Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Peak PBF?

Apparently, Massachusetts has dropped performance-based funding for community colleges.  I’m hopeful that this will be the start of a trend.

Performance-based funding sounds good intuitively.  If you don’t think about it very hard, it sounds like it would reward good performance and punish bad.  But it’s a terrible fit for community colleges.

At a really basic level, community colleges were never built to compete with each other.  They were built to serve local geographic areas. If a community college outside of Oakland scores well, will students from Los Angeles take notice and move there?  If not, why pit them against each other?

To the extent that it reflects the demographics of the students who attend a given college, it will tend to reward the affluent and punish the poor.  Over time, it pushes some colleges into death spirals. Given that most areas are served only by one or two community colleges, institutional death spirals don’t benefit anybody.  It’s not like a local restaurant drawing customers from another local restaurant, driving the latter out of business. It’s more like the one restaurant in town going out of business.  

In a more perfect world, public colleges and universities would cooperate with each other.  But when funding is competitive, cooperation becomes a harder sell. That’s already somewhat true with students; making it true of operating subsidies as well makes matters worse.

I’ve never seen the logic of PBF applied to police or fire departments.  “Crime went up in East Wherever. Clearly, the EWPD is doing a bad job. Let’s cut its funding until crime drops again!”  “Arson outbreak in East Wherever? Cut funding to EWFD until it stops.” The stupidity is obvious enough there. But somehow, people who would see the flaws in those will argue, straight-faced, that a community college serving lots of low-income students would do a better job if only it had a lot less money.

Even the argument from ‘incentive’ misses the point.  A few weeks ago, I attended a “visioning” conference hosted by the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.  The point was to look at trends ten years out. One speaker from the MDRC gave a talk extolling the success of the ASAP program at CUNY.  In q-and-a, I mentioned that while ASAP is impressive, it’s also expensive; we simply don’t have the resources to try something like that at scale.  I asked if the research had found inexpensive ways to improve results significantly at scale. He couldn’t name any.

Aside from cloaking punitive austerity in the Calvinist moralism of the marketplace, advocates of PBF tend to take a cartoonishly dark view of the people who manage colleges.  They don’t take seriously the idea that most of us are motivated, in significant ways, by the mission. That’s why we willingly take far lower salaries than our counterparts in the four-year world.  Hell, adjunct faculty work for vanishingly small compensation, in part because teaching means something to them. Cutting their pay even more wouldn’t be an incentive to higher performance; it would be a kick in the teeth.  

For that matter, I rarely see the logic of PBF applied to, say, tax cuts.  Logic suggests that if it works in one direction, it would work in the other.  But that would involve separating the idea from the ideology that spawned it, without which it wouldn’t survive.

Kudos to Massachusetts for letting a bad idea die.  Here’s hoping states flirting with the idea take notice, and states caught up in it start to ask some questions.  We don’t need performance-based funding; we need funding in order to perform.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Well, Yeah...

I was surprised to see the headline “Why Teaching Engineering Costs More than Teaching English,” but not because the content was surprising.  I was surprised that it was news.

The recent piece summarizes a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research.  It makes the point that classes in some fields are more expensive to run than others, with the more STEM or vocational classes generally running more expensive (with the notable exception of math).  

Faithful readers may remember this paragraph from a post this summer entitled “Things That Seem Obvious:”

“Hard” vocational programs are more expensive to run than “soft” academic ones.  The least expensive classes to run are the ones that can run well with thirty students per section, and without any specialized equipment.  That tends to describe the Intro to Psychs of the world. Hands-on classes in vocational areas require more equipment, more people to tend the equipment, and more instructors per student.  In practice, we engage in cross-subsidy, with the profits generated by, say, History offsetting some of the losses generated by, say, Nursing. This matters because many outsiders assume that if we could just drop the “ivory tower” stuff and focus entirely on job readiness, the budget would balance.  In fact, we’d go bankrupt. If you want to remake community colleges as entirely vocational, be prepared to pony up more money. A lot more.

That was in response to a question on Twitter about things that are obvious to people in a field, but not obvious to those outside it.  

Context matters.  The NBER paper refers to different salary levels by field, which really doesn’t apply here.  I’m in a collective bargaining setting in which the computer science faculty and the philosophy faculty get the same starting salaries.  (They vary with seniority and rank, but those are also independent of discipline.) So it isn’t a matter of engineers coming in at six figures while humanists come in at half that.  That’s not it. It’s subtler than that.

In addition to the factors I listed last summer -- class size, equipment, staff to maintain the equipment -- I’d add relative availability of adjuncts.  Generally, it’s easier to find adjuncts in history or sociology than in computer science or engineering, particularly during the day. That matters when we have to allocate new full-time positions.  The enrollment crunch has made new hires scarce; we need to deploy them where they make the most difference. All else being equal, that means allocating them to the fields in which substitutes are hardest to find.

Over time, that leads to higher labor costs in the specialized fields relative to the gen eds, even when starting salaries are the same.  A department in which 75% of sections are taught by full-time faculty will cost more than one in which only 40% are. Compound that with smaller classes in hands-on areas, and the cost gap gets even worse.

This may all seem wonky, but it has implications externally.  Angry calls for colleges to tie themselves more closely to the job market are often based on the false premise that doing so would lower costs.  In fact, it would increase them significantly. Sages on stages are cost-effective; guides on sides in well-equipped labs cost a lot more. There’s a valid argument to be had about how much we should increase higher ed funding, and to what end.  But to have that debate, we have to know some basics.

Lectures are cheap; labs are expensive.  I don’t consider that news, exactly, but if putting it in headlines helps people connect the dots, I’m all for it.  Now, about that funding...

Monday, December 03, 2018


On Monday, Laura Runge posed a series of questions to me on Twitter that deserve a longer response than a tweet or two.  First she asked “who do you see as your primary/secondary audience for writing on admin? When (why?) do you feel moved to write on admin?”  She followed with “As a scholar, my purpose in publishing is to enhance knowledge of my field, promote my career, and raise visibility and stature of my home university.  I wonder if writing on admin might work at cross-purposes for the latter two?”

Or, put differently, why don’t my administrative colleagues elsewhere do something similar?  After all these years, where is everybody?

Honestly, my first audience for writing has always been myself.  Part of that is because it took a long time to develop a substantial readership, but mostly it’s because I use the process of writing as a way to work out what I’m thinking.  The old model of “figure out what you want to say and say it” only applies to easy cases; frequently, I figure out what I want to say as I’m saying it. On my better days, I go back and edit to bring some “I meant to do that” coherence to it, but really, part of the point of writing is to see where ideas go.  Sometimes they go where I thought they would, but sometimes they wander off. When an idea leads somewhere I didn’t expect, I’ve learned something.

Beyond my own clarification, though, I started with an audience of academics very much in mind.  In the early years, it was largely about outlining the various dilemmas of management in public higher ed.  I had seen some of the academic blogosphere before I started, and I remember being annoyed at certain widely held articles of faith that struck me as simply false.  Many of the early writers were adjuncts who were frustrated at not getting full-time offers. Their legitimate frustration often led to speculations about administrative behavior that didn’t describe anything I had seen or done.  Characterizations of deans as Snidely Whiplash-style cartoon villains didn’t strike me as advancing understanding of how colleges work. At worst, they could become self-fulfilling prophecies, scaring away good people and leaving only the most venal to step up.  The cliches about “crossing over to the dark side” speak to a cultural taboo that does more damage than many of us want to admit. They also cut off inquiry before it gets to the real structural, political, cultural, and economic causes behind austerity.

When I started, my kids were very young.  My wife and I both believe that both parents should be involved in substantial ways -- for “substantial” read “time-consuming” -- so I found myself trying to balance a more-than-full-time job with conscientious parenthood.  I noticed that most of the writing on “work/life balance” was by women, for women. There were obvious historical reasons for that, but I believed -- and still believe -- that the struggles around work/life balance won’t get easier unless and until men own them, too.  That’s where the pseudonym “Dean Dad” came from. It was a variation on “Professor Mom,” which everybody seemed to understand. It combined the two roles in which I spent most of my waking hours. My kids are in high school now, so the issues are different, but family life continues to be a topic because work/life balance continues to be a challenge.  

The career effects of writing like this could be described as mixed.  On the positive side, it has allowed me to participate in conversations I otherwise couldn’t.  I’ve met some amazing people. It has helped me understand issues more deeply, and therefore to be better at my job.  On occasion, one of my virtual messages in bottles lands on an unexpected shore and makes a difference there. For example, I was honored when Marion Technical College adopted and adapted my idea for a sophomore-year scholarship to encourage degree completion.  I’ve also had the chance to speak at various conferences around the country, which absolutely would not have happened without the blog. I always enjoy those.

On the negative side, though, some people prefer to hire folks who don’t have paper trails.  I’ll just leave that there. I take pride in writerly ethics -- you won’t see anything in my writing along the lines of “you won’t believe how drunk Ottmar was yesterday” -- and try never to do harm.  But there are people in the world who manage simultaneously to talk up “transparency” while getting nervous that someone who writes has left a record to critique. Ironically enough, in the course of addressing work/life balance, I seem to have simultaneously installed my own glass ceiling.  Yes, that can be frustrating. That may explain why the niche remains pretty unpopulated.

Still, the point of the enterprise wasn’t really careerism.  (If it were, I wouldn’t have used a pseudonym for all those years!)  It was to help people understand a reality that they frequently get wrong, in the cockeyed hopes of helping to make it better.  It’s a lot of work, and I don’t know if it has helped or not. But the educator in me has to believe that putting truth out there in digestible form, for extended periods, has to do some good, somewhere.  That’s what classroom teachers do. This is my version of teaching, even if I’m figuring it out as I go along.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Writing Papers on Phones

Is a smartphone a necessity for college students today?

On Twitter over the weekend, arguing against Sara Goldrick-Rab, somebody posted that “Maybe today’s college students should NOT be buying $1200 phones.  That would be a start.” The predictable kerfuffle ensued.

It’s a variation on “I walked to school uphill.  Both ways.” It’s a “kids today…” argument deployed to slough off any sense of responsibility for the challenges that today’s students face.

The students at my college, an open-admissions commuter school, have certain things that I didn’t have.  Cars, for one. Smartphones, for another. I didn’t need a car, since I lived on campus, attended full-time, and had a work-study job that was an easy walk from the dorm.  And smartphones hadn’t been invented yet. I wrote papers in the campus computer center. That was usually okay, except at the end of the semester when everyone else did, too.  

Here, now, many students have cars, and from what I see, nearly all have smartphones.  (For the record, they don’t come anywhere close to $1200. The ones I see are usually a couple of years old, and often with cracked screens that look like spiderwebs.)  Does that make today’s students a bunch of entitled loafers?

No.  Not even close.

The expectations they’re held to are much more demanding than the ones I was.  At a basic level, the complete lack of dorms means that students need either to live very close to one of the few bus routes, or to have access to a car.  My ability to go without a car wasn’t premised on my hardiness; it was premised on a dorm. A cheap used car costs a lot less than even a single year in a dorm room.  And even if they live near a bus line, the part-time job(s) they hold effectively require cars. That’s before considering other family responsibilities many of them have, that I didn’t.

Smartphones have, in fact, become necessities.  We have some computer labs in which students can write papers, if they choose, and they’re popular at crunch times.  But most students work significant hours for pay, and don’t have the option of devoting extended blocs of time to a computer lab. (If they all did, we wouldn’t have the capacity to handle it.) They need to be able to compose on the fly.  In some cases, they also need to be able to do internet research on the fly, which was unthinkable in my student days. (Back then, how portable a phone was depended on how long its cord was.) You can’t access the LMS from a pad of paper; you need something with internet access.  When assignments are posted online, and required to be submitted online, it’s churlish at best to regard internet access as extravagant. And of course, emergency alerts go out by text message.

I’ve seen students use smartphones to take pictures of PowerPoint slides in class, an option that would have helped me tremendously.  Some professors actually use them as high-tech clickers to take polls in class -- if I were teaching poli sci again, I’d be all over that.  Some course readings are only available online. In fact, some professors -- and I hope to see more -- have gone entirely to Open Educational Resources; the money saved from one or two free online textbooks would more than offset a low-cost phone.  

I have old enough eyes that I wince at the idea that many students write papers on their phones, but they do.  I’d much rather see us develop some sort of chromebook or laptop rental program, so students would have access to a full-size keyboard and the ability to jump between screens.  I didn’t have that option as an undergrad, but I didn’t need it; students today do.

The first computer I owned cost about $1200 in 1990 money, equating to about $2300 now.  And that’s without the cost of the printer, which tractor-fed paper in glorious dot-matrix.  Combine a $200 phone and a $200 chromebook, and you’re coming in much cheaper than I did. This is not extravagance.  It’s adaptation to a new environment.

If we want students to focus more on their studies -- which I absolutely do -- shaming them for having smartphones isn’t the way to go.  Instead, reducing the non-academic demands on them is likelier to work. That means making political decisions about entry-level wages, tuition levels, operating support for colleges, and mass transit, among other things.  Locally, it means adopting OER at scale and taking food insecurity seriously. Over time, it means recovering the understanding that middle classes don’t occur in nature, and that they’re created through deliberate public policy choices.  That would help.

If the sight of a student typing a paper on his phone upsets you, get him a laptop.  If you can’t manage that, at least stop bashing him for doing what he can in a setting that’s much tougher than it used to be.  I remember, because I was there.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Friday Fragments

I spent Wednesday and Thursday of this week at the Middle States conference in DC.  In the course of two days, I had several “you are THIS old” moments.

  • Needing to use the flashlight on my phone to read a menu
  • Being greeted by the daughter of someone I used to work with
  • Sharing memories of Gary Hart’s presidential campaigns

It sneaks up on you.  


The conference itself was more useful than I remember previous years’ being.  It’s the only major higher ed conference I attend regularly that isn’t devoted specifically to community colleges, so there aren’t as many familiar faces at this one.  And some issues sound different across sectors. (“That’s worth spending some endowment money.” “&*(%$&#^”)

Still, as with the dog that didn’t bark, I was struck by some of the things I didn’t hear.  For all of the talk of student success, for instance, I didn’t hear a single mention from the stage of achievement gaps.  Admittedly, I only attended one panel at a time, but still. There was plenty of talk of graduation rates, but none at all of achievement gaps or student basic needs.  That wouldn’t have been true at a gathering of community college folk.

I’m convinced that panels at conferences like these should either include examples of failure, or at the very least, include a designated critic.  That’s not nearly as radical as it may sound. At APSA conferences, for instance, it was common practice to include a “discussant” on each panel. That person’s job was to get the discussion going, often by bringing up a polite but relevant challenge.  Practitioner conferences generally don’t do that, but they should; the discussions could become both more nuanced and more useful. There’s an art to doing the discussant role well, but it can add needed context to the discussion. Without one, you’re just left to hope that people in the audience will ask the right questions.  Someone whose job it is to enable a deeper dive could add real value.


No matter how much pressure is applied, I will not admit how much time it took me to master the MetroCard machine at Union Station.  I’ll just say that it was enough that I don’t want to admit it, and that I owe some flustered commuters behind me an apology. In my defense, you’d think “buy new card” would be an option.  I’m just sayin’.


Friday will be the celebration of life for Rich Sorrell.  It’s one of the best reasons I’ve ever seen to cut a conference short...

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

TB's Law

On the train to DC for the Middle States conference, I caught up on a few podcasts.  (My inner ear can’t tell the difference between a car and a train, so reading was out of the question.)  One of them, Planet Money, discussed a few “laws” of corporate behavior that started out as joking asides, but which came to be recognized over time as accidental truths.  Parkinson’s law, for instance, states that work expands to fill available time. That was apparently a wry aside in a paper, meant as a throwaway line, but it turned out to be largely true.  The Peter Principle -- everybody rises to their level of incompetence -- was much the same.

Both were born in sarcasm.  Sarcasm allowed the floating of forbidden truths that could be tested and accepted only after they were put forward in a non-threatening way.  

Most of us have had the experience a few times of hearing a sarcastic or wry throwaway line and being stopped cold by the abrupt recognition of truth.  Most of us have also had the experience of hearing misanthropy excused as “just telling it like it is,” and coming away feeling vaguely soiled.

It got me thinking about the boundary between the two.

As a general rule, I’ve found that people who like to preface statements with “I know this isn’t politically correct but…” are usually about to say something ignorant.  It’s not a perfect indicator, but it’s much better than random. (Sometimes it’s worse than that. Experience has taught me that the appropriate response to “I’m not racist but…” is “Please stop talking now.”)  Courtesy can feel restrictive to people who don’t consider others worthy of it; if that’s your starting point, then entitled rudeness can feel liberatory. I won’t name any public figures here, but several leap to mind.

But sometimes a sarcastic aside can be helpfully clarifying.  

A few years ago, The Boy was on a terrible Little League team with a coach who didn’t let him play much.  After the nth consecutive loss, in which TB barely got to play at all, he seemed unusually deflated on the ride home.  I asked him what was wrong. He responded that “it’s hard to just sit there and watch other people suck.”

I’ll call that TB’s Law.  It was actually my primary motivation for going into administration all those years ago.  I looked around at who was already there, and at who might join them if I didn’t, and I just couldn’t abide the thought of watching them suck.  TB’s Law explains a lot. This year’s bumper crop of new Congressional candidates was largely motivated by TB’s Law. TB’s Law can even override imposter syndrome; when I started spending time around community college presidents, I started thinking things like “hell, if they can do it…”  That’s TB’s Law at work.

Portability is probably part of the key to a good accidental sarcastic law.  If the content is too situationally specific, it won’t resonate. It has to touch on some larger truth, and ideally, it should be pithy.  Dorothy Parker was a master of those, as was Oscar Wilde. Twitter is the natural medium for sarcastic asides; both Parker and Wilde would have owned the medium.  

Wise and worldly readers, what accidental nuggets of truth have you heard muttered in sarcasm lately?

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Pro-Tip for Colleagues

This one is specifically for my counterparts at semester-based colleges everywhere.  It’s based on hard-won experiential knowledge, and I share it in the spirit of prevention.

Be gentle with faculty between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It’s a brutal time of year.

They’re in “grading jail,” a dispiritingly accurate term for the deluge of grading and grade-related emergencies that comes at the end of the semester.  Worse, in the fall, grading jail coincides with the runup to the holidays. Stress plus stress equals, well, more stress.

This is the time of year when even the most patient folks can get a little harried.  Students are stressed and pushing for ninth-inning rallies; faculty have more grading than at any other time of year; and the holidays are, well, the holidays.  

A little kindness can go a long way, especially now.  

Monday, November 26, 2018

Syllabi and Depositions

Yes, a syllabus is a contract.  John Warner posted a thoughtful piece yesterday in which he tried to escape the language of contract, preferring to think of his syllabus as “some mix of plan, promise, and manifesto.”  He pointed out that students don’t really get to negotiate syllabi, and that some classes are required, so the language of voluntary agreement seems strained. Worse, legalisms can get in the way of recognizing the particularity of students.

To which the admin in me says, that’s all well and good, but it’s also a contract.

If you’ve ever had to give a deposition, you’ll know what I mean.  

If a professor’s grading practices or classroom practices are challenged by outside agencies -- whether private attorneys or state divisions of civil rights enforcement -- what matters is whether the professor stuck to the policies denoted in the syllabus.  Significant deviations from the syllabus, especially bespoke ones for particular students, raise signal flares for “arbitrariness.” At that point, the burden of proof shifts to the professor to show that a given decision or practice wasn’t discriminatory. Proving a negative is a tough job.

In reading Warner’s piece -- which I consider well-intended, humane, and done with the obvious and unobjectionable goal of doing right by students -- I was struck that he assumed that any dispute would be contained within the classroom.  That’s possible, but far from certain. Colleges have appeal procedures for students, and once an aggrieved student has exhausted the internal processes, she can go external.

When that happens, the rules change dramatically.

When the venue in which the dispute takes place moves from the classroom to some external setting, nuance gets lost.  Suddenly what matters isn’t what you “know,” but what you can prove to someone who wasn’t there at the time, and who may never have been in your position.  

As with writing, audience awareness matters.  A tweak that may seem obvious or unobjectionable to an experienced teacher may strike a civilian as high-handed or devastating.  Let’s say that you notice that students struggle with exams, but do pretty well on group projects, so you “call an audible” and substitute a group project for an exam mid-semester.  A student who did well on an exam but who struggles with group work cries foul, and cites the syllabus. If that dispute makes its way to me, in the absence of something compelling, I’d have to side with the student.  That’s because a syllabus is a contract, and you’ve breached it.

In my experience, campus administrators have generally (and properly) given broad deference to faculty in matters like these.  But that’s because we have some understanding of how classes actually work. Move the venue outside the academy, and you’re suddenly being judged by people who have never taught a class in their lives.  Some of them may even harbor longstanding grudges against past professors or teachers who treated them dismissively. The farther you get from the syllabus, the more you leave yourself open to that.

As we careen towards the end of the semester, I’ll reissue my periodic warning to well-meaning faculty everywhere: extra credit is a minefield.  If you must do it -- a major “if” -- then you need to offer it to everybody, and in writing. Offer it to some and not others, and you’re laying yourself wide open to claims of bias.  Offer it verbally but not in writing, and you’re defenseless against disputes about what you said. If you must do it, put it in writing and offer it to everyone. Better yet, don’t do it at all.  Let the grade reflect how the students performed in the class.

In grade disputes and similar sorts of hearings, I’ve never had a problem defending a professor’s policy that she included in the syllabus and followed in practice.  If she gives three exams, one paper, and a class participation grade, then that’s what she gives. That’s not open to dispute. But if she goes rogue and starts improvising, it’s much harder to defend her, even if she meant well.  

It’s dreary to focus on legalisms, I’ll admit, but we can’t just wish them away.  I think of a syllabus as a combination of offense and defense. Offense is the inspirational part; defense is the “what if I get sued?” part.  You need both. Yes, it’s frustrating that people who have no idea how classes work can sit in judgment, but they can. Playing a little defense upfront can prevent much greater harm later.  By all means, make a plan, a promise, and a manifesto. But give a moment’s thought to that awkward moment when a lawyer with an agenda asks pointed questions about battlefield decisions you made with the best of intentions.  Those moments are even less fun than writing syllabi.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Rich Sorrell

My Dad taught at SUNY Brockport, a small public liberal arts college in Western New York. As a kid, I saw some of the faculty from time to time, whether sneaking downstairs at parties my parents hosted or accompanying Dad to work (or to Wegmans).  I was much too young to have any idea of what they were like as scholars or teachers, but I got a pretty decent view of how some of them were as people.

My favorites were always the ones with sly smiles and wry humor.  They were the ones who made you feel smarter just by being around them.  They didn’t try to impress, because they didn’t have to; they knew what they knew, and they mostly enjoyed watching people and cracking gentle, left-handed jokes.  You could learn a lot about someone by the way they treated a child.

Rich Sorrell, a longtime history professor at Brookdale, was in that mold.  I liked him from the first time I met him, because he had that same blend of ironic and courtly that I recognized from childhood.  He died this weekend, teaching right up until his final week.

Rich had a story for absolutely every occasion.  American history was his field, but he construed the topic broadly.  He would throw out lines about Woodrow Wilson in the same conversation as references to the Doors and people who worked at Brookdale twenty years ago.  But every reference was with a smile, and usually as part of a story designed to make a current situation seem less scary.

A couple of years ago, right before final exams, a group of lost-looking students stopped me in the hallway to ask where his office was.  I led them there, knocked, and said something like “some of your charges are looking for you.” Rich immediately smiled, extended his arms, welcomed them in, and started doing that courtly thing he did so well.  I could see the students exhale with relief. I left feeling like that was the best thing I would accomplish that day, which, in fact, it probably was.

Rich helped with the Foundation for years, too.  He had hit the top faculty rank decades earlier, but he kept showing up out of a sense that it was the right thing to do.  To use an archaic term, he was a gentleman.

He was a veteran of Western New York too; we WNY expats tend to find each other.  Every so often we’d laugh at what New Jerseyans call “winter,” which just isn’t the same.  If it isn’t snowing sideways, it isn’t worth getting worried about.

His wife, Sally, worked at Brookdale for years, retiring only a few years ago.  Each year I’d worry that he’d follow her, and each year I’d be relieved that he didn’t.  

He had the gift of perspective that the best historians have.  We didn’t always agree, but when we didn’t, he had a wonderful way of placing the issue of the day in some broader context to allow us both to laugh at it.  A gentle laugh is a fine thing.

His family, students, and colleagues will miss him terribly.  He was a warm and gentle scholar who cared about his students right up to the end.  If he were to have the last word, he’d embed it in a funny story, and then laugh that warm laugh that told you it would be okay.  

It will, eventually.  Until then, I’ll just imagine him telling a story, the corners of his eyes crinkling with anticipation as he approaches the punchline.  

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Tap on the Shoulder, Redux

All of a sudden, she’s singing.

Last month, The Girl joined a birthday party trip into New York City to see Dear Evan Hansen.  The party consisted of about a dozen ninth graders, so the parents rented a second minivan to drive them all in.  

The Dad told me a week or so later that at one point en route, TG had her headphones on and was singing along to something on her phone, and that he was struck by her voice.  He described it as beautiful, and asked how long she had been singing. I had no idea what to say; other than a few half-hearted group renditions of “Happy Birthday,” I don’t think I’ve ever heard her sing.  I expressed some surprise, and thanked him, and the conversation moved on. I didn’t really think about it for a couple of weeks.

A few days ago, I mentioned it in passing to The Wife, who insisted that I tell TG, so I did.  Now, all of a sudden, she’s singing while she practices piano, and she’s joining the choir at school.  She’s even practicing her instruments more.

All she needed was the tap on the shoulder.

I’ve written before about my experience with the tap on the shoulder, when a friend at college told me from out of the blue that I should be on the radio.  As a professor, I had students who only needed the tap on the shoulder as a sort of permission to excel; once they had that, they were off and running. As an administrator, I occasionally make a point of tapping someone on the shoulder to let them know that they could do administrative work well, if they chose to.  Once in a while, someone even takes me up on it; I’m happy to report that I haven’t been wrong yet.

I don’t know if there’s a scholarly literature on it, but I think part of the power of the tap on the shoulder is that it interrupts the internal monologue.  It does a number on imposter syndrome, at least briefly, and sometimes it highlights abilities that the recipient hasn’t valued fully. It offers unprompted validation, which is always nice, but it sometimes also offers a perspective too new to reflexively discount.  

Some of the messages that many students have received through their K-12 years, and even in other college settings, have been negative.  They induce self-doubt, which can be self-fulfilling. The tap on the shoulder can be a powerful antidote, when it’s genuine.

The ones that seemingly come from out of the blue are sometimes the most effective.  I wasn’t looking for compliments for TG’s singing voice; it wouldn’t have occurred to me, and that wasn’t what the conversation was about.  When I told TG about it, she seemed surprised, but immediately moved to acting on it. It seemed to act as permission for something she may have actually wanted to try, but just hadn’t taken the leap.  All it took was a few unsolicited kind words from an adult who knows her a little bit.

As we head into the home stretch of the semester, please just keep in mind the power of the tap on the shoulder.  A few kind words to a student who doesn’t seem to realize just how good she actually is can go a long way.

Program note: I’ll be taking a brief Thanksgiving break, returning on Monday, November 26.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


Sunday, November 18, 2018

Good Intentions, but…

Michael Bloomberg has rightly attracted attention for donating $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University for financial aid for low- and middle-income students, and for ensuring that JHU’s admissions remain “need-blind” for the foreseeable future.  It’s a generous gift, obviously, and will almost certainly do far more good than the similar figure New York City is donating to Amazon so Jeff Bezos won’t have to pay for his own helipad. But in reading Bloomberg’s piece about the donation this weekend, something didn’t sit right.

I’ll start with the most obvious point.  Bloomberg writes:

“When colleges review applications, all but a few consider a student’s ability to pay.”

Um, no.  That’s simply false.  Most don’t. In fact, most colleges aren’t selective in any meaningful sense of the word.  You’d think that an editor at the newspaper of record would have caught that, but it tends to share the same blind spot.  To give an easy example, community colleges are both open-admissions and need-blind, and have been for decades. Even mild selectivity applies only to a fraction of four-year colleges, let alone community colleges.

As Bloomberg’s piece goes on, though, he moves from “colleges” to “top colleges” and “elite colleges,” without acknowledging the shift.  Then he shifts back, as in this howler:

“We need to persuade more colleges to increase their financial aid and accept more low- and middle-income students.”  

Again, even a quick look at community and state colleges would put the lie to this.  These schools don’t need to be persuaded to accept more low-income students; they already do, at high levels.  Yes, more aid would help, but that isn’t a matter of persuading the colleges, most of which are making heroic efforts to stretch straitened budgets as far as they’ll go.  The limiting factors there are political and structural, and far beyond what a little persuasion or donation will fix.

Bloomberg’s interchangeable use of “colleges” and “elite colleges” is revealing.  Consistent with the “lifeboating” literature -- also called “undermatching” -- he’s essentially assuming that only elite colleges matter.  The rest are just, well, there. The task for philanthropists and policy types, in this vision of the universe, is to pluck a few more lucky and worthy exceptions from the great unwashed.  What happens to the rest is left unaddressed, by design.

None of this is to downplay the merits of JHU, or of helping students who couldn’t otherwise afford it to attend.  That’s all good. The point is that most students will never attend “elite” places, by definition. If we want to strike a blow for equity and fairness, diversifying the 50 or so most selective places should be a footnote.  The real task would be to bring the colleges that serve the masses -- non-elite publics -- to a level worthy of their students.

Bloomberg shouldn’t have to look far to find examples.  CUNY, for instance, has an enviable track record of doing right by first-generation and low-income students.  As former mayor of New York City, he should know that. A couple of billion dollars could go a long way at CUNY.  Or at SUNY, or at any community college system in the country. He could endow second-year scholarships, for instance, and/or fund the growth of “development”  (fundraising) offices among community colleges. He could, if he chose, endow professional development funds for every community college in the country, so faculty could keep in touch with innovations in their fields.  And that’s just off the top of my head.

Again, there are worse ways to spend that kind of money (cough Amazon cough).  Bloomberg didn’t have to make a generous gift, but he did, and that’s commendable.  But as with most philanthropy, it isn’t going where it would do the most good. It’s actually reinforcing a kind of fatalism about the colleges that serve most Americans who go to college.  Most colleges aren’t selective, and never will be; it’s time to stop punishing them for that.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Attendance Policies

Should a college have a single college-wide attendance policy?  

I’m not referring to financial aid reporting, which is effectively mandatory.  The Feds want to know if someone who has received Federal aid never showed up for class, or stopped showing up, but kept getting aid.  That’s real, but it’s not what I’m referring to here.

I’m referring to something like  “if you miss more than x class meetings (or x percent of class meetings), you will be deducted a grade.”

The idea behind tying attendance to grades is twofold.  On one level, it’s for students’ own good. Students who show up tend to do better than students who don’t.  Making it official means that we don’t have to ask students to take it on faith, which is good, because some won’t. The other is as a sort of workforce training.  If I routinely failed to show up for work, I’d get fired. That’s true for most jobs. Getting students into the habit of sucking it up and coming in even when they don’t really feel like it can benefit them in the workplace.

Of course, that assumes a lot about the students.  Sometimes the actual paid jobs they already work wreak havoc on class attendance, whether because of “flexible” (moving) shifts or because of sheer exhaustion.  

At my college, and at my previous ones, we’ve allowed professors and/or departments to set their own attendance policies.  That approach allows for some customization based on the class, whether in terms of schedule (once-a-week vs. twice-a-week, say), content (lab or studio vs. “lecture”), or pedagogical philosophy.  It makes sense to me that attendance at Nursing clinical sites may require tighter rules than attendance in a classroom course.

Online classes make the whole question of attendance somewhat more ambiguous.  Again, for federal purposes we have a definition, but for grading purposes, it’s somewhat murkier.  

I keep running across a few objections to bespoke attendance policies, though, so I’m hoping that my wise and worldly readers can help me figure out how heavily to weigh them.

From students, I’ll sometimes get complaints that some professors are pickier than others.  That’s especially true when different sections of the same class have different policies. “How come my friend missed the same number of days and didn’t get penalized?”  I can answer that, but I can see their point.

From faculty, I’ll sometimes hear that some sort of institutional rule -- ideally enforced at the institutional level, say, by a dean -- would relieve them of the burden of being the bad guy.  They wouldn’t have to judge one student’s excuse against another’s.

From folks on the outside, I sometimes hear that a lack of a college policy suggests that the college doesn’t take attendance seriously.  I try to convey the idea that faculty setting their own rules doesn’t imply a lack of rules, but some folks who are accustomed to a more command-and-control work environment have trouble accepting that.  It can be difficult to outline a philosophical disagreement with someone who isn’t aware that he’s holding a position.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Should colleges set attendance policies across the board, or should those decisions be made at the faculty or department level?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018


Tressie McMillan Cottom fired off a tweet on Wednesday about avoiding giving “incompletes” after the bureaucratic nightmare she had to deal with.

I don’t know how her university handles them, but as a general rule, she’s right.  Whenever possible, avoid incompletes.

Sandy Shugart, the president of Valencia Community College, has called incompletes “pregnant F’s.”  It’s sort of backwards -- the incomplete is pregnant with the F, not the other way around -- but the meaning is clear.  In most places, at least at the undergraduate level, incompletes that aren’t completed default to F’s after a set amount of time.  That usually happens, but students often don’t notice, and wait until much later to come back and try to finish.

Anything that delays grades creates issues.  

The most obvious has to do with moving on to the next semester.  That doesn’t just refer to prerequisites; it also covers “satisfactory academic progress,” academic probation, minimum GPA requirements for certain programs, and, of course, financial aid.  Institutionally, reopening grades for a prior year involves changing the FTE’s that were reported to various governing authorities, which is not something to do lightly.

Any major extension brings with it some academic integrity issues, too.  Is it reasonable to judge a paper a student had six more months to complete on the same scale against students who only had a few weeks?  In some cases, the passage of time may even make a given assignment difficult to reconstruct. That can happen with assignments that take current events as their subject matter.

A professor who is more permissive with incompletes than her colleagues creates an equity issue among students.  A department that’s permissive with incompletes may wind up inadvertently teaching its students some lessons it shouldn’t have.  

The real nightmare comes when the professor isn’t around anymore when the student returns.  Depending on the professor, and the reason she isn’t around anymore, there may or may not be much of a basis for the rest of the department to assign a grade at all.  More than once, in more than one place, I’ve been in the position of working with students and departments to reconstruct grades and grading systems because the original professor has died, fallen ill, or otherwise moved on.  At Holyoke, after a particularly florid case, we even came up with a form that professors who submitted incompletes had to file with the department detailing what had been done, what still needed to be done, and the point values for each.  It was a bit of a pain, but it provided some assurance of integrity in the grading if something happened. That may seem morbid, but go through that a few times and the usefulness becomes clear.

Finally, of course, there’s the workload for the professor.  No good deed goes unpunished; she who grants leniency also assigns herself extra, out-of-cycle grading.  

I wouldn’t advocate banning incompletes altogether; they make sense in extreme cases, like a student who is in a nasty car accident at the end of a semester.  And at the graduate level, I’ve seen them make sense. But for undergrads, absent some sort of extraordinary documented emergency, I advocate hard skepticism. I’ve seen enough I’s turn into F’s over the years that outside of something extraordinary that you can specify and document, it’s better just to rip off the band-aid and give the F.  If the student steps up, you can always do a grade change.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a better way to handle incompletes?