Sunday, June 30, 2013

Of Temps and Trainees

First jobs have changed.  

I’m not referring to summer jobs for teenagers, which are largely what they’ve always been.  I’m referring here to first “real” jobs -- full-time, salaried, open-ended positions that might lead somewhere.

Back in the late 90’s, during the Clinton boom, I used to hear variations on “you educate them., and we’ll train them.”  That was even true working at DeVry, which prided itself on producing “instant on” workers.  When the economy was humming along and labor shortages in certain fields were the order of the day, it wasn’t weird for companies to look for generally smart people and train them in the specifics of what they did.  Given the speed with which the tech sector evolved, that method made sense; by the time you finished a four year degree, much of what you had learned in the first two years was already obsolete anyway.  Beyond some basics, employers wanted to know that you were trainable, and that you had enough workplace sense that they could surround you with adults and not worry about it.

My brother played the situation similarly.  He was a history and religion double major, but he found himself a company that was willing to train smart people to work as technical writers.  He has been able to fashion a successful career from there.  Once the first foot was in the door, he was fine.

In the recent discussion of colleges and workforces, though, I’ve seen a shift.  Employers in general are less willing to train -- they’re much more vocal about wanting the “instant on” employee.  The speed of technical change hasn’t slowed -- if anything, it has accelerated -- but the old “you educate them, we’ll train them” model isn’t as popular as it was.

Part of that, I suspect, is the switch from a labor shortage to a labor surplus.  Those of us in academia know this shift well, since we experienced it first.  When employers are desperate for people, they’ll overlook a few gaps in preparation and fill them in later.  But when you have your choice of great people, it’s easy to sacrifice training budgets and just hire people who have already done the job elsewhere.  Why put up with rookie mistakes when there are experienced people eager to step in?

In a sense, the temp is the new trainee.  That’s where the experience comes from now.  In academia, that means adjuncting; in the corporate world, it means internships or project-based assignments or contract work or straight-up “temping.”  Given plenty of candidates for full-time positions, it’s rational for an employer to prefer candidates with some demonstrated experience over candidates with none.  But candidates are expected to get that experience through an incredibly low-paid sort of pickup work that was never designed to be educative.  

The old apprenticeship or trainee model wasn’t terribly well-paid either, but it was specifically designed to both produce better workers and weed out the hopeless.  And when times were better, it actually led somewhere.  

The graduate student unionization movement that took hold in the 90’s was an early response to the realization that a generation of grad students was getting the worst of both worlds.  Grad school was still designed on the old apprenticeship model -- that’s how they justified the poverty and peonage -- but upon graduation, those same students had to serve time in the new temp-based form of training.  And even after all that, which could easily add up to a decade or more, there was no guarantee of a real job at the end.  The unionization drive was based on a recognition that it’s one thing to defer gratification and another to forego it altogether; if grad student peonage is merely low-paid work, rather than sufficient training, then the workers should be allowed to protect their rights.  Which, in fact, they should.  It didn’t solve the larger problem, but it was better than nothing.

Now that a variation on the academic model has made its way throughout the economy, colleges are getting blamed for not preparing students for jobs.  Yes, there’s always room for improvement, but at a basic level this is a misunderstanding.  The jobs have changed.  All of us -- higher ed, the broader public, political leadership -- are still coming to terms with that.  Community colleges are part of a solution, but the issue is far, far larger.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Friday Fragments

If you haven’t yet read The Unwinding, by George Packer, I really can’t recommend it enough.  It’s an account of the dissolution of the American middle class over the last forty or so years, told almost entirely through biographies.  (It’s pretty clearly modeled on John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy.)  

Packer is a thoughtful and subtle writer who has enough craft to let the various biographies circle his thesis, rather than just using them as illustrations.  Yes, you can figure out his politics, but he rarely violates the three-dimensionality of his characters in the service of a point.  The sympathetic people make mistakes, and the unsympathetic ones have real strengths.  It’s not a quick read, but it’s an elegant and provocative one.


I hope my colleagues on campus don’t take this personally, but the occasional day when most other people are on vacation can be remarkably productive.  The major downside is that scheduling meetings requires a sort of hopscotch.


A tip o’the cap to state senator Wendy Davis of Texas.  Anyone who can get me to watch a livestream of the Texas legislature at ten o’clock at night has to be on to something.  I know the law she blocked will probably be enacted anyway, and sooner rather than later, but Senator Davis did something remarkable.  She broke the monopoly on political discussion -- ironic, for a filibuster -- and made obvious to all just how far the ruling party would go to get what it wants.  (Literally turning back the clock?  Wow.)  She gave liberals a much needed heroine, and reminded many of us that the phrase “Democrat from Texas” isn’t an oxymoron.  Well done.


Along similar lines, I was heartened to see the Supreme Court strike down the Defense of Marriage Act.  As with the Texas senate, the value in it goes beyond the immediate issue of equal recognition of same-sex marriage, as important as that is.  It also made clear that Justice Scalia has crossed over from an intimidating extremist to a vaguely embarrassing joke.  “Argle bargle” sounds like something that Schnitzel would say on Chowder, but Schnitzel is a cartoon character.  Scalia is starting to become cartoonish, too.  He’s like a Scooby Doo villain -- “I would have gotten away with it, too, if not for those meddling gays.”  He’s not even a worthy opponent anymore; his tenure has gone from tragedy to farce.   A man once feared is now either pitied or, more commonly, laughed at.

The world changes, whether you give it permission or not.  Justice Scalia rages against it for its presumption.  My money is on the world.


Over the past week, I’ve been in several meetings in which decisions were put in parentheses, not to be fully resolved until we know whether the House or Senate version of the state budget would pass.  That kind of suspended animation is a deadweight cost, no matter which budget wins.  Here’s hoping for a resolution as quick as it is thoughtful...


The kids finished school this week, The Boy completing sixth grade and The Girl completing third.  They brought home some of their work from the year.  The Girl -- all of 8 years old -- wrote a story that made me laugh out loud.  With her permission, here’s the opening:

A long time ago in a land not too far away, there once lived a handsome prince.  Now, you might immediately think that this story is going to go like any other fairy-tale.  The prince and the princess fall in love and the prince saves her for whatever reason.  But this story isn’t like that.  Not at all.  Positively not at all.  Absolutely, positively not at all.  Definitely, absolutely, positively, not at all.  I’ll stop now.  But I hope you got my point.

‘Cause anyway, princesses should be able to save themselves.  They don’t need a prince to do everything for them.  But that’s sadly something they’re yet to learn.  So anyway, here’s the story.  (I don’t know if there’s a moral or not, but keep your eyes open for one.)

Once upon about 11:00 yesterday...

Write on, TG.  

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Warning to My Colleagues

I wasn’t surprised by a new study showing concrete benefits for low-income students who attend Early College High School programs.  The study used a random lottery to assign certain students to Early College programs, while keeping other, otherwise-similar students out.  Attendance in the programs is positively correlated with subsequent college enrollment and graduation.

Programs like that can do wonders for kids in difficult circumstances.  They can demystify college, making it seem real.  They can take kids out of high school settings that just don’t work for them, whether because of bullying, homophobia, or whatever other dysfunction the local high schools happen to suffer.

From experience and observation, though, I have to offer a warning to any of my colleagues who are considering establishing one.

Some of your faculty will hate it.

I say “some,” not “all,” because the sentiment isn’t universally shared.  But among those who will oppose it, statistics about success won’t matter.  Neither will appeals to social justice, testimonials from students, or solicitations of alternatives.  

They’ll take a program like that as a threat to their status as college professors.  They’ll see it as encroachment by high schools onto college territory, and feel it as an implied insult.  It will strike at the heart of a status anxiety that ultimately won’t be soothed with statistics.  You’ll know that this is the issue when you start hearing arguments about “identity.”  

It’s easy for faculty to feel embattled.  (My friend Lesboprof had a nice piece on that last month.)  Higher ed is acutely status-conscious from the outset, and community colleges don’t carry the prestige of universities or elite colleges.  Over the last several years, cc’s in most of the country have endured some pretty rough budget years, even by the standards of a sector that’s underfunded in the best of times.  Faculty have seen the move towards adjuncts, and many of them see it, with some warrant, as a devaluation of their role.  And recently, calls for higher graduation rates and more workforce development strike many liberal arts faculty as offensive; they read the former as a veiled order to lower their standards, and the latter as foreshadowing downsizing.  Taken in combination, that’s a powerful set of stressors.

When you start with a hair trigger, and then hear something about high school students coming on campus, it’s easy to read an ECHS program as an intolerable insult.  It’s a misreading, and a dangerous one, but I can see where it comes from.

In a perfect world, we could address the various stressors directly and thereby lower everybody’s blood pressure.  At that point, it would be easier to discuss the merits of a given program.  But the anxieties run deep.  Local administrations don’t have the power to undo years of state austerity.  The higher ed prestige hierarchy predates all of us, and has psychic effects far beyond anything a given dean or vp could address.  And while I absolutely agree that local administrations should be clear on rejecting grade inflation as a retention strategy, it’s simply impossible to ignore the larger social pressures to ensure the employability of graduates.  When a legislature announces point-blank that it will base allocations on a given set of metrics, there’s really no ignoring that.  The people whose courses don’t fit the metrics as cleanly as others are capable of connecting the dots.  

Since status anxiety is likely to persist, any of my colleagues out there who are considering an ECHS-style program would be well-advised to take the temperature of the faculty, and to offer whatever assurances they can, before jumping in.  The program itself may well be worthy -- I’ve been impressed by the results I’ve seen -- but it may set off a serious trip wire.  Proceed with caution.  I’m not suggesting that it’s worth sacrificing a generation of kids just to avoid irritating some adults.  It isn’t.  But be aware that what seems in isolation like an obviously good idea may sound to some faculty like a mortal insult, and that they may respond accordingly.  Don’t be blindsided.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

From Adjunct to Administration?

In response to yesterday’s post about a thin bench for leadership roles at community colleges, Lee Skallerup Bessette mentioned on Twitter that plenty of people with leadership potential and interest are stuck in the ranks of the adjuncts, because they haven’t been able to get that first foot in the door.  She suggested ACE fellowships for adjuncts, so they could get the experience to be taken seriously as administrative candidates.

I’ve been chewing on the idea ever since.

We’d have to clarify what “administrative role” means.  I don’t see someone without full-time higher ed experience moving directly into senior ranks, for example.  Too much would be new, and it would be entirely too easy to fall into some predictable traps.

But a midtier role?  I could see it.  In fact, I’ve hired that way -- the new dean of Business and STEM on my campus, whom I hired, came from the adjunct ranks.  That said, she did bring quite a bit of industry experience, which is helpful in that division.  And when she was in the adjunct ranks, she took it upon herself to establish a speakers’ series on campus, bringing successful local businesspeople to talk to students.  That made an impression.

Administrative and staff roles in other areas of the college, such as student affairs, also tend not to require experience as full-time faculty.  Some level of teaching experience can be helpful, though, particularly in areas like academic advising.  Knowing what faculty are dealing with can help in working with students who are trying to find their way in unfamiliar territory.

In some ways, the value of something like an ACE fellowship program for adjuncts might be in depolarizing some of the discourse.  To the extent that a college looks like a black box, it’s easy to hurl demands at it and draw conclusions when those demands aren’t met.  But if you see how the sausage is made, you learn quickly that it isn’t that easy.  That’s not to say that this is the best of all possible worlds, by any means; it’s in hopes that a serious confrontation with the issues at hand might lead to some better ideas.  That has been the subtext of this blog pretty much from the beginning, but local contexts differ in important ways.  

In any event, it’s becoming clear that colleges are going to have to become less rigid in their hiring patterns.  That can be difficult when you hire by committee.  Committees have their virtues, but they do tend to favor less risky choices.  I tend to believe that if the status quo is proving unsustainable, then the safe choice is, by definition, unsafe.  But that remains a minority view.  Getting entire committees to look at non-traditional candidates is harder than getting individuals to do it.  When committee dynamics are compounded by an acute awareness of litigiousness, the temptation to flee to safety is strong.  Folks coming in from the cold will have a heavy burden of proof, perhaps more so than they should.

Wise and worldly readers, do you see potential in some sort of embedded or shadowing program in which adjuncts could see the workings of administration up close?  Or is this just too far afield?

Monday, June 24, 2013


Achieving the Dream and the Aspen Institute have issued a report saying that the pipeline of potential successors to all of the community college presidents who are likely to retire in the next few years is looking thin.  It’s looking at revamping Ed.D. programs to make candidates more appealing and/or prepared.


A few thoughts.

First, if you limit the focus to Ed.D. programs, you’re already ruling out those of us (hi!) who already have doctorates.  Some of us got doctorates in academic fields and worked as faculty for a while before moving into administration.  I’d think that would be seen as a positive.  I don’t believe that classroom experience is enough to move into a presidency, but I do see it as relevant.  There’s a reality check that comes with grading piles of papers from intro classes.  

Second, and related, the issue of pipelines goes much farther than presidencies.  The traditional ladder went from full-time faculty to department chair to dean to vp to president.  To the extent that colleges skipped a generation of full-time faculty in the move to adjuncts, that demographic hole is working its way up the ladder.  (Yes, I said a hole is climbing a ladder.  Don’t judge.)  

Of course, to the extent that the tasks presidents do are disconnected from traditional academics, the academic pipeline matters less.  At this point, community college presidencies tend to involve much more than that.  They’ve always involved Board relations, as well as the “face of the college” ceremonial role.  But now they tend to have higher demands for government relations, on the one side, and donor cultivation on the other.  Since the Great Recession set in, it’s no longer possible to assume -- to the extent that it ever was -- that you could just take care of the college and the legislature would take care of itself.  Legislatures have moved in two seemingly contradictory directions at once: less funding, but more mandates.  Now heaven help the president who ignores graduation rates, job placements, or whatever other performance criteria a particular state decides to enforce.

In many states, legislatures are pushing a centralization agenda.  The idea seems to be to treat colleges less as independent entities, and more as agencies of the state.  (My neighboring state of Connecticut is an easy example.)  To the extent that colleges’ agendas become more externally dictated, presidents’ jobs become harder.  That’s because internal audiences are frequently far enough removed from those agendas that they effectively discount them, acting as if they had the standing to override the outside world.  That basic disconnect, I think, is behind much of the recent angst around shared governance.  Classic shared governance assumes that a given decision is the college’s to make.  With legislatures increasingly taking those decisions upon themselves, the room for shared governance shrinks.  Presidents make easy targets for that frustration.

Finally, there’s the basic fact that most presidents are hired by Boards of Trustees.  Boards have varying levels of understanding of the dilemmas that colleges face.  Even well-meaning trustees from outside of higher education may inadvertently apply criteria from other sectors that may not make sense here.  (“Executive presence.”)  In many ways, running a community college is closer to municipal government than it is to corporate management, but people from outside the industry often don’t know that.  

Leadership planning is a serious issue, but I’d start with educating the folks who pick the next leaders.  If they don’t know what to look for, they probably won’t find it.  If you want to prepare the candidates who actually exist, you’ll have to go well beyond Ed.D. programs.  Look at incumbent administrators who have actually helped to improve student success, and fill in their gaps as needed.  Presidencies aren’t getting any easier; better to find people who’ve shown real strength and prepare them.  They may or may not look like their predecessors.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Poli Sci? Really?

About once a week, the New York Times runs a piece that’s deliberately, rather than incidentally, about creeping philistinism.  

This week’s entry, The Decline and Fall of the English Major, is a mostly unremarkable example of the genre.  But it included a statistic that made me sit upright:

In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science.

Political science?  

I raise an eyebrow for a few reasons.  First, as longtime readers know, poli sci is my scholarly home.  I got my doctorate in it, with a focus on political philosophy.  I’ve taught poli sci at a host of colleges and universities, and spent plenty of years roaming the hallways of APSA with that distinctive mix of fear and desperation that theorists know well.  (Within the discipline, theory is very much the red-headed stepchild.)  Between the teaching and the conferences, my experience of political science was that it was selling something that very few were buying.  

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, poli sci was a hard sell just about anywhere.  As liberal arts go, it was too grubby and applied for the humanists to endorse, but too theoretical and useless for the vocationally minded.  (For a long time, it survived mostly as the de facto pre-law major.)  And anyone who has tried to read the APSR can attest that the discipline didn’t do itself any favors in terms of reaching a broad audience.

Economics, I can understand; it’s about money.  It’s the closest thing to a Business major that the Ivies and snootier liberal arts places offer.  At Williams, the Econ major was popular among football players who went on to investment banks.  Now, apparently, it’s reaching beyond the usual suspects.

But poli sci is a mystery.  Historically, it was the default major for students who wanted to go on to law school.  But law school applications are falling fast, as prospective students hear horror stories of underemployment in the field combined with herniating student loan burdens.  Outside of the pre-law function, it remains no more vocationally useful than, say, history or English.  

More frighteningly, the poli sci boom -- if that’s what it is -- seems to be restricted to the elites.  It’s simply not happening at the community college level.  Here, the social science of choice is still psychology, as it has been for as long as I’ve been around.  On my own campus we have one full-time political scientist on the faculty, and he also teaches history.  

It’s possible that Yale is a fluke, of course.  Maybe there’s some uniquely charismatic political scientist there (?!) who’s a pied piper of students.  But if that isn’t the case -- and poli sci is gaining ground among elite institutions while remaining peripheral everywhere else -- then we have a different issue.  To the extent that poli sci helps explain and make familiar the workings of power -- at its best, that’s exactly what it does -- then seeing an increased class stratification in who takes it should be alarming.  The elites are studying more closely how power works, while the masses are ignoring it.   This does not lead anywhere good.

Alternately, this may be a Nate Silver effect.  To the extent that data analytics have improved and become cool, poli sci may be where students pick that up.  Yale isn’t known for quantitative work, but anything is possible.  And I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the turn away from pre-law is less pronounced at the elites, since they’re likelier to feed into the elite law schools.  Grads from third-tier schools really struggle now, but grads from Harvard Law still do just fine.

If anything, tracing the workings of power is much more important for the non-elites.  People with money and connections will be fine; everyone else actually has something to worry about.  If discussions of money and power are restricted to those who already have both, I foresee the discussions becoming ever more provincial, and its blind spots ever larger.

The Times probably didn’t intend to make this point, but sometimes it trips over something good.  Wise and worldly readers, has anyone out there seen a poli sci boom in a community college setting?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

“Rationalizing” Gen Ed

In the “choice is bad” conference Wednesday, several speakers referred to “rationalizing” the general education curriculum as a way to improve student success.  The idea was that students who don’t already know their way around higher ed -- typically the first-generation, low income students -- are easily overwhelmed by too many options.  So if we want to improve the percentages of those who make it to graduation, we should narrow down the options so the pathways will be clear.

That sounds innocent enough, but implementation could be ugly.

Most colleges construct gen ed requirements on the classic “distribution requirement” (also called “Chinese menu”) model.  Take two from column A, three from column B, one from column C, and so on.  When you’ve checked off the relevant boxes, you’re generally educated.

That’s not because anybody particularly believes that the “distribution” model is a great idea.   It’s both too broad to form any sort of basis of common knowledge, and too disjointed to form a coherent whole.  The movement to assess gen ed outcomes was born, in part, of a recognition that the whole doesn’t necessarily equal the sum of its parts; as options multiply, the odds of students getting a coherent education get longer.  Embedding, and assessing, gen ed outcomes in various classes is a sort of retrofit to try to stop the leakage.

Columns A, B, and C are as long as they are for a couple of reasons.  First, at least in theory, a wider range of choices offers a greater likelihood of a given student taking something she actually likes.  As any teacher knows, student interest greatly enhances student performance.  And there is some truth to that.  (A close variation on that argument is the “serendipity” argument.  If I hadn’t been forced to take economics, the student says, I never would have discovered how much fun it is.)  But for the most part, students wind up picking gen ed electives based on scheduling, what their friends are taking, and/or how difficult the courses are reputed to be.  Yes, there are exceptions, but the expression “get your gen eds out of the way” exists for a reason.

The second reason is internal campus politics.  Getting your course on the list of ways to fulfill a requirement effectively guarantees a certain level of enrollment.  If your course is dropped from the list, you could reasonably expect enrollments to drop.  Depending on context, the drop could be minor or it could be severe.  But when resources are constrained, which department wants to take the chance?

To make that concrete, take the social sciences.  Right now students can satisfy a social science requirement by taking psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, economics, or several others.  If we were to “rationalize” that requirement by streamlining it -- say, by making Intro to Psych the social science requirement for everybody -- I could imagine the psychology department hailing that decision as wise, and the sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics departments raining holy hell upon all and sundry.  They’d perceive the change, correctly, as a direct threat to their livelihoods.

In principle, that shouldn’t matter.  Colleges are supposed to be run for the students, rather than for the faculty.  But students come and go, and faculty stick around.  They have no intention of reforming themselves out of work, or even out of resources, no matter how good the argument.  Provosts who push that sort of change tend not to stay provosts for long.

My sense is that “rationalizing” gen ed would make a marginal difference at best; the real issues are around other things.  And the politics of trying it are simply prohibitive.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen an approach to streamlining gen ed requirements that actually worked, made sense, and didn’t result in campus bloodletting?  Or is this really a red herring?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Down With Freedom!

Students need institutions to tell them what to do.

That was the underlying theme of the GPS (Guided Pathways to Success) conference held by Complete College America yesterday in sweltering, hot, muggy, Orlando.  As with GPS devices, the idea is that much student attrition is due to them simply getting lost and wasting time and resources going down blind alleys.  If students can be provided much more direction, the argument goes, they’ll be likelier to get where they’re trying to go.

Fans of behavioral economics will recognize the impulse immediately.  Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice, opened by noting that when faced with too many options, people quickly become overwhelmed and effectively decide not to choose.  He cited a study in which some consumers were presented with thirty different brands of jelly to choose from, and others were only given four.  The group that was only given four choices wound up buying more jelly; the group given thirty mostly just walked away.  Faced with a situation in which there was no realistic way to make a choice that placed them safely beyond regret, they chose not to choose.

In the context of jelly, we can file that under “who cares?”  But in the context of matriculation, in which successful pursuit takes thousands of dollars and several years, choosing not to choose is a terrible option.  Schwartz emphasized that even though it may seem counterintuitive and even paternalistic, students are actually much more empowered by choosing among fewer and more carefully constructed options.  

The rest of the conference was devoted to variations on the theme.  In brief, factors that contribute to student completion include full-time status, tightly prescribed courses of study with a minimum of options, “rationalized” (that is, streamlined) general education requirements, intrusive advising, academic maps, and “meta-majors.”  In each case, the idea is to make the path obvious and clear, and to make the high-probability choice the easiest choice to make.

In fairness, most of these don’t involve mandates.  (Gen Ed requirements obviously do.)  To use Cass Sunstein’s word, the idea is to “nudge” students in a particular direction.  Tristan Denley, from Austin Peay University in Tennessee, made the idea concrete with a “recommendation engine” he had developed.  The idea was that the engine would crunch data based on student gpa and test scores, historical performance of similar students, and degree requirements for given majors, and would recommend courses tailored to each individual student.  (Denley noted that the engine does not look at race, gender, or age of student, in order to prevent feeding stereotypes.)  It’s sort of like when Netflix suggests a movie you might like, based on what you’ve seen and rated to that point.  As with Netflix, you’re free to override the suggestion, but people often find them helpful.  

In the case of course selection, the idea is to replace a panoply of options with a “default” option that is likeliest, statistically, to lead that student towards graduation.  At Austin Peay, they’ve identified “fingerprint” courses that they’ve found give students the strongest indication as to whether a particular major is for them; the recommendation engine finds those especially helpful.

The “meta-major” idea is a way to get around the morass of “undecided” students.  If a given student doesn’t know exactly what he wants, but he knows it’s likely to be something in the sciences, then he can be placed into a science meta-major that puts him on track to choose among the specific sciences without losing too much time.  As Denley put it, it helps categorize undecided students into one of several flavors.

I couldn’t help but notice how many of the GPS innovations were direct or indirect results of legislative mandates in various states.  That was especially clear in the context of “streamlining,” which could reasonably be expected to generate significant faculty pushback.  Although nobody explicitly made the connection, state mandates performed the same function for the colleges that the colleges have started performing for their students.  They provide powerful nudges in a given direction, with the goal of getting better results than the colleges (or students) would have achieved left to their own devices.  Americans aren’t known for our sense of irony, but this was a pretty good case.

(I was intrigued, too, by the CLIP program for ESL students at CUNY.  As I understand it, and I’m open to correction from readers who know it better than I do, it’s an intensive, one-semester immersion experience for students who need ESL instruction.  It’s non-credit, so it doesn’t consume students’ Pell eligibility, and the cost is mostly covered by New York State.  I’ll be looking into this one pretty closely.)

It’s easy to find fault with this particular reform or that one, but I have to admit finding the general idea compelling.  The entire premise of higher education is that students don’t know everything; if they did, they wouldn’t need higher education.  Professors have assigned readings and graded performance forever, and nobody thinks it odd.  So the objection that nudging is “paternalistic” strikes me as both true and irrelevant.  Education is paternalistic.  The relevant question is who, and how, the paternalism benefits.  And why the hell they picked Orlando in June.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Workshops Don't Work

When C-SPAN hit the cable airwaves -- “cable airwaves” is an oxymoron, but you know what I mean -- it was greeted as a breakthrough for democracy.  Finally, the public would be able to watch its elected representatives unfiltered, in their natural habitat!  Surely such unfettered access would lead to a better informed public, a more vigilant eye on the government, and a golden age of the common weal.

Well, no.  As it turned out, the government was far more interested in watching us than we were in watching it.  Who knew?

The flaw in the theory that C-SPAN would save us all was that it assumed that public indifference to politics was a sort of sour grapes born of lack of access.  If only we could expand access, the theory went, interest would follow.  Stream it and they will view.  But they don’t, mostly.  As it happened, indifference was the independent variable.  

I’m increasingly convinced that the same idea applies to workshops.

I’m referring here to on-campus workshops that are designed to engage faculty and staff.  Typically, someone who wants to encourage adoption of some new technology or practice -- whether it be Respondus or outcomes assessment -- hosts a series of workshops open to all, ideally hitting different class periods to minimize schedule conflicts.  One or two people show up, the presenter gets frustrated, and the cycle repeats in a few weeks.

Asking about workshop non-attendance is sort of like asking about non-voting.  The excuses are thin, ritualistic, and post-hoc.  (I don’t think it’s a matter of conscious lying, exactly; it’s closer to rationalizing.)  Rebutting the rationalizations doesn’t really help, either; people who want to skip -- which is to say, most people -- will skip.  

Shaming certainly doesn’t work, and bribery raises issues of its own.

Instead, I’m thinking that we should drop the “cable tv” model and move to the internet model.  Instead of a single channel or meeting hoping to attract as many people as possible to a relatively passive experience, the way to go is to engage some early adopters, and then encourage viral transmission.  Dave sees what the program can do, and he tells Steve and Jen.  Steve and Jen get on board, and each tell a few friends of their own.  

In other words, the key is to define indifference, rather than non-attendance, as the problem.  Attack the indifference -- preferably by having trusted colleagues show or discuss the cool new thing they’ve found -- and the non-attendance will take care of itself.

That’s not because the content or delivery of workshops is poor.  As with anything, they range from outstanding to awful.  The problem is that workshops tend to presume a context of awareness in which the usefulness of what’s being offered is already clear.  And most of the time, it isn’t.

The occasional raging success -- okay, I should say workshops usually don’t work, but that’s a boring headline -- suggests that interest is the key.  We recently had a well-attended and very well received workshop on Open Educational Resources.  Part of what made that as successful as it was, I think, was that people understood the appeal.  OER could reduce textbook costs for students, which isn’t just an economic issue.  In a community college context, many students don’t buy books in order to keep costs down; over time, they struggle to keep up academically.  If students had access to free OER, we could take costs out of the picture, and give the student of limited means a fighting chance.  That message resonated with a gratifyingly large group, and I suspect there are more to come.

In that case, the cause was appealing enough that the workshop format wasn’t a deal-breaker.  

But in the absence of something as obvious as OER, the viral model strikes me as far more promising.  As long as the early adopters are supported and feel valued rather than used, it seems likelier to work and far less likely to result in mostly-empty rooms.  Watching the occasional Representative orate to an empty House on late-night cable can be darkly funny, but I’d rather not replicate C-SPAN here.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen the viral transmission model work well on your campus?  Any hard-won lessons for what to do, or not to do?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

What if Ph.D. Programs Actually Prepared Students for Community College Jobs?

What if Ph.D. programs prepared students for the academic jobs that actually exist?

First, there would be a lot fewer Ph.D. programs in the liberal arts, and the ones that did exist would be considerably smaller.  But what about what the programs actually do?

William Pannapacker, Sherman Dorn, and Rebecca Schuman (@PanKissesKafka) had a fascinating exchange on Twitter on Saturday about what it would look like if Ph.D. programs made a point of preparing their grad students for the jobs that are actually out there -- alt-ac, community college, and the like.  It got me thinking.

From this side of the hiring desk, I can offer a few suggestions for doctoral programs in liberal arts fields that would like to prepare their students for options in the teaching-intensive sector.  I’m sure that some programs are already doing at least some of these, but from what I’ve seen, they remain exceptions.

First, recognize that smaller teaching-oriented places have little use for a one-trick pony.  We need people who can cover multiple fields.  For example, a political scientist who has at least 18 graduate hours in, say, history or sociology is far likelier to get hired than one who doesn’t.  Particularly outside of English and math, where nearly everybody needs critical mass, there’s a premium on utility infielders.  Doctoral programs tend to reward depth and specialization, rather than breadth, but this side of the market rewards breadth.

Second, candidates who can speak intelligently about outcomes assessment and all that goes with it -- universal design, say -- have a leg up.  I don’t recall a single word about any of that when I was in grad school.  Candidates who can speak from experience about how they’ve adapted their teaching styles to meet the needs of students with disabilities will be far more desirable than candidates who can’t.

As it happens, that brings up a dissent from the latest round of blogs.  It’s becoming part of the bloggy catechism that brand-spanking-new doctorates are highly prized, but that candidates with teaching experience are considered damaged goods.  I can’t speak to most places, but I can say that where I am, some level of teaching experience is preferable to none.  Incumbent adjuncts have been a majority of my own full-time faculty hires, and I don’t think I’m freakish in that.  This may be a case in which a perspective that’s largely true at the R1 level is falsely attributed to higher ed in general, when in fact, the needs of the teaching-intensive sector are different.

Finally, some level of familiarity with colleges as institutions above and beyond collections of academic departments would help.  Some kind of “service,” even if attenuated, at least suggests that the candidate won’t just be a teach-and-go-home professor.  

I don’’t offer these in the spirit of adding yet more stuff to the list of things that graduate students have to do.  Rather, I’d like to see them form the basis for practical discussions of what to supplant.  Doctoral programs in the evergreen disciplines generally try to clone themselves.  They brag about the students they place in R1 institutions, and try to pretend that nobody is trying to adjunct together a living.  But the reality of the market, as we well know, is that tenure-track R1 jobs for new Ph.D.’s are the exception.  From reading the blogs and looking at the stats, you’d think that R1’s and adjuncting are the only options out there.

But they aren’t.  Community colleges, teaching-oriented four-year colleges, and even for-profits can provide outstanding opportunities for people who are prepared for them.  (As regular readers know, my first full-time academic job was at a for-profit; the experience I gained there positioned me for a move into community college administration.)  

None of these will solve the basic supply-and-demand issue, obviously.  And I’d hate to see them become excuses to make doctoral programs in the liberal arts take even longer than they already do.  But to the extent that they help some programs focus on the possibilities that actually exist, and thereby prepare their students better for the market that actually exists, I hope they do some good.  If nothing else, they might result in better teaching by new hires at community and state colleges; if that’s all it achieves, that’s good in itself.