Monday, April 30, 2012

Pure Parental Exhaustion

We need live-in help.

Late Spring is always difficult.  It’s the end of the academic year, so that brings with it the Revenge of the Rubber Chicken Circuit -- a cascading series of evening events calculated specifically to defeat family time.  Each event is worthwhile in its own right, of course, but the sheer number of them becomes wearing.  At this morning’s staff meeting, it took several minutes just to find one day without an external conflict; by the end, we were calling out dates like auctioneers calling out bids.  We found one in early June.

It’s hiring season, so the interviews are piling up.  That’s great, and I’m happy to be in that position, but you can’t exactly coast through interviewing candidates.  As final exams loom, faculty and students have the shortest fuses of the year, with predictable results.  This is when the grading emergencies hit, the surprise resignations stream in, and the fiscal year whimpers to a close with everyone trying to find juuuust a little bit more.

The Boy has baseball, which has practices two nights a week.  The Girl has softball, which has practices two other nights a week.  They start their games this weekend.  Naturally, the games don’t follow the same schedule as the practices.  They both have music lessons once a week (guitar and piano, respectively).  She has her first communion on Saturday; family is coming from out of state.  She has communion rehearsals Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday nights this week.  He has a science fair on Thursday, for which he has been working on his project -- a solar room heater --  for the past two weeks.  He won his class spelling bee, so he represents his class at the townwide spelling bee Friday night.

The Wife is coordinating a 5k run to raise money for The Girl’s school, to help offset the latest round of budget cuts.  The school has never done a 5k before, so she has had to make it up as she has gone along.  She has organized a team of volunteers -- some runners, some not -- and the team meets two nights a week.  She also coordinates logistics and publicity for the run, which is in a couple of weeks.  Since nobody in the group has organized a run before, they’re inventing everything as they go along.  As is usual in suburban politics, plenty of people say “yes” and then don’t do anything.

I submitted the book manuscript last week.

The nightly homework ritual is getting worse.  The Boy has his statewide standardized test this month -- thanks, President Bush! -- so the school is ramping everything up in preparation.  He spends thirty to sixty minutes a night doing math homework, all of which I have to check.  (Even worse, much of it is geometry.  Geometry and I are not friends.)  He had an alarming amount of homework over his spring break -- I don’t remember that happening in fifth grade -- and is doing some sort of project just about every night.  Of course, most of them require materials that require errands.  Why teachers do that, I have no clue, but they do.  

If you do the math, you’ll quickly find that the number of committed nights per week exceeds the number of nights in a week.  That means daily coordination of what amounts to the parental shuttle service.  We usually have at least two externals per night, but this week it’s up to four.  

Individually, each component of the schedule is worthwhile.  But taken together, it’s madness.

I know I should be counting my blessings.  I will, as soon as there’s a free day.  Mid-June looks possible...

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Class Dismissed

Half of new bachelor’s degree grads are either unemployed or underemployed, according to the Associated Press.  

The market isn’t ready to absorb them.  Specifically,

According to government projections released last month, only three of the 30 occupations with the largest projected number of job openings by 2020 will require a bachelor's degree or higher to fill the position — teachers, college professors and accountants. Most job openings are in professions such as retail sales, fast food and truck driving, jobs which aren't easily replaced by computers.

I had to smile at “college professors” making the list.  When I entered graduate school during the first Bush administration, we were told that a great wave of faculty retirements was on the horizon, and that we’d be in high demand be the time we got out.  We all know how that played out.  It’s entirely possible that college professor positions will open in great numbers, but only if you fail to differentiate between adjunct and full-time positions.  And having adjunct positions available hardly gets around the “underemployment” issue.

At the associate’s level, similar dynamics are playing out.  For students who don’t intend to transfer for the four year degree, the market isn’t what it used to be.  (The one partial exception is allied health, such as nursing.  And even that isn’t a sure thing.)  Many of the skilled trades took a beating when the construction market collapsed in 2008, and they’re yet to recover.  (We’re pretty sure that’s why so many of the “green jobs” have yet to materialize: they’re based on construction.)  Generic “business” degrees don’t do much, and generic liberal arts degrees don’t, either, unless you transfer.

In my darker moments, I sometimes wonder if the root of the problem with public higher education in America is that it was designed to create and support a massive middle class.  And we’ve tacitly decided as a society that a massive middle class is not a priority.  We’re trying to fulfill a mission that the country has largely abandoned.  When the goal of a prosperous middle class was tacitly dismissed, dominos started to fall.  

The meme making the rounds last week was the announcement that outstanding student loan debt in America reached a trillion dollars.  That’s not a function of community college tuition, obviously, but it indicates that what we’re preparing students for, and what the economy wants them for, don’t align.

Although that’s presented as a failing of colleges, it mostly isn’t.  (One could argue about the wisdom of getting a terminal bachelor’s degree in English at Nothing Special Private College, but that’s ultimately marginal.)  It’s mostly a failing of the larger economy, of our politics, and of our priorities.  The “starve the beast” strategy has been so effective that it’s easy to forget that as recently as 2000, we were actually paying down the national debt.  Austerity is a choice.

None of which is terribly helpful if you’re twenty-two and graduating with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and no immediate prospects for a job that will make enough to pay both rent and loan payments.  

The new economy is sometimes presented as an issue of intergenerational justice, with the outsize poverty of the young subsidizing the outsize wealth of the old.  That’s true as far as it goes, but it ignores a larger issue.  As the boomers retire and X’ers and Y’s fill the workforce, they’ll either have the skills to grow the economy, or not.  They won’t develop those skills sitting on the sidelines.  In the absence of growth, prospects for boomers’ retirements are grim, let alone the folks who come after them.  According to the most recent report on social security, the system will go broke the year I turn 65.  Thanks, guys.  If we want to get things moving, we need to integrate the young into the productive workforce ASAP.

College still passes the “I’d send my kid” test.  I fully intend to send mine.  As insurance policies go, it’s weaker than it once was, but it still beats most of the alternatives.  I just hope that as a society, we don’t make the mistake of blaming colleges for preparing students for jobs that aren’t there, when we made the choice to let those jobs dry up.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

First Things First

We have a grant-funded program designed to get students with severe educational deficits into basic skills programs, and then into “contextualized” remediation that leads into short-term employable certificates.  The idea is to help folks who would normally be consigned to the economic margins to become employable at higher, if still fairly modest, levels.  

The concept is good, broadly speaking.  And it’s easy enough to measure success: did students wind up with better-paying jobs, or not?  If students get jobs, the theory goes, then we’re doing something right; if they don’t, we aren’t.  

But we’ve hit a snag.  And it’s not just the economy and the general lack of hiring, as relevant as those are.

How do you measure the success of a job training program when many of the students aren’t legally eligible to work in America?

Until recently, this wasn’t much of a problem for us; those students couldn’t get financial aid, so most of them didn’t enroll.  But with the idea of “bridging” from community-based programs to the college, we’re suddenly confronted with large numbers of students in those programs who don’t have citizenship or documentation.

If they move through unencumbered, they’ll hit an employment wall upon graduation, and count as program failure.  If they don’t make it through, they count as attrition and count as program failure.


Heads we lose, and tails we lose.  And so do the students.

Heartbreakingly, this is not a small number of people we’re talking about.  The community-based programs have long waiting lists of people who want to learn English and work.  You know that bumper sticker that says “Welcome to America, now learn English?”  That’s exactly what they’re trying to do.  And it’s exactly the kind of service that community colleges should be doing.

In a rational world, this would be the kind of program to expand.  Instead, we’re wringing our hands about the economy while preventing people who are here from becoming economically productive.

One could argue, of course, that illegal immigrants are not the proper targets of education.  But that seems like arguing that teenagers shouldn’t be impulsive or rich people shouldn’t be selfish; it may make sense in the abstract, but the facts on the ground simply are what they are.  And I’d much, much, much rather see people move into the aboveground economy and provide for their kids than languish on the margins, on the waitlists of programs that would be blackballed for serving them.

At base, this shouldn’t be a college problem.  But since our politics seem to insist on reducing community colleges to job placement centers, this is the direction of things.  

Can you imagine how much economic activity -- tax revenue, if you prefer -- would be unleashed if we passed the DREAM act, and allowed illegal immigrants to become legal by getting college degrees or serving honorably in the military?  People could come in from the cold.  They could move into the aboveground economy, thereby reducing the spoils for the bottom-feeding predators out there.  They’d learn English, get jobs, pay taxes, and raise their kids in more stable environments.  The payoff would play out over generations.

Instead, we worry about a lack of economic growth, the things that desperate people do when they’re desperate, and whether the local community college’s job placement statistics are good.

They won’t be as good as they should be, no matter how brilliantly we teach, if nobody can hire the students.  First things first.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Mandatory Monogamy for Adjuncts?

This story in IHE generated quite the firestorm yesterday, and for good reason.  Apparently, the Education School at the University of Southern California has decided to ban certain adjuncts from teaching at any other college or university as a condition of employment.

The explanation offered by the university -- that it wants someone working full-time in the field -- makes it sound a little less bad, though presumably if that was what they meant, it would have been easy enough to say so.  (I’m no fan of discrimination against the unemployed, either, but at least that would have been easier to defend in this context.)

The closest thing I’ve seen to something like this that made any sense to me was bans on conflicts of interest or double-booking.  For example, if a professor has a 2:00 class on Tuesdays at my college, he can’t also accept a 2:00 class on Tuesdays someplace else.  If he’s someplace else on Wednesdays, it’s really none of my business.  They can moonlight, but moonlighting can’t be an excuse for missing work.  That, I can defend.

But this goes far beyond that.  In exchange for part-time money and no benefits, the adjunct is being banned from teaching anyplace else.

In this case, I have to agree with the New Faculty Majority.  This is just slimy.

I can’t even imagine trying to enforce it.  Honestly, I don’t know which of the full-time faculty are teaching adjunct courses elsewhere, though I’m pretty sure it’s non-zero.  On their own time, faculty can do what adults can do.  If they choose to teach courses elsewhere, I don’t see how that’s different than some of them who do remodeling or landscaping work in the summer.  

As bad as this ad is on its face, any attempt at enforcement would be worse.  If this kind of thing became common practice, would the university be required to act on every report?  If it enforced selectively, I could just see the discrimination lawsuits bubbling up.  And if they acted only on tips, then I could imagine all manner of shady ethical areas in which somebody agreed not to rat somebody else out, if it were made worth their while.  Spin it out over more time and more people, and it just gets worse.

If this became common practice, it would further reinforce the idea -- toxic, to my mind -- that the academic life is so special that the normal rules of civilized society don’t apply to it.  If I hire someone part-time, she’s only accountable for that time; what else she does is her business.  

The university would likely respond that this is an overreaction, and that they merely meant that they wanted someone who’s in the field full-time now.  Even there, though, the whiff of discrimination against the unemployed doesn’t sit right.  

From a public policy perspective, the only way that we’ll make a meaningful dent in the unemployment numbers is...wait for it..for the unemployed to get jobs.  (Technically, we could just call them “discouraged” and write them off, but that feels like cheating.)  That’ll only happen if employers don’t regard getting hit by the Great Recession -- or, in the case of higher education, a fundamentally unsustainable economic model -- as a mortal sin.  

No, thanks.  Even if USC didn’t really think through how this would sound -- my guess -- it’s offensive enough that folks need to make some noise.  This is not how it’s done.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

One Course at a Time

A few years ago, my college started a January intersession in which students take a single course for two weeks.  It was a runaway hit; enrollments have grown every year, course completion rates have hovered around 90 -- off the charts by community college standards -- and faculty feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

So now we’re starting to imagine what it would look like if we could break up the Fall and Spring semesters into smaller units: maybe a couple of seven-week terms in each, or, in the most radical version, five three-week sessions in which students take one course at a time.

The idea is still very much in the “what if...” stage.  I’m hoping that my wise and worldly readers can help me think this through.  (It will go to local faculty, too, of course; I just don’t want to present them with anything half-baked.)

The appeal, from the institutional perspective, is that students seem to do better when they have fewer balls to juggle at any given time.  There’s something to be said for the “total immersion” model of a course, just as there is for a language.  (For language courses, it’s a slam dunk.)  The opportunity to lose yourself in a single class -- whether for faculty or for students -- is enticing.  If the class meets several hours per day for three weeks, and it’s the only class you’re taking, then it’s possible to build a day-to-day continuity that’s much harder when the class is broken into 45 50-minute periods over four months.

This approach could also work better for students who have to miss a few weeks.  They could just drop one class and be done with it; the others would be unaffected.  Students who start late could skip the first several weeks, for example.  It would also be easier -- potentially -- to keep the same schedule four or five days per week, which would be of real value to students with jobs and/or children.  It’s much easier to juggle life circumstances when classes don’t vary from Monday to Tuesday.

It has its downsides, of course.  Science labs could be a real challenge, at least on a large scale.  I’m not sure how it would work for courses that require the material to seep in slowly, like philosophy or literature.  The financial aid implications could be a headache, and I’m pretty sure we could crash the ERP system in short order if we weren’t careful.

But it’s hard to ignore evidence on the ground.  When students take fifteen weeks to do a class, the completion rates are lower than when they take two or three weeks.  Treating classes as projects seems to work for them.

Obviously, we’d have to work through any contractual issues beforehand, but there’s no principled reason that couldn’t happen.

Even if we split the difference and went to a variation on a quarter system -- split each semester into two seven-week halves, and have students take just two or three classes at a time -- I’d expect to see at least some gains.  It’s easier to manage two or three projects than to manage five.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you tried something like this?  Are they any gains or pitfalls that you didn’t expect, or that aren’t obvious from the outside?  

Monday, April 23, 2012

Ask the Administrator: Changing Grades

A regular correspondent writes:

My state wants cc administators to be able to change grades if faculty demonstrate "error" or "unfairness".  This is in a context where some of my colleagues are suspended because students complained that they "embarrassed me in front if the class" or "were mean".   To be fair this information comes to me via the union so maybe that's their spin. All the same I don't know if the admin has our back.  My fear is the students feel empowered to complain and if they get results they'll just do it more and more.
I'd be ok with colleagues judging my grading, but honestly what does an administrator know about grading the specialized field I teach in?  They could catch clerical errors in my spreadsheet, but if that was the issue I'd obviously change the grade (who wouldn't?).  The only possible way they could judge is if I made an insanely specific metric for all student work. I know metrics are something admins like anyway, but if my skill set could be reduced to a metric they could hire anyone to do my job.
Ultimately if my grades can be reversed by someone not qualified in my field, and students are getting traction getting profs suspended and grades changed I'll just have an incentive to give As and Bs.

My college uses a standard similar to that now.  Happily, it has not resulted in any of the doomsday scenarios you suggest, although your mileage may vary.

Interpretation is the key.  “Error” here is taken to refer to computation or data entry mistakes.  The reason that administrators need the ability to use that is that sometimes faculty quit or become otherwise unavailable (for health reasons, say) and can’t be reached to make the change.  If the professor is the only one capable of changing a grade, and the professor can’t be reached, then the grade is stuck.  That hardly seems fair to the student.  Designating someone with the authority to correct a mistake if the professor can’t be reached is just good contingency planning.

“Unfairness” -- we use a similar term -- is interpreted here to mean “discrimination.”  If a different standard was applied to one set of students than to the rest, then there’s a reason to make a change.  That’s different from being tough across the board, or passing judgment on the substance of what’s being done.  In practice, “unfairness” might apply to a professor who simply refused to accommodate a student with a documented disability.  

While it’s true that someone could apply more elastic interpretations to those terms -- particularly “unfairness” -- it’s almost certainly better to have rules than not to have rules.  In the absence of rules, one of two things will happen.  Either grades will never get changed -- and students will simply be stuck with whatever mistakes were made -- or they’ll get changed on a case-by-case basis, which virtually guarantees inconsistency.  I can attest that from this side of the desk, it’s much easier to turn away a student who complains that professor so-and-so was “unfair” when all she can muster in support of that is a general sense of being underappreciated.  

My suggestion would be to try to clarify -- preferably in writing -- the meanings of the terms.  

If the real issue is mistrust of the administration, you might want to propose some sort of faculty committee charged with passing judgment on grade appeals.  Then that committee could use the clarified standards as its basis for judgment.  You’d still have the issue of non-experts passing judgment, since nobody is an expert in every field, but the standards as interpreted here don’t require expertise.  

I fully agree that having grades changed just to keep students happy is both unethical and profoundly demoralized.  But the alternative is not to just throw out grade changes altogether.  It’s to bring some consistency to the process.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Have you seen a better way to handle grade changes when the original professor can’t be reached?

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

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Placing Thousands of Students Quickly

How do you know if a student needs remediation?

It isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.  

Most community colleges require entering students to take standardized placement tests in math and English.  If the student scores below a certain cutoff, s/he is shunted into developmental courses.  Depending on how far below the cutoff she scores, she may be shunted into two or three semesters’ worth of developmental coursework, nearly doubling the anticipated time to graduation.  (Of course, graduation rates of students who start out at the lowest levels of developmental coursework are far lower than students who don’t.)  

In many cases, the students are referred directly to testing upon initial admission, with no opportunity to review for the test.  My college, like many, uses a test mandated by the state, so we don’t have the option of changing it or disregarding it.  

It’s frustrating.  Last year, when we started looking at restructuring (shortening) the developmental math sequence, one math professor here looked at student performance in existing developmental classes and compared it with placement test results.  He found no correlation.  In other words, the test scores offered absolutely no predictive value.

Yet we’re still required to use them.

It’s easy to condemn placement tests.  They carry all of the flaws of any high-stakes standardized test, and they don’t even help in the aggregate.  

But condemning the tests doesn’t solve the underlying problem.  When you have thousands of new students showing up in a compressed timeframe, ranging in age from fresh out of high school to retirement, and you need to place them all quickly, what do you do?

Small, selective places have the option of doing granular reviews of high school grades, and/or of simply turning away students who aren’t prepared to jump right in to college level math.  That’s fine for them, but it doesn’t work for a larger, open-admissions setting.  We don’t have the staffing to do that, and even if we did, it’s not clear that it would make sense for older students.  (I last took advanced math in the 1980’s.  Drop an exam from that class in front of me now, cold, and I wouldn’t have a clue what to do.)  

Alternately, we could allow students to select their own classes.  (There are times when I lean this way myself.)  The danger there, though, is that students will badly overestimate their own abilities and quickly wash out of college-level classes.  In the meantime, though, they will have taken seats that could have gone to students who might have succeeded.  The libertarian ideal of “let them fail” falsely assumes that the cost of failure accrues only to the student; unfortunately, the student who took up a seat deprived another student of that seat.  Given a scarcity of seats, we have a responsibility to allocate them as wisely as we can.  (One could also argue that “let them fail” represents a waste of financial aid, which is largely tax-funded.)  

There’s also the annoying political reality that “let them fail” would lead, in the short term, to even higher attrition rates.  In an era in which attrition is assumed to be the college’s fault, that would amount to institutional suicide.

In the short term, the easiest and most prudent approach is probably the small-bore solution of finding a test that actually tells you something, preferably with students getting an opportunity to review ahead of time.  The more radical solutions of embedded remediation or just letting them fail would either take years to develop, as in the former, or require a political sea change, as in the latter.  

Is there a better way?  Wise and worldly readers, have you seen (or come up with) a reasonably fast and efficient way to place thousands of students at the right level in a short time?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Friday Finds

If you haven’t seen this interview with Jane Wellman, it’s well worth a read.  She’s an expert on the drivers of college costs, and she was the founding director of the Delta Cost Project.  (She’s also funny as hell in a sardonic, I’ve-had-toothaches-scarier-than-you way.)  She makes several points that I wish we could all just stipulate before having any more conversations about college costs: that every new dollar of tuition goes directly to health insurance costs; that community colleges are routinely shafted in funding formulae and desperately need substantial and permanent increases in operating subsidies; and that the cost of prisons is one of the primary drains on state budgets.  (Yes, I also liked her recognition that the “administrative bloat” complains are symbolic, rather than serious; if you redistributed the money, it would be a drop in the bucket.)  Accepting those truths wouldn’t necessarily lead to a single policy outcome, but it would rule out some truly stupid and destructive ones.  That would help.  Even just recognizing that higher education’s funding issues are inextricably connected to health care and prisons would be a tremendous improvement.


The California death spiral continues.  Now that the state has decided that Santa Monica College’s attempt at self-preservation was illegal, the survival options for community colleges are even fewer.  Kevin Carey’s column this week drew some flak for being alarmist, but honestly, it struck me as restrained.  First, California establishes a three-tier system of higher education, corresponding roughly to economic classes.  Then it starves out the lowest tier.  Then it stops taking transfers into the second tier.  It’s gravitational pull, rather than conspiracy -- that’s why I call it a death spiral -- but it’s accelerating.  Meanwhile, the for-profits swoop in to pick up the students on waiting lists.  The only possible way to reverse it is to completely restructure the funding rules, starting with allowing campuses to keep the tuition and fees they raise.  In the absence of that -- in other words, the far likelier outcome -- is that the higher education system there will go the way the K-12 system went before it.  


Several alert readers sent me links to this piece from Esquire about the upward generational transfer of wealth in America.  It’s a little polemical, but substantially correct, and easy enough to apply at your own workplace.  What percentage of salary do the 1970’s hires have to contribute to their retirement plans?  What percentage of salary do recent hires have to?  If they don’t match -- at mine, they’re nowhere close -- then you have a problem.  And that’s before you account for the higher student loan burden of the current generation.


Speaking of, Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina made waves this week with her statement of having no patience for people who rack up significant student loan debt.  The Quick and the Ed reveals that tuition at her alma mater has more than tripled in real terms since she was there.  I assume, of course, that Rep. Foxx must therefore be a HUGE booster of community colleges.  Otherwise, she’s just awful.  


Meanwhile, I hope against hope that despite all this generational warfare, The Boy and The Girl will grow into a country that deserves them.  Better to bet on the future than the past.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Clippy's Revenge

When did Microsoft Word become such a lumbering, bloated behemoth?

It was not always thus.  Many years ago, I recall Word being a vaguely clunky but otherwise harmless word processing program.  In its early iterations, as I remember them, it was clearly nerdy -- not much in the way of fonts or colors -- but it got the job done without much fuss.  Even when the Windows versions came along and some of the simple elegance of the old DOS version fell away, it was still pretty tolerable.  For a time, Word and WordPerfect were the Coke and Pepsi of word processing programs; preference was a matter of taste, but you could pretty much move between them without especially noticing.

The first real sign that something had gone horribly wrong was Clippy.  (I think this was somewhere around 2000, though I’ve forgotten the particulars in the same way that the body forgets pain.)  Clippy was an animated paper clip who existed mostly to annoy users.  He asked presumptuous questions, and just getting him to go away took more labor than it should have.  “You look like you’re writing a letter!  Would you like some help?”  Sure, Clippy, what’s another way of saying GET THE %(&$ OFF MY SCREEN YOU &^*(%$&#^%*?

Clippy was eventually dispatched -- nobody asked too many questions -- and Word reverted to its mildly annoying self.  Soon, free alternatives like Open Office came along that fulfilled much the same role WordPerfect used to, only without having to pay for it.  I switched, as did most people I know.

I mostly skipped Office 2007, except for a few ill-fated experiments on a short-lived laptop.  This was the version in which Microsoft decided that easily found, clear commands like, say, “print,” just weren’t sporting enough, so it hid them.  I actually had to google “How to print in Word 2007.”  When you have to google “how to print,” something isn’t right.

By this point, of course, I had discovered Google Docs.  Google Docs is mercifully stripped down, like Word once was, and it has the virtues of zero cost, self-updating, and automatic online backup.  (That may not sound like much, but go through a hard drive crash or two, and you’ll see the appeal.)  I liked it because I could start noodling with a blog post on my lunch break on one computer, and then finish it at home that night without bothering with file transfer.  It also has an obvious “print” button.  This is not to be dismissed lightly.

For the last several years, I’ve been happily using NeoOffice at work, Google Docs at home, and Open Office on the road when I couldn’t get online.  Not perfect, but fine.

Then, the book came along.

I compose in Google Docs, but for reasons unknown, my publisher wants files in Word, and it sends files back and forth in Word, complete with obscure functions like “track changes.”  So I bit the bullet and got Word 2010.

The horror...the horror...

Clippy’s revenge is total.  In addition to being absurdly huge, the program is almost comically inscrutable.  Now it comes in “starter” as well as, I don’t know, “veteran” flavors.  Did you know that “starter” doesn’t include “track changes?”  I didn’t, either.  And can you buy the one additional feature you want?  Negative -- it’s all or nothing.  “Copy and paste” has become far more complex, and even something as simple as “save” requires changing screens.  Just figuring out how to change the line spacing from single to double required multiple trips to “help,” since its preferred solution was to change templates (!).  

I didn’t need Clippy.  I needed a sherpa.

I understand the impulse to add yet another feature whenever someone wants it, but Apple (and Google Docs) has shown us the virtue of keeping things simple enough that you don’t have to do internet searches to figure out how to print a damn document.  The 286 pc I bought in 1990 could print a damn document, even if it had to use dot matrix to do it.  (For younger readers, just imagine that I yelled at you to get off the lawn.)  First things first.

Clippy, you may be enjoying this bit of revenge now, but I’m putting you on notice.  I wrote this post, like nearly every other post, in Google Docs, and I liked it.  And as soon as this manuscript is in, I’m done with you.  

Keep it simple.  Life is too short to have to look up “save.”

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Ask the Administrator: Making a Class Writing-Intensive

A returning correspondent writes:

I've been fortunate enough to be hired as a visiting instructor for one year at a small liberal-arts college, and I'm very excited to teach there. I will be teaching a class that I've taught several times before (basically an intro survey of my primary field of study), but the head of the department and I have agreed to make it a writing intensive class. This is throwing me for a loop.
I have checked in with the writing center, and so I know what is required to make the class qualify as writing intensive in terms of "x number of papers" and "peer review", etc. But I am worried about the logistics of 1.) carving out enough time from the substance of the class to accommodate the writing process, and 2.) how to guide my students to be better writers. Are there any pitfalls to avoid at all costs? Are there any secret paths to managing the work of being both a professor of my subject and a writing guru?  Do you (and your worldly and wise readers) have any advice on this subject?

I used to have these discussions all the time.  Proprietary U’s Gen Ed department was dominated by English professors, and they used to insist on the “process” approach to teaching writing which, they insisted, had to be done across the curriculum.  

That worked fine in composition courses, since all that process wasn’t competing with anything.  It even worked pretty well in “Debate” classes, which I thought of as essentially similar.  Since the course was about skills, rather than content, the process approach was a natural fit.

But when it came to my own discipline -- a social science -- making the intro class fit the parameters of a composition class didn’t leave much time for the actual social science.  

Back in the 90’s, when grunge bands ruled the earth and our biggest political worry was what to do with the budget surplus, “writing across the curriculum” briefly gained traction.  The idea was that it was unreasonable to expect one or two English composition classes to bring students to fluency on their own; they needed backup from other fields.  If students had to write papers in sociology and chemistry and business, the argument went, then they’d improve through repetition and they couldn’t shrug off criticism of poor writing with “this isn’t an English class!”  

The theory made sense, as far as it went, but it failed to account for the workload in the other disciplines.  Turning Psych 101 into English 101b didn’t leave much room for Psych.

The best answers I was able to find involved adaptation.  While it just wasn’t reasonable to assign as many papers in social science 101 as they did in composition -- class size alone made that impossible, let alone coverage of course material -- it still made sense to draw on the lessons of process instruction.  

A former professor of mine used to say that every teacher has to make a choice: you can cover, or you can uncover.  It’s overdrawn, obviously, but there’s something to it.  Given how little students remember of actual content when it’s simply “covered,” there’s an argument for picking a few of the most important things and focusing more intently on those.  Process can be a way to do that.

It takes some serious advance planning, but if you can design assignments so they build on each other, incorporating new information as they go, you’ve got something.  Having a series of mini-deadlines can help keep students on target, since it makes the inevitable procrastination that much harder.  (If nothing else, it at least reduces the stakes of procrastination.)  

I also carried over a few tricks.  For exams, I’d write six essay questions and hand them out a week in advance.  I’d tell them that four of them would appear on the test, and they could choose any two to answer.  That meant that they had to prepare for four of the six.  Then I let them bring in a single index card, no larger than 4 x 6, with anything handwritten on it that they wanted.  

They cackled, thinking they had found a loophole.  They’d bring in their index cards, chockablock with notes.  Then, as they were beavering away, a few of them would figure out what had just happened: I had tricked them into studying.  Bwa-ha-ha-ha!

(Admittedly, this was in the era before smartphones.)

The following week, I’d hand out copies of the single best essay (with the name removed), and would go over it briefly with the class, calling attention to what made it work.  Some of the weaker writers were shocked at how good it was, which had a salutary effect on their studying for the next exam.  

Out-of-class writing was much tougher, since plagiarism was rampant.  Some of it was painfully obvious, and would turn up with a quick Google search.  But some of it was the “my girlfriend wrote it for me,” which was harder to catch.  Multiple drafts could help, theoretically, but the girlfriend could always write multiple drafts.  Some level of in-class writing made a helpful plagiarism check.  If the kid who always turns in brilliant papers can’t write See Spot Run in class, you have a clue.

Of course, these are just a few first thoughts.  I’m certain that my wise and worldly readers have found other ways to square this particular circle, so I’ll just ask.  Wise and worldly readers, have you found good ways to incorporate intensive writing into classes in other disciplines?

Good luck!

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

Monday, April 16, 2012

Four-Year Degrees, Two-Year Schools

The news from Michigan that Northwestern Michigan College, a two-year school, has applied for permission to offer four-year degrees got me thinking about the entire concept.

(I’m not focusing in particular on Northwestern Michigan College, since it’s armed at a level that my college simply is not.  They have a 224 foot submarine.  I’m not gonna mess with that.)

Should community colleges offer bachelor’s degrees?

My strong inclination is “no,” though I’m more than happy to support cooperative bachelor’s degree completion programs, aggressive articulation agreements, and even statewide transfer blocs.  Community colleges as the first two years of a four year degree strike me as a very reasonable solution for many people.  Community colleges as four year schools, not so much.

I understand the impulse.  Four year colleges get much more respect, and can charge correspondingly higher tuition.  The faculty would generally support the idea, as long as it came with the lower teaching loads characteristic of four-year schools.  Students routinely ask when we’ll start offering four-year degrees, since they like it here and don’t want to go elsewhere.  I get that.

But mission creep is poisonous, especially when money is tight.

If we suddenly had to cover twice as many sections with the same faculty, we’d have to either increase our adjunct ratio even more, or stuff the class sections fuller.  That’s how a lot of the four-year schools do it.  When I t.a.’ed for the 101 class in my discipline at Flagship State, the main lecture was taught in an auditorium for 300 students.  “Recitation” sections had about 25 students, but the t.a.’s were typically grad students in their mid-twenties with minimal preparation.  We learned on the job, if at all.  By contrast, the 101 classes at my cc are taught by real faculty in sections of 32 or less.  The students can actually ask questions.  

The political issues might even swamp the staffing ones.  Right now we have excellent relationships with most of the local four-year colleges, since they see us -- correctly -- as a feeder.  We transfer the higher achievers directly into their lower-enrolled upper-level sections.  The four-year schools can fill their upper-level classes even after freshman attrition; we can give students real and valid goals to shoot for; the students can get four-year degrees at a deep discount.  Wins all around.

But recast us from “feeder” to “competitor,” and suddenly things get ugly.  We have to raise prices substantially to compensate for the extra staffing, extra sections, extra facilities, and extra marketing.  The four-year colleges move from “accepting transfers” to “poaching,” with all of the ethical dilemmas that implies.  We have to reduce our freshman admissions in order to make room for the upper-level students, with directly regressive economic fallout.  

More broadly, mission creep is one of the underappreciated cost drivers in American higher education.  Second-tier schools want to be first-tier, and they know that it costs money to do that.  Colleges want to be universities, and the slightly selective want to be more selective.  Right now, community colleges offer the benefit of relative specialization, and of a clear identity.  They specialize in the first two years, and leave the rest to others.  Suddenly moving from “effective provider of the basics” to “mediocre four-year wannabe” strikes me as wrongheaded.  If anything, the right move for community colleges is towards greater specialization, not less.  

The universe of higher education has become more diverse, even as the various colleges and universities try to imitate each other.  (For-profits account for the difference.)  My free advice for community colleges is to embrace specificity.  Do those first two years better than just about anybody else.  Let the for-profits pick up the most expensive vocational programs.  Focus intensely on the liberal arts core, with a few vocational programs of obvious relevance.  (In my neck of the woods, that would include allied health and criminal justice.  In Northwest Michigan, it may include working 224 foot submarines.  Gotta protect us from rogue Canadians.)  Let the other folks carry the costs of HVAC technician training or upper-level seminars.  

Community colleges have the raw material to be the breakthrough sites for innovations in teaching writing, speaking, and math to first-year college students.  That’s a worthy and difficult mission, hard to do well but valuable when done right.  Let’s do that.  I’m content to leave the upper-level stuff to the colleges that specialize in it.  Better to do what we do, well.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Growing Your Own?

Where will the next generation of deans come from?

It’s an increasingly urgent question, since the current crop is largely aging out of the profession.  And in many settings, there’s no heir apparent at the ready.

A study from the Harvard Graduate School of Education recently made the rounds on the interwebs because it made the striking claim that managerial talent really only shows when it’s used, which means that the talent pool looks thinner than it really is.  People with experience, it claims, are given more credit than they deserve, because people without experience have no way of showing their talent (or lack thereof).  The only way to be really safe in hiring, then, is to hire for experience, which leads to a game of musical chairs among incumbents.  

It’s one of those “magnesium is the secret of the universe!” theories that explains a few things, but is easily oversold.  The most obvious flaw is that it takes “talent” as a given, and reduces experience to pure signaling.  As with teaching, though, that’s not quite right.  Rookies make rookie mistakes, even with talent; the first few years of experience may signal, but they also hone.  Most professors will admit that their teaching was better a few years in than it was the first time out; why administration would be any different is not obvious.  While I’ve long argued that the value of experience is not linear -- the years between fifteen and twenty make much less difference than the five years between zero and five -- it’s not zero, either.  Those first few years matter.

That said, though, the study does hit on a few basic truths.  The most basic, and the one that the AACC is trying to address through a “grow your own” leadership development program, is the leap of faith involved in giving someone that first experience.  Academia fully admits the need for a leap of faith in the context of teaching; it’s the stated rationale behind giving graduate students teaching assistantships.  The idea is to create a rank from which rookies aren’t ruled out for being rookies. But as an industry, we like to pretend that anyone can just step into administration at any time.  Once in a while, that works, but the fail rate is high enough that you’d think we would have moved past it by now.

The “grow your own” approach helps get around the “no job without experience, no experience without a job” dilemma by creating cultivated experiences for their own sake.  While it’s hard to imagine just what those cultivated experiences might look like, the concept makes some sense.  I’ve seen perfectly wonderful professors flame out when they’ve had to work with others as equals, and I’ve seen high-performing perfectionists who simply couldn’t bring themselves to rely on other people.  (“To get it done right, I’ll just do it myself.”)  In my own case, chairing the campus accreditation self-study was the introduction to administration.  While I made my share of rookie mistakes on that, I was able to show that I could work with other people and take the occasional punch, both of which are core competencies of administration.  

The flaw in the “grow your own” model, though, is that it presumes the presence of a willing and basically capable generation of full-time faculty.  But the pig-in-a-python generational problem that they’re trying to solve -- a monster-sized cohort aging out -- exists, too, among the faculty.  Decades of minimal full-time faculty hiring have resulted in a thin bench.  If we had plenty of full-time faculty in their mid-thirties to mid-forties just waiting for their big break, then the “grow your own” model would be just the thing.  But when an entire generation got basically skipped, as mine did, then the grow your own model will hit its natural limits pretty quickly.

Worse, all the recession-driven shedding of administrative positions over the last few years has led to some incredibly flat organizations.  When you don’t have associate deans -- my college doesn’t -- then you don’t have easy ways for people to move up the ladder.  The ladder was sacrificed a few budget cuts ago, and we’re seeing the consequences of that now.

I wish the AACC program well.  It’s well-intended, and there are probably a few folks for whom it will present a real opportunity.  But at the end of the day, you can’t skip a generation of hiring, eliminate intermediate positions, and heap calumny on an entire class of employees, and then pretend that a training program will make up for it.  It just doesn’t work like that.  The next generation of deans will face an entirely different set of challenges, and often will not have had the kind of experience we would have liked.  If only someone would write about that...

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Thoughts I Can't Shake

Thoughts I Can’t Shake

The Girl: “If you dug a tunnel to China, would the hole in the earth make a whistling sound as the earth turned?”


I first saw this piece a week or two ago, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since.  It argues that certain jobs, such as management, call on skills that are remarkably hard to discern from the outside.  Therefore in filling those jobs, employers tend to fall back on experience as a criterion, since it’s easier to see and quantify.  As a result, the piece argues, experience is overrated (and overcompensated), and capable-but-unproven people often don’t get the chance to prove themselves in the first place.

There’s some truth to that, though I’d add that experience doesn’t only reveal underlying strengths; it also develops them, at least to a point.  If that sounds sketchy when applied to administration, think of it as applied to teaching; most teachers don’t do the best work of their career in the first class they ever taught.  It takes a little while to get the hang of it.  The benefits of experience aren’t necessarily linear -- I tend to think they’re frontloaded, with diminishing returns beyond a certain point -- but they aren’t zero, either.

But you can only develop those strengths by getting the opportunity in the first place.  And that’s where I foresee administrative hiring in higher ed getting even harder in the next several years.  


‘Tis Spring, which means it’s ceremony season, which means it’s time for the ritual butchering of the last names.  

Anyone who has had to read long lists of unfamiliar student names knows the drill.  And no matter how many safeguards we build in, someone always winds up wincing in pain as the speaker turns three syllables into five, or leaves off a hyphenation, or gets stuck, starts again, gets stuck again, laughs, and generally calls attention to himself.

Even knowing how words are usually pronounced doesn’t necessarily help.  I used to live in a part of the country where Indian names were common, so I learned to pronounce names like “Sapana.”  (It’s pronounced “Suppna.”)  I surprised many a Sapana by getting that right.

Now I’m in an area with lots of French last names.  Some have adopted English pronunciations and some haven’t.  Quick: does “DuBois” rhyme with “Francois” or “Rejoice”?  (Answer: yes.)  And I still haven’t mastered “Nguyen.”  

The only helpful hint I can offer is to commit to one pronunciation, no matter how wrong, and just do it.  The start-stop-start-stop-start thing is worse than just a straight-up error.  And just accept the fact that no matter how hard you try, someone out there will think you’re an idiot.


Program Note: Since my publisher has started using phrases like “it sure would be a shame...,” I’ll be away from the blog next week, trying to make the manuscript look like I meant that all along.  I’ll resume posting for Monday, April 16.  

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Tear Gas? Really?

There must be something in the water in California.

A few months ago, the world saw the viral video of campus police tear gassing protesters at a UC campus.  This week, students at Santa Monica College -- a community college -- were tear gassed when trying to enter a public meeting to protest the proposed two-tier tuition plan outlined here.

No, no, no.

I don’t know enough about the logistics of the event to know whether the students were out of line in the moment or not; I’m content to leave that to the people on the scene.  And I have to wonder why California colleges have forgotten how to “use their words,” as they say in daycare.  But I have to wonder at the protest itself.  

A college’s funding is cut, so it responds by attempting to make some of its programs self-sustaining.  Quick: who do you protest?

If your answer is “the college” or “the college’s administration,” you’re missing the point.  

Faced with severe and ongoing state cuts, a public institution has very few choices.  It can cut its offerings -- the ‘enrollment cap’ solution that most of California has adopted.  It can water down its quality, as many colleges have.  It can narrow its focus and do fewer things, but commit to still doing them well.  And it can raise prices to maintain breath and quality.

I can imagine arguments on behalf of any of those.  The enrollment cap maintains quality while controlling costs, but at the expense of access.  Across-the-board dilution lets everyone in and maintains range, but defeats the purpose of education in the first place.  Narrowing the menu of options maintains quality and cuts costs, but it sends students who want certain programs to other places.  Or you can raise prices enough to cover costs, which is what has been proposed at Santa Monica.

Candidly, among those choices, I find the third and fourth far less objectionable than the first two.

The problem is that the third and fourth tend to lead to much more intense political pushback.  Shut down a degree program, and you make the national news.  (Just ask SUNY Albany.)  Raise prices significantly and students storm your board meeting.  But slowly adjunct-out the English department, and the worst you get is some cynical grousing.

The moves that are the easiest politically in the short term do the most damage in the long term.  If we don’t fix that, we’re in for collapse as an industry.  That means that we all have to be a lot smarter in deciding whom, and when, to attack.

The right way to handle this is to pressure the state to fund the colleges at a level where they don’t have to make these awful choices.  If the state comes through and the colleges act boneheaded anyway, then sure, protest away.  But storming the local barricades when the local college made a choice to make its programs sustainable in a hostile environment makes no sense.

And California, lay off the tear gas.  Seriously.