The Technological Avalanche

The ubiquitous ID sweep, this one at DePaul University

I recently visited a college nursing program that has an entire suite fitted out as a hospital ward, with the standard array of oxygen and electrical and data infrastructure provided to each bed, the standard array of bedside intravenous pumps, blood-pressure cuffs, and heart monitors. In every bed was a medical mannequin, more than a few of which were computer-controlled and responsive to student actions. Nursing students could be presented with breathing complications, convulsions, or seizures; they could inadvertently create those conditions themselves by incorrectly administering medications. They could assist with a vaginal or a cesarean-section birth, could listen to the mannequins give self-reports of their presenting conditions to aid in diagnosis.

In an adjacent set of rooms, control centers had been set up for the observation of students by a nursing instructor. The instructor could see and hear everything in the simulation studio, could videotape the events, and could have a record of the mannequin’s simulated body functions during the students’ intervention. All of this could be used both to assess students in the moment, and to review performance alongside students later on.

As much as I’m in favor of nursing students injuring mannequins instead of me while they practice, it’s important to recognize what an investment that simulation suite represents. And then to multiply that investment across dozens of campus locations: the computer-imagery rendering studios of the graphic design and film departments, the big-data analytics systems in marketing and geographic information systems programs, the supercomputer employed by scientists and engineers, the giant databases in use in the digital humanities. Every department on campus is a computer science department.

Individual faculty, and groups of faculty, also have research equipment of remarkable sophistication. The science departments have increasing arrays of spectrophotometers and ultracentrifuges, microfurnaces and cryofreezers, ultraviolet transilluminators and phosporimagers—tools of science once reserved only for elite researchers, but now increasingly made available to students as well. Even the model shops of architecture schools have become “fabrication labs,” with 3D printers, computer-guided routers, laser cutters, and robotic-arm milling machines.

This array represents another unspoken conflict between safely tenured faculty, who get to advocate for the teaching and research tools they want, and the adjuncts who are marginalized at least in part because of the cost of the TT’s toolkit, and who themselves never get access to the best parts of it. So let’s be blunt: Would faculty and students be better served with more tools, or with more colleagues? Who would benefit differently from different balances of those variables?

Then add on all of the nonacademic computing. The thousands of desktop computers and printers, the classrooms with their multiple LED projectors, instructor kiosks, and smartboards. The wireless network covering every building and the entire grounds besides. The email server. The faculty and staff smartphones. The learning management system, facilitating the global university archive of every course handout, every reading, every out-of-class conversation, every quiz taken, every homework submitted, every midterm and final grade, every instructor evaluation. The sweep cards that control building, room, and parking lot entry, and also record today’s lunch purchase against one’s prepaid meal plan. The academic records-management system coordinating financial aid, advising, registration, and transcripts for hundreds of thousands of a college’s current and former students.

It’s easy, in the face of this technological avalanche, to be curmudgeonly, to talk about how simple things were when one was a kid, to remind everyone how millions of people got trained to be pretty effective nurses before simulation labs. And I don’t want to go there. I recognize the power of all of this technology, and I also recognize that students are being prepared to enter adult life in technologically mediated careers. All true, all important. But there are industry estimates that the annual worldwide expenditures on educational technology are approaching a quarter of a trillion dollars a year, and dollars spent on technology are dollars not spent on faculty. If we’re going to make the choice, we need to know that we’re making the choice.

Keeping Up

Miriam Honsacker, Vermont Public Radio

It’s been a strange winter. It rained a lot in the fall, so the ground was completely saturated before the first snow. Then we’ve gone back and forth between –22° three weeks ago to almost 50° yesterday, so every time we get a foot or two of snow, it becomes more water within a week.

As a result, our rural roads are a swampy disaster. Vermont has always known that there are five seasons to the year, with “mud season” nestled between winter and spring. But for the past two or three years, mud season has been the longest season of the year, from late November until mid-May, because we just haven’t had the two consecutive months of frozen weather that harden up the roads.

Being on our town’s selectboard, I’ve learned more than I ever imagined I would about the care of unpaved roads. (I woke up this morning, 16° and really windy out, and my first thought was “great, this’ll help evaporate the mud.”) In a normal winter, the road crew would go out in a storm and keep plowing the frozen dirt roads, finishing the storm with a coat of mixed sand and salt to bring some grip to the plowed surface. But when the roads are like this, you don’t want to plow, because you just push mud up the road and tear up the surface worse than it had been. And you can’t bring the big equipment up, because you just sink in while you’re trying to carry the gravel to the work that you need to do. So our road crew is putting in ten- and twelve-hour days, six days a week, trying to lay stone and rebuild failed shoulders in preparation for what looks like a foot of snow on Tuesday.

We make our plans, we lay out a course… and then things happen, and we have to do our best every day with what falls on us. And there’s something noble about just keeping up, about sighing and putting on your jacket and going out and doing the daily stuff. One of our crew members was talking with me this morning while he was loading stone, conferring over where the rough spots were. I thanked him for all the work he’d been doing, and he smiled and said, “My wife asked me when I thought we could have a whole weekend off. I told her probably about mid-June…”

Take courage in the daily work. Step up and take it on and do it again, and again. You don’t think people notice, but they do.

Two Paths Diverged…

Yesterday, I wrote about the different college experiences of students able to sustain a single curricular engagement than of those who transferred credits to complete their degrees at another college. One of the facts I hinted at was that different kinds of colleges offer their students “different kinds of life prospects.” Let’s explore that a little more, with the help of an economist.

(This is one of those brilliant empirical moments, by the way, that takes something you’d always suspected, and asks a couple of simple questions that make a phenomenon way clearer…)

So Joni Hersch, an economist teaching about employment discrimination at the Vanderbilt University Law School, asked a simple question. Let’s say that person A and person B both graduated from an elite graduate school; let’s say, oh, with MBAs from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. You’d expect that similar degrees with similar records would lead to similar outcomes in career terms—employment patterns, income, leadership positions over time.

But Dr. Hersch asked a simple question: What if person A and person B did their undergraduate degrees at different kinds of schools? What if person A got a bachelor’s degree from USC, and person B got a bachelor’s degree from Sonoma State?

Well, you guessed it. The reputational value of one’s undergraduate institution was “sticky,” resulted in better employment prospects and greater earnings throughout adult life. I’ll let Dr. Hersch have the floor here for a moment:

Few graduates of nonselective institutions continue to graduate or professional schools, and among those that do, very few move to higher-ranked post- BA programs. And even when they do, their earnings do not catch up to their counterparts with elite undergraduate degrees… [The phenomenon of] “undermatching… may have permanent consequences if high ability students who do not attend elite institutions for their bachelor’s degree are unable to overcome their initial placement by moving up to an elite graduate or professional school for a post-baccalaureate degree.

Hersch, “Catching Up Is Hard To Do: Undergraduate Prestige, Elite Graduate Programs, and the Earnings Premium,” 2014.

When I went to college forty years ago, no one in my family had college experience. So when I was accepted to the University of Michigan, to Michigan State University, and to Michigan Tech, I had no way of knowing the differences among them, and no one I knew who could coach me into understanding. Millions of kids now are in the same boat; they’re about to be first-generation college students, smart as hell, but no one to tell them that saving a little money by living at home and going to Castleton State College (excuse me… Castleton University) is going to hinder their earnings for a lifetime compared to attending Middlebury College or the University of Vermont.

As David Labaree writes in A Perfect Mess, his marvelous history of American higher ed:

Stratification is at the heart of American education. It’s the price we pay for the system’s broad accessibility. We let everyone in, but they all get a different experience, and they all win different social benefits from those experiences. In this way the system is both strongly populist and strongly elitist, allowing ordinary people a high possibility of getting ahead through education and a low probability of getting ahead very far.

We imagine that “a bachelor’s degree” is the name of a recognizable thing, but really, it’s more like saying “a restaurant.” We might mean The French Laundry or Eleven Madison Park. We might mean a nice night in a nearby town. Or we might mean Denny’s. Our focus on college accessibility and degree attainment is simultaneously noble and misleading.

The Privilege of the Non-Transfer Student

About 40 percent of all young people who actually complete a college degree will get that degree from a college other than the one at which they began. The business of transfer credit is a massive change in higher ed over the past fifty years, going from being an occasional need to a regular part of doing business. Whether it’s the cost-conscious student who launches with two years at a community college before continuing at the regional state school, or the student who follows a friend or a partner to a new campus, or the student who’s had to take some time away and then come back to school after they’ve moved across the country or had a child, transfer credit is just a baseline of America’s higher education model, and an important contribution to college accessibility.

But the ability to do college without transfer credit, the ability to do it “the old-fashioned way,” is actually a marker of an enormous number of other benefits and privileges that go unspoken. The most obvious, of course, is that a non-transfer student has the life stability and the financial resources to stay put, to avoid disruption, to take the simple ballistic path of starting in Fall ’19 and finishing in Spring ’23. At schools that rarely take transfer students, in fact, the incoming freshmen will be met at the door with materials proclaiming them in advance to be The Class of 2023. The presumption of continuity is a taken-for-granted part of their experience.

And when we talk about transfer credit, what kinds of schools are we talking about? Community colleges are almost entirely in the transfer credit business, creating detailed articulation agreements with schools throughout their region, bolting their gen-ed engines into other schools’ majors. The recipients of those transfer students are most often the lower tier of state institutions, the so-called “regional comprehensives” like UW-Parkside or Eastern Michigan or Cal State Stanislaus. The flagship research universities, the public elites, take far fewer transfers than the regionals. Only about three percent of the University of Michigan’s undergrads got there through transfer; four percent of the University of Vermont; four percent of the University of North Carolina.

The private elite schools take even fewer. When Princeton decided to accept thirteen transfer students for Fall 2018, it was a news story. Duke has half a percent of undergrads who transferred; Stanford slightly less than that. These are schools designed for the comfortable, designed for those who can take an uninterrupted four year path for granted.

And the courses that most often qualify for transfer applicability—courses in the general education and introductory curricula—are the ones most often remanded to adjunct faculty in those less-than-elite colleges. It’s not that adjuncts are bad teachers, far from it. But contingent faculty have less awareness of the other resources that the college has, they aren’t available for out-of-class consultations either during the semester or in subsequent semesters, they can’t do any meaningful advising because they don’t know the school or even their own departments well enough to offer well-informed coaching. They can’t welcome students to be a member of the community, because they aren’t part of the community themselves

When we think of transfer students, we most often think that it’s just another path to college completion. But it’s not a parallel path—it’s a path to a different definition of college completion, at a different kind of college that carries different kinds of life prospects, with a different set of experiences along the way.

More on that tomorrow.

Just a Little Off the Top…

I lost a job today.

For the past ten years, I’ve been leading a summer faculty development workshop for a college. It’s been really well received, lots of repeat attendance as well as new folks each year, and I humbly believe that it’s had some impact on their school’s culture. But alas, this morning I learned that several consecutive years of enrollment shortfalls have left that school unable to afford this year’s event.

It’s a tough time for anyone to count on income from higher education right now. But, you know, don’t cry for me, Argentina, and all that. I have a different point to make here.

At lunch, when I told Nora, she said that aside from all the reasons why this was unfortunate, it was galling that a university with an operating budget in the upper tens of millions of dollars couldn’t manage to sustain a fifteen thousand dollar event (that wasn’t my fee, by the way; that was four days of a facility rental and four days of food, and a stipend and travel costs for me and for another workshop leader). And yes, when each item is examined on its own, a productive event that amounted to 0.02% of their annual budget seems silly to trim away. But let’s look at the whole of the thing.

Here are some of the non-academic, or co-academic, offices that this school operates, a roster similar to hundreds of other schools its size:

  • an alumni and giving office
  • an athletic department
  • security and parking oversight
  • a career services office
  • a tutoring and student academic support center
  • a human resources office
  • endless amounts of instructional and business computing
  • an office dedicated to institutional research and assessment (my old job at a different school)
  • an office of grant support for faculty research
  • a health and wellness center
  • food service and housing
  • coordination for conferences and other facility rentals
  • an arts and cultural program
  • an office of diversity and inclusion

These are now all indispensable components of any credible college. They are the baseline, the functions that must be available. So when budget crises come, it isn’t possible to eliminate one of them and leave all of the others whole. Safer to starve everyone a little bit than to throw one off the boat altogether.

What IS a College?

This morning’s Daily Briefing from the Chronicle of Higher Education contains a link to an op-ed by Scott D. Miller, the president of Virginia Wesleyan College. In it, he talks the way that you’d expect a college president to talk—in platitudes, yes, but more centrally about colleges as businesses. Regarding the various threats facing smaller schools, he writes:

Those willing to take an objective look at their missions, their capacity for innovation, their planning and financial models, and their relationships with home communities and synergistic partners will stand the best chance of remaining viable. 

Dilbert could not have done better.

Language aside, though, we have to remember that this is a man charged with running a very large and very complicated business, with over forty divisions. And just as Vivek Sankaran, the CEO of Frito-Lay North America, doesn’t often grab a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos from the rack at the mini-mart, the president of any college has a remarkably distant relationship to what happens in a classroom, or a dormitory, or the admissions office. For its executives, a snack food manufacturer or a college is a money-harvesting machine, a predator whose metabolism burns through resources, always on the alert for its next meal.

The fact is that higher education is any number of different things, depending on where an individual stands within it. For permanent faculty, a school is an employer, in daily contact reduced to a single department. For contingent faculty, a school is a gig, a logistical and navigational challenge that must be met fresh every day. It’s also a statement of faith—that membership in this community is so emotionally important that they’re willing to endure remarkable suffering and disrespect to remain its tenuous members.

And for students? That experience varies enormously, based on the kind of school you go to and how you got there and various aspects of your identity and all of the other cultural resources you have available. But, although it’s passe, let’s think about the student experience of a college—any college—through Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

For far too many students, the basic physiological needs of food and shelter are inconsistent or unavailable. For women or people of color or people who are LGBTQ or have physical disabilities, the second level of safety is also not taken for granted, can be withdrawn without warning. Maslow claimed that if the more basic needs aren’t met, it’s awfully difficult to rise to the challenges of those higher and more ephemeral levels.

But if we could take all of levels 1 and 2 for granted, if every student came to us comfortably housed and decently fed and free from concern over physical safety, the most fundamental work of an institution would then be to help all of its members feel that they belong, that they are valued members of the community. If you don’t feel like others value your presence, if they don’t actively embrace your membership, then it’s worth wondering if you should come back for another semester.

It’s that layer, the sense of college as fellowship, as family, that’s missing at too many institutions and for too many of its members. Community colleges, for instance, are essentially every-man-or-woman-for-themselves experiences, with little opportunity or mechanism for larger collegiate life. That’s equally true for their faculty, the vast majority of whom have no affiliation (and remember that the root of affiliation is filius or son, a beloved and valued member of the family). When we look at a college’s retention and graduation rates, we can wonder about the merits of the academic offerings or the selectivity of admissions that allows the unprepared to give it a shot anyway, but we should consider another and probably more important fact—coming back to school for another semester is fundamentally a decision to rejoin a community. If that community doesn’t love you, it’s harder to make that decision.

So yes, a college is its police force and its accounting department and its grounds. A college is its financial aid office and its student center and its food service. But unless all of those are focused on the larger fact of being a family, of valuing and welcoming every member, then it’s all just Cheetos.

Wintry Mix

We’re having another strange winter. Last week, we had three straight nights below zero, and today and tomorrow are going to be in the mid-40s. The roof is bare after a week with over a foot of snow. The poor road crew is going nuts, trying to deal with plowing roads that won’t freeze hard, using up a winter’s worth of sand and salt before February ever arrived. (Our Cargill road salt this year, by the way, was sourced in Egypt. We’re all globalists now…)

Nora and I decided to take this opportunity of kind-of-warm weather to let the wood stove cool completely, so that tomorrow morning I can shovel all the ash out to get ready for tomorrow evening’s return to single-digit temps. And even though I turned the furnace up this morning, it’s still cold without the bright fire consuming the dead leftovers of our woodlot.

My writing today feels a lot like that. I’m writing the Town’s audit self-study, and proofreading someone else’s work on writing the annual report. I’m working on marketing material for The Adjunct Underclass, and offering markups on someone else’s novel. I’m waiting for a colleague to deliver a copy of the Town’s lease for the volunteer fire department, so I can talk with our attorney about how we might modify it. And somewhere, in the middle of that, I’m trying to write a story, of Kurt and Sarasa and the ways that they find themselves in a half-familiar, half-foreign place. It’s a day that’s neither snow nor rain nor dry, neither warm nor cold, neither clear nor dark. It’s a wintry mix.

Updike once wrote that he had three offices in his home: one for fiction, one for non-fiction, and one for poetry. That’s lovely, but most of us have just the one room with the one laptop and the cold stove, and we have to create another way to become multiple people, each of our selves able to focus fully on that one thing as it presents itself. If we can’t divide the world by space, we have to do it by time, setting up calendar stripes of different colors, each for its own purpose.

But there are days where the colors run together and become mud. A painter friend once told me the legend of Seattle Beige, the bland institutional color that comes from mixing together every can of America’s returned paint into a mammoth re-use vat. Ninety percent of it is white, and the other colors all even themselves out in large enough quantities to turn a sort of boring sandy tan. That’s the color of a writer’s mind on some cold February days.