Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Moment from the Daddy/Daughter Dance

The Agawam Daddy/Daughter dance was last night.  The Girl and I attended, as we have for the last several years.

She’s ten now.

She brought me up short, as we were dancing:

“Dad, do you remember when I was so little that you used to flip me over?”

Yes.  Yes, honey, I do.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

OER as Retention Initiative

What happens when students put off buying textbooks?

Any seasoned instructor knows.  They fall behind academically.  What starts as a mostly economic issue quickly becomes an academic issue.  Then, when they fail or withdraw, they may lose financial aid eligibility for failing to maintain “satisfactory academic progress,” and the small financial issue that become a large academic issue becomes a larger financial issue.  The snowball keeps rolling.

It doesn’t have to.  What if textbooks were free?

“Free community college” would require major legal and financial changes, as well as some unusually farsighted political leadership.  Free textbooks just require a little ingenuity.  We can do this.

Open Educational Resources are free (or nearly free) alternatives to commercially produced instructional materials, such as textbooks or lab manuals.  They’re often supported with foundation funding, with the goal of reducing economic barriers for students.  Typically they’re in electronic form, though sometimes it’s possible to get hardcopy versions for only the cost of printing.  

OER come in several flavors.  My favorites are the ones that constantly update in a sort of crowdsourced, iterative process.  Paper textbooks are stuck with the errors that were there when they went to press.  Yes, they can do ‘errata’ sheets, but those have about as much impact as ‘corrections’ days later in the newspaper.  Electronic resources are much easier to update or correct effectively.  And because they’re born electronic, and with an explicit goal of accessibility, they tend to be accessible to students with disabilities from the outset.  Accessible design beats retrofitting anytime.

I’ve seen and heard OER presented as a money-saver, and that’s true.  But it rarely comes up in discussions of retention and improving student success.  I think that’s a mistake.

Over the past few years, the quality and range of OER options have improved dramatically.  For introductory level, high-enrollment classes, it’s often possible to find materials that compare favorably
with commercial textbooks.  Given that textbooks often cost $200 apiece or more, the difference adds up over the course of a degree program.  Tidewater Community College, in Virginia, has established an all-OER degree program in business administration; that tells me it can be done.  

Devices are an issue.  Any electronic resource has to be read on some sort of device.  Most students have phones, but the screens are too small to lend themselves to extended or complicated material.  (Just imagining trying to study a diagram of the nervous system on a phone screen makes me shudder.)  Larger devices work better, but they aren’t cheap.  Amortizing the cost over several semesters makes it better, but for a part-time or visiting student, it may come close to a financial wash.  I’d love to hear from wise and worldly readers at community colleges who have found fair and effective ways around the device question.

Still, I can’t help but think that the device issue is much more solvable than, say, the political opposition to free community college.  And the payoff isn’t merely economic.  Students who have class materials from day one are likelier to succeed academically than students who don’t.  This is an economic issue, but it’s also a retention issue.  And it’s one we can solve without waiting for the political winds to shift.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Make‘em Pay?

Community college folk often complain, when getting blamed for high remediation rates, that what’s really being measured is the performance of the local high schools.  A state senator in Tennessee is proposing to base budgets on that.

State Senator Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, is proposing to make students’ high school districts reimburse the students for the remedial classes that students need when they arrive at community college.

To which I say, wow.

The knee-jerk appeal is strong.  For recent graduates -- and to his credit, Senator Gardenhire confines it to recent graduates, so we’re not talking about folks who’ve been out of school for ten years -- rustiness shouldn’t be a major issue.  From a student perspective, paying for courses to fill in gaps that your high school left seems like punishing the victim.  From a community college perspective, getting blamed for high remediation rates (and shouldering the cost of those rates) hardly seems fair; if a student shows up underprepared, you don’t blame the place she showed up.  

But it still doesn’t sit right with me.  

On a really basic level, it would further impoverish the school districts that are already struggling the most.  If a school district is doing a poor job, it’s probably not because it has too much money.  Draining funds from schools that are already strapped isn’t likely to lead anywhere good. It would be like draining funds from fire departments in cities with lots of fires.

Mechanically, it would be a missed opportunity.  If the school districts were invoiced directly, rather than doing reimbursements, students could conserve their Pell eligibility for future semesters.  With Pell eligibility reduced to twelve semesters, that matters.

Beyond that, though, the bill would work against innovations that involve embedding extra help into college-level classes.  Isolating charges for remedial courses presumes the existence of freestanding remedial courses, but the most interesting and hopeful trends involve moving away from that model.  The Accelerated Learning Program, developed by the Community College of Baltimore County, directs students straight into credit-bearing courses, and pairs up developmental sections to provide just-in-time, as-needed extra help.  It’s expensive, but it has shown promising results, especially in English.  Saddling high schools with the cost for that could kneecap efforts to improve the high schools, and thereby defeat the purpose.

Rather than punishing poverty, I’d prefer to see resources directed to ways to prevent the need for remediation in the first place.  Start by requiring four years of math in high school; I maintain that any state that fails to do that has no standing to criticize community colleges.  If the students are in high school anyway, why not teach them math?  It may make sense to use the senior year to solidify and review the basics for some students, but that’s a fair sight better than nothing.  If it sets the students up to succeed in college, it’s worth it.

And let’s loosen the rules (and the pursestrings) to enable building on reforms that actually work.  That could mean early college high schools, the ALP model, self-paced models, or all manner of other things.  It doesn’t mean fitting the square peg into the round hole by just pushing harder.  

Whether Senator Gardenhire’s bill is enacted or not, though, I’m happy to see the discussion.  Ultimately, the solution to remediation will have to involve conceiving of K-12 and higher ed as part of a larger ecosystem.  Whether that means the Common Core or not, it’s counterproductive for the two systems to continue to talk past each other.  I’d prefer to start with voice, rather than invoice, but I’ll give credit for sparking discussion.  

Monday, February 23, 2015

Corporate Governance and Shared Governance

This should be a much bigger story.

IHE ran a story by Ry Rivard that should have set sociologists and economists running wild. It’s about several non-profit colleges, including one community college, that have made policy changes affecting students at the behest of bondholders.  

It’s one of those seemingly trivial or technical articles that signals a sea change.  It’s a discernible parallel to what happened to the private sector in the 1980’s, and it may well lead in a similar direction.  Whether pro or con, ignore it at your peril.  And I say this as someone not disposed to alarmism.

I’ll back up.

The corporate behemoths of mid-twentieth-century America were able to take the form they did because of a quirk in the financial system.  As Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means famously noted in the 1930’s, relatively widely dispersed ownership of stock -- that is, the literal ownership of companies -- meant that company management had unprecedented autonomy relative to investors.  What Berle and Means called “the separation of ownership from control” gave management -- as distinct from stockholders -- wide discretion to pursue relatively long-range projects.  

Because stockholders were all over the country, communication technology was crude, and the laws were the way they were, stockholders fell victim -- if you like -- to a version of Madison’s problem of “factions” in Federalist paper ten.  With stockholders everywhere, paying varying degrees of attention, pursuing different agendas, and lacking the effective ability to combine forces, they largely canceled each other out.  Management was able to run companies more in the interest of management than in the interest of stockholders.  This was the golden age of “The Organization Man.”  Combine autonomy from ownership with some pretty powerful economic tailwinds, and you had management cultures largely insulated from the market.  

It’s easy to read that as sinister, and in some ways, it was.  But this was also the golden age of private sector unionization, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  Managers were willing, and able, to sacrifice some short-term profit in the name of labor peace.  Shareholders were too fragmented to force much discipline on them.  Paradoxically, management salaries relative to labor were much lower then; again, a premium on peace brought some circumspection.

In the 1980’s, though, some tiny changes in financial regulations led to the rapid and unanticipated emergence of “institutional investors,” as opposed to individual investors.  Millions of shareholders each holding a few shares of a company had zero effective power over it.  But millions combined into a single mutual fund had considerable power.  Soon an ideology formed around the quest for “shareholder value,” in which shareholder value was “trapped” by management and needed to be “unlocked” by activist -- that is, organized -- investors.  In Berle and Means’ terms, ownership and control came back together.  

With a new locus of power came a new agenda.  Labor peace suddenly became a much lower priority, as did any sort of circumspection around inequality.  Previously patient capital became impatient capital.

As a result, the entire world of corporate governance has changed.  Outside of a few elite companies that are so wealthy that they can afford the long view -- Apple and Google leap to mind -- most have to attend to the short term.  Management obeys because it has to, and because the rewards for obeying effectively have grown.

Higher education largely sat out those changes, except to the extent that TIAA-CREF grew.  Endowments are the textbook version of “patient capital,” and publics with small endowments often had (barely) enough public funding to move forward on operations.  

But the mixed blessing of relative autonomy from market forces wasn’t necessarily sustainable.  Baumol’s cost disease is real, state disinvestment is real, and the pressure to be all things to all people is unrelenting.  Over time, cracks appeared.  The for-profit sector of higher ed, which used to be confined to small and undesirable niches, became a major player.  Colleges started replacing full-time faculty positions with adjunct positions, using the savings to put off larger changes.  Some colleges started making double-or-nothing bets out of desperation, issuing bonds -- that is, borrowing money -- for expansions that they hoped would generate new revenue.  When those don’t work, the lenders want a say in what happens next.

Which is where a financial issue becomes a governance issue.  Suddenly, “shared” governance isn’t just shared with people on campus, or in the legislature.  Now it’s shared with bondholders, and those bondholders have different priorities and varying degrees of patience.  Unlike the other participants in shared governance, they may not have any particular obligation to the other parties at hand.  It might not be worth their while to go for the quick kill, but that’s prudence, rather than deference.  They aren’t big on deference, as a group.

On the very same day, IHE ran a story about Alliant international University changing its status from non-profit to a “public benefit corporation.”  The idea is to maintain the mission-driven nature of a non-profit, while gaining access to the private investment capital that drives for-profits.

I don’t know if the hybrid will work.  It asks capital to be patient, in the manner of midcentury investors, but midcentury investors often had no choice.  Now they do.  I’m not sure what the mechanism is in a “public benefit corporation” to stop it from behaving like any other corporation, or how long it can hold when the force of economic gravity keeps pushing in the same direction.  But I’m intrigued, and I wish AIU well.  If it works, many of us may have something to learn from it.

The stories in IHE yesterday didn’t occasion much comment, and weren’t explicitly linked.  But then, back in the 1980’s, section 401(k) of the tax code was obscure, too.  Sometimes great changes start inconspicuously.  This may be one of those times.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Rabbits, Ducks, and Professional Development

Remember that famous drawing that’s either a rabbit or a duck, depending on which you first decide?

Professional development is like that.  People who think it’s a rabbit have a hard time seeing the duck, and people who see the duck have a hard time imagining the rabbit.  The rabbit/duck divide is most pronounced when the professional development in question is for faculty.  Neither the rabbit view nor the duck view is wrong, exactly, but it’s easy for people to talk past each other when each group assumes that its view is obviously correct.

Keep in mind that I’m writing in the context of teaching-intensive institutions.  I grant without hesitation that the picture may look very different at, say, research universities.

On the rabbit side, many faculty believe that the core of professional development involves travel to conferences in their disciplines.  The idea is to stay current with developments in the field, to maintain and grow contacts in other places, and to get a break from the monotony of local routine.  

There’s nothing wrong with the rabbit view.  Disciplines evolve.  Provincialism can become a real problem when people stay in one place forever and lose touch with the rest of the world.  There’s an old joke about the HR director who asks the CEO “what if we develop our people, and they leave?”  The CEO responds “what if we don’t, and they stay?”  Faculty who lose touch with their disciplines are likely to become less effective in the classroom.  And those networks have ancillary benefits that we shouldn’t discount.

On the duck side, from an institutional perspective, professional development for faculty tends to revolve around classroom issues that transcend individual disciplines.  That could mean online tools, universal design and working with students with disabilities, FERPA and other regulatory compliance, or simply finding ways to teach a class with an intimidatingly wide range of student preparation levels.  None of this is specific to any one department or field.

The duck view is also valid, as far as it goes.  Compliance with federal law is not optional.  Technology is only effective when people know how to use it well.  Some classroom challenges characterize every discipline at the institution; dealing with them across the board is far more efficient and sensible than reinventing the wheel for every single discipline.  New advising software or protocols are specific to institutions, rather than disciplines, but they’re only effective when faculty and staff know how to use them.

In some cases, it’s possible for a single event to satisfy both the rabbit and the duck.  A few disciplines have conferences specifically focused on teaching at the two-year level.  AMATYC, TESOL, and the CCCC leap to mind.  In those cases, math, ESL, and English composition respectively have entire conferences in which the research presented is specifically about classroom issues.  In these cases, the rabbit and the duck happily exist side by side.

But most disciplines don’t have that.  Given limited time and very limited money, it’s often impossible or impractical to do justice to both.  Sometimes we struggle to do justice to either.

Some partial solutions exist, but I’d like to see more.  For example, webinars and other online resources can eliminate travel costs, thereby enabling more people to participate for the same amount of money.  (That also helps reduce schedule conflicts with classes.)  But webinars and the like tend to be very narrowly focused, by necessity.  A full-blown conference will have a more robust slate of options, as well as the invaluable in-between times in which informal conversation can happen.  Conference veterans know that the in-between times are often much more fruitful than the formal sessions.

The constant dilemma at community colleges is that both the rabbit and the duck are valid, but most of the time, it’s a struggle to fund both.  There’s a reason that the big national conferences in many disciplines are populated almost entirely by faculty from four-year schools, and it’s not apathy or incompetence at the two-year level.  It’s the paucity of travel money.  Outside of grants, it’s difficult to support anywhere near as much as we should.  

And that distorts the discourse at the national level.  When the people in the room are entirely from only one segment of higher ed, the discussion will reflect that.  Even when disciplines try to respond with “undegraduate education” sections and the like, the people who can show up will mostly be from the kinds of places that can afford to send them.  The blind spots just get bigger over time.

I can’t discount either the discipline-centric or the institution-centric versions of professional development.  They’re both valid, and they both matter.  At some point, it would be lovely if policymakers understood that.  Until then, any philanthropists looking to make a notable and fast difference are welcome to step up...

Thursday, February 19, 2015

“To the Dark Side”

Elizabeth Lehfeldt’s piece this week encouraging faculty to try their hands at academic administration struck a chord with me.  

Just be prepared, when you cross over, to learn that things may look different from here.

For example, in settings with low trust between faculty and administration, it’s common for each to refer to the other as a single entity sharing one brain, like The Borg.  But from within either, it quickly becomes apparent that the category consists of many interdependent actors, each with different angles on the world and often with different goals.  Yes, some general trends hold, but anyone who imagines The Administration as a single will doesn’t get it.  From within, the ability to work across silos is both important and rare.  

You’ll also find that conversational styles change.  Incisive critique for its own sake isn’t helpful in getting things done, so it’s devalued.  That can be jarring for someone coming from a field in which the most astringent critic wins.  From within, there’s a premium on finding workarounds.  It’s closer to engineering than to “pure” science.

And the number of variables increases exponentially.  That was probably the single biggest shock.  All of a sudden, you have to consider far more angles than you did within the relative autonomy of a classroom.  The trick is keeping a sense of true north while maintaining a three-dimensional awareness of ripple effects.  

That’s where some administrators fail.  With so many dimensions to consider, it can be tempting to look for this year’s panacea.  It offers the gratification of clarity, and the tempting prospect of mastery (or at least effective agency).  The more effective administrators figure out that some problems are more amenable to progress than to revolution.  Some problems will have to wait while others get addressed; that isn’t always a sign of indifference or ignorance.  Having a consistent ethical base to bring coherence to those situational choices is a delicate balance, but it matters.  Without that, it’s easy to fall prey either to the flavor of the month, or to unethical shortcuts that inevitably backfire over time.

All of that said, having a classroom perspective in mind can certainly help.  The point of academic administration is to set the background conditions against which faculty and students can do their best work.  Knowing what that looks like -- what matters and what doesn’t -- can only help.  It’s a difficult job to do well, given resource constraints and the legacies of decisions made before in other circumstances, but which are still binding.  Having a clear sense of the point of it all, and what that entails, can only help.

The “dark side” imagery is so pervasive in higher ed that we sometimes forget that it isn’t found in most industries. In most lines of work, seeking promotion isn’t considered immoral or odd.  In this one, it is.  If we want good people in these roles -- and we do -- then we seriously need to rethink the taboo.  It can scare away good people, and thereby become self-reinforcing.

In the community, parents and prospective students don’t distinguish between “the administration” and “the faculty.”  They see the college as a whole.  In a really important way, they’re right.  Making that idea feel real on the ground may require encouraging some capable faculty to give the prospect of administration serious consideration.  I hope they do.  There’s plenty of work to be done, and I’m always happy to work with smart people with the right motives.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What Was Your Proudest Teaching Moment?

What was your proudest teaching moment?

I’m working on an extended piece I hope to deliver later this Spring, and the piece led me to a reflection on my own proudest teaching moments.  They weren’t what I thought they would be when I went into higher ed.

I had assumed that my best moments would be either when I came up with the absolutely perfect metaphor or a devastatingly witty aside.  In other words, they would be when I got my words exactly right.  That was certainly how most of my graduate professors seemed to operate.

Once I started teaching, though, I figured out quickly that it wasn’t about me or my words.  

My proudest moments may not have looked spectacular from the outside, but I remember them vividly.  They were times when a student surprised herself in discovering how smart she was.  In one case, I remember an entire class muttering “ooooh” appreciatively after a usually-quiet student said something fabulously smart; after that, the student was off and running.  In a few cases, secretly bright students started to flourish after getting permission to be smart.  You’d think that would have been implied, but not for everybody.

The most fun, though, were students wrestling with Big Ideas in a serious way for the first time.  When an idea made it through the protective layer of cynicism and set the wheels turning, you could actually see it in their facial expressions.  That may reflect the political theory training, or it may be at the root of it.  

Wise and worldly readers, especially those of you who teach, what was your proudest teaching moment?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

I Shouldn’t Be Surprised By Now, And Yet…

We had an employer advisory board meeting yesterday for a complex technical program that we’re determined to expand.  (For purposes of this piece, I don’t need to name it or get terribly specific, so I won’t.)  Several local employers were present, each offering useful feedback on ways to structure what we’re doing to put students in the most competitive position on the market.  We also had faculty from the program at the meeting, to make sure that we kept the discussion realistic and to follow the more inside-baseball parts of the conversation.

I’ve been to enough of these over the years that I shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened.  You’d think I would have learned by now.  And yet, there it is.

When asked about skill gaps we could address, the top answer was…

wait for it…

Writing.  Technical writing, specifically.  They needed technicians who could document their procedures well enough for other employees to use them.

Some variation on that happens at every employer advisory board.  We hear about the specific skills or knowledge bases needed in a given field, and that varies widely from field to field.  (The specific skills in, say, medical billing are different from the ones in Culinary.)  But then the discussion turns to general communication skills, especially in writing, and the employers get really animated.  That’s where they shift from a relatively dispassionate analysis of industry trends to really passionate stories of frustration with flaws they don’t know how to fix.  They can train people around new pieces of hardware or new regulations, but they don’t know what to do with people who can’t write clearly enough to be understood.

You don’t even have to know which industry I’m referring to; it applies to all of them.

If it were only one industry, I could assume we were seeing a reflection of something specific to it: a very low wage scale, say, or a high population of English language learners who weren’t quite there yet.  But it happens in every industry, including some lucrative ones, and the examples they cite are of people who grew up here.  I’ve seen it at three colleges now.  It’s a pattern.

This is why I get twitchy when I hear more traditionally academic programs or courses disparaged as lacking “real world” relevance.  The content may, sometimes; I don’t use my Stuart Restoration trivia much on the job.  But some of the skills are absolutely relevant.  And to the extent that they have to be refined, it’s much easier to teach a skilled writer a particular format.  My brother has built a career on this very thing: he parlayed the skills honed as a history and religion double major into a job as a technical writer, from there, his skills at analysis, synthesis, and communication moved him up the ladder quickly.  

I’m happy to work with local employers to help people who need jobs gain the skills they need to do work that needs doing, especially when the industry is growing locally.  That’s just a huge win all around.  But I’m also happy to hear, again, that some skills never go out of style.  

Monday, February 16, 2015

Yes, And: A Response to “Community College Online”

As regular readers know, I’m a fan of good improvised comedy.  I have decided opinions on the relative merits of the various hosts of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” -- Aisha Tyler for the win -- and I’ve laughed so hard at podcast episodes of “Comedy Bang Bang” that other drivers have looked on with concern.  (Paul F. Tompkins’ rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber always gets me.)  The first principle of improvised comedy is “yes, and…”  When you’re in a scene, no matter what your partner says, you have to go with it and build on it  

I had that response to Rachel Fishman’s new report for the New America Foundation, “Community College Online.”  Yes, and.  It offers plenty to build on.  Given that those of us in the trenches are improvising responses to a rapidly-changing setting, I’ll take that.

Fishman notes the demographics of community college students in setting the context.  When educational policies have been established largely on the model of the eighteen year old, full time student, getting the student profile right matters.  On my own campus, for example, the IPEDS cohort (first-time, full-time, degree-seeking) is less than twenty percent of the student body.  And that’s before accounting for the number who work twenty or more hours a week for pay.  When policies are made with that small cohort in mind, the great many who don’t fit the cohort often find themselves at a disadvantage.  

For example, Fishman rightly notes that the way Pell and other Federal financial aid programs are structured assume the full-time student who takes summers off.  If you’re an adult student who’s trying to maintain some continuity of enrollment year-round, the aid system really isn’t built for you.  Summer Pell came and went in a flash, before colleges could really adjust their offerings to take full advantage of it, so now we’re in the contradictory position of trying to encourage accelerated completion while also forcing students to stop out for months at a time.  As with any system at cross-purposes with itself, that leads to issues.

The situation with financial aid and competency-based courses is even worse.  Right now, absent a writ from the “experimental site authority” people, colleges can only offer aid for either competency-based education or credit-hour based, but not both.  Colleges that want to take baby steps towards CBE have to still tie it back to the credit hour, thereby defeating much of the potential efficiency gain.  Fishman calls for the Feds to start allowing colleges to mix CBE and credit hour courses within the same program, and even for the same student.  Let a college teach math on a CBE basis while still using credit hours for, say, studio art.  

That change makes sense on several levels.  Most basically, it allows colleges to start small and learn from experience before scaling up.  With the “all or nothing” approach the Feds mandate now, either you remake every single element of your college from the ground up, or you don’t.  (SNHU handled it by spinning off a separate entity that it was able to build from the ground up.  Most of us don’t have that option.)  Assuming that CBE makes eminent sense in some domains -- math, let’s say -- and somewhat less in others -- performing arts leap to mind -- there’s a strong academic argument, as well as a prudential argument, for being allowed to mix and match.

The “and” part of “yes, and…” applies to Fishman’s recommendations about grants.  For example, she advocates that the First in the World program, run by FIPSE, make community colleges a priority category.  She follows with a recommendation for more competitive federal grants open to community colleges, based loosely on the TAACCCT model.  The idea is that innovation costs money, and the Feds could get much more bang for the buck by focusing on community colleges.

Yes, and.  Grants are great, and I’d heartily endorse a recommendation to make more of them, and a more varied set of them, realistically available to community colleges.  But the issue that kills so much innovation in the crib isn’t a lack of grants; it’s a shortage of operating funds.  Grants are usually time-limited, with the idea that they’ll provide “seed money” for programs that will move to the college operating budget after three to five years.  But many of the innovations that actually work aren’t of the “set it and forget it” variety, for which the seed money model makes sense.  They require ongoing staffing, which means they require ongoing funding.  The national trend of cost-shifting from states and localities to students has put community college operating budgets in a bind.  I’ve been to too many meetings, in too many settings, in which great ideas fell victim to “if we could afford it.”  Grants provide some breathing room for some innovations, and that’s great.  But if we’re serious about improving results across the board -- and not just at a few selected institutions with high profiles and terrific grant writers -- we need to find a way to address the issue of operating funding.  

That’s not a criticism of Fishman, really; that wasn’t the point of her report.  It’s an addition.  Yes, let’s get rid of silly and arbitrary financial aid rules that put students in bad spots, and yes, let’s open up FITW to the colleges where most students actually enroll.  But let’s also have a serious conversation about sustaining those improvements over time.  The golden age of podcasts is happening because of brilliant hosts and wonderful material, but also because it has sponsors.  Let’s build on Fishman’s work by finding the equivalent of sponsors.  

Sunday, February 15, 2015

English 101 vs. English 102

This shouldn’t get anyone worked up at all…

Let’s say that a community college has a two-semester composition sequence as a general education requirement  Which tasks and skills should go where?  

You’d think there would be general agreement by now, but I’ve seen several variations. And let me say for the record that this isn’t about a secret agenda to single-handedly remake a curriculum.  It’s about trying to understand different alternatives, in order to have more informed discussions of them.  If I had a secret agenda, I wouldn’t write about it.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that most grammar instruction has been delegated to the K-12 system -- elementary schools were once called “grammar schools” for a reason -- with developmental courses available for the many students who still need to work on that.  101 is intended to address college-level skills.  That’s not to say that the finer points of grammar never come up, but that they’re certainly not the focus of the course.  And let’s assume that these are “composition” courses, as opposed to literature courses.  These are the classes that everyone has to take, whether majoring in liberal arts, business, or engineering.  English majors will, of course, go on to take courses in literature specifically.  This is about the classes that everyone has to take.

One version has 101 devoted to response essays, and 102 devoted to research papers.  The idea is to develop the skills of structure and exposition, and then to learn to include evidence systematically.  The response essays in 101 can draw upon personal experience, fiction, or nonfiction; the research papers in 102 are typically devoted to nonfiction, even if they’re about lives of fiction authors.

Even within this version, I’ve seen variations.  One popular version has students in 101 write four different genres of paper: usually a personal narrative, a summary, an argument, and a critique.  Another has students in 101 attack the same genre repeatedly.  Personally, I prefer the second approach to the first, for two reasons. First, I don’t think you get good at something by doing it once; it takes repeated practice.  Second, in my observation, the last thing that students entering college-level discourse need is more autobiography.  If anything, they need practice at getting beyond themselves; starting with a personal narrative can reinforce bad habits.  That said, fans of the fourfold approach are legion.

Another variation has 101 devoted to research papers, and 102 to literature.  The idea here is to develop the skills of argumentation first, and then to make arguments about literature in the second course.  The reading material is basically split into nonfiction for 101 and fiction for 102.  

Some very smart people swear by this model, though I can’t help but think that it’s asking too much of 101.  If you’re starting with students who have never been asked to write at a college level before, and you’re trying to get them beyond the five-paragraph essay, wrestling with multiple points of view, and dealing with citations, that’s a lot to do in one semester.  A single course trying to do all of that seems overstuffed.  If I were a cynical sort, I’d wonder if the goal of that was really to turn 102 into a quasi-literature course because that’s what many faculty would rather teach.  But I’m not, so I won’t go there.

Alternately, I’ve seen 101 devoted to literature, and 102 to nonfiction and research.  In this model, 101 is devoted to structure and argument, with the skills of citation and point of view reserved for 102.

I’ve been struck for years that a two-semester composition sequence is virtually universal among community colleges, and yet there’s relatively little agreement about the content and structure of that sequence.  Many selective four-year colleges require only one semester of composition, on the theory that students have been pre-screened for basic writing ability.  Whether that’s accurate or not, I don’t know.  But among open-admissions two-year colleges, the two-course sequence is widely accepted, even if often treated as a black box.

Wise and worldly readers, do you have a strong sense of what should be done in 101 as opposed to 102?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Standing Calvin on His Head

The New York Times had an unusually thoughtful and well-written piece this week (by Kristin O’Keefe) on the wide acceptance of the distinction between community college and “real” college.  It’s heartbreaking in its content, and in the fact that it had to be written at all.

The status distinction implied by the contrast isn’t just annoying; it does real harm.  To the extent that some students internalize it, it can be demotivating or devaluing.  It sets up a lose-lose: do poorly in your classes and you confirm your self-doubts, but do well in your classes and it doesn’t really count because it isn’t a “real” college.  Developmental classes double down on that; even if you do incredibly well in them, they don’t “count.”  Ugh.  If you’re coming in already unsure of your capabilities, that’s a lot of emotional baggage to work around.

Community colleges teach content and skills, and those matter.  But at their best, they also un-teach some really awful social messages about value, and about what “merit” looks like.  I’ve heard students (and graduates) say that community college was the first institution that has ever done right by them.  At their best, community colleges show respect for students, some of whom haven’t received much respect over the years.  Unaccustomed respect can have powerful effects.

A favorite true story: a few years ago, a student with a checkered academic past got an A on a paper in a class here.  He jumped up and started running through the hallway yelling “A motherf---ing A!  I got a motherf---ing A!  I never got a motherf---ing A in my life!”  Yes, he could have phrased it differently, but it changed his life.  It may have been his first A, but it was not his last.

One classic vision of college holds that it’s about “weeding out.”  It assumes that students are unworthy until they prove otherwise.  It assumes that if you washed out, it’s because you lacked “merit.”  If you lack merit, this vision goes, you have no right to complain.  “Merit” is assumed to inhere (or not) in the student, and the degree to which you have it will be revealed through steadily increasing scrutiny.  Students live in constant fear of being found out.  In settings like those, some level of impostor syndrome among students is almost inevitable.  They develop a sort of Calvinist anxiety about whether they’re among the elect or not, always requiring more proof.  

The miracle of community colleges is that they stand the Calvinist view on its head.  They assume that all students are worthy of respect, and that there’s enough success to go around.  They assume that you can’t tell who’s capable just by looking at them, so you have to give everyone a shot.  You do that because the students are worth it.  They’re worth it before they even get here.  If anything, the burden is on the institution to prove itself worthy of the students.

That may look to some people like not being a “real” college.  I think it looks like democratic  ethics, founded in a radical sense of reciprocity.  It’s a kind of idealism that waxes and wanes in American culture -- it’s very much at a low point now -- but that never quite goes away.  It’s based on the assumption that nobody is special, and nobody is worthless.  We all have something to contribute.  We just have to figure out what it is, and work the hell out of it.  This is a space in which to do that.  

In a period of unprecedented stratification, in which the ever-present Calvinist streak in American culture insists that economic class reflects your worth as a person, that kind of reciprocity-based respect can seem bizarre, anachronistic, or threatening.  If you base your sense of worth on exclusivity, then such an inclusive institution threatens the source of your sense of worth.  So you attack it as “politically correct,” or “naive,” or “impractical.”  And enough real flaws exist that there’s always something to find.  

But if you don’t think community colleges are “real” colleges, talk to some first-generation graduates.  Tell them what you think, to their faces.  Then stand back.

They’re worthy.  They always were.  And they remember who treated them accordingly.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Shocker: Quick Fix Doesn’t Work

There’s plenty to say about Politico’s story about Pearson, but I’ll leave most of it to people who are better versed in the details.  Instead, I’ll pick out one lesson that jumped out at me, even though it was only one element of the story:

Colleges are assembling entire online programs without the faculty?

If the story is correct, and I’ll assume that it mostly is, then some major and respected universities are making a practice of establishing separate online colleges with no internal faculty involvement.  They’re contracting with external providers to do it for them.  The motivation seems to be a fear of missing the great wave of online enrollments, combined with a fear that given the chance, faculty would kill online education in the crib.

Neither fear is necessarily ill-founded.  Technological shifts happen like bankruptcy: slowly, and then all at once.  Kodak’s foot-dragging around digital photography didn’t hurt, until it suddenly became fatal.  If you have a sense that a change like that is coming -- and it is -- then moving quickly makes sense.  After all, the alternative is unacceptable.  But to folks who don’t see the threat, don’t believe the threat, or believe they’ll retire before the threat comes to fruition, urgency may feel arbitrary or coercive.  In that context, resistance is predictable.

For a mid-level manager given a blunt mandate and an abrupt timeframe, I can see the temptation to circumvent existing structures altogether and just buy a turnkey solution.  After all, it takes you quickly from ‘nothing’ to ‘something,’ and it comes with enough experienced support to prevent the really embarrassing rookie mistakes that new endeavors often endure.  For a high-visibility project, the appeal of proficiency from day one is powerful.  In the early going, you get big percentage gains, and the initial losses seem abstract.

But that kind of quick fix tends to come back to bite you.  

The long game doesn’t have the easy initial payoff of the quick fix, but it leads to sustainable gains.  It’s the difference between gradual weight loss through healthy lifestyle changes and fast weight loss through crystal meth.  The latter gets more impressive numbers initially, but you really don’t want to see the long-term impact.

The long game involves tackling the issue of faculty reluctance by treating faculty like the intelligent adults that they are.  Share the data.  Share the demographic projections.  Share the big picture on budget.    And respect the process of tinkering.  

That’s a slow process, marked by halting progress and uneven initial success.  But as momentum builds, it has real weight behind it.  When some early adopters share their success stories with their colleagues, the colleagues see the very real value in it.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it wasn’t until academic oversight of online courses was restored to the academic divisions that we finally got enough courses online to allow entire degrees.  Now we have several entire degrees, and even an online degree completion agreement with Westfield State.  When the online area was walled off, some departments wanted nothing to do with it.  Now, it’s part of what we do.  In fact, it’s the most rapidly growing part of what we do.

That wasn’t the work of a semester or a year.  It was the work of several years, and it involved some awkward moments.  But it set the foundation for growth that’s actually sustainable because the college isn’t at war with itself.  Many of the very best minds on the faculty are engaged not only in online teaching, but in bringing the best of online and onsite teaching to bear on each other.  The fruits of growth accrue not to some outside entity with an agenda of its own, but to the college.  Faculty who may initially have regarded online teaching as a threat to their livelihoods now understand that it’s the best bet to preserve their livelihoods.  

I’m not going to claim universal agreement; some folks will stick with chalk until they’re done.  But even the skeptics at least understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and they have enough respect for their colleagues not to sabotage it.  I’ll take that.

I don’t know enough about Pearson to know if it’s better or worse than other outside providers.  But it’s an outside provider.  I’d rather work with the very smart people we already have.  They have a deeper stake in the success of online, even if it takes some work and time for some of the more skeptical ones to see it.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Hidden in Plain Sight

Back in 2000, when George W. Bush was trying to select a running mate, Dick Cheney chaired the search committee to find one.  Eventually, of course, Cheney declared the search unsuccessful, and Bush put Cheney himself in the role. As Jon Stewart memorably reconstructed the scene, “Cheney took off his glasses, and let down his hair, and Bush suddenly realized that he had been looking for...was right there all along.”  

You might not want to dwell on that image too long.

This story from the LA Times casts community colleges in the neglected-good-girl role.  Apparently, a few years after California passed a law making transfer to the state universities easier, students are actually transferring to the state universities.  Nearly 12,000 followed that path in 2013-4, as compared to fewer than a thousand in 2011-12.

California has a massive community college system, so even the 12,000 figure strikes me as low; I wouldn’t be surprised to see it continue to grow for a while as word gets out.  

For all the talk of out-of-control college costs, student loan burdens, and the like, there’s already an option in place that rarely gets recognized as an option.  The community college transfer route is hiding in plain sight.

To be sure, it takes different forms in different states, and even at different campuses.  Some states have legislated guarantees of block transfer; some have joint admissions; some rely on articulation agreements.  Even within states,you’ll find variations.  HCC recently signed an agreement with Westfield State to guarantee a student a cap of $30,000 in tuition and fees for a four-year degree, using a two-plus-two model.  (Living in dorms at WSU costs extra.)  

But the political discourse around community colleges continues to cast them entirely as job training centers, and to assume that they’re spending too much.  That’s true even though they spend far less than any other sector of American higher education, and that the largest major at many cc’s is a transfer-oriented liberal arts major.

I’m thinking we need to get better at telling stories.  Theresa MacPhail has a thoughtful piece in the Huffington Post about vaccine deniers, noting that vaccine panics have occurred repeatedly over time, and that they never get resolved through facts.  If anything, citing facts contrary to a deeply-held belief can motivate believers to dig in their heels.  (The piece is particularly good on history.  Did you know that the Anti-Vaccination League of America was founded in 1879?  I didn’t.)  It’s good to have reasons, but sometimes you need other strategies.  

Community college leaders are well-versed in numbers and anecdotes, but so far, haven’t broken through and changed the political image of community colleges.  As long as they’re pigeonholed as either “less than” or strictly vocational, they won’t get the recognition and support they should.  At some point, we need to shift the discussion to stories that will actually break through.  If Dick Cheney can do it, we can do it.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

“Dad, Is the University of Phoenix a Good School?”

This weekend The Boy and I went on a brief roadtrip in service of a robotics tournament that wound up being cancelled.  (New England is under its third repent-your-sins storm warning in the past two weeks.)  A few hours in the car each way gave us a chance for some free-ranging conversation.  When you have hours of free-range conversation with a thirteen-year-old, you never know what you’re going to get.

I’m lucky that he’s a smart, inquisitive, good-natured, and well-spoken kid.  This wasn’t the tortured series of eye-rolls that some parents would get.  That said, he hit me with a question I wasn’t prepared for.

“Dad, is the University of Phoenix a good school?”

We had been talking about basketball and the various different sports that he might or might not play in high school.  So far his favorites are basketball and baseball, and I encouraged him to look into cross-country running.  He’s up to a size 14 shoe and counting, and skinny as a rail, so I could see him running for hours.  We agreed that football is fun to watch, but it’s hard to enjoy because of all the brain damage being done to the players.  I told him that I didn’t want him playing football because his meal ticket in life would be his brain, and I didn’t want to jeopardize his meal ticket.  From there, the discussion turned to college.

TB: Dad, is the University of Phoenix a good school?

Me: NO!

TB: (surprised) Really?  Why not?

I admit that I should have handled this one better.  In my defense, it was dark, and late, and I was half-listening to him and half-listening to the GPS trying to direct us to the hotel.  

Me: It’s a for-profit.  Sometimes they make compromises to make money.

TB: How do you know?

Me: I used to work at a for-profit.  

TB: Is your college for-profit?

Me: No, it’s public.  Publics are non-profit.

TB: So for-profits are bad?

Reader, I did the best I could on the spur of the moment.

Me: They don’t have to be, but they usually are.  

TB: So how do you know the good ones from the bad ones?

I punted.

Me: Well, I spend most of my time obsessing about colleges, so I know about their reputations.  You can do better.


Among specialists in the field, it’s easy to assume a certain set of background knowledge, and usually a certain set of shared assumptions.  Those can be flawed, of course, but they form the basis of things-you-don’t-have-to-explain.  

Talking with a bright, inquisitive kid without that frame of reference, though, I couldn’t help but notice his surprise at my response (and the vehemence with which it was delivered).  Other than Harvard and MIT, he mostly bases his sense of colleges on whether he has heard of them repeatedly or not.  By that standard, UofP does quite well.  It hosted the Super Bowl without even having a football team!  Not many colleges can say that.

The conversation stuck with me, though.  Wise and worldly readers, I need your help.  Leaving aside my (admittedly knee-jerk) answer on Phoenix particularly, what would be a fair basis for answering a thirteen-year-old’s question about whether college X is a good school?  How would we know?  I’m looking for something a little more rigorous than “because I said so,” but not quite at the level of, say, PIRS.  

I may have missed the mark on this one, but The Girl is only a few years behind.  I’d like to handle the question more gracefully when it comes back.