Sunday, April 10, 2016

Live from the Basement: Reporting from the AACC

I’m at the American Association of Community Colleges conference in Chicago, where the official theme this year is “Camelot.”  Seriously.  It’s on the program.  

The kickoff awards ceremony revealed more than it intended.  Nothing against any individual recipient, but it’s hard not to notice that there’s a cluster of about ten people who give each other awards over and over again.  A few weeks ago, the League gave an award to the head of the AACC.  On Saturday, the chair of the AACC gave an award to the departing leader of the League.  It’s getting a bit...circular.

Which is too bad, because good ideas can come from other places and people if you’re willing to listen.

Kay McClenney and Walter Bumphus led a cast of thousands on a Sunday morning panel on guided pathways that was alternately enlightening and frustrating.  Any Kay McClenney panel is worth attending, and this one was, too, but it led to the same vague sense of inner and outer circles that the round-robin awards did.

The theme -- more than worthy -- was how best to do guided pathways at scale.  In other words, how can colleges provide clearer guidance to students without falling into the trap of “boutique” programs that achieve great results only for the very small number of students lucky enough to be in them?  Each panelist had a set of recommendations, some of which made tremendous sense.  I was particularly taken with the idea of doing class scheduling a year or two at a time, rather than semester-by-semester.  In theory, if you have enough students do plans far enough in advance, you could have a better sense of how many sections of what you’ll need, and when.  It’s a lot of detail work, but it’s important detail work, and it could generate real efficiency gains.  I’m taking that one back with me.  Karen Stout, from Achieving the Dream, mentioned a software package called IPASS that sounds like it integrates academic planning with course scheduling two years out; if I got that right, it could be incredibly useful.

But the frustrations were real.  I heard too many references to resources far beyond what we could reasonably expect to see, and too many references to flexibilities that don’t, and won’t, exist in my world.  (Buyouts?)  When new resources are mostly available on a competitive basis, they tend to go to the colleges that least need them.  That’s not malicious, necessarily -- if you’re trying to prove a concept, you’d choose the people likeliest to prove the concept -- but it tends to mean that if you aren’t in the circle, you’re very much out of it.  

Put differently, if the AACC and others would like to see Pathways at scale, it should support colleges at scale.  Going back repeatedly to the same couple dozen doesn’t do much for the rest of us.  The concept is proved; we need help with implementation.  

Paradoxically, the panelists actually backed that up, without meaning to.  Several of them noted that making serious progress on pathways is the work of -- depending on who spoke -- from five to nine years.  It’s not a quick fix, and it can’t be done off the corner of someone’s desk.  Setting aside significant resources for that many years, in a context of declining enrollment and flat or declining public funding, is an enormous challenge.  It requires help.  

The theme of inner circles and outer circles was brought home most clearly, though, by the Generation X panel, featuring JoAlice Blondin, Amy Goings, and Tim Stokes.  The panel was relegated to a narrow, partitioned room on the side of a basement.  It was standing room only, yes, but that’s because there were only two rows of chairs (and one couch brought in by an enterprising X’er).  It was a little striking to see marginalization taken so literally.

Still, the discussion gave at least some hope.  I noticed themes common among the X’ers that still seem to strike Boomers as odd: building isn’t always good; concern for work/life balance is valid and not just for women; ceremony is often overrated; technology matters; experimentation requires mistakes; and change is a matter of existential urgency.  To me, these are all no-brainers, but I’ve had multiple -- seriously, many multiples of -- cases of acting on one of those and getting back some variation on “shocked and appalled.”  When a generation is largely skipped over, its common sense is skipped over, too.  And that’s a loss, because its common sense is largely correct.  In fact, one could argue that we’d be in better shape as a sector if we heeded it more.

One panelist mentioned that even the theme of the convention -- “Camelot” -- reflects a generational perspective.  That word may have resonance with Boomers, but it really doesn’t with the rest of us.  If anything, it connotes an illusion.  Camelot fell; utopias fail.  We don’t have time for utopias.  The tasks are urgent.  Maybe a bit less time watching the same ten people give awards to each other and a bit more time addressing real challenges might help.  It’s time to bring the next generation up from the basement.