Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Last Future

I’m just old enough to remember when evening classes were the hotbed of enrollment growth.

Back in the late 90’s, when the economy was booming, many employers had programs that paid for employees to take classes at night.  I made a habit of teaching at least one night class per semester, even after moving into administration, just because the night students were so good.  They were mostly older, and for whatever academic rawness some brought with them, they had drive.  They were on a mission, and as any teacher can tell you, that’s half the battle.

Now, evening enrollments are struggling.  Employer reimbursements are much scarcer than they once were.  (That’s why Amazon’s new program was newsworthy.)  Adult student enrollments are being cannibalized by online programs.

Oddly, while evening programs are struggling, day programs aren’t.  The most traditional offerings are as solid as they’ve ever been.  From mid-morning to early afternoon, the place is packed.  (Summer is an exception.)  The traditional-aged students like to take classes in the morning and early afternoon so they can go to their jobs in the late afternoon and evening.  And adult students who work during the day are often happier to go online than they would be to schlep to campus after work.

I’ve seen the shift on the student support side, too.  As recently as a few years ago, the active discussion was about evening coverage in the various offices.  Now, it’s much more about developing online chat capability, and making sure that we have enough tech-savvy people in each area at the right times.  Chat software doesn’t help if there’s nobody at the keyboard.

We still have evening programs, of course, but we’re in that awkward transitional phase when the old method is declining but still important, and the new one still isn’t universally accepted.  So we run both, with all of the support costs that entails.  

Even weekend classes have been slow to take off.  It wasn’t all that long ago that evenings and weekends represented the new frontiers.  Now they seem like landlines in a cellular age; still useful for limited purposes, but not where you’d put new resources.  For a while, weekends looked like the Next Big Thing, but they never quite made it.  Online courses have supplanted them.

Now the major challenge with online programs is moving from an “encourage the early adopter” mode to serious scale.  In the early years, we built the online offerings based on individual interest and enthusiasm, and we’ve basically added layers to that since.  But we’re at the inflection point now where it’s just not reasonable anymore to run the online area as an experiment.  It has become an integral part of our offerings, and it’s growing, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of our offerings.  That means that we can’t just rely on volunteers anymore.  Some of the holdouts will have to adapt to the new modality, even if they’d really rather not.  That will bring its own set of diplomatic challenges, but the enrollment is where the enrollment is.

The most traditional offerings are still strong, and the most futuristic ones are strong.  Last year’s future is where we’re hurting.  Seems like there’s a lesson in there somewhere...

Monday, July 30, 2012

Email Battles

Someone at work sends you an email that you aren’t quite sure how to interpret.  Maybe the phrasing is ambiguous, maybe it uses a term with different meanings, or maybe there just isn’t enough context to decide what’s being said.  It seems weirdly hostile, but you don’t know why there would be hostility.  What do you do?

You could ignore it, of course.  But sometimes that isn’t an option, whether because of a deadline, high stakes, or just the sheer oddness of the message.

You could reply in kind, and thereby set in motion a chain reaction of misunderstandings that’s virtually guaranteed to bring out the worst in everybody.  Imagine a snippier version of “Three’s Company,” in which misinterpretations pile onto each other until the entire edifice collapses in a pile of hurt feelings.

You could assume the worst, and gird for battle.  Depending on locale and temperament, maybe you rally the troops while you’re at it.  Why settle for peace when there’s a bracing fight to be had?

Or you could try to actually solve the problem.  The first step in doing that, assuming that the workplace isn’t entirely nuts, is to switch venues.  Talk to the person, in person.  Ask about the message, and the intended meaning.  Get away from email, and have an actual conversation.  (In a pinch, even a phone call is better than nothing, but face-to-face is the best by far.)

I suspect that academics may be particularly susceptible to email battles, given their hyperliteracy.  They’re relatively good at writing -- make obligatory “jargon” joke here -- and often quick to take umbrage at perceived slights.  (Given that status, rather than money, is often the coin of the realm, slights hurt more.)  Email battles allow for the attempt at the perfect zinger, and it’s easier to be really nasty when you aren’t actually looking the person in the eye.

Which is why you need to look the person in the eye.

It’s harder to demonize the flesh-and-blood human being right in front of you.  And it’s much easier to convey nuances when body language and facial expressions are there to color the words.  Sometimes a hesitation or a sidelong glance can tell you far more than the words that follow it.  

Even interruptions can help.  When someone starts a chain of “this, and then this, and then THIS!!!,” it can be helpful to ask how he got from step one to step two.  Frequently, what looks obvious from one angle is revealed to be illusory when some new facts are shared.  “You denied my travel request, but approved hers!  You’re obviously biased!”  If you know, in that case, that one travel request had been written into an approved grant, and the other missed an application deadline, then suddenly the same fact pattern leads to a very different conclusion.  But without a discussion, that won’t come to light.

A few times over the last year, the email system has gone down for a day or more.  Oddly, those were some of my better days at work.  People actually talked to each other.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found other ways to stop the cycle of email battles?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Spraying for Narcissists

I’ve followed with interest the gradually-unfolding story from New Jersey about Peter Burnham’s fall from grace as former president of Brookdale Community College.

Brookdale is a respected institution -- forward-looking in many ways -- and President Burnham deserves some of the credit for that.  But apparently he fell into a bad habit of mistaking institutional money for his own.  Remarkably, according to charges to which he pled guilty, he even continued the habit after he was fired.

This is the kind of story that does damage far beyond the individual event.  

Obviously, it feeds mistrust on campus, and in the legislature.  It feeds into the arguments by people with other agendas that public spending is inherently corrupt.  It creates turmoil on campus, especially as the truth comes out in dribs and drabs.  

It’s also not all that surprising.  

To clarify: I don’t know Burnham personally, and I have no basis to judge whether this was in keeping with his personality or a shocking departure from it.  My point is that the abuse of power is not a new, or shocking, story, and those of us who are entrusted with some share of it need to be mindful of that.

That’s becoming much more important than it once was.  The political climate doesn’t allow much room for error these days, and the internet makes sustained secrecy much harder.  Worse, a story that might once have been confined to local papers now lives forever online.  Small things that may once have been easier to hide are now much harder.

(Oddly, the opposite seems to be true in the sectors of society where the real power is.  The shenanigans at Citigroup and Barclays and Goldman Sachs absolutely dwarf anything going on in higher education, yet they continue, and even seem to get worse.  That double standard gets all the more offensive as it gets more dramatic.)

I’ve seen leaders with all sorts of different styles.  Although I have my preferences among them, I’m increasingly convinced that the really important distinction is between leaders who realize that it isn’t really about them, and those who think it is.  

Over time, the differences show.  The narcissists take liberties that others don’t.  They hold grudges, and get personally offended at disagreement.  They tend to expect deference in random circumstances, and to get visibly upset if they don’t receive it.  In my observation, gender and race aren’t critical variables; either you have boundaries, or you don’t.

Colleges that want to insulate themselves from the damage that unchained narcissists can do need the usual procedural safeguards against misconduct -- auditing, good financial controls, HR processes, etc. -- but they also need to set climates over time that don’t reward me-first behavior.  Folks who put themselves first can sometimes climb quickly, particularly if nobody is paying close attention or is willing to call them out.  And hiring committees need to be on the lookout.  On the administrative side, for example, someone who has a history of jumping quickly from job to job to job would raise a red flag.  If they never stayed in one place for more than a couple of years, and had sustained that pace for some time, I’d have some serious reservations.

But sometimes they can sneak up on you.  Burnham had been president at Brookdale for decades; that certainly passes the job-hopping test.  Brookdale has been clean enough otherwise that I have to assume that processes and internal controls are in place.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you found relatively effective ways to sniff out the narcissists?  Are there ways to inoculate a college against them?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Ask the Administrator: My Students Changed! Now What?

An occasional correspondent writes:

Here at Prestig. University, as elsewhere in the northern hemisphere,it's summertime, and that means that my fellow Ph.D. students in thesocial sciences and I are scratching out a living by teaching summercourses. (I used to complain about the fees they gave us, until Ilearned that we were paid more to teach as grad students thanprofessors at nearby,  less prestigious schools.)

This year, my class is relatively small, which is on balance good, butI have zero traditional undergrad students. Normally, I have aleavening of them--folks taking courses while doing internships,transfer students getting caught up, and so forth--which really helpsin imparting the soft skills of being a college student that I'veeither forgotten or never knew (when I began my B.A. more than adecade ago, Blackboard was rare, Google was obscure, and Facebookdidn't exist).

Instead, I have half high-schoolers (mostly 16 or 17) and halfnon-native English speakers. This is good in some respects, but it hassevere consequences for how I teach, since I can no longer assume ashared pool of cultural references or even that the studentsunderstand terms like "in aggregate". The experience hassimultaneously made me pine for the days of being a TA during the academic year, when all the students passed our selective admissionsstandards, and also made me realize that I had been cosseted a bit bylearning how to teach by being selective students' instructors.

All of this is a long preamble to a question that I think dovetailswell with your interests in pedagogy. How much do instructors have toadapt their courses and their styles to the needs of the students? I'mperfectly fine with speaking more slowly, for instance, but I would bemore skeptical of trimming course material from what is already apared-down version of a college course. (Not that I'd refuse to teachthat class--I do need the money--but it would definitely be a case ofneed trumping what I think is best for the material.)

Midcourse corrections are tough, but this is actually a very valuable experience to have in grad school.  

One of the many systemic flaws of graduate education is that it mostly occurs in settings unrepresentative of the vast majority of teaching jobs.  That means that young academics in their formative years can develop some pretty bad teaching habits and get away with it, because their students have been pre-screened to be (mostly) immune to mediocre teaching.  

Then those grad students are loosed on the community colleges and unselective four-year colleges of the world, and have no idea what to do.

The typical community college class might not have quite so many 16 year olds in it, but it may well have a sufficiently diverse group that some of what you might consider common cultural shorthand just won’t fly.  And the levels of academic preparation will vary widely enough that you may find yourself pressed to explain things that it didn’t occur to you you’d have to explain.

You have some choices to make.

If you decide to take this as a challenge, you could make yourself a much better teacher across the board.  (Alternately, you could adopt the crotchety/bitter “students used to be better” pose.)  Your job has changed.  Instead of simply presenting material, you have to figure out how to prioritize it, frame it, and figure out whether/how much the students have absorbed it.  And you can’t necessarily rely on the high schools to have done what you consider groundwork.

Rather than looking at this as “watering down,” which I would find insulting and self-defeating, I’d recommend stepping back and thinking about what you really want the students to learn.  

I had to go through that in my first semesters at Proprietary U.  My graduate institution was selective, so the undergrads on whom I first learned to teach were generally pretty strong (and traditional).  But the students at Prop U were very different.  On the fly, I had to figure out how to reach students of types I had never seen before.

Through some trial and error, I found a couple of things that worked for me.  I hope that my wise and worldly readers who have faced similar situations will chime in with ideas that worked for them, too.

The first change was in how I thought about the point of the course.  Since the students generally had no intention of majoring in my subject, I didn’t see much point in the “I have to cover this and that” approach.  Instead, I focused on getting them to think in ways that my discipline featured.  That required some content, obviously, but it shifted the focus from “here are ten different schools of thought about x” to “let’s try applying this idea to x.”  

The second change was in listening to the students a lot more.  Although their backgrounds and assumptions were different, they weren’t stupid; they just had different frames of reference.  In drawing them out, I was able (sometimes) to find ways to frame ideas that made sense to them.  And I had to let them flounder in public.  In-class exercises -- debates, group exercises, simulations -- helped me find ways to make relative abstractions more concrete, which then gave a point of entry to get back to the abstraction.  

The course became much less about me explaining things, and much more about the students wrestling with things.  My role was to construct the settings in which the students would wrestle with the ideas at hand.

I don’t have a magic way to make that large a switch, successfully, in the middle of a compressed term.  But taking a step back and reflecting on what you really want the students to get out of it -- rather than what you thought you were supposed to cover -- is probably a good start.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Are there other, better ways to shift course mid-semester?  If you suddenly found yourself teaching a different profile of students, how did you adjust?

Good luck!

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

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

How It Sounds

Sometimes it’s the offhand comments that tell you the most.

In a conversation a few days ago, some thoughtful faculty noted in passing that the state’s constant drumbeat about job placement and STEM fields -- two different things, btw -- was becoming a factor in faculty morale in the humanities and social sciences.  They heard every invocation of college-as-personnel-office as an attack on what they do, and as a harbinger of even-more-diminished resources to come.

I couldn’t blame them, really.  Budgets are tight, new state and federal money (when it exists) tends to go to more favored areas, and it’s not hard to read the public mood.  

As someone who has attended more Employer Advisory Boards than is probably healthy, I can attest that much of the “practical-versus-pure” dichotomy is overdrawn, if not simply false.  But the political rhetoric is pushing in one direction, so some folks -- understandably, if unhelpfully -- are compelled to push back in the other, thereby implying that the terms of the discussion are correct.  If I could, I’d love to convene some much larger Employer Advisory Boards and invite both politicians and the English department to observe silently.

Even in our most baldly vocational programs, employers consistently make it clear that their greatest need, and disappointment, with new employees is with the soft skills.  Even in technical areas, we hear consistently that anyone who wants to move above the entry level needs to have good communication skills, good workplace savvy, and a basic sense of numeracy.  The employers are still willing to do a certain amount of training on their own specific systems; what they want from us is people are who have the skills to be trainable and employable.

In their more thoughtful moments, I’ve heard politicians acknowledge that.  But in the heat of legislative battle, such counterintuitive truths don’t get heard.  Instead, we fall into stereotypes of “ivory tower” academics not preparing students for the “real world,” and we believe somehow that if we could just reduce education to training, everything would be fine.

It doesn’t work like that.  It has never worked like that.

The relevant question is not whether we should fund, say, chemistry, as opposed to sociology.  (Last week, the Freakonomics folks -- whose readers tend to have economics backgrounds -- did a poll asking which social sciences should die.  Shockingly, economists didn’t choose economics.)  That’s the wrong question at the systemic level.  (It can be the right question on individual campuses, but that’s another issue.)  Both majors can produce thoughtful people who have something to offer, and both can produce drones.  And especially in the first two years of college, it makes sense for students to have at least some exposure to each discipline, or at least to similar ones.

At its core, some very smart economists say, the jobs crisis is not primarily about having too many sociology majors.  It’s about having a too-skewed distribution of wealth, a too-powerful financial services industry, and too many people making life choices that any competent sociologist could tell you don’t lead to good outcomes.  I’m much more worried about college dropouts -- especially those with heavy loan payments -- than I am about graduates with degrees in comparative literature.  

Historically, the liberal arts grads have struggled somewhat to get the first real job, but have done quite well for themselves once they’ve made their way in.  They just need that first foot in the door, which is a tall order during a nasty recession.  But let’s not confuse the effects of the nasty recession with the value of the liberal arts education.  And even more importantly, let’s not make the mistake of purging the “gen ed” courses from the technical and vocational fields.  Technical firms need managers too, and those managers will need to be able to understand people, write and speak well, and make decisions with limited and flawed information.  

Attacking the humanists is not going to solve the recession.  It simply is not.  If the employers with whom I speak are to be believed, that’s the last thing we should do.  Short-term training is, at best, a short-term solution; if we really want long-term prosperity, we need people who bring the whole package.  That means recognizing English and history and, yes, sociology as integral parts of our mission.  The answer isn’t to hit back with the virtues of irrelevance; it’s to affirm the relevance of the educational core.  We need people who know enough to listen to the offhand remarks.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Vision and Decentralization

CUNY’s New Community College, in New York City, is attracting plenty of attention in higher ed circles.  It’s an attempt to apply a panoply of best practices in raising graduation rates to a population that desperately needs it.  Whether it becomes an exemplar of a new model, or withers on the vine as an expensive boutique project, remains to be seen.

That said, though, I was drawn to the part of this article at which it mentioned that even before it has opened, the new president has either fired or forced out a majority of the original faculty.  

I don’t know what the specific issues were, or the merits of the positions taken on each side.  To what degree each side was right or wrong, I can’t say.

But what struck me was the implied trade-off between vision and decentralization.

Whatever else you want to say about it, the New Community College reflects a pretty tightly disciplined vision.  Students all take the same classes in their first year, use of support services is mandatory, and students have to be full-time.  Remediation must be embedded in credit-bearing courses, if it exists at all.  Even student group work is mandated.  Academic departments don’t exist.  

The idea is to give the purest test case possible.  If a college does everything according to the literature -- whether incumbent employees believe it or not -- what would happen?  At that level, it could prove a very useful data point.

In a context of “shared governance,” particularly one that also includes collective bargaining, the level of control being exercised centrally at NCC is difficult, if not impossible, to sustain.  Culturally, the default model in higher education is decentralized control.  That’s why so much decision-making on campus resembles town politics more than anything else; it’s the clash of various immovable interest groups who aren’t going anywhere.  (The exception, of course, is the students, who come and go and are therefore given no substantive voice, despite being the point of the whole enterprise.)  Everything from resource allocation to curricular requirements gets decided in part based on internal politics.  That’s the root of the old joke that being a college president is like running a cemetery -- lots of people under you, but good luck getting any of them to do what you want.  Add administrative turnover -- itself a factor in reinforcing silos -- and you wind up with a college as a collection of mostly-independent departments battling over resources.

The decentralized model worked tolerably well when there was enough money, and enough cultural deference, to contain the possible damage from conflict.  As long as student failure could be blamed on students, a patchwork organizational scheme might be annoying, but it wouldn’t be fatal.

As resources get thinner and results matter more, though, the argument for coherence within a college around a single vision becomes more compelling.  The contrast between the City College of San Francisco -- the reductio ad absurdum of decentralization, now in a death spiral -- and the New Community College is striking.  

To my mind, the right path for college administrators to take now is neither.  The CCSF model -- no administration, basically -- just results in unsustainable chaos.  The NCC model can make sense on a very small scale, but vesting too much power in a single office puts an awful lot of faith in one person to get everything right.  Nobody is omniscient.

Instead, a more productive path is for administrators to use the birds-eye view afforded by statistics and studies, combined with whatever material incentives are at hand, to set agendas.  Share the findings on developmental math with the math department, give it some course releases so it’ll have time to work, and task it with coming up with something better to try.  Then track the results, and let the results determine the next step.  Have the discipline not to try to intervene in the “coming up with something better” stage, other than signing off on field trips to places that are doing other things so folks can see how they work.  

That approach, I think, offers the best of both worlds.  It nudges people out of the provincialism that can easily develop over time when people get ensconced in their silos, but it doesn’t dictate content or delivery.  It respects faculty agency and expertise as problem-solvers.  And it refocuses the discussion from theology -- “This Is How It Should Be” -- to facts on the ground -- “here’s what worked.”  It also avoids the mistake of vesting too much authority in any one person, whether that person is a president or a department chair.  At the end of the day, the voice that matters is the voice of the results of the experiment.

The difficulty in that approach, other than tuning it right, is resources.  Incentives cost money.  But I’m willing to gamble that in the long run, sustained failure is far more expensive than a few course releases.  

Monday, July 23, 2012


I did not see this coming.

Amazon.com is offering to pay up to $2,000 per year towards educational costs for its warehouse employees if they pursue Associate’s degrees in certain high-demand fields, including fields like aircraft mechanics that have no obvious value within the company.  

I had heard that Amazon was giving up its fight against collecting state sales taxes, so that it could build warehouses in more states and speed up its delivery.  But I did not see this coming.

The contrast with, say, Wal-Mart is instructive.  Wal-Mart contracted with a single national for-profit provider -- American Public University -- and only pays for employees who enroll there.   As the 800-pound gorilla of a customer, Wal-Mart will likely exert tremendous influence over APU’s course offerings, which are offered entirely online.

Instead, Amazon is giving employees the means with which to choose where they want to study.  The programs supported have to be designated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as high-demand and high-wage, and the providers must be accredited, but bachelor’s and master’s degree programs are ineligible.  Between those rules and the low reimbursement, I’d guess that most of the people who take advantage of this will do so at community colleges.  $2,000 per year won’t go far at many four-year schools, and many of the applied programs they’re supporting tend to be found in the community college sector.  

So far, I’m liking this.  Increase my state’s tax revenues while also providing jobs here, send my college motivated adult students, and get me my stuff quicker.  I’ve certainly heard worse ideas.

I can guess that part of the motivation stems from heading off bad press in new locales about working conditions in the warehouses.  But honestly, it’s hard to get mad at a company for responding to public concerns about how it treats workers by treating them better.  If anything, that strikes me as positive.  

Given that employees have to work in a warehouse for three years before becoming eligible, and given the physical demands of warehouse work, I doubt that we’ll be inundated with people.  But the ones who do show up will likely be very motivated, conscientious students, and those are always welcome.  And if some folks are able to move from the warehouse to a higher-paid occupation with minimal student loan debt, again, I find it hard to get terribly upset about that.

Of course, the long term outcomes may not be entirely great.  Should Amazon fall on hard times, there wouldn’t be much stopping it from changing its mind.  If the “speedy delivery” thing really takes off, the local Best Buy should be very, very worried.  If Amazon pushes other retailers into the same death spiral that it did Borders, the long-term effects on local jobs and tax revenues could be negative.  I’m probably not the only shopper who sometimes uses Best Buy as a showroom for stuff I later buy on Amazon.  Take away the store’s advantage of speed, and the showrooming effect could get even worse.  And on the student side, Bureau of Labor Statistics are notoriously imperfect, so it’s possible that someone could take advantage of the program and emerge with the wrong credential at the wrong time.  

But those risks mostly exist anyway.  In the meantime, Amazon is willing to create jobs in new places, to commit to helping employees attend community colleges, and to pay taxes.  

I know there’s no such thing as an unalloyed good, but this strikes me as one of the better ideas to come along in a while.  Wise and worldly readers, am I reading this right, or have I been bamboozled?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

MOOCs from Here

The normally sober Tim Burke had a bit of a meltdown on his blog about MOOCs and their attendant hype.  (MOOCs are Massively Open Online Courses, such as the ones offered through Coursera.)  He rightly called out the techno-utopians for their eager willingness to believe that the latest techno-toy will Change Everything, and offered helpful reminders of previous techno-toys that were supposed to Change Everything, and didn’t.  (Sunrise Semester, anyone?)

My view is probably closer to Burke’s than to the true believers’, but in some ways, I’m much less worried about it than he seems to be.  

MOOCs, at this point, are webcast courses that anybody can follow online for free.  The most popular ones are based at name-brand universities and have online viewers from around the world.  (In fact, the vast majority of the students who stick with the MOOCs seems to be from outside the United States.)  They don’t offer academic credit, although some universities are starting to experiment with ways of including MOOCs in packages that include credit.  And, of course, anyone could follow a MOOC for a while and then test out of a class for credit.

Given the ways MOOCs work, they strike me as absolutely wonderful supplementary resources for students who are already taking classes.  But outside of a small number of very high-achieving autodidacts, I don’t see them replacing what we do in their current form.

For the insanely gifted but isolated student in East Nowhere, a high-end MOOC is a chance to both pick up great information and even prove something.  That’s terrific, but that’s not our core demographic.  Our core demographic, here at the community college level, is the average student.  This is the student whose K-12 preparation was anywhere from “pretty good” to “you’d really rather not know.”  More of our students place into developmental math than place out of it.  They are not busting down the doors to take Intro to Engineering at MIT in their first semester.

Many of our students show up with learning disabilities -- some documented, some not -- and/or some bad study habits picked up in high school.  Others simply have habits of weak performance that become self-fulfilling expectations, unless somebody intervenes.  And others are perfectly capable, but just need structure.  They’ll study when compelled, but they don’t make a habit of seeking out supplementary texts in the library, let alone watching 45 hours of online lecture.

At the community college level, we’re finding, student success is very much about replacing bad habits with good ones, and low expectations with high ones.  That’s partly an academic function, but it’s largely about emotions and expectations.  Students who form study groups and stick with them do much better than students who don’t.  For that matter, students who join extracurricular activities tend to do better academically than students who don’t.  It doesn’t appear to be entirely a function of self-selection, either; student feedback, and the scholarship I’ve seen on it, suggest that having allies makes a difference.  

The contribution I can see MOOCs making at this level is supplemental.  Many students, especially those with certain kinds of learning disabilities, already rely on lecture-capture technology to help them review outside of class.  Having an expensively produced MOOC as an option gives that student another resource on which to draw.  (Our tutoring center already uses certain Khan Academy videos that way, especially for algebra.)  To the extent that a well-produced MOOC can help a student visualize a concept, or review it, I see it as a plus.  But it’s a useful extra, rather than a replacement.

To me, the relevant parallel is the public library.  It’s already possible for students to go to their local public libraries -- or, yes, the internet -- and read ahead on concepts covered in classes.  That has been possible for a long time.  But most don’t.  The few who do tend to be the ones who would do well anyway.  Some companies have sold cassettes (!) of lectures at high-profile universities for years; they haven’t displaced high-profile universities.  I’d be afraid of MOOCs if I were afraid of BOOKs.  I’m not.

If anything, MOOCs in the right courses could be incredibly helpful in enabling faculty to experiment with flipped (or semi-flipped) instruction.  To the extent that MOOCs might enable professors on site to focus more on helping students get through knotty issues, rather than just explicating the same old stuff at the board, they could add value. (Alternately, they could give an exasperated instructor an option to refer the slowest-moving student to, without making the entire class wait.)  But the structure, the pacing, the human connection, and the institutional legibility all still need to be provided first by the professor, and subsequently by student support folks -- advisors, counselors, etc.

We already have online courses, but they aren’t MOOCs, and the difference matters.  Our online sections are either the same size, or smaller, than their onsite counterparts, and each one has an actual human being teaching it.  (Despite the overheated fantasies on both sides, online courses don’t actually save faculty labor costs.  They do save facilities costs.  It’s cheaper to add server space than to add classroom space.)  They’re highly interactive; faculty here report that an online course takes at least as much time to teach as an onsite one, even if the time is spent in smaller chunks.  Onsite courses here are as much about student interaction and engagement as they are about presentation.  That’s why we’ve managed to keep our online course completion rate at the same level as our onsite rate.  

The real threats to community colleges aren’t MOOCs.  Yes, we may lose the occasional prodigy who is suddenly able to show Harvard what he’s got.  But those come in ones and twos.  When I lose sleep about the fate of my college, it’s because of finances, legislative blind spots, clunky federal rulemaking, and the general political trend towards framing higher education as a private good.  It’s not because of MOOCs.  I’ll save my meltdowns for the real threats.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Friday Fragments

The Girl brought a hardcover copy of my dissertation to me as I was typing.

TG: Daddy, did you write this?

DD: Yes.

TG: So you just wrote your second book?

DD: Well, no.  That’s my dissertation, not a book.

TG: What’s a dissertation?

DD: It’s like a really, really long paper that you have to write to get your Ph.D.

TG: Who are the characters?

DD: It doesn’t really have characters.  It’s more like an article.

TG: That’s a long article.  It has a cover like a book.

DD: Yes, it does.

TG: But it’s not a book?

DD: No.

TG: That’s silly.

Smart girl.


Last week, we spent a few days in Burlington, Vermont.  (If you were there, you might have seen me.  I was the white guy.)  Gotta say, we were all impressed.  It’s a very walkable town -- even if it has “too much uphillness,” as The Girl put it -- and the food is amazing.  Lots of “locally grown,” organic, and vegetarian offerings to be had.

Lake Champlain was a treat, too.  TG was hopeful that we’d see Champ, the local answer to the Loch Ness Monster.  We didn’t, but the beach was fun and the water warm.  

We also made the ceremonial trips to the Ben and Jerry’s factory and the Vermont Teddy Bear factory for TG’s birthday.  Ben and Jerry’s was smaller than I had pictured it, but it put on a good show.  The Teddy Bear factory looked more factory-ish, but was still fun.

If you haven’t been there, Vermont looks different.  Part of that is the complete absence of billboards, which makes more of a difference than you’d think.  And part of it is a certain economy of language.  I laughed out loud when I saw signs on the highway that just said “Moose.”  Not “Moose Xing” or “Moose, Five Miles,” just “Moose.”  You had to fill in the rest.  Navigational cues there are generally, well, understated, but “Moose” really captured it.


I read with interest that the City College of San Francisco may need “special” trustees to come in and right the ship.  Folks who’ve been following the development of “emergency fiscal managers” in Michigan, or even the municipal bankruptcies in California, will have a sense of deja vu.  

It’s not entirely clear just what powers the emergency trustees would have.  Given the issues faced by CCSF, they’d have to be pretty drastic.  In the absence of a funding model in which growth more than pays for itself, I’m guessing that some forced programmatic shrinkage is on the horizon.  Since “shared governance’ models are historically unsuccessful at dealing with shrinkage, it will probably have to be done top-down.  

If they’re smart, they’ll tie the decisions of which programs to keep, at least in part, to the willingness of the faculty in those programs to get with the assessment program.  (Obviously, employability, transferability, and graduation rates should matter, too.) That way, faculty in the various departments will have some ability to control their own fates.  That won’t solve every issue -- departments with strong ged ed presence, like English and math, aren’t going anywhere -- it should at least generate enough progress on key indicators to get the accreditors to back off for a while.  Done right, it might even set the stage for eventual improvement, which is kind of the point.

Either way, though, this is the (admittedly large) canary in the coal mine of California’s public higher education system.  You can’t run a college like the Paris Commune in an anti-tax state forever.  This is one of those cases in which both sides are wrong, and the likeliest outcome is unlikely to address the real problem.  But if the emergency can get some drastic structural changes enacted -- including a complete re-do of the funding system -- then it’s at least possible to have hope.  

For now, I have hope.  And if someone in authority in California is looking for a thoughtful out-of-state observer with actual community college administrative experience and a long history of writing on higher ed issues to provide input, well, I check my inbox frequently...

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Ask the Administrator: Where Did My Class Go?

A regular correspondent writes:

I taught a course as an adjunct at a CC three semesters in a row.  No complaints from students that I am aware of, a positive classroom observation from an admin, student evals on a typical bell curve, 1/4 glowing, 1/2 in the middle, 1/4 cranky.   Grades likewise pretty typical.  Lots of As, some Bs and Cs, a couple Fs.  
This Fall the course is listed as fully enrolled with instructor TBD, so I enquired if I'd be teaching it.  I had certainly assumed I was as I had filled out an availability form, been verbally told I was and reserved the time in my Fall schedule.  No answer for a long time.  Then a very terse email from the Dean saying "thanks for your interest in teaching at XXCC unfortunately we will be unable to offer you a class this Fall".  There's no full timer who would teach this class, so that's not the issue.  
Obviously they can hire who they like:  our Union contract wouldn't give me seniority for another year.  Having laid people off in my former life in the dreaded private sector, I understand that if they've decided to "go a different direction" there's no margin in explaining their reasons to me, as it only opens the door for me to argue. That being said, "thank you for your interest in teaching at XXCC", as if I was a new applicant, seems particularly cold since this is a Dean I had actually met and worked with.   What's your take as a Dean?   Are you a mean dean too?

Am I a mean dean, too?  I’ll leave that to the folks who know me.  Suffice it to say that there’s a difference between a person and a role.  

Since there’s no contractual entitlement to a course, my best guess is that you got bumped.  In many systems, full-timers whose courses don’t run can bump adjuncts with full sections.  The idea is that the full-timer’s salary has to be covered somehow, so displacing the adjunct -- whose salary doesn’t have to be covered -- offsets some of the loss from the section that didn’t run.  The bump may not have been direct, of course.  Full-timer takes slot from senior adjunct, so senior adjunct bumps junior adjunct.  In that scenario, even if they don’t have a full-timer who could have taught your course, the effect on you is the same as if they did.

If that’s the case, I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that you weren’t told why.  The goal would be preventing needless drama in the ranks.  Better to be angry at the “mean dean” than to sow ill will among colleagues.

Of course, that’s just a guess.  Any number of other factors could also have come into play.  Someone’s schedule may have had to be adjusted for personal/confidential reasons -- medical or family, say -- and your course made sense, whether directly or indirectly. (There, too, you wouldn’t get the full story.)  You don’t mention if there was a new full-time hire; if there was, that would also lead to a domino effect.  There may have been another adjunct with a special expertise they desperately needed, and your course was the only way to give that person enough sections to seal the deal.  Or, of course, there could always be something nefarious at play.  But I’ve done enough of this over the years to report that actual nefariousness is far more rare than some people seem to think.

The more bothersome part of your message is that you were “verbally told” that the section was yours.  Depending on “by whom,” and how explicitly, that doesn’t look great.  “By whom” makes a tremendous difference.  If you were promised by someone who has no authority to make a promise, then the promise is worthless.  And there’s a meaningful difference between “we’re pencilling you in” and “the class is yours,” even though some folks conflate the two.  The latter is a promise; the former is a hope.  

One of the frustrations of administration is knowing facts that you aren’t allowed to share.  I’ll give you one from my past.  Professor X, who was full-time, had been diagnosed with lupus, and just couldn’t do early-morning sections anymore.  She struggled valiantly, and didn’t want her colleagues to know.  I adjusted her schedule, and an adjunct who expected an afternoon section was bumped without explanation.  He assumed, naturally, that I was a rat and a fink, and let it be known.

I have lived that one personally.  That’s the price of administration.

That said, there are better and worse ways of telling someone he won’t have a class.  While some specifics can’t be shared, when you’re dealing with someone who has been around for a while and has done good work, it’s probably best not to go with the standard “thanks for applying” form letter.  

I realize this may all sound like a series of technicalities.  At a basic level, you were expecting some income that you aren’t going to get, and that sucks.  I get that.  But it’s entirely possible that someone acting in good faith could have done what you describe.  If you want to figure out whether this was nefariousness or just a collision of imperatives, watch for patterns over time.  A single case could be just about anything.

Good luck.  I hope you’re able to find a way to replace the lost income.

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

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Retirement Waves

Academics of my generation probably harbor bitter memories of the mythical “great wave of retirements” that was going to open up all those faculty jobs.  Apparently, in Illinois, that wave is finally happening.  It’s driven by pension panic, rather than by normal demographic change, but a wave is a wave.

The press coverage focused largely on the pension issue, understandably enough, but I noticed this:

Wilson said the retirements were an opportunity to rethink strategic goals, and hire faculty more aligned to these goals, adding that firm plans would be in place by the end of summer. (Phyllis Wise, UIUC's chancellor, said during a recent visit to the offices of Inside Higher Ed  that the faculty vacancies will be a chance to reconfigure and hire faculty members based on emerging needs of the university and students.)

It’s hard to lose a lot of institutional memory in a short time, but retirements do allow for changes that would have been politically impossible without them.

In some cases, those changes are about resource allocation.   That’s tough when retirements are in dribs and drabs, but it’s easier when they come in clusters.   Staffing imbalances on the faculty side can arise over time for any number of reasons, though in my observation, the most common are shifts in student demand and the timing of when openings happen.  If your department had retirements during good years, it got replacements; if it had retirements in bad years, it didn’t. (My own campus experimented with “cluster hiring” a few years ago, then was forced by state cuts to stop abruptly.  As a result, some pretty striking imbalances took root.)  When a significant number of vacancies develop at the same time, it’s possible to shift some positions to address imbalances.

On the administrative side, the issues are a bit different.  We’re facing that now; some fairly aggressive shedding of positions over the last few years put off the day of reckoning for a while, but we’ve hit the limits of that.  At this point, retirements need to be replaced.  Deanships are typically much harder to fill than faculty positions, though, so having multiple openings at the same time is a scary prospect.  

Here too, multiple retirements can allow for rethinking the allocation of duties.  The trick here is avoiding the Purple Unicorn Syndrome, in which you write a job description that could only be filled by someone as rare as a purple unicorn.  In these days of reduced administration, when everyone is doing more than they used to, it’s easy to fall into that trap.  When you combine much broader scopes of authority with a legalistic search process, finding good candidates who meet all the bullet points is a real challenge.  When a search fails, then you have to scramble for some sort of interim solution, which can raise issues of its own.

This may all seem opportunistic, and there’s a sense in which it is.  But it’s an opportunism borne of a lack of alternatives.   On the administrative side, a thin bench puts limits on how adventurous you can get.  On the faculty side, of course, tenure without mandatory retirement makes some people simply immovable.  Cluster retirements are those rare moments when you can actually be strategic without running into one of those brick walls.

I hope Illinois uses this rare opportunity wisely.  It’ll face a rough year, but if it plays its cards right, it could actually come out stronger. It may even finally create some opportunities for a couple of generations too long shut out to get work.  Although the wave may have been generated by insipid fiscal management by the state, it may actually wind up being a blessing in disguise.  

Monday, July 16, 2012

Ask the Administrator: The Doctor of Arts Degree

A new correspondent writes:

I've been teaching college English as an adjunct for a few years (in addition to my full-time gig at a high school).  I love teaching college and want to move into it full time.  I have a BA and an MA in English right now.  My question for you is, from a community college hiring perspective, is there more value in a PhD than a DA (doctor of arts)?  I might get a DA in English, with a focus on composition, rhetoric, and writing pedagogy.  I'm not looking to get a job at a big research institution.  I'd love to work in a community college environment that values good teaching.  So is this DA worth pursuing if I have that kind of end goal in mind?

I’ll open by clarifying that I’m writing as a hiring manager at a community college; my perspective may be entirely inapplicable to other sectors of higher ed.  (Folks with knowledge of how this would play at research universities or striving four-year colleges are welcome to share in the comments.)

At this level, a degree in rhet/comp is more employable than a degree in literature.  The field makes more difference than the level.  In other words, a Master’s in rhet/comp could easily beat a doctorate in literature.  A doctorate in rhet/comp might help, but probably not as much as years of teaching experience at the community college level.

In my neck of the woods -- the Northeast -- doctorates are common enough that they don’t particularly stand out.  If you picked up knowledge or skills in the program that set you apart, that’s great, but that’s separate from the credential itself.  

It’s hardly news that English is a particularly difficult field, even with its ubiquity at the community college level.  Even a late-posted, fairly pedestrian position gets applications well into three figures, of which dozens or more meet every stated requirement.  A doctor of arts may be a point of distinction, but what might really set you apart would be -- for example -- special training in how to teach developmental classes.  That may be dispiriting, depending on your angle to the universe, but it makes perfect sense when you consider the needs of the institution.  Institutions hire to solve their own problems.  If student success at the developmental level is an issue -- and it is at most community colleges -- then a hire who could help with that is attractive.  Whether that means a doctorate or not is another question.

Given that doctoral programs worthy of the name are long, draining, and expensive, I’d suggest looking first at Master’s programs in rhet/comp that would allow you to specialize in developmental areas, especially reading.  That would probably get you most of the marketability of the longer program, but without giving up five to ten years of your life.  And it would signal to prospective employers that you know what they’re dealing with, and that you would be handy to have around.  That matters.

One admin’s opinion, anyway.  I’d love to hear from any community college English folk out there on this one.  Does this sound about right, or do things look different from where you are?

Good luck!  I hope your eventual decision lands you where you want to be.

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