• 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

Declining birth rates, college anxiety and cannibals afoot.

May 7, 2021
 
 

I’ve heard presidents and administrators talk about declining birth rates quite a bit. I haven’t heard faculty or legislators even mention it.

Demographics are sort of like tectonic plates. They underlie much of what we do, but they’re invisible until they’re very much not.

Declining birth rates aren’t necessarily a bad thing. They may be a side effect of greater economic equality for women. (To the extent that declines are sharpest among women under 17, that’s probably an overall good.) Declining birth rates are likely to have unwelcome effects on higher education over time, for obvious reasons. The good news is that the ripple effects on higher ed are far enough out that we have the option of planning.

The bad news is that the short-term payoff for that sort of planning tends to be negative.

In my perfect world, we’d address the birth rate decline by making it easier to be a parent. At Brookdale we’re doing that this fall by allowing folks to reduce their in-person time on campus to 60 percent of the workweek, assuming that their colleagues can stagger schedules enough for full coverage. (The rest of the work would be done remotely, building on the capacities we’ve developed over the last year.) Ideally, that could allow someone to get home in time to meet a school bus. Even that is a heavy enough lift that I understand why it’s unusual. But the point of the Dean Dad persona was that each role should inform the other. We need to start thinking that way on a much larger scale. If parenting were less onerous, it might scare fewer people away.

In the meantime, though, we have a tectonic shift coming in a few years. Here’s hoping that we don’t miss the opportunity to plan.

--

This piece about achievement anxiety among high school students rings true. The part I recognized most was the almost-taboo admission that some students found the first few months of quarantine quite agreeable.

The Girl mentioned a couple of months ago that the stretch from March to June of 2020 was the best school experience of her life. That’s because it was entirely asynchronous, and she’s extraordinarily good at school. She could roll out of bed around 9, log on around 10, finish by 1 and have the rest of the day to herself. As an introvert and a high achiever, she was in her glory. The only set obligation was a weekly piano lesson on Zoom.

(To her credit, she admitted feeling bad that a pandemic underlay her good fortune.)

Since September, though, her school has been mostly synchronous, which means that she has been tied to set seat times. She’s enjoying that a lot less.

The other encroachment on her good time has been college anxiety. She’s handling it well, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t recognize it. We’ve been reassuring her that there are many paths to a great life, and that college admissions decisions ultimately aren’t really about her. She concedes the theoretical truth of that, but she’s 16 and we’re parents. Our reassurances get a steep discount.

--

Actual conversation with The Girl this week. We were in the car, coming back from her vaccination.

TG: I’ve been having a lot of dreams about cannibals lately.

Me: Like, being one, or being pursued by one?

TG: Neither. They’re just … there. They’re part of the scene.

Me: Maybe it’s because you’ve been reading so much about vampires lately.

TG: Vampires are different! They’re not cannibals!

Me: Sure they are! A cannibal is just a vampire with a fork.

(start laughing at my own line)

(pause)

TG: You’re proud of that, aren’t you?

Me: A little.

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