Melvil Dewey, Albert Munsell, and STEM

dewey-decimal-system-and-books-filed-thereinMelvil Dewey created the Decimal Classification System in use by libraries, the one many of us learned in grade school, and for which the 500s will always be science and the 800s always literature.  He mapped our knowledge in 1876, and since then the terrain has shifted somewhat, and grown a lot.

I was wondering how you’d represent the distortions introduced over time, as some areas of our interest and understanding swell relative to others.  Turns out someone has, using the online catalog of the British Library, and the upshot is the map of quadrilaterals above.  The robust green areas in the upper right are “technology,” for which Melvil originally budgeted 10%, the 600s.  In the last 140 years the tech portion has more than doubled, to 20.86% of our bibliographic bandwidth.

By contrast, it’s been a rough century-plus for philosophy and psychology, the diminutive beige area at the bottom right.  Also originally budgeted at 10% (in this case, the 200s), P&P now weigh in at a paltry 1.56%.  Even pairing them has lost its sense.  (My thanks to Cameron Mence of Melbourne, Australia, who posted this on his blog Subroutine, highly recommended for its other mathematical visualizations and whimsy, as well as some important disclaimers on the methodology behind this image.)

This illustration of our urge to subdivide proportionally, and its perils, reminded me of a scientific principle behind color.  Most of our senses faithfully convey one-dimensional information to us along a single axis.  So for example, a surface that gets warmer as we touch it feels only warmer, and not also smoother.  Sound that’s higher in pitch strikes our ears as merely higher, and not also as salty.  Not so with color, which is really just differences in wavelength, a simple, single-number variable.  So if we perceive a pure, single-wavelength color of say, green, it looks to us categorically different from the pure, single-wavelength color of red, and we map them as opposites on a color wheel.  But they’re not opposites; in the physics sense, green is just red singing at a higher pitch, and purple sings higher still.

Albert Munsell, a contemporary of Dewey’s, tried to map our sense of color into a three-dimensional space, where the three axes represented hue, saturation, and value, along evenly spaced gradients that matched human perception.  Try as he might, symmetry eluded him.  He thought he would get a sphere, but all he ever got were irregular shapes like this one:


I was recently thinking about Melvil and Albert, while commiserating with a colleague in the CSU Office of the Chancellor about our misguided efforts to improve outcomes in STEM education.  Stay with me.

Albert-munsellA challenge with courses in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math is that they are hard to pass.  Defenders of those disciplines will say that’s why successful graduates in those fields are better paid.  Maybe.

I think it’s also possible that, like libraries and paint stores, our 21st century universities are served only partially by early 20th century taxonomies, and their zeal for uniformity.

Melvil_DeweyThat is, it’s possible that the contours of a field like, say, fluid dynamics, just don’t fit comfortably inside three-credit-hour boxes.  What if I can successfully learn the gist of art history in fifteen weeks, but for trigonometry I would do better with, I don’t know, nineteen?  Right now, state university students don’t get that option.  They either figure out trig in fifteen weeks flat, or they take the whole thing over again.

As part of the California State University’s current student success push, well intentioned presidents and provosts are ranking their college deans by pass rates.  Get most of your students through on the first try?  Gold star for the College of Arts and Letters.  Need longer?  Darts and ridicule, and fewer faculty lines, for the College of Subjects That Use Calculus.

I get it, and I’m proud of all we’ve done to prioritize success for all students, in every major.

But I think, at our best, we may be like libraries and overdue for a rebalancing of our categories.  At our worst we’re like Munsell before his tactical retreat from symmetry, and still obstinately hammering our curriculum into a shape that it won’t fit.

a new civic engagement?

fruitvale-celphoneThe U.S. Department of Justice recently commissioned an interesting study to help local police departments think through the implications of adopting dashboard and body cameras.  As usual, the hard questions seem less about the technology, and more about how it reflects on us as a society.

It was hard not to think about this over the past weekend, watching Fruitvale Station.  Above to the left you can see a shot from the climactic scene, the protagonists fighting guns with camera phones.

It’s telling that both law enforcement and the community it polices believe public documentation cuts in their favor.  I think they’re both right.  The fact is, everyone’s behavior improves with visibility.  But does that mean it’s a good idea?

As higher ed tries to prepare students for the world they’ll enter, we worry loudest about employment, where technical, entry-level positions are the fastest moving skeet. If we can just aim far enough ahead of the trajectory to get our graduates placed, the feeling goes, then once they move up into management the more durable proficiencies of communication, cross-cultural fluency, and critical thinking will see them through.


Missing from that narrative is recognition that human interaction itself is also changing very fast.  Too often we divide the higher ed mission into “career” and “citizenship,” but if you take away the commodification of labor, then what’s left are just two ways to describe collective, purposeful action with strangers.  And preparing our students for that has a new and faster trajectory all its own.  So far 2015 feels like it’s mostly about this disrupted relationship between the individual and the group.

The Opinion section of this morning’s Los Angeles Times weighs in on police videography, child vaccination, transgender bathrooms, data security, and of course our drought.  Some of these stories reflect perennial tensions, but there’s a new anxiety related to new technologies, and how they undermine the wall between public and private.  Some of the new holes under the fence:

QueVisionSurveillance. This goes beyond dueling cameras for commuters and transit cops.  As you know, the world knows a lot more about you than it did just a few years ago. Educators of a certain age (i.e. mine) tend to worry about this more than our students, who seem okay trading their anonymity for improved service.  And it’s not always about mining an individual’s data:  just letting everyone know how many others are around can improve drive times, health care, and grocery check-outs.

Individual impact.  In a hyper-connected world any one person has more influence on the rest of us than before.  Suddenly a disgruntled NSA contractor, or a pair of alienated brothers from Chechnya, or a depressed co-pilot can change the way millions of people live and think.  Sure, whacky and charismatic individuals have always had an edge, at least since Savonarola.  What’s changing is the barrier to entry:  anyone can play.  Our students know how the new context amplifies individual behavior; ask them about online bullying, or active shooter drills.  As a result, today my mental health is of more rightful interest to you than it used to be.

Rush to judgment. The corollary to your right to know about me:  almost anyone gets access to the findings.  What I like about that DOJ study is that it focuses less on whether cops should make videos and more on who should be able to see them.  It reminded me of a story last February about the appeal to voyeurs of online court filings. It turns out you can read a lot of salacious gossip about your neighbors, names and addresses and all, so long as someone brings suit.  And note:  these are charges, not convictions.  (A couple of recent high-profile cases show the hazard of this new world.  Maybe Bill Cosby had it coming, but no one is defending the “Rape on Campus” article in Rolling Stone.)  So take note:  if you cross someone with little emotional stability and a vivid enough imagination, you risk becoming a meme, your name a verb.  17th century Salem had better due process.

public-humiliationWe need members of the next generation – and the colleges that teach them– to recognize our new intimacy with strangers, and heightened responsibility to each other.  I can think of three priorities that implies:

1.  Educate for a world of intense interpersonal responsibility.  Our students come to us with first-hand experience in adolescent pack behavior amplified by technology, and fresh scars and muscles to flex.  Curriculum — and maybe more relevantly, co-curriculum — should intentionally develop social skills and sensitivity for the new context.

2.  Emphasize fluency in critical thinking and statistical analysis.  This generation will face tougher questions than ours did about the reasonable use of big data and herd judgment to inform personal opinion.  For most of our majors statistics is an elective course, and critical thinking (the CSU excepted) an invisible throughline, surfaced mostly for accreditors.  The status of both subjects may be due for elevation.

3.  Give equal emphasis to our different paths to creating a greater good.  Market capitalism and participatory democracy are different means to a common utilitarian end, organizing groups of strangers.  Graduates who can discern and adjust the new boundary between public and private will be better people and (often) better employed.  If universities keep presenting employment and citizenship as utterly separate, then we have only ourselves to blame when the public undervalues the latter, and treats starting salary as the only thing worth counting.

autonomy, Imagineering, and the student experience

Here in the big state public universities, transfer and articulation have traditionally trumped coherence. A few experiments around the CSU are trying to remedy that – Associate Degrees for Transfer, or GE pathways on interdisciplinary themes – and restore some connective tissue to what otherwise looks like a random heap of disconnected (but portable!) courses.

Those are promising developments, but to be honest a lot more than our courses need alignment.   In fact, the student who comes to State of the Art U will also encounter residential life, career services, a health center, a food court, a business office, a center for community engagement, and opportunities for undergraduate research.

And that full spectrum of experiences is what prepares our students for life after graduation. This realization is new. A couple of generations ago, most of the explicit educational value resided in courses, and the rest was clearly auxiliary. But in a world of free and ubiquitous content knowledge and heightened demands for teamwork and interpersonal connections, the significance is more evenly distributed. Our grads are likelier than their parents to apply what they learned from student government, or the group presentation in ethnic studies, or from organizing the arts walk fundraiser.

When education is course-centric and your students sedentary, you can imply coherence with catalog copy. Students look up their majors, see a list of courses in ascending order of complexity, and get at least the impression that there’s a purpose here.

That setup wasn’t great but it was good enough, and impressively cheap to maintain. Among its virtues: whole academic departments could consist of people who weren’t on speaking terms.

But now we find ourselves at a disadvantage, when the learning seeps beyond the traditional curriculum and the students move around. In this world creating purpose and coherence demands more than a list of courses: educators (faculty and otherwise) need to talk, routinely and civilly, about how these different experiences will affect students, how they combine to cause learning, and how we know.

Two facets of our current context make that hard:

Presumption of autonomy. People my age and older (a dwindling population, but really when was it not?) experienced college as a succession of soloists. Some of my friends came into the academy precisely for that independence. If we change our expectations now, then some will feel shorted.

Absence of coordinating time. When I was a chair I wrote class schedules, assigning faculty and adjuncts to what they taught and when. The object was to maximize facilities use and options for students. This made it hard for me to serve my other role as chair, calling meetings. There wasn’t a time when everyone was available, and I had only myself to blame.

On that second facet: many departments and some entire universities schedule deliberate fallow periods during the week, to avoid the problem I’d created for myself. But few would say those time slots are put to good use: department meetings are often just rundowns of administrivia like reporting deadlines and the new code for the copy machine.

48c64d948c7ba80d019c00c741a74738I had such meetings in mind a few weeks ago, when my wife and I had dinner with a friend from graduate school. He now has one of the coolest jobs ever, producing the rides at Disneyland. No kidding. And by “ride” I don’t mean the strollers: he does the massive, headline-making, highly narrative attractions people have in mind when they decide to go. To Disneyland.

Much of what he told us was in confidence, but this much I can share. It’s all about the meetings. He said that in developing the sequence of discoveries and interactions the guest will encounter during a given ride, international teams meet at least weekly, for years. Connections are made in person and virtually, sometimes early in the morning or late at night to accommodate all the time zones.

Depending on the phase of the project, as many as 140 separate disciplines may be involved. Yes, 140, and yes, he used the word “disciplines” – to cover costumers, designers, audio techs, mechanical engineers, dancers, animators, sculptors, electricians, art directors, meeting in different combinations of maybe a dozen at a time. If these people aren’t working together from the start, you can run into nasty surprises late in the game: plumbing and carpentry don’t line up, or the rider sees a seam.

Like university faculty, these are people with very different persuasions and backgrounds, who need to translate their own vernacular for the sake of their colleagues. The meetings only work – only make sense at all – because attendees share the goal of optimizing the rider experience.

avatar16I will concede that earning a degree in nursing is materially different from riding Star Tours. But listening to my friend the Imagineer made me feel how very much ground higher ed still needs to cover. The last decade or two have seen eye-popping insights into how and why people learn: putting those discoveries to work in any concerted way – optimizing the student experience – would take seismic changes in how we operate. So instead we’re in a world where the math and the econ don’t quite fit together, and student sees the seams.

One challenge is how hard it is for us to schedule such meetings. But really even if we could, I’m not sure we’d know what to do with them.


CSU HIPs Leadership Retreat

CSU HIPs Leadership RetreatThis is the opening presentation from today’s meeting in San Diego for CSU leadership involved in high-impact practices.  We planned it to coincide with and complement the Diversity, Learning, and Student Success conference of the AAC&U.

Right-click on the image here and choose “Save As” to download a copy of the PowerPoint.  You can see the narration in Notes Page view, or the animations in Slide Show.  Feel free to appropriate whatever you like.

line segments

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Education, in San Francisco. It was a good meeting for many reasons, but one image in particular has stuck with me:

01 ball at top

Foundation president Anthony Bryk used it to illustrate the kind of patience required for turning hunches into genuine changes at scale, in either behavior or culture. If you want the ball at the top – the end state you’re going for – then the temptation at first is to just put it there. But usually what happens is people reject it as alien, and the ball gets a quick and easy nudge downhill.

What you discover is that really you need to start small, at the bottom. Then as you build support you get other people’s help moving the ball upward, and they even change and improve it along the way. Work like that, and by the time you get to the top there’s no way it’s falling back down.

02 ball in motion

That rang true for many in his audience, who live this stuff. But it also cast a harsh light on our context: we seldom get that much time. In my version of his diagram, that long red hill might last a decade.

In my experience coordinating a string of state universities, the impetus for change has come in one of three flavors:

  • you get a grant (three years to spend it, tops)
  • someone passes a law (to be fully implemented in eighteen months or less)
  • the state economy changes (quick: which half of your programs do you eliminate? or quick: spend $50 million in unexpected revenue before it’s swept!)

This world doesn’t lend itself to the patient rolling of balls.

So then what’s the well-meaning wonk to do? Cause Tony’s right: use that grant or tax windfall to drop a big ball on a hill, and it will not stay there. But walking away from a short-term opportunity is bad management, and in the case of legislation and the economy, not even an option.

I’ve decided the answer is to think of the hill as a sequence of line segments. One segment might be a grant, the next one a law, or the boss’s whim, and so on:

03 segments

The object of the game – maybe the only one – is to know where you are along the hill, and then to take each short term exigency as a chance to edge higher.

As I’ve been picturing that, it’s occurred to me that it’s also not a bad metaphor for the individual lifespan, in the context my friend Alice Perez calls the “long experience of the human family.”

04 lifespan

Really, that’s all we get.

CSU High-Impact Practices and Their Role in Advocacy

HIPs and advocacy title slideThis is a presentation I made at today’s California Higher Education Student Summit (“CHESS“).  The conference brings together leadership in student government from around the state for professional development and to share ideas.  You can download a copy by right-clicking on the title image to the left and choosing “Save As.”  My remarks are visible in Notes Page view.

meeting demand

If higher education is a business, then are students our customers or our products? Well, it depends on when you’re considering them. As applicants for admission and continuing enrollees, they’re the ones we’re here to serve, whether we call them customers, clients, or little hellions.

But as interns, graduates, and alumni, they’re the product we offer up to society and employers. Later, as they advance in their careers and make hires of their own, they become our customers again.

Let’s look at how we in the academy are meeting demand, or rather, how well we’re pacing the conveyor belt.


Go too slow, and the backpacks will pile up at the front door, while at the back door society starves for graduates. Go too fast and at the front door we scrounge for enrollments – effectively, admitting the underqualified – while risking a glut out the other end. (In fact it’s a negligible risk: when we admit the underqualified they don’t come out the back end, and the result is waste rather than glut.)

So, given that we’re aiming for the Goldilocks speed of “just right,” are we there? Yes and no.

For help estimating the output side of demand, many of us like the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. In a seminal 2010 report called Help Wanted, the Center predicted that by 2018 45% of all jobs would require an associate degree or higher. That’s what you get by summing the three shades of blue on the far right column:

Georgetown chart

We are not meeting that demand. With a couple of years still to go on Georgetown’s deadline, the U.S. Census Bureau says the supply of the U.S. population with an associate degree or higher is more like 35%.

And according to some economists, down that ten-point gap between supply and demand has fallen the middle class.

They argue that the “wage premium” – the additional pay you can expect as a college graduate – is going up, further evidence of degree-holder scarcity. The thinking goes, if we could better supply the market with graduates, then employers wouldn’t have to pay so much extra to hire one, and we’d see significant improvements in both socioeconomic equity and total wealth. (One of the clearest and most convincing summaries of this thinking is available in this working paper from economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz.)

So: put together these different reports and appears we could solve some of our ills if we could hit a 45% rate of degree attainment out the back door, instead of 35%. Goldilocks.

What about the front door? Does 45% of the population even want a college degree?  Well, there’s something funny going on here. Per the National Center for Education Statistics, college-going rates among our target population of 18- to 24-year-olds have been going mostly up:

enrollment growth

And get a load of the current enrollment rate – it looks a lot like the degree attainment rate we’re aiming for out the back. This suggests that the public has accurately appraised the worth of the degree.

However, that almost spooky synchronization goes arrhythmic when you turn from enrollments to graduates, because not all of our students make it out the back door with a diploma.

Now, the six-year graduation rate for public universities is typically reported at around 50% — significantly off, because it excludes those who transfer, or leave and come back, or take longer than six years. But whatever the real number, all parties agree it’s lower than it should be.  And we already have enough backpacks coming in to change the output from this:

factory output half



To this:

factory output full



That is, without recruiting or admitting a single additional student, existing enrollment would almost precisely match employer demand — both numbers inside that 42-45% zone — if we just graduated the students who come in.

Cool, huh?

A word of warning: the researchers behind these various analyses used different methodologies, population samples, and historical periods to hit their numbers. They didn’t expect a system-office wonk with some clip art to draw shaky connections and then blog about it, and might be appalled at my conclusion that it’s all about retention.

But I bet they’d agree it’s mostly about retention.

So then what should we conclude? A few things:

  1. The public knows what it’s doing. Whether we think of them as customers, clients, or widgets, we’re apparently on safe ground listening to our students and their networks of supporters. They do indeed need college, and want it in numbers that come uncannily close to those independently calculated by Ivy League economists.
  2. Applicants don’t come to universities for “some college.” At state universities all our students want to earn degrees, and we have failed to meet demand, at both doors of the factory, when they leave without one.
  3. We need better graduation metrics or we can’t even diagnose the problem. The student who took seven years because of a stop-out to care for family, work overseas, or save a community center isn’t a failure but a win. The ones who transfer to get a degree elsewhere shouldn’t be counted as a loss on one side, a win on the other, and a wash for society. They are wins. A few different players are working on better ways to keep score.  They can’t get us there soon enough.

Because demand at both ends of the conveyor belt will continue rise, driven by the increasing complexity of work, multiple careers and college enrollments over a lifetime, and a growing number of students bent on customizing their learning, and getting what they need, one way or the other.