Monday, March 31, 2014

How Do You Write Letters of Recommendation?

Have you ever been trained in how to write a letter of recommendation?

On the blogs, when we talk about letters of recommendation, we usually refer to letters for grad students trying to get faculty (or postdoc) jobs.  Here I’m thinking more specifically of letters for undergraduate students, whether in support of transfer, scholarship applications, or whatever.
Given how much letters can count, I’m struck that we almost never talk about how to write them.  They’re a genre of their own.

For example, I’ve been told -- and I don’t know how true this is -- that without a FERPA waiver, it’s illegal to reveal a student’s grade in a letter.  That does not appear to be common knowledge.

Letters can also reveal information about race, gender, family situations, and other sorts of information that normally would be problematic, if not forbidden, in consideration of one candidate as against another.  Gender may be inevitable, given the third-person pronoun choices that the English language affords, but the other categories are not.  And it’s difficult to be both specific and compelling in describing a candidate, and also demographically vague at the same time.  

Some professors move quickly to the quantitative: “this student is among the top x percent in my y years of teaching.”  Others shy away from that, instead going with the poignant quote or the telling anecdote.  

Given the disparity of styles in writing letters, I’m concerned that student outcomes may be more reflective of differences in faculty writing styles than of differences in student performance or ability.  There’s also an institutional bias: for national (as opposed to campus) awards, I would expect that students from smaller schools would have a natural advantage.  It’s easier to get noticed in a class of fifteen than in a class of two hundred.

So, two questions for my wise and worldly readers.

First, have you ever been formally taught about conventions, expectations, and/or rules for writing letters of recommendation?

Second, if you were designing a workshop or short course on letters of recommendation, what would you include?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Desks Have Ears

Last week the Chronicle featured a story about an uproar at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater about a video recording that a student had made surreptitiously of a guest lecturer.  The video apparently showed the lecturer making some inflammatory statements about Republicans; it was picked up by Fox News, and the rest is predictable.

It reminded me of some discussions I’ve had over the last couple of years on campus about student recordings.  It’s a much murkier issue than it used to be.

When I was starting out in the classroom, a clandestine video recording would have been a challenge.  Cameras were big and expensive, and the quality of video and sound was often quite poor.  And distribution was still pretty much at a primitive stage.  Unless you somehow got your cassette into the hands of an interested news producer, which would have taken some connections and some doing, it probably wouldn’t get very far.

Now, of course, many students carry smartphones or other devices that make high-quality recording both simple and subtle.  YouTube and similar platforms make instant, wide distribution easy.  There’s still the issue of whether people will find the piece and care about it, but the first-order issues of production and distribution are substantially solved.  And if you have a sensational enough hook, the rest will take care of itself.

I’m glad I came up when I did.  Teaching in my field -- political science -- inevitably means touching on some controversial issues.  That’s doubly true in teaching political philosophy.  When introducing a new thinker or school of thought, for example, it’s commonplace to adopt a “devil’s advocate” position and try to present that school of thought in the most sympathetic way possible.  The idea is to push students to grapple with the actual content of the ideas, rather than just immediately assigning them to “good” and “bad” and being done with it.  I sometimes told students that they didn’t really understand a school of thought until they understood why a smart, well-meaning person would be willing to take a bullet for it.  Because in politics, they have.

When the devil’s advocate method works, it becomes clear that worldviews other than one’s own often have some sort of internal coherence, and that positions taken on certain questions have consequences for other things.  Of course, it doesn’t always work; frequently, students would recoil from foreign ideas, sputtering until they hit cliches that they would grab with palpable relief.  The idea that we might be able to learn something from, say, Marx or Nietzsche, was just too threatening for some students to entertain.

The devil’s advocate method -- and any method that relies on extended, non-hostile examination of threatening ideas -- requires the trust that you won’t be taken out of context.  It’s the same willing suspension of disbelief that allows actors to play parts.  If an actor playing a character murders another character onstage, we don’t call the police; we understand that it’s part of a performance.  But as a culture, we don’t yet understand the classroom that way.  We still think of professors, for the most part, as either telling the truth or pushing their own personal agendas.  (Whether that distinction always makes sense is another question.)  We don’t give professors the latitude we give actors.  I shudder to think what could have happened if some student had recorded and distributed five well-chosen minutes of a presentation on communism or fascism. Out of context, it could have looked awful.  Out of context, it would have been.  

As a professor, I always took care to explain to students the ground rules of what I was doing.  Grappling with ideas requires being able to try them on for size before rejecting them.  Some will surprise you.  But a five-minute video wouldn’t include any of that.  It would just show a seemingly monstrous professor ranting.

In an earlier age, the answer would have been to ban unauthorized recordings.  We do that on my own campus, as I would bet that many do.  But I suspect there’s an expiration date on that policy, as recording gets progressively easier to do and harder to detect.  In the meantime, recording is becoming normal in the contexts of disability accommodations and online instruction.  Students with certain kinds of disabilities often receive permission to record classes as part of their accommodation plans, though those plans also include strict prohibitions on unauthorized distributions of those recordings.  And everything that happens in an online class is de facto recorded, just in the course of things.  That’s inherent in the structure of an asynchronous class. It’s a feature, not a bug. The folks who profess horror at classroom recordings tend not to mention online courses, though they’re increasingly relevant.

I’m thinking that the way to address out-of-context recordings is not to ban them -- it’s a bit late for that -- but to flood the zone with context.  

If the problem is that people don’t understand the concept of the devil’s advocate, then provide plenty of examples of it.  The five-minute excerpt of the fascism discussion would look a whole lot less threatening if it were surrounded by the hour-plus of context-setting, rebutting, discussing, and housekeeping.  Part of the power of the forbidden snippet is precisely that it’s forbidden, which suggests that there’s something to hide.  There isn’t.  Put it out there, and educate the part of the public that cares.  That’s supposed to be our mission anyway.

I understand the appeal of a return to the golden age, but it isn’t going to happen.  If the desks have ears, let’s make sure everyone else does, too.  Otherwise, we’re at the mercy of the one student with a chip on his shoulder and a phone in his hand.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tech as Talisman

Sometimes it takes someone else noticing a trait of yours before you notice it yourself.  Last week I had a professor on campus comment that she felt like she had to brush up on her music trivia before meeting with me; apparently, I drop references to cheesy 80’s bands more often than I realized.  Good to know.

A few days ago, reading the latest tech gossip on cnet, I had a moment of clarity. I understand why I read higher ed material and stuff about politics and economics.  I can even explain the random celebrity story or the occasional “I don’t know why that’s interesting but it is.”  But why do I follow the soap opera of Sprint’s attempts to buy T-Mobile?  (“Will Sprint and T-Mobile reconcile their CDMA and GSM networks?  Will the DOJ spurn Sprint, like it did AT&T?  And who will get the MVNO’s?  Tune in next week...”)  I don’t own stock in either company, and the outcome is unlikely to affect me directly one way or the other, since neither has a meaningful network here.  So what’s the appeal?

Yes, I enjoy my gadgets.  I have my share of black boxes (or slabs) that beep, each with its own particular reason to exist.  But that’s not enough to explain the fascination.  

I’m thinking it’s the sense of possibility, combined with the speed of progress.  Compared to education, the difference is striking.

In 2010, a kindle with e-ink display was a cutting-edge device.  Now, a kindle fire with a high-definition screen and a live help button costs less than the original kindle did.  And it’s not just Amazon.  It’s hard to remember now, but just a few years ago the Palm Pre was considered a breakthrough.  Now it’s a paperweight.  

It’s fun to watch these things unfold.  I have a teasing relationship with a professor on campus who is a dedicated Apple fanboy.  I’m platform-agnostic; I use a Mac in the office, a pc at home, and a chromebook on the road.  He divides the world into those who live the one true faith and those who do not.  I see them as Coke vs. Pepsi -- a minor matter of taste, but if one isn’t available, the other is fine.  We have a running debate that we both enjoy, in much the manner that fans of different baseball teams do.  (“But fragmentation!”  “But removable battery!”)  The debate is fun because ultimately it doesn’t matter; neither of us works for a tech company, and neither of us has enough clout with them to affect them one way or the other.  

The sheer cost of gadgets keeps my buying habits in check, so the interest is mostly voyeuristic.  To The Wife’s constant irritation, I don’t have the same fascination for, say, home repairs.  

Which is why I’m starting to figure out that it’s not about this function or that one; it’s about tech as a talisman of progress.  

The best and most effective educational innovations usually take years to bear fruit, and the results are often subtle, and/or hard to tease out from other factors.  Personnel issues are rarely resolved in a meeting or two, and even when resolved, are usually cause for relief rather than excitement.  Organizational dilemmas are even murkier.  They can -- and do -- improve over time, if you handle them right, but “improve” and “over time” both require patience.  

But a new gizmo can instantly give you what had previously been thinkable only as a superpower.  And the rapid rise and fall of tech giants is so much more dramatic than anything that happens in higher education that it’s great fun to watch from a safe distance.  Does anyone else remember when Microsoft was so dominant, and Apple so weak, that Microsoft actually gave Apple a subvention just to preserve it so Microsoft would have a counterexample in its antitrust case?  Hard to imagine now, but it’s true.  That was before Google even existed.  And the higher ed universe looked pretty much the same then as now, only with fewer adjuncts.

As a political theorist by training, I can attest that many of the core issues of politics have been around for as long as we have records.  It’s possible to find progress in some areas -- I see the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage as a real step forward -- but many of the core issues persist over millenia.  Fights over power, justice, fairness, distribution, who’s “us” and who’s “them” have gone on forever, and probably always will.  There’s patience, and then there’s patience.

The sense of possibility in tech is great fun.  The gee-whiz appeal fades somewhat when you look at labor conditions, regulatory shenanigans, and the various details behind how it all comes to be.  But from the outside, it’s not just a source of nifty gadgets.  It’s a source of optimism.  If progress that rapid is possible there, maybe it’s possible in other places, too.  

Old songs are fun to call up from time to time in a way that old tech isn’t.  I’ll happily stream Duran Duran over devices that didn’t exist when they were hungry like the wolf.  (For that matter, I’ll happily read Aristotle on a kindle.) I may not be able to explain how or why the new devices work, but that’s okay.  They’re amazing, and they offer a kind of hope.  When all that patience gets tiring, there’s something gratifying about seeing the latest gadget do something entirely new.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Just Do It?

Every so often, someone from outside of academic affairs will ask me, earnestly, why we don’t “just do” something.  It often takes a couple of years to move from embracing a concept -- whether it’s seven-week courses, modular courses, or whatever -- to actually running it.  Why does it take so long?  Why don’t we just do it?

The popular stereotype has it that academics are mossbacked antiquarians who think change is a four-letter word.  But that’s not it, most of the time.  (Every college has a few…)  That’s why I’m so enamored of this presentation by Nikki Edgecombe and Susan Bickerstaff of the CCRC about the real costs of implementing a new developmental sequence.  

Edgecombe has done something that far too few ‘reformers’ do: she has actually spent serious time on the ground, on campuses, seeing how the sausage is made.  When you actually confront the administrivia in its natural habitat, you realize quickly that “just do it” just isn’t that simple.  The ripple effects of what seems like a simple change are vast and serious.

To take a recent effort that’s close to my heart, let’s say that you want to run some classes in a half-semester format so students whose lives don’t follow the semester calendar cleanly can make some headway.  That’s particularly important for adults who have been laid off and who need retraining; their benefits clock starts ticking at the moment of the layoff.  It doesn’t wait for the semester to start.  If someone gets laid off in February, and you only start your one-year certificates in September, that doesn’t work.  And given the complicated lives that many students lead, you have good reason to believe that shorter courses could lead to higher success rates.  Let’s say that you have faculty who are on board, conceptually, and who are willing to give it a shot.  Why don’t you just do it?

- Faculty workloads.  If a full-semester class gets cancelled for low enrollment, you could conceivably pick up a second-half class.  But if the second-half class is part of a workload, and it falls short of the needed enrollment, what do you do?

- Financial aid.  A student who only signs up for a late-start course won’t have the credit load to qualify for most financial aid.  And unless she signed up before the entire semester started, the chances of money still being available are zero.  In other words, for all practical purposes, the late-start courses can only get financial aid coverage if the student signed up at the normal time.  That largely defeats the on-ramp function of a late-start course.

- Room scheduling.  If the classes aren’t online, a class that only meets for half the semester takes a room for the entire semester.  Obviously you can mitigate that by pairing them off, but that doesn’t work so well for lab or studio classes.  

- Publications/notices.  If all of your systems have been predicated on a single semester, suddenly introducing part-of-term courses involves manual overrides for everything.  That’s labor-intensive, error-prone, and expensive at any meaningful scale.

- ERP systems.  We use Banner; other popular options include Datatel and Jenzabar.  Retrofitting Banner to recognize part-of-term grades, I’m told, is no small task.  It likes to run one term at a time.  

- Attendance reporting.  I hate that this matters, but it does.  We have a “freeze” date on which we report enrollment numbers to the Feds.  That works tolerably well when all of the classes are running on the same semester schedule.  But introducing a set of part-of-term courses involves making some difficult choices.  If a student enrolls for semester courses and hasn’t shown up for the month of September, we report that student as a no-show.  If the student has only signed up for a second-half class, then at the end of September, she wouldn’t have shown up yet.  We wouldn’t know whether she’s really “there” or not until late October at best.  That wreaks havoc with the numbers.

These are not mostly academic or conceptual issues.  They’re nuts-and-bolts issues that have major implications for our ability to carry out reforms that make conceptual sense.  

When you’re in the weeds like this, it’s easy to lose sight of the overall goal.  Some people will deploy inconvenience as an argument against positive change.  But that doesn’t mean that their concerns can be just brushed aside as so many details.  Letting your ERP system prevent constructive curricular change is pretty much a textbook case of putting the cart before the horse, but ignoring these issues has tremendous implications on the ground.  In my perfect world, the folks pursuing reforms would spend some time learning the constraints, and work with forward-looking people on campus to stretch the bounds of the possible.  If that sometimes means redirecting political pressure away from local administrations and towards software vendors or state or federal regulators, then that’s what it means.  

So, kudos to Edgecombe and Bickerstaff.  Instead of just prescribing policy changes from on high, they’ve actually looked at messy realities.  There’s a difference between doing and “just doing,” and that difference is easy to miss from a distance.  To find out why we can’t “just do it,” you have to look closer.  

Monday, March 24, 2014

Online Plagiarism

Twitter had an “I’m old enough to remember…” meme this week that made me laugh.  “I’m old enough to remember when 2 was a number, not an abbreviation.”  “I’m old enough to remember when we waited until 11 p.m. to make long distance calls.”  “I’m old enough to remember when we mailed checks to pay bills.”  

And I’m old enough to remember when plagiarism took actual effort.

Before web browsing combined with copy and paste to make plagiarism seamless, a student who wanted to copy a paper from another source had to actually put some work into it.  In my earliest teaching days, he had to find a paper source, select a relevant-seeming passage, and actually retype the entire thing.  (In practice, many of them chose the “have my girlfriend write it for me” approach, which is an even older method.)  It was just as dishonest, but at least it took some legwork.  Judging by the quality of much of what I read, most of them just wrote it themselves.  

Exams were a different issue.  I recall hearing in my t.a. days to watch out for the old “write the answers on the inside of the water bottle label” trick.  I admit admiring the ingenuity of whomever first came up with it.  We’d hear about baseball cap bills, or variations on morse code, or suspiciously timed trips to the bathroom.  I prided myself on deploying clever little anti-cheating methods publicly, both to deter the opportunists and to reassure the good students that they weren’t wasting their efforts.  (My favorite, for in-class blue book essays (!), was to have the students draw a triangle or square somewhere on the first page, and not to write anything in it.  It defeated pre-written answers.)  

Then the web took off, and the game changed.  Suddenly, appropriating content became easy and quick.  Google, select, copy, paste.  Done and done.  And with online courses, the opportunities for cheating on exams mushroomed.  You no longer need to be a criminal mastermind to pull it off.  Now that many students have multiple screens, even monitoring what’s on the screen with the test isn’t enough.  If you’re monitoring my laptop, you don’t know what I’m doing on my tablet or phone.  Multiple choice is easy with Google at the ready.

I’ve heard of more intrusive forms of surveillance, like biometrics or webcams, but I’ve got just enough Foucault in me to recoil at the prospect of panopticism as the answer.  Part of the appeal of online courses is the ability to do them in your bathrobe, looking like hell.  Recording video of that seems either cruel or creepy.  Yes, one could argue that in the era of the NSA, those horses are well out of the barn, but I still sense a difference.

In a way, the advent of online exams has highlighted the relative lightness with which we’ve long taken in-class identity.  In my teaching days, I don’t recall ever asking for or looking at a student’s ID.  If the same student showed up week after week, answering to “Brian,” then I assumed he was Brian.  He could have been Brian’s brother, Dave.  I wouldn’t have known.  

Some have argued that the way to combat online plagiarism and related offenses is to make assignments so idiosyncratic that they can’t possibly be plagiarized.  I guess that’s possible, sometimes, but it doesn’t work as well in, say, American Government or College Algebra as it might in English Comp.  It also makes assessment much harder, since coming up with a flurry of idiosyncratic assignments semester after semester that align with learning outcomes that don’t change for years is a tall order.  The workload implications alone are severe.

Technology helps in certain ways.  We use turnitin, which can be both a teaching tool and a way to catch certain kinds of cheating.  Savvy faculty know to Google particularly florid or improbable sentences.  And of course, abrupt shifts in voice or references to knowledge that students couldn’t possibly have are tip-offs.  (I once had a below-average student in a 101 class drop an arch reference to Larry Summers in a paper.  Um, no.)  

But even with these safeguards, it’s hard to escape the sense that cheating is becoming easier, and preventing it is becoming harder.  

Wise and worldly readers, short of going full-on panopticon on them, have you found reasonably elegant ways to combat online plagiarism or cheating?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

When Secession Moves North

When I think of secession movements in America, I usually think of the South.  But the idea is moving North, and not without reason.

Several state university campuses in Pennsylvania are trying to secede from the state system, in order to avoid exactly the kind of bill currently being considered in New Jersey for its public colleges.

The Northeast is having a rough go of it this year, and not only because of The Winter That Wouldn’t Die.

West Chester, Shippensburg, and Millersville universities are petitioning for a change in status.  They want to exist PASSHE, the Pennsylvania state public system, and instead become “state-related,” like Temple.  The idea is to give up a rapidly-shrinking subsidy in exchange for greater control over their own decisions, whether about salaries, tuition, or programming.  Presumably, they would be free to negotiate their own union contracts, as well as to set whatever policies they see fit.  The rest of the system is nervous, because losing its financially healthiest members doesn’t bode well for the rest.  The unions are nervous too, because going from one contract to several reduces leverage at any given location, and they might lose whatever gains they’ve accrued over the years in the new contracts.

From the outside, it’s easy to condemn West Chester and the others for abandoning ship.  But as someone who actually works on a public campus, I understand the impulse.  

States have become much less reliable, and yet much more controlling, partners than they used to be.  The inexorable pressure of increased costs for Medicaid, Medicare, corrections, and K-12 combine with a strong anti-tax electorate, strict rules about balancing budgets, and an unpredictable political climate to create a higher education climate of seemingly perpetual austerity.  After hearing the umpteenth variation on “tighten your belts,” I can understand the appeal of telling the state what it can do with its belt.  One could easily blame the secessionists for mixed motives, and I assume that nobody is entirely pure.  But when the state persistently fails to uphold its end of the bargain, year after year, and the direction is downward and accelerating, well, what would you do?  One could argue that trustees who fail to support a drastic change are falling short in their fiduciary responsibility to the institution.

New Jersey’s latest idea exemplifies the kinds of kneecappings that public higher ed has been taking for a while. New Jersey is considering legislation for force colleges to freeze tuition for any given student for nine semesters upon initial enrollment.  When the state enacts its latest round of cuts, colleges will be entirely helpless to offset the losses elsewhere.  The bill is written to apply even to private colleges.  I have a hard time imagining that holding up in court, but there it is.  

For the community colleges, there may be some solace in county-based funding.  For the state colleges, that source doesn’t exist, so the suffocation should be complete.  The language behind the proposal is unintentionally revealing.  Rep. Celeste Riley, D-Salem, refers to it approvingly as a “great, simple concept.”  Great, no.  Simple, yes.  And that’s really the heart of the issue.

A “freeze” has a superficial simplicity to it.  It suggests discipline, and offers an easy conceptual hook.  It feels like decisive action.  But detached from operations, it’s delusional.  

At the simplest possible level: controlling prices without controlling or offsetting costs is madness.  It’s like assuming that if you get rid of health insurance, people will just stop getting sick.

Colleges don’t raise tuition for fun.  (If I had a nickel for every time I hear a pundit refer to colleges charging “what they want,” I’d be a wealthy man.)  They do it to address costs.  When underlying costs go up -- whether labor, utilities, health insurance, technology, financial aid, unfunded state or federal mandates, or whatever else -- colleges have to find that money somewhere.  Ideally, public colleges would get most or all of that from the state (and/or county).  When colleges absorb years upon years of cuts, though, they have to make up the difference somewhere.  In my experience, they split the difference between spending cuts -- adjuncting-out faculty positions, cutting administration and staff, freezing pay, automating whatever possible -- and price increases.   Students rightly balk at paying more for less, but that policy decision has been made at a much higher political level than local administration.

To make matters worse, “freezes” reward past aggression and punish past frugality.  A campus that had the foresight to hike tuition when the getting was good will permanently be better off than one that held the line.  Existing inequities will be baked into the system permanently.  Why that’s a good idea is beyond me.

The New Jersey proposal addresses the price increase part, but does nothing to address the underlying costs that the price increases are supposed to cover, or to provide alternative support.   It just ratchets up the climate of austerity and tells the campuses to deal with it.  It’s the kind of no-win situation that encourages secession.  

I’m not in Pennsylvania, and I’m not privy to enough facts on the ground to say whether I would support the secessionist movement.  But I understand the impulse.  If Pennsylvania wants to retain a state system that means something, it needs to do a drastic re-envisioning of what that means.  And if New Jersey doesn’t want to follow Pennsylvania, it needs to start by recognizing the difference between cost and price.  In the case of public higher education, secession amounts to privatization, with all of the costs that entails.  Better to create the conditions that make it possible to avoid it.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Friday Fragments

I’ll get my academic blogger card revoked if I don’t say something about the rescinded job offer for the philosopher at Nazareth College, so here goes:

Sometimes, you just have to say ‘no.’  

I understand the emotional appeal of rejecting someone before she rejects you.  It’s psychologically healthy to outgrow that phase.  Yes, it’s frustrating when a candidate you’re trying to hire comes in with unrealistic requests.  But sometimes grownups have to power through the disappointment.  Here’s a phrase I’ve used in turning down unrealistic requests:

“No, sorry, I can’t do that.”

I’ll give a couple of examples from previous colleges.

In one case, a candidate asked -- during her interview -- if we’d be willing to cover her classes every October for her annual European tour.  I kept as straight a face as I could and responded that the point of hiring for the position was to cover classes during the Fall and Spring semesters.  

In another case, we were hiring for a math faculty position.  The curriculum ran from arithmetic through college algebra to calculus, but was bottom-heavy.  The candidate indicated that he mostly enjoyed teaching differential equations and linear algebra, but would be willing to go as low as Calc I once a year or so as a goodwill gesture.  The department liked him, and lobbied me to somehow resolve the contradiction.  I contacted him directly and let him know his likely schedule.  He withdrew his application.

I’ve lost some good candidates that way, but it’s a cost of doing business.  And the moment of disappointment fades when you’re able to hire someone else who is also terrific.  

Go ahead and say ‘no,’ Nazareth.  But do it like grownups.


Last Saturday I took The Boy to the Massachusetts Science Olympiad at Assumption College, in Worcester.  He competed in the “boomilever” event, in which the kids build boomilevers out of balsa wood and compete on the basis of how much weight they can hold.  He didn’t win, but he did pretty well, and he enjoyed hanging out with his friends and being goofy in the way that twelve year olds can.

It was my first time spending an entire day with a gaggle of twelve year olds since I was one.  

I was struck at how much more gender-integrated the group was than I remembered mine being.  The hormones were palpable, but everyone behaved, and some of the kids were quite funny.  (One girl, who could easily have been the daughter of Daria or Janeane Garofalo, put up drawings on the whiteboard that looked like anime, but with voice bubbles saying incredibly inappropriate things.  It was hard to maintain parental dignity while stifling laughter.)  They danced to Miley Cyrus songs and visited cruel fates upon Justin Bieber.  And they bonded fluently and easily across racial and gender divides in ways that just didn’t happen when I was twelve.

The kids are alright, America.  


Is there an effective way to explain to a dog the idea behind a chew toy?  The Dog takes them gratefully, but then wanders the house, crying, looking for a place to bury them.  We’ve even caught her trying to bury them between pillows.  At some basic level, she just doesn’t seem to grasp the concept.

I know that dogs aren’t inclined towards theory, as a general precept, but I’ve had dogs before who got the “chew toys are for chewing” thing immediately.  Wise and worldly readers, is there a trick to this?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Gatekeeping is Exclusionary, Study Finds

The Department of Obvious Studies has been working overtime.  Last week, it issued a report showing that despite much of our political rhetoric, students are, in fact, different from each other. This week, it issued a report showing that students whose transfer credits are denied are less likely to finish a degree on time than students who don’t have to retake (and pay for) courses they’ve already taken.  Apparently, when a college puts up high barriers to completion, completion rates drop. It’s almost as if barriers somehow get in the way.

As with the finding about student differences, this finding is both obvious and radical.  

The study, by David Monaghan and Paul Attewell of the CUNY Graduate Center, shows that transfer students who had 90 percent or more of their transfer credits accepted towards their degree did as well, if not better than, “native” four-year students.  The lower completion rates on which critics like to focus occur in cases in which students have been denied credit for the work they’ve done, and were told to repeat it.

In that light, then, the issue with community college starts isn’t community colleges.  It’s the destination colleges.  By putting up arbitrary obstacles, they cause the very problem they claim to discover.

Which makes sense, if you think about it.  A barrier founded originally on a combination of class prejudice and short-term conflicts of interest becomes self-reinforcing through its effects.  

I saw this firsthand when I was at CCM.  My vice president and I once made the drive to Rutgers-Newark to talk about an articulation agreement between CCM’s Criminal Justice Program and Rutgers-Newark’s CJ program.  (For those unfamiliar with New Jersey, both are public institutions.)  After exchanging pleasantries, the dean there announced that they’d be willing to recognize up to 30 of the 60+ credits in our program.  In other words, they’d discount at least one full year of a two-year degree, and make students retake the classes.  The lucky taxpayers of New Jersey would pay for an extra year for every single student.  And that was at the exact same time that they congratulated us on how well our students did at Newark.

We drove back without signing anything, alternately fuming and laughing.  I couldn’t decide if I was more offended as an academic or as a taxpayer.

The situation got so bad in New Jersey that the state eventually passed legislation mandating transfer within the public sector.   Massachusetts did something similar with its MassTransfer program.  The legislation applies only to the public sector, but it exerts competitive pressure as well on the private sector.  A non-elite private college that tries to railroad transfer students will find transfer students instead heading off to the nearest state school.  The smarter private colleges have figured that out.

The republic did not fall.  

Now that the Department of Obvious Studies is on a roll, I hope that we can start to shift the political discussion around public higher education in more intelligent directions.  We can start by ditching the popular slander that says that you can infer a college’s quality from its IPEDS graduation rate.  We can utterly discredit the assumption that a college’s overall graduation rate equates to any given student’s chance of graduating.  (In statistics-speak, that’s called the “ecological fallacy.”  Would that more people knew that…)  That assumption is behind most of the “pipeline” metaphors that people use, as if students were interchangeable.  And now we can attack the unthinking assumption that students who start at community colleges are somehow at an inherent disadvantage.  They’re only at a disadvantage when discriminatory policies at four-year colleges put them at one.

Truth is stubborn.  It resists fads.  I’m glad to see some truth start to poke out from behind all the rhetoric.  I look forward to the next dispatch from Obvious Studies.   

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Talk Them Out Of...

Every so often you hear something in a meeting that makes you stop short, because it so neatly encapsulates a difficult truth.  That happened yesterday.  Someone who works here mentioned that her job is to “talk students out of Nursing.”  

She was exaggerating, of course, but substantially correct.  Sometimes talking students out of something is one of the most valuable things we can do.

In the case of Nursing, the issue isn’t the academic ability of the students.  That tends to sort itself out without much external nudging.  The issue is mostly the students’ ignorance of alternatives.  For many students, especially those in the first generation to attend college, the only health-related jobs they can picture are doctors and nurses.  Nursing seems like the more accessible of the two, so they set that as a goal.

Which is great, as far as it goes.  But there are only so many clinical spots for nursing students, and only so many jobs for nurses.  And plenty of other well-paying jobs in the health field are far less crowded.  The trick is in getting that information to students early enough that the cost of switching goals is minimal.  We’ve institutionalized that over the past few years through an advising-intensive program, through which students are introduced to other jobs in the allied health fields..  We turn away fewer students from nursing than we once did, because more of them have found other routes.  (Nutrition and Human Services have proven popular alternatives.)  And our pass rate on the NCLEX has improved, because the right students are finding their way into the right roles.  In this case, simply presenting other options was enough.

I faced a more challenging version of this dilemma recently when a colleague reported that she was considering going for her Ph.D. in political science.  I have a general policy of warning people away from doctorates in liberal arts fields, given the mostly dismal prospects if you aren’t coming from one of the top ten or so programs in a given discipline.  (As a Rutgers political theory Ph.D., and former freeway flier, I know of which I speak.) I did my standard “what the hell are you thinking?” spiel, but she actually had pretty compelling reasons and a clear sense of where it fit in her career path.  I even agreed to write a letter of recommendation for her, which is the first time I’ve ever done that for a poli sci doctorate program. Whether that will extend my time in purgatory remains to be seen.

Talking students (or colleagues) out of a path is a tricky business.  If the issue is raw ability, the right path is clear.  It became painfully obvious early in life that I would never be the third baseman for the Orioles; nobody had to bother to tell me in so many words.  And sometimes the issues are clear cut in other ways, whether involving criminal records, citizenship status, or other legal matters.  Those have the virtue of being relatively objective.  

The harder question involves warning capable students away from crowded or declining fields.  Educators as a group prefer to encourage, rather than discourage -- it’s what we do.  And some students will beat the odds, even in difficult fields.  Even well-intended warnings are founded on a sort of epistemological arrogance.  We don’t know who’s going to beat the odds.  But if we have a better sense of the odds than the students do, I’m thinking we’re on solid ethical ground in sharing what we know with them, and in helping them find other appealing options.  

And if they still insist on the longshot, well, they’re adults.  Sometimes they know things we don’t.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a more elegant way to handle warning students about longshots?