Monday, April 30, 2018

AACC, Day Two

As much as I enjoy technology, in-person conferences offer some upsides that webinars just don’t.  

Reconnecting with old friends is always great.  Putting faces to names is helpful. But the best have to be the serendipitous hallway meetings.  

One involved an impromptu hour-and-a-half nerdout with some folks from EAB and the CCRC.  I was innocently eating breakfast, as I am wont to do, when one sat down and started talking data.  Then another, and another, and another. Soon five of us were looking at line graphs on a laptop and debating the merits of various sorts of studies of student attrition.  I don’t usually nerd out over data with groups of five until at least lunchtime, but this was fun.

A second involved some folks from a community college in Ohio who had read a piece I had posted last Fall about a “buy one, get one free” scholarship, in which good performance in the freshman year would be rewarded by a free sophomore year.  They’re actually implementing it. I’ll withhold the name for now, because it’s still in the formative stage, but I was genuinely thrilled to see that one of my messages-in-a-virtual-bottle really landed somewhere. One of them mentioned that it was a shockingly easy sell to donors, because the likelihood of graduation is so high.  I’ll be riding that one for a while.

Finally, there was a series of wink-and-nod quick conversations with several folks who appreciated some observation I had made.  There was a bit of cloak-and-dagger to those, which struck me as both revealing and sort of fun.

Anyway, on with the show:

The first panel I actually attended was on colleges recovering from (and making preparations to avoid impact from) natural disasters.  Mary Graham, from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, talked about Hurricane Katrina and lessons learned from it. Steve Head, from the Lone Star system in Texas, focused on Hurricane Harvey.  

It was a gloriously practical discussion.  Among the more useful tips:

  • Every few months, take pictures and videos of the content of buildings, especially on the first floor.  Store them in the cloud.
  • Before a hurricane, move all elevators up to at least the second floor and leave them there.  The repairs will be much cheaper that way.
  • Pre-qualify contractors for mold remediation, cleanup, etc, so you don’t have to do an RFP process in the wake of a disaster.
  • Pre-contract with consultants to deal with FEMA.
  • Have senior leaders print out each other’s phone numbers, put them on laminated cards, and carry them in their wallets.  You can’t count on campus phones or cell towers.
  • Assume that you may not have access to your office for a week.
  • Keep the email updates as upbeat as possible.

It’s the sort of stuff you don’t have to know until you suddenly do.  Brookdale came through Hurricane Sandy relatively well, but many residents of Monmouth County didn’t.  The next one could easily take a more destructive course. Better to learn this stuff before you wish you had.


The annual panel on Generation X presidents focused this time on interviews.  Once again, the room was standing-room-only. From an informal count, it looked like about half of the audience was people of color.  Given the topic, that was striking.

JoAlice Blondin, from Clark State CC in Ohio, mentioned three questions that she asked every search consultant when she was looking:

  • Is there a serious internal candidate?
  • Are there any legal actions pending against the college?
  • Of the last ten years, in how many did the college overspend its budget?

In my experience, the first question invariably gets some variation on “I can’t reveal that,” but it’s always worth a try.  The second and third struck me as brilliant.

Kirk Nooks, from Metropolitan CC, stressed institutional fit, which he defined as the ability to be yourself and still fit the role.  Even if you’re a good enough actor to fake being someone else to get a job, nobody is good enough to do the job that way for years. Better to go in as who you are, and find a place that wants that.

The single best line, though, was Blondin’s.  She commented that her first order of business upon arriving at Clark State was “to find [her] replacement.”  She clarified that it wasn’t because she planned to leave anytime soon; she just saw it as both her duty and a good practice to cultivate a deep bench.  She has. I’ll be keeping that line.


A panel on the “Great Colleges to Work For” survey was accidentally interesting.  It spent more time on the survey instrument than I would have, but some of the observations from the various presidents were memorable:

“The one guy who got raises higher than everyone else four years in a row, without a clear reason, is a morale killer.”
“Even at the very best [colleges], there’s a small portion of the population that’s committed to being miserable.”

“You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to show up.”

I was struck, too, by Mary Graham’s observation that at MGCCC, every employee is required to do at least 15 hours per year of professional development, and the development is chosen based on issues identified in the previous performance review.  Professional development isn’t just a cost; it’s an investment. Not everyone gets that...


Finally, the Aspen group reunited to hear from some alums of the program who are now presidents.  The discussion was as thoughtful as the program had been, which was gratifying.

All three of the presidents who spoke -- Rebekah Woods, Tonjua Williams, and Russell Lowery-Hart -- had previously been vice presidents, and they all shared the observation that we really need to rethink the role of vice presidents.  Too often, they’re pitted against each other, or pit themselves against each other. That can lead to clear winners, but it doesn’t build the skill of collaboration that presidents need. As Lowery-Hart put it, “If you want to stress out your president, fight with your colleagues.”  The model of silos, or divisions, may have worked in the 70’s, but it isn’t up to the issues we face now.

In moving up, all three stressed the need to lead through questions, parameters, and team-building, rather than providing the answers yourself.  And all of them endorsed the “policy governance” model for Boards, though Woods spoke of it most strongly.

Still, Williams got the Line of the Day award for this one: “We don’t get the cream of the crop, but we make them rise to the top.”  That needs to be embroidered on something.

Back to Jersey, where I plan to check on some elevators...

Sunday, April 29, 2018

“Be Uncomfortable”: Live from the AACC

The AACC is really two organizations.  There’s the one on stage at the plenary sessions: self-assured, stately, sometimes a little stuffy.  And then there’s the one in the smaller meeting rooms: critical, restless, sometimes a little snarky.  The distance between the two is wider this year than I’ve ever seen it.


The AACC does a lot of award presentations, which are what they are.  I’ll admit, though, that this year one of them affected me a little. It gave a posthumous award to Sueanne Roueche, honoring her diversity work.  Her husband, John Roueche, was on stage behind the podium while their son Jay gave a thank-you speech. Whether by accident or forethought, the giant screens captured John’s face as Jay spoke.

As antiseptic as these ceremonies can be, that was a very human moment.  John tried to remain stoic, and mostly succeeded, but you could see the struggle as his son paid tribute to his late wife.  He maintained a dignified pose, but the effort was visible. He didn’t speak.

Sometimes silence says it all.


The opening keynote, by John Maxwell, seemed to be from a forgotten time.  He referred to millennials as “kids,” and made an extended joke about travel agents that assumed that the audience remembered travel agents.  And his stage persona -- let’s go with “not lacking in self-esteem” -- walked a fine line between smarmy and charming, like the Rat Pack in repose.

The focus was on leadership as a general category.  Maxwell played his role well, flattering the audience, dropping famous names of a previous generation (Lou Holtz?), and cracking corny jokes that he acknowledged as corny, much as Johnny Carson once did.  He plugged a few of his books, repeatedly, and did the step-by-step reveal of a list (“the five levels of leadership”) that gave him enough structure to riff freely.

The list struck me as too abstract to be helpful for much more than reassurance, but reassurance seems to be his strength.  And so we began.


Sunday morning featured a spotlight session on apprenticeships.  Labor Secretary Alex Acosta had been scheduled to present, but couldn’t, so he sent a deputy, Rosemary Lahaskey.

Much of what she offered would have been unremarkable in a previous administration.  She noted the distinction between “registered” and “recognized” apprenticeships, and suggested that the Trump administration was supportive of expanding the latter to new industries, such as IT and healthcare.  She advocated for “portable, stackable credentials,” and noted support for allowing Pell grants to be used for short-term training.

All of which was positive and well-received, and all of which was consistent with the last couple of years of the Obama administration.  (A few years ago, Joe Biden appeared at AACC to make similar points.) The major news, to my mind, was that her proposals and language were far more conciliatory to community colleges than the President has been.

Several community college presidents participated in the discussion, during which a few useful nuggets emerged.  Apparently, in Germany, the chamber of commerce acts like an accreditor for apprenticeships, so someone who has an apprenticeship with, say, BMW can take the credential to Mercedes and have it honored.  (I didn’t know that, but was immediately intrigued.) Several presidents mentioned combining apprenticeships with dual enrollment, to get high school students on track for middle-skill jobs. Steve Johnson, from Sinclair Community College, referred to apprenticeship and certificate programs in prisons to target “pre-ex-offenders,” which sort of makes sense when you think about it.  The idea is that people with skills that can get them jobs that pay decently are less likely to re-offend. Ken Ender, from Harper College, mentioned sending 12 employees of the College to Germany to see the model firsthand. Lahaskey herself mentioned possibly allowing work-study money to be used for work experience in private industry settings.

Out of context, the session was moderately useful.  In context, it was striking.


The CCRC and the Aspen Institute collaborated on a panel on best transfer practices, with a special focus on the emerging joint-enrollment program between Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and George Mason University (GMU).  

The joint program was designed to get around the problem of “excess” credits, or credits taken at a community college that don’t survive the transfer process.  Those represent a significant cost in time, money, and effort, and they can be profoundly demoralizing. I was struck by Davis Jenkins’ observation that since the Great Recession, the economic return for bachelor’s degrees has gone up, but the economic return for short-term certificates has gone down.  As he put it, the job growth has been at the high and low ends, with very little in the middle. That stood in unacknowledged contrast to the panel about apprenticeships, but there it is.

To make the program work, NOVA and GMU faculty were brought together physically, around tables, to hammer out agreements in 21 different majors for the first year (with an expectation of growing to 50 by the second year).  I participated in something similar in Massachusetts a few years ago, which also had encouraging results; there may be something to the model. GMU is also replacing outright rejection letters with conditional acceptances, using NOVA as a sort of farm team; students who apply to GMU as freshmen and don’t get in will be given the offer of joint admission, as long as they complete at NOVA with a GPA of 2.5 or better.

Jenkins noted that the strong transfer/joint program with GMU, the number of students taking 200-level courses at NOVA has increased dramatically.  That gave me hope that the new presence of Rutgers at the main Brookdale campus may have a similar effect.

The NOVA/GMU program is still in the early stages, with some rough edges, but it sounds like a promising model.  I’ll be keeping an eye on it.


If you’re serious about equity and diversity, sometimes you have to be willing, as Lisa Skari put it, to “be uncomfortable.”  So I went to a panel on the glass ceiling, women, and leadership, at which I was (for a while) the only man in a room of about sixty women.  My mission was to listen and learn, even at the cost of feeling juuuust a little conspicuous.

It was well worth it.  Elizabeth Pluhta, from South Seattle College, Kristen Jones, from North Seattle College, and Lisa Skari, currently of Highline College but soon to be the new president of Mt. Hood College, talked about their own career paths, and the help and hurdles they faced along the way.

The entire feel of the discussion was very different from some of the “how to move up” panels I’ve seen in the past.  For instance, after giving brief thumbnail autobiographies, the panelists had the audience break into groups to analyze the stories to look for commonalities among them.  I’ve never seen that technique before, but I may steal it. It felt a bit like a literature class, and I mean that as a compliment.

I noticed that each of them had jumped silos, moving from (say) academic affairs to fundraising, or from IT to facilities, and that the sideways movements actually helped with vertical movements.  Relatively accidental moments of picking up a new skill set became a de facto form of professional development.

At one point, discussing specifically gendered obstacles that women face, one of the panelists absolutely killed when she mentioned “when someone has to take notes…” and the room erupted in laughter.  Point taken…

Skari also struck a chord when she mentioned that an ideal mentor is “someone you’d be okay with taking criticism from.”  A thick skin is a key leadership skill.

As a leader, I want the folks who report to me to be able to thrive in their roles.  If that means feeling just a little awkward from time to time, well, there are worse things.  My thanks to Skari, Pluhta, and Jones for letting me sit in. The moments of snark were worth it.

On to Monday...  

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Friday Fragments

A note to my administrative colleagues at Southern Illinois University:

We administrators are constantly portrayed as cartoonish villains, somewhere between Dr. Evil and Scrooge McDuck.  That image does real damage, as it undermines the trust we need to make positive progress.

Putting out a call for faculty to work for free is not helpful.  It reinforces the stereotype at a level I honestly thought was a parody when I first read it.

Drop it.  Drop it now, and apologize to everyone involved.  You have no idea the damage you’re doing, not just to faculty and students, but to your counterparts elsewhere.  Teaching is work, and work should be paid.



As if in confirmation…

The end of the NY Times story on public employees sliding down from the middle class really says it all.  A teacher whose pay has been stuck for years finally gets a small raise. She asks her brother how he feels about it.  He responds that she deserves it, but he shouldn’t have to pay for it. To which she responds, where do you think it comes from?

The missing term, of course, is the relative distribution of taxes.  


This piece about mis-remembering Captain Kirk is uncommonly long for a web essay, and it assumes some comfort with cultural studies, but it’s well worth the read.  

The short version is that we remember Kirk as a blustery womanizer, but the “womanizer” part is overstated, and we utterly forget his strong ethical compass.  Rewatching the old shows now, the ethical compass comes through as clearly as the bluster.

Shatner himself may have devolved into parody, and the movie franchise may have become another interchangeable set of explosions, but the original show had a strong moral center that made for a compelling contrast with the zipper-backed aliens and styrofoam rocks.  

If you never watched or cared for Trek, go ahead and skip it.  But if you grew up with Trek, it’s worth the read.


Sometimes, the karmic scales balance quickly.

On Wednesday, as I prepared to fly to Kansas to speak at the National Higher Education Benchmarking Institute (at no cost to Brookdale), all manner of stuff went wrong at Newark airport.  My first two choices of parking lot were both closed, without warning; rain was coming down in sheets; the United check-in area was chaos; and the TSA line stretched roughly to Pennsylvania.  By the time I got to and through screening, it took an act of will not to get crabby. I reached for my phone to text TW and let her know that all was relatively well, when I realized I had left the phone (and keys) in the screening bin.

As if to pay me back for the hassle, the gentleman working the TSA line had put the phone and keys aside when he found them, and returned them to me politely and quickly.  The sense of frazzle quickly gave way to gratitude.

So, a tip of the cap to the TSA screeners in Terminal C of Newark airport on Wednesday.  They took the extra step that prevented a personal catastrophe.


On a sad note, it was tough to hear that Bob Dorough died.  He was the writer and singer of several Schoolhouse Rock classics, including “Conjunction Junction” and the poli sci classic “I Am a Bill.”  (The line about dying in committee is pure genius.)

He was a jazz singer of some note, but for my generation, he was the avuncular voice of some Saturday morning educational earworms that most of us can still recite from memory.  

I heard a brief tribute to him on WBGO, the public jazz station out of Newark.  The dj asked a young boy if he had heard of Schoolhouse Rock. The boy replied “you mean School OF Rock.”  


Thanks, Bob Dorough, for some beloved childhood memories.  Nothing against School of Rock, but you made a mark of your own.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A Perfectly Good Failure

It isn’t often that I get news over the phone that surprises me so much that I blurt out “wow!” so loudly that the rest of the office wants to know what happened.

NEASC shot down Connecticut’s proposal to collapse twelve community colleges into one.

In my neck of the woods, that’s earthquake-level news.  

NEASC is the regional accreditor for the New England states.  In my time at Holyoke, I was in their territory; I even did a couple of site visits for them in Connecticut.  

Connecticut’s plan, called Students First, was a system-level reorg with the overall purpose of saving money.  That’s important because Connecticut as a state is caught in a fiscal squeeze, and demographics aren’t going to save it.  

My understanding of it is that Connecticut built its political economy largely on the proceeds from high-wage NYC workers who wanted to live in suburbs.  With millennials favoring NYC much more, and with corporate headquarters no longer favoring Connecticut, the fiscal commitments it made in better times are becoming hard to sustain.  Tax increases are a tough sell, so spending cuts became the way of things by default.

The consolidation plan never made sense to me; colleges are complicated creatures, and you can’t run one off the side of someone’s desk.  Local fundraising would be likely to take a severe hit. And I’ve never seen a college cut its way to greatness.

Apparently, NEASC saw the proposed consolidation as the establishment of a new college.  That requires a different sort of application that’s likely to take several years. The current Governor’s term ends this year, and he isn’t running for reelection, so even if they submitted a revised proposal tomorrow, there’s no guarantee that the next governor will support it.

All of which raises questions of what happens next.

I’d love to see the state take the opportunity to move in an entirely different direction.

Small Northeastern states will never be able to compete on the basis of low taxes, light traffic, or sunny and warm climates.  Population density (and the jet stream) make those impossible. But they can compete on having well-educated workforces. New England historically has relied on private nonprofit colleges and universities for that, often weirdly neglecting its state systems.  

This may be a chance to stop, rethink, and change course.  Public higher education isn’t just another burden for taxpayers to bear; it’s the one thing giving Connecticut a shot at a prosperous future.  Economically speaking, it’s seed corn. Eat that, and bad things happen.

The state has responded by saying that it may have to close some campuses instead.  That may wind up happening. Philosophically, I’d rather see, say, ten excellent colleges than twelve mediocre ones.  Ten excellent colleges will result in thousands of well-educated students; twelve mediocre ones won’t. That’s small consolation to displaced employees, of course, but so is being laid off from a place that just limps along.

The nightmare scenario for me is that they try to do to NEASC what the City College of San Francisco did to its accreditor.  A drawn-out legal and political battle, at great cost, would only siphon resources away from students. It would also call the integrity of accreditation into question at a time when the Feds are being much more lax about regulating for-profit colleges.  This is not the time to melt the guardrails for scrap metal. This is the time to rethink the entire approach, and to look for long-term sustainability.

There’s no shortage of models out there.  Nearby Rhode Island has had remarkable success with free community college, and Rhode Island is poorer, on average, than Connecticut.  Tennessee’s model is the gold standard, but there’s no reason Tennessee has to have a monopoly on it. Cutting is not the only way out.

NEASC may well have saved Connecticut from itself.  I hope Connecticut doesn’t let a perfectly good failure go to waste.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Curated Serendipity, on the Cheap

In grad school and the first few years after, I was a pretty severe skeptic about academic conferences.  The major one in my academic field, the APSA, struck me as an inconveniently scheduled, anxiety-generating festival of nametag-gazing.  (In my defense, it was.) The smaller regional ones I attended were so small that they didn’t really feel like conferences; at one panel of the Northeast PSA at which I presented, the one audience member left early, so the panelists were left talking to each other.  It’s almost sweet in retrospect, but at the time, it just felt sad.

I didn’t really see the positive purpose of conferences until I stumbled on the Undergraduate Education section of the APSA, which dealt with innovations in the classes I actually taught.  Suddenly I wasn’t a supplicant, hoping that some big name would somehow notice me; I was an active participant in a conversation that was actually about something.

A few years after moving into administration, I discovered the League for Innovation and the AACC.  Remembering the bitter lessons of APSA, I decided to skip most of the nametag-gazing and instead focus on what seemed useful.  

Conferences have been essential to my own professional development.  Most of us don’t get to travel to multiple colleges around the country every year and talk to the right people about innovative stuff they’re doing.  A conference gathers them in one place, with prepared presentations and social permission to talk about work. It was at a conference that I first heard discussions of longitudinal data on remedial courses and odds of graduation.  It was at a conference that I discovered the CCRC. They were where I discovered the ALP model for co-requisite remediation, the concept of multi-factor placement, and Kay McClenney’s unparalleled ability to run a panel. (If she taught a master class in it, I’d sign up.)  

Urbanists and sociologists will recognize the conference as a pop-up version of Jane Jacobs’ great American city.  It’s a space in which structure (storefronts or panels) and interstices (sidewalks or hallways) create opportunities for cross-fertilization of ideas.  They create a sort of curated serendipity.

In other words, despite what I confidently believed twenty years ago, I’ve become a fan.  

Unfortunately, travel funding is often an early casualty of budget cuts.  In the short term, it looks like a “soft” cost. Over time, the cost of missed opportunities compounds and leaves the entire institution poorer, but that can be a tough case to make if people aren’t already predisposed to believe it.  “Throw smart people with a common project together and something good will happen” is somehow simultaneously true, ingenious, and hard to sell.

So I’m looking for suggestions about lower-cost versions of professional development that actually work.

Academic Twitter can be an excellent professional development tool -- if you use it right, it can become a self-updating annotated bibliography.  Certainly IHE and its paywalled competitor are valuable and accessible without flying anywhere. Depending on the field, certain journals and blogs can be useful -- I’m thinking here of poli sci’s “Duck of Minerva,” for example.  (It’s a play on Hegel’s line about the owl of Minerva that spreads its wings at dusk.) In the best cases, the interwebs allow for discussion of almost-done ideas before the concrete dries.

On my own campus, we have a “Scholars’ Day” at the end of the year that functions as a sort of mini-conference.  Faculty and others present on their own innovations and experiments to their colleagues. It’s an inexpensive way to include lots of people.  We’ve even developed confidential peer teaching observations that are designed to be formative, rather than summative, and that don’t go into personnel files.  Uptake hasn’t been as robust as I’d hoped, but the folks who’ve tried it (and said so) have been positive about the experience. As one put it, it’s direct feedback on the major activity of your job, and it involves minimal risk and expense.  

Guest speakers can be helpful, but timing is everything.  That’s all I’ll say about that.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found or seen other forms of low-cost professional development that can lessen the sting of reduced travel funding?

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Some College, No Degree, and Critical Mass

Tennessee is blowing the curve for the rest of us. I say that with admitted envy.

It’s expanding its best-in-the-country free community college program to include working adults with some college experience, but without degrees.  The idea is that it’s easier to increase the number of degree-holders in the workforce if you start with people who are already partway there, and who have shown the interest and aptitude for college-level work.

The most heartening piece of the Tennessee Reconnect program, though, is here:

Colleges were asked whether popular offices that oversee financial aid, veterans’ services and student support were open on weekends or past 5 p.m. on weekdays. They also were asked about food pantries on campus, available childcare or adult-specific orientation.”

That’s just excellent.  To borrow a phrase from Michelle Asha Cooper, it’s about creating student-ready colleges.

The tricky part, I suspect, will be reaching critical mass.  I hope the program architects have built in (or will build in) some sort of stop-loss fiscal arrangement for colleges in case it takes a little while for critical mass to develop.

That’s where many well-intentioned programs come to grief.

Keeping campus offices open longer means paying more people, or paying people more.  Either way, it means increasing costs. If you have a surge of enrollment, that’s fine; the surge more than covers the marginal cost.  But if the enrollment increase is small and/or gradual, there’s a difficult interlude during which the college is losing money. Depending on how tight the college budget already is -- in the community college world, that’s mostly obvious -- expansions of services that don’t pay for themselves almost immediately are the first to go.  

Which makes sense, if you think about it.  If I have to reduce hours to balance the budget, one of the first things I’d look at is which times are busy and which aren’t.  Given the choice between covering times I know will be busy, and times that I hope will eventually become busy, I’ll choose the former.  

I understand the political appeal of sending money entirely through students.  It forces colleges to tend to actual student needs. But they can only tend to new needs if they either have plenty of spare money on hand, or they get a new infusion.  The delay between a new round of overtime pay and a new infusion of tuition revenue can be prohibitive.

I saw a variation on this when I lived in Rochester, and I used to try to take the train to Albany to get to college.  (I’d catch a bus or cab from Albany to Williamstown.) Amtrak kept reducing the number of trains that ran through Rochester, presumably in response to funding shortfalls and modest ridership.  But as the number of trains reduced, so did the likelihood that I’d take one. They just weren’t there when I wanted them. Cutting services in response to slack demand can slacken demand even more, leading to even greater cuts in services.  

The same is true of branch campuses.  They cost money, but they also generate enrollment, and at least some of that enrollment presumably wouldn’t happen if the branch campus didn’t exist.  Closing a branch campus to save money will actually deliver a short-term hit to an already declining enrollment figure. There are times when that’s the best of some bad options, but pretending that it wouldn’t impact enrollment is just silly.

Tennessee is already leading the nation in improving access to community college.  If it throws a bit of operating funding to the colleges directly -- perhaps conditioned on expanding specific kinds of services that adult students need -- it could get past the “critical mass” stage and get to the “pay for itself” stage quickly.  I wish Tennessee well, and will watch with interest.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Friday Fragments: Writing and Language Edition

Anya Kamenetz has a good piece at NPR about relatively traditional bachelor’s degree programs aimed at working adults.  The line that won me over was David Scobey’s observation about working adult students “self-authoring” new narratives of their own lives.  (He attributed the term to Marcia Baxter Magolda, with whose work I’m unfamiliar.)

In the headlong rush towards short-term vocational training, it’s easy to sacrifice seemingly abstract goals.  But as Scobey notes throughout the interview, the skills that hold up well over time and across industries tend to be the more “abstract” ones.  Pure training grows obsolete quickly. And there are goals beyond money.

The liberal arts are called that because they were originally understood as “the arts of liberty,” or the education required to take part in a self-governing society.  The kind of empowerment Scobey describes shouldn’t be the exclusive province of the wealthy.


Susanna Williams tweeted out that “our galaxy is on the outskirts of a supercluster of universes called Laniakea -- Hawaii’an for “immeasurable heaven.””

“Immeasurable heaven” is a lovely phrase.  Puts things in perspective a bit.


This week Kate McConnell and I finished a manuscript with significant editing help from Kathryn Campbell.  

Co-writing is traumatic enough, with different authorial voices trying to harmonize.  Add an editor with a clear charge to synthesize a single voice, and, well, you learn to let go of pet turns of phrase.

Reader, it was humbling.

The good news is that Kate and Kathryn are smart and sympathetic readers who were able to turn my glorified notes into something.  But I’ll admit I had to go through some Kubler-Ross stages upon reading the first returned draft. (“My favorite line? Gone? Noooooo!!!!!”)

The piece should be in the AAC&U journal Liberal Education later this year.  I’m just grateful that Kate and Kathryn were able to make it look like I knew what I was doing the whole time.


The Girl submitted a brief vignette to Teen Ink, a literary magazine for teenagers, and got word this week that it won an “editor’s choice” award and lots of votes on their site.

Yes, I’m biased, but it was well-deserved.

Not to be outdone, The Boy submitted a piece in a local newspaper writing contest, and placed second overall.  As he told me about it, he actually said this, which I will share with the entire internet as I fairly beam with pride:

“I write a lot like you.  Especially the pauses.”

Yes!  The pauses!  

Some Dads take pride in teaching a son how to fish, or play baseball, or work a grill.  I take pride in noticing that he alternates paragraph lengths like I do.

It’s not quite immeasurable heaven, but it’ll do.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Context, Redux

I don’t often do reruns, but for reasons I’d rather not elaborate, this seems like an especially good time to revisit this piece I wrote and posted in September of 2017.  I stand by it.

My Recurring Nightmare

I’ll admit to some raised eyebrows reading about the lecturer at NJIT who was recorded apparently praising Hitler in class.  He claims he was taken out of context.

As someone who used to teach political philosophy, a scenario like this is my recurring nightmare.

Among other things, I taught the Greatest Hits of the Western canon of political thought, or, as we called it, “From Plato to NATO.”  I assigned actual texts -- in translation, when necessary, but still -- and spent class time helping students decipher them. Some of it involved reading comprehension, but much of it involved trying to get the overall perspective of each thinker.  A middle-class American 18 year old may not find, say, Locke’s Second Treatise terribly relatable at first blush, so part of my task involved painting word-pictures and trying to provide context.

Sometimes that meant role-playing, or playing the devil’s advocate.  At various times over the years, in class, I would role-play a monarchist, an anarchist, a Marxist, a utilitarian, a libertarian, a Hobbesian, an Aristotelian, a Burkean, a feminist, or a Platonist.  Fascism was a tough one, but sometimes I’d try to ventriloquize Nietzsche, which can be great fun in very small, carefully selected doses.

This was before smartphones and YouTube.  Back then, a single student might misunderstand something I said, but the odds of that student recording it and distributing it instantly to the world were close to zero.  There were times when I would play a character for ten or twenty minutes at a pop, trying to help students understand how a given thinker or school of thought connected the dots.  
If some student had recorded, say, five minutes of the anarchist role-play and posted it to YouTube, shorn of context, I would have been in a bad spot.  But I wouldn’t have been doing anything wrong.

This, to me, is why it matters to have presidents and vice presidents who have actually taught.  If some ideologically-driven student or organization starts pulling this kind of stuff and trying to shut down real inquiry, you want to have people high up who understand both what’s at stake and what was really going on.  If I couldn’t try to present each thinker’s most compelling claims in the most compelling way I could, I wouldn’t have been doing my job very well. Getting students to grapple with difficult questions can involve some uncomfortable moments.  

The threat that those uncomfortable moments could be taken entirely out of context and sent to the world as evidence of something sinister is deeply scary.  It cuts to the heart of the teaching role. The panopticon-from-below is such a severe threat because it’s so easy to pull off. The original panopticon took actual effort to build.  Now anyone with a midrange phone can do both surveillance and mass distribution. As Neil Postman put it, Big Brother is you, watching.

I don’t know whether the NJIT case involved thoughtful pedagogical role-playing, unhinged ranting, inappropriate recruiting, or what.  It could have been any of those, or some combination of them. But on general principle, I’d be deeply wary of drawing conclusions from a single recorded clip.  It’s just too easy to mislead.