David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Week Eight

October 26, 2012:  Inside the HEAD--Week Eight (day thirty-nine)


I sometimes just don't get how the big state universities are doing it.  In a time when enrollments are tight, often decreasing, and many institutions are having to cut budgets, so many of the behemoth land-grant universities are making huge land purchases.


I cite my alma mater, West Virginia University, as an example.  It announced this week a huge $70 million residential and retail complex to build in an area that for years has represented the "dive" of Morgantown, Sunnyside.  If a $70 million project could ever be put at the front of the line for Public Relations' efforts, WVU's "University Place" is the classic example.


First off, for my non-WVU friends (and this is a handicap I have long ago forgiven for each of you), allow me to explain some context.  Sunnyside is a place of lore for WVU students, in the same way that Jesse James is lore, known for perhaps the wrong reasons, even if mythologizing suggests right reasons.


In the 1970's and 1980's when I and many family and friends went to WVU, Sunnyside consisted of a strip of 8-10 bars, all dives, some not even with a sign announcing a name, another proudly proclaiming itself to be "The Library," giving every underaged drinker the opportunity to tell Mom and Dad that he or she was at the library.  All of these bars could be characterized by poor lighting, sticky beer floors, snd sweaty crowded students dancing to (and trying to talk over) blaring music. (Sniff!  My god, how I miss it.) 


All around these bars existed classic student housing, that is if your definition of "classic" is the rusting oldmobile in your neighbor's yard and not a finely restored Mustang in your driveway.  Private homes long since zoned for student apartments left in decay, couches and mattresses on porches, littered the hill above and below the Sunnyside strip of bars.  In the 70's, this neighborhood was adjacent to the football field.


So, I pause to ask: can anyone picture the inevitable next step in the mythology?  Step one, empty out football stadium of rabid fans; step two, give them accessible beer within walking distance; step three, house these drinkers in a neighborhood bordering on blight. 


So, what could possibly be step four?  Yes, it was inevitably the bonfire, the big celebration after some huge win.  Maybe the 17-14 victory over Pitt in 1975, maybe the huge upset of Oklahoma, 41-27 in 1982, maybe the only losing to Penn State by a field goal (that might have happened in that miserable stretch when they owned our a$$es--o.k., maybe not the best metaphor).  I'm not sure I remember the first time someone dragged the first mattress off the first rotting porch into the first street and lit the first match, but it was sometime in the late 1970's.  (I do know people who claim to have been there at that first bonfire, but I withhold their names to protect them.  Everyone I have ever known has only ever watched a bonfire get built, never actually thrown on to the fire a beer bottle, chair, or couch.)  And the tradition continued even after the stadium was torn down and a new one was built three or four miles away.


Soon Sunnyside became synonymous with partying and WVU made the top of every party school list for years (and still does).  West Virginia ends up with a never-ending black eye, seared by the flames of every post-victory celebration.  A few crappy years by the football team and maybe this dies (the present WVU defense may be buying into this theory a little too much), but until then, it is a public relations' nightmare for the college.


Hence, I arrive back where I began.  West Virginia University's PR press machine to clean up the bonfires and the dives (and to be truthful in the last two decades the bars have dwindled and those that are left are almost lit enough to see the drunk coed you are talking to across the bar) has arrived: 


  •  "an urban renewal project for the city" (Uh, yeah, Sunnyside is right up there with post-riots Watts);
  • "WVU police also will have a location at the site"; (Let's put the cat right there in the mouse cage);
  • "Demolition of existing buildings could start in late December or early January." (In other words, not soon enough!)


Long gone are the days of listening to The Cure at the Foxfire, for me anyway, so I shed no tear at the gentrification of Sunnyside.  I just marvel at the ability of institutions to devote such large amounts of money for problems. We'll see how well it works.





October 25, 2012:  Inside the HEAD--Week Eight (day thirty-eight)

Tonight was advisory board night for many of our occupational programs at Southwestern Michigan College.  Members of local businesses, manufacturers, secondary schools, and private contractors and consultants came together to help direct and advise programs such as welding, automotive technology, mechatronics, construction trades, and precision machining technology.

It was a perfect night to meet with them because it was only a few hours earlier that I had read a great letter to the editor (and let's face it, those are rarely great)of the South Bend Tribune from an owner, Pam Rubenstein, of a manufacturing company out of Mishawaka, who bemoaned this country's, or at least the two presidential candidates', vision that college is the number one priority to rectifying the high skills employee shortage in this country.  She points out the greying of the general workforce and the reality that "most people who are unemployed today are unemployable."

However, the line that really stands out is her comment that "colleges, universities, community colleges, etc., cannot teach people that they need to come to work every day, on time, stay the entire shift, shower so they don't offend those working near them, stay out of jail by not shooting people, avoid bar fights, don't drive drunk, etc."

This is the reality of education these days.  We are shoving more and more technical and content-specific courses related to majors into curricula, and yet the greatest frustration with potential employers is that their hires, the ones often with the college degrees, have no understanding of how to be a professional.  So, we add classes such as Workplace Citizenship, or Professional Etiquette, or Workplace Success and gobble up the credits that could rightfully be given to more math or writing. 

Thus, we get in front of these advisory boards and we listen to what they have to tell us.  We have almost universal agreement on the kinds of graduates we want and they want, but, as a result, we end up sacrificing a curriculum even more.  And when I read the letter writer's comment above, I am struck by her notion that "colleges . . . cannot teach people that they need to come to work every day, etc."    Her "cannot" is not about college's inability; I believe it is about how it outside of the mission of a college.    Yet we owe it to society to do just that. 

Nothing is easy anymore when we think we have to teach people why showering is important.

For the original letter to the editor, see Rubenstein, Pam. "More to employability than college," Letter to Editor. South Bend Tribune, 25 October 2012.




October 24, 2012:  Inside the HEAD--Week Eight (day thirty-seven)

I may cheat a little bit today with a true diary entry.  The Tigers start the World Series in a few minutes and so I want to get into the living room and watch.  Life seems to be conspiring to keep me from presenting a good diary entry.

For instance, the leaves in the yard are a mess.  The back yard must have leaves a couple inches deep, and even with three of us working a couple of hours before dark tonight, we barely got 1/5 of it done (we do have a big back yard and tons of trees). Our unseasonably summer weather goes away this weekend when we have rain and cold temperatures.  Any leaf still in the yard will be doubly tough to move.

In addition, I have some mail to sort through, including a bunch of newspaper articles sent by my mom.  Always good reading.  Clothes need to be ironed for tomorrow, and since I left work early for a doctor's appointment, I have some email to catch up on, or at least read before tomorrow morning.

And on top of all these little things, I feel for friends going through personal struggles:  whether they are looking for work, struggling with work they have, or mourning the death of a teenage nephew, another statistic of gun violence.

My point here does have to do with keeping a diary.  How does one really do it?  Before I attempted this insane project of keeping a daily diary of a higher education administrator, I had never had interest in keeping a diary.  Who would want to know my mundane daily thoughts or, worse, recitation of my boring days?  On a day like today, though, I wonder how true diarists come up with the energy to write when life seems much too packed to take the time to record one's thoughts. 


October 23, 2012:  Inside the HEAD--Week Eight (day thirty-six)


So, somehow today I ended up writing the monthly "teaching with technology" newsletter, focusing on how many faculty now use social networking sites, such as Facebook, as an additional learning resource.  For those interested, in short, one uses closed Facebook groups to encourage collaboration, support, and additional communication about the class.


I intuitively get the context and the practice of social networking and the classroom. Still, I feel hopelessly out of my comfort zone. I have not taught now in about 8 years.  Networking when I taught was more likely the hardwiring of computers, not the softer "wiring" in social media. 


In addition, I remain a reluctant Facebooker.  I don't share pictures of my lunch or pictures of my kid (well, rarely), play Chefville or Angry Birds, or post cute pictures of kittens.  In addition, my It's All Academic group page is perhaps the perfect model for NOT generating collaboration and additional communication.  So, how did I end up writing that article?


Well, as usual, it is difficult to find faculty with the time to write lengthy pieces for such a newsletter; I feel guilty asking for short summaries of how they use technology.  If I have enough information, I can fake it with the best of them.  Still, it took me four times as long to write that Facebook-as-supplement article as it will take me to write this blog. I actually had to do research (the great thing about blogging, to be honest, is a research-be-damned ideology)!


I think I finally understand how famous writers must have felt when lured to Hollywood to write about things they either didn't understand or like (or sometimes both).  I'm William Faulkner cranking out "God Is My Co-Pilot" or "Land of the Pharoahs."  Probably more appropriately, I am Raymond Chandler writing "Strangers on A Train,"which on the surface appeared to be the same genre Chandler was famous for, but which he apparently hated (or maybe moreso, he really disliked working with Alfred Hitchcock).


I think it is safe to say this will be the only time I will be compared to Faulkner or Chandler.



October 22, 2012:  Inside the HEAD--Week Eight (day thirty-five)

When is it right to remove an instructor from a classroom because he or she is just not teaching the students? 

This is a vexing problem.  One never really knows how things are going in the classroom unless students complain.  And a few students may always complain.  Professor V is condescending.  Professor W is crazy. Professor X is boring.  Professor Y is too mean.  Professor Z isn't teaching us anything.

Outside of listening to those complaints, the best indicator of a teacher's success in the class comes too late in the semester, either through the class evaluations, where students silent, but unhappy, may convey patterns about the teacher's effectiveness.  Even moreso, the indicators may come later, when final grades are turned in and patterns about students' grades become evident.  Or, even worse, and I have seen this happen, the indicators don't come for another semester or two when students are in sequential classes clearly showing substandard knowledge that should have come from that previous class.  And even in these last two scenarios, there is still the desire to want see a full picture and not to make a decision based upon a handful of the students, or maybe even, half of the students in the classes.

With learning management systems, such as Moodle and Blackboard, theoretically we have a better ability to see classroom performance throughout the semester.  However, going in to those "virtual" records give you a snapshot of a moment.  A lot of contextual information is also needed about the general direction of the course and how "advanced" any average student might be. 

So, everytime I have been faced with this potential scenario of removing the instructor, it comes with great angst.  I have seen an entire class of students allowed to retake a class for free because after the fact it was clear the instructor had not taught the students what was needed.  I have, with great hesitation, seen new instructors put into a classroom only a few weeks from the final exam in the hopes that the subs can assess the students' progress quickly and adapt the course accordingly.  Instructors have been asked to take over classes after the first session, the fourth session, the eight session, all over the place.  And every time it is one of the most agonizing decisions to make.  Even when the instructor, and frankly this is rarely the case, is an arrogant jerk, this is not a situation I want to be in.

So, this entry of the HEAD is dedicated to the 99.9% of faculty who never cause these conversations to arise.  Bless you.