Thursday, September 22, 2016
Star Trek’s 50th anniversary just passed. I’ve enjoyed introducing it to the rest of the family. The Girl really enjoys the Kirk/Spock version, as do I, and it’s fun to see which ones she responds to.
Recently, for various unbloggable reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about the episode with Kirk and the Gorn. An alien race kidnaps Kirk and a zipper-backed lizard man called the Gorn, and arranges for them to battle to the death for their own amusement. As styrofoam rocks fly and dramatic music swells, the two duke it out, trading temporary advantage.
The turning point comes when Kirk has the Gorn on its back, a wooden stake ready to sink into its chest. Just before the killing blow, Kirk stops, and tells the aliens that he refuses to kill for their amusement. Morality matters more.
The aliens decide that there’s hope for him yet, and let them both go.
The Girl and I were both struck by the courage to rise above adrenaline and vengeance. It has to be a conscious choice, but we can choose it.
There’s hope for us yet, and we don’t even need to throw styrofoam rocks to find it.
Apparently, a few major metros are considering rules to require low-wage service sector employers to provide work schedules at least two weeks in advance.
I’ve had too many conversations with or about students whose work hours changed abruptly, and whose coursework was thrown into chaos.
And I’ve read too many policy discussions that assume that you can multiply minimum wage by 30 or 40 and figure out someone’s income. That’s not how these jobs work.
In addition to being poorly paid, they’re erratic. Some weeks are busy, and some weeks you’re lucky to get ten hours. The hours change, making stable class schedules -- let alone child care -- much harder to manage than they should be.
Two weeks is far less than a semester, but it’s far more notice than many low-end workers get now. It at least offers a fighting chance. A student who approaches a professor with an anticipated crisis a week ahead of time is in much better shape than one who brings it up after the fact.
It brings costs, as any new rule would, but the social good would be considerable. Yes, please.
Like any erstwhile political scientist, I’ve been following Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com this election season. It mostly focuses on the election, but occasionally it tries something else. I’m thinking maybe it should stick to elections.
It did a survey to determine the most “re-watchable” movies of all time. (Star Wars was the winner.) As one might expect, it’s terribly, terribly wrong.
Star Wars is fine, of course, and it’s hard to argue with The Godfather or The Princess Bride. But not a single Monty Python? Not even MP and the Holy Grail? Puh-leeze. It lists The Sound of Music, which I can’t endure even once, and leaves off Monty Python? Phooey.
Heathers, Office Space, Blazing Saddles -- not a single one. But The Avengers makes the list? Pshaw. I’m almost as upset as Milton when he discovers his red stapler is missing.
Nate Silver is a good social scientist, but no.
The Girl: “After I write my first book…”
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
Waiting for the Punchline
You know that feeling when a joke with a really long setup gets interrupted, and you never get to hear the punchline? I had that feeling reading this story about regional accreditors applying new scrutiny to colleges with uncommonly low graduation rates.
The setup is promising. Yes, accreditors -- mostly national, but some regional -- missed the warning signs on some for-profits, and left the public on the hook for bad loans. Yes, some colleges have uncommonly low graduation rates for their sector, and there’s a perfectly valid argument for asking why. In some cases, there may be decent answers, but the question itself is reasonable. And to the extent that accreditors have been pushing outcomes assessment, there’s a first-blush plausibility to the idea that a college with a graduation rate significantly lower than its peers may be doing something wrong.
All of that is fine, assuming the usual caveats about different admissions standards, socio-economic standing of students, mission, and ways of counting. (They’ll use four years for associate degrees, rather than the IPEDS standard of three. That’s closer to reality, given the percentage of community college students who attend part-time and/or stop out for a while.) The regional accreditors are savvy enough to know that judging an open-admission college against a selective one is measurement error, so I assume they’ll take that into account.
But the problem with using accreditation this way is…
It’s all or nothing. For all practical purposes, loss of accreditation is a death sentence. That’s because loss of accreditation ends eligibility for federal financial aid programs, and usually ends the transferability of credits. That was why the Community College of San Francisco fought so hard when its accreditor threatened to revoke approval. (It’s still alive, years later.) If the only tool that police had were the death penalty, they wouldn’t enforce much at all. (Or, worse, they would.) That’s the position that regional accrediting agencies occupy.
As near as I can tell, the new scrutiny of graduation rates doesn’t change that. The article refers to additional reporting, and to the possibility of constructive suggestions from peers elsewhere. Those are both fine, as far as they go, but neither addresses the basic issue. As long as accreditation is a binary function -- yea or nay, nothing in between -- it will be a poor fit for the struggling-but-not-catastrophic institutions the new initiative will target.
If we want to use regional accreditors to tackle more fine-grained issues, they’ll need more precise tools. Without those tools, they’re set up to fail.
More precise tools will matter as they have to determine whether a struggling institution is capable of turning itself around. Guess yes, get it wrong, and we’re right back where we started. Guess no, and the prophecy fulfills itself, probably at considerable human cost.
If your only weapon is nuclear, in some ways, you’re unarmed. The weapon is so powerful that you’re reluctant to use it.
I’m not sure what those finer-grained tools might be, but that at least strikes me as the right question. Credible threats of non-fatal sanctions could force real improvements. Intermittently credible threats of total annihilation won’t.
So yes, I’m glad to see the setup. But I’m still waiting for the punchline. Here’s hoping it’s a good one.
Monday, September 19, 2016
I wish I could file this one under “things that don’t need to be spelled out.” Apparently it does.
Attacking public figures’ positions or actions in office is fine. Attacking their children is not.
I’m not referring here to adult children who take active public roles, like Ivanka Trump or Chelsea Clinton. They’ve become public figures in their own right, subject to the same rules as other public figures.
I’m referring here to actual children. Apparently the president of Bethany College, William Jones, received threats to his children, on the grounds that they’re biracial. The oldest is 14. They’re being attacked for existing.
No, no, no, no, no. That is entirely out of bounds.
I know that rules of engagement have changed over time. I’m just old enough to remember when Gary Hart, then a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for President, was exposed for adultery. With the benefit of time and distance, it’s easier to understand why he seemed so brazen and tone-deaf; until then, politicians’ dalliances were considered out of bounds unless they involved, say, falling drunkenly into the reflecting pool at the Washington monument. Hart wasn’t the first politician to cheat on a spouse, but he was the first under the new rules. He didn’t know the rules had changed until he found out the hard way.
Donald Trump is trying to redraw boundaries in a different way; for him, sexual dalliances are fair game, but tax returns are private. That’s an unprecedented view for a major party nominee, but not unprecedented in the culture as a whole; I remember noticing in Madonna’s Truth or Dare that she had no problem talking on camera about sex, but she closed the door on the camera when it was time to talk business. And she acted as if the distinction were obvious.
Yes, I just compared Donald Trump to Madonna. You’re welcome, America.
It would be easy to fall into the trap of decrying a complete loss of boundaries, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening. Instead, I’m seeing a collapse in the consensus of where the boundaries are. Different people have different ideas. And nothing gets people worked up faster than boundary violations.
I remember being jarred several years ago upon meeting a recent transplant from the South. Her first question upon meeting me was “and where do you worship?” In my world, that’s invasive and rude; in her world, it was no weirder than asking “and what do you do?” She noticed my response and recalibrated, and I exhaled and chuckled, but the different notions of boundaries were hard to miss. She meant no offense, I knew that, and we were able to get past the awkward moment, but the sense of shock was palpable.
(Group identities can be more evanescent than that. I knew an Apple fanboy who considered me suspicious for moving promiscuously from Apple to Android and back again. When I mentioned using a chromebook, I thought his eyes would roll back in his head.)
Still, I’d like to think that certain boundaries are still protected by consensus. At the most basic level, let’s leave kids out of political battles. Boundaries may be shifting, but they aren’t gone, and some of them are worth defending. Back off the kids.
Sunday, September 18, 2016
And With a Responsible Opposing Viewpoint…
Back when the FCC had a “fairness doctrine,” television stations didn’t editorialize much. When they did, they had to offer time for “responsible opposing viewpoints.” Typically, that meant they’d editorialize mostly on anodyne topics, if they did any at all.
Now, of course, the fairness doctrine is history, and stations can devote themselves to partisan agitprop all day every day if they want. But the idea of a “responsible opposing viewpoint” stuck with me. There’s something to it.
I got hit with one a few days ago. Most colleges that have fundraising campaigns offer donors the option of choosing among several various earmarked projects, or making an unrestricted gift. I’ve argued for years that in many cases, the unrestricted gift option actually does the most good. It allows foundations to support experimental projects, to cover their own costs, and to make up for shortfalls in expected giving. Many foundations even have their own scholarships that are independent of any given donor, and they use those scholarships to benefit students who might slip between the cracks of endowed gifts.
The assumption behind my position was that most foundations are trying to do the right thing, and that having a bit of control can help them be more effective. And in most cases, I stand by that.
Then I heard about the former librarian at the University of New Hampshire. By living frugally for many years, he was able to donate an unrestricted $4 million (posthumously) to the university. The university is using $2.5 million of that for an expanded career center, $100,000 for the library, and $1 million for a new electronic scoreboard for the football team.
The donor is deceased, so we can’t ask him directly what he thinks of that use of the money. But it certainly seems asinine, if not offensive. A scoreboard? Really?
And that’s where some folks on Twitter raised the responsible opposing viewpoint. Wouldn’t restrictions from the donor have prevented this apparent abuse?
I say “probably” rather than “yes” because it isn’t always that simple. Donors can’t be omniscient, so restrictions have to be written to a best approximation of what’s likely to happen. As personnel change and times change, interpretations of appropriate intent can evolve. Some foundations take looser interpretations than others, and not necessarily in sinister ways. There are times when a foundation has money so tightly bound in one area that it goes unused, while other needs go unmet; having some flexible funds allows them to even out the spikiness.
All of that said, though, I’ll plead guilty to having assumed basic good faith and professionalism. Those have held true at every place I’ve worked. But they may not hold true everywhere.
Fundraising is a very different type of business than the day-to-day operation of a college. It relies on long-term relationships and reputation to a much greater degree. In my experience, savvy fundraisers know that, and are keen on maintaining good relationships with donors. (They sometimes insist on using the term “friendraising,” which I’ll admit raises my writerly hackles.) Successful fundraisers know that the blowback from bad publicity -- such as this case -- can turn off donors for years to come. The temptation to play fast and loose is tempered by the realization that one sketchy move could cost years, or even a career.
But there are no guarantees. Had the UNH donor specified something like “must be used for the library” or “must be used for scholarships,” the money wouldn’t have gone to a scoreboard. In this case, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see blowback over time. The foundation may not have broken any rules, but fundraising is about much more than that.
So yes, there are limits to the virtues of unrestricted gifts. I concede that to the responsible opposing viewpoint. I maintain that they’re generally more useful, but if your alma mater has a history of shenanigans, then restricted gifts may be safer. Point taken.
Thursday, September 15, 2016
This week The Boy’s school had its back to school night. He’s a sophomore in high school now, and things are starting to change.
The school is starting to use language for which I’m not entirely prepared, like “driver’s ed.” TB is 15, and the minimum age even for accompanied, supervised driving in NJ is 16, so I still have a bulletproof excuse to keep him from driving. But when I say “still,” I mean “for less than a year.” After that, things get trickier. I’ve read that millenials and younger supposedly aren’t interested in driving anymore, but apparently TB hasn’t seen those pieces. He can’t wait. I most certainly can.
In junior high, teachers routinely checked students’ notebooks and graded them on how well organized they were. At this point, they don’t, and even made a point of mentioning that they don’t. They’re encouraging the students to take responsibility for their own materials. “College is only a couple years away!” they explained brightly.
The teachers are right, of course, despite many of them seeming implausibly young. Next year (!) the college search really kicks into gear. They’re offering a “practice” PSAT to sophomores; I’m just old enough to remember that the “P” in “PSAT” used to stand for “practice.” Now they practice to practice, I guess. They’re hitting subjects I clearly remember taking. They’ve even added some new ones, like “financial literacy.” That one involves some basic consumer math, but also skills like “how to write a check.” Despite the best efforts of the big banks to convince us otherwise, paper checks still exist in the world. Kids still need to learn how to use them and how they work, even if they’re less used than they once were. They’re not dead yet.
The major change from my high school years is (unsurprisingly) the communications technology with which teachers can keep students and parents updated. Group texting apps are ideal for sending out reminders about due dates and exams, and most of the teachers use them. Earlier this week, TB mentioned getting a reminder text at 9:00 for some homework he hadn’t noticed. In my student days, that sort of thing wasn’t an option. Now it’s an expectation.
Junior high felt like a taller version of elementary school. Maybe they opened a few windows, but it was still recognizable. High school feels like pre-college. Which implies college.
(sound of crickets)
I’m not worried about TB. He’s a smart kid, conscientious, sociable, outgoing, and funny. He’ll be fine. He’s the kind of kid that colleges fight over.
It’s just starting to hit me emotionally that he won’t be here that much longer. He only has two more back to school nights before he’s done. We’ve been going to them for what seems like forever, and now there are only two left.
TB both does and doesn’t see it. In the matter of fifteen-year-olds everywhere, he experiences time more intensely than the rest of us. It goes fast, but it’s action-packed. He’s hurtling headlong towards the future and enjoying the ride, just as he should. He’s on track to become a capable and good man, which is all we can ask. We have the unbelievable privilege of being along for this part of the ride.
But this ride will end soon. And while I’ll never stop being proud of him, I’ll miss him something awful.
Keep hurtling, TB. I just need a minute to process the fact that you’re nearly at escape velocity.
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Accreditation SWAT Teams
I don’t know if regional accrediting agencies have the equivalent of SWAT teams. I don’t mean cops rappelling down buildings yelling “hup!” like in The Blues Brothers -- though that would be cool -- but rapid-response teams. If they do, I’d recommend dispatching one to Long Island University.
LIU is almost two weeks into a lockout of its faculty. According to the reports I’ve seen at IHE and the Chronicle, it’s dispatching administrators to classrooms just to have warm bodies there. (I’d like to be wrong on that, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest the reports are incorrect.) According to students in the various reports, some of the subs are just taking attendance and then sending students on their way.
I won’t address the substance of the contract dispute; that’s up to the parties involved. It’s obviously frustrating for the faculty, who are suddenly without pay and benefits, and who are facing the prospect of having to undo significant pedagogical damage when they return. It must be frustrating to the students, as well; they’re paying significant tuition -- often borrowed -- and getting amateur hour.
But that’s relatively predictable. The part that I can’t figure out is the role of Middle States.
The Middle States Commission on Higher Education is the regional accreditor that covers New York State, along with several mid-Atlantic states. (New Jersey is one.) It’s the accreditor whose standards LIU has to meet in order to maintain its eligibility for federal financial aid, and the transferability of its credits.
MSCHE has several requirements of affiliation, and seven standards of accreditation. Institutions that want its seal of approval have to meet those requirements and standards. I’m wondering about requirement number 15 and standard number 3.
Requirement 15 states:
The institution has a core of faculty (full-time or part-time) and/or other appropriate professionals with sufficient responsibility to the institution to assure the continuity and coherence of the institution’s educational programs.
Standard 3, Criterion 2, subsection b refers to “faculty (full-time or part-time) and/or other professionals who are…”
Qualified for the positions they hold and the work they do.
If the media reports are true, and classes are being staffed by people with no background in the fields they’re teaching, then I have a hard time imagining the university passing any reasonable reading of requirement 15 and/or standard 3.
Obviously, this is contingent on the length of the standoff. A once-a-week class may have only met once at this point; a single meeting could be canceled, or relegated to attendance-taking, without imperiling accreditation. But this is across the institution, and it may go on for a while. This isn’t a case of one professor calling in sick for a day.
I’ve been on accreditation visiting teams for NEASC, when I worked in Massachusetts. They were pre-announced and scheduled well in advance. They weren’t cold calls. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a cold call from an accreditor. If they don’t already exist, this would be the right time to start. If the reports are materially false, then let’s dispel the reputational damage. If the reports are substantially true, then LIU has some serious questions to answer. I’ve never seen a clearer case for an accreditation SWAT team.
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
That Pesky Self-Awareness Thing
Although the title of the blog refers to confessions, there isn’t a lot of confession in it. But here’s one: many of my best ideas in life have come from other people. I don’t mean that as plagiarizing or stealing; I just mean that sometimes other people point stuff out that’s obvious from the outside, but hard to see about myself. It’s that pesky self-awareness thing, which is both scarce and unevenly distributed.
I don’t think that’s unusual. Most of us, I think, can see things clearly in other people that we can’t necessarily see clearly in ourselves. The social psychologists probably have a term for that, but we’ve all lived it. I see it in old photos of myself. If they’re old enough, it’s like looking at another person. I’ll wonder what the hell I was thinking with that haircut, before remembering exactly what I was thinking. And haircuts are the least of it.
This week I had a good conversation with a colleague on campus that eventually turned to that pesky self-awareness thing, and how to work around it. I’m wondering if anyone has tried this.
She teaches a “how to be a successful college student” course (HUDV 107, for those keeping score at home). Part of the course involves having students try to identify career fields they find appealing, so they can work with academic advisors to select programs that might help them get there. The idea -- to which I subscribe heartily -- is that students are likelier to succeed when they care about what they’re studying, and when they see a point to it. Some students know from before they even get to campus what they want to do; they’re usually the easiest to advise. A student who shows up confidently declaring that he wants to go into law enforcement should probably consider the criminal justice program, for example.
The problem is that many students -- and not necessarily just the 18 year olds -- don’t know what they want to do. They’re here because they want a good job, and they know that a degree will help, but they might not be much more specific than “a good job.” They may not have been exposed to many, and their sense of what’s out there is often truncated. (In their defense, the job market is changing rapidly; when I was their age, there was no such thing as a social media manager.) Yet we expect them to be able to identify their own interests at the drop of a hat.
My colleague talked about “vision boards,” in which students construct collages of images that spark an interest. The idea is to get students thinking, and to make patterns visible. It’s a useful exercise, and some people really respond to it.
I wondered if a useful next step might be to work around that pesky self-awareness thing by having other students talk about the patterns they see in each other’s vision boards. Instead of asking for self-awareness, which is a tall order on a good day, just ask them to describe what they see in others.
When I worked as a stockboy at a local grocery store in high school, the other stockboys nicknamed me “professor” within my first week. They saw something. I’m wondering if something similar might work here.
Has anyone out there tried this? If so, any hard-learned tips you could offer to improve the chances of a good outcome? The goal isn’t to humiliate or embarrass anyone. It’s to help them figure out what they might want to be, even if they don’t know it yet.
Monday, September 12, 2016
Paying the Price: A Review
What if we rebuilt the financial aid system around the ways that students actually live? Sara Goldrick-Rab takes an admirable shot in Paying the Price.
Goldrick-Rab is a well-known sociologist of higher education and a champion of free community college. Paying the Price is an analysis of the impact of financial aid on low-income students, focusing in particular on a small set of students in Wisconsin in the years following the Great Recession. Longtime readers of her public work might be surprised at the relatively methodical and non-polemical tone of Paying the Price; I actually missed her distinctive voice as I read. Still, as a contribution to our understanding of financial aid and its impact on low-income students, it’s remarkably useful.
Her normative commitment, like mine, is to expanded real access to higher education. The book traces the educational journeys of several students through various public colleges and universities in Wisconsin. The idea -- largely successful -- is to show the shortcomings of financial aid in the real economic worlds of relatively representative students. She and her collaborators isolated the variable by providing extra scholarships to some randomly chosen students, and then tracing the effects - statistically and biographically -- over time.
As someone who has spent the last thirteen years working at community colleges, I can attest that she gets a lot of seldom-noticed details right. For example:
The financial aid system works on the assumption that money flows from the parent(s) to the student, rather than the other way around. But that’s not how the world works. For many low-income students, money flows from the student to the family. For them, the opportunity cost of college -- income foregone while they study -- is as relevant as the price. Abandoning their most important support network isn’t an option.
The financial aid system works best when family income is relatively steady. But on the low end, it’s often volatile. Adjustments can be made, but they lag, and students need money when they need it.
Food insecurity is scandalously common. Six percent of the students in their sample reported recently going without food for an entire day due to money. (p. 128) K-12 has subsidized or free lunches, but with rare exceptions, higher ed doesn’t. Students who are hungry have a harder time staying focused.
Much of the tuition increase of the past two decades comes from public disinvestment. Where tuition was once a minority of operating funds, it’s now usually the lion’s share. In that sense, “price” is rising much more quickly than “cost.”
Goldrick-Rab leaves out a few. For instance:
The way that many colleges calculate Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) counts a “drop” as a “fail.” To maintain SAP (and therefore aid eligibility) a student has to complete ⅔ of credits attempted. A “withdraw” is not a “complete.” A student could lose SAP with a GPA of 4.0, if that 4.0 comes with enough withdrawals. When students have outside jobs with fluid hours from week to week, they sometimes have to drop classes due to work conflicts. Those drops could imperil their aid, even if they keep their grades up in everything else.
Rather than championing some new scholarship or aid program, or even a beefed-up “maintenance of effort” requirement for states, Goldrick-Rab cuts the Gordian knot and advocates for making the first two years of public college free. She notes that “free” has a simplicity that’s badly missing from the current system, and that it builds on free K-12 and free public library models. Tennessee’s model comes closest to what she’s asking, although it’s a “last dollar” model rather than a K-12 one. Early results from Tennessee are encouraging, though the jury is out on the political will to sustain it over time.
It’s easy to nitpick this point or that one, but Goldrick-Rab’s significant contribution here is building policy around actual students. It’s easy to postulate how an ideal student should behave, or to build a policy on the assumption that every student is 18 years old, attending full-time, living on campus, and receiving ample family support. It’s much harder to build policy on the complicated lives that actual students actually live. It’s to her credit that Goldrick-Rab goes into the weeds. Here’s hoping that people who control state appropriations hear her...
Sunday, September 11, 2016
Fifteen Years Ago
September 11 is a generational marker in my house; The Wife and I remember it vividly, but The Boy was only three months old at the time, and The Girl was just a twinkle in someone’s eye. They have a vague sense of it, but nothing visceral. For us, it’s visceral.
I lived in Somerville, New Jersey at the time, and worked at DeVry, in North Brunswick. It was a gorgeous day. I remember having a 9:00 meeting that got off to a late start, and someone mentioning that a plane had hit a tower of the World Trade Center. I imagined a drunken millionaire in a Cessna. We had the meeting. When the meeting broke up and I walked back to the main office area, one of the secretaries was telling someone that one tower was down.
I thought, that can’t be right. That doesn’t happen.
For all the retellings of 9/11, it’s easy to forget the sense of disorientation. We turned on tv’s in some classroom and saw the coverage; by that point, nobody was teaching anything.
North Brunswick isn’t terribly far from New York City; we had faculty and staff who lived in the city, and others whose spouses worked there. I remember the look on the face of one colleague whose husband worked in one of the towers. I can still tell you where she was standing and what she was wearing. It’s not an easy sight to forget.
Information started trickling in, some of it accurate, some not. First we heard there were 8 planes hijacked, then four. I remember hearing that one plane went down in Somerset County, but didn’t hear the qualifier “Pennsylvania.” Somerville is in Somerset County, NJ. I called home and told TW to turn on the tv, any channel. Eventually I heard that one of the planes went down in Pennsylvania, and was actually a little relieved. At least it wasn’t an immediate danger.
We canceled classes for the rest of day, which was pretty much redundant at that point. Students, faculty, staff, everyone stood in classrooms watching coverage, and trying to make some sort of sense of it.
We started hearing about travel restrictions. Nobody could get into Manhattan. Some colleagues were at a conference in Chicago, and were suddenly unable to fly back. I remember being struck the next day by how clear the sky was from my backyard. We usually had multiple planes per hour flying over (from Newark), and there were almost always vapor trails from planes in the sky during the day. For a few days, there wasn’t a single one. I wasn’t aware of how normal they had become until they weren’t there.
My friend Peter, who taught history, lived in Manhattan, so he couldn’t go home. We hosted him that night, since he had an early class the next day and I always drove in early anyway. This was before cell phones were ubiquitous. I remember him trying to reach his fiance on our phone, and the look of relief on his face when he got through to her. She was fine, though scared. Peter is always the coolest guy in the room, but the facade of cool showed some cracks that night. I couldn’t blame him.
Little things stick out. I remember TW being glued to the tv for a couple of weeks after that, trying in vain to find some way to make sense of it all. I stopped watching altogether for a while, just to avoid making myself crazy. It was the first time in my adult life that I made a conscious decision to ration my exposure to news, just for the sake of mental health. It helped.
This may sound strange, but it’s true. For the next couple of weeks, I remember people driving more considerately. Just a mile or two up Route One from DeVry is Satan’s Own Intersection where routes one and eighteen sort of intersect. “Intersect” doesn’t really capture the complexity of what happens there; it’s more like a plate of spaghetti rendered in asphalt. New Jersey drivers aren’t shrinking violets, as a breed, and navigating those ramps and merges was usually a battle of skill and will. But for a couple of weeks, people slowed down and even made room for others to merge. I had never seen that before, and haven’t since. For part of one month, they did. The sheer shock forced perspective.
For a couple of weeks, there was a vague sense that reality had been suspended. We started hearing about who had been lost, and how it was discovered. I heard about cars parked near the New Brunswick train station that went unclaimed for a while, until someone finally did. My colleague’s husband survived. The folks in Chicago rented cars and drove back. Life slowly returned to normal, if slightly off center.
I remember, too, people looking to each other for emotional cues. I’m a fan of level-headed people generally, but in the aftermath of that, level-headedness mattered more than it usually does. Nationally, it was in short supply for a while, but locally I saw it everywhere. That stuck with me.
The kids have heard about the towers, and they’ve seen the attack used to make various political points. But the intense sense of vertigo in the moment is harder to convey. Some people learned from that moment the importance of bluster and revenge. I hope to pass along the importance of an even keel. Fifteen years later, I don’t remember every conspiracy theory or excited call for revenge. I remember the people who took deep breaths, did what needed to be done, and kept perspective. That’s what I choose to remember.
Thursday, September 08, 2016
The Squirrel Isn’t Talking
Sometimes, a college is home to great thoughts in the process of forming. Classrooms are full of eager minds encountering spiky ideas for the first time, and learning the painful but rewarding process of intellectual growth. Dedicated faculty are working assiduously with scared-but-curious students to help them move beyond worlds they have known.
Sometimes, squirrels take headers into transformers and plunge entire campuses into darkness.
This week featured both.
To be fair, I’m told it wasn’t exactly a “header.” Apparently -- and I don’t know how anyone can actually know this -- the squirrel’s tail got a leeeeetle too close to a sensitive part of where a wire meets a pole, and it got shocked. It fell to the ground, presumably dazed, where it was promptly run over by a truck. (That’s how we roll in Jersey.) In the meantime, the surge or short or spark or whatever (I wasn’t a physics major) triggered the transformer to explode, thereby plunging the campus into darkness for hours.
We don’t have a sense of the squirrel’s motives. It’s not talking. Nor is it entirely clear to me why our infrastructure is so vulnerable to furry little critters. That said, the squirrel is now running across that great wire in the sky, so its final thoughts are lost to history.
The outage happened shortly after the start of morning classes on Wednesday.
It was the first week of class, so professors were just establishing rapport and ground rules with their students. Some classrooms have decently large windows, and it was a partly cloudy day, so they were able to keep going for a while. Others didn’t have windows, but kept going anyway. I walked the hallways looking for anyone in trouble (i.e. in elevators) and spreading what little information I had. (It took a while before we had a sense of how long it would be before power was restored, which was what everyone really wanted to know.) I was impressed at the determination of the folks, both students and faculty, in the windowless classrooms. They used smartphones as flashlights and just kept right on going.
One professor I hadn’t met before stopped me in the hallway and asked if I had any ideas what he could do for his students, since his room was so dark. I suggested bringing them out to a part of the hallway next to high windows, where they could at least see each other. He mentioned that it was a film class. I didn’t have an answer for that. To his credit, though, when I returned a bit later he was there with his students, engaging them in a conversation, standing by the windows.
As the prognosis become clearer, eventually the word went out that the college was closing. Extended operation without electricity is impractical in ways you might not consider. For example, most of the bathrooms have sinks with faucets triggered by electric eyes. No electricity, no working sinks. That’s not tolerable for very long. In some areas we had students in wheelchairs on upper floors; without electricity, the elevators don’t work. We have evacuation chairs, which are great, but very much an emergency workaround. You don’t want to rely on them any more than you absolutely have to.
We have a text alert system, as many colleges do. Text alerts have to be short. Word choice matters in ways that you don’t necessarily realize until after the fact. For example, does the phrase “closed for the day” imply also being closed for the evening? Does “closed until 1:00” mean that classes that run until, say, 1:15 have fifteen minutes? Lesson learned.
For all of the (legitimate) frustration students and faculty felt, I was impressed by everyone’s honest efforts to make the best of it. People changed lesson plans on the fly, and sometimes even changed locations. As I walked around multiple floors of several buildings, I didn’t hear a single raised voice. That’s kind of amazing. There was some gallows humor, but it was deployed in efforts to keep an even keel. Even as the buildings were at their worst, people were at their best.
The squirrel isn’t talking, so I’ll say it. I was proud of the nearly universal efforts I saw in every role to make the best of it. I’m scoring the day Brookdale 1, Squirrel 0.
Wednesday, September 07, 2016
Thinking Out Loud
“In a world of imperfect transparency, the main effect of mandatory transparency is to push people into workarounds.” -- Matt Yglesias
When I saw Camelot for the first time, I was charmed by the idea that the king could decree that it could only rain at night. The idea had an obvious first-blush appeal, marred only by the fact that decreeing wouldn’t make it so.
Transparency is like that.
As Matt Yglesias’ recent piece notes, the impulse behind mandatory transparency is to ferret out, or prevent, corruption. The idea is that if everyone knows what’s going on, it will be nearly impossible for anything really awful to happen. After all, if you’re on the up-and-up, what do you have to hide?
But somehow, with each new mandate for transparency, people find new ways to avoid it. I don’t think it’s only ever because they’re trying to hide something sinister.
Yglesias uses the example of the different standards applied to emails and phone calls. Emails are treated in the law like memos. They can be subpoenaed years later, and ripped out of context in the service of whatever cause. Phone calls are ephemeral, and in some places, illegal to record without consent.
That disparity, as he rightly notes, means that it’s safer to think out loud on the phone than over email. Seasoned administrators learn -- ideally not the hard way -- that certain discussions shouldn’t happen over email.
And that’s not just the sinister ones.
For example, sometimes groups workshop or brainstorm. That process necessarily involves thinking out loud, shifting positions in the face of persuasive counterarguments, and playing devil’s advocate. An email with a devil’s advocate position can be quoted out of context and do great harm, whether through intention, ignorance, or carelessness.
Some ideas are inherently complicated. They require working out, often through an iterative process of “what abouts?” There, too, quoting someone later out of context can be damaging.
If any statement can be ripped out of context at any time for any reason, good luck having candid conversations. The thoughtful will remain carefully circumspect, while the thoughtless will bloviate uninterrupted. I’ll leave parallels to our elections as an exercise for the reader.
Now, texting and various mobile apps are becoming popular. They further blur the line between formal and informal communication. We frequently treat them as informal, like speech, even if they’re discoverable, like emails. That leads to no end of trouble because we’re applying two contradictory sets of rules, one of them retroactively.
Yglesias proposes transparency of outcomes, rather than transparency of inputs, and that strikes me as a good first step. Let my rough drafts be my own. A clearer line between public and private communication could allow for more candid private discussion that would lead to better end results. The rules would have to make exceptions for threats and harassment, among other things, but that’s fine. Those should be discoverable. I’m referring here to half-formed thoughts and ideas in progress.
Finally, clear lines allow for a rarely-acknowledged virtue of the public sphere. (Hat-tip to Richard Sennett on this one.) Many of us -- myself included -- will blow off steam privately, sometimes muttering snarky asides to our spouses, before going into public and rising above our own petty moments. Some would call that hypocrisy, and would say that the private comments show what someone “really” thinks. I think that’s exactly wrong. The fact that we rise above our petty moments in public shows the truth of what we think of other people: we think they’re worth making an effort for. What some call “political correctness” is often, in fact, being considerate of other people. That’s a good thing. Aspirational behavior may be imperfect, but it’s worth encouraging. Good manners require effort; making the effort suggests caring. The fact that it’s difficult is what makes it worthwhile.
If you could read my mind, you’d discover that I commit murder in my mind several times a day, just on my drive to and from work. (It’s usually prefaced by mentally screaming at someone “JUST MAKE THE *$&^#$*^ TURN ALREADY!!!”) But I don’t actually do it. The public-facing self -- the non-murderous one -- may be consciously chosen, but is no less “real” for it. I suspect other people do the same, and I’ll happily take the results of their self-control instead of trying to suss out deeper impulses.
Transparency is, at best, an instrumental good. It should be used pragmatically, rather than absolutely. Let’s come up with some agreements on the boundaries, and then be glad we have them. My public self is much nicer than my private one, and I bet yours is, too. Let it be.