• 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.


The Attention Problem

Carrying out reforms, or not.

August 23, 2018

“Why don’t they see it?”

Melinda Karp’s article about colleges struggling to move from reform proposals to actual implementation struck a chord with me. I’ve been in the “why don’t they see it?” position enough times to have obsessed about this for a while.

Karp was a longtime member of the CCRC, second-in-command for a while.  Now she’s working with colleges across the country to help implement some of the reforms that she studied and championed.  (Full disclosure: we’re friends.) Her piece describes how easily sand gets in the gears, and some of the steps that colleges need to take to get from here to there.

She comes at the question from the perspective of a researcher; I come at it from the perspective of a practitioner.  We notice many of the same things.

She notes, correctly, that some colleges want something like “Guided Pathways” to come prefabricated, or as a simple checklist: do this, this, and that, and voila!  That rarely works, for a set of reasons. At a basic level, each context is different. That’s a function of factors ranging from different state laws to collective-bargaining status to local cultures.  For example, when I was in Massachusetts, there was a state rule declaring that no full-time faculty could teach a course that started after 4:00 p.m. New Jersey has no such rule. In collective-bargaining settings, there are often old grievance settlements or arbitration findings that become binding in ways that nobody could have foreseen at the time.  Those are facts of life.

But I think there’s a more fundamental issue, too.  I think of it as the attention problem.

As a practitioner who participates in the policy wonk world to some degree, I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to structure the college to make it better.  I engage with research and researchers, attend conferences when I can, correspond with people doing terrific work, and try to bring the best of it to bear locally, as circumstances allow.  I also deal intimately with the local rules of the game and local culture. Having worked at several different community colleges, I even bring something of a comparative perspective to bear.  And I have the wisest, worldliest readers the interwebs have to offer.

Put differently, I stew in this stuff.  

Most people don’t.  They’re focused -- appropriately -- on other things.  Faculty are largely focused on their classes. Staff are focused on their jobs.  Unions are focused on protecting incumbent employees. That’s reasonable -- in my faculty days, I focused much more on my classes and my students than on anything the administration said -- but it leads to the sort of instrumentalist reductionism that Karp laments.  If I have a bunch of other things on my mind, and someone is talking to me about Guided Pathways, I’ll immediately boil it down to “what does this mean to me?” That can quickly lead to the sort of fear-based nitpicking that some cultures are quick to deploy against anything new.

Getting past the “checklist” vision that Karp rejects requires people spending the time, with open minds, to engage with an idea at length.  In the very short term, most don’t see a reason to do that. They’re busy. I’ve had the experience many times of working well with a small group, making great progress, only to bring an idea to a larger group and see it attacked self-righteously by people using arguments that they don’t know were discredited a long time ago.

Odessa College is the exception that proves the rule.  It was able to enact a fundamental transformation of its academic calendar -- moving to shorter semesters -- and to achieve remarkable gains in student success, with the greatest gains accruing to the students who typically perform the worst.  In higher ed policy circles, that’s the gold standard. But the reason it was able to do that is that it had a gun to its head; the state of Texas had plans to close it. That solved the attention problem. Absent a visible, undeniable, existential threat, it can be a lot harder to get folks to look up at the big picture.  Of course, by the time a threat is undeniable, it may be too late.

Thoughtfully adapting complicated ideas to local contexts requires, well, thought.  It requires recognizing the importance of the idea, and being willing to devote time and suspension of disbelief long enough to get into the weeds.  And it requires large numbers of people to do those things, not just a few brave early adopters. That’s a larger ask than one might expect.

The appeal of the prefabricated checklist is that it offers the prospect of skipping the “thoughtful attention” phase.  That may sound sinister or stupid, but the attention problem is often fatal. The temptation to make it irrelevant is real.

Why don’t they see it?  They don’t know why they should.  Get past that, and the rest falls into place.  How hard can that be?...

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Matt Reed

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