• 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.



Clarity counts.

September 30, 2019

Travel budgets didn’t allow for flying to Texas for the #RealCollege conference this year, which was probably just as well; I’ve spent the last several days battling a nasty cold anyway. Happily, between Twitter and a live feed, I was able to pick up a few things without being Patient Zero on a plane.

The most basic was a need for translation.

Every industry has words that it uses differently than the rest of the world does. For example, the insurance industry uses “deductible” to refer to a part I pay, as opposed to a part that’s deducted from the bill. After all these years, that still strikes me as backward. Cellular companies keep finding different meanings of “unlimited,” none of which resembles any established English-language usage. (Verizon’s recent “beyond unlimited” came perilously close to Buzz Lightyear’s “To infinity …and beyond!” except that Pixar was in on the joke. I don’t think Verizon is.)

In higher ed, though, we’re awash in them. And they matter because they’re transparent to students with higher social capital, and opaque to students with less.

As one #RealCollege speaker noted, an easy case is the use of “R” on schedules to mean “Thursday.” A class that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays will often be denoted “TR” on a student’s schedule; we assume that students know what that means. And that isn’t just a matter for a smirk and a shrug, like on the Tuesday after a Monday holiday when someone mentions that it feels like a Monday. Students misunderstanding their schedules can mean taking on hours at their jobs that conflict with class times, and/or setting up the wrong transportation networks, and/or generating childcare emergencies.

Titles like “bursar,” “dean” and “provost” are also without referent for most students. Generally, they’ve never heard of bursars or provosts at all. If they’ve heard of deans, it’s either in the context of college frat comedies, or, as my stepsister once put it, “like a principal.” The difference between an “adviser” and a “counselor” is similarly opaque. If your previous frame of reference is a guidance counselor, I can see the confusion. Even the distinction between “course” and “section” is easy to miss, with obvious consequences.

As several folks noted, “office hours” can sound forbidding if you don’t know what they’re for; I’ve heard students say that they thought it referred to times when the professor should be left undisturbed in the office. It’s a plausible interpretation of an ambiguous term. A term like “student hours” to refer to the same thing would be much clearer, and at no great cost or effort.

When we survey students, word choice matters quite a bit. A student who is couch surfing and/or sleeping in a car at night may not identify as “homeless,” either because the term connotes a particular image that doesn’t fit or because it implies permanence to what the student considers a passing phase. “Hungry” is even worse; depending on context, it can mean nearly anything. (I’m told that millennials have assigned an altogether new meaning to “thirsty,” too, but that’s for another blog.) Rather than asking about homelessness or hunger, it’s more accurate to ask about whether the student has had a day in the last month when they didn’t know where they’d sleep that night; rather than asking about hunger, it’s more accurate to ask if the student has missed meals for lack of money, or has had days when they didn’t know where the next meal was coming from. Some might bash the effort as “political correctness,” but it’s really about factual correctness. I’m hungry when I get up in the morning, but that’s not the same as “hunger” as a social issue. If we pick the wrong words, the answers are misleading.

Wise and worldly readers, which higher ed words confused you the most as a student? Alternately, have you found better translations for other terms that we use regularly? Students have a better shot at navigating our institutions if they know what we’re trying to say.


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