Monday, October 23, 2017


“I chose abuse, because it seemed safer”

We have an accreditation visit on Tuesday, so I was only able to visit the first day of the #RealCollege conference in Philadelphia.  It was well worth it, though.  The focus of the conference is helping colleges address student needs around food and housing insecurity, but the recurrent motif of the conference is the cold-water splash of reality.  I counted several.

I’ll just share a few of them here.  They’re worth mulling over at greater length, which I’ll do over the next few weeks.

Ruben Canedo, from the UC-Berkeley Global Food Initiative, set the stage by declaring forcefully “we’re not going to food-pantry our way out of this.”  He called for “transformative solutions,” such as making campus food services EBT-accessible, as well as moving from the language of charity to a “critical economic understanding.”

Pam Eddinger, the President of Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, followed with a dryly delivered “[m]y students don’t need financial literacy.  They need money.”

And we’re off.  

Canedo came back with a call for executive performance evaluations to include progress made addressing students’ basic material needs.  If a president gets dinged on failing to get material obstacles out of the way, then she’s likelier to make it happen.  

John King, former US Secretary of Education, keynoted, arguing that “the work is political.”  In other words, this wasn’t about charity or philanthropy; it was about power.  

This is not how discussions of student needs typically go.  They’re usually about financial aid policy and/or scholarships, sometimes with a dollop of food pantry on the side.  This was about a much more systemic, critical, and unapologetically political interpretation of how hunger comes to happen in the first place.  It was bracing, but soon became more so.

A pair of formerly homeless students, Mary Baxter and Justice Butler, offered first-person testimony about struggling to make it through college while couch-surfing.  

“Couch-surfing” sounds slang-ish, but in many ways, it comes closer to the truth than a term like “homeless.”  Dennis Culhane, from UPenn, pointed to data showing that the majority of people who fit the definition of “homeless” don’t recognize the term as applying to them.  A term like “couch-surfing” comes much closer to describing their lived reality as they recognize it.  

My Aspen colleague Russell Lowery-Hart reminded us to “love the students we have.”  By that he seemed to mean recognizing their complicated humanity, and taking the time to listen.  In a later sidebar, he gave an example: Amarillo College, where he works, has made deals with some local mechanics to provide discounts for emergency auto repairs for students for whom those repairs would make the difference between staying in class and dropping out.  That came from a recognition that local mass transit is limited, and for all practical purposes, many students simply have to drive.  I’ll admit making a mental note of that one.

The coldest splash of all, though, came from a student.  In a q-and-a, she mentioned that in her life, she often had to choose between staying in an abusive situation or being homeless.  She chose abuse, because it seemed safer.  In a later conversation, she mentioned that when couch-surfing, each new couch comes with a new set of strings attached.  That’s a lot to navigate while also trying to navigate difficult classes and the stuff of daily life.  It also raises tricky questions around choice and agency.  Yes, she “chose” to stay.  But when the alternative is homelessness, calling that a choice misses a lot.  

That’s the sort of line that cuts through the statistics.  “I chose abuse, because it seemed safer.”

Sabrina Sanders, from the CSU system office, fired off an instant classic: “Colleges discovered student hunger in the same sense that Columbus discovered America.”  It was there the whole time, and people had been dealing with it for years; the fact that many of us are only noticing now says more about us than about hunger.  

Sara Goldrick-Rab isn’t known for pulling punches, but this conference proudly let them fly.  (Apparently, she also doesn’t sleep; she got married on the Saturday before the conference of about 400 people from 29 states.  Color me impressed.)  As bracing as it was -- and it was -- it was also oddly hopeful.  There’s an energy that comes from recognizing difficult truths out loud.  Hegel claimed that freedom is the insight into necessity; until you recognize necessity, it just throws you around.  By that standard, the conference offered a tantalizing glimpse of freedom.  Well done.

Sunday, October 22, 2017


Student-Centered Transfer

Let’s say that you’re graduating a community college with an associate’s degree this Spring, and you want to go on for your bachelor’s in the Fall.  How will you know which colleges will give you the best deal on accepting credits in transfer?

Remarkably, as of now, there’s no requirement for colleges to disclose which credits they’ve accepted until after a student has enrolled.  And even if they do, there’s no standard disclosure form they have to provide.  Most of the time, there’s no meaningful way for a student to comparison shop.

Yes, there are articulation agreements -- what Tressie McMillan Cottom calls “pinky swears” -- and, in some states, laws about transfer between public institutions.  But some states don’t have those, they don’t apply to private institutions, and even when they do exist and apply, they tend to be...porous.  That’s because at most colleges and universities, decisions about the acceptance of transfer credit are decentralized, with the most important decisions devolved to the departments which have the greatest conflicts of interest.  Departments don’t like to “give away” credits because they see transfer credits as eroding enrollments in their own classes.  From a system perspective, that’s penny wise and pound foolish, but departments have little incentive to take a system perspective.  

Even worse, receiving institutions have so many moving parts that it’s not unusual for rules to change on the fly.  Every year, we get a report of some unfortunate student being told “no” on some credits that had always been told “yes” before; the inevitable followup calls usually result in some version of “oh, yeah, sorry, we forgot to tell you that we made that decision last year.”  

I was disappointed in the joint statement last week from AACRAO, ACE, and CHEA on transfer, because it didn’t even attempt to change any of this.  It argued for approaching non-traditional learning with an open mind, which is fine as far as it goes, but it defaulted to the existing decision tree.  In other words, it will have little to no effect, other than putting off a needed conversation for a while.  Which may or may not be the intent.

The alternative isn’t as easy as mandating acceptance of credits, of course; if that were true, the state laws that currently exist would suffice, at least in the public sector.  Besides, sometimes students change majors, so credits that would have applied to program A don’t apply to program B. I get that.

But I don’t see a principled argument against some sort of mandatory timeframe for reporting which credits would transfer how, and some sort of standard form on which to report it.  If I’m comparing three different possible receiving schools, I’d like to know -- before enrolling -- which credits will apply to the program, which will be consigned to “free elective” status, and which will simply be denied.  Let the schools compete on openness; put the burden of proof on departments to show why they shouldn’t accept a given course or set of courses.  Then let the student make an informed choice.  In some cases, the student may decide that the loss of some credits is worthwhile for other reasons; that’s fine.  But the student should know enough going in to make that call.

So, here’s my alternative.  If we’re unwilling to upset the existing decision trees -- which I consider a pretty major concession on my part, but never mind that -- there’s no reason we couldn’t move to standard timeframes and reporting formats to give students a fighting chance.  It’s one thing to build a conflict of interest into the system; it’s something else to hide it until the damage is done.  If we can’t move to a strong system approach, we should at least move to full and timely disclosure.  Open minds are well and good, but closed systems beat them every time.  Let’s rebuild the system as if students matter as much as departments.


Thursday, October 19, 2017



Sometimes the best ideas are the simple ones.

Regular readers won’t be shocked to see that I’m intrigued by Jerry Brown’s plan for a first year of community college in California.  The reports I’ve seen are a little sketchy, but it sounds like students would have to take at least 12 credits per semester, and partake in mandatory advising.  The goal, obviously, is to increase enrollments, with a long-term goal of generating a more educated citizenry and workforce.

I like the idea, naturally.  For states with somewhat more limited resources, though, I’m wondering if flipping the model on its head might be a useful alternative.  Buy a year, get one free.

The advantage of Brown’s plan is that it helps get students in the door.  For certificates that can be completed in a year or less, it could cover the entire cost of the credential; that’s no small thing.  But for associate’s degrees, it looks like an attrition generator.  It imposes a significant cost increase just as students are entering the home stretch.  (To be fair, California’s cc tuition is among the lowest in the country, so the hit is smaller there than it would be elsewhere.)  I foresee a massive spending project resulting in disappointing completion rates, which would become an easy target the next time the political winds shift.

But what if the second year -- credits 31-60, say -- were free, instead?

The upfront cost would be much less, because it wouldn’t cover students who walk away after a semester or two.  But the message to students would actually be positive.  Show us you’re serious, the program would say, and we’ll help you finish. The free second year is earned by the successful completion of the first.  It looks less like a freebie and more like a reward.  It answers the cultural desire for “skin in the game” by having students work for it.

It would help fewer people upfront, but it would lead to much higher completion rates.  Instead of an expensive program that would generate dropouts, this would be a cheaper program that would generate graduates.

I’m basing the idea on the statistic that shows that the highest student loan default rates are among the students with the lowest balances.  That is, among dropouts.  I’m firmly convinced that students who complete a degree are in better shape economically than students who don’t.  I’m not convinced that students who do a semester or two, and then drop out, are necessarily better off.  If they leave with a smattering of credits and some student loan debt, they might not be any better off economically than if they hadn’t started.  (Even with free tuition, many students need to borrow to cover the opportunity cost of paid work they gave up to attend classes.)  Given the expense of a program like Brown’s, I’m concerned about the value of the payoff.

Making the second year free, instead, both rewards tenacity and increases the chances that those who start, will finish.  

The politics of it may be more sustainable, too.  When the political winds shift, as they do, anything that smacks of a “handout” will be vulnerable.  But it’s harder to attack benefits that have been “earned.”  Requiring, say, successful completion of 30 credits with a GPA of at least 2.0 (or whatever) to get the benefit makes it seem earned.  It’s more consonant with the larger culture, and therefore -- and I’ll admit this is an educated guess -- less vulnerable politically.   

Fund it on a “last dollar” basis, give it a dedicated funding stream, and reject any sort of compensatory residency requirement, and I’m thinking BOGO could be a winner.  It would allow students and families to plan, and would reward desired behaviors.

Off the top of my head, I can think of two serious objections.  The first, mentioned earlier, is that it wouldn’t make sense for short-term certificate programs.  The second is that it may wind up benefitting those from middle class backgrounds more than those from low-income backgrounds, given rates of attrition in the first year.

The argument about certificates strikes me as true, but manageable.  Only apply BOGO to degrees.  In the case of stackable certificates, maybe they get one year overall.  The second objection is more serious, but unlike many other forms of aid, this one would be politically and culturally sustainable in a headwind.  That’s nothing to sneeze at.

New Jersey will elect a new governor next month.  I happily offer this idea to any candidate who would like to try it.  

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


Late Arrivals

What’s the best way to handle students who register at the last possible moment?

I’m asking because I’m up against a dilemma that I know others have faced.

John Roueche has argued for many, many years that if you’re serious about improving rates of retention and completion, the first thing you do is eliminate late registration.  Students who register after classes have started are inevitably the least likely to pass, for a host of reasons.  They haven’t had time to arrange their work and transportation schedules.  They get the last available sections, often involving weird timeslots.  Sometimes they get their books late.  And if their late registration was a function of procrastination, well, that habit isn’t cured by signing up for classes.

By forcing students to make up their minds before classes start, you get better results in two ways: you give students time to get ready, and you filter out the most scattered.  Over time, some of the more scattered ones learn that deadlines actually matter, and some of them step up.  (Of course, some never will.)

The obvious danger in eliminating late registration is taking a hit in enrollments.  If you’re already riding a secular trend downward, that can be a financial deal-breaker.  Dropping a few percent a year is painful enough; risking a possible double-digit drop on top of that all at once seems almost suicidal.  We get a large enough portion of our enrollments after the first day of class that the prospect of sacrificing it is daunting.  We have some “late-start” classes that last 11 weeks instead of 15, but the success rates in those classes are 15 to 20 points below the college average.  It isn’t a great model.

At my previous college, we made the change just as enrollments were peaking with the Great Recession.  That turned out to be an excellent move; the tailwind of demand was strong enough that the expected enrollment hit never really materialized.  As enrollments subsided, success rates climbed.  

Here, we don’t have that option.  We’ve had several consecutive years of enrollment decline, and the underlying demographic trend suggests that the trend will continue for some time.  This year we celebrated that the decline slowed a bit, but the direction didn’t change.   

Ethically, though, I have a hard time saying that we need to continue to set up a significant number of students for failure so we can hit our budget numbers.  That’s using students as means, rather than ends; it’s not why we’re here.  It’s what for-profit colleges do.  Even financially, if the attrition rate of the late arrivals is substantially higher, the monetary boost is less than first meets the eye.

One option I’ve heard is using 7.5 week courses, with brief “college readiness” workshops beforehand.  So a student who shows up for the first time on, say, September 8, can sign up for a preparation workshop that starts in late September, and a credit-bearing class that starts in late October.  It assumes the willingness to take that short workshop, but saying “come back in October” is better than saying “come back in January.”  It also sets the student up to succeed once she’s finally in a class, which, to me, is sort of the point.

The standard “late start” model doesn’t seem to be working, and simply telling them to come back in January is a non-starter.  So, wise and worldly readers, I turn to you.  Is there a better way?  Yes, in my perfect world, we’d have so much demand that we could stop registering in August and make sure that everything is set to go when classes start, but that’s not where we are.  Given declining demographics, is there a better way?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017



Do enough public speaking, and you come to recognize different genres of introductions.

Brief bios are standard fare, which is fine.  They give the audience a sense of context, which can be helpful, and they can also build confidence as you’re stepping up.  Sometimes you get reduced to being a representative of a given organization or side, which is dreary, but at least transparent.  Sometimes you’re on the receiving end of a mini-roast, which can go very well or very badly, depending on context and delivery.  Occasionally you get the passive-aggressive intro, which may or may not be intended to be funny.  (My favorite of those, from a gender studies class many years ago: “And now, to represent patriarchy...Matt?”  Uh, thanks…)  I’ve even seen the veiled attack: “Here to attempt to defend himself, please welcome…”

Cold intros are hard, particularly when the crowd is chatty.  People with booming voices have an advantage there.  Many years ago I once banged a shoe as a gavel, hoping people would catch the reference, but nearly nobody did.  Alas.  Now I keep my shoes on.  It’s probably for the best.  Plus, you really have to wear loafers to make that work.  Stopping to tie a shoelace destroys the moment.  

The “utterly indifferent” intro presents its own challenges.  A little over a year ago, I was introduced with nothing more than “Dr. Reed, go to it.”  It’s hard to follow that gracefully.  The stock line for that situation is “of all the introductions I’ve had, that’s the latest,” which offers a backhanded acknowledgement of what just happened, with the added virtue of being true.  But it’s a line you can use only so often.

Once in a while, an intro goes over the top and becomes awkward in its own way.  A few years ago, speaking at the Chairs Academy, I was introduced as “a national treasure.”  When I got home and shared that one with The Wife, she responded “Take out the trash, national treasure.”  That seemed about right.  

But this week, I had my favorite introduction ever.  At the end of a Board meeting, as the room let out, a colleague introduced me to her son as “(The Girl)’s Dad.”  She even said that’s my name now.

I’ll take it.  

Monday, October 16, 2017


Self-Awareness as a Soft Skill

Is it possible to teach self-awareness?  Especially to adults?

Admittedly, it’s a bear to assess.  But I’m looking for incremental improvements.  I don’t anticipate giving certificates in it.  “You’re officially self-aware!” seems hard to stand behind, and would probably have a quick expiration date anyway.

My training wasn’t in psychology, so I’m not up to speed on the scholarly literature.  But as a practical matter, this tough-to-assess trait is monumentally important.

It comes in different flavors, of course.  I’m not referring to it in any religious sense; that seems far beyond the scope of what a public employer should address, and I certainly don’t claim any superior wisdom there.  That, I will happily cede to others.

One form that I’d love to see more widespread involves emotional self-control.  That means knowing your own triggers and limits.  In my own case, I know that I get snippy when I’m overly tired, and that any alcohol at all at night -- even one drink -- will mess up my sleep.  So although I’m not much of a drinker anyway, I’ve learned to avoid it entirely when I know I’ll have to be around people the next day.  And I’ve learned that when I’m really exhausted, it’s best just to live with the Fear of Missing Out and go to bed.  When I try to force myself, it doesn’t end well.

This stuff matters because both administrative and teaching jobs involve working with people.  Knowing your own habits, limitations, and quirks can make it easier to be at your best in working with people.  

There’s a slightly different form of self-awareness that involves understanding your own role in a given situation.  We all know the person who has to be the corpse at every funeral.  The version of self-awareness I’m getting at here is something closer to role awareness.  In the context of a career, though, it’s some of both.  A few years ago The Girl asked me if I regretted not doing something -- I don’t even remember what -- when I was younger.  I thought about it, and replied that in order to do that, I would have had to be a different person.  

This is the stuff that career profiles sometimes help people figure out; you just have to read them correctly.  For example, introverts often make excellent leaders, but they have to lead in a different style than committed extroverts.  Some people have trouble recognizing that style, or it doesn’t leap to mind when they think of leadership, but it’s there.  I think of that as a variation on what I told my son when he pitched in Little League.  He didn’t have great velocity, but he was good at getting batters out because he could get them looking for one pitch when he’s throw another.  His coach didn’t like his lack of velocity.  I told him that the job of the pitcher is to get batters out; if you do that with a steady diet of change-ups and sinkers, good for you.  You’re doing your job.

The actor Judy Greer did an interview recently in which she admitted having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that her career had settled into “character actor” mode, when she would have preferred to play leads.  But the audience doesn’t seem to want her in leads; it wants her in supporting roles.  To her credit, she noticed, and adjusted.

I’ve seen some folks come to grief due to remarkable lapses in this kind of self-awareness, but I’m not really sure how we can prepare our students to avoid it.  So I have to ask.  Wise and worldly readers, is there a relatively graceful and effective way to help students see themselves more clearly?

Sunday, October 15, 2017


Ask the Administrator: Do Job Ads Actually Mean It?

A new correspondent writes:

Can you please give me your thoughts about length of job advertisements in higher education?  When a public college or university advertises a professional position (no supervisory responsibility) for only a week is it always almost a guarantee that they know who they want to hire for that position?  Does the hiring unit advertise the position to the public just to be in minimum compliance with state rules and regulations?

I’ll admit that when I saw “length of job advertisements,” my first thought was the word count.  As an industry, both our cv’s and our ads tend to be far longer than just about anyone else’s.  That’s good and bad, but pretty much given.

Length of time is another question.  The question seems to be about sussing out when a search is a mere fig leaf for a predetermined outcome.

I’m resisting the terms of the question a little bit, because they imply that there are two types of searches: the truly open and the truly fixed.  But in my experience, and from talking to folks at other places, there’s a third kind that’s as least as common as the first two: someone has an inside track, but could be beaten.  

That last category is frustrating because it’s so fuzzy.  Does the presence of an internal candidate indicate that the search is fixed?  Not necessarily; I’ve beaten one.  But maintaining objectivity when deciding between a known quantity and someone brand new is difficult, just because of the information asymmetry.  

In collective bargaining environments, lengths of time for postings are sometimes negotiated.  At a previous college, the rule was that any position had to be advertised internally for a set amount of time -- I’m thinking a week, but I could be wrong -- before it could be advertised externally.  The idea was to give incumbents a head start on their applications.  At my current college, after a RIF, most positions were reserved for internal candidates as a way to save people’s jobs.  It’s humane to incumbents, though brutal to people trying to break in.  After a while, though, any organization needs some new perspectives and skill sets.

As a general rule, I prefer to err on the side of openness.  It’s hard to increase the diversity of a college’s staff if it only hires locally, unless it’s in New York City or someplace similar.  Open searches also work to the advantage of really strong internal candidates, because their eventual victories don’t have a cloud over them.  If an incumbent employee wins in a fair fight, then nobody can say boo.  That helps.

All of that said, though, I’ve never found the secret decoder ring to sussing out which searches are effectively unwinnable.  A brief posting may be a clue, or it may be a function of batch advertising, collective bargaining agreements, or a parsimonious HR department.  And even searches that start out with someone in mind don’t always end up that way.  Sometimes the chosen one pulls out, or does a face-plant of such epic proportions that it can’t be ignored.  In baseball, they teach hitters to run hard to first even when it’s an easy ground ball that should be an easy out; once in a while, the shortstop flubs an easy play, and hustle can make the difference.  That’s kind of how I look at job searches.  Just because it looks like a routine grounder doesn’t mean you’re out.  You’re not out until you’re out.

One admin’s opinion, anyway.  Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways to suss out searches that aren’t?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Thursday, October 12, 2017


The Human Shield

I winced when reading Robert Sutton’s recent piece on bosses as human shields.  I’ve seen it done and done it myself, and based on both, he’s underestimating the costs of that strategy.  And he leaves out a key trait of the best shields.

The core idea is simple enough; managers who want creative employees to do their best work have to shield those employees from undue or distracting interference.  Sutton outlines a number of strategies by which various managers have done that, focusing on the benefit to the employees who are shielded.  And he’s right, as far as he goes; sometimes, that’s exactly the right strategy.  Observing academic freedom, for instance, allows faculty to experiment with their teaching and to follow lines of inquiry wherever they happen to lead, and thereby allows them to do their best work.  Tying them to an orthodoxy can force them to squeeze round ideas into square holes.  A good academic administrator knows that intuitively, and protects faculty from the kinds of interference that seem to be becoming more popular.

But the human shield strategy has a couple of really basic limits that Sutton didn’t address.

First, it assumes that there are relatively clear good guys and bad guys.  When that’s true, then the job of protecting the good guys is straightforward enough.  But what if the lines aren’t clear?  Sometimes managers have to save creative types from themselves; in that scenario, the good guy and the bad guy are the same person.  At least as often, the good guys are set against each other, and it’s not necessarily clear that one side is entirely right.  

Second, depending on circumstances, it can amount to enabling.  If, say, an experienced chief of staff keeps an addled president in office longer by buffering the more embarrassing failures, then the institution is stuck with an addled president for longer than it could be.  What looks like shielding in the short term can amount to procrastination in the long term.  Sometimes it’s better to rip off the band-aid.  Admittedly, though, this is sometimes clear only in retrospect.  As a former professor of mine once put it, the problem with “to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs” is that sometimes you just wind up with a bunch of broken eggs.

Most basically, though, the human shield strategy can exact a terrible toll on the person acting as the shield.  It can work for a little while, but if the pressures are unrelenting or increasing over time, then the adult in the room winds up taking a beating.  Other people notice, and the atmosphere can get negatively charged.  Eventually, either the shield breaks, or it leaves.  Leaving exposes what had been hidden, and breaking is not pretty.

Still, the undeniable kernel of truth in Sutton’s piece is that managing creative people requires patience, and the ability to play the long game.  That means not getting too worked up about the distraction of the day, even if it’s coming from within.  The self-control to refrain from shooting the messenger can be taxing, and some will interpret it as weakness, but it wears well over time.  Sometimes the shielding is internal, protecting others from your own emotional responses.  I think of that as etiquette.

More than once in my career, I’ve been present when a human shield moved on.  It can be a little disorienting.  The best human shields are transparent; they protect without hiding.  Because sooner or later, the shield will break, or leave, or fail.  When that happens, those who have enjoyed the protection may be in for a rough surprise.  Better they know what’s going on, and maybe even think about it a little, then construct a fool’s paradise that’s unknowingly dependent on something impermanent.  

Wednesday, October 11, 2017


“If you had $500,000 to spend…”

On Wednesday I had the chance to give a talk at the New Hampshire Community College System conference in Portsmouth.  During the subsequent q-and-a, someone in the audience asked a question that I’d love to throw open to my wise and worldly readers.

If you had a $500,000 slush fund as a middle manager at a community college that you could use as you saw fit to improve student success, how would you use it?

The dollar figure was specific, and I think that served a purpose.  It rules out really otherworldly interventions, like airlifting in hundreds of new faculty and staff, or building a new mass transit network for the county.  But it’s large enough that it could cover something meaningful.

On the spot, I came up with a shuttle.  Holyoke had one that ran from the downtown bus terminal to the campus, to enable students who used public transportation to get to campus.  In most suburban areas, buses exist, but they’re relatively spotty and infrequent.  As an example, my drive to work is typically 20-25 minutes.  I tried figuring it out using only the local public transit system.  It would take hours each way.  And that’s before the “last miles” from home to the closest bus stop.  For a student who’s working an hourly job or two with ever-shifting hours, that’s a tall order.  Solving the transportation issue would make a significant difference.

(In discussions of the ASAP program at CUNY, I think we tend to understate the impact of free Metrocards, which cover the subways and buses.  Most of us don’t have that option.)

Alternately, the money could also go a long way towards speeding the development, adoption, and adaptation of OER on campus.  The appeal of that one is that it puts both the college and the students in a stronger position after the money has gone away.  Making sure that every student can have the book on the first day of class would free up faculty to teach from day one; the academic in me really likes that.  And students who don’t have to pay for books are a little less strapped, and therefore a little less in thrall to their shifting-hours jobs.  Aristotle believed that laborers couldn’t do philosophy, because they were too busy with labor; Machiavelli believed that he had to retreat to his study to commune with the ancients, which he could do only if someone else fed him; Virginia Woolf noted that serious writing requires a room of one’s own with a lock on it.  We have to stop separating material needs from academic needs.  Thought requires time, and the best thought benefits from decent-sized chunks of low-stress time.  If OER and bus passes help students get that time, I say, bring ‘em on.

Those aren’t the only options, of course.  We could offer more course releases to develop various experiments in class; we could send cohorts to conferences to find out what other places are doing that would make sense to try here; we could offer tuition discounts for students in, say, the last 15 credits of a degree.  (“Buy three semesters, get one free!”)  To be fair, that last one would probably cost a lot more, but I remain convinced that some sort of incentive pricing is worth a shot at some point.  It may fall as flat as performance-based funding does for institutions, or it may make a meaningful difference.  The only way to find out is to try it.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you do?  Assuming the money is too limited to do anything world-changing, but substantial enough to do something bigger than a brown-bag lunch, what would make the most difference?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


Can a College Have a Growth Mindset?

Carol Dweck’s distinction between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset has become a popular way to look at teaching.  I’m wondering if it might also help in looking at colleges as institutions.

The short version of the distinction is that the ‘fixed’ mindset assumes that intelligence or ability is unchanging and given; either you have it or you don’t.  A “growth” mindset assumes that ability is like a muscle that gets stronger with use.  The distinction matters because students who believe in the fixed mindset will take struggle as a sign that they’ll never learn something, but believers in the growth mindset will recognize that struggle is a part of learning, just as resistance makes muscles stronger.  The former will lead to early surrender, but the latter is likelier to lead to persistence and eventual success.

At the level of teaching and learning, I’m a fan of Dweck’s idea.  I grind my teeth whenever I hear someone say “I’m not a math person” in the same sense in which they might say “I’m not a Lutheran.”  Yes, math comes more easily for some people than others, but I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a “math person,” at least in the sense the term is often used.  

I’m struck, though, that many educators who embrace a growth mindset in their own classes adopt a fixed mindset when looking at their institution.   People who can roll with the punches in one setting become brittle Platonists in another.  

Without naming any names, I’ll just say that I’ve had multiple discussions about this new proposal or that one in which my interlocutor, always someone smart and experienced, replies with a peremptory “oh, that would never work.”  (Or its close cousin, “that would never work here.”)  It has happened often enough that I’m starting to react as if they claimed not to be a math person.

The issue isn’t about disagreement, either; I’ve been wrong before, and confronted on it before.  I don’t have the same visceral reaction to “I don’t think so because…” or “but wouldn’t this other thing work even better?”  Those are par for the course.  It’s the shoot-from-the-lip dismissal that rankles.  

Institutionally, a growth mindset would involve an ethic of experimentation, and some level of tolerance for failure.  It would work on an iterative model, in which a department might try three things for a while, keep the one that worked, junk the other two, and replace the other two with two more to see how they work.  At any given moment, something would be failing somewhere, but over time, the wins would accrue.  

Admittedly, that can be a tall order.  It involves trusting that she who owns a failed experiment won’t be thrown under the bus.  The institution would need enough resources to be able to afford some glitches.  And at a really basic level, it would involve the honesty to admit when something hasn’t worked.  None of those is universal.

But over time, I can’t help but think that the benefits to institutions would be similar to the benefits for students.  If initial struggle is taken as an inevitable step in the process, rather than confirmation of foreordained failure, then we might actually get to the good part of the learning curve.  Over time, students would benefit from more effective colleges, and faculty would benefit both from a more effective college and from the real sense of excitement that starts to spread when something is making a material difference.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a college with a growth mindset?  If you have, what made it work?  If it once had a growth mindset and later lost it, what drove it away?

Monday, October 09, 2017


Employability and Promotability

Monday’s IHE had a couple of articles dealing with questions of employability of graduates, and the constant curricular tension between specific technical skills and -- to use a term I don’t like -- “soft” skills.  Many of the comments revolved around conflicting beliefs about what employers want.

I think we’re asking the question too broadly.  Instead, it’s probably helpful to distinguish between the skills that get someone in the door and the skills that get them promoted.

Part of the confusion comes from asking different people the same question.  If you ask CEO’s what they want, you tend to get a lot of references to soft skills.  That makes sense; they’re looking at their best people, and at what sets them apart from the rest.  But actual hiring managers on the ground hire to solve more immediate problems.  That tends to mean more focus on training that will solve the problem that’s right in front of them.  If the employee also happens to have the soft skills, that’s great, and it bodes well for longevity, but it’s not what they’re looking for in the moment.  

That’s why liberal arts graduates often take longer to get the first “real” job, but tend to climb faster than their technical counterparts.  They can’t get in the door as easily, but once they do, they’re well equipped to move up.  Their communication skills and tolerance for ambiguity serve them well.  The trick is getting that first job.

My brother lived that story.  He was a history and religion major in college, so the first couple of years afterwards were a bumpy ride, economically.  But it was the 90’s, and employers were desperate enough for techies that some of them even recruited liberal arts grads for training.  He got enough training to get his foot in the door at a decent-sized company.  Soon, his communication and diplomacy skills drew attention, and he started moving up.  He just needed that one break.  Since then, he has been able to ride the various booms and busts of the industry due mostly to being able to work with people at a level uncommon in his field.

The problem with the soft skills -- seriously, I need a better term than that -- is that they take a while to show.  They aren’t as obvious as, say, a portfolio of artwork or a technical certification.  Interviews are notoriously unreliable venues for judging communication skills, and they’re even worse for judging patience, diplomacy, and the tolerance for ambiguity.  Those show over time.  To make matters worse, at the entry level, they tend to fall under “nice to have,” rather than “necessary.”  They become necessary, but not right away.

Internships can help with that, since they give students an extended period to show who they are.  It’s one thing to bluff your way through a half-hour interview, but something else entirely to do it for months on end.  The intern who manages the difficult boss well, and who figures out issues before they become obvious, is the intern who gets the job offer.  This is why I’m a fan of scholarships to help students with financial need take otherwise unpaid internships.  They need the same chance to show the subtler skills that their wealthier colleagues get.

Of course, simply getting a degree in English or history is no guarantee of working well with others.  (Make obligatory “department meeting” joke here…)  But having a well-informed sense of the ways that people don’t behave, or that things don’t happen, can help you make choices that are likely to work.  And the liberal arts are terrific for that.

In the meantime, honestly, is there a better term that soft skills?  Because refining them at a high level is really hard...

Sunday, October 08, 2017


Rainbow Rowell Gets the “Ringo!” Treatment

The Girl is 13, and quite vocal in her insistence that Rainbow Rowell is our Greatest Living Author.  TG believes that “Carry On” is a work of utter genius, even better than anything J.K. Rowling ever wrote, and she loves Rowling.  Her friend (hereafter HF) believes the same.  She and HF share cultural obsessions with weirdly precise timing; at any given moment, they’re both all about Rowell, or Hamilton, or Sherlock.  

I mention this because Comic Con came to New York City this past weekend, and Rainbow Rowell gave a talk as part of it.

You would think the Beatles had reunited to do a show of Hamilton covers from the way that TG reacted to the news.  (Ringo would be a good Hercules Mulligan, come to think of it.) It quickly became clear that this was Not To Be Missed, which meant that I was drafted into chauffeur duty.

We didn’t do Comic Con proper, which had sold out some time ago.  Rowell’s event was at an affiliated venue, with separate tickets.  That was good, in that in kept costs down and allowed us actually to get tickets.  But just walking there from Penn Station, we got quite the flavor of Comic Con.

People-watching is great sport in Manhattan on an ordinary day, but Comic Con takes it up a few notches.  There were the expected variations on Spider Man and Batman, but most of the characters were more obscure than that.  One inspired young men dressed as Crash Bandicoot and darted through traffic on 8th avenue fully in character.  A slightly older man came dressed as Bob, from Bob’s Burgers, complete with mustache and spatula.  Anime-inspired costumes were everywhere; I won’t even pretend to know what the characters were.  Body positivity seemed to be the theme this year, with lycra or spandex ending somewhat before one might have expected it to, but it added to the charm.  Everyone could be anything, and nobody was allowed to snark about it.  As inhuman as many of the characters were, the feel of it all was deeply humane.

TG and HF were patient at lunch, gamely killing time and commenting on particularly vivid costumes.  But when we got to the venue and started standing in line, they were palpably vibrating with excitement.  The only other time I’ve seen TG that worked up over something was when we saw Hamilton.  A woman right behind us in line struck up a conversation with TG and HF, initially asking whether they were in high school or college.  They beamed when they responded “eighth grade.”  

The event itself was about forty minutes.  A journalist from Buzzfeed whose name I missed asked questions, and Rowell answered them.  Rowell even presented several drafts of the cover art for “Carry On,” offering commentary on each.  She was disarmingly funny, particularly in explaining how she wanted the two lead male characters to look.  When her illustrator got them right, she asked him “have you been eavesdropping on my heart?”  TG raised her hand repeatedly during q-and-a, but never got a chance to ask.  She didn’t seem to mind.  Someone asked about “Eleanor and Park” becoming a movie; Rowell responded that she’s protective of those characters because “Hollywood doesn’t do overweight women and Asian men well.”  The “meet her and get a book signed” tickets had sold out, but the girls still were handed signed copies before we left.  TG and HF were excited, immediately pawing through the pages to find the signature, and then rereading favorite passages and squealing.

As a card-carrying academic and a writer myself, I have to admit taking some pride in seeing TG and HF get as worked up about an author as most people would about a rock star.  They were able to nerd out with kindred spirits, and to imbibe a bit of the inclusive spirit of Comic Con, at an age at which I don’t remember even having the option.  

In my perfect world, most kids would be voracious readers, and fangirling over favorite writers would be entirely normal.  We’d all be body-positive, and there’d be no contradiction between civility and letting freak flags fly.  We’d even have decent mass transit and unquestioning acceptance of all sorts of genders and combinations.

I caught a glimpse of that world on Saturday.  I’ve never read Rowell, but I enjoyed the day almost as much as the girls did.  Thank you, Rainbow Rowell, TG, HF, and the various folks in costume.  I needed that.

Thursday, October 05, 2017


Friday Fragments

A new study shows that children in households that receive food stamps do worse on tests in school towards the end of the month.  

That sentence doesn’t contain a curse word, but it’s probably the most obscene thing I’ve ever written.


When the outcomes assessment movement started to hit in earnest, I had it drilled into my head that we were never to disaggregate the data by instructor.  That was to prevent two possible evils: using it to evaluate faculty, and spreading the fear among faculty that it was being used to evaluate them.  (Those are not the same thing.)  

So I was surprised to read about Pierce College, in Washington, generating data dashboards about the pass rates for every professor, disaggregated by demographics, and shared with the professors directly.  It seemed like the sort of thing that would cause the faculty to go nuclear.

Apparently, it hasn’t.  In a way, this gives me hope.

Professors with uncommonly low pass rates often attribute them to high standards.  But if a disaggregated rate shows that some groups are thriving and others being decimated, the conversation could shift from indignation to improvement.  

Grade distributions are not outcomes assessment, but a similar logic has applied in the past.  If the culture is shifting to the point that we can start to have empirically-informed discussions with faculty whose results are strongly skewed, that seems like a good thing.  

In grad school, when I was a t.a., I actually analyzed the grades I had given in a few sections I had taught.  It turned out that female students had done a full grade point better than male students overall.  They didn’t necessarily write better papers, but they got them in on time.   The male students’ promptness was, uh, somewhat uneven.  All those penalties (and missed assignments) added up.  

I adjusted by giving the entire semester’s schedule of assignments on the first day of class, and sticking to it.  I explained to the students that they could use it to anticipate crunch times and work around them.  It helped a little; the gap shrunk, though it never disappeared.

In a collective bargaining environment, this sort of thing would have to be approached thoughtfully.  But it’s too good an idea not to discuss.


As a parent of a blisteringly smart high school junior, honors programs and honors colleges at public colleges and universities are making more sense to me than they ever have.

Sometimes they get attacked as elitist, but honestly, I’d rather see universities value academic drive and intellect than a good jump shot.  And many of the private schools have simply become cost-prohibitive.

Brookdale recently had its first transfer fair specifically for its own honors students; representatives from four-year schools in the area came to choose from among our very best, and were happy to do so.  The energy in the room was palpable, because the recruiters knew that these students are the best of the best.  I actually wished one recruiter “happy hunting,” eliciting a smile and a knowing nod.  This is prime territory.

Prime territory should be affordable.  

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