” Within and Without

What do you expect a college graduate to know? What do you expect a college graduate to be like?

The questions are very different. They start from different assumptions, and are usually asked by different people with different goals. A good answer to one may not shed much light on the other.

Higher ed providers tend to look at “general education” as a body of knowledge (the traditional faculty view) or a set of competencies (the assessment-driven view). Either way, the assumption is that whatever the major, all college graduates should have a common base of knowledge and/or ability. Whether you look at it as a set of Great Books or the ability to think critically, there’s a shared sense that whatever else happens in college, students should come out with something specific and name-able that can be traced to a particular moment in the curriculum. It’s a sort of lowest common denominator that, paradoxically enough, draws on the highest traditions of Western thought. (The tension between the two is constant.)

In practice, general education is usually addressed through a set of either required courses, or distribution requirements for courses. Students freely discuss the imperative to “get their gen eds out of the way,” which speaks more to the “lowest common denominator” function than to the “highest traditions of Western thought” function. To students, gen ed requirements are the spinach they have to finish before they get to have dessert.

Having gone through yet another round of employer advisory boards, though, I’m consistently struck by how differently the non-academic world sees gen ed. Their expectations are dramatically different, which may explain why their suggestions (or complaints) are always the same.

I’ve never heard an employer complain that graduates hadn’t read a particular book or engaged a particular theory. That has never happened. I’ve also never heard an employer ask to look at our outcomes assessment rubrics.

Their feedback, regardless of the program, has been that whatever else graduates bring with them, they should bring basic employee skills. By that, they mean promptness, diligence, a positive or at least congenial demeanor, the ability to work with other people, and the ability to get the big picture. (To be fair, they also sometimes mention writing skills, though the version of writing they have in mind is usually grammatical correctness and basic clarity.)

The version of gen ed we use internally is content-based. The version employers seem to use is almost Calvinist. You are the kind of person who makes a good employee, or you are not. If you are, the specifics don’t matter that much; they can train you. If you aren’t, the specifics don’t matter that much, since a well-read screwup is still a screwup.

The vision the employers are using is a variation on cultural capital. It’s the idea that a college graduate is a particular kind of person, with a sense of how the world works and how to work within it. Their consistent feedback is that some graduates manage to get through the programs, sometimes even with decent grades, without quite ‘getting it.’

Even allowing for a certain amount of reverse ageism -- even the best-educated 22 year olds tend to be a little more volatile than the average 42 year old -- I have to admit there’s something to the complaints. Replacing this gen ed requirement with that gen ed requirement is unlikely to make headway on the sort of enculturation function the employers have in mind. I’m just not sure how to achieve that, especially in the setting of a commuter college with many students who haven’t grown up around that model.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways to bridge the two visions of gen ed?

Monday, November 21, 2011

An Open Letter to Chancellor Katehi of the University of California, Davis

Dear Chancellor Katehi,

I imagine you’re feeling burned right now. You trusted the wrong people, and find yourself in a completely untenable position.

You know perfectly well that what the police did to peaceful protesters was beyond reason. There’s really no disputing that. The right to peaceable assembly is well-enshrined in American law, and for good reason. The videos speak for themselves.

Your people overshot. But you know that.

I’m not writing you to educate you about free speech or police brutality. I assume you’re smart enough to understand both, and to see clearly that the University was badly on the wrong side here.

I’m writing as a fellow higher ed administrator. Like you, I’ve been on the receiving end of smug tirades by people who don’t have to balance competing goods. It’s frustrating. And I’ve also had to deal with the fallout when people who report to me make decisions I wish they hadn’t. It happens.

Now you’re in that awful position where the protesters are right. It’s hard to swallow, but it’s true.

At this point, as I see it, you have exactly two ways to play this. You can resign, or you can jump out in front of the issue. The one thing you absolutely cannot do is be careful.

Resignation is obvious, and your hand may be forced, so I’ll leave it at that. The second option is admittedly risky, but with the egregiousness of the police conduct and the international attention being paid, the usual “let’s appoint a committee to look into it” won’t work.

The ground has shifted from under you. You cannot defend the police. You just can’t.

If you’re up to it, though, you can try to defend the purpose of the university. You can’t dodge this, but you may be able to lead your way out.

The way to do that would involve, first of all, admitting fault. You’ll have to eat a fair bit of crow, both privately and publicly. Then you have to admit that this has been a wake-up call.

The point of the university is the pursuit of truth through the open exchange of ideas. You need to admit -- even better, assert -- that the conduct of the police was directly antithetical to the purpose of the university. You need to prosecute the police involved, and replace the chief. You need to establish some sort of community board to monitor the police. The campus police will hate you for that, but it has to be done.

Then you need to take active steps to make UC-Davis a civil community in the fullest sense of ‘civil.’ That doesn’t mean ‘polite’ or ‘quiescent.’ It means a setting in which vigorous debate is actually possible -- and sometimes even encouraged -- with the shared understanding that we separate the speaker from the speech. I’d start by personally engaging the Occupy protesters on campus, and then by inviting speakers from all over to debate each other in public, both formally and informally. You need to attend those debates personally.

This can’t be delegated. You can’t ask your associate dean of whatever to handle it. As the chancellor, you have to get out there yourself. And you have to steel yourself emotionally for the vituperation that will come your way. You can’t take the bait.

Like it or not, the only way around this is through it. You have to own this, personally and publicly. You have to get out there yourself, take the risk of public humiliation, and change the way the university treats the people who get on its nerves.

If that’s too tall an order, just resign. But make up your mind quickly. Twisting in the wind will do untold damage to everything the university stands for.

Good luck. I’m glad I’m not you right now.


Dean Dad

Friday, November 18, 2011

Black Boxes and Bumping

A few years ago, I read a piece about airlines “bumping” passengers who had legitimate tickets. (I’ve never understood how it’s legal to sell the same seat twice, but that’s another post.) The article made the point that some central computer makes decisions that result in bumping, but that agents at counters have to deal with angry passengers, so over time, agents at counters started entering ‘dummy’ passengers with names like Mickey Mouse so they could outsmart the computer. Mickey Mouse wouldn’t yell at them if he got bumped. Over time, the computer compensated by overbooking even more.

The flaw there was that the folks who designed the central system never thought about the needs of the folks on the ground.

I’m watching a few state/national higher ed initiatives -- well-intentioned ones -- come to grief, and they all seem to be flailing for the same reason. They treat colleges as black boxes. They fail to grasp the motivations of the various actors.

Take transfer, for example. It’s one thing for a state to declare that its entire public higher ed system should be a coherent whole, with seamless transfer from each college to every other. And on paper, many of them have that.

But that doesn’t mean students escape having to re-take (and pay again for) courses they’ve already taken and passed.

That’s because while broad policy decisions may be made at the top, actual implementation occurs in the departments. And departments often have very different interests.

In the world of transfer, the usual evasion involves giving a course “free elective” status. The chair of the receiving school’s art department, for example, typically won’t raise an issue with accepting English Comp or Intro to Psych, since her own department doesn’t teach those anyway; the nits she’ll pick will be among the art classes. I’ve had chairs say, to my face, that they don’t want to “give away” too many credits. But if she’s under a mandate from above to accept credits in transfer, she can simply allow the transferring art credits as “free electives.” If her major doesn’t happen to have any free electives in it, well, tough luck. That way, her department gets to re-teach whatever it wants, while she still gets to claim compliance with the mandate. Her interest -- keeping the enrollment and funding levels of her own department high -- are at odds with the larger systemic interest in seamless transfer.

Now that states are starting to define college “performance” in terms of graduation rates, I can see a similar -- considerably more sinister -- version of the same thing on the horizon.

Graduation rates reflect any number of variables, including quality of curriculum and instruction. But those variables also include things like the student profile. To take an easy example, students who arrive at college with strong academic preparation in high school graduate at much higher rates than students who arrive with serious skill gaps. Nobody seriously disputes that. So the quickest and easiest way for a college to nudge its graduation rates upward is to become exclusionary. If you don’t let the higher-risk students in, they can’t drop out.

Some colleges build that into their missions, and that’s fine. If you need developmental math, MIT won’t take you. It’s a private university -- albeit a land-grant, oddly enough -- and it can choose its own path. But to compare graduation rates of places that can cherry-pick with places that take all comers is simply to load the dice.

My concern here is that unthinkingly adopting a single bottom-line standard will push the more accessible colleges to become much less so. They won’t necessarily want to, but if funding depends on it, they’ll do what they’ll have to do. If we assume the same kind of self-interest as in the case of the department chairs, it isn’t hard to predict either evasive or perverse maneuvers.

Those maneuvers could be overt -- admissions requirements, say -- or they could be sub rosa. Moving ESL and developmental classes onto a separate set of books, for example, would immediately elevate the graduation rate. Discreetly reducing outreach into the most disadvantaged communities would elevate the graduation rate. It isn’t hard to come up with ways to game the measure.

As with the airlines, I’d expect the people on the front lines to engage in evasive maneuvers to meet their own needs. The folks who would get bumped would be the most vulnerable students. Bumping is one thing if it’s Mickey Mouse, but something else altogether if it’s a kid from a shaky high school who’s trying to escape poverty. Colleges aren’t black boxes or agents of a single mind; they’re complicated operations with self-aware moving parts. Policies need to reflect that. If they don’t, entire generations will be left sitting on the tarmac.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Scenes from a Strange Week

The computer club had a bake sale on campus. As I neared the table, one of the students called out “Save a nerd! Buy a cookie!” Impressed, I complied.


TW called one afternoon to let me know The Dog had been skunked. (Since the storm did a number on the local trees, varmints of all sorts have been unusually public.)

The tomato juice bath was a nonstarter for any number of reasons, so I did some quick Googling and found a recommended mix of peroxide, baking soda, and Dawn. After getting home and changing, I mixed the ingredients in a bucket, took The Dog and a sponge out back, and did what needed to be done.

Apparently, peroxide works on fur like it works on hair. Now The Dog has subtle blonde highlights.


Overheard in a meeting: “If you boil down the soup to the nuts and bolts...”


Sign of a planetary alignment: at the end of a recent evening advisory board meeting, the chair (not me) proposed a follow-up meeting in six months. The group rebelled, saying it was too energized by the excitement of what it was doing, and it wanted to meet sooner and more often.

Over a decade in academic administration, and I had never seen that before. The Force is strong in this one.


This week’s activities: basketball practice, music lessons, makeup trick-or-treating, lego league, PTO, swim lessons, leaf bagging. Anyone remember the argument that Americans didn’t have “social capital” anymore? We’ve got social capital coming out of our ears. Real capital, on the other hand...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Subscriptions and Attrition

What if college got cheaper as you went along?

Because I am a Big Giant Nerd, I’ve been reviewing literature on financial aid programs in various states. Most of them are either need-based or merit-based, and they tend to fall victim to the predictable pathologies of either genre. The need-based ones can’t keep up with real need, and they’re hard to sell politically. The merit-based ones are easy to sell politically, but they tend to flow disproportionately to the most affluent. Worse, both tend to fall behind rising costs over time.

A few years ago I toyed with the idea of a graduation deposit, like a security deposit: you hand over a chunk of money when you enroll, and if/when you graduate, you get it back with interest. If you don’t graduate, you don’t get it back. While I still like the concept, it’s increasingly clear to me that it, too, would wind up being regressive. The folks who would most need the refund would be the ones least able to cough up the deposit in the first place.

Then I thought of subscriptions.

A typical magazine subscription offer will look something like this: $30 for one year, $50 for two years, and $65 for three years. The idea is to entice readers to commit for longer periods by making the marginal cost of additional years lower. If you want to go year-to-year, you can, but it costs more; by committing upfront to a longer run, you get a lower price.

And I thought, hmm.

In higher ed, we do the polar opposite. We charge by the semester or year, and each year costs more than the year before it. Then we wonder why students leave.

The magazine model comes closer to reflecting actual costs, in some ways. It costs more to recruit a new student than it does to keep a current one, for example. By the time a student is well-ensconced, use of services tends to be more routinized and less catastrophic. It’s the newbies who are the highest-maintenance.

The parallel isn’t perfect, obviously. Upper-level classes tend to be smaller than intro courses -- at least once you get past the remedial level -- so they have higher costs. But that’s really a function of attrition. If sticking around got easier, attrition might decrease, and the upper-level classes would be more fully populated (and therefore more economically sustainable).

Better, students could gradually decrease their paid work hours as they immerse themselves more deeply in a given subject. Unpaid internships and/or co-ops would be less exclusionary than they are now.

The major issue I could foresee would be transfer. If a four-year college adopted this model, it would basically ship its entire freshman class to nearby community colleges. The savvy students would load up on cheap cc credits, then transfer to the newly-affordable third and fourth years. The obvious way around that would be to treat funding for community colleges and state four-year colleges as a single system, and to put the funding where it needs to go for that to work.

Which would involve putting economic value on teaching.

The loss-leader model works well when the issue is attracting people in the first place. That’s not the problem that most of higher ed currently faces. Given the ever-growing wage gap between the college-educated and the high-school educated, I don’t foresee a huge dropoff in overall national demand anytime soon. (Regional dropoffs are another story.) The issue at this point isn’t generating demand or creating access; it’s turning prospective dropouts into prospective graduates. Our issue isn’t recruitment, really; it’s retention.

I’m pretty sure that an idea this big and hairy has some perfectly awful unintended consequences, but I’m not sure what they are just yet. Wise and worldly readers, what say you? What would happen if college got cheaper as you went along?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Future of For-Profits

I have a close, longtime friend who has lived the mixed blessing of getting what she has wanted, when she has wanted it. Luckily for her, she generally has good taste, but she has boxed herself into corners a few times when circumstances refused to conspire to save her from herself.

I’m thinking that the last couple of years are conspiring to save for-profit higher ed from itself.

Having worked in both the for-profit and community college worlds, I’ve been arguing for years that the right move for the for-profits is to go upscale. Apparently, they’re starting to figure this out for themselves, even if only as the result of newfound Federal scrutiny.

Historically, for-profits arose in the gaps of traditional higher ed, focusing primarily on the fields that traditional colleges either ignored or neglected. That made some sense at the time. But since then, the non-profits have greatly expanded their coverage, and the for-profits have greatly expanded their offerings to chase enrollments; at this point, the programmatic overlap between the sectors is substantial. Some for-profits have even earned regional accreditation (and others, horrifyingly enough, have bought it.)

Now that they’re offering many of the same courses of study as community colleges and the midtier state colleges of the world, the for-profits are finding it difficult to compete. For a while, many of them managed by taking all manner of ethical liberties with financial aid packaging and deceptive recruiting; the Feds, rightly, have made that more difficult.

They’ll never be able to compete on cost. Community and state colleges are subsidized and, just as importantly, untaxed; for-profits are taxed and unsubsidized. (Proponents of public higher ed rightly note that the subsidies aren’t what they once were, but they often fail to note that the tax exemptions remain.) Yes, for-profits can minimize the taxation issue with online offerings -- property taxes don’t apply to cyberspace -- but the publics can go online, too.

The way to compete is on value, as opposed to price. This is where the for-profits can escape the ethical and legal issues they’ve caused for themselves, set up a lucrative niche, and even expand.

That would actually mirror the way that privatization works in most other industries. Most of the time, “public” offerings are considered less desirable than private ones. Public housing, public transportation, and public schools are generally -- with exceptions, yes, but generally -- considered inferior to their private counterparts. I don’t see any obvious reason that for-profit higher ed couldn’t try the same strategy.

Granted, it would have a hard time competing on academic prestige, at least initially. But by combining programmatic focus with a year-round schedule and concierge-level staffing in career services, it could offer a pretty compelling value proposition. And by being selective, it could screen out the high-default populations and avoid the ethical traps into which the sector as a whole tends to fall. It’s one thing to object to boiler-room sales tactics and shoddy curricula; it’s quite another to object to specialization and good service.

In fact, a high end proprietary could become known for its high academic standards. If it could truthfully market its grads to employers as being among the best in a given industry, it would have a legitimate selling point for prospective students.

The ethics of it all are debatable, but to the extent that they actually chose to compete on quality, I’d argue that the rest of the industry would have to step up. Bottom-feeding is insane when you’re competing with institutions with built-in cost advantages, and you can only run on the boiler room model for so long. The way up is the way out. The for-profits are being forced to figure this out; the winners will be the ones who lean into the change.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Starting a Faculty Senate

A returning correspondent writes:

Our FT faculty are exploring the creating of a Faculty Senate and allowing adjuncts to participate. Actually, I'm the token adjunct allowed to participate -- on the "proposal writing team". This is just the proposal that I'm allowed to work on, so far.

Any thoughts on Faculty Senates in general? Purposes? Pitfalls? Examples to study? Roles of Adjuncts?

This is good news, and a great question. I don’t have a worked-out general theory of faculty senates, but I’ll offer some thoughts and ask my wise and worldly readers to contribute theirs.

The first question I’d have is context. Is this a response to a particular event or crisis, or is it long-germinating? Is there already a larger “shared governance” structure, or has the college been run pretty much from the top down? If there is a larger structure, how would the faculty senate fit into it? If there isn’t, what jurisdiction would the senate claim?

Getting the jurisdictional boundaries right will matter tremendously. Generally speaking, senates are ‘advisory’ to college presidents. In the case of a college senate, they could advise on any number of things, ranging from curricular proposals to campus smoking bans to the location and structure of the graduation ceremony. However, if you have collective bargaining, the turf of the union(s) and the turf of the senate can’t overlap. That means that the senate can’t deal with salary or job issues, and the union(s) can’t deal with curricular issues.

If you have a faculty senate, as opposed to a college senate, its jurisdiction is narrower still. A faculty senate could still appropriately deal with curriculum, for example, but would have no special say over a campuswide smoking policy, since that would also affect staff. And it couldn’t deal with salary or staffing issues, since those are contractual.

That said, I’ve found value in the faculty-only deliberative body my campus established a few years ago. (Here it’s parallel to the general shared governance structure. Where the all-college body reports to the president, the faculty group reports to the academic vp.) The most valuable moments in it have come through conversations that faculty have with other faculty, in which they sometimes discover that ideas that make perfect sense from the perspective of, say, the history department would be disastrous for the chemistry department. Those conversations actually move substantive discussion forward, because at that point, the history department can’t just blame The Administration for being bullheaded. It has to address some very real concerns that it simply hadn’t considered. (In that case, the question involved the academic calendar and how to compensate for Monday holidays. A solution that made perfect sense for classroom-based courses would have wreaked havoc with the lab sciences.)

If the goal of the faculty senate proposal you’re dealing with is to address staffing levels and/or working conditions, it’s the wrong vehicle; you need a union for that. If the goal is to work on proposals that affect the entire campus, it’s the wrong vehicle; you need something that includes staff and, presumably, students. But if it’s to address specifically academic issues, it makes sense, and it’s probably a good idea to include adjuncts. Given that the adjuncts are central to the delivery of the academic programs, it’s reasonable to include them in those discussions.

If the college really doesn’t have a shared governance structure in any meaningful way, and this is the first foray into those waters, then the primary concern isn’t so much overlap as not shooting yourself in the foot. Careful attention to jurisdictional boundaries, and some upfront discussion of civility and the rules of the road, could help prevent the kind of crash-and-burn that discredits the idea for a decade. If the senate gets taken over by hotheads, it will quickly reduce itself to irrelevance. Cast your net wide, and recruit people known for being grownups. If the senate can gain credibility, it can gain influence.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add (or correct)? Anyone who has been involved in the recent creation of a faculty senate, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?

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

Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday Fragments

At dinner last night, TW saw a ladybug crawling on the wall. I was drafted to catch it and set it loose outside, but it fell to the floor and scurried under the rug. As I sat back down, I broke into song, to the tune of “Ladies’ Night.”

Oh it’s a ladybug
and it’s in the rug
Oh it’s a ladybug
Oh, what a bug
(lower) Oh, what a bug...


The Boy (deadpan): That was unnecessary.


A window into my world: let’s say you have a proposal for x dollars to increase the available hours for tutoring in the tutoring center, another proposal for x dollars to add supplemental instructors to some new courses, and yet another proposal for x dollars for the library. And you have 1x dollars to spend. On what basis do you make the decision?

This is where “evidence-based” or “data-driven” decisions are tough. I don’t know how to measure the bang for the buck of a few more tutors as opposed to more coverage at the reference desk as opposed to some more supplemental instructors. There’s no obvious value-added metric. And when the funding available is enough to do some but not all, then you have to base the decision on something.

On what basis would you make the call?


Note to Zooey Deschanel: there’s such a thing as too much mugging. I’m just sayin’.


Note to my fellow bloggers: the Penn State scandal is the kind of thing that brings out the worst in many bloggers. While some of the larger issues are clear -- most notably around the dangers of excessive inbreeding and length of service -- many of the particulars are still murky. It may be worth getting some clarity before writing things that won’t help.


At dinner last night, TB and TG drew up a crossword puzzle. TG did an “across” with six letters, and the clue was “tonight I’m gonna get …” The answer was “funky,” spelled “funccy.”

Bless her, that was how she thought that sentence ended. And well it should. Even if they don’t like my rendition of the ladybug song...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Professional Development for a New Dean

A new correspondent writes with a seemingly simple question:

What professional development do you recommend for a newly appointed community college Dean of Instruction?

I like this question.

First, some context. Typically, academic deans at community colleges don’t have a primary focus on fundraising. That’s different at many research universities, where deans are judged largely on their skills at raising money. So I’ll specify that I’m referring here to community colleges.

Unlike many mature industries, higher ed generally doesn’t do much to train administrators. Worse, much of the culture holds administration in a sort of low-level contempt. (Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty is a pretty unfiltered example.) That makes it difficult to have candid conversations on campus about the dilemmas you’ll face. It’s disappointing, but try not to take it personally.

For present purposes, I’ll divide opportunities into the external and the internal.

Starting with the external, my personal Bible has been C.K. Gunsalus’ invaluable The Academic Administrator’s Survival Guide. It’s specific, concrete, thoughtful, readable, and spot-on. It isn’t specific to community colleges, but most of the content works perfectly well in this setting.

Conferences can be hit-or-miss. I’ve had pretty good luck with the League for Innovation in the Community College, which is held annually in the Spring. The American Association of Community Colleges also has a Spring conference, though to be candid, that one tends to be a bit stuffier and less helpful. (That’s the one where presentations frequently start with “back in ‘92, when I assumed my first presidency...”) The AAC&U has been weirdly obtuse about community colleges over the years, which I consider a missed opportunity. Given community college funding levels, you’ll need to be selective about your travel, so I’d recommend starting with the League.

Oddly, the blogosphere remains fairly sparse. I started this blog partially out of frustration that it didn’t otherwise exist; since then, it’s still kind of an outlier. There’s plenty of discussion of administration in the academic blogosphere, but it’s usually from disgruntled faculty painting all deans as variations on Snidely Whiplash or Dr. Evil. Reality-based discussions have been few and far between. I’ve found it terribly helpful to crowdsource solutions to some of the dilemmas I face, and honestly, I’d welcome the company.

Internal resources are often discounted when we talk about professional development, but they shouldn’t be. You just have to be intentional in how you approach them.

As a newbie, you have a short-term license to ask obvious and/or stupid questions. Use it. For the next few months, you’ll get a free pass when you ask the questions to which everyone thinks they know the answers. That can be helpful, since you’ll probably find that some of the assumed answers are, in fact, wrong. People generally don’t like looking stupid, and academics are especially sensitive to that, so it’s not unusual for folks to go on indefinitely without asking for clarity, even when they really don’t know what’s happening. For the next few months, ask away. Not only will you pick up all kinds of things, but you’ll also bring some much-desired clarity to everyone else in the room.

If your college has a faculty union -- or, like many colleges, multiple unions for different employee classifications -- then you’ll need to spend some quality time with the contract(s). If you’re in a nonunion setting, I’d advise doing something similar with the employee handbook. I was surprised at how many of the initial questions I got started with “what’s the procedure for...?” When you hit ambiguities, contradictions, or passages that simply defy understanding, ask around. A little time spent upfront can save a whole lot of time in grievances or litigation later.

If your college doesn’t have a forum specific to faculty, in which faculty can discuss matters of concern to them, start one. Attend regularly, and listen far more than you talk. It won’t always be fun, but you’ll learn quite a bit about how the college looks from different angles, and you’ll send a message by your actions that you’re actually concerned and paying attention. That matters.

Depending on location, your state or region may have regular meetings of your counterparts from neighboring colleges. I’ve found that particularly helpful, since my state has some, uh, let’s go with ‘quirks.’ Emails, phone calls, and regular meetings with my counterparts from elsewhere in the state have helped me get historical perspective and some useful how-to’s. If you’re willing to ask questions and actually listen to answers, you can pick up quite a bit.

Finally, respect the fact that you’re human. There will be people on campus who will set out to dehumanize you; I’ve seen good people fall into that trap. Do what you need to do to stay sane. Have a life outside of the college, and keep good boundaries. (For example, be aware that if you’re socializing with people who report to you, they still report to you; any interaction is necessarily layered at best. Old friends are crucial.) My kids have been incredibly helpful in that, since they neither know nor care what I did all day; to them, tonight’s Lego League meeting is far more important than anything that went on on campus. And in an important way, they’re right.

Good luck, and congratulations on the new job! I hope you’re able to wear it well.

Wise and worldly readers, do you have any suggestions for a new dean?

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

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Academic Advising

Quick, what’s the most vexing aspect of academic advising at a community college?

a. turnover of students and adjunct faculty
b. the range of preferences that different transfer-destination schools have for electives
c. the confusion of advising with scheduling
d. shifting and/or inchoate student preferences
e. all of the above

Yup, it’s e. And it makes a conceptually-simple process maddeningly difficult.

In a perfect world, students who had clear ambitions would have sustained, focused conversations with professors who would help them understand how to get there from here. And that actually happens to a remarkable extent.

But circumstances conspire to make things complicated.

Sheer numbers are a major issue. Good advising is relatively personalized, but it’s hard to do that with a fifteen-credit teaching load and near-record enrollments. State finances being what they are, our adjunct percentage is higher than I’d like, and there’s always some churn in the ranks. That churn makes it harder for students to latch on to a particular professor. Some adjuncts stick around for years, of course, and become go-to people for particular programs, but with the pay being what it is, any stability we get there is really a bonus.

Students bring issues of their own, of course. Every time a student changes majors, a new round of advising is necessary, and sometimes a new advisor. Given the number of students who show up with no clear idea of what they want to study, some churn is built into the system. Since it takes time to build rapport and trust with an advisor, each switch carries a cost. That’s pretty much a cost of doing business, of course, but it does make it harder to provide continuity and a comfort level for the student.

The one that bugs me the most is the surprising variation of preferences among transfer-destination schools. This branch of the state college system wants its social work majors to take these two history courses, but that branch of the same system wants them to take two different ones. Multiply that by many more colleges and many more programs, and just keeping track of it all is a challenge. (Then add the times that the destination schools change their minds -- usually as the result of a key personnel change -- and don’t bother to tell us. Even good people get stabby when that happens.) A perfectly well-meaning advisor could inadvertently steer a student towards a course that won’t transfer, just because some new department chair at compass direction state has a different preference.

We try to work around that with articulation agreements, with varying degrees of success. But there’s a limit to the predictability you can build into a system with so many moving parts, each with its own imperatives. That’s especially true with private colleges, since they can pretty much do what they want. And even articulation agreements need regular maintenance as curricula evolve.

The tough nut to crack on campus is the conflation of advising with scheduling. It’s an easy trap to fall into. “History of Etruscan Snoods would suit you.” “But that’s full!” “Okay, let’s see what else there is...” Before long, you’re spending much more time looking for open seats than actually discussing substance. That’s especially true later in the registration periods, when the most popular timeslots and classes are already taken.

I really don’t know how to solve this one. With finite seats, it seems like a fact of life. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that this is when some of the regrettable decisions get made.

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those at community colleges -- have you found or seen a reasonably elegant, sustainable, affordable way to do academic advisement well, given all of these moving parts?

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Support and Context

“I don’t really miss God, but I sure miss Santa Claus.” -- Hole

What does it mean to “support” a program?

I’m running into that question headfirst these days, since it’s time to review proposed budgets for next year. And I’m inundated with proposals for increases of 40 percent, 80 percent, and more. This in a context of flat-to-sliding enrollments and flat state aid.

I don’t think any of the requests are ridiculous, on their own terms. In many cases, they make perfect sense if you look at the one department in isolation. Even where they’re a little ambitious, that’s all they are; I haven’t seen any that I would call absurd or corrupt.

What struck me -- other than the magnitude of some of the numbers -- was the different sense of context.

From a department’s perspective, the relevant context is temporal. “We’ve been waiting for this position for years. We’ve been very patient. Now it’s time to support us.” (Or, more annoyingly, “we fought for this position.”) In some cases, there are references to positions lost years ago, with the implication that they’re somehow still there. The story told is of patience exhausted, combined with a not-subtle threat of political hell if their request is denied.

From my perspective, the relevant context is spatial -- I have to look across the departments. Given flat funding overall, a massive increase for department A can only come at the expense of a massive cut for department B. (The administration already gave at the office; we reorganized to reduce the number of deans first.) The temporal argument -- “we’ve been waiting” -- does nothing to change that. And I’ve literally never -- not once -- seen a budgetary proposal from a department that suggested another department to cut to pay for it. That has never happened, and I’m not holding my breath.

When I deny many of the requests, which the laws of mathematics dictate I have to, some of the departments will accuse me of not “supporting” them. And that’s where I take issue.

Support can refer to money, obviously. At some level, it has to. But it can also refer to truth-telling and empowerment.

Aristotle noted that the opposite of a friend is not an enemy, but a flatterer. That’s because both friends and enemies can bring out your strengths -- what he called “virtues” -- but a flatterer brings out your weaknesses. By telling you what you want to hear, rather than what you need to hear, the flatterer leaves you exposed to your own shortcomings.

In that light, I’m concerned that giving false hope and hollow promises is worse than saying no.
The problem is that some people like being flattered.

I’m hoping to shift the dynamic over time from “how much more can we get?” to “what are we actually trying to do?” I agree that more money would be great, and I vote accordingly, but any clearsighted analysis would have to conclude that waiting for the money fairy is a losing strategy. In the absence of the money fairy, we can stamp our feet and call each other names, or we can come to grips with the reality of the situation. In the second approach lies hope for actual progress.

And that’s where my definition of support comes in. I’m trying to nudge the campus culture. My theory is that we’ll make better decisions for the college as a whole if constraints are acknowledged as real, rather than simply ascribed to the sinister motives of individual administrators. Support, in this case, means support for coming to grips with reality. The default argument that “we’re already doing what’s best, so just write us ever-larger checks” just isn’t sustainable anymore.

Success would look something like this: noticing that it can’t do everything it wants to do with the budget it has, but also noticing that there aren’t exactly spare bags of cash lying around, a department proposes a small study of innovations taking place at comparable colleges. It suggests an experiment or two to try to improve student outcomes. And the support it looks for is reassurance that if the first (or second) pilot project doesn’t work, it won’t be punished; failure will be safe. Experimentation will be rewarded, and some failed experimentation will be acknowledged as a cost of doing business.

Whether or not the money fairy will eventually return when the Great Recession finally fades away, we’ll be in better shape if we’ve spent the intervening time honing our strengths. It’s a more sustainable strategy over time, and, in my mind, a more ethical one. But first we have to get past the idea that saying no to a 40 percent increase means that The Administration doesn’t support the faculty. Sometimes support means still being there after the fantasy of Santa has gone away.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Grading and Choosing

You know that feeling when you’ve suspected something for a long time but couldn’t prove it, and then someone proves it for you?

This article had that effect. It’s about how student attrition in STEM majors is actually higher in more selective institutions than in less selective ones. It brought back vivid memories of my days at Snooty Liberal Arts College, and even of late high school.

The article is based on a study by the College Board that suggests that grading is substantially harder in STEM majors than in most others, so students who don’t immediately hit it out of the park in STEM classes tend to gravitate towards the more-welcoming liberal arts and business classes. But that tends to be less true at less selective colleges, oddly enough.

I like it a lot because it explains a number of disconnected impressions I’ve picked up over the years. For example, in my student days, I recall noticing that even though the STEM classes (we didn’t use that term then, but still...) were “harder,” they also had much flatter grade distributions. It was easier to pass a history class than a chemistry class, but easier to get an A in chemistry than in history. The history classes had bell-ish curves; the STEM classes had flat lines. They were easier to fail and easier to ace; the “squishier” subjects were the land of B’s and C’s. Even in my wheelhouse, I was the master of the A-minus; full A’s were basically unicorns. In physics and chemistry, the top students finished with GPA’s above 4.

So saying one is “easier” is kind of misleading. It’s easier to pass, yes, but harder to really nail.

(One underappreciated variable, I think, is the level of consensus in the field. As far as I know, there’s remarkably little controversy in the scientific community -- I’m open to correction on this -- about the material that gets taught in the first couple years of the undergraduate major. That’s certainly not true in the humanities and social sciences. When consensus is missing, it’s harder to definitively nail a subject.)

Students noticed. Those who didn’t much care what their degree was in, as long as it had the SLAC name on it, clustered into English or history. (SLAC didn’t have a business major.) Those who cared strongly about their own “squishy” specialties had the mixed blessing of a bunch of classmates who had taken the courses as second choices. The idea -- accepted as gospel by all -- was that you were either a science person or you were not. If you were, you stuck with it and did great; if you weren’t, you did something else.

(This was made explicit in Organic Chemistry, which was pitched unapologetically as the pre-med weedout course. Difficulty wasn’t a bug; it was a feature. The idea was to winnow the herd, and to leave only the truly worthy still standing.)

In the cc world as I’ve experienced it, that assumption isn’t widely held. Here the idea is that the community (broadly defined) needs more STEM majors, and it’s our job to make that possible. Rather than weeding out, the goal is to bring people in.

If you start with that assumption, then of course your approach will change.

It isn’t just about easier grading. It’s about the purpose of a given class, and therefore the approach to it.

If I were appointed guru of American higher ed, one of the edicts I would issue would be that theory should be taught inductively. It rarely is, which, I’m convinced, is why so many undergrads spit the bit. (This is probably why I bombed geometry, but never mind that.)

Theory is easiest to learn when there’s a context for it. When you know why you need to know something, you’re much more likely to get it. That’s partly a function of motivation, but it’s also a trick of memory. A theorem derived on a board by someone with his back to you is far less memorable than something that comes with the force of “eureka!,” solving a problem with which you’re engaged.

At its base, I suspect, theory is based on pattern recognition. And pattern recognition is easiest when you’ve seen a whole bunch of examples. If you can get a student to the point at which a theory comes as a solution, rather than as an edict, you’ve won. And if you can get students to test theories against each other, you’re raising the cognitive level of what they’re doing and engaging them much more fully.

Instead, science is too often taught from theory to application. Worse, in the selective settings, it’s taught with a clear goal of thinning the herd. At least at the community college level, we don’t consider ourselves to have failed if a significant portion of a chemistry class does well. At this level, we actually pay attention to the teaching itself. That’s not to deny that there’s much more work to be done -- no argument there -- but at least we’re attacking the right problem. The goal shouldn’t be to keep science pure by keeping the great unwashed out of the lab; it should be to keep science accessible by forcing it to be true to its radically democratic roots. Data are no respecters of rank.

If we’d like to direct more of our bright young minds into STEM fields -- a goal I find absolutely worthy -- the elites may actually have something to learn from the community colleges. Hey, Harvard: you’re welcome.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Notes from an Emergency

We were lucky. We were only without power and heat for five days.

You'd be surprised just how quickly a house can lose heat. By the second day, we were in blankets from about five o'clock on. The fireplace rendered one room almost okay, but that meant that the four of us were stuck together in a dark and still-cold room every night with absolutely nothing to do. It was too dark to read, and all of the electronic gadgetry ran out of juice by the second day.

For the benefit of those who haven't been through something like that, and before I forget, a few notes to share.

-- For lack of other options, we got our information from local radio. On the second night, I remember noticing that the radio took on an apocalyptic tone. The patter was mostly about gas stations that actually had gas available – in a blackout, there's no electricity to work the pumps – and occasionally about ATM's that actually worked. Of course, with everyone getting the same tips at the same time, the effort was largely self-defeating. I drove past a gas line about 15 cars deep at one point. It felt like science fiction.

-- People with wells and septic systems were really in a tough spot. For them, no electricity means no water.

-- Even in a major blackout, there will be weird, isolated oases of power. In our town, the one oasis was a single block with one takeout pizza place. The guy who owned it said the phone never stopped ringing.

-- If you live in a town that does robo-calls for public emergencies, make sure they have your cell number. We get our phone service with our cable and internet, so when they went, it went. This rendered the robo-calls entirely useless.

-- The Girl was livid about not being able to go trick-or-treating. With lights out and wires down everywhere – some of which could be live – it just wasn't safe. But try explaining that to a seven-year-old with a cool costume and visions of fun size Snickers.

-- This weekend really made vivid the limits of the cloud, and of connectivity generally. It’s great, as long as you have electricity and a connection. Without those, you have nothing. Stores took only cash, since they couldn’t process credit card transactions. A family friend who has a rotary phone (!) was more connected than we were. If we’re serious about moving more systems online, we’d better make darn sure we have a reliable grid. Without some old technical holdovers, we would have been completely helpless.

-- The bright side, to the extent there was one, was plenty of sleep for the first couple of nights. But even that hit diminishing returns; after a couple of days of going to bed early, there just wasn’t much sleep to be had.

-- On campus, most of the talk upon returning was of who had power, and who didn’t yet. The sheer randomness of it was striking; you really couldn’t discern a pattern. Even within a given town, houses one street apart might be two days apart in the restoration of power. There’s something humbling in that -- you couldn’t buy your way out of chaos -- and also something democratic. But I prefer my democracy with indoor heat, thank you very much.

-- I usually think of online courses as immune to snow days, and they usually are. But when the power lines are down, so are the online courses. (Even when the servers come up, many of the instructors still lacked power or connectivity at home.) And I had to chuckle at the initiative of the student who called in to ask if he still had to do his homework for his online class when the campus was closed.

-- Make sure your phone trees are up-to-date, and have both home and cell numbers. When our phone finally got reconnected, we had 25 (!) voicemails, most of them relatively urgent and several days old. There was just no way of knowing.

We’re back, finally. No word yet on alternative trick-or-treating dates, but The Girl won’t let it slide. It’ll take more than a freakishly powerful storm to knock her down. She will have her Snickers, and that will be that.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Trading Papers

(Sorry for the unscheduled down time. Mother Nature decided to knock out electricity for five days, just for the sheer fun of it. I wrote this just before the power went out.)

What if Professors Smith and Jones swapped papers for a semester? I’d be intrigued to hear from anyone who has actually tried this.

Anyone who has taught courses in which grading relies on judgment knows the delicate balance of both encouraging and judging students. You try to set the student up to succeed, but the result is dreadful; now you have to be the bearer of bad news. Since students don’t always understand the basis of the judgment, especially in the heat of embarrassment, it’s easy for them to default to some not-very-flattering assumptions about the instructor. Suddenly, you’ve got a psychologically fraught situation that does not lend itself to good teaching.

So a thought: what if Professors Smith and Jones traded papers for a semester? Obviously, I’m assuming that they’re teaching different sections of the same course, with enrollments close enough to equal that their workloads would not meaningfully change. If I grade your 25 papers and you grade my 25 papers, the workload adjustment is pretty much a wash.

The upside, I think, would be that the role of ‘coach’ and the role of ‘judge’ would be clearly separated. Now it’s not “try to psych out the teacher;” it’s “you and me against the guy behind the curtain.” With the roles more clearly demarcated, the instructor would be free to position herself as the student’s ally, which, in fact, she is.

It could conceivably make for more consistent grading, too. It’s easier to be objective when you don’t know the student. (At least, it’s less likely that personal likes and dislikes will enter into the judgment unconsciously.)

The major objections I’ve heard have been twofold, but neither strikes me as terribly compelling.

The first is the task of coordination. Yes, there would have to be some planning and communication between the instructors to keep things aligned. But this strikes me as the kind of thing that gets less true as you do it more. The first time out, I’d guess that the costs of coordination would be non-trivial, but by the fourth or fifth, they should be pretty minor.

The second is that the instructor would not get as complete a picture of student performance as she would if she read the papers herself.

There’s some truth to that, though it doesn’t strike me as a deal-breaker. I’m thinking that in a class with, say, four papers over the course of the semester, maybe the swap occurs in the final two. The professor gets to prep the students for the objective, outside judge. You’d still get a sense of who was who, but having that outside person come in later could help with the psychological dynamics of the class. That would be especially true if the grades on the later papers counted more heavily.

As with so many back-of-the-envelope ideas, the devil is in the details. So I’d like to hear from any of my wise and worldly readers who have actually tried this or something like it. Did it help? Did it harm? Is there a trick to getting it right?