• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

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Friday Fragments

Lessons from a service trip abroad; Mama Mia II; transfer students; meritocracy myths.

August 2, 2018
 
 

The Boy returned from Honduras last Sunday. I wasn’t sure what to expect; so far, the biggest effect seems to be a wildly compressed schedule of makeup sessions for the week of EMT classes he missed.

Still, I had to smile at the things he noticed, as opposed to what I might have.

After four days of manual labor, the kids were supposed to get a beach day to decompress. That didn’t happen; apparently mass protests blocked off the main highway, and the organizers were afraid that if they went, they wouldn’t be able to return.  TB noticed the weather, and the loss of the beach day; it barely occurred to him to ask what the protests were about. That would have been my first question.

I was impressed at how composed he remained, even after an 18 hour airport wait for the flight, and a 5:00 a.m. arrival in Newark.  (They left the camp in the middle of the night to dodge the protests.) As parents, we never rewarded tantrums; I was proud to see how pragmatic and cool he was able to remain, even in the face of travel frustrations that could have been maddening.  It’s a running joke in the family that the motto on the family crest should be the Latin version of “walk it off!” I’m thinking that as he deals with the stresses of college, that will serve him well.

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The Girl, meanwhile, went with a few of her friends to see Mama Mia II. I had pickup duty, so I got to hear their spirited rendition of “Dancing Queen” all the way home.  

When we got home, she mentioned that there was a row of adult women behind them who stood and danced through the last ten minutes of the movie. The showing was nearly sold out. When I asked if she saw any men in the theater, she paused, considered it, and answered with a “no” in a now-that-you-mention-it tone.

Bless her, that a stereotype didn’t occur to her.  I actually feel guilty about asking.

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I’m glad to see transfer students finally get some respect, even if it remains patchy.  

They should. They’ve shown the ability to complete a program, which makes them good bets to complete subsequent ones.  We’ve pre-screened for success, so the receiving schools know they’re getting strong students. And from the perspective of the receiving schools, they do a nice job of compensating for attrition from the freshman and sophomore years.  

Of course, those have always been true. The real change of late is market demand.  With declines in the population of new high school grads, higher ed is becoming much more of a buyer’s market.  Students who used to be seen as surplus are suddenly in demand. From the perspective of a “feeder” school, I say, it’s about time.

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Melinda Anderson has a smart piece in the Atlantic about the harm that the myth of meritocracy does to students of color in junior high.  My only caveat to the piece is that it’s too narrow; the damage done by the myth is far more widespread than that.

The culture of higher education is largely defined by myths of meritocracy, and their shortcomings. The damage plays out in a fairly direct way: if the best people rise to the top, and I’m on the bottom, what does that say about me?  That can lead to a self-doubt that becomes imposter syndrome even when you do succeed.

The easy defense of meritocracy boils down to “as opposed to what?,” and there’s truth in that.  To the extent that the myth offers a battering ram against identity-based exclusion, that’s to the good.  But as an industry, and a society, I’d like to see us recognize more clearly the roles of structure and of luck.  We should make a distinction between “people who lose” and “losers.”

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