Thursday, August 31, 2017

Nametag Season

In an earlier stage of my career, the annual trip to the American Political Science Association conference in early September was effectively mandatory.  I started going a few years into grad school, and kept going for several years into my faculty life.  This tweet captures the feel of APSA disturbingly well.

The timing was always awful.  The few days around Labor Day coincided with the start of the semester, and The Wife’s birthday falls in there, too.  We had to dress sorta-formally, even though it was invariably about 90 degrees and muggy.  And as grad students, the annual travel allowance didn’t even cover airfare, let alone lodging, food, or registration.  

This piece from IHE earlier this week reminded me of the day I realized I had to stop going.  I was working at DeVry at that point, teaching lots of American Government and a few other things.  My grad school mentors didn’t quite know what to make of that; on the one hand, it was a full-time job, but on the other, it was DeVry.  I knew I couldn’t eat status, so I made the best of the situation for a while.

But the nametag-gazing.  Oh my, the nametag gazing.

I noticed it when I was walking through a corridor with a grad school friend who had since landed at a respected public university.  He had his affiliation on his badge, and I had mine.  People talked to him openly and happily, would turn to greet me, look at the nametag, and recoil, as if from a bad smell.  It wasn’t subtle.

Having been there previously with the Rutgers nametag, I knew enough to know the difference.  I had gone from “potentially interesting” to “persona non grata,” simply by virtue of institutional affiliation.  

Frances Fox Piven, of all people, helped crystallize it for me.  In a presentation she gave that year, she referred to APSA as “a mechanism for the production and distribution of prestige.”  After shaking off the shock, I realized she was right.  My continued presence there served nobody’s purpose, so I stopped going.  

I pivoted to administration and community colleges, and have made a new career since.  I’ve found unexpected joys in it, and a surprisingly multifaceted muse as a writer.

But having been through that, and having spent the last fourteen years at community colleges -- a branch of higher education that gets elided entirely in many discussions of “The University” -- I still get twitchy when I read or hear about smart and capable people being ignored due to affiliations.  

Academia is many things, but a meritocracy it decidedly is not.  Someone hired to a department with a 2-2 load and teaching assistants has more time for writing than someone hired to a department with a 5-5 load and DIY grading.  They simply do.  But the higher production registers as higher productivity, and is attributed to the person.  It’s a variation on the “fundamental attribution error” in social psychology.  

The tragedy is that many people wind up buying into it to explain their own defeats.  The quest for legibility, or an explanation at all, can lead to self-blame, and then to a series of increasingly desperate attempts to escape or displace that blame.  

For all of the attention they attract, nametags are distracting.  That applies to people, and it applies to institutions.  Especially in this market, talent can be found where you might not expect it.  

Enjoy APSA, folks.  I hope it isn’t as muggy as it seemingly always was.  I’d rather be here.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

No Soup For You!

This week I had one of those moments in a meeting when I could feel my brain stop.

Several of us from the college were meeting with a few folks from a local high school with whom we have an Early College High School arrangement.  The program allows high school students to take college classes for dual credit; if they pass everything on the first try, they can graduate with an Associate’s degree at the same time they graduate high school.  It’s a way to short-circuit the “you’re not college material” message that some kids get in our culture, and to do it at minimal cost.  We already have some four-year colleges expressing strong interest in enrolling the graduates as transfer students.

The meeting was moving along nicely as we discussed curriculum, space, and timing.  The model we’re using involves starting out with classes in the high school, but once students get some credits under their belt, they move to the college campus.  It’s a phasing-in process that allows students to build some momentum in familiar environs before jumping in the deep end.  So far, the results have been encouraging.

Until we hit the unanticipated topic that stopped me cold: lunch.

Many of the students in the program qualify for free or reduced price lunch.  When they’re on the high school campus, the school has mechanisms for that.  It has built its cafeteria policies and practices around that.  The school knows what to do, and has legal permission to do it.

But apparently, the free and reduced price lunch money isn’t portable.  If the students are taking classes on the college campus, they can’t apply that money at the cafeteria here.  They can take classes here, but they can’t get food here.  

No soup for them.

Drawing on the work of Sara Goldrick-Rab, I’ve suggested before that it would be beneficial to extend some version of the free lunch program to community colleges.  But I didn’t realize that even current beneficiaries of the program can’t apply the benefit here.  

It could be simple enough.  Most colleges, including my own, have student ID cards on which students can load money to be spent on campus.  If the free lunch allocation were converted to that, the students could use their ID’s at the cafeteria, just like everyone else.  They could get hot or cold food, and nobody but them would know from whence the money came.  I’m pretty certain that we could find technology to ensure that the daily money expires at the end of the day, if that’s a deal-breaker.

We know that hungry students don’t perform as well academically as fed students.  We know that dual enrollment and early college programs provide real academic benefit, particularly for low-income students.  And we pay for lunches for low-income students in high schools.

So why can’t we apply those same dollars to cover lunches for low-income students here?  

The argument from basic human decency is obvious.  Basic human decency aside, the bang for the buck for something like this could be enormous.  In practice, any workarounds will be far more expensive and cumbersome, and far less satisfying, than the simple fix of letting students eat in the cafeteria with everyone else.  

WIse and worldly readers on campuses with longstanding dual enrollment programs: do you know how your school handles lunch?  There has to be a reasonable way...

Monday, August 28, 2017

In Defense of Millennials

Millennials get a bad rap.  And I say that as a Gen X’er, the nearly-forgotten generation that pioneered getting a bad rap.  

Working at a college, I’m surrounded by Millennials.  And while they vary internally as much as any age cohort, I’ve generally been struck by the disconnect between the way they’re portrayed in the media and the way they go about their business.  

From what I’ve seen, they work harder than my cohort did, and for less payoff.  (We could say the same about ourselves, relative to Boomers.)  They’re more polite than I remember my own group being at that age.  Yes, they’re always checking their phones, but so are we.  Most of them are juggling jobs, classes, and family obligations, along with the relationship drama that comes with that age.  They’re more racially diverse and socially tolerant than we were.  They volunteer more.  To the extent that memory serves, they’re much more comfortable with difference than we were.  Some of their humor runs dark, but the generation that embraced grunge can’t really complain about that.

The only complaints that ring true are trivial.  Some of the music sucks, but if we’re honest, so did a lot of 80’s and 90’s stuff.  (Winger?  Dokken?  “Everybody Wang Chung Tonight?”  We have no grounds to grumble.)  I still don’t get the “tan shoes go great with gray suits” thing, but hell, we wore Jams and nobody said anything.  I’m a little annoyed that baggy fashions were in style when I was skinny, and fitted clothes are in fashion when I’m, well, not, but that’s how it goes.  On the Grand Scale of Complaints, this comes in around the level of asking for a Coke and getting a Pepsi.  It’s nothing.

Gail Mellow’s column in the New York Times on Monday is an instant classic.  She’s the President of LaGuardia Community College, a leading figure in positive community college reform, and a dedicated advocate for students who actually exist.  Her piece describes the very real struggles that many college students now face, many of which are much more severe now than they used to be.

Millennials as a group face higher tuition, in real terms, than either their parents or their grandparents did.  (As a parent of a 16 year old, this is not abstract for me.)  In 1986, when I started at Williams, total cost was about $15,000, and the minimum wage was $3.35 an hour.  That would be about 4,478 hours.  Now, total cost is about $68,000, and the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.  That comes out to about 9,379 hours. (There are 8,760 hours in a non-leap year.) It’s objectively harder now, and that’s saying something; it wasn’t easy then!  Publics are less expensive, but they’ve increased by similar or greater percentages.

Mellow points out, correctly, that the lion’s share of higher ed philanthropy goes to institutions that need it least.  Community colleges -- which serve over 40 percent of undergraduates, and which have much more diverse student populations than the rest of higher ed -- get crumbs.  Part of that is that we came late to the philanthropic game, but much of it is a combination of prestige-chasing among elites and thin staffing in advancement offices.  The effect is to cluster opportunity among those who already have it.  Yet Millennials, as a group, bear the burdens with few complaints.

I was never a fan of the “kids today” style of complaining, but it’s particularly objectionable now.  Today’s students -- not all of whom are Millennials, but most are -- are working harder than we did, borrowing more, and juggling more, and they’re doing it with generally tougher post-graduation prospects.  And while they may be more tired, they’re more socially accepting than we ever were.  To the extent that they pressure the rest of us to live up to our better selves, we owe them a debt of gratitude.  And help with tuition.

Here’s a challenge to my X’er and Boomer readers.  If we want to complain about Millennials, we first have to take away their excuses.  That means supporting free community college, universal health care, and a robust job market, among other things.  Give them so many opportunities to succeed that they have no right to complain.  Then we can gripe about their multicolored socks, and just hope that they don’t find the Duran Duran cd’s downstairs.  Until then, I propose that we stop carping and start helping.

Sunday, August 27, 2017


I had the lucky timing to be in Massachusetts when Sandy hit New Jersey.  I came to Brookdale in 2015, a couple of years after Sandy, and found that people here were still dealing with the aftermath.  Some employees had lost their homes in the storm.  Some families moved away.  If you use the term “Post-Sandy” in a sentence, nobody has to ask what you mean. Years later, it’s still a sensitive topic.

I mention that as context for saying that the impact of Harvey will linger long after the water is gone.  And as a suggestion that we think hard about contingency plans, because these horrific disasters are coming more frequently, and with more force, than they used to.  

From a community college perspective, a few thoughts.

Obviously, some colleges will function as shelters, and will become de facto community centers for emergency food distribution.  When we had the October ice storm a few years ago at Holyoke and people lost power for anywhere from a few days to over a week, the locker room at the college gym was the only access that some employees had to hot showers.  It sounds like a small thing, but it isn’t.  I’d encourage any colleges in the area to loosen up on restrictions to the showers.

Many community college students are living economically precarious existences in the best of times.  Obviously, we need to do what we can to tend to immediate material needs.  But there’s a longer term issue, too.  When something like this strikes, we need to make a point of reaching out to the Federal Department of Education, as well as the relevant state agencies, to ensure that students on financial aid don’t get penalized for technical violations of rules that they could not possibly have followed, given the circumstances.  The same could apply to colleges themselves.  It’s late August; the Fall semester has either just started or is just about to.  Losing even a week to recovery could wreak financial havoc.  I don’t know if Texas does performance-based funding, but if it does, we should prevail upon it to suspend any cuts for several years.  That’s how long it will take to undo the damage.

Shared services will matter for a long time, too.  That means taking in students, but it also means providing help to colleges whose capacity for various routine functions may be compromised for a while.  When systems are down or key employees are either absent or so shaken as to be badly off their game, it’s easy for deadlines to pass, mistakes to be made, and people to be hurt.  It will likely take years to sort everything out, but the more that other colleges and professionals can help, the less bad it will be.  To the extent that we as a sector can offer help with getting systems back online, we should.

As awful as it is, this is also a valuable learning experience for colleges across the country.  As large bodies of water get warmer, storms become more severe.  Harvey is extraordinary, but it won’t be the last of its kind.  I know this isn’t at the top of anyone’s list, but to the extent that folks can document their recovery steps, we can learn from them.  As disasters become more frequent, disaster recovery matters more.

Finally, and I owe a debt to the folks who presented on the aftermath of the Umpqua killings, it’s important to realize that just because people are physically capable of returning to work, it doesn’t follow that they’re at their best.  Again, this may be where colleges sharing staff and administrators, at least for a while, can help.  The urge to return to normalcy can blind us to people’s quiet suffering.  Acknowledging that pain, and accepting help, can make it easier to be patient with frayed nerves while still getting work done.

In terms of donations, this piece from Medium seems like a good place to start.  There’s no shortage of ways to help.  

On a personal level, I have friends at Lee College and Brazosport College, both just outside of Houston.  I know they’re in for a rough ride for a while.  Christy and Lynda, if there’s anything I can do, you know where to find me.  You know where to find all of us.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Tech Death

Yesterday’s title included “sex,” and today’s includes “death.”  This concludes Goth Week.

I had to smile at Josh Kim’s column about his MacBook dying.  It triggered memories of previous tech deaths, and what they used to mean.  

My first computer was a 286 PC, connected to a dot matrix printer.  The display was a small black screen with green type, and there was no modem or other connection to any other device.  It was a glorified typewriter, and it cost over $1,000 in 1990 money.  It got me through the first couple of years of graduate school.  (In college, paper writing required trekking to the campus computer center, an incongruously pink building full of other students doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time.)  It died slowly, with the keyboard being the first clue.  Sometime in its second year, the keyboard stopped working whenever it got cold.  I actually picked up a small space heater that I used to warm it up -- literally -- before writing.  It was a different time.

Replacing it was painfully expensive, given that I was living on grad student money on the East Coast.  It was followed by a series of PC’s, first running DOS and later running Windows.  None retired while fully functional; each one died its own version of an ignominious death.  As Tolstoy would have said, functional pc’s are all the same, but each terrible computer is terrible in its own way.  Some had keyboard issues, some would randomly lose data, some (later ones) had viruses that laid waste to everything.  

Late in grad school, I remember a gas explosion and major fire at an apartment complex a few miles away.  My friends and I had the empathy beaten out of us by that point, so we processed the event by speculating what we would do if our dissertations (and the computers that held them) went up in flames.  There was no such thing as cloud storage back then; the best idea we could come up with --- and this is true -- is storing floppies in refrigerators.  We guessed that they’d be likelier to survive that way.  Happily, I never had to test that theory.

Macs were always price-prohibitive, so I dealt with Microsoft for years.  That meant plenty of quirky software glitches, weird viruses, and…I know this is a family blog, but there’s no other way to say this...Windows Vista.  Oh, the humanity…

I learned the hard way about data backups, when a family PC laptop shuffled off this mortal coil with one year’s worth of photos on it.  Never again.

Netbooks proved frustrating.  I liked the portability and low cost, but XP was sluggish and the build quality was terrible.  I chucked one of them when the screen physically pulled away from the keyboard, with all sorts of wires poking out.  But the concept remained enticing, even if the execution didn’t.

In other words, I was primed for chromebooks.  My first one was a very early model; the screen was dark, the keyboard shallow, and the responses slow, but I still loved it.  It was so...simple.  After a couple of years, I upgraded to my current one, which has spoiled me utterly.  (It’s a 2015 Toshiba.). It can’t do a lot of things, but the things it does, it does quickly and painlessly.  And I moved to Google Docs years ago -- the updated version of storing disks in the refrigerator -- so that was easy.  The only serious pain point with a good chromebook is printing, because Google Cloud Print makes Windows Vista look good.  When they finally fix the printing issue on chromebooks, Windows will be in for a world of hurt.

Any piece of equipment can flake out at any time, but at least now the important stuff is backed up elsewhere.  And I haven’t used a space heater on a keyboard in years.

Phones are another matter.  I had a Palm Pre Plus -- yes, that was me -- that developed a periodic habit of draining its battery at scorching heat in about ten minutes.  I followed it with an early Republic Wireless phone, which mostly convinced me that I shouldn’t have bothered.  The IPhone 4S wasn’t much for battery life, but I did enjoy bantering with Siri.  (Actual exchange: “Siri, will you marry me?”  Bloop bloop.  “Let’s just be friends.”). A Galaxy S4 had a bright and colorful screen, but the battery cover kept popping off, and eventually the screen developed a crack all the way across.  I still don’t know why.  When the kids got old enough for smartphones, I went with the Moto X series, and eventually bought one of my own.  They were better than they get credit for, and I still don’t know why they didn’t prove more popular.  When The Girl dropped hers and shattered it, I passed mine to her, and bought a used IPhone that I still have.  Now The Boy’s IPhone appears to be possessed by demons, so the cycle starts again.

After all these years of wrestling with tech -- most of which I’ve mostly enjoyed, when I wasn’t cursing it -- I think I’ve figured out how tech designers think.  Below, my speculative account of a conversation between an Apple designer and a frustrated customer.

AD: What would you like to see in the next model?

FC: Better battery life.  Also, less expensive.

AD: How about Apple Pay?

FC: Better battery life.  Also, less expensive.

AD: Hmm.  I hear you.  How about dual cameras?

FC: Battery.  Life.  Less. Expensive.

AD: Got it!  We’ll take away the headphone jack!

FC: (quietly pounding head on table)

AD: And we’ll finally break the thousand-dollar barrier!

FC: (starts stabbing table with fork)

There’s a weird indifference to the user experience that seems rooted in whiz-bang bragging rights.  I get that -- I like black slabs that beep as much as the next guy -- but some of us have kids, and “reliable and cheap” fits our lives much better than “fussy and expensive.”  My guess is that these are designed by well-paid childless 25 year olds for other well-paid childless 25 year olds.  Nothing wrong with being a well-paid childless 25 year old, but it’s a bit of a niche.  Most of us don’t fit that description.

And don’t get me started on printers.  Just don’t.

Still, I have to admit real progress.  The kids are perplexed by the concept of a phone that only makes voice calls, and I love knowing that my stuff is backed up externally, so a fried laptop is only a hardware problem.  And I admit that podcasts and downloaded audiobooks beat the daylights out of commercial radio, or trying to change CD’s while driving.  I don’t quite know how I functioned before GPS.  And then there’s Twitter.

I’ve told the kids that ten years from now, they’ll look back incredulously at the primitive stuff we’re using now.  They don’t quite believe me yet.  But I’ve got a space heater that says otherwise.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Service, Summer, Sex, and Shoestrings

I heard a comment this week that gave me pause.  In a meeting to set up a new committee to help direct a campuswide function, we were going over a proposed membership list.  Someone asked why there weren’t any faculty on the initial list; the answer wasn’t conspiratorial.  It was that the committee needs to be active twelve months of the year, and faculty on the whole aren’t around over the summer.

The particular committee isn’t really the point, but the logic behind the response was sort of jarring.  

Colleges are year-round organizations.  That’s more true than it used to be, at least anecdotally, and I expect the trend to intensify.  We no longer have the luxury of failing to monetize facilities in July.  And outside constituencies don’t typically observe the boundaries of the semester.  To the extent that we’re working with external partners, we need to be responsive when they need us to be.  Some things can’t wait until October to be decided.

Institutionally, that creates a clash of goods.  On the one side, there’s a recognized value in shared governance and inclusive input.  On the other, there’s increasingly an imperative for timeliness.  

During the academic year, the conflict is usually manageable.  But in the summer, well, decisions are made by those who show up.

I don’t intend that as a critique of faculty.  They’re fulfilling the rules of their role.  I intend it as a recognition that we’re at cross-purposes structurally.  

As it happened, IHE this week had a piece asking why so many male faculty abstain from college service.  It was written as a counterweight to the many pieces asking why women do so much college service relative to their numbers.  It was written by someone at a research university, so it didn’t transfer cleanly to a community college context; here, research decidedly does not come first.  But the basic argument carried over.  If service above a contractual minimum doesn’t appear to be valued, and can be kind of a pain in the neck, then we shouldn’t be surprised that many faculty make the rational calculation to do only enough to stay out of trouble.  The trouble isn’t that some cynics have boiled down a mission-driven enterprise to a transaction; the trouble is that they get effectively rewarded for doing so.

When institutional incentives and individual incentives conflict, sometimes culture - a devotion to mission, say - can fill in the gap.  But over time, as that culture is asked to do progressively more work, it can fray.  And when it does, it’s hard to fix, especially if the underlying causes tearing at it are still there.

The summer service issue is chronic and annoying, but not catastrophic.  Some decisions can be put off until fall; those that can’t, can’t.  If the issues are urgent but relatively uncontroversial, delegation is probably the way to go.  If they’re urgent and controversial, well, people have a choice to make.  (In a perfect world, we could offer stipends, but that level of budgetary discretion vanished some time ago.)  

The gendered service issue is tougher, because it goes beyond timing.  It goes to the motivations behind what we do.  More strongly incentivizing service, all else remaining equal, means diverting resources from other places.  It also sets in motion a set of precedents that leads to a culture of the first question always being “what’s this task worth to you?”  I’ve lived that, and it’s an awful way to live.  But shifting a culture isn’t like flipping a switch.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen or developed a reasonably successful, affordable, sustainable way to reward college service on a shoestring?

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Done with Summer

In the Northeast, the school year typically starts after Labor Day.  I know that other parts of the country often start earlier, but we’re still a couple of weeks out.  You’ll need that as context to appreciate the next statement.

The kids are actually starting to admit that they’re done with summer.  They’re over it.

I can’t blame them.  The Boy works part-time, and also does some volunteering, so he at least has some structure to his days.  With the start of school looming, the cross-country team has started practices in earnest, so he even has to drag himself out of bed at a reasonable hour to exercise.  From his perspective, if you’re going to be busy anyway, you might as well get on with it and be able to see your friends.

The Girl doesn’t have any of that.  She’s thirteen, so she’s too old for many of the kid-focused summer activities, but too young for paid work.  She picked up a babysitting certificate, practices piano, draws, reads, and hangs out with her friends.  It’s not a bad existence for a while, but she has a hungry mind; for her, it’s a fine line between relaxation and captivity.  When your mind moves a mile a minute, it needs fuel.  She actually misses the classroom part of school, as well as her friends.

I remember the first time I realized that summer had gone from relaxing to boring.  I felt betrayed.  Everyone said summer is the best!  I certainly didn’t mind the looser bedtimes and later breakfasts, and some of the days were great, but it slowly dawned on me that boredom wasn’t just an objective property of a situation; it said something about the person who felt it.  I could really enjoy a night of watching tv.  I couldn’t enjoy a string of nights watching tv.  

The disillusionment in that moment went deep.  If even something as awesome as summer could turn against you, what else could?  Am I doomed to a lifetime of disappointment?

Yes, I actually thought like that.  It’s amazing that I had friends at all.

It took a little while to figure out the other side of the equation.  If something initially enticing could lose its appeal over time, the reverse might also be true: something initially off-putting or dull could grow on you over time.  The trick was being patient enough during the initial slog that you could get to the good part.

I wish I had figured that out sooner.  I walked away from learning music before getting to the good part; at the time, it just felt like drudgery.  By the time I figured out that sports might actually be fun, I was so far behind the skills of the other kids that it just wasn’t gonna happen.  

The Boy and The Girl are more disciplined than I was.  The Boy has his mother’s conscientious streak, and it serves him well.  (You don’t run cross country without some level of persistence.)  The Girl has a bit of my restlessness, but when she locks on to something, it’s a sight to behold.  I walked away from a musical instrument; she plays two of them, and does better with both than I ever did.  She taught herself how to draw, almost as an act of will, and she has already made herself a better writer than I am.  That’s not bad for junior high.

Kids are doomed, at some level, to the presence of their parents’ demons.  Frankly, if the worst they can say is that we didn’t let them sit on screens all day, I’ll take it.  

But I have to admit smiling when they told me, separately and unprompted, that they’re ready for school to come back.  Good on them for knowing it, and for having the maturity to say it out loud.  Here’s hoping those old demons managed to do some good, despite themselves.

Monday, August 21, 2017


Several years ago, when I was at Holyoke, the internet on campus went down for a few days.  (Phone service went with it.)  But electricity and water were unaffected, so we reported to work and tried to carry on as normally as possible.

It was bliss.  No emails!  If you wanted to communicate with someone, you had to figure out where they were, walk there, and speak to them.  

When the internet came back, we were less excited than I would have initially predicted.  Suddenly, there were all those emails, complete with multiple long attachments and strings of replies.  The time-suck vortex had returned.

Tech can improve productivity, but sometimes it doesn’t.

Email is an especially egregious case, of course.  I’m old enough to remember when it was unusual to have email access on the road, which had the salutary effect of keeping the volume of emails down.  Now, anyone can send anything anywhere at any time, and they do.  Unfortunately, with that convenience has come increased expectations for speed of response; it’s hard to disconnect for any length of time.  (And yes, I’m aware that I’m saying this as a blogger…)

My kids tell me that email is for institutions and old people, but they’re as tethered to their various group texting apps as I am to email.  The details are different, but the basic issue is the same.  There is no escape.

“Productivity” in a higher ed context is a tricky word to define.  Economists use it to refer to the number of widgets produced in a set amount of time, and/or the dollar value of said widgets.  That doesn’t map cleanly onto what we do.  We measure education in units of time -- credit hours, “four-year” degrees -- which rules out one version of productivity increase by definition.  Dollar value is a difficult measure because we charge far less than what we’re worth, as measured by labor market outcomes.  When you underprice already, the incentive to increase productivity isn’t as strong.  

We can raise the dollar value simply by raising prices, and much of the sector has been doing that for years.  But it’s increasingly clear that we’re at the societal limits of that.  

There’s also a basic “wag the dog” issue with taking throughput as the sole measure of success.  Many for-profit colleges produced plenty of degrees by watering down their content.  That temptation always exists, whether by dropping unsubtle hints to certain professors about their grading standards or by treating outcomes assessment as a meaningless afterthought.

More basically, though, we often adopt technology not because it helps us do better what we’ve been doing, but because the outside world has adopted it, and we need to prepare students accordingly.  When restaurants went from paper pads to computerized point-of-sale systems, colleges with hospitality programs had to invest in those systems, too.  As computer science advances, we have to keep upgrading our equipment and retraining our people, even if the previous stuff still works.  Our job involves preparing students for the world as it is, and as we foresee it being in the near future; to do that reasonably well, we have to expose them to current technology.  

Much of the tech we’ve adopted has allowed us to improve quality, rather than to increase the dollar value of our time.  Adaptive learning technology for students with auditory or visual disabilities has done wonders to open up options for students who were effectively excluded from classrooms a generation ago, but that doesn’t save us money.  That lack of connection between improved performance and improved institutional income shows up in the statistics, and some low-information critics seize on that to score points.  But what shows up in the stats is more of a measurement error than a failure of performance.  If we do better by students who were previously ignored, we’re doing our jobs better, but our budgets look worse.  In the private sector, performance and budgets tend to be more closely connected.

A new study shows that the gains to productivity in higher education from technology are laggy, partial, and uneven.  I’d say that’s probably right, but not because anyone is doing anything wrong.  It’s because the tech we’re adopting wasn’t built for our purposes.  That, and we’re too busy catching up on emails...

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Tutoring for Early College

This one is a little inside-baseball, but for those of us who live this stuff, it’s a real issue.

How do you handle tutoring, and academic support more broadly, for college classes taught in high schools?

For high school students taking classes on the college campus, it’s relatively straightforward: they have access to the same tutoring centers as everyone else.  And every student, regardless of location, has access to online tutoring.  As one superintendent explained to me, part of the appeal of e-tutoring for this population is that some students who need tutoring are too proud to let themselves be seen getting it.  E-tutoring offers the option of getting help when nobody is looking, so the fear of showing weakness doesn’t get in the way.

But that still relies on a non-trivial level of initiative, as well as good broadband access at home.  In other words, it’s probably helpful for some students, but many either can’t or won’t use it.  For them, we need other solutions.

One answer is for the college to provide “wrap-around” support.  In practice, this might mean paying professional tutors to go to the high school at set times during the week to provide on-site support.  Depending on context, that might mean being something like a t.a., or it might mean something closer to group review sessions.  

Wrap-around support has a lot going for it.  It meets students where they are -- literally -- and if it’s done right, it gets around the “showing weakness” objection simply by being unavoidable.  But it can be expensive at scale, the logistics are daunting, and we have only so many personnel.  Although the number of places where we’re teaching classes is growing, our staff isn’t, and that trend doesn’t appear likely to reverse anytime soon.  (I’d be happy to be proved wrong on this point.)  It’s a lovely and effective answer when it’s sustainable, but I can see the demand outpacing the supply quickly.  As with many “both/and” strategies, it assumes infinite resources, and that assumption just isn’t valid.

(That raises a larger issue of funding for early college high school programs, but that’s another post.)

Peer tutoring is a cost-effective and educationally effective solution on the main campus, but it doesn’t necessarily translate well to high schools.  

MOOCs crashed and burned as replacements for entire courses, but the Khan Academy has shown promise in adapting the MOOC concept to structured review.  The trick there is twofold.  First, you have to get the student to try it.  And second, you need someone to guide the student to the right lessons.  For certain kinds of material, short videos can be just the thing.  In doing math, for instance, sometimes I didn’t need an entire new course from the ground up; I just needed clarification on one step or one idea.  Short videos can work well for that, especially since they don’t get snippy if you rewatch them six times.  For something like writing, though, you’re likelier to need feedback on a particular piece of work.  

I know that we aren’t the only college teaching classes in high schools.  In fact, there’s an entire national organization (NACEP) dedicated to just such partnerships.  I’m guessing that others out there have faced similar dilemmas, and some may have found reasonably practical, transferable solutions.

So I’ll put it out to my wise and worldly readers.  Is there an effective, affordable, scalable way to provide academic support for courses offered in high schools?

Thursday, August 17, 2017


If you haven’t seen Tim Burke’s characteristically thoughtful reflections on where we are now, take a look.  It’s a contemplative piece about being caught between the practical need for hope and the clear-eyed recognition that there are no guarantees.

His reading of Nietzsche is a bit sunnier than mine, but never mind that.  He’s outlining the tension between two strains of American pragmatism, though he doesn’t use that word.  

One strain, exemplified by Peirce and Dewey, draws on a Hegelian sense that we’re stumbling _towards_ something.  We may not know quite what it is, but we know we’re getting closer, and we know that if we keep trying, we’ll get closer still.  It’s a lab-science approach to life, familiar to fans of “progressive” education and progressivism generally.  It’s hugely popular among educators, for obvious reasons, even if they don’t necessarily know where it came from.

The other, drawing on Nietzsche and exemplified by William James and (grudgingly) Richard Rorty, concedes that any notion of progress is largely post-hoc, but also concedes that it’s  sometimes useful anyway.  (Interestingly, James had a lifelong distaste for lab science.)  It’s the school that says that morality may be a human invention, but that’s no reason to discard it or take it lightly.  It’s a reason instead to take responsibility for it.  You break it, you bought it.

The second camp is sometimes caricatured as relativist, but that assumes the existence of a point from which to make that call.  I find the second camp honest and even invigorating, in that it opens up the possibility of conscious action.  If we recognize that the way we treat others is a choice, then we can choose differently.  I find value in the narrative that says that we get better when we expand the circle of who counts as “us.”  That expansion takes work, whether political, social, economic, or personal.  It happens in fits and starts, and sometimes doesn’t happen.  But when it does, we’re all better in palpable ways.

From the perspective of the second camp, moral progress isn’t inevitable.  Constant change is.  Progress in the sense of expanding who counts as “us” is a choice.  We make that choice in a myriad of ways, from fostering open-access institutions to addressing people by the names they want to be called.  Some will make a different choice, and it’s reasonable to hold them responsible for that.  They didn’t have to.  And the threat they pose to progress is real, because progress is fragile.  It’s only as strong as we are.  We can’t assume that Hegel’s “cunning of history” will save us.  We have to save ourselves.

I think that’s part of why I’m so fascinated by institutions, and why I’m willing to wade through the administrivia that comes with them.  Institutions are flawed, complicated, constructed, semi-permanent instantiations of choices.  They can be unthinkingly (or deliberately) brutal, but they can also make possible moments of greatness that otherwise could never exist.  Colleges themselves are remarkable seedbeds of greatness; they’re organized -- in their flawed and even maddening ways -- around helping people contribute more, in their ways, to the project of “us.”  As institutions, they’re subject to all manner of crosswinds and agendas -- longtime readers may have seen me mention those once or twice -- but that’s all the more reason to tend to them.  Colleges aren’t inevitable.  They’re breakable.  There are those who would like nothing more than to break them.  Others fail to understand that making them brittle, opposing all change, makes them that much easier to break.  

Colleges are just one example, of course, and not the most important one.  But they’re where I can make my own contribution, whether by my day job or in thinking through its dilemmas in writing and in dialogue with others.  Everyone has some way to help the project of expanding the circle of “us.”  It starts with respect, humility, and a willingness to listen.  It continues with a constant series of efforts to push out the walls a little farther each time, to bring more people in.  And it requires saying no, as forcefully as we have to, to those who would build the walls ever higher.  History won’t do that for us.  We have to do it over and over again, in the ways that we engage with the world.  There’s no guarantee it’ll work, but I can’t imagine a better wager.  

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

How Should Teaching Demonstrations be Staged?

Christine Nowik, from Harrisburg Area Community College, asked another great question on Twitter this week.  It’s one of those questions that immediately leads to several more.

Many colleges require teaching demonstrations of candidates for faculty jobs.  The idea is that if people are being hired to teach, it’s fair to see first if they’re any good at it.  There’s a certain surface validity to that.

How do you stage teaching demonstrations?  Alternately, for candidates, how do you think they should be staged?

Dean Nowik asked specifically about the members of the search committee who are watching the demonstration.  Should they try to act like students, should they be themselves, or should they do their impressions of potted plants and just watch?  

I had to think about this one.  Although every college at which I’ve worked has required teaching demonstrations of candidates, I don’t recall any of them specifically answering this question.  They had traditions, but I don’t recall ever either being told of, or developing, a policy on it.

In my current role, I don’t see the demonstrations.  But in some earlier roles I did.  

I remember treating them like class observations of incumbent faculty, meaning, I sat quietly and observed unless specifically called upon, or if the instructor/candidate did a group activity from which it would have been awkward to abstain.  But in my case, that’s also a reasonable approximation of my default behavior as an undergraduate, so it doesn’t really answer the question.

Based on observation of faculty who’ve tried to approximate students, I’ll just say that some people are better actors than others.  If your attempts at acting tend to make other peoples’ shoes suddenly much more interesting, you’re probably better off in the quiet observer role.
A job audition, which is what a teaching demo is, is stressful enough without introducing the uncanniness factor of poor impersonation.

My favorite solution to the question of acting like students is to have lots of actual students there.  If you do that, you probably should adopt the quiet observer role, and let the students be themselves.  That method makes the roles clearer, and gives you a chance to see how students respond to the candidate and vice versa.  If a slick lecturer bristles at being interrupted by a question, you’ve learned something.

But that method isn’t always practical, just for logistical reasons.  And students often need to be coached beforehand not to be too over-the-top.  That said, one of the most effective teaching demos I’ve ever seen was at DeVry, when some students were being particularly obstreperous and the candidate shut it down gracefully without being unlikeable or losing the thread.  She got the offer.

Length can vary, too.  Do you ask someone to fill an entire class period, a large subset of it, or just fifteen minutes?  My own preference is for brevity, though that’s really just personal taste.  I have no dispute with those who like longer samples, other than a general plea for mercy towards the candidates themselves.  Admittedly, there may be some variation by discipline.

So, with a hat-tip to Dean Nowik, how do you think teaching demonstrations should be staged?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


Did you know that community colleges have need-blind admissions?

They do, but in discussions of need-blind admissions, they tend not to get mentioned.

The Boy’s college search is kicking into gear, so I’m relearning some of the lingo of the search.  He absolutely refuses to stay in-state, so any local options are off the table.  (At his age, I was the same way; I get it.)  We’ve been looking through websites and guides, doing Google searches, and, at my insistence, running Canadian tuition figures through exchange rate calculators.  (I think I’m gonna lose that one.) And I keep marveling that the folks who put these guides together clearly don’t have the first clue about how higher education works.

For example, for public flagship universities, it’s easy to find acceptance rates and average SAT/ACT scores, but hard to find them broken out by in-state/out-of-state.  (I’d be happy to be proved wrong on this.)  If you’re from, say, New Jersey, and looking at public universities in, say, any other state, that can be a challenge.  Averaging in-state and out-of-state together distorts both.

The real shock for me, though, is the concept of “gapping.”  As a society, we’ve decided that it’s okay that most students at most colleges don’t get enough help to attend without preposterous personal or familial financial strain.  There’s something deeply weird about that.  It’s to the point that there are lists of exceptions, most of which are hyper-wealthy themselves.

Here’s where Sara Goldrick-Rab’s work comes in handy.  In states like Tennessee, where free community college is a reality, it’s a short step from “need-blind,” which they clearly are, to “committed to meeting full financial need.”  It would be an American irony to see the list of “full financial need” schools forming a sort of U-shaped curve on the prestige hierarchy: the Harvards and the community colleges would be on the list, and the middle wouldn’t.  That seems a little on-the-nose as a critique of our culture, but there it is.

Most four-year schools are neither “need-blind” nor committed to meeting full need.  Instead, they reserve the right to offer preferential admissions to those who can pay cash on the barrel, and to offer less aid than most students actually need; making up the difference is the students’ problem.  If I were designing a system to frustrate the masses, I couldn’t do much better than that.  The difference between the aid offered and the aid needed is the “gap,” and the practice is called “gapping.”

As a mechanism for leaving talent on the table, it’s remarkably efficient.

Kudos to Tennessee and Oregon for calculating, correctly, that they have more potential talent in their citizenry than a “gapping” system would foster.  If we were serious, as a culture, the concepts of “need-blind” and “full financial need met” would simply be assumed.  That’s how you bring out the best.  I’m not blaming the colleges that don’t meet full need; it’s presumably a budget-buster for most.  But that’s sort of the point.

In higher ed policy circles, we hear a lot about a “skills gap.”  I’m more skeptical of that term than some, but I’m struck that for all that we hear about the skills gap, we don’t hear about gapping.  Stop the latter, and the former will fade quickly.  

Talent is need-blind.  If we want more of it, we know what we have to do.