• 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

Seattle, service learning, leadership and more.

April 10, 2015

Greetings from Seattle!  I’m here, fighting off some serious jet lag, for the Chair Academy conference.

It’s my first time in Seattle since 1996.  The place is a lot wealthier than I remember it. Less flannel, more beards, but it still seems like a much larger (and richer) version of Burlington, Vermont. That’s not a bad thing; I like Burlington a lot. But the money difference is striking.

When I got on the plane in Boston, it was gray, rainy, and freezing. When I got off the plane here, it was sunny and warm, and the trees had leaves. When Seattle is the sunny and warm destination, you know New England has gone too far.

I had hoped to catch the Replacements concert, but between a sellout and jet lag, it’s not happening. Adulthood has its flaws. Still, I tip my cap to those brave souls venturing out to see Paul and Tommy. For my money, “Left of the Dial” and “Answering Machine” remain two of the most honest love songs ever written, even if kids today have no idea what either a dial or an answering machine were. Adulthood has its consolations, too.


The Chronicle had a good piece on Connect2Complete, a project of Campus Compact that uses service learning as a tool to engage students in developmental classes. The idea is that students in developmental classes often feel insulted by the need to take them, and detached from the college, so they walk away. Getting them engaged in service learning is a way to increase their sense of belonging. Early results are encouraging, though the grant that funded its creation is going away.

It reminded me of a discussion I’ve had a few times with our service learning coordinator. She mentioned that many colleges treat service learning as a sort of charitable anthropology: send the upper-middle-class students into neighborhoods they’ve never seen, so they can “give back.” But that formation, as problematic and patronizing as it is, really doesn’t fit many community college students.  Many of our students came directly from the communities service learning programs serve. They don’t need exposure. Their lives are exposure.

The whole rhetoric of “giving back” doesn’t resonate with people who haven’t really taken anything yet.  At this level, the lessons are very different.

Still, I’m happy to see any high-impact practice actually succeed with developmental students.  I’ll be intrigued to see if they can scale when the grant goes away.


I arrived at the conference in time to catch a presentation by Richard Strand on building a culture of leadership.  

Strand is the executive director of the academy, and a retired Army colonel. I had to smile at his description of the culture shock in moving from the military to higher education. (“It used to be that when I walked into a room, people saluted!”) It reminded me of Dwight Eisenhower’s claim that the hardest job he ever had was being president of Columbia University. Higher ed is its own, distinct culture.

At one point, we broke into groups, and discussed moments of leadership we had either observed or exhibited. In my group, all three of us told essentially the same story: a leader saw potential in someone who had been typecast as something else, and acted on that potential. “Talent scout” doesn’t often get discussed as a leadership trait, but it should be.  


Finally, a pure parental brag that I just can’t pass up. The Wife was taking a shower and I was writing when the phone rang, so The Girl picked it up. It was for TW. The Girl responded, in an even tone:

“I’m sorry, she’s indisposed right now. Can I take a message?”

A ten-year-old used “indisposed” appropriately.  Word-nerd Dad that I am, I high-fived her afterwards.  


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