• 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.


Thoughts I Can’t Shake

The Girl: “If you dug a tunnel to China, would the hole in the earth make a whistling sound as the earth turned?”

April 5, 2012

The Girl: “If you dug a tunnel to China, would the hole in the earth make a whistling sound as the earth turned?”


I first saw this piece a week or two ago, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. It argues that certain jobs, such as management, call on skills that are remarkably hard to discern from the outside. Therefore in filling those jobs, employers tend to fall back on experience as a criterion, since it’s easier to see and quantify. As a result, the piece argues, experience is overrated (and overcompensated), and capable-but-unproven people often don’t get the chance to prove themselves in the first place.

There’s some truth to that, though I’d add that experience doesn’t only reveal underlying strengths; it also develops them, at least to a point. If that sounds sketchy when applied to administration, think of it as applied to teaching; most teachers don’t do the best work of their career in the first class they ever taught.  It takes a little while to get the hang of it. The benefits of experience aren’t necessarily linear -- I tend to think they’re frontloaded, with diminishing returns beyond a certain point -- but they aren’t zero, either.

But you can only develop those strengths by getting the opportunity in the first place.  And that’s where I foresee administrative hiring in higher ed getting even harder in the next several years.  


‘Tis Spring, which means it’s ceremony season, which means it’s time for the ritual butchering of the last names.  

Anyone who has had to read long lists of unfamiliar student names knows the drill.  And no matter how many safeguards we build in, someone always winds up wincing in pain as the speaker turns three syllables into five, or leaves off a hyphenation, or gets stuck, starts again, gets stuck again, laughs, and generally calls attention to himself.

Even knowing how words are usually pronounced doesn’t necessarily help. I used to live in a part of the country where Indian names were common, so I learned to pronounce names like “Sapana.” (It’s pronounced “Suppna.”) I surprised many a Sapana by getting that right.

Now I’m in an area with lots of French last names. Some have adopted English pronunciations and some haven’t. Quick: does “DuBois” rhyme with “Francois” or “Rejoice”?  (Answer: yes.) And I still haven’t mastered “Nguyen.”  

The only helpful hint I can offer is to commit to one pronunciation, no matter how wrong, and just do it. The start-stop-start-stop-start thing is worse than just a straight-up error. And just accept the fact that no matter how hard you try, someone out there will think you’re an idiot.


Program Note: Since my publisher has started using phrases like “it sure would be a shame...,” I’ll be away from the blog next week, trying to make the manuscript look like I meant that all along.  I’ll resume posting for Monday, April 16. 


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