Sunday, April 14, 2019

Dispatches from the AACC

Pro-tip: Orlando has more than one Fairfield Inn.  If you’re staying at one of them, it’s worth knowing which one is which before leaving the airport.  Trust me on this one.

Flying to Orlando is different than flying anywhere else, mostly because the median age on the plane is about 12.  Disney is omnipresent here. I’m staying in an overflow hotel that serves breakfast -- at 6:45 a.m. on a Sunday, the breakfast area was teeming with tweens.  You have to be careful walking among them while carrying anything, because they’re both frantic and aimless. It’s a bit like trying to walk through an active pinball machine.  The parents uniformly wear looks of utter and total defeat.

The conference itself has taken air travel as its motif, which I found puzzling.  The halls are festooned with cardboard cutouts of women executives of the AACC dressed as flight attendants, which seems a bit 1985.  The registration area is styled after an airport check-in counter. I don’t know anybody who sees airlines as the paragons of customer service.  Come to think of it, there’s a large-ish company based in Orlando that’s known for customer service. But instead they conjured TWA. Color me perplexed.  The convention hotel also don’t have wifi, which is an odd choice for an academic conference.

Saturday started with a reunion of the first class of the Aspen Presidential Fellowship. Characteristically, we built the reunion around discussions of equity on campus.  It’s great to see everyone again, but part of the joy of it is being around people speaking a common language. The guiding assumption we work with is that achievement gaps are signs of institutional gaps.  That seems obvious, but I’m constantly struck by the number of people who assume the opposite.

As always, the gathering gave me hope.  The members of the class who have become presidents, which is about half and counting, lead with purpose.  That can’t always be assumed.

Saturday’s convention keynote speaker, Marcus Buckingham, inadvertently echoed some of those themes.  In a slightly frantic way, with ample dollops of British irony, he argued that much of what we believe about workplaces is false.  The main lessons he offered were twofold: people are terrible at rating other people, and we underestimate the power of joy in work.  That led, among other things, to a recommendation that we abandon performance evaluations. I thought for about a nanosecond about how that would work in a collective bargaining environment, smiled wistfully, and moved on.  There’s hoping for the best, and there’s protecting against the worst. If you do away with performance evaluations and then it comes time to fire someone, well, good luck. He didn’t do a q-and-a, so nobody asked him about that.  

Sunday morning started with a long pair of panels on apprenticeship programs.  The most encouraging part was the completion rates for students placed into apprenticeships.  As one speaker put it, even students who may or may not care about classes care about jobs. In an apprenticeship, dropping the class means quitting the job.  Their completion rates topped 90 percent.

David Baime, John Hermes, and Jee Hang Lee offered a brief overview of current legislative priorities on Capitol Hill.  Given a divided Congress, and a president whose priorities can shift abruptly, much of the discussion was necessarily abstract.  That said, I was encouraged to hear that Pell grants for short-term certificates seemed to be gaining traction. They also reported bipartisan support for allowing financial aid to fit modular courses more cleanly, which is a bigger deal than many people understand.   News that the sequester is alive and well was less welcome; any sort of sweeping attack on “non-defense discretionary spending” bodes ill for us. Apparently, Title III Strengthening Institutions grants and Title V HSI grants are being targeted for elimination, which I’ll admit is pretty disturbing.

I tried catching Kay McClenney’s panel, but it was standing room only, and I’m tall enough that I block people’s views, so I ducked out and caught a panel instead on racial microaggressions in higher ed, run by Roberto Garcia and Lee Santos Silva from Bunker Hill CC in Boston.  The panel was brief, but I was glad I found it. Listening is key. Although it started with some vaguely postmodern language that took me back to the 90’s, it quickly shifted to stories based on real incidents. The panel was only about a half hour, which struck me as a missed opportunity; I hope they do a fuller version next year.

I went to the CCRC reception, as I always do, and made my annual pitch for them to do some serious research on ESL.  To my delight, Nikki Edgecombe responded that they’re doing it, and initial results will be coming out shortly. There’s a desperate, crying need for serious empirical analysis of ESL as distinct from remediation; I look forward to the results.

On to Monday...