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

November 9, 2012:  Inside the HEAD: Week Ten (day forty-nine)

This week the traveling Smithsonian Exhibit "The Way We Worked" began its three-week stint at SMC.  This afternoon we held a general reception, a great way to wrap up the week.  A tribute and homage to the workers who have made America what it is, the exhibit has lots of cool old photos and artifacts of common working folk.

It can often seem impossible to idealize the administrative vocation, even when comparing it to coal miners, or railroad personnel, or factory workers as visualized through the exhibit.  Yes, there were images of teachers, but nowhere was there an image of college administrators, although there were some photographs of company leadership.  What is it I produce at the end of every workday, every work week?  Not a car, not potatoes, not a shirt.  As I have often said at Commencement ceremonies, no student every thanks his or her Vice President of Instruction, but embraces several key teachers.

Despite saying this, today felt like a very productive workday, even though the bulk of it, not counting this last hour at the exhibit reception, was basically spent in two meetings, in fact, two meetings that often represent the worst of academia:  curriculum and instruction (C & I) committee and scheduling retreat (both of these have been the basis for previous posts at this blog).  Nevertheless, the C & I committee today has helped bring to higher administration recommendations about key challenges in our curriculum: our math sequence for different majors, our remedial writing course, and a science course that truly can meet the core requirement for non STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors, just to name a few.

The success of C & I is only minimally surprising, to be truthful.  There is a certain progression from problem through solution through recommendation to C & I that is at the core of a college's business.  I can't say that I forecasted that for the scheduling retreat.  As mentioned before, few people anywhere seem to have any comfort level with creating college course schedules.  At SMC, I sensed two frustrated camps, the academics who had to build schedules around what were perceived to be arbitrary deadlines, and the records office that had to take schedule changes over and over throughout the year from what was perceived to be clueless academics.  

However, our conversation was really productive, even though I can't always say I felt that way leading it.  We ended up with eleven action steps for moving forward in a new way with our schedule building.  Everyone left the meeting, in my mind, satisfied with the discussion and the decisions made.  Who'da thunk?

So, today really was about "The Way We Worked."  I'm just not sure there is any way to represent it for a historical exhibit. 


November 8, 2012:  Inside the HEAD: Week Ten (day forty-eight)

We had our Mayan scholar on campus today as part of our Academic Speaker Series. We had a great turnout, although anytime you can publicize an event as "It's The End of the World As We Know It," you know you are going to bring in a good crowd.

As with our zombie speaker in October, I feared the questions asked at the end of the presentation would continue to harp on the very point that the speaker was trying to disprove.  In the case of zombie dude, it was the inevitable series of "what weapon would you use during a zombie apocalypse?" even when the speaker said several times that if there ever really was an apocalypse, it should be the lack of clean water and food that you should worry about.  As a result, I lived in trepidation today that, despite the speaker's proclamation that there is little conclusive evidence that the Mayans truly believed the world would end on December 21 this year, the questions would be the inevitable:  "So how have you been preparing for the end of the world?"

However, this is how I mis-estimate, and maybe over-estimate, the thinking processes of some people. Picture me as talk show host, running through the audience, microphone in hand, trying to get to as many audience members in the short amount of question and answer time.  The first questions have been great, ranging a respectable gamut of appropriate thought-provoking questions about Mayan culture and their appreciation for math and astronomy.  Then, there is that moment I hand the microphone to one audience member who asks (and I can't remember the exact words, seeing that I was in disbelief) if our speaker believes in Jesus.

I had enough trouble getting literature students to understand that the narrator of a story or a poem WAS NOT necessarily the writer.  I never fathomed that someone might think the speaker presenting on an ancient culture and ancient belief system also believed in that.  As I ran the presentation through rewind in my brain over and over, I couldn't find one moment when the speaker implied at all that his belief was that of the Mayans.  Our speaker's answer was brief and effective, something like, "well, I do, but that hardly matters."  And, then, because I couldn't pry the microphone out of the questioner's hand, there was the follow up, more questioning about the speaker's personal belief in Jesus.  Little did I think that I would pray (well, maybe the wrong word) for someone to ask the speaker how he was prepared for the end of the world.

So, sigh, I guess I learned a few important lessons today:

1) Never, ever, underestimate someone's ability to hear something completely different than everyone else, and to process that through his or her individual perspective of the world.  When this blatant of disconnect seems to happen, why am I at all surprised when my wife and I have petty misunderstandings?

2) Now I know why Phil Donahue never gave up the microphone.


November 7, 2012: Inside the HEAD:  Week Ten (day forty-seven)


I had to see a new doctor today, which meant new nursing assistants, new nurses, new staff in general for me to meet.  Inevitably, they ask, upon seeing me list "college administrator" as my profession, where I work.  The nurse today (or maybe the nursing assistant, I'm not always sure of the difference in these private clinics) said, "Oh, I almost went to SMC."  After my obligatory, "you can still come anytime," I did ask where she went to school. She named, almost under her breath and with, as I inferred it, a little bit of shame, a for-profit university.


I always give people and the institution the benefit of the doubt, so I asked her how she liked it, generally interested in her answer and not hoping for some rant against the institution.  She said she did like it and that she believed her clinicals really prepared her for the job.  In terms of everything she did for me, checking the blood pressure, reviewing my medical history, and talking about my specific reason for being there, she did a fantastic job.  I noticed while she typed away feverishly at the computer, a picture of her 5 year old boy on the back of her name tage, and since I didn't see a wedding ring on her finger, I assumed, perhaps erroneously, single mother.


As I drove away, I wondered about why she had to feel embarrassed about where she got her degree.  She appeared incredibly competent, and frankly, could be more competent than graduates from any number of not-for-profit institutions.  With clinical sites being so few and far between, I know many not-for-profit health programs feel squeezed out by the for-profits when they come in and pick up clinical sites.  And yet there is such a great need to get such single mothers out into the workforce and with every health program limited in the number of seats they can offer students, more players in the field has to help the overall economy.


Down here in southwestern Michigan and northern Indiana, there is a stronger resentment of the for-profits than I saw in Grand Rapids and in Detroit.  I'm not entirely sure why.  At the high school counselors' luncheon a few weeks back, any number of non-profit private institutions could be named, and the response was often a sneer and the statement that such institutions were for-profits.  Even if I took the time to point out an institution wasn't a for-profit, and then asked the table if any of their students went there, the sneers and the "God, no!" still dominated the response.  


I guess no one wants to be tarred with the for-profits these days.  As usual for our society, this is probably a dramatic over-reaction.  I just worry for the fine young women like I met today who have actually worked hard and earned a credible credential who might still feel the need to keep quiet the name of the institution where they got their degree.



November 6, 2012: Inside the HEAD--Week Ten (day forty-six)

On this night as we await the election returns, my subject seems natural:  If only the electoral college was more like your educational college, and vice versa.

  • Your educational college would determine every ten years how many credits are needed to award a degree, not stay rooted to some mythical number of credits per degree as set forth over a hundred years ago;
  • The electoral college would use modern systems like degreeworks to do an electoral audit that could show their official vote in less than the four to five weeks it currently takes;
  • Your educational college would pay more attention to large "swing" classes, such as math and English, for being the defining factor of their business;
  • The electoral college would standardize their curriculum, so that we don't have that weird stuff in Nebraska and Maine where electors can be split;
  • Your educational college would allow for objections from the faculty when a student collects his diploma, although as with members of Congress, the objection would have to be presented in writing prior to the Commencement, and have the signature of at least one other faculty member.  You'd no longer have faculty reading books smuggled in under their robes during Commencement;
  • The electoral college would have to get regular regional accreditation, albeit as defined by members of the electoral college;
  • Your educational college would punish "faithless educators," members who don't go along with the prescribed curriculum;
  • The electoral college would have bacchanalian-like bashes for Spring Break.  (Oh wait, this might already be the case.  I should probably do some more research.)

Anyway, off to watch the results.  I have to admit a grad audit doesn't exactly make for riveting television watching, unless of course we have Fox News predicting Johnny's graduation status based upon his grade in his developmental math class.


November 5, 2012:  Inside the HEAD--Week Ten (day forty-five)

Today is truly just some rambling, a kind of free-verse prose that starts with an annoying REM pop song:

"Stand in the place that you work/now face West/think about the place where you live/wonder why you haven't before"

Yes, Michael Stipe and REM, I have thought about that place and I've decided the most dangerous place to be is where I stand.

I am convinced of this pithy truism.  Certainly someone else has expressed this thought before, but it has been an epiphany for me.  I saw it with the less than stellar classroom experience of last Friday (see November 2, 2012, blog) when I didn't get out of my comfort zone to analyze more accurately my situation with the high school students.  

I don't know if I should be zig-zagging across an open plain of my career avoiding the artillery and shrapnel of life, but it is probably better than standing in one place and making myself an open target.  This goes against everything we think we've learned: one's place to stand is one's stake to territory.  Territory, though, is almost always something someone else wants.

Territory becomes a place under siege, land mass coveted, or land mass misunderstood, the Afghan mountains easier to blow up than to co-habitate.   One sees this so often with academic disputes, although I would never be naive enough to believe that such challenges don't exist in other industries.  My recent post about course scheduling (see October 9, 2012, blog) serves as a reminder about the dangers of territoriality.  I have a meeting come Friday about scheduling and I fear everyone standing firmly in spot.

We worship people who make a stand. "Come on down and meet your maker, come on down and make the stand," sang The Alarm.  Very few things juice up a football crowd more than a goal-line stand, the immovable force stopping the wave of momentum.  Yet, in real life the stand is a temporary victory, a mark against a person who doesn't play well with others, who can't accept the direction of leadership.

I shouldn't take this lying down, but it looks like I should.  I see some follies with standing straight and tall.