Sunday, November 12, 2017

Advice for Administrators

Let me start by saying I have an administrative job in a college and have had them in the past.  Let me also say this "advice" (re: warnings) is from wide experience and reading and not directed at any one institution.

First, I do not understand why administrators who are new to an organization think they know more about the institution than those who have spent their professional lives there.  Likewise, I don't understand why they would seek to change "things" (structures, programs, positions, etc.) in the institution until they have spent ample time knowing everything they can about the organization.  Listening is the first job of a new leader.

Sure, maybe a few of the organizational members will be crackpots, but most have a clear-eyed view of things from where they sit, and maybe of things as a whole.  A person who has worked at a institution for twenty years should be an asset, not an obstacle.

Second, follow that advice.  The faculty and staff are not your enemies.  If they are, maybe you are part of the problem because you did not do your first job of listening (i.e., gathering data).  Lest your forget, it is the faculty who are carrying out the mission of the college.  You will not be remembered by the students; the faculty member who offered tutoring after class will be. 

Third, "change for change's sake and growth for growth's sake is the philosophy of the cancer cell."  An administrator who wants to change a lot of things is perceived as resume building. 

Fourth, I used to be guilty (in my naivete) of thinking that administrators were just smart than the non-administrators, as if they learned the secret handshake or entered a secret club with all kinds of esoteric knowledge when they entered an administrative job.  Since I have been long taught to reject gnosticism in theology, I'll choose to reject it in higher education practice.  Nonadministrators have access to all the same policy information that administrators.

Transparency would really help lessen that wall between administrators and faculty.  I perceive administrators as holding on to their secret knowledge as a power play and as a statement that they are inherently smarter than the faculty, who, by the way, have the same degrees as the administrators and are just as smart.

The difference is that faculty prefer, in general, to deal first-hand with students and to develop their discipline.  I love being in the classroom and working with students more than I love sitting in another meeting, so for now I choose to do both; I do like to make a difference at the institutional level and work cross-disciplinarily, which is discouraged in most colleges.

My point is that in my years in higher ed we have often quipped "He went to the dark side" about someone who became an administrator.   Granted, administrators work longer hours and put up with more crap.  They also make a lot more money (I know from experience; I made close to six digits one year as an administrator, and going back to faculty was a significant pay cut).  Faculty and administration should grow past this "dark side"/us-them mentality.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Prescription for College Student Retention and Graduation

My institution's faculty and staff were treated to a very good presentation from a system bigwig on Friday.  He prescribed the following recipe for retention and graduation (this is my version of his prescriptions).

1.  Nine hours of major-related courses in first year.
2.  Growth mindset (not just that the student has a growth mindset but that he/she perceived the faculty believes he/she has a growth mindset)
3.  30 hours finished in first year (can include summer school)
4.  Students' understanding their major choices
5.  Complete required English and Math (because they won't go any further without them).  Mathematician organizations all support that students take the math relevant to their discipline.
6.  Feeling connected to the institution and that they belong (how many students feel that "they just don't belong here" for whatever reasons?)
7.  Give them confidence to interact with faculty and staff.
8.  Ensure they understand the purposes of courses they are taking to their major/careers.

I am a firm believer in faculty development (to ensure #2, #4, #8, primarily, but the others are connected) and in high-quality onboarding of students before Day 1 in the classroom. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Don't Send Your Kid to College

Yes, that is my title.  It is my firm belief, too.  Read the whole thing before getting mad.

And it may seem strange from someone who has worked in higher education for forty years and has three graduate degrees. I don't write this post because I am against higher education or because it hasn't had a place in my life.  It's central to who I am (but not the core).  I love what I do, where I work, the blessing of working with my students and colleagues, and the exploration of ideas.

I believe in  higher education's promise for America and for individuals.  

But I still believe in the advice in the title, and I will deal with this topic in two parts:

First, don't send your kid to COLLEGE.

Second, don't SEND your kid to college.

First.  College is not for everyone.  It's definitely not for everyone at 18 years of age.  In my 40 years in the classroom and as an administrator, in all types of institutions, I have seen two phenomena.     The first is the late twenty- or thirty-something who comes back to college and confesses that they tried college at 18 and "flunked out" or had some other reason that it just didn't work out for them.

Sometimes they were athletes who couldn't keep with the lifestyle of performing athletically and scholastically at the college level.  (To say nothing of the other issues we could address here about college sports).  Sometimes they got pregnant.  Sometimes they had family responsibilities.  Sometimes they were having too much fun at "away" college and their parents said, "enough"  Sometimes they just realized college wasn't for them, that the bang wasn't worth the buck.  Good old ROI.  Sometimes (more than we want to admit), they just couldn't afford it any longer even if they wanted to.  Sometimes they just failed too many classes and lost financial aid.  Sometimes they find themselves at an institution whose values overwhelm them, and they can't deal with the concept of "micro-agressions" for asking an innocent question.

Let me state quickly that I don't think that last is really that prevalent in the vast majority of colleges.  College professors like to be provocative--I've done it myself.  But the extremes of "trigger warnings," "micro-agressions," and "safe spaces" are over-reported and mostly confined to a certain type of college.  See my advice below. 

The second is the younger version of that thirty-something who has been told they have to go to college but have no goals, or no realistic ones, for why they are there.  They have a high school GPA of 2 and were admitted to an open-access college to be a nursing major, which requires usually something close to a 4.0 for entrance to the program.  They enter the private college dependent on loans that they and their parents don't realize will haunt them for decades, whether they graduate or not.  They choose a major because it sounds like fun (my favorite being fashion merchandising) but don't realize they will have to move 500 miles away from home to find a career in that field.

I attribute these two phenomena to a number of sources.  The mythology that a college education is the best way to get to the middle class.  The lies told by recruiters (athletic and otherwise).  The lack of transparency about the reality of college, especially funding it.  The  poor quality of teaching and advising in some institutions and the systems that allow it (I'm not specifically speaking of tenure here, which can do great good but also follows the law of unintended consequences).

And let me say, unequivocably here (that's a big word for make no mistake), I don't consider these the problems of the institution, not always.  And I except my institution from it, because we are extremely reasonably priced and do a fine job of educating the students we are sent, and I mean that with all my heart and not because I get a paycheck. 

Primarily, though, I think much of the phenomenon can simply come from the fact that people who don't work in higher education do not understand it.  It is a black box to a large portion of the population.

There are simply other options for 18-year olds.  Get a job.  Military.  Government or non-profit service (VISTA, for example). Trade school (yes, trade school.  It really doesn't hurt anyone to have a trade and make some decent money for a few years before deciding on what you really want to do for the next forty years.) In other words, don't inflict a goal-less 18-year old on the college of your choice.  You will waste your money.  You will waste your government's money and your student's potential financial aid (Pell is not forever; current regulations limit to ten semesters, assuming those are ten successful semesters).


I had an interesting conversation with an old friend who was visiting our town recently.  She teaches in a Christian Academy out west.  She mentions that one of the parents in the school sent their daughter to a certain very large Christian university (I'll not name it, but they love President Trump there) because that institution teaches a literal six-day creationism.

That has been bugging me for weeks.  Not because of the institution or the creationism (those are  other issues) but because of the idea of "sending" your child to a college.  How much agency does the student have in the decision?

This is part of a larger discussion about helicopter parenting.  Teenagers today seem to have a very different relationship with their parents than we did; I went 600 miles away to college and saw my family two or three times a year. I chose the college.  Whether it was a good choice is another matter, but I chose it.  I knew it was all on me.

Of course, I know of 20-year-olds who haven't bothered to get their drivers' licenses yet, a mystery to me.  Being protected, dependent, and driven around by mom and dad or friends seems more important to them than the autonomy of being able to drive a car?  How could that be? 

I don't suggest my experience is the best, but I think the idea of "sending" your student to college, as if it were the same as sending your 6-year-old to kindergarten, needs to be reframed.  At best, the parent should facilitate the decision of the student and consult on it, but not make the decision.  It seems like breaking the apron strings at 18 is what college is about.

Many parents, especially conservative Christian parents, don't want their students exposed to the "evils" of the secular campus.  I definitely agree, so discussion is needed.  I consider most of the big state universities unfit for human consumption.  Parents would need to start working on their students' responsibility and agency long before senior year anyway.  I just fear the practice of using the nonsense and sin that goes on on most campuses as an excuse to shelter the young persons from reality. I teach at a state institution and there are good and negative influencers; however, we are small and also have the opportunities for small classes, input from faculty, and clubs that help a student's faith journey. My real issue is with campuses of 40,000 where the student can get lost.

This is not to address for-profit institutions, the complications and vagaries of  financial aid (as a faculty member, I do not address this issue with students because I simply don't want to misinform), athletics scholarships and other types, how to choose a major, or a number of other issues.

The diatribe against humanities and liberal arts majors is founded in two problems:  the myth that a degree automatically opens all kinds of doors for the graduate, and the failure of students, their parents, and the institutions to look for opportunities for developing work skills, a resume, and networking.  An English major can take a minor in computer science, combining a love of writing and literature with their analytic abilities to code and develop websites.  It's a false dichotomy to think that a major in one disciplines can dance into a career while another one doesn't have a prayer.

I'm adding this piece on November 18, 2017:


Once a student goes to college, he/she is a young adult.  Remember that.  They are not twelve years old.  They are legally responsible for everything at 18 (except drinking, which doesn't stop them from doing it).  They are not kids.  This is a whole post in itself, but I often shake my head at the way young people are overprotected by their parents who are so afraid their child will make a mistake or something that they don't allow them to be adults.

My advice:
1.  look for reasonably priced colleges.  Higher price does not mean better education in the long run.
2.  If a young person is dying to go to University of X, think about going to reasonable state college for undergrad and the big impressive place for grad school.
3.  Know what you are getting into.  Do the research.
4. Don't overspecialize in a major unless you really know that's what you want.

I imagine I will get some blowback for this post, but maybe that's what blogs are for. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Open Education Resource Public Speaking Text

My huge summer project has been to complete this major revision.  It is available on our libguides and at the OER repository for the Georgia System. 

I don't think you will find a better one, unless you are looking for more of a hybrid book (that is, that deals with interpersonal communication and small groups.)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Learning how to teach online through an online course

Two weeks ago I posted this:
I am taking a two-week course from a well known and reputable organization that credentials online courses (no names, but if you don't know who they are, you should).  When I finish I will have some thoughts.  On the good side, I plan to take the subsequent courses from the organization. 

Now I am finished and will finish my reflection on it.

I don't want to use the name of the organization.  Anyone familiar  with online education knows who it is; hint--it's out of the University of Maryland, originally.

This organization has a certain philosophy and system of online education.  It took me a couple of assignments to "align" myself with its philosophy.  At first I was a little snarky about it.  "I've taught online for 19 years. I was teaching online at the beginning and before online was cool.  I used to create my own courses in Front Page, before there were Learning Management System programs, for Pete's sake!"  After being told to redo an assignment, I said, "Ok, I'll play it your way, I get it."  By the end I said, "Ok, yes, this system makes sense, I see why it works and what they are doing."

What I get from this is:
1.  the concept of unlearning.  This does not mean forgetting, because obviously we can't erase memories.  I think of unlearning as "making space for a different schema or framework."  We can hold different schema in our heads at the same time.  I understand this organization's schema now.  I think it is very good and worthwhile, although rigid and granular when I might look at a course more holistically.
2. the need for humility in learning.  Humility is not a popular concept, but the act of putting yourself into a position to learn inherently means you submit to an authority, at least temporarily, for a larger purpose, and opening your mind to the value of what is taught.  I took classes during my doctorate from people I thought were in left field and still do, but I submitted myself to them for the larger purpose of getting a doctorate.  I learned valuable things from these people although I still differ from them philosophically.
3.  the experience of being a student.  Oh, I didn't like being told I did something wrong!  It reminded me to be empathetic for my online students, whom I often tell they are wrong in some way!  On the other hand, I am dealing with an online student who keeps plagiarizing and told me it was my fault and that I was ridiculous.  I take lots of online MOOC type courses (which didn't pan out as the end-all of higher ed but are very useful) but this one was more tied to work so I wanted to get a perfect grade.
4.  I learned about some new technologies and I saw how important alignment is.
5.  The facilitators did a fine job.  One of them teaches at a nearby institution and I already know her, so I think that helped.
6.  I plan to take two more courses and be fully credentialed by this organization.

Now, the downsides.  The LMS that this organization uses is inferior to what I am used to.  I think it is open source but it shows.  I really struggled with its layout and navigation, and this is from a person who has used two versions of Blackboard, Canvas, and D2L/Brightspace quite a bit.  Consequently, the course was not visually rich at all. I can appreciate some of that because I have often warned about over rich-courses that require too much bandwidth, but this course was just plain boring visually.

Secondly, it was intense and time-consuming, but that's really a good thing.  It makes it worthwhile and they don't want to give away their credentials. I noticed that most of the students did not keep up with the daily assignments.  I spent good money on the course and wanted my money's worth. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Why we don't change as instructors: data vs. emotion

Mary Ellen Weimer writes provocative things about teaching.  Here is one of her articles:

Here she is dealing with one of my favorite topics, faculty resistance to improving teaching even when we know there are better ways.  As one of her sources states, faculty approach faculty development the way our students approach learning in the classroom, although we fuss about how students do that.  I saw myself there.  See my post above on my current online learning experience.   

Monday, June 19, 2017

Academic Freedom, Marble Statues, and General Insanity

OK.  Is is getting to the point that anyone who says anything publicly gets death threats?  What exactly is a death threat?  (A generally, "You should die for your viewpoint" or "I know where you live and work and am coming there to kill you soon"?)

So, interesting article below from Inside Higher Ed about a common fact, a conclusion about that fact, the publication in popular media about that conclusion, and the response from people who take things too seriously.  Yes, everyone who has ever taken a humanities course knows the Greeks and Romans painted their statues.  But . . . does that mean they weren't racist? (are you serious?)  Does that mean that the beauty of white marble (which would have been normalized by the Renaissance and Baroque artists, not the 18th century) is a white supremacist statement?

If racism is only framed as black (African, dark-skinned) vs. white (Northern European, pink skin toned) then the discussion is over.  There are other "phenotypes" who have historically hated each other and tried to kill the other off.  (We need only go back to World War II, China and Japan, to see that, or 1994, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda.) Racism is far bigger than one country's historical struggle with slavery.  Not to minimize that; it is the U.S.'s unique and tragic problem and legacy. It just isn't the only instance of racism in world history.