• 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

Pointed observations, the Obama ratings, student support, Lego and more ....

December 18, 2014

Wednesday night, at dinner:

The Boy: What did you do at work today?

Me: I saw some student presentations of their end-of-semester projects. It was fun, since I don’t usually get to see students do their thing.

The Girl: Were they science projects?

Me: No, they were presentations about finances. I sat in the back of the room along with a dean and someone from a local business, and we offered feedback.

TG: Why? Wouldn’t the professor do that?

Me: She did, but she brought us in to help it feel more...official. I was especially glad that the guy from (local business) was there. Having an external visitor can get the students to focus a little more. A little stage fright can be motivating.

TG: You didn’t need the other guy. You can be intimidating, too. You have that thing.

Me: That thing?

TG: You know, this. (Makes deadpan expression with unblinking stare.)

TB: (laughs) You do!

The Wife: (covering her face, laughing)

Me: Thanks...


I have to tip my cap to the Department of Education for issuing its PIRS ratings on the Friday before Christmas.  Expect a post in January about it.  My fearless prediction: it will include perverse incentives.  You heard it here first...


Tressie McMillan Cottom’s piece here is characteristically good. I think she’s right that the next big thing in the sociology of higher education will be figuring out how to do student support with online students. Some students, apparently, are already taking the task upon themselves, so we know the need exists. And those of us who take seriously the need to reduce achievement gaps need to come to grips with the statistics suggesting that achievement gaps are usually worse online. To the extent that online is the wave of the future, either we raise our game or we see even larger gaps than we see now.  


Last weekend we had the regional First Lego League tournament. The Girl’s team competed, and I got to serve as a judge.  (I recused myself from judging her team.)  The Boy even volunteered as a sort of gopher.

The kids are divided into teams, and each team has a couple of tasks to perform.  One involves programming a robot to navigate an obstacle course and rack up points.  They also have to do, and present, a research project. One group of judges looks at the robot, one looks at the group project, and one looks at “gracious professionalism,” or how positive the interpersonal dynamics are on the team. I was in the third group.

You’d be amazed by what you can pick up by watching a group of ten-year-olds do a task for ten minutes.  Some groups are inclusive, while others are clearly divided into doers and watchers.  Some are clearly self-directed, while some seem lost without their coach.  If you ever want to develop a deeper respect for elementary school teachers, spend some time observing ten year olds’ group dynamics.  Seriously.  

The crowd at a First Lego League tournament is a sight to behold.  The atmosphere falls somewhere between Comic-Con and a pep rally, and I mean that as a compliment.  Silly hats and t-shirts are pretty much required, including for the judges, which made for an awkward moment when a math professor from my campus recognized me.  (“Nice hat, Matt!”  Uh, thanks…)  But everyone seemed to grasp the balance between earnest and goofy that the day required, and it was hard not to enjoy watching the kids’ expressions when their robots did something right.

The Girl’s team was one of six to make it to the state finals, so she’s off to WPI in Worcester for the next round, showing the state how it’s done.  Graciously.


The other theme of the weekend was music.

TB’s star turn came on Saturday, after finishing his shift as gopher at FLL. His band did its first official gig at a local nursing home. They did an instrumental cover of “Paint It Black,” by the Rolling Stones, for reasons I never quite caught. When they finished, one resident wheeled herself over to compliment them, so they’ve had their first real audience response. When ya got it, ya got it.

Sunday brought the recital. The Boy played guitar, accompanying a much younger singer he had never met.  He did remarkably well, given the circumstances; he figured out quickly that his main job was to make the singer look good, so he played at a restrained volume and a very steady pace.  From the audience, you wouldn’t have known they had never met. I was impressed.

The Girl played “Fur Elise” on the piano. Bless her, she doesn’t know that classical music is supposed to be intimidating, so she beat it like a rug. I’ve never heard a version quite as ... kinetic ... as hers.  She has a pretty percussive style anyway, but adding some adrenaline from stage fright, she really let it fly. I once heard someone describe a song by NRBQ as sounding like the Joker had stolen the Batmobile and was doing donuts through Gotham City; that’s kind of how she played. TG may project poise and equanimity most of the time, but she plays like the stage is on fire. Poor Ludwig didn’t know what hit him.

Along wth the rest of InsideHigherEd, the blog will be taking a holiday break.  Best wishes to my wise and worldly readers for a happy 2015!


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