Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Late Registration: You Make the Call!

Baseball fans of a certain age will remember Mel Allen’s narration of This Week in Baseball, and its recurring feature, You Make the Call.  They’d show a tricky or rare play, and not reveal the correct umpire’s call until after the commercial break.  As an impressionable kid, I remember being struck at how unfair some of the correct calls seemed, but it was great fun to try.

Wise and worldly readers, I’ve got one for you.  No baseball knowledge required.

Let’s say that you work at a tuition-dependent college with declining enrollment and very little financial cushion.  You’ve identified (correctly) that allowing students to register late for classes -- say, after they’ve started -- puts them at dramatically increased risk for failure.  You want students to have a greater chance of success.

At the same time, though, you’re aware that the first semester without late registration may involve taking an enrollment hit on top of the long-term decline you’re already experiencing.  In fact, it’s entirely possible that the short-term enrollment hit could trigger layoffs.

What do you do?

  1. File “end late registration” in the “later” file.  Enrollment is enrollment.
  2. Rip off the band-aid and end late registration.  Students are ends in themselves, not means.

You make the call...

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Two-Body Problem Revisited

A piece I wrote over four years ago got new life this week on Twitter.  It was about the “two-body problem” in higher ed, or the expectation that anyone trying to break into the faculty ranks should expect, as a matter of course, to be willing to drop everything and move anywhere they could get work. If that wreaks havoc on intimate relationships, well, so be it; the job is supposed to come before everything.

There’s something a little unsettling about seeing something you wrote years ago gaining fresh currency.  I hadn’t read the piece in years, so rereading it involved a sense of “well, it sounds like something I’d write…” Most of it still works, though if I had a chance to do it again, I’d drop the line “the two-body problem is only a problem for people who have partners who don’t stay home…”  That’s simply not true. The problem is compounded in two-earner couples, but stay-at-home spouses still have preferences, loyalties, networks, and lives that are bound to specific places. In retrospect, that line was a mistake.

But the core of the piece is at least as true now as it was then.  The job market outside academia is booming, I’m told, but you wouldn’t know it within academia.  The most recent statistics from the American Political Science Association, for instance, show fewer than a third of new doctorates getting tenure-track positions at all, let alone in locations they’d prefer.  Poli sci may be taking a particular beating as law school falls out of favor, but the general direction holds across many traditional academic fields.  

In the early career years, that can mean dual-academic couples facing some awful decisions.  The odds of both of them getting the kind of jobs for which they were trained within commuting distance of the same home are slim.  So they have to decide either to live apart -- this, during the years when many couples start families -- or to accept underemployment for one or both of them. To make matters worse, “visiting” positions often offer shelter only for a year or two, requiring serial moves. And with many schools ratcheting up their tenure requirements, the partner lucky enough to get the “real” job may be distracted to the point of emotional absence.

This is not healthy. It is not reasonable. People who object to it are right to object.

At its core, the two-body problem is a hiring problem.  But that hiring problem won’t be solved just by calling attention to it.  I’ve been in administration for a long time at several different colleges, and I’ve never seen or heard anyone cackle with glee at the prospect of selling out the next generation. If anything, I’ve seen deans and others fight to preserve whatever positions they can. They’re (we’re) struggling against a panoply of cost drivers, ranging from Baumol’s cost disease to health insurance to demographic trends to public-sector austerity.  Some of those are potentially amenable to political solutions, but the politics involved are with the general public, and any positive effects would be both indirect and gradual.  

On the individual level, it’s helpful to combat the myth of a pure meritocracy of hiring, because it tends to encourage people to hang on longer than they should. I’m a fan of alt-ac options, including administration. For unattached academics, I advise dating non-academics. For talented undergraduates considering graduate school, I advise looking at other options. For those about to finish and already coupled up, I can only wish you well.

It would have been nice to reread that piece from 2013 and chuckle at how ephemeral the issues were.  Instead, it held up better than it should have.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Dispatches from a Student Basic Needs Conference

On Monday I was able to participate in the “Basic Needs Insecurity in New Jersey Higher Education” conference at Rutgers.  Kerri Willson hosted, and the indefatigable Sara Goldrick-Rab was the headliner.  It focused largely on four-year schools with dorms, but a few of us community college folk were there, too.  

The idea behind the conference seemed to be a sort of information sharing across schools, with the goal of getting a better grip on a large and apparently growing issue.  I took some notes on the afternoon session:

  • A Rutgers student let it be known, loudly, that students who are parents have particular needs that often go unaddressed in discussions of student hunger. She pointed out that on-campus housing for parents of young children is often limited, that childcare is expensive and hard to find, and that taking the unattached 18 year old as the assumed model of students leads to ongoing issues.

  • Someone who runs a food pantry on a campus mentioned two major areas of need that often go unaddressed: toiletries (and particularly feminine hygiene products) and infant formula.  SNAP benefits can be used for food, but not for toiletries, and formula is hellaciously expensive. Making some of each available would make the lives of student parents much easier.  

  • One residential university does an on-campus food drive by giving students ten dollars off their parking fines for bringing in canned food.  This one struck me as brilliant.  Apparently, it was a rip-roaring success.

  • At colleges with dorms, Christmas break is a real issue for students without stable housing. Some of them offer the option of staying over break; more probably should. (I recall Williams keeping one dorm open during Spring Break for folks who couldn’t afford to leave. I stayed there one year, and functioned as a plant-sitter for several friends.)

  • Princeton has about 8,000 students, and an endowment of over $20 billion.  Brookdale has over 12,000 students, and reserves of under $1 million.  Note the units.  And Princeton gets a larger work-study allocation than Brookdale does, thanks to the “frozen in time” allocation set in the 1970’s.  

  • Austerity rolls downhill. It’s hard for many community colleges to subsidize food on campus because they’ve outsourced their food service, so it has to make a profit. The same is true of bookstores and childcare centers. Pressures to “run it like a business” make it more difficult to cut slack for students who are really struggling economically.

  • NASPA apparently has compiled a report on best practices in emergency aid.  I’m going to have to look that one up.  Brookdale briefly had an emergency aid program for students in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, but it faded away. It may be worth taking a fresh look.

  • As with many political issues, there was a tension between “we need more data” and “anecdotes open wallets.”  They aren’t contradictory, but most people tend to lean to one side or the other.  

  • At some schools, the food pantry isn’t wheelchair accessible.  

  • A serious discussion of student basic needs easily becomes a discussion of much larger issues, such as the minimum wage, “flexible” hours at low-wage jobs, weird financial aid rules, DACA, the politics of public transportation, internal college politics, and relationships with Boards.  As someone put it at the #RealCollege conference last Fall, “we aren’t going to food-pantry our way out of this.”  

But at least we’re starting.  As grim as the subject matter was, I was glad to see a good-faith effort to do something about it.  Kudos to Kerri Willson and Sara Goldrick-Rab for nudging us again to do things we should have been doing for years.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Default Settings

The best part of blogging, for me, is being able to draw on other people’s solutions to problems that many of us face.  This is one of those.

We’re working on a version of “guided pathways,” as part of a larger effort to reduce achievement gaps among various groups of students. The idea is that making paths to graduation clearer and more legible from the outset will reduce the chances of students getting lost and spending time and money on classes that won’t count. Part of that involves replacing placeholders like “social science elective” with specific recommended courses. The specific courses are defaults, rather than mandates, so a student with an interest (or transfer credits) in something else in the same category won’t be shut out. Behavioral economics teaches us that default settings will tend to get increases in demand, and alternatives will tend to see decreases. While some students have clear interests in a given field, many -- especially fulfilling requirements outside of their major -- just want to be told what will work so they can get it done.

The academic in me bristles a bit at it -- it smacks of one of my least-liked phrases, “get your gen eds out of the way” -- but the social scientist in me has to concede some validity. Particularly for students whose parents didn’t go to college, some of the categories we use may not be terribly intuitive. And we don’t (and won’t) have the staff to give every student intensive one-on-one advising. The money simply isn’t there. So there’s a pragmatic argument for designating a default humanities course and a default social science course for, say, Biology majors.

But how, exactly, is that done?

I ask because the internal politics of selection are sticky. Selecting a default elective involves picking winners and losers, and the stakes for the losers can be high. If we choose, say, Intro to Psychology as the default social science elective, I could imagine enrollments suffering in anthropology or political science. Over time, that could have implications for staffing, and even for the viability of program options. Faculty in those areas are smart people who can do the math; they can be expected, rightly, to defend their disciplines. In their shoes, I would do the same.

Distribution requirements have their flaws, but as internal political compromises, they serve a purpose. Getting more prescriptive involves foregrounding some long-buried conflicts.

We could set a few basic ground rules -- for example, any recommended default selection has to transfer well -- but that doesn’t settle the question.  Intro to American Government transfers as well as Intro to Psychology does.

The Biology department may not want to pick fights, so it may be tempted to punt the issue over to the social science faculty. But they might not know which courses would be of most benefit to Biology students, and the internecine conflict could get ugly fast. And this is one area in which I really don’t want to be the bad guy, because the precedent of having vice presidents set curriculum unilaterally strikes me as a dagger in the heart of shared governance.

Having said all of that, I’m sure we’re not the only place dealing with this question. Colleges that have made more progress on pathways must have dealt with this, one way or another.  So, my question to my wise and worldly readers who have seen this issue tackled cleanly:

How do you choose the default settings?

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Slipping Past Security: a Dispatch from the AAC&U

Okay, the title is a slight exaggeration. But it’s true that the AAC&U has historically been focused largely on four-year colleges and universities.  This year I was invited to do a session specifically on community colleges.

I had some hope going in.  Kate McConnell, who made the invitation, had me send her some prompts to start the discussion.  She put the prompts into PowerPoint.  She and I walked through them on her laptop a few hours ahead of the panel, to make sure that the order made sense and to choreograph who would do what.  In the middle of the dry run, a man neither of us knew approached us, identified himself as coming from a technical college in the midwest, and asked when the presentation was.  That was a good sign.

The presentation itself became sort of a cross between a faculty meeting and a good class.  The crowd seemed mostly to be community college people, which suggested that the AAC&U is doing a better job of reaching out than I had remembered.  The group indulged me a couple of my pet obsessions to warm up, but quickly turned to a discussion of remediation.

Someone later tweeted that the session was “evocative.”  I went with “lively.”  It felt a little like a dam had broken, but in a good way.  Plenty of people spoke, often with a mix of pride, frustration, and curiosity.  Many were proud of what they had done, curious about what others had done, and frustrated either that some of the issues have been around forever, or that worthy solutions have gone unacknowledged.

The palpable frustration that many people showed helped me crystallize something I’ve sort of noticed, but hadn’t quite put together yet.  We have presentations on “the XYZ program at Hypothetical State,” and we have presentations on “remediation and social justice in America.”  But we don’t have a lot of comparative presentations or studies.  We have the local and the conceptual, but something in between is missing.  We don’t compare qualitatively.

I tried to get at that in the discussion, but it wasn’t quite formed yet.  I mentioned how we have good national statistics on remediation, and we’re getting a much clearer picture of what the common issues are.  But I haven’t seen a similar discussion about ESL.  Someone responded, seemingly offended, that her department did a great job with ESL.

Which may very well be true, but it doesn’t address the issue.  There’s a yawning gap between “some colleges are doing a great job with x” and “we don’t address x systematically.”  Do ESL students progress like students in remediation, or like students in a major?  Does an ALP-like model make sense there?  Does it vary by region, or according to the first language the students speak?  What makes, say, contextualized ESL work well at one school and poorly at another?  And are there policy issues raised that need to be revisited?

At conferences, we tend to get a lot of “best practices” or “local successes” presentations, and sometimes some large-scale statistics.  (The audiences for the two types are often different.)  But we don’t get much of the in-between kind, the kind that explain why a project or tactic that worked well in one setting didn’t work as well in another.  

A comparative approach can be useful for myth-busting, and it can draw attention beyond the usual suspects.  It can also be much more accessible to many audiences than in-depth statistics.  I’d love to see more faculty at these discussions, too.  If there are wildly wonderful programs or approaches in other states but nobody elsewhere knows about them, the impact is limited.  Let’s give credit where credit is due -- the hunger for credit was striking -- and also start to develop a fuller sense of what everyone is actually doing.  Localism can be a virtue, but not when it becomes provincialism.

I realize that I’m asking for some people to own failures in public, which is asking a lot.  But honest progress requires honest acknowledgement when things don’t work.  The entire point of a tenure system is to allow honesty.  From the liveliness of the interaction on Thursday, it’s clear that there’s a real hunger for honest discussion.  We shouldn’t have to slip it past security, even in jest.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Chairs and Charts

It’s been a month this week, so I’ll focus instead on something positive.

We all know that chairs have legs.  What many of us don’t know is that they sometimes develop the ability to walk.  Particularly out of classrooms.

In one building, for reasons unknown, the chairs have been particularly frisky.  From day to day, they turn up (or not) where they aren’t supposed to be.  It would be cute, except that sometimes students need them for classes.  Telling a student who may not be entirely sure about this whole “college” thing in the first place that there isn’t a seat for him isn’t a good look.  

I can’t imagine that there’s a black market in relatively unforgiving classroom chairs.  I’ve never been approached by someone in a parking lot in a trenchcoat with a bunch of chairs under it.  They don’t seem to turn up on craigslist or ebay.  Pawnshops aren’t overflowing with our chairs, as far as I know. It’s a mystery.

In a more perfect world, replacing chairs wouldn’t be much harder than ordering them.  But budgets being what they are, “minor capital” is one of the first things to go.  

That’s where other channels are useful.

Experienced admins know that most organizations have multiple org charts.  There’s the official org chart with reporting lines; that’s important for the usual reasons.  But there are also various unofficial ones.  

Unofficial org charts tell you who is revered within the culture, who is connected to whom on a personal level, and who has otherwise-unsuspected abilities.  It’s the informal knowledge that provides context for what might otherwise seem inexplicable,  Some people have “tribal elder” status, and can carry messages that others can’t.  Some are interpreters.  Some are close personal friends with powerful people.

And some just know where chairs are.  They’re able to summon them from the ether.  You just have to know to ask.

Having asked the right person, stacks of chairs have appeared.  

Unofficial org charts can take a while to discern.  Sometimes you decipher them by accident, as when a seemingly rational move elicits a wildly disproportionate response.  But sometimes they provide the extra knowledge that makes an apparent dilemma solvable.  

I still don’t know where the chairs have been going, but a tip of the cap to the unofficial org chart for finding new ones.  Sometimes help comes from unpredictable places.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Being a Citizen and an Administrator

On Twitter a few days ago, a professor who recently accepted an associate dean role asked about the evolving etiquette around tweeting and blogging about politics.  It’s a tough question, and one I’ve been wrestling with for years. I don’t have a full guide, but I’ve evolved a general guideline.

Tenured faculty can hold forth on all manner of things in public.  I’ve personally defended tenured faculty from political attacks for what they’ve posted, even when I might have preferred that some of it had been expressed differently. Administrators, and especially those who don’t carry concurrent tenure, have much less protection.  

One possible response to the lack of protection -- exceedingly common among my counterparts -- is radio silence on public issues.  At most, they might encourage students to vote, and they might advocate for greater funding for higher ed, but that’s pretty much it.  The idea is not to sow enmity among potential supporters of the college (or to create career headaches for oneself).  

There’s a lot to be said for that. People aren’t always very good about separating the person from the position, which can lead to unhelpful misunderstandings. In an increasingly polarized political environment, it’s easy to set off trip wires that lead to firestorms far beyond any rational reaction.

Part of administration is embracing the basic truth that It’s Not About You. Sometimes that means setting your own preferences aside for the good of the organization, and it often means making common cause with people with whom you might disagree on a panoply of issues.  And most of the time, that’s easy.  I’ve worked at community colleges in very Republican areas, and at one in a very Democratic area.  The issues were almost entirely the same, and neither party has a monopoly on either thoughtful people or thoughtless ones.  Contrary to popular stereotype, political opinions among faculty and staff range widely, too, and I see a positive good in ensuring that people whose views aren’t mine feel welcome here.

Still, silence isn’t always the answer.  

Some issues, or moments, are just so deeply affecting that it feels artificial or robotic not to say something.  I was appalled when that Nazi drove into the crowd in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer, and said so publicly.  If that alienates some Nazis, well, so be it.  There are limits.  The recent flirtations with state-sponsored racism, be it the DACA repeal or the various immigration bans, strike me as similarly out of bounds.  And I believe that saying so is consistent with working at a community college, because the entire point of a community college is openness to everybody.  Princeton may talk an egalitarian game, but we actually let everybody in.  That costs us in financial support, but it’s why we’re here.

Students and faculty will also look for clues when they feel attacked.  Does the college have their back, or is it another predator?  Depending on your starting point, silence can look like complicity.

In my own case, my doctorate is in political science.  Combine that with years of direct experience in administration, and I’ve developed some pretty deeply-held views on several issues.  I keep most of them to myself, but in cases in which they have a direct impact on students and colleges, I occasionally share some.  For instance, at this point I’m utterly convinced that health insurance needs to be decoupled from employment.  I’m open to various ways of doing that, but the basic idea is so painfully obvious at this point that it would feel like lying by omission to withhold it.

The compromise I try to strike is not commenting on candidates or individual officeholders, and sticking to general principles on issues.  And even within the “issues” area, I try to stick mostly to ones with direct impacts on students and colleges.  So I’ll support free community college and variations on it, but keep quiet on, say, NAFTA.  

It’s a tightrope act, at some level, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it has cost me an opportunity or two over the years.  But at some point, you have to decide why you do these jobs.  If it’s just to make money, go into banking.  If it’s to make a difference, make one.  I didn’t give up my citizenship when I took this job.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Austerity and Optimism

How do you keep spirits up while cutting budgets?

I’d love to see a conference on that, but the people most affected by it couldn’t attend, because their travel budgets have already been cut.  So I’ll resort to the interwebs instead.

Population decline is a common problem in the Northeast and Midwest.  The Washington Post did a piece a few days ago detailing who’s moving where -- I had to smile at “white people love Colorado” -- that showed that other than New York City and maybe Boston, most of the Northeast is losing population.  It’s tough to maintain enrollments when the population base is shrinking.  Combine flat or declining enrollments with increasing costs for health insurance, among other things, and the math is tough.

Some four-year schools papered over the gap for a while with international students.  But that isn’t terribly viable for us, between a lack of dorms and the political climate around immigration.  

But against a tough economic background, it’s crucial not to eviscerate a sense of possibility on campus.  The task at hand, culturally, is a difficult mix of acknowledging constraints and envisioning a sustainable future worth getting excited about.  

That’s easy when you have an economic tailwind.  “In which direction should we expand?” is a basically happy question.  When the wind is against you, it’s tougher.

That said, plenty of colleges and other institutions have faced this over the years, and I’m guessing that some of them handled it better than others.  So I’ll throw this open to my wise and worldly readers to see if they’ve seen austerity handled particularly well.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a college balance austerity and optimism well?  If so, what made it work?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Spontaneous Sociology

The Boy’s girlfriend is a senior in high school, so she’s in the thick of college applications.  She got some disappointing news from one school she really liked, and TB was upset on her behalf.  He started muttering about “merit” and admissions, and the unfairness of it all.

I could see where this was going.  It was time to intervene.

TB: It sucks that things count that shouldn’t count.  They should just let you in if you deserve it.

Me: Well, it’s not entirely about deserving or not deserving.  It’s kind of like casting a movie.

TB: What do you mean?

Me: If you’re casting a superhero movie, the second-best choice to be the hero probably isn’t the best choice to be the sidekick.  You need one of each.  The second-best choice to be the hero might be a better actor than the one who gets to be the sidekick, but that doesn’t really matter.  If they’re casting for a sidekick, they’re looking for a sidekick type.

TB: I could see that for a movie.  But colleges should be fair.

Me: Define “fair.”

TB: You know, rank the candidates by their qualifications and go down the list until it’s full.

Me: That doesn’t really work, though.

TB: Why not?

Me: I’ll give you an example.  You’re in the IB program, which counts in your favor, right?

TB: Yeah.

Me: And that’s great.  But only 16 high schools in New Jersey offer the IB.  If we lived in, say, Middletown instead of Freehold, you couldn’t have taken IB.  Would that make you less deserving?

TB: Hmm.

Me: Not everyone has the same opportunities, so they’re hard to compare.  

TB: But I can’t control that!

Me: That’s true.  You have to remember it’s not all about you.  Qualifications matter, but they aren’t everything.  

TB: They should be.

Me: Each college is trying to build a class.  This year, one might have too few theater majors and too many business majors, and another might be the other way around, so your chances would vary based on that.  You could never hope to control that.

TB: So what do I do?

Me: Apply to enough places that the random stuff cancels itself out.  And don’t get too upset about other people.  You’ve got a lot of advantages, and a lot of ways to build a great life.  If one school or another doesn’t see how you fit into its plans, who cares?  Go to another one and knock it out of the park.

TB: Yeah, I guess…

I don’t know how much of it sunk in, but I felt okay about it for a spur-of-the-moment conversation at the kitchen table.  Spontaneous Sociology is part of parenting now.

Both TB and his girlfriend will be fine.  They just don’t know it yet.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Eating the Young

I’ve been impressively nearsighted since childhood, so I’ve spent more than my share of time in optometrists’ offices.  They have a mechanism that fits poorly over the face, with which one eye’s view is blocked while the other goes through a series of different lenses, trying to read the chart. (“Which is better - one, or two?  Three, or four?”)  Somehow I never see quite as well with either eye as I do with both.  When the two come together, the image gets clearer.

That was how these two stories struck me.  Either on its own says one thing, but put together, a much clearer picture emerges.  In this case, the picture is of a generational pattern.

The St. Louis Federal Reserve reported that all of the job growth in the United States since the year 2000 went to workers ages 55 and over.  Which is to say, Boomers and earlier.  All of it.  The whole thing.  Since the dawn of the millennium, my own generation, now in its prime working years, got zero.  

The report drily notes: “Some economists fear that our aging workforce may be holding back economic growth.”  

(fingers tapping)

On the very same day, I saw this report that West Virginia is adopting a version of free community college that includes both drug testing and a post-graduation residency requirement in West Virginia.  Public higher education for the young will come with strings that never applied to earlier generations, when it was cheap enough that they could pay for it themselves.  That way, the state can use them to support the ever-growing ranks of retirees whose educations came without strings.

(fingers tapping)

Those of us who work at colleges with declining enrollment have become familiar with “cutting by attrition,” which means closing off jobs to the next generation that were open to a previous one, in order not to offend remaining incumbents of the previous generation who have more generous pensions than their successors will ever see.

(fingers tapping)

These are not signs of health.  These are not signs of stewardship.  This is a system eating its young, sacrificing the future to cushion the present.  

As an educator, I have a problem with that.  The premise of education is creating a better future.  That’s the basis of the entire enterprise.  It’s what we do.  Education may draw on the best of the past, but at its core, it’s about the future.  

I can’t help but wonder if that’s part of why public education is struggling.  It’s a forward-looking enterprise in a culture that isn’t.  Snowballing austerity compels us to adopt behaviors that undercut the logic of what we do.  Graduate programs keep taking new students because they need cheap labor, even knowing that full-time jobs for new Ph.D.’s are the exception.  

In a healthy society, intergenerational transfers of wealth move down, not up.  We’re moving them up, and at an accelerating rate.  That can’t go on forever.

Unsustainable trends, won’t be.  At some point, they stop.  I hope we can turn this trend around thoughtfully, before it fails catastrophically.  As I get older, I realize that the future keeps coming, whether you’re prepared for it or not.  We’re in the preparation business.  It has never been more urgent.  I may be nearsighted, but I can see this clearly.  

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Other Piece of Academic Freedom

I don’t know the merits of the Louisiana case of the professor who was fired for cursing.  But the idea of it brings up a side of academic freedom that doesn’t get much discussion, although it’s actually much more real in my world than some of the higher-profile stuff.

“Academic freedom” and “free speech” are not the same thing, although they’re often confused.  Academic freedom is about doing a job. The idea behind it is that the job of faculty is to get at the truth, even if the truth is unpopular, so they need the room to explore unpopular ideas.  But the ideas they explore are supposed to be relevant to the subject they’re teaching or researching.  That’s where academic freedom splits from free speech.  Free speech allows for irrelevance; if I want to publish a blog devoted entirely to weighing the artistic merits of Britney Spears’ early work as compared to her more recent stuff, I can’t be arrested for it.  But if I devote an entire semester’s worth of classes to Ms. Spears when I’m supposed to be teaching, say, Modern European History, I’m not doing my job.  I could properly be sanctioned for that.

Relevance would be the lens I’d recommend for something like the profanity case.  In a Civil Liberties class, for instance, there are times when profanity is at the heart of the dispute.  You couldn’t really cover the issue without it.  Similarly in history classes, some pretty horrifying stuff is at the heart of the subject.  Some primary source material will include, say, racial slurs that would be unacceptable out of context, but unavoidable in context.  If you study American history without covering racism, you have not studied American history.  It strikes me as reasonable that biology classes would cover sexual reproduction, or that sociology classes would cover family arrangements that some might find shocking. Remove, say, adultery from art and literature, and you miss a lot. Relevance can cover some pretty bracing things. I’ve had that conversation with folks in dual enrollment programs, who may expect that we’ll sanitize content for high-school-aged students.  We don’t. We don’t go out of our way to sensationalize, but yes, a history class that mentions feminism might very well mention abortion as part of the scope of the movement. It’s part of the subject.  If that’s too shocking, don’t take the class.

The high-profile academic freedom cases tend to be around hot-button social issues.  But on the ground, the more frequent issues are around relevance.  This is the professor who devotes far too much class time to stories about his family, or about the strategies of his favorite football team.  

In those cases, there’s no free speech issue, really.  There’s no law against talking about football, nor should there be, even for Cowboys fans.  But there is a job performance issue.  Class time is scarce, and the deference that we expect students to show while in class is based on a bargain: show up and follow the rules, and you’ll be taught what the course description says you’ll be taught.  Different faculty have different styles, but the goals of the course should be the same regardless of who teaches it.  Those are the dreaded ‘student learning outcomes’ of a given class.  If students in Prof. Smith’s section of algebra come away having learned what they were supposed to, but students in Prof. Jones’ section come away mostly having heard tales of her family, then we have a performance issue with Prof. Jones.  She has abused her academic freedom, and in so doing, has left students without the class they signed up for.

In my own experience both as a student and as an administrator, this kind of abuse of academic freedom is far more common than the high-profile kind.  It’s hard to measure, at least in the short term, because we give wide latitude on digressions and metaphors -- rightly so -- and in the absence of third-party grading, any given professor can write off poor student performance to high standards.  In sequential courses, it can show up over time -- if Jones’ students crash and burn consistently in the next math class, when everyone else’s do fine, then you have a pretty good sign that something is wrong.  But in standalone classes, this sort of thing can go on for years.

I land on the side that grants a pretty expansive view of relevance.  Anecdotes can provide helpful metaphors, or they can provide the social glue that makes a class cohere.  A few minutes spent on a seemingly irrelevant story can be a sort of icebreaker, or can lead the discussion in unanticipated, but productive, directions.  The acid test, for me, is whether the students get what they need. If a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, I have no problem with it.  But I’ve seen classes that were nothing but sugar, and that’s not the same thing.

Non-directed profanity strikes me as potentially useful or potentially distracting, depending on the dose.  It’s a bit like garlic.  A little bit at the right moment can add something, but pour it on and it drowns out everything else.  Admittedly, that may reflect a regional taste; New Jersey isn’t known for politesse.  I could imagine some regions being a bit more circumspect about it.

Getting habitual digressors to focus can be a real challenge.  But it’s not a free speech issue.  It’s a job performance issue, and should be treated accordingly.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Which Problem Are We Trying to Solve?

I’m living this one personally.

Within the last week, I’ve been privy to two discussions about high schools, each conducted in complete isolation from the other.

  1. “What are the high schools doing?  Why do so many students need remediation?”
  2. “What are the high schools doing?  Why are they pressuring so many students to take AP and advanced classes?”

If I were, say, a high school principal, I might find that a little frustrating.  Put next to each other, they suggest that the core issue is only peripherally related to high schools.

They’re both about the disappearing middle.  And the disappearing middle goes far beyond anything high schools are, or aren’t, doing.  The high schools are dealing with the symptoms, but they aren’t the cause.

Something similar is happening in higher education.  Even as community colleges and relatively non-selective four-year schools are increasingly struggling for enrollment, elite and selective institutions grow ever harder to get into.  The Boy is a junior, so I’m privy to a front-row seat to admissions anxiety.  It was bad when I was his age, but it’s much worse now.   Counselors at elite places worry about students burning out from academic overachievement, while the dialogue at community colleges is about getting students through basic algebra.

We use the phrase “getting into college” to describe both ends of the spectrum, but we’re using the same words to talk about two very different things.  

There’s no shortage of contributing factors, but I think the biggest one is the narrowing of perceived avenues to economic success.  And that perception is largely accurate.  Yes, there are “middle skill” jobs that pay decent wages, and I’m glad that community colleges are paying more attention to those than they used to.  But if you look at income distribution over the entire economy of the US, you see good middle-class jobs moving either up or down.  My grandfather dropped out of the 9th grade to work as a tree trimmer, eventually getting a job as a lineman for Detroit Edison.  That unionized job allowed him to raise a family, own a home, and send both of his kids to good public universities.  If he were ever to take the Accuplacer, I’m sure he would have shown as needing remediation, but it didn’t matter.  If he were growing up now, he wouldn’t have the same options.

On the relatively elite side, the Great Chain of Being of institutional prestige is thoroughly national.  It wasn’t always.  For a while, outside of the Ivies, it was largely regional.  As it has gone national -- and international, given the appetite for full-pay international students -- and the elites haven’t added capacity, the competition has become tougher.  But the perceived payoff from a second-tier school, relative to a first-tier school, has dropped.  To many prospective students, rightly or wrongly, the penalty for a ‘safety school’ is much too high.

Public high schools, like community colleges, are built to serve everyone in the area.  That model presumes a relatively robust middle, sociologically speaking. As the middle has been strained, the schools are struggling to compensate.  The elite ones are up against a level of competitiveness that can become toxic; the rest are fighting to keep students on track at all.  

The ‘solution’ to this dilemma isn’t so much conceptual as economic and political.  If we had an economy in which the penalty for ‘safety schools’ wasn’t much more than diminished bragging rights, we could counsel students not to stress so much and actually mean it.  But their angst is based on something.  They don’t remember the economy we used to have.  They see it as it is, and have a sense of where it’s going.  In my darker moments, I wonder if they’re right.