Thursday, October 17, 2013

Friday Fragments

- Tressie McMillan Cottom is on fire this week.  Her latest piece in Slate, about community college “dropouts,” should be required reading for anyone who wants to discuss the “completion agenda” or “performance funding.”  Among other things, she points out that the porousness of the American system of higher education is a feature, not a bug.  Community colleges are in the second-chance business.  That’s not always as pretty or clean as the business of credentialing the already successful, but it matters.  

The very porousness for which we’re routinely attacked these days is exactly what is attracting other countries to look closely at the American community college model.  There’s a reason for that.  Mobility is messy, and stasis can be clean.  Second chances are inefficient, by definition.  But they’re the reason that community colleges exist.  Let’s not forget the point of the enterprise.

- She also wrote this lovely, if bittersweet, piece about the NACCE conference.  Her reflections on the impact of visible difference are well worth reading.  I also crop up in the piece, in a very gracious portrayal that nonetheless makes the painful point that even in 2013, a white guy actually listening seriously to a black woman is still considered noteworthy.  It shouldn’t be.

For the record, she owned the room when she spoke, and brought a perspective that enriched the discussion.  I learned from her, which is exactly why I wanted her there.  The fact that she’s also funny as hell was a bonus.

- Josh Kim’s post yesterday about EDUCAUSE makes a nice companion piece to Tressie’s post about NACCE.  Josh makes the point that the talk at EDUCAUSE is getting a bit same-y, because nearly everybody there plays the same roles on their campuses and looks at the world the same way.  He suggests that it would be helpful to get some provosts and presidents to attend, to offer context and different perspectives.

I couldn’t agree more, and not only because I’m curious about what goes on there.  Conferences often attract the like-minded, and easily fall into a sort of groupthink.  Making a point of bringing in people with different perspectives can enliven the discussions all around.  And visiting a conference that’s outside your usual realm can be eye-opening.  Last year I had the chance to attend the CASE conference on community college fundraising, where I was one of the only academics among hundreds of development officers.  Seeing through their eyes for a while was disorienting, but in a good way; now I notice things I didn’t notice before.  Talking to entrepreneurs at NACCE had a similar effect.  

Casting against type can lead to some great performances.  There’s a lesson in there somewhere...

- Astute readers with a sense of western Mass geography may have noticed my careful silence about the goings-on at Westfield State.  (The President there, Evan Dobelle, has been placed on paid leave by the Board of Trustees in light of a series of issues.)  I’ll reserve comment on the substance of it until the dust has settled, in the interest of inter-institutional comity.  But I will mention that I know some good people personally over there, and that they have been put in an incredibly stressful position for the last several weeks.  It has been painful to watch the drip-drip-drip of negative information that has become a sort of background noise while good people attempt to continue to do their work.  As it moves toward resolution, I’ll be free to say more; for now, though, my sympathies to some good folks working under a very dark cloud.

- Actual conversation with The Girl, this Thursday:

TG: Daddy, what’s a philosopher?

Me: Someone who studies philosophy.


Me: (laughing) Sorry.  Someone who asks really big questions, like “what’s the meaning of life?” or “is there a God?”

TG: You mean like, what if the entire world is an illusion in my head?


Me: Yes!

Bless her, she inherited that gene.  Here’s hoping she uses her powers for good...