• 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.


Nuggets from Conferences

Making yourself accident-prone

October 4, 2019


I’ve been encouraging a few of my colleagues to step up their conference attendance.  


Conference attendance is easy to snark at.  It can be time-consuming and expensive. Some conferences are less useful than others.  And yes, some people use conferences as excuses for goofing off, or worse. But looking back, I can see ideas that I picked up at conferences that made a real difference in my work.


In my poli sci days, useful conference moments were few and far between.  I went to APSA for probably ten years, hating nearly every minute of it. Aside from seeing friends, I remember exactly two worthwhile moments in ten years, both of them asides made in passing.  One from my colleague Lisa Adler referred to “patient capital,” a term I hadn’t heard up to that point but that helped me explain some things. The other was a comment by Frances Fox Piven, herself a sociologist: she referred to APSA as “a mechanism for the production and allocation of prestige.”  That carried with it the shock of recognition, and it helped me explain why the whole enterprise felt vaguely creepy. Suddenly I could explain the brazen and incessant nametag-gazing.


The administrative conference circuit is a different animal, with almost no overlap.  Here, the record is more encouraging.


The one that jumps out the most was a presentation by Nikki Edgecombe, of the CCRC, close to ten years ago.  She had done research on community college students in VIrginia whose placement test scores suggested that they should take developmental classes, but who skipped those classes and went into college-level courses anyway.  (“My non-compliers.”) She noted that they fared as well in the 100-level classes as the ones who were “supposed” to be there. And this was with a sample size in the six figures. I remember my jaw dropping open when she presented the punchline.  It was a fundamental re-envisioning of something I had taken as given, and it explained a lot. I’ve been a fan of her work, and of the CCRC’s, ever since.


Skepticism of both remedial courses and placement tests became a recurring interest.  A few years later, I saw a team from the Community College of Baltimore County present on the Accelerated Learning Program, a co-requisite model they used for English.  (When I subsequently arrived at Brookdale, I was happy to find that it had already started running ALP. Given the small class sizes, the trick is staffing it.) A few years ago, John Hetts did a presentation on the results from allowing students to self-report their GPA’s and thereby choose their own placement levels; the short version is, it worked.  At this point, my skepticism towards the Accuplacer is strong.


Kay McClenney deserves a category of her own.  Her work with CCSSE is well-known, and rightly so.  But as a panel moderator, she’s the best of the best.  I’ve seen her corral multiple college presidents with short but perfectly aimed questions that manage to be incisive without getting anybody’s backs up.  She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever seen; honestly, I don’t think there’s a time I’ve seen her speak that I didn’t get exhausted taking notes. My pro-tip for anyone attending an AACC or similar conference for the first time is to look for her name in the program and just go.  She “failed retirement” once already; I’m afraid that someday she’ll pass it. Until we have to miss her, don’t miss her; she makes it look easy, but it is not.


(Other not-to-be-missed figures include Gail Mellow, Freeman Hrabowski, Sandy Shugart, Paul LeBlanc, and Sara Goldrick-Rab.  You won’t go wrong with any of them.)


At the Aspen presidential fellowship, I finally saw an approach to strategic planning that made sense to me.  I had endured strategic planning at previous colleges, never really seeing the point of it. (The usual cycle went like this: everyone write down what you want, we’ll break it into themes, we’ll cut the budget, and then we’ll try to do something with whatever’s left.)  Bob Templin mentioned that he had done a strategic plan with a single goal. Suddenly it clicked. You mean, these things can have a point? That’s why the entire Academic Master Plan at Brookdale boils down to a single goal. If you have ten priorities, then you don’t have priorities; if you have one, then you do.  (This one is about achievement gaps.) Without an organizing principle, they become either wish lists or to-do lists. With an organizing principle, they actually make sense.


Conferences help, too, just by surrounding you with people dealing with many of the same issues you are.  Learning that “it’s not just me” is psychologically healthy, and learning from others’ stories can help you avoid easy pitfalls.  Over time, it also helps with impostor syndrome.


The tricky part of conferences is that much of the value is serendipitous.  Yes, some panels or presentations are worthwhile in themselves, but much of the best stuff is accidental.  Riffing on Weber, though, you may not be able to cause accidents, but you can make yourself accident-prone.  Showing up is the first step.


I mention this because when budgets are tight, travel is often one of the first things to go.  In the very short term, that makes sense; with rare exceptions, missing one conference results in immediate savings without obvious cost.  But over time, the cost of missed opportunities and ideas unheard adds up. Better to find ways to participate, even if only occasionally, than to assume that everything that needs to be known is already known.  If I believed that, I never would have gone into education in the first place.  



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