Thursday, November 20, 2014


CoCo Goes Pro Bono?

When The Dog is resting on her pillow, and she hears an unusual noise, one ear will pop up.  She’ll stay down, but the one ear will be at attention.  We call it “shark ear.”  When the shark ear is up, we know something weird is happening.

The story that a student loan collection agency is buying roughly half of the Corinthian College campuses, and turning them nonprofit, made my shark ear go up.  

There’s something weird about it.

ECMC -- not to be confused with EDMC, a major player in for-profit higher education -- is buying 56 campuses for $24 million, which works out to less than $450,000 per campus.  It’s keeping the widely-discredited Everest and WyoTech names, but bringing in all new management.  ECMC’s entire higher education experience has been in student loan collection; it has never run a college or any other educational institution.  When asked why ECMC is doing it, the CEO replied that “we want to help.”  Happily, ECMC has been “assembling a short list of qualified individuals” “under the radar” to step in and actually run the campuses.

To which I say, hmm.  

Loan collection agencies aren’t generally known for philanthropy.  Colleges typically cost more than single suburban houses.  Corporate management turnarounds often involve rebranding.  And I would think that an agency that had never run a college before wouldn’t start with 56 of them.  One, maybe.  56, no.

As far as I know -- and I’m open to correction on this -- ECMC has not allied itself with any particular pedagogical movement or philosophy.  This isn’t Founders College, the short-lived attempt to base a college on the writings of Ayn Rand.   If it doesn’t have a profit motive, or a religious motive, or a philosophical motive, or a pedagogical motive, what is it trying to achieve?

It  “wants to help,” but at what?  The value proposition for students is obscure, at best, since ECMC hasn’t said anything about a new academic specialty, or offering something that nearby public colleges and universities don’t already offer at lower prices.  

As regular readers know, I’m not necessarily hostile to for-profit education as a concept.  I think this piece from the Boston Globe gets a lot right; just because many for-profits have been bottom feeders doesn’t mean that all of them must be, by definition.  I remain convinced that there’s room for thoughtful entrepreneurs to add value, particularly through programmatic specialization.  

But ECMC is doing it backwards.  It’s keeping names that have been tarnished as predatory, and offering to do...what, exactly?  Instead of building a new enterprise from scratch, or radically repurposing an existing one, it’s offering to continue to run mediocre programs at slightly less inflated prices.  That doesn’t pass the sniff test.

The CEO claims that ECMC’s self-interest has nothing to do with it, since the loans that the new CoCo students will receive will be federal, and won’t be subject to collection through ECMC.  Maybe.  But if that’s true, then the motive is even more obscure.

I’m having a hard time explaining it through the self-interest of managers, either.  Managers in large-scale financial services make far more money than, say, campus deans.  I don’t think they’re hijacking capital to buy themselves sinecures.  

Wise and worldly readers, am I missing something?  Is there some narrative by which this move makes sense?  My shark ear won’t stop twitching on this one.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Other People Strike Again

Actual conversation I had with a student in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks:

Student: We should bomb ‘em back to the stone age.  That’ll teach ‘em!

Me: Hmm.  When we got attacked, how did we respond?

Student: Screw ‘em!

Me: Exactly.  And why wouldn’t they respond that way to us?

The student was dumbstruck by the prospect that the people on the other side of his proposal were three-dimensional beings, with the same emotional range he had.  He simply hadn’t thought of it.

I was reminded of that exchange in seeing the new CCRC report on the unintended impacts of performance funding on public higher education.  It suggests that performance funding models often elicit institutional or employee behavior different from that intended by the authors of the models.  In other words, three-dimensional people on the receiving end of policies will act in their own perceived self-interest, within the confines of the options they perceive.

This shouldn’t be shocking.  In fact, I predicted several of the outcomes the CCRC paper notes back in 2012 (the link is here).  It wasn’t difficult; all I had to do was to imagine how statewide mandates would play out locally.  If you take seriously the idea that people on the receiving end of policies will respond to incentives -- whether intended or not -- then it should not be surprising to discover that some of them gamed the system.  The system rewarded gaming.

The easy case of gaming is grade inflation.  In the very short term, it’s possible to increase pass rates simply by, well, increasing pass rates.  That can be done directly, as in the public school districts that responded to NCLB testing by having teachers change answers.  But it’s most often done indirectly, through dropping not-very-subtle hints to vulnerable faculty that they don’t want to fail too many people.  That kind of word travels fast. Over the long term, it’s corrosive to the academic mission.  In the short term, though, it can make numbers look better.

But gaming doesn’t even have to be as sinister as that.  A new curriculum takes a solid year to develop, if not more.  Once it’s finally running, the effects on graduation rates don’t show up for a few years.  In the meantime, the institution is struggling to meet fixed costs in the face of mercurial annual changes in funding.  When “performance” is measured annually, a one-year statistical blip can have real financial consequences.  In a context like that, a quick fix can look much more practical than a sustainable long-term change with a longer incubation period.  Over time, those quick fixes play out logics of their own.

The CCRC paper makes some smart recommendations toward the end about ways to engineer performance funding to prevent gamesmanship.  Among other things -- and I can’t agree with these enough -- it recommends paying for improved data analysis capacity on campuses, and for greater IT support.  Those may sound wonky, but they matter, and they’re both the kind of “pay now, earn rewards later” expenses that are easy to sacrifice in the face of short-term imperatives.  I’d also echo the call for basing performance measures on a college’s own past, rather than on a zero-sum battle with its counterparts; otherwise, you’ll punish the kinds of collaboration that lead to sustainable improvement.  To the extent that moving away from zero-sum is considered politically impossible, I’d suggest you’ve discovered something fundamental about the motives behind it.

At a more basic level, though, any serious attempts at improvement have to recognize that actors will respond to the incentives that are relevant to them.  As Madison noted so long ago, if men were angels, no government would be necessary.  But they aren’t, so it is.  A system that only works if everyone puts aside their own self-interest is doomed to fail.  If you’re serious about measuring performance, you have to remember the creativity of performers.  The lesson they learn from your policy may not be the lesson you had in mind.

Monday, November 17, 2014


Reaching the Range

In a group discussion recently, several professors brought up the challenge of teaching a class in which the range of student preparation levels stretches from “coulda gone anywhere, if not for money and family issues” to “not yet reading at a college level.”  When you have students at either end of that continuum, and at all points in between, in the same room at the same time, reaching all of them isn’t easy.

College professors traditionally aren’t really taught how to teach, except by example.  But the examples are usually drawn from graduate school, in which you can usually take a certain level of academic preparation and interest for granted.  (At least, I hope so!)  I recall some very talented lecturers in grad school, and some competent discussions, but I don’t recall ever being taught how to reach undergrads who struggled to read the text, when they bothered to try.  That does not seem to have changed in most fields.  (I’ll tip my cap here to the rhet/comp folk, who have made a point of reaching students where they actually are.)

Some of the academic departments try to attack the issue by gatekeeping.  Putting prerequisites on courses is a way to screen out the most academically challenged.  But outside of courses in which the content builds in a linear way, like the algebra sequence, it’s gatekeeping for the sake of gatekeeping.  It tends to create certain academic ghettos into which developmental students are herded, because they still need full-time status and they still want to make progress towards graduation.  It often starves the walled-off courses of the enrollments they need, if they’re going to run.  And based on both anecdotal feedback and pass rates, it seems to make much less difference than its proponents want it to make in the classroom.  Besides, if we want to speed up completion rates, gatekeeping is the last thing we should be doing.

Ideally, some targeted professional development to help faculty work more effectively with the students they actually have.  That way we wouldn’t have to choose between open access and high success.  This is where I’m hoping my wise and worldly readers can ride to the rescue.

We’ve all endured professional development workshops or events in which the living envied the dead.  The usual sins run the gamut from “field-specific to a field that isn’t mine” to “irrelevant for the students we actually have” to “would be nice, if we had triple the budget we have.”  And that’s without even getting into the more reductive versions of The One True Faith or There’s An App For That.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen, or found, or developed, a professional development resource that was actually helpful in the specific challenge of reaching students across a wide range of preparation levels?  Ideally, one that isn’t specific to a single discipline?  I’d love to provide faculty access to something that would actually help, and that would help across a wide spectrum of disciplines.  We aren’t moving to selective admissions, and the range isn’t getting any narrower, so anything that’s actually useful would be appreciated.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Recruiting Donors

I’ve given the New York TImes’ education coverage a hard time over the years, mostly because it’s so provincial.  But once in a while, it gets one mostly right.  This weekend’s story about donors to LaGuardia Community College wasn’t perfect, but it got the big picture right.  And it put that picture in a venue in which the donor class might actually see it.  Now we just have to do something with it.

Briefly, the Times pointed out that although community colleges enroll more students than any other sector of higher education, they receive far less philanthropic support than any of their non-profit peers.  (For-profits don’t receive philanthropy at all, for obvious reasons.)  The article even notes that charter schools receive almost twice as much philanthropic support as community colleges, even though community colleges have four times as many students.  The president of LaGuardia, Gail Mellow -- of whom I am a fan -- sends handwritten thank-you notes to anyone who donates $500 or more.  At most four-year colleges of similar size, that would be unthinkable.

Community colleges have struggled, comparatively, with donors for a host of reasons.  One is age; the average community college in America was founded in the 1960’s, and the first classes were often quite small.  They simply don’t have the length of history of an Ivy.  Another is the class background of the student body.  When you’re climbing out of the lower working class and making your way to a middle class job, you typically aren’t in a position to make five-figure donations to your alma mater.  Open-door admissions policies mean that there’s no competitive advantage for your kid if you’re a donor; the kid gets in whether you donate or not.  (Selective institutions aren’t shy about implying that donations grease the wheels.)  And many community colleges simply didn’t see it as part of their missions or identities until several decades had passed, by which point many of the first cohorts of graduates -- the ones most senior in their fields, and likely the wealthiest -- had dispersed around the country.  Reconstructing records is much harder than maintaining them.

I was disappointed, though, to see the Times publish as fact the contestable statement that “When students from a community college ascend to the affluent classes, they tend to feel a stronger affinity to the institutions that eventually graduate them than to the places where, often, they had no option but to begin.”  Maybe yes, maybe no.  At the first CASE conference on community college development a few years ago, Lisa Skari presented research from her dissertation suggesting that isn’t true.  She found that what looked like indifference was often a function of not being asked.  That rang true for me; I’ve certainly seen successful alumni show loyalty to where they started.  Skari’s findings give cause for hope; the Times’ assumption suggests fatalism.  I’ll side with Skari.

To the extent that philanthropy can go beyond alumni, though, it’s worth wondering why community colleges have been comparatively neglected. I wonder if part of the reason is the no-frills aesthetic that the sector as a whole favors.  Most cc’s don’t have high-profile athletics, for example, and they’ve generally opted out of the amenities arms race.  (At HCC, for example, we don’t have a football team, a climbing wall, or a lazy river.)  Most don’t have a homecoming weekend.  Community colleges are comfortable speaking the language of need, but many donors prefer to be part of something glamorous.  The sector as a whole has not made a point of trying to be glamorous.  It’s likelier to conjure images of workforce development programs and developmental writing than of semesters abroad in Italy.  But that’s sort of the point.

Wise and worldly readers, do you have any thoughts on ways that community colleges could become more effective players in the philanthropic world?

Thursday, November 13, 2014


Relearning Algebra with The Boy

The Boy is thirteen, and in the eighth grade.  He’s taking algebra, which is to say, we’re taking algebra.

Relearning algebra at age forty-six is a very different experience.  It’s not as intimidating as it was the first time around, if only because I remember getting past it before, and some of the logic seemed to stick. “Isolate the variable” is a life lesson masquerading as a mathematical technique.  I need some prompts as reminders, but so far they haven’t been too bad.  The notation is slightly odd -- why is the slope of a line abbreviated as “m”? -- but once I know that, it’s fine.

The first time around wasn’t like that.  I remember lots of daydreaming in class, which made it difficult to keep up with demonstrations on the chalkboard.  (It was even harder to catch up once I had missed a couple of steps.)  I didn’t see the relevance of any of it, and the logic behind it was often elusive.

The Boy reports that many of the same things are true for him, now.  

I can’t blame him, really.  Depending on how it’s taught, algebra can either be a really nifty bit of puzzle solving or a mystifying group of complicated processes with no obvious connection to each other.  And I”m sure that if I had to sit through an hour of it every morning, early, with a teenager’s body clock, I’d daydream, too.  

As the parent, I see it as my job to help TB move from “this is a random set of rules to memorize” to “here’s how it fits together.”  Once you have some sense of the connective tissue, it’s easier to reconstruct a rule that you’ve forgotten.

This week he had a big test, and some reason to be nervous about it, so we spent a couple of hours studying together.

The first thing I insisted on was turning off the computer.  I brought up several sheets of blank typing paper -- for younger readers, “typing” is the old-school version of printing -- and a pen.  I wanted us to have enough room to write nice and big.  I wanted to see each step as he did it, and I wanted him to see each step as I did it.  That means having plenty of white space.

There is no substitute for speaking math out loud, slowly, as you do it.  It’s not fast or pretty, but it forces a kind of clarity.

This is where generational parenting styles really show themselves.  We Gen X types were raised in what would now be called a “free-range” style, which meant that when it came to things like homework, we were on our own.  That could be very good or very bad.  The rules have changed since then; now, difficult homework is a group activity.  The key is in making sure that you’re clear on the difference between helping him understand, which is good, and doing it for him, which is not.  

The joy of helping with algebra homework is twofold.  It’s fun to devise word problems designed to make each other laugh.  And I still get a kick out of watching the lightbulb turn on when he gets it.  

If you had told me at age thirteen that I’d bond with my future son while helping him study for an algebra test, I would have laughed out loud.  Yet here we are.  If x equals spending time making The Boy laugh and helping him learn, then I’m happy to solve for it.  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


Community Partners in the Classroom

Old joke: a cop pulls Heisenberg over.  Cop: “Sir, did you know you were doing 90?”  Heisenberg: “Great, now I”m lost.”

A comment a professor made this week reminded me of Heisenberg’s rule that the act of observing something changes the thing being observed.  She has her students do presentations in class, and she mentioned that they always do a noticeably better job when she has an external observer from a local business sit in and observe.  The change in audience, even if it’s a single person, generates enough stage fright to motivate the students to raise their game.  

In the capstone course for graduating seniors at DeVry, students had to do presentations to panels of four faculty.  Just adding those three extra professors to the room changed the dynamic palpably.  The extra professors didn’t stay long and didn’t say much; they didn’t have to.  They provided enough of a charge just by their presence that the students took the task more seriously.

This is old news in fields like music, where juried performances are standard fare.  But it strikes me as applicable in far more areas.  

Of course, sometimes guests do more than observe.  Many years ago, I had an American Government class that was sort of struggling.  The students had trouble getting over their knee-jerk skepticism about all things political, and I hadn’t yet learned the importance of unteaching before teaching.  (In hot-button areas like politics, that’s a key skill.)  So we were sort of limping along.  But someone I worked with happened to mention in passing that he was friends with a local telecom lobbyist.  I invited the lobbyist to come in as a guest speaker and talk about lobbying from a lobbyist’s perspective.  He was great -- funny, smooth, slightly bawdy -- and the students came to life.  After that visit, the students really locked in; they saw that I wasn’t just making it up.  The stuff we had been studying mattered enough to some interesting people that it suddenly merited attention.

At the administrative level, when we talk about community partners, it’s usually in the context of organizations.  College A works with Agency B and Company C to help a set of students pick up the skills needed to thrive in a given field, say.  That’s terrific, necessary, and likely to expand in the coming years.  It’s good work, well worth doing, and I’m proud of the role I’ve played in helping some of those partnerships succeed.

That said, though, it’s easy to lose sight of the power of a single external visitor showing up to class and putting the students under a spotlight.  

I read somewhere that there are really only four stories, told over and over again, and that one of them is “a stranger comes to town.”  (Others include “boy meets girl” and “a hero goes on a quest.”  I forget the fourth.)  When a stranger comes to class, the effect can be startling.  The story changes.

But the story doesn’t change only in the class.  It also changes for the visitor.  (With apologies to Nietzsche, when you gaze long into English Comp, English Comp also gazes into you.)  People like to be respected, and to share their opinions.  They’ve been known to take students under their respective wings.  They can offer tips that weren’t entirely intended, but that add real value.  And the relationships that start on an individual or personal level can lead to broader organizational alliances over time.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen colleges do particularly good jobs of working with class visitors on a large scale?  

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


200 or 300?

Is there a national standard on what makes a course 200 level, as opposed to 300 level?

I haven’t found one, and it’s starting to matter.

A few weeks ago, I attended a statewide conference on streamlining transfer pathways between two-year and four-year public colleges and universities.  The idea was to ensure that students who start at community colleges and then move to four-year institutions don’t lose credits when they transfer.  The DHE was smart enough to specify that the credits should actually count towards majors, rather than just vanishing into the “free elective” black hole.  Too many colleges use “free elective” status as a way to say that they “accept” credits without actually letting them count for anything.  It’s an elegant political dodge, but a dodge nonetheless.  The state has figured that out, and is isolating the actual problem.  

When moving from institutions to majors, though, the discussion has to move to the level of specific courses.  At that point, several things quickly became clear:

First, many community colleges have departments of one person in certain disciplines.  When you only have one full-timer, there will be courses you can’t cover.  If we want seamless transfer, we need parity of resources.  

Second, many of the four-year schools disagree with each other.  The premise that there are two internally consistent blocs of institutions is false; each bloc is heterogeneous.  In the absence of a consistent set of rules at the four-year level, asking the two-year schools to mirror the first two years of the four-year level doesn’t make sense.  Which ones should they mirror?

Third, and the point of today’s piece, is that there is no industry-wide standard in many fields for which courses should fall at the 200 level and which should fall at the 300 level.  In states in which community colleges are limited to the first two years, such as Massachusetts, the distinction matters.  If we teach a class that a receiving school counts as 300 level, the receiving school may decline to take it.  If they move too many classes to the 300 level, they can effectively force students to retake multiple courses.  (From their perspective, if we redesignate too many 300 level classes as 200, we’re poaching.)  

The annoying truth is that mandating streamlined transfer will require putting stricter limits on the curricular decision-making authority of individual campuses.  It can’t not.  From the perspective of an enterprising faculty member at a community college, that can amount to a cap on scholarly ambition.  “Topics in…” classes don’t lend themselves to seamless transfer in the same way that “Intro to…” classes do.  If an entire state decides that, say, these five psychology classes are what the four-years will take, then the two-year curricula are basically capped.  I’d expect some pushback from the most academically ambitious faculty who would protest, rightly, that they’re being put in their place.  But I don’t see how to get mandated transfer without some level of standardization.  From the four-year perspective, they’d be facing a mandate to take a black box of credits, and count them towards a given major.  Either way, someone has to be willing to give up some authority to make the system work.

I’ve seen the downside of too much local control.  At my last college, a branch of the state flagship only took 30 out of 60 credits towards a criminal justice degree, and most of those credits were gen eds.  Forcing students to retake a year’s worth of credits struck me as insane.  It’s probably no coincidence that the legislature stepped in shortly thereafter and mandated acceptance of transfer credits.  That could happen here, too.  

Legislation wouldn’t be an issue if it were based on a broadly-shared understanding of where the boundaries are.  Which brings me back to my first question.

In humanities and social science fields especially, is there a national authority or something similar that delineates the boundaries between 200 and 300 level in a generally accepted way?

Monday, November 10, 2014



Yesterday’s article about a college president making some staggeringly sexist comments about campus rape had some lessons beyond the obvious.  (For the record, the obvious would include “don’t be a sexist jerk.”)  

In grad school, grad students bonded by making jokes about everything and everyone.  Much of that derived from the combination of high verbal skills, extreme powerlessness, and the apparent absurdity of some of what we encountered.  We lacked the authority to change much, but we could at least validate each other’s observations, and appreciate zingers well-zung.

On faculty, some of the same habits carried over.  It was easy to cast snark at this administrative initiative or that one; at times, snark was the only sanity-maintaining response.  It built soilidarity within the ranks, and gave an accepted outlet for frustration.

When I moved into administration, though, I quickly -- and somewhat awkwardly -- discovered that comments that previously would have been considered well within bounds, suddenly weren’t.  Jokes or asides that had mostly generated smirks in one setting elicited fear in another.  And there were understandable reasons for that.  I had to make a conscious adjustment in how I framed certain things, just to prevent unproductive misunderstandings.

In writing classes, the issue was usually framed as “audience awareness.”  It’s almost a kind of code-switching.  In assessing the propriety of an explanation, a joke, or a mode of address, the question of audience matters.  I’ll make comments at home that I wouldn’t make at work.  The comments at home aren’t necessarily more true, exactly; comic exaggeration is a well-worn way of blowing off steam.  But an aside that seems funny in the context of family may seem cruel or shocking in the workplace.  The higher your rank in the workplace, the truer that gets.  Hierarchy is an amplifier.  At a certain point, you have to assume the microphone is always on.

I’ve noticed that sometimes, when someone has grown a little too comfortable in the spotlight, they start to lose their audience awareness.  Comments that might have belonged backstage, assuming they belonged anywhere at all, find their way onstage.  We usually think of stage fright as a bad thing, and it certainly can be, but a little bit of it can actually be healthy.  It keeps the speaker from forgetting that the microphone is on.  

I used to think of audience awareness as a form of lying.  I don’t see it that way anymore.  If anything, it’s a sign of respect.  The people who pride themselves on always “telling it like it is” are nearly always insufferable, because the subtext of their style is that they matter and nobody else does.  The fact of taking the trouble to couch a message so that the recipient can receive it as intended is a sign of respect for the recipient.  Yes, it’s possible to go overboard and fall into lying or manipulating.  But it’s not the same thing.

Parents generally know this from direct experience.  There are times when your kid wants your attention or participation in something, and you’re just frazzled.  In those times, it takes conscious effort not to just get snappy.  But you make the effort, because you know that in the long run, a healthy relationship with your kid is far more important than the fact that you’re wiped at a given moment.  I don’t think of that extra effort as lying; I think of it as paying attention to a longer-term truth.  
This may explain why introverted leaders often last longer than their more outgoing counterparts.  Introverts, as a group, are likelier to behave as if the microphone is on.  For them, in a sense, it always is.  They never entirely lose the sense of performance in public interactions, which means they rarely get so comfortable that they forget the onstage/offstage distinction.  Paradoxically enough, introverts often do very well on stage.  For them, daily life is a form of practice.

Diverse workplaces are probably less likely to lull leaders into a false sense of being offstage.  That’s good in itself.  Most of us are less likely to take stupid liberties when we’re at least a little bit self-conscious.  

Of course, if a leader is simply too narcissistic to register the presence of meaningful others, there’s probably no stopping him from stepping in it.  And in this case, there’s something to be said for the idea that he revealed publicly what he does privately, and that what he does privately does real harm to actual women.  To my mind, that’s grounds for removal.  

But beyond that case, I wonder if cultivating a little more self-awareness, and audience awareness, in leaders might do a world of good.  Leaders who think before they speak aren’t necessarily aloof or cunning.  They may be trying to be their best selves.  To the extent that this view suggests that diverse workplaces and self-aware leaders are less likely to end in jaw-droppingly stupid flameouts, those might be worth trying.

Sunday, November 09, 2014


Assessment Done Well and Badly

If you haven’t yet seen Jeffrey Alan Johnson’s essay on faculty/administration conflicts over assessment, check it out.  It’s well worth reading, not least because it goes well beyond the usual first-level conflicts over assessment.  (The comments give a pretty good indication of what the usual first-level conflicts are.)  

Johnson’s argument is subtle enough that most commenters seemed to miss it.  In a nutshell, he argues that subjecting existing instruction to the assessment cycle will, by design, change the instruction itself.  Much of the faculty resistance to assessment comes from a sense of threatened autonomy.  Johnson addresses political science specifically, noting that it’s particularly difficult to come up with content-neutral measures in a field without much internal consensus, and with factions that barely speak to each other.  

He’s right, though it may be easier to grasp the point when applied to, say, history.  There’s no single “Intro to History” that most would agree on; each class is the history of something.  The ‘something’ could be a country, a region, a technology, an idea, an art form, or any number of other things, but it has to be something specific.  Judging a historian of China on her knowledge of colonial America would be easy enough, but wouldn’t tell you much of value.  If a history department finds itself judged on “scores” based on a test of the history of colonial America, then it can either resign itself to lousy scores or teach to the test.

The faculty whose subfields or specialities would be sacrificed can be expected, rightly, to object.  The issue isn’t necessarily that they resist any scrutiny or any change -- though, to be fair, some do -- but that the scrutiny is off-point.  

As a political theorist turned administrator, I see Johnson’s argument from both sides.  The need for some sort of thoughtful assessment process goes well beyond accreditation mandates, as important as those are.  The “distribution requirement” model of degrees is built on the assumption that the whole of a program will equal the sum of its courses.  We all know it doesn’t always work out that way, though.  Program-level assessment addresses student outcomes after taking the individual courses serially, and highlights any gaps.  That’s why the chestnut “we already do assessment -- we give grades!” misses the point.  Grades apply to individual students in individual courses.  If the sequence of courses is missing something, that won’t show up in grades.  You might get an “A” in Comparative Politics without knowing anything about political theory.

I’m proud of the model we’ve adopted locally.  We have a Gen Ed Assessment Committee (GEAC, pronounced “geek”) that looks at student work samples, submitted by faculty, and scores them against the five general education learning outcomes the college adopted through the Senate seven years ago.  The members of the GEAC are all faculty, and their workloads are adjusted so they have time to do the job right.  (Whether the adjustment is enough is always a question, but that’s another issue.)  They draw work samples from programs across the curriculum, and make recommendations to the college as a whole.  Their recommendations have been well-received, in part because other faculty respect them as colleagues, and in part because the process makes sense.

Programmatic assessment can be more of a challenge when you don’t have obvious capstone courses.  Transfer-oriented programs often don’t, at the two year level.  But there, again, it makes sense that a program would want to know where it’s doing right by its students and where it’s falling short.  Individual faculty may feel some tension between their own goals and departmental goals, but that’s not the fault of assessment.  In fact, if memory serves, those tensions pre-date the assessment movement pretty substantially.

From an administrative perspective, Johnson’s article offers worthwhile cautions.  If the goal is actual improvement, it’s crucial that faculty are on board.  (Not unanimously, of course, but broadly.)  Doing assessment stupidly -- say, as an add-on to grading -- will defeat that purpose.  Faculty need to be able to raise the difficult questions around how a given assessment mechanism fits with what’s actually being taught.  The idea isn’t to allow a sort of plebiscitary veto -- that ship has sailed -- but to make sure it’s done in an intelligent and productive way.  If it’s presented as the latest variation on Soviet-style production numbers, then it will be about that reliable.  But if it’s designed openly -- that is to say, if administrators are willing to cede a considerable amount of control over the specifics -- then it can actually accomplish something worth accomplishing.

Thursday, November 06, 2014


Time Travel with a Ten Year Old

The Girl has a bit of the philosopher in her.  Sometimes it catches me off-guard.

The Girl and I, driving home from some errands last night:

TG: I wonder why we find animals cute.  I mean, back in caveman times, furry things could attack us!

Me: That’s true…

TG  Finding a leopard cub cute could mean getting attacked!

Me: Yes, it could.

TG: There’s a difference between cute and pretty.  Puppies are cute, but they aren’t usually pretty.

Me: No.

TG: And butterflies are pretty, but they aren’t really cute.

Me: That’s true.  I’ve seen sunsets that were pretty, but I’ve never called one cute.

TG: You know, if someone from hundreds of years ago overheard us, he’d be like, “you must have a lot of time on your hands to talk about what’s pretty and what’s cute.”

Me: Probably.

TG: He’d be like, “I spend all day chopping wood to survive!  And you get to talk about puppies and kittens!”

Me: (laughing)

TG: I wonder what someone from the 1800’s would like the most if he suddenly appeared here.  Maybe television.  They’d think it was magic!

Me: Or cars.

TG: Or airplanes!

Me: It depends on who it is, too.  Like if it was a woman, she’d be excited that she could wear pants in public.

TG: And vote!

Me: And own property, and have her own job.

TG: Yeah, it must have stunk for women back then.  I bet she wouldn’t want to go back!

Me: Probably not.

TG: And we can play Minecraft on the computer!  They didn’t have Minecraft back then.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014


Throwback Thursday

In the age of group texting apps, robocalls, email, electronic bulletin boards, social media, and untold varieties of wireless communication, we’re finding we get some of the best results by using…


Yes, the same postcards that colleges sent twenty years ago.  Ink on paper, snail-mailed to students’ homes.  

Postcards have several advantages.  They’re relatively cheap, they’re easy to mass-produce, and they’re well suited to simple messages.  But they also have two advantages that are unique to them, and that set them apart from most electronic forms of communication.

Anyone in the home can see them, and they’re easy to stick on refrigerators.

Letters are sealed, and therefore less likely to be read by others.  Electronic messages, in whatever form, are easily lost in the shuffle, whether that takes the form of a spam folder, an avalanche of other communications, or students’ changing phone numbers.  But postcards do a pretty good job of tracking students down.  And almost nobody prints out text messages and posts them on refrigerators.

Sometimes, the older methods still have some life left in them.  It’s worth keeping that in mind as we look for ways to address nagging challenges.

My personal fave happened a few years ago.  The library set up a quiet study room with no tech at all.  It’s really basic: desks, lamps, chairs, not much else.  I’m told it has a smallish, but devoted, clientele that enforces the expectation of quiet on newcomers.  For students with chaotic home lives, just having a reliable, quiet place to study makes a difference.  It’s hardly cutting edge, but it still works.  The rest of the library embraces technology in forward-thinking ways, and the group study area -- complete with single computers with multiple keyboards and large displays -- gets plenty of use.  But there’s still a market for the classic clean, well-lighted place.

With much of the latest tech, we’re at the stage of trying to figure out where the tech can help, and where we need to preserve or enhance the high-touch human element.  Anyone who has watched an email exchange degenerate over time knows that sometimes you have to interrupt the circuit and go to phone or in-person conversation.  The same holds for anything asynchronous.  Asynchronous conversation allows for convenience, and in the best cases, for reflection before and during engagement.  But it can also allow for stewing.  Having the option of switching back to an older mode -- even if you don’t use it all that often -- provides a safety valve.  After a half hour of “if the problem is with your home phone, press 5,” I just want to speak with a human being.  We’ve all been there.

Wise and worldly readers, what throwbacks have you seen redeem themselves by being surprisingly useful?

Tuesday, November 04, 2014


No Payments for 90 Days!

Sometimes I wonder if colleges could learn from appliance stores.

Like many community colleges, we’re enrolling now for Spring classes.  Some students sign up as early as humanly possible, in order to get the exact schedules that they want.  Many don’t.  

The former -- the early birds -- make sense intuitively.  If they fully intend to return in the Spring, and they don’t see any colossal barriers to doing so, then getting an early jump to get the perfect schedule is a rational way to get the most bang for the buck.  For many students on financial aid, the aid is packaged for the academic year, so someone who started in the Fall shouldn’t face a barrier to early enrollment for the Spring.

The latter are the trickier cases.  Why do so many students who apparently intend to return take their sweet time registering?

From the institution’s perspective, it would be vastly preferable if more students signed up early.  With fuller counts early on, we’d have a better sense of which sections would run, and where we’d need more or fewer.  It would also make budgeting easier, since we’d be better able to project tuition/fee income.  It might also improve student success, since students would have more time to arrange work and transportation around class schedules in advance.

Apparently, though, many students who don’t have fully packaged financial aid put off registering so they can put off paying the bill.  They’re looking towards the Christmas holiday, and hoping to have enough money in December to get through it.  Paying tuition in November would make that harder.

And that’s where I wonder if appliance stores (or furniture stores, or..) have something to teach us.

In the retail world, “no payments for 90 days” is a common gimmick for getting people to buy.  The idea is to separate the pain from the gain, and to put the gain first.  Economists can protest all they want about the irrationality of that, but judging by the ubiquity of the gimmick, it seems to work.  If it works for sectional couches, it should work for sections of English.

I’m wondering what would happen if we used “no payments for 90 days” as an incentive for early registration.  Miss the cutoff for “early” registration, and the rule defaults to paying upon registration.  Register first, and you get to pay last.  That way, the student’s incentive would align with the institution’s.

I’m guessing that the major barrier preventing widespread adoption of “no payments for 90 days” in higher ed is the specter of no-shows.  A student who ponied up the money upfront has something at stake; a student who didn’t might be likelier to develop second thoughts.  That’s less relevant in the case of appliances; once the washing machine is delivered, there it is.  No-shows would defeat the institutional gain of better planning.  Instead of guessing which empty seats would eventually fill, we’d have to guess which filled seats would actually turn out empty.  In a sense, that’s actually worse.  At least in the case of obviously empty seats, we wouldn’t have to turn anyone away.  I’d hate to turn away prospective students because no-shows took their seats.  In that scenario, nobody wins.

Has anyone out there tried a variation on the “no payments for 90 days” gimmick in the context of early registration for classes?  If so, what happened?  Did students respond to the incentive by registering early, or did it just pass unnoticed?  And were no-shows an issue?  Any hard-earned observations would be appreciated.

Monday, November 03, 2014


Games and Casting

Gerry Canavan’s piece on the higher education faculty job market is well worth a read.  Briefly, Canavan rejects both the idea of “market as meritocracy” -- hard to sustain when demand fluctuates as much as it does -- and “market as lottery,” which suggests the complete irrelevance of anything candidates do or don’t do.  Instead, he argues for understanding the market as a game, in which the moves a candidate chooses matter, but luck also plays a significant role.  

I agree that luck plays a significant role.  Even if you imagine that each individual position is filled entirely on “merit,” whatever that means, the existence of positions at any given time is a matter of luck.  Last year, we hired for math.  This year, we’re hiring for English.  The switch is not a reflection on anyone’s merit.

Different disciplines -- and different levels of the academic hierarchy -- have different sets of rules.  Right now, for example, we’re hiring two tenure-track positions in English, and two more in Computer Information Systems.  In English, it’s very much an employer’s market; in CIS, not so much.  Were I a betting man, I’d bet that we’d get an order of magnitude more applications for English than for CIS.

From this side of the table, I can attest that candidates have agency beyond the moment of deciding to apply.  I’ve seen candidates do very well at interviews, and I’ve seen frontrunners disqualify themselves by their interview performance.  So yes, there’s more agency than a “lottery” would imply.  Besides, the “lottery” metaphor assumes that search committees don’t see distinctions among candidates.  They most certainly do.  We bother to have search committees at all precisely because of the differences among candidates.

All of that said, from this side, the metaphor I would use is “casting.”  Given fewer positions than needs, each hire counts.  The “best” candidate for a given role depends, in part, on who is already there.  If a given program is full of outsize personalities and high drama, a more reserved and even-keeled candidate becomes more attractive.  If it’s stale and complacent, a sparkplug would be a better choice.  (As you’ve probably guessed, I’m not a huge fan of monocultures.  They breed pathogens.) Sometimes you need someone with range; sometimes you need a specialist.  I don’t know how to compare the “merit” of those in any absolute sense, but in a given context, one may be more useful than the other.

It’s an article of faith in the academic blogosphere that “fit” is a euphemism for all sorts of sinister motives.  And it can be.  But sometimes it’s a function of the mix of personalities already present.  From the candidate’s perspective, that’s invisible and useless, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  It just means that there’s a perspective beyond the candidate’s.

One of the tragedies of the lopsided market in many disciplines is that candidates trying to find the first full-time job often lack the luxury of giving “fit” any serious consideration.  That sometimes results in people accepting jobs out of desperation, then growing discontented quickly on the job as they realize that the institution has very different priorities than they do.  I lived that myself when I took a faculty job at DeVry.  It wasn’t what I’d had in mind when I went to grad school, but as the saying goes, any port in a storm.  It allowed me to make an adult living, albeit a modest one, plying my trade.  It wasn’t until several years later that I gained enough experience to decamp for a place with values closer to my own.  

In many cases, people don’t get that chance, and they wind up feeling stuck at places they might not have chosen if they had other options.  The issue might be that it’s a community college instead of a selective liberal arts college, or that it’s hundreds of miles from partner and/or family, or that the culture of the place just isn’t a match.  

The issue with “fit,” I think, isn’t so much that it’s fictitious or disingenuous; it’s that it’s imbalanced.  At the entry level, in most fields, employers can be far choosier than prospective employees can be.  Judgment is running largely in one direction.  If it were more reciprocal, I suspect some of the dysfunction that arises from poor matches would subside.  

Unlike Canavan’s “game” metaphor, the “casting” metaphor assumes that different searches will be looking for very different things.  They will.  An actor who’s well-suited to playing an ingenue may be a poor choice as an action hero.  That’s no reflection on “merit,” but it isn’t random, either.  That may not be terribly helpful to someone looking desperately for a port in a storm, but it does suggest a couple of takeaways.  For example, some self-awareness about one’s own priorities might help avoid disastrous matches.  If you are, well and truly, an urban creature, then applying for the job in the middle of nowhere is probably a bad idea.  If you see teaching as a distasteful chore to be tolerated only to the extent that it allows you to publish, then a community college is not the place for you.  And you can get turned down for a dream job due to factors you couldn’t have controlled even if you had known about them.  

Canavan is certainly right that the rhetoric of meritocracy, applied here, serves mostly to punish the victim.  Whether we go with the game metaphor, the casting metaphor, or something else, let’s not make the basic mistake of assuming that winners win because they’re winners, and losers lose because they’re losers.  In this market, winners often lose.

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