• 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

Friday Fragments

Bernie memes, more tips on spotting colleges in trouble and the unmourned death of the SAT essay.

January 22, 2021
 
 

Amid all of the drama and pomp, I have to admit enjoying the photo of Bernie Sanders sitting alone at the inauguration. It’s just very … him.

The memes have been a blast. My favorites involve Bernie in the sled at the Iditarod, and Bernie sitting next to either Statler or Waldorf (I was never sure which was which) in the balcony at The Muppet Show. The Girl found a site where you can paste Bernie into a picture, so she pasted him sitting next to her grandpa. They wouldn’t agree politically, but the personalities aren’t that far apart. Neither has much patience for shenanigans.

Amanda Gorman was brilliant, President Biden’s speech was solid and it was hard not to smile seeing Barack Obama and Kamala Harris fist-bump. But mostly I just felt relief. Coming just two weeks after a racist insurrection that killed a cop, it was heartening to see signs of “normal.” I thought Biden’s speech was a bit overpraised, but I understand the impulse; we’re hungry for “normal,” and that’s exactly what he delivered.

And of course, as a community college person, it did my heart good to see Dr. Jill Biden up there. Unlike many Washington types, she doesn’t have to be reminded that community colleges exist.

Institutions are flawed in a myriad of ways, but their absence is much worse. Bernie’s picture captures a basic truth: he may be unimpressed, but he showed up. There’s virtue in that.

--

In response to the query about recognizing sinking ships when you see one, a few more tips came in:

  • If you get a chance to see the institution’s budget, look at the deferred maintenance line. (I’m not entirely sure I agree with this; I’ve heard of inflated figures being used to parry unions in negotiations.)
  • Talk to a recent hire to get their impressions. (I’m fully on board with this one.)
  • The Hechinger Report has a financial fitness tool that might be worth a look. It rates the economic seaworthiness of various colleges. It’s a bit of a blunt instrument, but the trend lines can be revealing.

Keep those tips coming!

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The Girl is not shedding any tears over the SAT eliminating the essay portion. I don’t blame her.

She’s a terrific writer. She has a weekly column in her school paper -- apparently the deadline-writer gene got passed down -- and she reads voraciously and well. (She’s going through an Oscar Wilde phase now.) Some college English department is going to count its blessings about a year and a half from now when she arrives. But when she took the SAT last fall, her essay score was “meh.” We have no idea why.

If the test can’t spot obvious talent, then it deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Locally, we’ve moved away from high-stakes testing and toward looking at high school records when placing students. I hope the colleges she applies to do the same. Look at the body of work she has published, and at her grades in difficult classes, rather than something she had to handwrite in a packed gym with a time limit on a topic she didn’t choose after having done three hours of multiple choice. Under those circumstances, I’d struggle to string sentences together, too.

The best predictor of doing well in school is having done well in school. I’ve seen that in research and on my own campus; now I’m seeing it with my own daughter. Goodbye, SAT essay. You won’t be missed.

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