• 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

A good first impression of college, learning from failure ... and more.

November 17, 2016
 

Last week, on election night, the honors students at the college hosted a viewing party to watch the returns as they came in. I took The Girl, who has clearly inherited my fascination with politics.

We only stayed until about 9:00, because twelve year olds have bedtimes. But I was struck at how easily she took to the setting. She met my president and one of the deans, and held her own in conversation with both. We did a political trivia quiz while waiting for returns, which featured questions like “which president had a pet alligator?” (John Quincy Adams. To me, the more interesting question is _why_ he had a pet alligator…)  

The students were great, and the professor who emceed had infectious enthusiasm. (TG: “He seems fun!”) A student who sat at our table seemed surprised when she discovered that she was sitting next to the president, but she quickly settled in. And yes, there were snacks.

It was a small thing, but it felt like the sort of event that colleges should have. Students got to mark a moment in history, and do it socially. The Girl had a chance to see young adults in their natural habitat, and decided it looked like fun.  

It wasn’t job preparation, and we didn’t do an outcomes assessment. I don’t care. It was exactly the sort of thing a community college should do. And I know a certain twelve year old who came away thinking college looks pretty great.

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I’ve mentioned from time to time that the ratio of conference papers on “here’s how we achieved raging success” to “here’s where we face-planted” tends to be about 100:0. So I was heartened to see a report of a panel at APLU in which people from several colleges admitted programmatic failures, and discussed what they had learned.

I’ve had my share, too. As Tolstoy would put it, every unhappy intervention is unhappy in its own way. Still, sometimes there are common denominators.  The most frequent one I’ve seen, both in my own efforts and in seeing what others have done, comes from only partially understanding the reality of the person you’re trying to reach.  

At some level, that’s inevitable; we’re not clairvoyant, and a program that meets one person’s needs can be an awkward fit for another’s. But a near miss can sometimes be as frustrating as a clear miss, just because so much good-faith effort went into the near miss.  

“Failure studies” might not look great as a major on a job application, but if we’re serious about figuring out what will work, we’d better pay attention to what hasn’t.

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Kind of silly, but too great not to share. What happened to Oliver Cromwell’s head?

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Last Spring I had the chance to do a presentation to a local senior citizens’ group about the election. They invited me back this week to do a post-mortem.

Seniors are a great group for discussing politics. They have long historical frames of reference; when I referred at one point to Geraldine Ferraro, they all nodded in recognition. They have firmly developed points of view, and no reticence at all about sharing them. They’re not afraid to argue, and they don’t give a single hoot about a grade.  

This time I remembered to use a large font on the handout. It makes a difference.

The highlight, I think, was the discussion of the electoral college and of the effects of gerrymandering on equal representation. If you base representation partly on geography, and one group is clustered while the other is spread out, the one that’s spread out will be overrepresented. That’s without any “cheating” per se; it’s a perfectly predictable side effect of a voting system. When I got to the idea of “faithless electors,” a few of them gasped. They just couldn’t believe such a thing could be.  

As with the election night viewing party, the session struck me as the sort of thing that a community college should do.  The community is more than just credit-seeking students, and the college is more than a credential factory.  Every so often, it’s heartening to be reminded of that.

 

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