• 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.


Friday Fragments

The provost survey, letters of recommendation and graduation via YouTube.

May 13, 2022

The Inside Higher Ed provost survey is always fascinating. The two findings that jumped out at me this year were closely related to each other. The first was a sense that the outside world values STEM and professional fields far more than liberal arts or general education fields; the second was that they believe that most students don’t understand the point of gen ed requirements.

Both struck me as true.

Some of that, I think, is because many of the categories included in gen ed seem familiar from high school, where they were required. I remember vividly the sense of betrayal when I got to college and realized that I still had to take classes I didn’t want to take. My kids have expressed the same thing. It’s probably worse at the community college level, because transfer constraints tend to push us away from interdisciplinary freshman seminars with topical hooks and toward courses with titles like Introduction to … (courses that don’t fit neatly into a box tend not to transfer as well). The spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down is increasingly a prerogative of wealth.

The other, and more frustrating, part of it is the widespread myth that the only skills that count are the ones taught in vocational classes. That’s simply not true—good luck climbing the management ranks with lousy communication skills—but the myth persists. Worse, the myth masquerades as hard-bitten realism, when it’s really a self-defeating cynicism.

It’s a tough problem to solve, since it’s largely a symptom of much larger cultural issues. But I’d love to start with opening up the option for interdisciplinary freshman seminars with topical hooks. Embed the general education skills in courses with compelling foci and give students options, and at least some of that resistance may fade away. That requires four-year schools to be more open to accepting those classes in transfer, which is a battle I’m happy to fight.

Tim Burke’s reflections on letters of recommendation in the context of job applications or grant applications land in the right place. The core issue is that we’re trying to apply equity in a context of severe scarcity. When the number of well-qualified applicants vastly exceeds the number of available positions, some very good people lose. At some level, deciding the maximally fair way to exclude very good people is a performative contradiction. The real answer, clearly, is that we need a saner balance of supply and demand.

In industries with labor shortages, we don’t see less than superlative letters tanking candidacies. In fact, we don’t see letters at all. They’re too busy trying to find good people to spend time nitpicking terrific ones.

For what it’s worth, I tend to see references as something to check at the end to see if anything alarming comes up. In other words, I don’t use them to distinguish degrees of “excellent.” I use them to see if there’s anything alarming or disqualifying. Every so often, there is. That’s relatively rare, which I take as a sign of having good taste. But the larger issue still stands.

Although my COVID symptoms are largely gone, I’ve still been testing positive, so I had to watch graduation from afar. Specifically, on YouTube.

It’s not the same.

This year we moved graduation back indoors, to the arena. Over the last two years, we did drive-up graduations under a tent in one of the parking lots. The upsides of the arena are the sense of tradition, the feeling of a shared event and the security of climate control. (The first year we did graduation outside, it was over 90 degrees.) The downsides are that nobody brings their dogs on stage anymore—I always enjoyed announcing, “Ashley Ramirez, with Buddy”—and that I had to miss it.

Graduation is always one of the best moments of the year. I love watching the families in the stands as students’ names are called, and watching the mini celebrations break out in random spots across the arena. On YouTube, though, I could only see what the camera saw. It was much better than nothing, but I’ll be glad to be able to show up in person again.


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