another dispatch from the trenches

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My shift from state policy to campus administration unearthed another marvel last week, which is the power of the written record. Our ability to share our thoughts and decisions over time and distance with people we’ll never meet is really kind of amazing. The tiniest actions are perpetual, and cumulative.

And if you want to see it as vividly as I do, then go somewhere with gaps in the record. For every such gap in my new home, relationships and learning start from scratch. This is especially true because I’m part of a small team of newcomers, temps, and transients. For us documentation is everything, because our combined personal history is roughly nil.

But our predecessors behaved rationally for their own contexts rather than ours, and resorted comfortably to handshake deals and tacit horse trading. And so here I am, looking at a stack of unapproved travel claims and hardware purchases, and asking one of the most valued professors on campus if he has proof of prior permission. It’s not a good spot to find myself in.

On the one hand I need to remember that my perspective has been seriously warped by years under the magnifying glass in a giant public bureaucracy, where the memos are numbered and the emails subpoenaed. That’s a world that cherishes the written record as proof it is impersonal, and thus free of cronyism or corruption. It keeps us out of jail.

On a single campus such fussiness may be misdirected. Too much of it makes you less effective, not more, as people wonder why you’re always so suspicious.

I also have to remember that interpersonal commitments are often invisible, even to the participants. My predecessors on campus probably thought their paper trail was perfectly complete, and somewhere in my old office building, my successors may marvel that I kept such scanty records.

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I’m not sure where that leaves me, but for now my new boss and I have agreed to err on the side of more record keeping. The campus is getting bigger, the world is getting smaller, and really, in the long run we’re all temps.

Image credits: Bates College, officemuseum.com

oh, the humanities – part one

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Before getting into academic administration I taught film and wrote screenplays. I’ve always liked movies, but not the same way as other film people. I don’t enjoy being on sets, for instance, or have a strong opinion about different movie stars, or whether we shoot on film or video. What draws me is the stories, that can feel like novels brought to life. (Some people who haven’t met her feel a personal connection to Emma Stone; I feel closer to Tess of the d’Urbervilles.)

Colleges and universities have trouble categorizing film departments. Usually we end up in the visual and performing arts, next to painting, dance, photography, and theater. I like the company but never felt a part of it; I get tired at night and I don’t smoke.

Instead I’ve identified with the literature and philosophy people, whose raw material feeds Hollywood. It was a little isolating, a storyteller exiled to live with the artists, like I should have had my own bathroom.

diagramIn college administration for an entire campus, the difference is less stark: arts and humanities are typically grouped together, film courses can land with either group, and the two feel equally dissed by the public’s obsession with STEM, degree production, and gainful employment. We are united in beleagueredness; you can spot us by our short shrifts.

This post will add to the handwringing about the humanities, but in a different way.

Frankly I’m not as worried as others about the prospects for our departments of literature, languages, philosophy, and religion. We have all been stepchildren at least since the Athenian system office poured Socrates a glass of hemlock, and yet we’re all still here. Apparently there’s something inherently necessary about making meaning.

No matter their majors and eventual professions, our students need and want to know how to string together their experiences into something significant. They expect college to help them read purpose into their lives. At denominational institutions they learn one way to do that; at secular comprehensives like mine, they can learn them all.

That urge to assign significance marks my humanist colleagues at committee meetings. In my experience this is truest when they try to talk to social scientists who – burdened with insecurities of their own – resist embellishment of any kind. People in psychology, public policy, and sociology don’t want to make meaning so much as discover it. Crossing that line feels to them like fudging the findings.

Consider this sample paragraph from a text on a subject dear to my heart, student success:

Five years ago the California State University began requiring incoming students to take summer classes before the freshman year, whenever their test scores indicated they were short of college-level proficiency in English, math, or both. As the new policy has covered a greater share of the students who are eligible, the CSU has seen a dramatic reduction in rates of fall remediation. Other factors are also at play; for example, California high schools now encourage more of their students to take rigorous college prep courses. Still, these results suggest the policy is working.

If you take out the last sentence, then to humanists the argument feels incomplete.

But if you leave it in, social scientists will worry that you’ve said more than the evidence supports.

For much of this decade I’ve been a humanist among social scientists, who work in higher education research, learning science, and policy. Their writing often looks to me like all the last sentences are missing. I’ve gotten past longing for my own bathroom door, but I sometimes want a different color in Track Changes.

Yet in the long run these distinctions are a comfort. The urge to assign significance, to answer a why with a because, gives my tribe its staying power. Few may have the nerve to declare a major in philosophy, but we all need a dose.


So then where is the new threat?

Well, in my opinion, for much of our history when we get to the rest of the “because,” we have been kind of cheating.

If you back up to the scale of millennia, then you can see the answer to “why” evolving in a clear direction. As far as we can tell, the earliest humans thought deeply about their purpose and the meaning of their lives. Even before we took our current physical form as Cro-Magnons we were acknowledging our dead in burial rituals, signaling an awareness of our own mortality, and an urge to defy it.

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Most embryonic cultures, including a handful that persist to this day, have venerated the dead and especially their ancestors. Moving forward in time you see the addition of supernatural beings, whether one or many, and myths of origin and destiny. These conceptions of a broader context orient our lives while we’re on earth, setting the tone for business deals, codes of law, and good manners, for example.

In Europe you can mark the apex of this approach around the 13th century, with Aquinas on the eve of the Great Schism and other fissures that challenged the assumption of One True anything beyond our immediate perception – challenges that included contact with cultures elsewhere, who read the invisible universe very differently, yet thrived.

From that point on – roughly the Italian Renaissance and the beginning of secular humanism in its present form – the argument gets strangely circular. Why are humans worth helping? Because they’re human. Why do we work hard? To promote human happiness. Why is human happiness valuable? Uh, it just is, and we take these truths to be self-evident. ‘Nother words, don’t hold your breath waiting for proof.

At a time of disruption and upheaval, at the trading crossroads of dozens of civilizations and three continents, the Italian humanists were relieved to rediscover the ancient Greek resort to the one indisputable universal: Man is the Measure of All Things.

With a tweak since then for gender equality, the slogan has served us surprisingly well for the last six or seven centuries.

library__3153But I think its time is running out, probably within our lifetimes. And for the life of me I’m not seeing a ready replacement.

I worry.

But more on that later.

Image credits: airships.net, National Geographic, fourthdoor.org

dispatch from the trenches

pancakeSince leaving CSU headquarters for a job on one of our campuses, I’ve been attuned to the differences of working not with policy makers, but actual educators. A few insights, still in progress:

This is way more fun. My stint away from campus was a little over nine years, and even though I missed it constantly, I’d forgotten how really wonderful it is. A college campus is a microcosm of the world, with facilities for food, housing, work, play, and interaction, but oriented toward a noble purpose, the personal and intellectual development of ourselves and each other, even strangers. It’s life, but with more of the good parts, and less of the rest. Every day I go to work puts me in a good mood. No kidding. I take random walks across the campus just to be in it; last week the student government president noticed my third lap through the pancake breakfast and co-curricular tables, and called me on it.

The strains are different. There is something counterintuitive about work at a place like the Office of the Chancellor, which you would expect to mix the flabby ineffectiveness of the public sector with the flabby ineffectiveness of academic administration. Yet visitors are always struck by the sight of people doing work. They even comment on it. “Everyone here seems to be working all the time.” Well, yes. And as state support dwindles there are fewer of them in the office, to perform the same work or more.

Yet the relentless tilling on the cubicle farm didn’t prepare me for the qualitatively different strain of campus life. At my new job there are many signs of overworked colleagues well past their breaking point; two from this week will show you what I mean.

The first involved money, and the accidental transfer of a moderate sum into the wrong account. It’s no big deal, and we will fix it. But the shriek of protest was immediate and heartfelt, and not from the one whose money went missing, but from the one who got the windfall. She works ungodly hours at full tilt, and the prospect of taking on one more task, even a funded one, nearly prompted her resignation.

The second sign of materially different strain involved an invitation to lunch. My new campus home employs dozens of academic department chairs, and early assays of their inner stuff suggest remarkable quality in about a third of the cases: brilliant, dedicated, and almost eerily suited to edifying and motivating a very wide range of students. They are driven people.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised, but was, when my invitation to a lunch meeting was met in one case with protest. I mean, I was just asking for an hour, and I will provide the sandwich. It even comes with an apple and a cookie. But the response was a mix of tension and suspicion – what is this “lunch” going to evolve into? – and a plaintive close to the email: “I just can’t take on any more.”

That depth of emotion can mean only one thing: he wishes he could.

earth-day-2014And that’s what makes the strain here so different. In the system office I often had to appeal to the intrinsic motivation of my colleagues, and remember it in myself: the executive orders and coded memoranda and bar graphs represent real people trying to improve their lives, and we are charged by the public with helping them.

Here such appeals are unnecessary, because the real people are standing in front of us. We know them individually, we root for them. A lot of the time we even like them. And so for a significant number of my colleagues, the motivation is already keen, bottomless, and merciless. Coordinating their work is something I need to do differently than I used to, with fewer naked appeals to altruism and purpose. The colleagues whose help will make a difference already feel these things acutely, even painfully.

They don’t need our reminders, they just need our help.

Money isn’t always money. Most organizations, including the Office of the Chancellor, keep track of baseline or recurring dollars in one category, and one-time dollars in another. The one-time money could come from a grant, or a vacant salaried position, or residue from year before.

Campuses make this distinction too, but – at least on mine – the difference between them is a whole lot wider. Onetime money is a sinkhole of attention, effort, and coordination, consuming resources that won’t go to that precise use ever again. By contrast recurring dollars mean infrastructure, and staff support, and more full-time faculty to teach and govern the university before we burn out the handful who survived the recession. Recurring dollars are lifeblood.

mad-at-csu-live-performanceMy last few months at the system office included a tense, lengthy negotiation with the State of California for the support of our student success initiatives. They offered us millions of dollars above the typical enrollment budget, but it was onetime funding. We tried so hard and so often to explain why that wasn’t helpful, and why we really needed a baseline commitment, that the governor’s staff finally told us point blank to stop saying so. They were sick of hearing about it, and by then so was I.

But now that I’m on a campus, I think if anything we should have been more insistent. You don’t improve graduation rates and eliminate achievement gaps in temporary earmarks one year at a time. Instead you have to build it into your way of life. And the money to do that is so materially different from other money, it practically needs a different word.

That’s what I’m learning so far.

More field notes to follow.

Image credits: Union University, CSU Dominguez Hills

the interpersonal

tincantelephone_7099For a few reasons I’ve been thinking less these days about abstract policies, and more about how people interact with each other. One glaring example is in policing, and the problems we’ve had with officers and communities that misunderstand each other.  At least half a dozen experiments are now underway around the country to give law enforcement more of the skills and tools of social work.

Public higher ed is leaning further into a service role too, especially (in California, anyway) at the community colleges, where admission is open, and you really never know who’s going to walk in. The institutional mission includes English lessons for immigrants, job training, and re-entry for the recently incarcerated, as well as preparation for transfer to a university. There’s really no predicting the backstories and needs of the people you may be there to help.

And then there’s the broader world of work, and what our students will need to do after they graduate.

In the California State University system, we require “oral communication” coursework of every graduate – it’s built into the statewide general education pattern, and in fact you need it on your college transcript before we let you transfer in.

But tellingly, we define it narrowly as public speaking. I think that’s appropriate at access-oriented institutions like ours; first-generation students often need practice before they’re comfortable speaking up, or addressing large groups. But I wonder if we should really be rejecting all those interpersonal communication courses that are also proposed for transfer credit in this area, or if we’d be better off calling it a second kind of requirement.

The world keeps getting better and better connected, and our ability to get along – at the levels of law enforcement, or educators, or distant coworkers – lags the technology, as usual.

Personally, this is also on my mind lately because a few months ago I left my job at the CSU system office to work on one of our campuses. It was a move I’d been hoping to make for a while, but it’s still a stretch. I need to be attuned to small-scale interactions in a new way.

It’s as if I’ve spent many years at an extended family reunion, mingling with many people I know and like, but with light consequences for transgression: if I rubbed someone the wrong way I could usually find someone else to talk to.

By contrast, last fall I moved back into the single-family household of a campus. Going forward, different people here will enjoy my company or not, and we may not always want to team up for specific projects. But however it plays out, we’ll be seeing each other again the next day, and the day after that.

We’ll need to find enough common ground and interpersonal trust to get along with each other, navigate difference, and make progress. If we don’t, I can’t just go sit at another table.

It’s not a bad prospect, and even feels like a particularly useful 21st century skill set I’ll be refreshing.

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Image credits: tvtropes.org, CSU Dominguez Hills.

the next flavor of quantitative reasoning?

Until recently I worked at the CSU system office. Like other states, California is wondering about math – who needs it, how much of it, and for what. My own background in the humanities sometimes let me claim an outsider’s objectivity, but most who know me know I happen to like quantitative reasoning.

When you ask which quantitative skills are useful for all college graduates, you get strange answers, that change over time. I find it a helpful trajectory to keep in mind, as we try to guess what’s next.

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Some of our earliest recorded uses of math relate to counting, taxation, and calendars – things that were useful for the emerging technologies of settlement, agriculture, and sharing resources with strangers. These yielded some of our biggest initial breakthroughs, and legacies like separating circles into a number of degrees approximating the number of days in a year.

As astronomy outgrew human eyesight, we measured moving objects with more precision than counting alone could accurately model. We developed calculus surprisingly soon after the telescope’s wide adoption in the 17th century. That knack for representing rates of change that themselves change over time went on to liberate several centuries of engineering.

If there’s a shift in our own era, then people in many public universities and state systems are trying hard to recognize it. Insistence on calculus as the pinnacle of quantitative reasoning – and the particular algebraic skills required to ascend it – has come under recent fire. It turns out that such algebra is beyond the reach of many students, or maybe just of their grade schools’ powers of preparation.

Yet these days more and more people need college, relatively few of whom go on to launch rockets. Weeding them all out over calculus feels like shortchanging both the students and the broader society, which regularly tells the state universities it would like us to produce more graduates.

Which has us wondering whether there are other kinds of quantitative reasoning that might do instead.

If there’s a front-runner in these sweepstakes then it’s statistics. Just as the telescope made fluency in calculus useful, the technological breakthroughs of virtually connected databases – big data – suddenly make ordinary people want to understand and work confidently with large pools of numeric information: how within those oceans to recognize patterns, to roil a record set, to surface significance.

This is no longer just a skill for government economists, the stats counterpart to algebra’s rocket scientist: these days we all need it. For most of us these vast record sets are as close as the phones in our pockets, and we’re expected as citizens and employees to respond intelligently to what they tell us.

agsi-bhi-asset-heatmap-2262449This way of life is becoming a given so quickly that it’s hard to picture today’s college students using the phrase “big data” into mid-career, any more than my generation is likely to say “color TV.” It all is.

So then are we already too late? Should higher ed be peering around the corner past statistics, and bracing ourselves for other kinds of quantitative reasoning? At this moment of transition we have an opportunity to embrace diverse kinds of quantitative reasoning, before we simply replace one hegemony with another.

Lately I’ve started to wonder. One of the detours relatively late along the road to calculus is a branch of math called “optimization,” which seems increasingly indispensable in a world with too many people and a finite store of food, water, and carbon sinks.

We won’t all need this the way we all need statistical fluency, but it is growing, and spilling out of work and into citizenship, a sure sign that it’s positioned for a GE requirement. Your first exposure to it and mine, if we live another decade or two, is likely to come with your first purchase of a drone or self-driving car.

For a couple of centuries this branch of mathematics has been fiddling with the Traveling Salesman Problem, which seeks to calculate the shortest round-trip route comprising a number of destinations. It is surprisingly hard to solve, and above a threshold number of cities may be literally unsolveable. (For a lucid account see the 2013 story in Wired.) This is relevant to more than Fuller brush salesmen: shortest-route calculations could improve the design of computer chips, for example, or of chemically synthesized DNA.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated development, we seem to be crossing an exciting milestone in the reduction of pilot and driver error, which is the reduction of pilots and drivers. Self-flying drones and self-driving cars have raised the prospect – with Detroit automakers at least – of a new kind of vehicle ownership, moving off the one-driver-one-car paradigm and getting to something closer to sharing and swapping, driverless cars going empty down a stretch of road, summoned by the next temporary user.

Think about that for a moment, all those GPS-enabled devices rolled up onto serverfuls of big data, mapped to an infinite combination of nodes on a round trip that never ends, not just calculating that elusive optimization problem but living it. It’s not hard to think of a machine-learning solution to a problem unassisted humans have called unsolvable.

Whether it comes to pass or not, that kind of discipline-crossing quantitative reasoning, dipping into just enough algebraic reasoning, arithmetic, and sheer number sense to support other kinds of math, seems worth building into college for everyone.

Image source:  “Greek Astronomy” at ibiblio.org

 

Alexandria

In antiquity Alexandria was second only to Rome. The north African port was home to a famous library and one of the seven wonders of the world, the lighthouse Pharos. Both are long gone, but you can see some remains of the physical library.

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Visible remnants of the library at Alexendria, Egypt.

That was about all I thought of it until reading Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Swerve, which recounts the discovery in 1417 of a poem by Lucretius believed lost. This can sound like dry stuff but the story is vividly, almost luridly told, Greenblatt arguing that this is a moment to which the modern world can trace its origin.

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His passage on Alexandria fits into a larger discussion of how all that ancient learning got lost in the first place – fire and intolerance directed at the books themselves, but also sheer time, random periods of social unrest, excessive scrolling and unscrolling, and bookworms.

In the center of the city, at a lavish site known as the Museum, most of the intellectual inheritance of Greek, Latin, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Jewish cultures had been assembled at enormous cost and carefully archived for research. Starting as early as 300 BCE, the Ptolomaic kings who ruled Alexandria had the inspired idea of luring leading scholars, scientists, and poets to their city by offering them life appointments at the Museum, with handsome salaries, tax exemptions, free food and lodging, and the almost limitless resources of the library.

Maybe it’s just because I work in one, but this sounds to me a lot like a university, down to the institution of tenure – but a good dozen centuries before the medieval European institutions we usually cite as our beginnings.

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The library at Alexandria as it may have looked.

And these weren’t merely repositories of knowledge: like our own, they were also expected to generate it:

The recipients of this largesse established remarkably high intellectual standards. Euclid developed his geometry in Alexandria; Archimedes discovered pi and laid the foundation for calculus; Eratosthenes posited that the Earth was round and calculated its circumference to within 1 percent; Galen revolutionized medicine. Alexandrian astronomers postulated a heliocentric universe; geometers deduced that the length of a year was 364 1/4 days and proposed adding a “leap day” every fourth year . . .

. . . The Alexandrian library was not associated with a particular doctrine or philosophical school; its scope was the entire range of intellectual inquiry. It represented a global cosmopolitanism, a determination to assemble the accumulated knowledge of the whole world and to perfect and add to this knowledge.

Who knew? Probably many who read this blog, but I found it a surprising and reassuring sign of something old and essentially human.

However bleak things get, or overrun with fire, unrest, and digital bookworms, we apparently feel driven to systematically and cooperatively keep track of what we know, and add to it.

Image credits: pegnsean.net, thelivingmoon.com