Thursday, August 23, 2012


Richard Florida and Bill Bishop, in their different ways, have pointed out the increased geographic clustering of the educated/creative classes.  Broadly speaking, the creative classes tend to cluster in urban areas near oceans, leaving the vast middle “hollowing out,” as Richard Longworth put it.

This wasn’t always true.  As late as the 1970’s, middle-class life in, say, Ohio wasn’t all that different economically or politically than middle-class life in New Jersey.  (New York City was always something of an outlier.)  But various dynamics over the last generation or two have clustered demographic likes with likes.  Now there’s less economic or political diversity within counties, and much more between them.  

Most community colleges in America were built before what Bishop calls The Big Sort.  Far more were built in the decade leading up to 1970 than have been built in the four-plus since.  They were monuments to middle-class ubiquity, built on the assumption that middle-class-hood was attainable just about everywhere in the country.

I was reminded of that in looking at this story in IHE, and especially at the accompanying map.  Broad swaths of Pennsylvania don’t have community colleges in them, so some local four-year colleges are retrofitting two year programs to make up the difference.  At a time when middle-class-hood is more fervently desired than ever, its institutional incarnation is becoming harder to sustain.

The divergence shows up in a number of ways.  What many job-seeking academics refer to as the “two-body problem” is often, at least in part, a two economy problem.  Since academics tend to partner with other academics or professionals, moving two of them to one of the hollowing-out regions can be a major challenge.  It’s hard enough to find individual professional jobs in places like that; finding a pair can be daunting.  That means we tend to have severe underemployment in the metro regions -- where options exist, and people are reluctant to leave --  while colleges in the hinterlands have trouble recruiting.  

It also means that issues of cultural ‘fit’ are growing more complicated.  An article in Slate yesterday claimed that regional accents in the U.S. are actually becoming more distinct, rather than less.  I think that’s another symptom of The Big Sort.  As each region becomes more distinctly itself, it’s harder for transplants to feel at home.  Where Ohio may once have been a reasonably viable option for a young academic fresh out of grad school, it may not be quite so welcoming now.  

Place becomes even more complicated when an increasing percentage of instruction is delivered online.  At least theoretically, online instruction can be delivered from anywhere to anywhere, as long as both ends have broadband access.  

Now, with President Obama issuing a stay of deportation for people under age 30 who came to America as children, the definition of who belongs in a particular place is getting even more muddled.  (Apparently, some Republicans are considering banning Federal financial aid from any colleges that allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition.  There’s community, and then there’s community.)  Community colleges, by dint of the “community” part, are tied to particular places.  As those places become more polarized, and as instruction becomes more removed from those places, some of the baseline assumptions of the colleges come into question.  

None of this is the fault of the colleges, exactly.  But the places for which they were built -- places in which instruction happened onsite, and in which middle-class-hood was attainable almost anywhere -- are fading away, and we haven’t really come to grips with what is replacing them.

Program Note: My publisher sent me the “speak now or forever hold your peace” draft of the book, so I’ll be spending next week poring over that.  The blog will return the day after Labor Day, white shoes safely stowed away.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Selling Liberal Arts to 18 Year Olds

How do you sell the idea of liberal arts to an 18 year old?

Admittedly, the question scans differently at different institutions.  At the snooty/exclusive liberal arts colleges, the sale has already been made.  At a community college in a non-affluent area -- my beat -- the issue is a little trickier.

The liberal arts major is the largest major on campus, though that’s partly a function of its use as the ‘default’ or ‘effectively undecided’ major.  (For financial aid reasons, we can’t have an “undecided” major as such.)  It works reasonably well as a default major, since it’s comprised of transferable gen ed courses.  For a student who switches into another program after a semseter or two, typically everything they’ve taken will carry over.  The liberal arts greatest hits -- intro to psych, freshman composition, college algebra -- “count” in almost every other program anyway, so it’s a reasonable choice for a student who needs some time.

But some of us like to think that there’s value beyond the old chestnut of “getting your gen eds out of the way, “ as real as that is.  Yes, it transfers well, but why would they want to transfer in the first place?

There’s the classic “intellectual calisthenics” argument -- it makes you smarter -- but the appeal of that is probably limited.  It plays into the “scold” stereotype of academics that doesn’t make us many friends.  And it doesn’t address the real -- and largely valid -- economic concerns that are never far from the surface for so many students.

Aspirational sociology can also work.  These are the courses that the rich and powerful take.  Do you think there might be a reason for that?  Of course, that can also backfire; students could hear it as “these courses are for people with money, not people like you.”  

I’m thinking that the best sales approach -- yes, I said sales -- involves more showing and less telling.  And that’s true of almost any field.

Scientists and engineers have an advantage here; they have great toys to show off.  The engineering folks can show off their robots and Van de Graaf generators.  But even the more bookish fields have some great hooks, if only they’d bother to use them.

Poli sci sounds boring, but it’s the study of money and power.  Sociology sounds dreary, until you see it as showing the ways that a society organizes sex, power, and family.  Literature can seem stuffy, but it’s about how other people think, and how stories work.  

Incoming students may not know any of that.  They may be put off by unfamiliar labels, or by an inability to locate the immediate relevance.  And telling them to take eventual relevance on faith doesn’t quite cut it; the whole point of the liberal arts is to free yourself from having to take statements like that on faith.  It’s self-defeating, and students sense that.  

In the rush to fulfill requirements, I worry sometimes that many students never really get a chance to watch faculty love what they do.  Enthusiasm is contagious, and there’s something attractive about watching someone really engrossed and enthused in a subject.  (Though his politics were not mine, one of my favorite professors from college was a historian who was palpably tickled to teach what he taught.  His stories were rich, polished, and funny as hell.  The enthusiasm made an impression vivid enough that I still remember it.)  That’s difficult with heavy teaching loads, or with professors freeway flying from one college to the next.  But it’s possible even in difficult circumstances, if only students get in the door in the first place.

I don’t think many young students are persuaded by the usual “this is good for you” speech.  In a way, that’s actually to their credit.  But they can be persuaded by example.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen or found ways to make the more bookish subjects appealing to 18 year olds who may not even recognize the names of the disciplines?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Grant Program I’d Love to See

I spend a fairly alarming amount of my time these days on grant-related projects.  Each is worthy in its own way, of course, but they have certain limitations in common.

The dollars come with a time limit, and they require management.  Each has its own reporting requirements.  For the ones that work directly on academic issues, one or more full-time faculty have some time bought out by the grant so they can work on the grant project.  (Put differently: with every new grant, either we increase our adjunct percentage, or we decrease our course offerings.)  Each requires a liaison to somewhere else, and several of them require a full-time project director.  

For certain academic disciplines -- STEM, mostly -- so many projects are brewing that simply covering classes is becoming a challenge.  (Last week someone from Student Affairs practically begged me to open up more sections of math, since they were having an awful time finding slots for students.  I explained that I can’t just conjure up faculty on short notice.  But with available adjuncts finite, every course release for yet another project is yet another section we can’t run.)  Some projects are actually bumping up against each other, which creates issues when the funding streams can’t be crossed.

Meanwhile, other academic disciplines -- nearly everything outside of STEM -- are largely on their own.  

So for any philanthropists or politicians out there who’d like to do some good, here’s an idea:

Give open-ended grants to hire full-time faculty to teach classes.

That’s the one expense category I’m expressly forbidden to apply to any of the grants we have.  And it’s the one I most desperately need.

A time period of just a few years won’t do it.  When you have a tenure system, each year gets closer to a lifetime commitment.  The funding needs to be sustained over time.

In research universities, positions like these are usually called “endowed chairs.”  But that’s more high-falutin’ (higher falutin’?) than I need.  I’d settle for endowed assistant professorships.  

In an attempt not to hollow out the instructional core any more than it already is, my college handled the last few budget cuts largely with cuts to the administrative side.  That means that we just don’t have any more fat there to cut.  If anything, in some areas we’re running so lean that the opportunity cost of things we just can’t do are starting to mount.  And the costs for IT, regulatory compliance, and benefits just keep climbing.  State funding isn’t in free fall anymore, but it’s nowhere near where it was even five years ago.  And there are political and moral limits to how much faster to increase tuition and fees.

So if we’re to maintain the level of day-to-day instruction, a new paradigm in grants could not come at a better time.  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Adjunct Materials

This one is particularly for the experienced adjuncts, especially those who frequently teach in multiple settings.

What materials do you find the most useful, when you get a class at a new department?  

(Yes, I know, some would just appreciate a full-time paycheck, medical insurance, etc.  I know.  Let’s just stipulate that and move on.)

I’m asking because some of the departments here are taking a fresh look at some of what they provide, and I’d like to make the handouts as useful as possible.

Are sample assignments useful?  Sample student work?  Suggested reading lists?  

In my own adjuncting days, I wasn’t given much: in one memorable case, all I got was the one-paragraph course description from the catalog.  While the freedom was nice, I couldn’t help but wonder how closely what I did actually matched what the course was supposed to achieve.  There was really no way of knowing.

What would you find useful?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Ask the Administrator: What Does “College Ready” Mean?

A new correspondent writes:

I'm curious as to your definition of "college ready."
I teach first-year writing at a community college, and I genuinely love it. I love teaching writing, and I love teaching at a community college. One of the things I love most about CCs is the wide range of students who enroll; not only do we get the fresh-out-of-high-school students, but we gets students who have been working longer and developing professionally since the time I was in middle school, or longer. (I'm in my mid-30s.) I recently heard a colleague bemoan that students today weren't "college-ready," although I have to admit I didn't get the chance to ask her what she meant by that - her comment was made in context of her dislike of teaching that first level of writing because students weren't "college-ready." (I had to take a non-credit math class in college before I was permitted to take the lowest level of math class that would be permitted for my major. I had also been out of school for almost 10 years. Not college ready?)
I find such an attitude dismissive towards students who may, in fact, have been strong students, academically speaking, when they were in high school, but may need a refresher, or need an instructor who can finally make sense of any writing and reading issues they faced while enrolled in school previously. There are skills skills that need to be taught; one of the reasons one attends college to begin with is so that one can be taught those skills. There are always learning curves, both academically and in terms of attitude.  
Does it mean that the students who come to college shouldn't need first year English? Should their writing skills be such that they shouldn't need to take writing courses at all?  Do we tell students who are in their 40s and 50s, who have spent decades developing professionally without having gone to college, that they're not college ready simply because they might never have been strong writers? (Especially if they've been out of school for a few decades.) I wonder if she meant that students' attitudes and expectations were not what they should be, or what we would like them to be.
In any case, I'm curious as to how you define "college ready," and if you think students come to college really ready or if there are other thing that we could do in the trenches to help them.

I’m reminded of the exchange between Homer and the pawnshop guy on an early episode of The Simpsons, when Homer tried to pawn his tv.  “Is it cable ready?”  “Ready as it’ll ever be...”

Ready is a relative term.  And some level of skepticism is warranted, since every generation inevitably finds its successors lacking in something.  Kids today don’t even know who Tabitha Soren was!  Unthinkable.

That said, I think there are two “default” assumptions about “college readiness” that have general currency.  

The first is the student who places immediately into college-level courses, who has the finances, transportation, and books all arranged, and who has a clear goal in mind.  This student is optimally prepared to succeed in college, and it would be glorious if more students arrived like this.  Students who know what they want are likelier to attain it, and students who have their various ducks in a row at the outset are well-situated to succeed.  That’s no guarantee, of course, but the odds are far better.  (There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question with students like this.  Do they succeed because they’re prepared, or are they prepared because they’re the type that tend to succeed?  I’d guess it’s some of each.)

The second is the student who has identifiable risk factors, but who can still get it together.  This is the more common type of student; it sounds like you were one yourself.  This is the student with some academic gaps, some economic or family challenges, and, sometimes, some old, unhelpful habits that tend to die hard.  

The exclusive colleges like to outsource the second type of student to colleges like mine.  That way, they can spend their vastly greater resources on students who are nearly guaranteed to thrive.  That would be fine, if people who should know better didn’t go around crowing about differences in graduation rates, and drawing unfounded conclusions based on flawed measures.

But I digress.  

The challenge for faculty at colleges who take more of the second type of student -- and, yes, sometimes the third type, the ones who just aren’t ready -- is in focusing on the goal, rather than the gaps.  The gaps can be easy enough to see -- sometimes they hit you squarely in the face --
and sometimes they make a painful impression.  That’s especially true for folks who teach the introductory and developmental courses year after year.  Whatever progress you make with a given set of students in a semester, you have to hit “reset” and start over again the next semester.  Over years and even decades, the strain of that sometimes gets the better of some people.  They start to complain about “kids today,” and how they just don’t measure up, and how too much (fill in the blank -- comic book reading, television watching, web surfing, social networking...) has reduced their brains to mush, not like the Good Old Days When They Were Young...

It’s called “burnout,” and I’ve seen good people fall prey to it.  

If we put aside the bitterness and selective memory of “golden age” appeals, though, it’s increasingly clear that there are a few things people can do to help prospective students, and new students, succeed at greater rates than they otherwise would.

One, simply enough, is to convey to students an expectation that they will succeed.  This is why burnouts are so toxic; their fatalism is self-fulfilling.  Students have been known to rise, or fall, to the expectations set.  

Another is to help students identify goals early on.  We often make the mistake of foregrounding the gaps instead.  “You aren’t at the college level for math or writing, so you’ll need to spend a year retaking courses you hated the first time before you take anything that counts.”  Students tend to find that demoralizing.  It’s one thing to endure a long, hard slog when there’s a clear purpose behind it; it’s quite another when the whole enterprise just seems like an expensive quagmire.

On my own campus, for example, I’ve been heartened to see a shift in career advising from the last semester to the first semester.  Instead of waiting for students to be nearly done before talking about career goals, we get them as they walk in.  The idea is to help students figure out what they actually want.  Once the goal is in mind, it’s much easier to have discussions about pathways and strategies.

(Before the flaming, let me clarify that frequently the goal involves transfer and moving on to higher degrees.  It’s not at all antithetical to the liberal arts.  Besides, if memory serves, a fair number of students at snooty liberal arts colleges have career goals when they arrive.)

Yes, it would be great if the high schools did a better job.  But at the college, we can’t control that.  What we can do -- and are starting to make progress toward doing -- is to treat students as potential successes, and as people to be taken seriously.  Have the epistemological humility to admit that anyone who declares with absolute certainty who will and won’t make it is either lying or toxic.  Some folks with impressive early promise fizzle, and some who don’t look like much when they get here catch fire.  The job of the folks on the front lines is to create the conditions under which actual students -- not the idealized versions dimly recalled from undergrad days at selective places - can find their way.  

One guy’s definition, anyway.  Wise and worldly readers, how would you define college ready?

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

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Where Do You Write?

Where do you write?

People who write freehand have long had plenty of choices, but those of us who compose at the keyboard were long tied to wherever the computer (or typewriter) was.  They were appliances, far too cumbersome (and fragile, and expensive) to carry around.  In college, I wrote in the campus computer center; in grad school, I wrote in my bedroom.  Even into the 2000’s, I wrote in the basement, because that was where the computer was.

Cheaper and lighter laptops, and now tablets, have given us keyboard composers some of the geographic mobility of our pen and paper colleagues.  Which means, among other things, that we have to make choices that used to be made for us.

Picking a writing spot is partly a function of life circumstances.  As a Dad, I need to be home a lot, so just schlepping off to a local cafe every day isn’t an option.  (In grad school, it would have been.)  Even closing myself off in some isolated room of the house doesn’t fly for long.  So I’ve learned to make peace with interruptions, and to do what can be done at the kitchen table.  

(Learning to work with interruptions is where parenting and administration are remarkably similar.  In both cases, interruptions simply come with the territory.)

Laundromats make surprisingly good writing spots, since the white noise of the dryers is just enough to keep me focused.  The waiting room at the music place where TB and TG take lessons works really well, even though the wifi is spotty; the muffled sounds from the practice rooms provide good background noise, and the limited time and lack of other things to do provide a nice deadline effect.  I’ve even found a few cheap lunch spots near campus where I can get good wifi and a start on a blog post during my lunch break.  As an introvert, the occasional writing lunch keeps me sane.

Location also varies depending on the kind of writing.  For blog posts or other short pieces, I have a lot more flexibility than I do with, say, a book manuscript.  If I need several pieces of paper surrounding the keyboard, for various reasons, then the laundromat or takeout place just won’t do.  Proofreading long pieces on the screen doesn’t work for me; when I’m in Rewrite Hell, I need to be close to a printer.  And coffee.  And a music source.  And no sharp objects.

Writing in the office is hit-and-miss.  I don’t write blog posts there -- kind of a church/state thing -- but there’s a surprising amount of “daily business” writing that has to happen.  The office has a quick printer, which is a plus, but the pace doesn’t usually lend itself.  

I’ve heard from many faculty that they don’t usually write in their offices, either, and for similar reasons.  The location is too public; you’re sort of on call, and the interruptions can be serious.

Wise and worldly readers, where do you write?  Is there a particular spot that works consistently, or do you have to mix it up?  I’m especially curious about folks with youngish kids.  How do you balance focus with accessibility?  

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Fear Week

My Twitter account got hacked yesterday, so if you follow my feed and got a sketchy-seeming DM from “me,” ignore it.  In retrospect, I should have picked a less obvious password than “PaulRyanLooksLikeEddieMunster12.”  Live and learn.


Shark Week has brought the classic parental dilemma: the kids want to see the shows, but get scared to death while they watch.  The Girl is suddenly scared of sharks in the shower.  Part of me wants to shield them from the shows, but part of me thinks that learning to manage fear is an important part of growing up, as long as it isn’t much fear, and it isn’t well-founded.  I remember being the same way about UFO’s as a kid.  I’d watch some program on them -- In Search Of was a particular favorite -- and then be all jumpy for the rest of the night.  

I hate to see them spooked, but I also remember kind of enjoying the idea of UFO’s.  

So we’re rationing the viewing, and sometimes accompanying them while they watch.  And appreciating the fact that it’s only a week.  Shark documentaries just aren’t nearly as engrossing as Leonard Nimoy talking about spaceships.


I heard today that a key rule changed this summer.  Apparently, part-time enrollment will now be enough for students to be on their parents’ health insurance.  (Until now, they needed full-time status.)  Not surprisingly, we’re seeing a sudden change in the ratio of part-time to full-time students, with the former growing and the latter shrinking.  

If the usual trends hold, this will result in lower “on-time” graduation rates, but I’ll take it anyway. I just hope the folks who like to punish us for graduation rates don’t take this as ammunition, but something tells me they will.


Slate magazine is pretty hit-and-miss, as a rule, but its series this week on “progressive rock” is a hoot.  I grew up in a cultural wasteland that was years behind the rest of the country, so the backwash of the prog rock movement was the soundtrack to every school bus ride for years.  Burnouts with boomboxes would blast Rush from the back of the bus while the rest of us wished we were someplace else.  

Seeing prog rock placed in some sort of musical context feels like solving a puzzle.  I had heard many of the pieces over the years, but couldn’t make sense of them.  Apparently, some of its early proponents were quite self-aware about building rock on European -- as opposed to African-American -- music.  That’s why they were all about “trilogies,” and “codas,” and umlauts, and all the rest of it.  (It also helps me appreciate This Is Spinal Tap even more; the druids/stonehenge sequence was pure prog rock.)  It was both angry and intensely theatrical (“welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends...”), which is probably why I found it unlistenable.  It’s just awful.  It’s preposterous, yet entirely without humor.  It manages to be technically complex, yet basically simpleminded.  

To this day, I can’t hear “New World Man” or “Mr. Roboto” without wanting to leave the room immediately, and, preferably, take a shower (without sharks).

So it’s helpful to see that this wasn’t just some sort of beer belch from the gods of music.  It was actually trying something.  The thing in question was misguided, racist, and stupid, but in its time and place, you can sort of see how they got there.  And knowing that it was still in the air years later, where I was subjected to it incessantly, tells you everything you need to know about growing up in a cultural afterthought.  There’s nothing quite like revisiting the sounds of the school bus to feel better about life today.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Late Registration Two Step

Say the word “August” to any experienced administrator, and you’ll see an involuntary shudder.  Sometimes it’s followed by a low, guttural moan, or sometimes by an abrupt curl into a fetal position. We’ve even been known to run for the nearest hills, crossing streams to hide the scent. August is the season of shoehorning students into remaining sections.

It’s an awful practice.  Since students often make plans at (or slightly past) the last minute, we keep taking students until the last minute.  But “taking students” can mean different things.  The late registrants are allowed to enroll, but finding the classes they want -- especially at the times they want -- is another matter entirely.  Daytime sections of the most popular classes -- developmental and introductory gen eds -- typically fill by mid-July or so.  By early August, openings occur singly and randomly.  Assembling a workable full-time schedule of popular classes in late August requires a planetary alignment.

And that’s just on the academic end.  The late enrollee has less time to arrange financial aid, buy books, and get transportation and childcare arrangements aligned.  So it’s not surprising that the numbers consistently show that the last students in are the first students out.

Internally, it would be worlds easier to close enrollment a month or two before the start of the semester.  But doing that would lead to a significant enrollment drop.  Given the degree to which our budgets have shifted away from appropriations and towards tuitions, the impact of that kind of drop would be devastating.  We no longer have the margin for error to try it.

On the political side, while we’re being attacked for “high” attrition rates, we’re also expected to be there for displaced workers as soon as they need us.  If we say to someone who was laid off in July “try again in January,” that doesn’t help anybody.  So we’re caught between setting students up to fail, on the one side, or bending the world to our needs, on the other.

So I’m thinking of a late registration two-step, as a way of both addressing the academic need for student readiness and the political need for responsiveness.  I’m hoping that my wise and worldly readers can provide helpful feedback before I start spending political capital on it locally.

What if...

we combined shorter terms with earlier registration cutoffs?

Concretely, it might look like this.  Break both the Fall and Spring semesters into halves.  (I’ll call them sessions A and B.  So September and October could be Fall A, and November and December would be Fall B.)  Run courses in 7 or 8 week formats, with twice as much class time per week as now.  (Alternately, when appropriate, we could use hybrid formats.)  Have students take fewer classes at a time, but spend more time on each class.  And have enrollment deadlines, say, two weeks before the start of each session.

That way, a student who showed up in the first week of September would be told she could register for the classes that start in late October.  That would give a realistic window for financial aid and childcare arrangements, but wouldn’t force the student to wait until January.  (It would also help the student who went great guns in the beginning of the semester, but whose life intervened in November.  In this format, the student would have, say, six credits to show for it.)  She wouldn’t be shoehorned into a sure-to-fail combination in September, but she would only have to wait a couple of months, and would actually be in a position to succeed.

We’ve found locally that the shorter the class, the higher the success rate.  (Summer classes have higher rates than Fall or Spring, and January have the highest of all.)  That’s consistent with the national research I’ve seen, too.  So I’m thinking that breaking the semester into smaller chunks, and forcing students to register well in advance for whatever chunks they take, might be the best of both worlds.

I’ve been told that this could be a severe headache for financial aid, for technical reasons.  But are there other reasons this wouldn’t work?  Better yet, has anyone out there actually lived through a system like this?  How did it work?  Or is there something I’m not seeing?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Of Systems, Silos, and States

Cal State is refusing admission to graduate students from California; it’s only taking out-of-staters, citing the need for their sweet, sweet tuition surcharges.  

It’s ridiculous, but it’s also sane.  Cal State is being starved of funding, and it’s acting to protect itself.  That’s what independent institutions do.  If they can protect themselves while serving the public, they generally will, but if it comes down to “serve or survive,” they’ll choose to survive.  In the absence of a coherent system, the silos will do what makes sense for them.  Besides, if a silo took the ethical high road and chose suicide, it couldn’t serve in-state students, either; at least this way it can maintain its own programs, and maybe feed the local workforce a bit.

From a systems perspective, the issues California is facing are perfectly designed to rend public higher education asunder and turn it over to the for-profits.  But the state isn’t thinking in systems, and it certainly isn’t building them.  It has an old master plan -- a fairly intelligent one, actually -- but it prefers not to fund it.  So it turns the local campuses loose, and they do what they have to do to protect themselves.  In the meantime, students who can’t get classes have the option of continuing to work the drive-through window for a few more years while they wait, or of going online and signing up for a for-profit.

The irony, of course, is that a fiscally-driven “go your own way” policy actually winds up costing much more.  Students who attend for-profits consume far more financial aid than students who attend publics -- especially at the two-year level -- and less educated workers are less productive, and therefore less helpful as a tax base.  It’s a false economy.

(The issues at the City College of San Francisco are similar.  There, the basic lack of central administration has allowed the departments to go their own way; now, the college is in serious trouble with its accreditor.  A college that’s just a collection of silos isn’t viable.)

Governor Brown seems to be trying, but he’s necessarily just putting out fires at this point, and even that isn’t a sure thing.  If this Fall’s tax referendum doesn’t pass, the damage will get even worse.

There’s a dramatic leadership vacuum at the heart of the matter.  

It’s clear that the state of California lacks the ability and/or willingness to restore the status quo ante.  In the absence of a tremendous economic boom that makes everything okay, the best they can offer is to slow the decline.  This is not inspiring, and it is not sustainable.

Instead, this is the time to build, and sell, a new, coherent vision.  The late twentieth century model just isn’t cutting it anymore, and a generation of students can’t wait forever.  Get shut out of classes enough times, and the University of Phoenix starts to look pretty good.  It may be mercenary and it may be expensive, but it’s there.  It will let you in.  The only open port in a pretty bad storm can look awfully good, compared to the alternative.

Whatever else you want to say about the for-profits, they work as a system.  They have centralized leadership, and they’re clear on what they’re trying to do.  They’re significantly hampered by the need to serve two masters, but given the muddled perspective of most of the nonprofits at this point, serving only two masters doesn’t seem so bad.  

The publics don’t need top-down control; they need a single animating vision.  That vision can’t just be “restore the staffing levels of 1968.”  It needs to acknowledge the realities of Baumol’s cost disease, the desire for online courses, and the failings of the traditional model.  But more importantly, it needs to play offense.  It needs to inspire, rather than defend.  It can’t be indignant, backwards-looking, or apologetic.  It needs to be palpably better -- in terms that resonate with regular people -- than the for-profit alternative.

CIrcling the wagons, like Cal State, may briefly slow the decline.  But that’s not good enough.  It’s mistaking the tool for the task, the silo for the system.  It’s time for the next generation of leaders to step up.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ask the Administrator: Humanities Grad School?

An Australian correspondent writes:

I'm a current postgraduate student from Australia in my first year of a two year Master of Philosophy (Masters by research) degree in an evergreen humanities discipline. I'm interested in doing my PhD in the US for reasons that are long and not really logical (though I'm stubbornly set on it). I was wondering if you (or your readers) could assist me in figuring out how competitive PhD (tuition and stipend, preferably) scholarships are over there in the humanities? Or, if that's the length of a piece of string, what (aside from a strong academic record) are US graduate colleges and universities looking for?
I am teaching this semester and will teach again in at least one of the semesters next year. I have one minor academic pub and several non-academic but discipline-relevant pubs currently and will hopefully glean more from my thesis before I'd be applying. I've presented at one conference and have three more papers in the works/planned. I've also worked on a number of projects as a research assistant.
This would make me highly competitive at an Australian institution to receive funding but I'm also aware that our equivalent of tuition is government-paid, making all domestic scholarships stipend-only and therefore (I believe) less competitive. I'm currently juggling many things alongside my thesis/research and am slowly reaching the point where I'll need to say no to opportunities - loving and feeling insanely grateful for all of them, having a strategic reason for choosing one over another would be helpful.

I’ve argued for years that anyone who can envision being happy in any other endeavor should avoid doctoral programs in liberal arts fields.  The jobs for which those degrees prepare you are either adjunct or vanishingly rare, and if Paul Ryan’s plans get enacted, they’ll become even rarer than they already are.  The entire institutional edifice of non-profit higher education is groaning, under both external attack and the weight of internal flaws that I may have mentioned once or twice over the years.

In other words, the best plan is to do something else.

That said, if you absolutely will not hear of anything else, my quick advice would be to limit yourself to the tippity-top programs in your field, and to avoid taking on debt.  The opportunity cost of doctoral programs is herniating enough without adding debt payments.  (If you graduate and can’t find a permanent job, those debt payments can be brutal.)  The best programs sometimes offer highly desired candidates multi-year packages consisting of a combination of fellowships and teaching assistantships.  If you can find a package like that at a well-respected program, and you can keep your living expenses down, you have the best chance of emerging relatively unscathed.

In terms of what doctoral programs in the humanities are looking for in prospective students, I’ll have to defer to those among my wise and worldly readers who work in those programs.  That’s not my world.

There was a time, long ago, when the indentured servitude of graduate school made some degree of sense.  For a brief period in the 1960’s, there were academic jobs aplenty.  At that point, one could argue fairly that an early-career period of material sacrifice would pay off well over time.  (That same argument worked for law school until about five years ago, and it still mostly works for medical school.)  But that hasn’t been true for a long time.  At this point, graduate programs exist mostly to generate teaching assistants and research assistants.  When it comes time to try to make an adult living, you’re on your own.

The puzzler, to me, is that the system has survived as long as it has.  I’ve seen references to the “forty-year job crisis,” which strike me as self-refuting.  After forty years, it’s not a crisis; it’s the way it is.  It’s normal.  In fact, over the longer sweep of American history, the flush academic job market of the 60’s stands out as the aberration.  The mistake academics keep making is to keep assuming that the exception was the new rule, and that two generations of regression to the mean are flukes.  Yet smart people continue to pour into graduate school, convinced that they’ll be the exceptions.

Good luck.  If you must do a doctoral program in the humanities, this route should at least offer the best chance for a happy outcome.  But if the best offers you get are for nothing-special programs at which you’d have to borrow money for living expenses, don’t do it.  Just don’t.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Would you advise crossing the globe for a doctorate in an evergreen discipline?

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

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Why Men Should Take Women’s Studies

Women’s studies courses were some of the most useful courses I’ve ever taken.

I’m not kidding.

Moreover, I can imagine them being incredibly useful for other men in management roles.  

That flies in the face of cultural stereotypes, I know.  Courses like those are usually held up -- by those who like to make such arguments -- as among the most self-indulgent of the purely academic enterprises.  They elicit snickers from some.  I get that.  But there’s a tremendous value in them that rarely gets expressed, even by supporters of courses like those.

At their best, the women’s studies courses I took -- yes, I used the plural -- helped with two incredibly important management skills.  They helped me learn to navigate complex and emotionally charged issues, and they helped me learn to depersonalize categories.

These skills are useful every single day.

I was reminded of this a few days ago, when I was on the receiving end of an extended, vitriolic outburst.  It would have been easy, if unhelpful, to respond in kind, or to try to respond point by point.  Without betraying any confidences, it was based on different sets of assumptions crashing into each other.  

Getting through that and coming out in a better place required the patience to first try to figure out where it was coming from.  It required accepting that the reason I was being yelled at was my office, as opposed to me personally.  And it required emotional self-control in a charged setting that was moving pretty quickly.

Looking back afterwards, I realized that women’s studies classes were the first academic setting in which I honed those skills.  

As a clueless -- if well-meaning -- straight young white guy from the suburbs, I went into those classes without malice, but with some pretty glaring blind spots.  And back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, some of the theoretical issues were, um, let’s go with “at an early stage of refinement.”  Some discussions were conducted with appropriate academic distance, but some of them got pretty raw.  And it was easy to fall into the demonization/defensiveness spiral that we all know so well.

But it was also where I was first blindsided by arguments about things I thought I already understood.  I remember being struck dumb when someone made the point that the question of mothers working for pay registered differently in low-income communities, where the “choice” was never a choice.  I hadn’t thought of it from that angle.  And I remember repeatedly getting flustered as statements that had seemed obviously correct were parsed for unintended, but real, effects on folks I wasn’t thinking about.  

If that isn’t preparation for administration, I don’t know what is.  Everything here has ripple effects, and dealing with those ripple effects is a huge part of the job.  For some of us, the patience to take those seriously is a learned skill.  (There’s always a temptation to just throw up your hands, say “screw it,” and do what you wanted to do in the first place.)  And learning to at least think about possible unintended effects is incredibly helpful.

I won’t claim that all was sweetness and light.  There was some groupthink, and heaven knows that the prose style of, say, Gayatri Spivak, can sap the will of even the most tenacious reader.  Some of it was a bit much, and at least back then, the standards of proof weren’t always what they could have been.  

But that’s not really the point.  The point was to develop habits of mind that acknowledged that even things that seem obvious may have more to them, and to be able to separate, say, an attack on “patriarchy” from a personal attack as a guy.  It wasn’t always fun, but it was incredibly useful.

It wasn’t marketed as vocational, but I use it on the job every single day.  For any guys out there considering administration or management, I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Cash Cow or Money Pit?

Yesterday I received two emails in rapid succession that fairly begged for a single response.  One of them seemed quite confident in asserting that developmental education is a cash cow for community colleges.  The other seemed equally confident that developmental education is a money drain for community colleges.

Those can’t both be right.

In truth, I’m not even sure I could answer the question confidently about my own college.  Developmental courses tend to be more expensive in that they run smaller, so we have fewer tuitions to amortize the cost of the instructor.  But they also tend to be staffed with adjuncts, who make less money.  (We’re getting more of a full-time presence, but it’s a slow process.)  They have lower pass rates than credit-bearing classes, so there’s an attrition loss.  Developmental students also make considerable use of the tutoring center -- especially in math -- which is a cost center in its own right.  That said, though, developmental classes don’t need chemistry labs or a lot of specialized equipment, which many credit-bearing classes do.  

Annoyingly, our state funding is independent of current enrollment figures.  (It’s based on a decades-old snapshot of enrollment, adjusted in across-the-board increments since then.  Current enrollment fluctuations affect tuition/fee revenue, but they don’t affect our appropriations.)  So the idea that we’re trying to cadge more money out of the state is false.  It’s a nice theory, but it just doesn’t hold.

More to the point, both credit-bearing and developmental instruction are run at losses.  That’s where the public appropriations come in.  The idea is to price education below the cost of providing it, to encourage people to take advantage of it.  The theory behind that is that an educated workforce and citizenry is a public good.  (I believe strongly in this theory for any number of reasons, but that’s another post.)  Other parts of the college are run for profit -- non-credit courses, summer camps, the bookstore -- but those profits are used to partially offset the losses from core instruction.  

In other words, it isn’t as simple as saying “developmental courses are cash cows” or “developmental courses are money pits.”  All credit-bearing instruction loses money, more or less, and the biggest money pits are likely the low-enrollment upper-level classes that require specialized spaces, like music, studio art, Nursing, or lab science.  But I don’t hear the same questions being asked of those.

It gets even more complicated when you factor in the students who pass through developmental courses and then go on to take credit-bearing courses.  A non-trivial portion of our upper-level enrollment consists of students who made it through developmental classes.  Lose that pipeline, and over time, we’d see effects even on the high end.

Theoretically, I guess, lower enrollments could lead to staffing cuts that would save money.  But the first round of cuts would be the lowest-cost people, who, by definition, would save the least money.  

To my mind, the relevant question with developmental courses isn’t so much whether they generate profits.  It’s whether they generate success.  If they do, then I can see a valid business case for a “loss leader” model; if they don’t, then I see a valid educational case for junking them, or at least re-envisioning them in a pretty drastic way.  (I’m in the latter camp.)  

Of course, there are also the much larger issues of social mobility, the failings of an economically segregated K-12 system, and the fixed costs associated with physical plant.  (If enrollment drops five percent, library costs don’t drop at all, so the cost per remaining student automatically goes up.)  

I’d prefer to see the debate shift.  I can see a valid social argument for public investment that maintains social mobility for people who have been excluded, even if the payoff occurs only over time and off the balance sheet of the college itself.  (Economists call that a “positive externality,” and it’s another argument for a public subsidy.)  To the extent that’s true, let’s discuss how best to improve opportunity, rather than calculating the cost of the poor to three decimal places.  Frugality as selective as this isn’t really about frugality.

Monday, August 06, 2012


Some ideas from the business world translate to academia better than others.

At my college, we’re running an experiment with a summer math workshop.  It’s targeted at students who either took the math placement test and didn’t like the results, or who are soon to take the placement test and are concerned about the possible results.  The goal is to refresh the memories of students who may be a little rusty, but whose basic math competencies are stronger than a cold test might indicate.   The theory is that an adult student who hasn’t been in a math class since high school might not remember immediately how to multiply fractions, but with a quick refresher would be right back on top of it.  Therefore, a quick refresher that saves a full semester or two of remediation is a good investment.

Until recently, we’ve charged students a nominal fee for the workshop, and have had very low enrollments.  This year, as an experiment, we ran it at no charge to the students.  Enrollments have more than quintupled; still lower than I’d like, but a dramatic improvement.  (The workshop doesn’t carry academic credit, so we have much more flexibility about charges, seat time, and the like than we would for a credit-bearing class.)  

Apparently, labeling it “free” made a tremendous difference.  Now we’ll finally have enough enrollment to have meaningful numbers in assessing the program’s effectiveness.

Now the folks at South Georgia Technical College are applying that same magic word -- free -- to textbooks.  According to IHE, it’s sponsoring a textbook rental program, much like K-12 public schools do.  Students are issued their books as part of their tuition, and return the books at the end of the semester.  Enrollment has jumped since they announced the program.

In the business world, of course, the notion of “free” as a magic word is well-known.  It’s used to get people in the door -- or whatever the web equivalent of that is -- and/or to get them to buy more once they’re in.  (“Buy two, get one free”)  A successful business can use “free” items as loss leaders, making up the foregone earnings on the back end.  

In higher ed, we’ve generally been more reluctant to think that way.  We give away plenty for free -- office hours, library access, etc. -- but don’t market it that way.  As such, we get the downside of providing freebies -- lost income -- while losing much of the upside.  When budgets are tight, it can be hard to justify internally giving away something that’s costly to produce.

In the case of the math workshop, the hypothesis is that students who can shorten (or skip) the time they would have spent in developmental classes will retain and graduate at higher rates.  Instead of getting frustrated and leaving after a semester or two, the student actually stays the full two years and leaves as a graduate, rather than a dropout.  Multiply that by enough students, and the increased tuition/fee revenue more than covers the cost of the workshop.  Better yet, it does so in an ethically defensible way.  (South Georgia Technical College seems to be making a similar calculation: increased enrollments will more than pay for the cost of providing free textbook rentals.)  The trick is in finding ways to make freebies sustainable, or even -- dare I say it -- profitable.  If they work, both the math workshop and the textbook rental ideas strike me as potentially profitable over the long term, but in ways that actually benefit students.

In an era of tuition hikes, I’m thinking that “free” may become even more attractive than it already was.  

Obviously, it would have to be managed carefully.  If a program conceived as profitable becomes a drain, the college has a decision to make.  And suddenly charging for something previously free tends not to go over well.  (cough Netflix cough)  Alternately, a program that’s sustainable at a smallish size might quickly outgrow its bounds.  “Free” works best when it’s still a novelty, as opposed to an entitlement; I don’t see students breaking down doors for office hours, generally speaking.  

But in a time when we’re trying all sorts of surcharges, user fees, price hikes, and service cuts to balance budgets, it’s heartening to see that some conscious movement in the other direction could actually work.  If the internet has taught us anything at all -- other than that cats love cheeseburgers -- it’s that there’s a market for free.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Ask the Administrator: The Place-Bound Theater Major

A new correspondent writes:

I'm facing a conundrum and I haven't been able to get any clarity or guidance on it for some time. I've been doing theatre in one form or another for the past thirteen years. First acting, then design, now I'm in an MA program at an R1 in Theatre History/Theory/Lit. I'm doing very well, I'm only halfway in, and I've presented at a national conference, and am holding down an A average. For a person who barely passed high school, this is pretty good. 
However. I'm faced with some horrible economic realities, namely, that I will probably not be able to find a job. Not because I'm untalented, unhygienic, or lazy, but because I have the combination of a "useless" degree field, and I have to stay within the Chicagoland area (for a variety of long-winded reasons). The thought of working my tail off for five or more years at a PhD, and then being limited to only to Chicago, doesn't seem right to me. Besides, there is only one theatre PhD in Chicago, and that's Northwestern, the top university in my field. And I used to work there as a secretary before I went to grad school, so they will never know me as anything but a secretary.
I can't teach in my program as an MA student (for reasons that are beyond me), and I've been thwarted at every turn (applying to direct at a private high school, proposing an independent course for another department, etc.). I have no teaching experience, and I'm looking at having absolutely zero when I graduate in May. This is the kiss of death for me, isn't it? How can I get more teaching experience to land that community college teaching job?
Ideally, I'd love to either balance a class at a CC while teaching at a private high school (certification in IL happens only in Normal, hours from Chicago) or be full time at a CC. I just want to teach. My minor in college was Art History, so I don't have a broad area to teach in, outside of theatre. I don't have the credentials, anyway. If I wanted to tack on certification in English, I'd have to do 2.5 years at a university an hour away, and then I would only be certified in English. More schooling on top of what I've already got seems nightmarish to me, at the moment.
I've got a very extensive background in theatre design, both costume and scenic, and I've worked for two of the most elite theatre companies in Chicago. I'm talented there. Would it make sense for me to buck up and try and get a terminal MFA in Costume/Scenic Design? Would it make my chances at getting a job at a CC better, since I'd be able to show, with my degree, that I could also teach design classes?
I have a substantial and (so I've heard) impressive portfolio of design work as of right now. I haven't done any design work for a few years now, but it's not a skill that goes away. Would just having the portfolio to point to be enough, or would the MFA really increase my chances?
The thought of three more years of grueling schooling, probably more loans, is really unattractive at the moment, I gotta say...
I'm willing to do just about anything to prepare myself for the job market in May, but I'm really getting discouraged. I want to be able to make a decent living (I'm talking $45K as the dream salary, here) while teaching theatre. How do I go about making myself an attractive candidate, even without a PhD under my belt?

My first thought is to diversify your targets.  At the community college level, generally speaking, the Ph.D. isn’t a deal-breaker.  (In most cases, it’s not even a tiebreaker.)  So I certainly wouldn’t recommend going after one if a community college is your goal.  Although it’s not my field, my impression is that the same holds true for most private high schools; a doctorate may be nice, but it’s not going to get you the job, and it’s not a requirement.

Unfortunately, the full-time faculty market is very much a national one.  Even community colleges typically do national searches for full-time faculty at this point.  The Chicago area is more cosmopolitan than most -- I can’t bring myself to use the term “Chicagoland,” because it reminds me too much of “Wayne’s World” -- but it’s still a pretty small slice of the country.  Picking an overcrowded field, and then limiting yourself to a single city, is pretty high-risk.  

From a narrow career perspective, the clear long-term strategy would be to adjunct a little to gain experience and to see whether teaching actual community college students really appeals to you.  With a little experience, you’ll have a better sense of how much you want the actual job, and you’ll be a more attractive candidate.  It might also buy you some time, during which the factors holding you in one region may or may not dissipate.  Of course, adjuncting pays terribly, so in the meantime there’s a bread-and-butter issue to address.  

Of course, you could also construe the possible careers more broadly.  Professorships of theater are pretty rare, and the folks who have them tend to hold onto them.  (We hire a new full-timer roughly once every ten years or so.)  But those aren’t the only avenues available.  Acting (and other theater related) classes happen in other venues, both official and unofficial.  And if you can sell yourself convincingly as someone who can teach public speaking, even better.

There’s also the time-honored option of the day job.  In this economy, they aren’t as easy to get as they once were, and they can be pretty uninspiring, but at least they can keep you afloat whjle you’re trying to make something else happen.  

What I would not do is recommend spending yet more years, and money, piling up more degrees.  I don’t see them paying off, and I do see the debt payments (and opportunity cost) growing.  A Master’s is enough, if you’re a good teacher and the right opportunity comes along.  More than that won’t make you a better teacher, and outside of a few, rarified settings, it won’t create more opportunities, either.  Instead, I’d look at getting some teaching experience, both for the information it will give you -- do you really enjoy this? -- and to make you a more appealing candidate.  

Good luck.  You’ve got a tough row to hoe.

Wise and worldly readers, I hope someone knows something I don’t.  Is there another, better option for a place-bound theater major?  

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