David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Dispatches From The Warden

July 15, 2023

Yesterday I did my 14th presentation on academics for SMC's New Student Orientations this summer. That is 14 times I introduced myself as the Provost, telling them it was a fancy word for chief academic officer, but that when looked up in a dictionary can be found to have once meant warden. "As in the guy who runs a jail," I tell the crowd, "I'll let you insert the joke about what that says about academics."

I have two more of these Orientations this summer, and then 4 Dual Enrollment Student Orientations in August. They will get the same joke. (Sorry, one doesn't veer too far from the script in one's head for these things.)

However, I got to thinking yesterday, especially as I start to rewire my brain to cast the information necessary for the still-enrolled-in-high-school student, that I probably could use that jail analogy so much more, in ways applicable to either cohort of students.

Since college is still seen as the next step from high school, where for twelve years students have been marched from Class A to Class B to Class C every 53 minutes for pretty much 40 straight weeks or so, a system which orchestrates and coordinates a young person's every move (no wonder the Eagles called it a "Teenage Jail"), I suppose students at my orientation don't even feel the need to insert the joke. "Oh, so more of the same," they probably mutter under their breath.

Which means I am getting them off on the wrong foot. The most important message my academic team needs to get across to students during orientations is that college will be very, very different from high school in key ways. Most significantly, regardless of whether they are dual enrolled or true freshmen, college will give students a lot more freedom, and handcuff a lot more accountability to that freedom. I suppose a Provost is more the overseer of a prison-work program, ensuring that the workers stay on task, whether cleaning up the local highway or achieving the Introduction to Speech outcomes.

Especially for dual enrolled students, at least as we practice dual enrollment at SMC, the college classes, which are held on our campuses, populated by a mix of students, many not dual-enrolled, and taught by our professors, operate on a "time" similar to work-release time. However, our work-release time is intermittent, at least for the work part. We aren't going to hold class every day at the same time. We might only ask students to come to class twice a week, once a week, or maybe once every two weeks with expectations that the rest of the work gets done outside of class. Especially for the dual enrolled students, if they are taking a two-day a week Psychology course for us, for the other three days of the week during that hour and a half, they are basically free (from what I hear, the local high schools often don't want these kids back on the campus on those three days, as they generally will be distracted or distractions themselves). 

For these dual enrolled students, they may feel they are in jail, but their local principal is the warden, while I am the very generous work-release coordinator (the fact that the principal and provost may not see eye to eye on the work-release program is not a good partnership to begin with).

College has always had this kind of more open schedule, built upon any number of premises, whether the "release" time was to support extra-curricular or co-curricular engagement, or to allow students more time to work, given how expensive college has become. Regardless of the reasons, our work-release program leaves a lot of time for a bored, restless, hyper, still immature inmate (oh, sorry, "student") to find trouble. As I told the parents of these students yesterday, very few students fail at SMC (or at most colleges) because they can't do the work, most fail because they won't do the work, likely won't even show up to class to have conversations with their faculty about how to do the work. There isn't much we can do with people who so readily take advantage of the work-release time and lose sight of the goal.  As with prison, good behavior in an environment where a lot of time is left for the individual to manage their life does lead to rewards, better grades, greater completion, more confident young men and women.

And yet publicly I (and any other open admission college) am going to get beat up because of the hundreds of students who took advantage of their work-release program and didn't do the work. It will somehow be a college's fault that these students didn't snuff out the voices in their heads that convinced them that the program was about the release, not the work.

When I do these presentations, at the end, when I talk about the number of students in the group who are likely not to graduate, I probably understate it, saying that about 80% of them will likely graduate. After the students left, and I was part of a parent Q&A session, it was heart-warming to hear several of them, veterans of parenting other kids already shepherded off to college, confirm for other parents that if the student doesn't really want to be at college, they are going to struggle because the work will bear no meaning, and no amount of smiley, helpful college staff and faculty are going to help unless that basic barrier is removed by the student.

So my warden joke is way too simple for a complex situation. Inside my jail is another jail, the local jail, walled in by society's expectations of teenagers, already coddled and cultured by their secondary schooling. Meanwhile outside of my jail is another jail, the federal prison, surrounded by high fences with barbed wires and guardsmen, courtesy of federal (and fast becoming state) regulations built on a premise that politicians elected by popular votes know how to manage our jails better than we do. In the end, they want us to be like that inner jail -- remove all accountability and conveyor-belt students to the end of their sentences.

Sadly, I don't think there is a joke anymore to insert when I say that Provost translates to warden. I guess I better start working on some new material. You ever hear the one about "cross-listed courses?" They have been banned by Ron DeSantis.