• 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.

Title

Fatigue, Curmudgeons, and Grit: Day Two of the League

Frustrations and strategies.

 

March 9, 2015
 

Monday brought out the big guns.

Gerardo de los Santos and Mark Milliron presented a report on key future trends, according to a survey of community college CEO’s. The room was packed, and anyone who knows Milliron’s speaking style won’t be surprised to hear that the talk was accessible and funny. The theme, though, was fatigue. Colleges have “initiative fatigue,” “compliance fatigue,” and a sort of “misunderstanding fatigue.”  

The misunderstanding fatigue -- my term, but their content -- is the most insidious. Milliron mentioned the IPEDS graduation rate as an easy case: it’s a terrible indicator in a community college context, but it’s the one the public and press use, and it puts us on the defensive.  Hearing that a community college has a graduation rate of, say, 20% doesn’t sound great if you don’t know any better.  But those of us on the ground know that many students transfer prior to graduating, because that was their intention all along. They go on to get bachelor’s degrees, but they show up in our numbers as dropouts.  It’s a counting error, but it’s a counting error that does real economic and political harm. For example, Milliron noted that 72% of bachelor’s degree grads in Texas have “meaningful” numbers of community college credits on their transcripts. The sector should get credit for that, but doesn’t.

Milliron urged community college leaders to get more involved in the political and public discourse to try to head off those misunderstandings, though he admitted that it isn’t always obvious how to do that. In the meantime, misunderstandings persist.

Fatigue tends not to bring out the best behavior. Milliron noted, again correctly, that many community colleges develop internal cultures of blame, in which new data become the latest occasion for pin-the-blame-on-the-culprit. When that’s the order of the day, positive change becomes much harder than it needs to be. There’s a reason that “troubleshoot” includes the word “shoot.”  

Working through fatigue requires grit, which was the next presentation. Rose Mince and a cast of thousands (okay, seven) from the Community College of Baltimore County presented the results of some on-campus experiments they did to determine the relationship between “grit” -- perseverance in the face of obstacles, more or less -- and grades.  

To their considerable credit, they found that the relationship is much less obvious than one might expect. They found that the best predictors of course grades were actually..drum roll, please...previous course grades and the rate of class attendance. Grit showed a modest positive correlation with grades in intro courses in certain fields -- notably English and biology -- but no correlation in upper-level courses in those same disciplines. Intriguingly, it correlated negatively with course grades in music theory.  

The samples were small, so it would be a mistake to read too much into them, but they were certainly suggestive. Is grit always good, or is it sometimes rational to cut your losses when something just isn’t working?  (At this point, no amount of grit would allow me to play professional baseball. It’s simply not going to happen.) Might the negative correlations between grit and performance be explained by differences in preparation or talent? It stands to reason that if something comes easy for you, grit doesn’t matter much.

Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi has written about “flow” as the state of being so engrossed in an activity that draws on your higher faculties that you actually lose track of time. It’s the state in which people perform at their best. When you’re flowing, it doesn’t feel like grit.  It feels like fun, or at least like fulfillment.  You only need grit when it isn’t flowing. If that’s true, then grit may be the ladder that you can discard once you’re on the roof. Once you get really good at something, doing it well doesn’t require as much grit anymore.

Of course, there’s also an unsettling political echo to discussions of “grit” and student achievement. Yes, on a personal level, “suck it up” can sometimes be wisdom. But on a larger scale, it can quickly become a kind of victim-blaming.  It can let structures and institutions off the hook. And it can feed into that peculiar American version of Calvinism that suggests that if success is the result of hard work and virtue, then the poor must be lazy and/or corrupt.  The CCBC folk didn’t use that discourse, and I suspect they’d reject it out of hand, but it’s out there, and it has consequences.

Terry O’Banion followed with a presentation on curmudgeons on community college campuses. The room was standing-room-only, from which you may draw any conclusion you wish.  

The last time I saw O’Banion speak, he was oddly scolding, and seemed to be on the verge of sliding into curmudgeonliness. Whether coincidentally or not, this time he took curmudgeons as his subject, and it seemed to breathe life back into him.  He was lively, on-point, and laugh-out-loud funny. I was glad to see he had returned to form.

He started by asking for examples of curmudgeons from literature: folks suggested Ebenezer Scrooge, Mr. Burns, and Eeyore. (Full disclosure: Eeyore was mine.) According to his survey, curmudgeons are found primarily among full-time faculty, and disproportionately from the humanities and social sciences. They seem to feel a chronic and bottomless need to be heard, though they otherwise don’t particularly value civility or collaboration. They draw a sense of power from adopting the role of “gadfly,” and are loathe to give up that power, even as their critiques become progressively farther removed from any recognizable reality.

Curmudgeons do real harm. They drive good people out of committees or projects, simply because the good people get tired of the toxicity. Over time, a version of Gresham’s Law kicks in, and bad temperaments drive out good. Curmudgeons like to spread their poison, often going out of their way to take new hires under their wings to tell them “how the college _really_ works.” They engage in rumor-mongering, and rarely shy away from personal attacks.  Tellingly, though they enjoy their version of power, they almost always avoid actual responsibility.  

O’Banion suggested several methods for dealing with campus curmudgeons, though admitted that none is perfect.  Some presidents try to appeal to them personally, but that rarely works. Some try to isolate them, though that’s remarkably difficult in an open culture.  The most hopeful method -- though still slow and imperfect -- is to “drown them with data,” create a transparent culture, and invest in the people with positive outlooks. Some will never be won over, but it’s possible to stop the spread.  

I detected some real wisdom in that. As a political scientist, I can attest that political figures never achieve 100 percent approval ratings. The best realistic goal is to ensure that the vast middle isn’t converted.  Allow the reasonable people to be reasonable, and it’s possible (sometimes) to contain the damage from the rest. It’s not ideal, but it’s possible.

The new realism I mentioned in yesterday’s post was still very much in evidence on Monday. I take this as encouraging. On to Tuesday, when ... shameless plug alert … I’ll be presenting at 4:30 with Paula Krebs from Bridgewater State and Vanessa Ryan from Brown.  What would happen if graduate schools actually prepared grad students for teaching jobs at community colleges? Drop by and find out...

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