Friday, September 22, 2017


Note to Readers

I hate to do it, but the comment spam has gotten out of control.  I've had to shut down comments on this site.

Comments can be posted to the site at

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Whatever Happened to French? And German? And Arabic?

This one isn’t my field of expertise, so I’m hoping folks who know it at a deeper level than I do will chime in.

At the three community colleges at which I’ve worked, I’ve seen the same trend in language departments.  Spanish dominates the field, and American Sign Language is picking up strength.  Every other language is niche, declining, or dead.

It wasn't always so.  There was a time in my memory when French was vital.  At many colleges, undergraduate German was, too.  Now, we can’t run enough sections to justify a hire. (If you follow Rebecca Schuman’s darkly comic series about job postings in German, it’ll become clear quickly that this isn’t just a quirk of a few places.).  At various points, Japanese, Arabic, Portuguese, Russian, Italian, and even Latin have had flashes of interest, but none has lasted.  The jury is still out on Chinese; we haven’t been able to get steady instructors to really find out one way or the other.

From an administrative standpoint, the challenge with languages is twofold.  First, they’re sequential, so unless you have lots of well-populated sections at the 101 level, it’s unlikely you’ll even be able to run 200 level courses.  Educationally, I suspect that the payoff from language learning increases as you go along, so we’re running lots of the high-effort, low-payoff stuff, and very little of the more interesting stuff.  Second, languages aren’t interchangeable, so if student demand shifts from German to Spanish, I can’t just shift someone’s load from German to Spanish.  Some pairings are more common than others -- Spanish and French are commonly found together -- but if, say, Japanese comes in low, I can’t reasonably ask the professor to pick up a section of Arabic to make up for it.  That’s not how languages work.

I’m glad to see Spanish doing well, and ASL has been a pleasant surprise.  But what happened to the rest of the world?  Where did the interest go?

Some of it may be a function of high schools.  The Boy took French in junior high and early high school, but when he wanted to take the IB program, they only offered Spanish and Latin.  So he dropped French, and started taking Latin.  If high schools phase out teaching French, or German, or whatever, it’s not shocking that the pipeline for college classes starts to dry up.  Though at this level, most language enrollment is at the 101 level; we don’t get a lot of students coming in at the 200 level.  

There’s probably a demographic component, too; the Latinx population is increasing, and some of the kids from those families come in with colloquial Spanglish and a desire to learn the real thing.  Other kids notice the population shift and decide that Spanish is the most useful option.  (Growing up near Canada, as I did, French seemed more practical.)  But that doesn’t really explain the relative dearth of students for other languages.  It just seems odd to me that a college of 13,000 students can’t support a single section of second-year French.

The trend pre-dates the Trump administration, so whatever you want to say about Trump, I don’t think he’s the critical variable.  It’s something else.  

So, I’ll throw it open to wise and worldly readers who understand this at a much deeper level than I do.  What’s happening with all of the other languages?  

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


Standards and Standardization

Should every section of an online class be the same?

I was fascinated to read about the HLC raising concerns about online courses at Scottsdale Community College because those same concerns are endemic to the industry.  From the IHE account -- which I’ll admit is a secondary source -- it sounds like the accreditors are concerned about inconsistency of delivery and quality across sections.  It calls for greater standardization.  The college responded by pointing to faculty contracts and academic freedom as constraints on how tightly they could control online classes.

In philosophy, these are called “incommensurate premises.”  If the two sides don’t agree on the ground rules, they won’t be able to come to agreement.  Or if they do, it will be fragile, because it will be based on a misunderstanding.

As an administrator, I had to sympathize.  It’s frustrating to be dinged for a lack of standardization when the local rules don’t let you standardize.  It’s a bit of a double bind.

To be fair, some of Scottsdale’s issues sound self-inflicted.  For instance, it’s apparently running multiple platforms at the same time.  There’s nothing unusual about a college picking a single LMS and requiring everyone to use it.  To my mind, that’s the equivalent of picking the classroom where a class will be held.  That’s a core, and necessary, administrative function.  Running multiple LMSs at the same time forces students to jump from platform to platform depending on who’s teaching, and it places a much greater burden on the helpdesk.  This one seems like an easy fix, at least conceptually.

Mandating training is more of a gray area.  I don’t see any reasonable “academic freedom” objection to requiring a basic “how-to” session for using a platform, any more than I see an academic freedom objection to observing fire drills or snow days.  Certain basic logistical functions require that everyone rows in the same direction.  But beyond the basics, the issue gets murkier.

I don’t expect every onsite section of a class to be interchangeable.  They should be similar enough in goals and standards that a student who passes Intro to Psych is ready for the next Psych class, regardless of who taught Intro.  But I assume some variation from course to course based on the style and pedagogical choices of the professor.  Student learning outcomes are goals that every section of a course should meet; how they get met is the domain of the professor, within general guidelines of ethical practice.  I don’t know why that same principle wouldn’t apply online.

We don’t typically require pedagogical training for onsite sections.  That doesn’t mean that anything goes; we still do class observations and solicit student feedback.  We also have peer-to-peer classified observations that don’t go into the personnel file, but those are entirely voluntary.  The mandatory observations are a sort of quality control, done to ensure that everything is at least at a professional level.  The voluntary observations are for the sake of improvement, of going from “already good” to “even better.”  As such, they can only work when the observed are actually willing to hear it.  And they’re premised on the assumption that some variation from one professor to the next is normal, natural, and fine.

Particularly for online classes, the gray area in which many of us struggle is in something like response time.  How long is it reasonable for faculty to allow inquiries to go unanswered?  How often should they check in?  

Honestly, my greatest frustration with online teaching isn’t too much idiosyncrasy; it’s too little.  Many publishers provide “e-packs” that are essentially canned courses, and over my career, I’ve seen too many faculty use them as a sort of autopilot.*  That meets the desire for standardization, but at the expense of real engagement, and students can tell.  I’d rather have professors actually engage, even if that means that Smith’s section has a different feel than Jones’.  Their classroom classes do, and we’ve survived that.

Maybe it’s the political scientist in me, but the best solution I’ve seen is a sort of federalism.  Yes, some things need to be standardized, such as the LMS.  Others may be set at the department level.  The rest should be open to customization.  The boundaries can get a little fuzzy, but the general shape seems clear.  Faculty aren’t robots, and I don’t want them to be.  Academic freedom applies to online classes, too.  

*I’ve seen the movie “Airplane” enough times that I can’t use that word without smiling...  

Monday, September 18, 2017


Full “Dad” Mode

Middle age brings with it certain superpowers.  Invisibility is the most obvious, but I also have the power to embarrass my teenage children beyond measure, often without even trying.

I’m not above enjoying that.  What follows is a barely-edited transcript of last night’s dinner conversation.  For context, The Girl is 13.

The Wife: You can attend the (school event), right?

Me: Yup.

TW: Will you sit with The Girl, or will you be separate?

Me: I’ll try to sit with her, but if I can’t, I’ll still find a way to embarrass her.


Me: It’s easy!  I’ll just stand up in back and yell “I’m TG’s Dad!  Woooooo!!!!”

TG: nooo...

Me: Or I could start dancing.  You’ve seen me do the “cabbage patch” (demonstrates)

TW: Oh, do the overbite!

Me: Absolutely.  (adds the overbite)

TG: daaaaaaaaaaad…

Me: Or I could do the lawn sprinkler (demonstrates)

TG: There won’t be any music playing!

Me: I can wear headphones.  Or say I’m dancing to the sounds in my head.

TG: (sighs)

Me: They’ll be all “Mr. Reed, please sit down.  I’ll say, “That’s Dr. Reed to you!” and then start vogueing.

TG: (shoots death stare)

Me: No?

TG: No.


Me: (exaggeratedly droopy) oooookayyyyyy…

She wins this round.  But next time...

Sunday, September 17, 2017


Reverse Calvinism: Thoughts on “The &*()& Survival Guide,” by Robert Sutton

Several years ago, Robert Sutton made waves when he published the book “The No Asshole Rule.”  The book detailed the damage that even high-performing jerks (I’ll use the term ‘jerks’ from this point forward) can do, whether to coworkers, customers, or a culture as a whole.  Now Sutton has published a survival guide so those of us who have to work with jerks can survive with our dignity and sanity intact.

It’s a quick read, and Sutton supplies enough (and vivid enough) anecdotes to make the cases painfully clear.  Most of us won’t have any trouble coming up with examples of our own.  

Sutton makes a few core assumptions.  First, he points out that jerkish behavior is contagious.  The longer it goes unchecked, the likelier it is to spread, whether out of habituation, self-defense, or perverse incentives.  Second, it has characteristic patterns.  Third, it’s counterproductive, at least in the long term.  Finally, in some cases it has roots much deeper than standard workplace interventions can hope to handle.  

That fourth one strikes me as the most interesting by far.  Sutton draws a distinction between an occasional or situational jerk, and what calls a “certified” (or chronic) one.  The occasional or situational jerk could be anybody, and chances are, we’ve all been that at some point.  We’re likely to be at less than our best when we’re overtired, overextended, overstressed, or otherwise off-balance.  When someone who’s usually pretty congenial and composed is uncharacteristically snippy, it’s often a good idea to extend some benefit of the doubt.  Depending on the relationship, sometimes just taking them aside and letting them know how they’re coming off may be enough to set things right.

The certified jerk, though, is awful most of the time.  This is the person who’s always demeaning, undermining, or using others, often just for the sheer sport of it.  In these cases, Sutton’s many strategies tend to boil down to variations on escape.  Escape personally, by leaving the situation; escape psychologically, by investing less in it or otherwise using ‘framing’ to create distance; or, in rare cases, escape organizationally by gathering allies and staging a revolt.  Sometimes, the jerk simply has to be cast out.

It’s a sort of reverse Calvinism.  Rather than constantly scrutinizing ourselves (and others) for signs that we aren’t truly good, Sutton advises constantly scrutinizing others (and ourselves) for signs that we’re certifiably awful.  He suggests treating “certified jerk” status as a sort of residual diagnosis -- to be used only when all other options have been exhausted.  But once they have, it’s time to unleash drastic measures.

As with many how-to books, much of the content boils down to “it depends on context.”  That’s true, of course, but not terribly helpful.  Is it a good idea to take the high road?  Yes, unless it comes off as weakness or enabling.  It is a good idea to hit back?  No, unless it is.  Does humor help?  Yes, except when it doesn’t.  Sutton’s honesty is admirable, but it tends to reduce the book’s usefulness.  (My favorite tip, which I learned from a former boss: when a student or parent starts berating you with “I pay your salary!,” respond with “Oh, that’s you?  I’ve been meaning to talk with you about that.”  It confuses them long enough to interrupt their momentum.)

Most of the book addresses corporate settings, where some level of turnover is relatively normal.  It never addresses higher education, which is a real oversight.  Sutton notes that “employees in Tepper’s study who were trapped -- who didn’t leave abusive bosses because it was too hard to find other work -- were less satisfied with their jobs and more depressed; they also suffered elevated emotional exhaustion and conflict between work and family.” (38)  For many faculty who have full-time jobs but aren’t national superstars, the relative lack of opportunities for lateral moves can effectively force unhappy people to stay.  Given Sutton’s insights about bad behavior being contagious, it’s unsurprising that academia provides a haven for certain kinds of jerkish behavior.  If you’re a full professor of, say, English at a community college with twenty years’ experience there, and you’re unhappy, the odds of you finding a comparable job at comparable pay elsewhere are slim.  The industry doesn’t work that way.  You’d have to move into administration, take a pay cut, or find another line of work altogether.  Instead, you’re likely to stick around, albeit unhappily, and gradually either check out or act out.  If enough others do the same, over time, the culture can go in some unhappy directions.  It may be situational jerkiness, but the situation can go on for a long time.

That’s the book I’d like to read.  When “exit” isn’t a viable option, either voluntarily or involuntarily, what’s the best long-term strategy?  What if you can’t cast out the sinner?  “It depends” is true, but unhelpful.  Some contexts are common enough to be worth specifying.

Thursday, September 14, 2017


Friday Fragments

Someone on Twitter asked this week about the usefulness of Twitter among students in a large lecture class.

I was intrigued.  We don’t have large lecture classes; we top out at 35, and even that is rare.  There’s nothing here comparable to the 300 student intro lectures at Rutgers.  (That strikes me as a selling point for community colleges, but that’s another post.)  All of which is to say, I’ve never seen it tried.

My guess is that some sort of group texting app would work better for classrooms, since they’re specific to a given group.  Twitter is public, which means that comments made in one context will often be read, and reacted to, in another.  Yes, Twitter has “lists,” so students could winnow down their feeds to a given class if they want, but what they put out there isn’t limited to the list.

That said, though, I’m guessing, and curious.  Most students have the ability to access Twitter at this point, and I’m a fan of stuff that’s free.  So I’ll ask my wise and worldly readers.  Have you seen Twitter used well in a large lecture classroom?


According to The Girl, who is wise in the way that 13 year olds are, the term “goth” has been replaced by the term “emo.”

Which immediately triggered thoughts of Emo the Muppet.  Picture Elmo, but paler, and wearing lots of black.

When I did the Elmo voice and said “Emo feels misunderstood,” TG laughed as hard as I’ve seen her laugh in a long, long time.  It did my heart good.

Naturally, I then had to google “muppet emo,” which led me to discover a Muppet emo band called...wait for it...Fragile Rock.  

As long as there are people out there who can create, and share, something as transcendently silly as Fragile Rock, I have hope for our culture.


This piece on comedians and the ages at which their stage personae make sense struck me as especially relevant in the wake of Jerry Lewis’ death.  

I was of the generation that knew Lewis, if at all, as a shiny-haired host of a Labor Day telethon.  When I got older, I saw some of his earlier stuff, and was shocked at the contrast.  In his younger days, he had a manic style that reminded this Gen X’er of an Ace Ventura-era Jim Carrey.  His humor wasn’t mine, either in his early days or his later ones, but the contrast between 50’s Jerry and even 70’s Jerry was genuinely jarring.  His humor only worked when he was a younger man; as an older man, it came off as pitiful.  (The same could be said of Jim Carrey, come to think of it.)  His only worthwhile acting work in my lifetime came when Martin Scorsese cast him basically to play himself, because Scorsese thought, correctly, that he’d make a fascinating grotesque.

Lewis and Miles Davis were born the same year -- 1926 -- and both took drug-addled five-year sabbaticals from show business in the late 70’s, both of which concluded with some of the worst work either one ever produced.  (The recent Don Cheadle movie about Davis focused on that period, which I considered a daring choice.)  Davis died much younger than Lewis, and nobody would have accused Davis of aging gracefully; by the end of his life, he kind of looked like a lizard.  But his persona made sense as he got older.  Even as his musical style evolved, and his fashion style, the “coolly distant” vibe still worked.  To this day, he’s the only musician I’ve seen (other than a conductor) turn his back to the audience in concert for longer than a spin.  I understood the reason, to some degree, but it was still a little surprising.

It’s hard to imagine a young Lewis trying to do the Martin-and-Lewis shtick with a young Davis.  I suspect it would have ended violently.  Davis was a pretty good boxer in his time, and wasn’t known for suffering fools gladly.  And neither man was a shrinking violet.

I’ve long been convinced that some personalities, and personas, make the most sense at particular ages.  Bad boys may be charismatic when young, but they don’t age well.  Nerds often improve with age, since they can’t remain quite as single-minded as life experiences accumulate.  Bodies have “set weights” that they want to be at given times; I can’t help but think that personalities have “set ages” at which they make the most sense.  Some of what looks like social awkwardness may be someone whose personality is out of sync.

I don’t know if there’s science on that, but I suspect some wise and worldly readers do...

Wednesday, September 13, 2017


The Not-Yet File

This week I had a chance to open up the not-yet file and pull something out.  You’ve probably done it, too.

The not-yet file is my shorthand for the mental spot that I put ideas that I’m pretty sure will come in handy at some point, but for which the stars haven’t aligned yet.  Like any good file, it has multiple subfiles:

Then, there are the trickier cases:

I’m sure there are more.  Wise and worldly readers, what does your not-yet file look like?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


Design Thinking and Shared Governance

What does “fail fast” look like when folks have tenure?

The Chronicle had a piece a few days ago on “design thinking” as a way to innovate.  It’s based on the design thinking lab at Stanford, where they teach that you should have a “bias toward action,” “begin with the end in mind,” and “fail fast” so you can “iterate” more quickly.

In other words, try stuff, see what works, then try again.

The key element, though they don’t usually put it this way, is speed.  It’s about getting from idea to execution with minimal friction in between.  

Although its champions are not, as a group, humble, design thinking is based in a certain epistemological humility.  It assumes that there are issues we can’t anticipate prior to attempting things, so the way to learn is to jump in with both feet.  Let the results speak, and don’t be afraid to pivot as the results dictate.  If we assume that the world is a hugely complex system that defeats our attempts to know it -- a safe assumption, in my view -- then there’s an argument for giving up the fantasy of certainty and instead taking acceptable risks.  It’s a sort of anti-perfectionism.  

It makes sense that design thinking would find a home at Stanford.  In part, that’s because design thinking is popular in Silicon Valley, where speed beats perfectionism almost every time.  It fits the ethos of a small startup, in which a few people with a clever idea try to win the backing of a very small number of people with massive amounts of money.  “Failing fast” is a great way to cut losses, but it incurs severe losses; the game is playable only if you have lots of spare money.  If you can survive multiple face-plants en route to the big payoff, design thinking offers a chance to do great things.

Stanford has absurd amounts of money, and it’s populated by brilliant young people with lots of unstructured time.  The model fits.

In the context of community colleges, though, it’s a tough fit.

At the most basic level, we don’t have the resources to survive multiple face-plants.  Our per-student funding is a single digit percentage of what Stanford has.  And we don’t filter out the students who need extra help, like Stanford can.  We take the students who need more, and we have less with which to do it.  

Even if we had far more resources, though, it would still be a tough fit.  Design thinking works really well with very small groups of people who can execute their own plan.  Teams of four people who convince one person with money can make it work.  But we have a shared governance tradition in which major changes aren’t supposed to occur without the advisory input of multiple constituencies across campus.  It isn’t a matter of winning over one skeptical investor; it’s a matter of winning over the faculty senate, the staff union, the trustees, and the local government.  And doing it without the promise of a huge financial payoff if the idea works.

In a shared governance setting, each constituency will prefer to make its own stamp visible on the idea.  I think that’s at the root of much resistance to either national ideas or data-driven ones; both of them have the emotional effect of outsourcing the brain work elsewhere.  Administrators like to complain about campuses that shoot down good ideas on the grounds of “not invented here,” and the complaint is often correct, but it’s rooted in a reluctance to give up the design role.  Adopting an idea from someplace else, no matter how good it is, can feel like surrendering agency; in labor-studies terms, it feels like deskilling.  That’s why otherwise-intelligent people can rattle off one half-baked objection after another to an idea that makes sense on the merits.  They aren’t actually (often) objecting to the content.  They’re objecting to the role that somebody else’s idea implies for them.  Contrarianism that’s independent of content is often based in anxiety about the prospect of a reduced role.  If the only way I can make my presence felt is to scream “NO!,” then scream I shall, whether it makes any sense or not.

That dynamic leads to all sorts of dysfunctional places and terrible decisions.  I’ve seen good ideas sacrificed on the altar of status anxiety often enough to recognize the signs early.  

Succeeding in this environment requires a very different kind of design.  It’s not about a few people hashing out an idea in September, launching it in October, and pivoting in November.  It’s about creating an environment in which large groups of people with very different emotional and material interests are both willing to acknowledge a problem and willing to bat solutions around.  The process will be slow, often frustrating, and vulnerable to all manner of provincialism and self-dealing.  But it’s fairly well-suited to a setting in which resources are scarce, results are slow, and the objects of many experiments -- students -- are vulnerable.  

I don’t want students to fail fast.  I don’t want them to fail at all.  And many of these ideas require widespread support if they’re going to work.  That’s not to say that the loudest voices are necessarily the most representative, or that a cultural ethos of “nah” deserves deference.  But it is to say that four guys in a room, no matter how smart the guys or how nice the room, can substitute for the cultural work we do on campus.  The challenge is doing that cultural work in the service of ideas drawn on something deeper than habit.

Monday, September 11, 2017


Lessons from Amazon

Like many academics, I have mixed feelings about Amazon.  On one side, I don’t like the concentration of market share and power in one company.  On the other, wow, is it convenient.  I’m that guy who misses small bookstores but still re-ups for Amazon Prime every year.  (I had a girlfriend in graduate school who described herself as “both a socialist and a smart shopper.”  She was right.)  It offers a bracing reality check.  But its recent announcement of a hunt for a home for a second headquarters offers us a new, and different, version of a reality check.

Its criteria for a new location aren’t the ones we usually think about when we think about cities competing to lure employers.  It’s not looking for low salaries, right-to-work status, low taxes, or a desiccated public sector.  Instead, it’s looking for the sorts of things that a healthy and well-funded public sector delivers: good transit, a good airport, and an educated workforce.  And the payoff it’s offering is substantial, both in terms of jobs and in terms of tax revenues.

The RFP it put out has gained plenty of attention, but I haven’t seen much discussion of its implications.

(Obligatory home-team plug: Newark!  Audible is already there.  It has a port, a major airport (Newark Liberty) and a small bespoke airport (Teterboro), an Amtrak station on the Acela route, NJ Transit, PATH trains, the NJ Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway, and just about every major highway in the state.  It’s close enough to NYC to have access to the brainpower at Columbia, CUNY, and NYU, as well as drawing on the brainpower of Princeton, Rutgers, and NJIT.  It’s about as diverse an area as you can possibly find.  There’s no shortage of great K-12 schools in the region.  And Amazon could be part of an inspiring urban comeback story.  End of plug…)

The classic version of company-luring involved hollowing out public services in order to offer tax breaks and a relatively low cost of doing business.  It was a civic race to the bottom, with public higher education suffering severe collateral damage as the tax base withered.  

But that version has natural limits.  Most basically, the jobs offered by companies that focus on those things tend to be particularly vulnerable to automation or offshoring.  Bending over backwards to accommodate low-wage employment may postpone the inevitable for a bit, but it won’t stop it.  And forking over years of tax revenue for jobs that trend downward over time is a losing battle.  

This version replaces low-cost/low-value with high-cost/high-value.  Yes, an educated workforce is more expensive than an uneducated one, but it’s so much more productive that it’s more than worth it.  Yes, a good transit system costs money, but so does isolation.  Taxes are a cost, but the educated workforce they produce is more than worth it.  Good schools pay off both directly, through producing productive graduates, and indirectly, by inducing people with choices to move there to give their kids better opportunities.  Strong public higher education systems can provide the backbone for a productive workforce.

Advocates of public higher education (hi!) should seize on this moment.  This plays to our strengths.  If we want to foster, and lure, the kind of high-value employers that pay community-sustaining wages, this is the way to do it.  It’s an especially appealing model for places that don’t have oil or other fossil fuel deposits to rely on.  For a state like New Jersey, competing on the low end is pretty much guaranteed to fail; population density and a lack of oil means we step up to the plate with two strikes.  But competing on mass transit and a well-educated workforce?  That, we can do.  

I don’t know where Amazon will land -- I’m guessing Toronto or DC -- but the criteria it’s using aren’t unique.  Where the first reality check was mostly humbling, this second one is actually encouraging.  As advocates for public higher education, we shouldn’t be shy about promoting the connection between education and high-value employment.  It’s even better than free shipping.

Sunday, September 10, 2017


Kinda/Sorta Online

Several years ago, back at Holyoke, a professor asked me why we required every January intersession class to have an online component.  He was prepared to rebut arguments from technophilia, futurism, and pedagogy, but he wasn’t prepared for the answer I gave:

Snow days.

In January in New England, it’s reasonable to expect snowstorms.  A bad one might close schools for two or three days at a time.  When intersession is only two or three weeks, losing several consecutive days could be educationally devastating.  A year or so later, that actually happened: we had a nasty storm that closed the college for two days during intersession.  Had it not been for the mandatory online component, some classes would have been thrown for loops.  Students who couldn’t make it to campus could still go online, so it was still possible to have some sort of educationally substantive interaction.

This Fall, the barrage of hurricanes is making the point even more strongly that an online component to a class can be part of a resilience plan.  But that involves getting over the strict binary that so many people assume about online teaching.  Classes can be entirely online, entirely onsite, or some of both.  That last category has real benefits.

On campus, we distinguish between “hybrid” or “blended” classes on one side and “web-enhanced” classes on the other.  The former involves reducing the amount of required class time and replacing it with online activities; the latter involves having a “shell” of the class online, but still conducting the regular onsite class in the regular onsite timeslot.  

The advantage of the fully blended format is that it allows for different activities to be offered in different formats, ideally allowing for the best of both worlds.  But student demand for those classes tends to be modest at best; they don’t recognize it as either fish or fowl, so they stay away.  

Web-enhanced classes fly below the radar of popular discussion, even though they also offer some real advantages.  At a really basic level, having course documents on the LMS means that the professor doesn’t have to keep bringing copies to class, and students can’t lose them.  The LMS option also allows for classes to accomplish something of substance when the professor gets sick, or observes a religious holiday, or has some sort of personal life obstacle (car trouble, often) that prevents showing up on a given day.  It offers an easy way for students to track their grades over the course of the semester, and, should a professor have to step away from the course due to illness, provides the substitute with some basis for moving forward.

And yes, it’s a nifty and effective backup for campus closures due to weather or other external conditions.

The backup option isn’t perfect, of course.  It relies on every instructor to make a good-faith effort to use the LMS effectively; most do, but we have some holdouts.  It assumes that whatever the weather event was didn’t affect electricity, which is usually true, but not always.  And it assumes that every student has reliable access, which is truer than it used to be, but still not a given.

Still, getting past the binary of “onsite” or “online” classes and recognizing that the two modes can complement each other, even in the same course, offers benefits that look like they might come in handier as the weather gets hairier.

Wise and worldly readers who teach web-enhanced classes, have you found other benefits to that format?

Thursday, September 07, 2017


Thoughts on Thinking Out Loud

One of the shocks in moving from faculty to administration was discovering that I had to be much more explicit about when I was just thinking out loud.  In my faculty role, I was free to speculate about all sorts of things, and to change my mind mid-sentence if the situation warranted.  When I moved to the other side of the desk, talk intended as speculative was sometimes taken as definitive, or ideas half-formed were attacked as if they were concrete proposals.  Part of the appeal of blogging, for me, was that it was a space for thinking out loud.  And I’ve been lucky to have had (mostly) thoughtful readers and commenters who mostly address the merits of ideas, allowing for the possibility that someone could be barking up the wrong tree without necessarily being evil.

I mention that because of two pieces on the same day that addressed the “why” of internet conversations.  

The first, by InsideHigherEd, is about whether and/or how to change its policy on comments.  The piece notes that the ideal of informal academic conversation involves the thoughtful exchange of ideas, but that many comments are merely ad hominem and/or tangential to what a given piece actually said.  I’ll admit some frustration when I read comments that are clearly nothing more than knee-jerk ideological responses to a keyword in a title; often, they’re nothing more than attempted intimidation.  (I read somewhere that some sites require commenters to pass a content-based quiz on the article before being allowed to comment on it; it sounds labor-intensive, but as a writer, I definitely see the appeal.)  IHE is trying, apparently, to reduce the amount of mobbing and verbal graffiti without losing the ability to foster useful discussion.  It’s a great goal, and I hope they’re able to find a reasonable improvement.

The second is by Julia Galef at her own site.  It’s about why she sometimes engages in online debates even when it’s obvious that she isn’t going to change her interlocutor’s mind, and why the ideal of maybe changing her own mind through conversation is so rarely relevant.  

Galef notes that it’s sometimes worth wading into debates against people who obviously aren’t going to change their minds, whether to set an example of reasoned argument, to assure others who disagree that they aren’t alone, or to appeal to third party readers who may be swayable.  I like her delineation a lot, partially because I’ve used all of those reasons at one point or another.  Anyone familiar with the poli sci concept of the “Overton window” will know that “just ignore them and they’ll go away” can be a form of unilateral disarmament.  (The Overton window refers to the range of opinions that are considered acceptable.  In the contemporary United States, for instance, divine-right monarchy is outside the Overton window.  In other times and places, it was the dominant ideology. The key fact about the Overton window is that it shifts over time.  In the 1990’s, support for legalizing same-sex marriage was considered political poison.  Now, opposition to legal same-sex marriage has become discrediting among younger voters.  The window has shifted.)  Failing to oppose popular but deeply objectionable ideas can mean acceding to a shift in the range of acceptable opinion.

Some boundaries are worth maintaining, and some ideas merit vociferous objection.  When I write in support of DACA and Dreamers, for instance, I’m under no illusion that I’ll sway committed opponents; their premises are so different from mine that it just isn’t going to happen.  But I like to think I’m interrupting the intended illusion of unanimity, offering moral support to some who feel attacked, and maybe, on my best days, helping someone who’s torn on the issue find some clarity.  

The comments that help the most, both as a writer and as a practitioner in my industry, are the ones that propose angles or solutions I hadn’t thought of.  They’re the ones that treat the more speculative pieces as exercises in thinking out loud, and they respond in a spirit of improving the thinking.  I have learned from those, and still do.  Sometimes they sway me on the merits, which is one thing; sometimes they suggest an interpretation utterly distinct from my intention, which helps me hone what I’m trying to say.  (“How the hell did you get _that_ from _this_?  Oh, right…”)  Just knowing how certain phrases or terms sound to other people has helped me reduce the number of unforced errors I make.  That’s useful.

The question of anonymous commenting adds a twist to the issue.  For years, I wrote this blog under a pseudonym, for fear of the local campus falling prey to Carly Simon Syndrome.  (“You’re so vain, I bet you think this post is about you.”)  And occasionally that happens.  But the pseudonym eventually outlived its usefulness. It seemed to limit readership, and to prevent some people from taking my posts seriously.  Since writing under my real name, I’ve taken away one reason for people to dismiss posts out of hand.  I’ve also had to be a little more thoughtful and less impulsive, which, frankly, is to the good; some of my early stuff is a little cringe-y.  Over time, I’ve tried to vent less and think more.  I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether it’s working.

While I’m glad to have dropped the pseudonym, I still see why many others would benefit from one.  For people supposedly committed to academic freedom, academics as a group can be remarkably censorious.  In a tight job market, I fully understand people not wanting to risk the roles they have.  For what it’s worth, I’d support IHE continuing to allow pseudonymous comments, even if they clamp down a bit harder on the verbal graffiti.

Galef’s larger point, about not expecting your own mind to be changed, is sadly true.  But hope springs eternal.  For me, sometimes the surprise comes less from the interaction than from the writing itself; I’ve been surprised more than once to see where a topic went when I followed it for a while.  

So, thank you to my wise and worldly readers for continuing to give me an excuse, and a venue, for thinking out loud.  It helps, even when the connection isn’t obvious.  

Wednesday, September 06, 2017


And the Segue of the Week Award Goes to…

Once in a while, you hear a phrase so utterly wonderful in a meeting that it just seems wrong to take a chance on people forgetting it.

This week, at an awards ceremony, the presenter introduced the next winner with

“Speaking of infectious diseases…”

It’s still early, but I’m calling it.  That wins the Segue of the Week award.

Wise and worldly readers, what’s the best segue you’ve heard recently?

Tuesday, September 05, 2017


DACA as a Teachable Moment

In my faculty days, I used to teach both American Government and Debate.  If I were teaching now, I could see DACA as a really great teachable moment, if it were framed carefully.

In teaching Debate, I’d encourage teams to come up with the strongest arguments they could for the other side while they were developing their own.  It tended to improve the caliber of the exchanges, and it forced some level of intellectual honesty.  In that spirit, I’ve been trying over the last few days to come up with the most reasonable, defensible arguments for the anti-DACA side that I could, just to see what might happen.  They may not be the most widely held reasons, but they’re the most defensible.  I’m just trying to wrap my head around that point of view.  

It’s difficult, because at a really basic level, it violates common sense.  For example, in my own case, my family moved from Maine to New York before my second birthday.  I don’t recall having been consulted about it; I was probably more focused on trying to walk from one end of a room to the other without falling down.  At that age, I had no more concept of citizenship than I did of logarithms.  If you substitute “Mexico” for “Maine,” the anti-DACA position holds that the erstwhile toddler should be held criminally responsible.  That’s a tough position to defend.

Much of the opposition seems based in either explicit or implicit racism.  That’s certainly what gives it political staying power.  I’m not going to give a “pro” argument for racism.  If that makes me biased, so be it.  

There’s an argument around rewarding bad behavior that strikes me as somewhat more serious.  This argument abstracts from the particulars of the case at hand and refers instead to a more general principle that people who break the law shouldn’t be rewarded for it, even if the illegal act itself was unintentional.  In this argument, giving erstwhile toddlers citizenship effectively rewards the parents for breaking the law.  

It’s the kind of argument that makes sense only in the abstract.  Many current American citizens can trace their ancestry to immigrants who came here unauthorized.  (Or, in the case of slavery, against their will.  I’m not entirely comfortable with the term “immigrants” in that case, either.)  But we don’t hold descendants liable for that.  I had an ancestor who went AWOL from the Swedish army to come here under an assumed name.  Should I be extradited to Sweden to face trial as a deserter?  I’ve never been to Sweden, and don’t speak a word of Swedish.  If not, what’s the cutoff date, and why?  Is the crime of the DACA cohort any different, or is it just a matter of a cultural statute of limitations?

Alternately, if my brother knocked over a liquor store, should I go to jail for it?  In that case, we wouldn’t even have the sands of time as an excuse.  

Honestly, most of us have some sketchiness in our history.  Part of the American idea is the fresh start, or the second chance.  That’s also part of the community college idea.  Research universities were invented in Germany, but community colleges were invented here.  They fit a narrative of second chances and inclusion that represents the most admirable part of the American story.  That’s why I’ve been heartened to see statements against the repeal of DACA from the Association of Community College Trustees, and the presidents of the Massachusetts community colleges.  They know an existential threat when they see one.

Other than racism, which I remain convinced is at the heart of the anti-DACA movement, the best explanation I can come up with is a sense that if something is illegal, it will go away.  

But I’m having trouble with that.  I just finished “Everybody Lies,” by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz and Tim Andres Pabon, which is about what we can learn about some major social issues by applying analytics to big data.  In the section about abortion, the authors note that in states with heavy restrictions on abortion, there’s a large and unexplained gap between pregnancies and recorded births.  That gap doesn’t exist in states with easier abortion access.  They also note that Google searches for terms like “DIY abortion” are much greater in states with restrictive access.  

In other words, it’s one thing to ban a behavior, and quite another to make it go away.  

Community colleges exist to serve entire communities, including those who arrived as children.  I’d much rather those kids grow up to be well educated, well-employed, taxpaying citizens than become an easily exploited class of desperate people without a country.  That’s as true of kids from Mexico as it is of kids from Maine.  Because wishing the admittedly thorny issues away by fiat, through a law, won’t make the people go away.  It will only make their lives dramatically harder.  As a partisan of the “inclusive” side of the American story -- far from its only side, but to me, the most admirable -- that’s unacceptable.

So my appeal to the debate judges boils down to this: Dreamers are not abstractions.  They’re here, working and studying, contributing to America, just like everybody else.  Holding them responsible for their parents’ choices is no more reasonable than holding me responsible for the move from Maine.  

And as someone who works in a community college, I’d like to get back to doing what we do best.  Classes start Thursday.  All are welcome.

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