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

September 14, 2012: Inside the HEAD (day nine)

Fridays are frequently meeting days, especially because it is the one day of the week you can usually get faculty who aren't all over the place trying to teach classes as they are Monday through Thursday.  Perhaps the most important committee involving faculty anywhere is the C&I, or Curriculum and Instruction Committee (which may go by some other name, but which is ultimately the place decisions about courses and programs should be approved).  

Inevitably at a C&I meeting, there is a challenge of authority.  If a faculty member or a dean brings a proposal forward about a new program, he or she is not likely to take kindly to the fact that a number of faculty members (represented at best by about 90% faculty not in the same department/division), as well as pencil-pushing administrators and staff, can suggest the proposal is anything less than brilliant.  This can occur again and again, and in the worst case scenario, the C&I committee becomes merely a rubber stamping organization.  The problem is that if the hard questions are not asked, then the answers come back in the form of low enrollment, unexpected costs, financial aid problems, and/or accreditation issues a few years down the road.

In addition, not only might there be a confrontational environment whenever a faculty member or dean proposes a course or program, the C&I committee can also be hindered by authorities resting somewhere outside of the committee, usually farther up.  Given that deans often have primary access to Vice Presidents and even Presidents, there is the likelihood that politicking and subterfuge can undermine any decision made by the committee.  These kinds of situations speak all the more about why leaders have to know how to keep their egos in check.

In the worst case scenario I have heard of, there can be situations where a faculty member or a dean has to implement a certain number of new programs as a GOAL for their evaluation.  Can everyone say "conflict of interest?"  How can the best decision for the college or university come when someone knows their job may be on the line if they don't get a new program implemented?

I write about this because there was that inevitable moment today that someone learned I had been at C&I this morning and the response was akin to "Oh, I'm so sorry."  The truth of the matter is that our meeting today was exceptional. The conversations were difficult--anytime you have to make a decision about facutly members' programs and/or students involved in those programs, the conversations are difficult.  However, when someone asked if our committee would have "the teeth" to recommend decisions, I reminded them that ultimately I was taking forward the group's recommendations.  "You be the teeth," I said, "and I'll be the mouth." 

It's early in the semester, my optimism, and clunky figures of speech, still flow freely.


September 13, 2012: Inside the HEAD (day eight)

I didn't really want to be an administrator today.  However, this is not for the reasons you might think, given previous posts (and by the way Colorado State has already changed that job posting language--see September 12 posting below).

We held our first art exhibition of the academic year today at Southwestern Michigan College.  It is a wonderful feeling to be at an institution where the arts, even with our challenges funding them, are still valued.  Our exhibition featured our own alumni, almost all of whom went on to get advanced degrees in art.  A few of them attended to talk about their pieces.  All of it was excellent, even the more modern stuff I don't always get.  We had a wide array of media, ranging from oils to watercolors to jewelry to sculpture to animation to illustration.

My favorite was an extraordinary 3-D piece made from paper that recreated the cave paintings of Altamira, this one specifically.  It's one of those moments when one truly can't convey the beauty of the piece through words.  As I listened to the artist talk about mixing newspaper in a blender as preparation for the work, I was struck by how much I really don't know about creating visual art.

Some of the stories of the artwork, which often speak directly or indirectly to an alumnus' relationship with his or her mentor, are great to hear also.  The unspoken respect between teacher and former student oozes from the body language and the interactions.

All of this talk of art brings to mind my greatest plug for Grand Rapids, the area where I lived for three years, and their amazing "Art Prize," an open competition for the public to see and judge art throughout the Grand Rapids area.  For the last two weeks in September, art is alive, appreciated and discussed through the community. 

So, I had a sense of longing today that went beyond my role as an administrator. I longed for the ability to see Art Prize as a daily occurrence in my life if I wished.  I longed for the first days of teaching Western Civilization classes and talking about cave painting.  And I longed for the relationships that faculty have with their students who when we reconnect years later remind us of the value of education.

And I have many friends who tell me that God works in mysterious ways and that I need to listen to him more.  Maybe they are correct.  As I finish this posting, I have been found through FaceBook by one of my favorite former students.



September 12, 2012: Inside the HEAD (day seven)


Some days you go to The Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside HigherEd and you either laugh or cry about what you see at other institutions.  That was certainly the case today if you saw this article in Inside HigherEd:  Colorado State University is restricting applications for its entry-level English tenure-track position to people who have earned their doctorate after 2010.  In fact, when you first saw the headline, which didn't mention the department/field, you thought maybe it was in the computer sciences department and the intention was to find candidates whose research was more likely to be in cutting-edge fields.  That might have been something to stomach.  However, you quickly saw that the field is my own field, English.


So, you try to step back and logically look at this. Maybe they are looking for a faculty member well-versed in some of the more recent English fields and theories?  A feminist, perhaps?  A post-structuralist?  A post-modernist? A transgender metropolitanist?  A Post Emily Postist?  You certainly could not apply for the positon.  You don't even know the jargon.


Oh, wait a second!  They are asking for a "Pre-1900 American Literature" assistant professor.  Allow me to type that again:  A freaking "Pre-1900 American Literature" person.  Give me a break!  What really new grounds of research has been plowed by someone in that area with a PhD earned since 2010 that someone with that degree from 5 years ago, 10 years ago, even more, hasn't already plowed?  What new can really be said about Cotton bloody Mather?  What subtext can we now presume about Charles Brockden Brown?*


Then, as you, fully depressed, read the rest of the article, you see all the politics that are assumed to be behind this:  to leave out the derailed tenure tracks from other instititutions, the traveling minstrels of adjuncts selling their services to multiple institutions for years hoping for a chance to get a full-time position. Trust us there are way too many of us with degrees in English in that band of entertainers.


At core, I am reminded of the Lucinda Williams' line:  "We were blessed by the teacher who didn't have a degree. " (If you have never heard this amazing song, click here.)


This is why higher education still has so far to go.  This is not a decision being made about student success.  This is a decision being made about perception and appeareances.  This is a crock.  This is a load of hooey.  I am doubly embarrassed as a college administrator and as a passionate believer in English degrees and curriculum.


Excuse me while I go listen to Lucinda. 


*This is just a cheap trick on my part to encourage people to read Brown's Weiland.  Hilariously weird book.


September 11, 2012: Inside the HEAD (day six)

Somewhere along the way during the beginning of the semester, every administrator gets slammed with that first really busy day, that, "what the hell, it is already 5:00?" day.  Usually it's a combination of several lengthy meetings (1 1/2 to 2 hours, the maximum anyone should have to sit through a meeting), three of four small fires that need to be put out, and that you couldn't have anticipated prior to coming in for the day, and the realization that a number of tasks hanging out there since the first day of classes need to start being addressed.  In actuality, the "busy-ness" of a day like this revolves around the constant need to communicate information.

As a general rule, I hate to send too many mass emails, but today was the kind of day when I constantly weighed decisions to send a mass email today on one topic, or wait for tomorrow when I would have two topics, but topic one's half life is already in place regarding its currency, or wait for the day after tomorrow when I would have three topics, but topic two has joined that place in line behind topic one in terms of, "why didn't you tell me that sooner?"  So, SMC faculty readers, be forewarned, that dang Fleming will be sending you "heads up" emails again several times this week. It's the endless debate:  are people less likely to read a long email or several all coming relatively closely in time?  I have had some colleagues, who, bless their hearts, put all sorts of efforts into long, involved emails full of timely information, and the average reader never got that far.

The ultimate role of an administrator is as communicator, and so on a day like today when you realize so many crucial messages need to be conveyed, one can really struggle with what's the right way to communicate. I already know that I may send too many emails. In addition, though, I try to maintain an internal blog for faculty; I have set up a lounge for issues for our Learning Management System; I can post announcements to the general intranet page, and I expect my deans and directors to be sharing information too.  It's information overload, and just like with our students, we just don't always know which, if any of these, serve the best purposes.

Luckily, I don't agonize too much over what I write before I send or post (I think this website is evidence that I don't do this nearly enough!).


September 10, 2012: Inside the HEAD (day five)

If your institution is in Michigan, odds are very likely that one of your faithful administrators is doing major busy work today, this week, and the rest of this month.  Thanks to a new bill, all community colleges must justify appropriations for local strategic value by submitting through a Board resolution, prior to November 1, the verification of 4 out of 5 best practices in three categorical areas representing functional activities of community colleges.  This is not a direct quote (I want my readers to read on), but the sentence is heavy with the language of the bill.

On the surface, this sounds simple enough, right? The more each college meets the best practice measures in 4 out of the 5 categories, the more funding it will receive.    It is not clear how many examples we need in each of these subsections of categories (in case you weren't doing the math, in essence, one has to prove strategic value in 12 out of 15 subcategories).  It also isn't clear if anyone reviewing these has any capability to weigh exceptional partherships versis perfunctory ones.  But, hey, this is our government, right?  Does anyone doubt our legislators have the knowledge to do this?

So, let's look at some of our categories:

a) partnerships with local employers, including hospitals and health care providers.  I guess hospitals and health care providers deserve a special call out, as opposed to every other local business.  Also, try running any health care program without partnering with local hospitals and health care providers for internships and clinicals.  We ALL do this.

b) articulations with 4-year institutions.  Community colleges will kill to do more of these; we are usually at the beck and call of the 4-years, who often see their own freshman and sophomore level classes as money-making revenues and don't want to so quickly turn all that over to the little community college down the road.  There is also the inherent snobbery of faculty who are convinced that the Intro To Psych class at Major State U is much better than the Intro to Psych class at Puny Community College.

c)  customized on-site training.  This has been a trend for years.  Some institutions do it better than others.  However, it looks like an institution that has been prostituting its corporate services could reap the benefits over any institution that may develop fewer partnerships in the interest of quality over quantity.  You can arrange to do as many of these as you want, but in the end, you need to have credentialed, excellent trainers/facilitators who can teach to outcomes and then assess those outcomes.

d) active partnerships with local schools for offering of dual enrollment, direct credit and other early college options.  Not to switch states too quickly, but look at how the Indiana University statewide system is proclaiming its highest enrollments ever, in part because of this on-going pressure to get into high schools and offer college credit to high school students.  I've lamented this in past blogs, but which is it, high school or college?  Can we blur the lines any more?  And similar to c) above, will the institutions that do more direct credits be rewarded over the institution that may do fewer but with more effort to make sure students learn college level material?

e) opportunities for community members to engage in cultural events.  Hey, the community colleges are no different than the k-12's.  When the money gets cut, and funding has been slashed all over the place, the first thing that suffers is the Arts.  In a world where everyone looks for colleges to help students get jobs, justifying expensive Arts programs, with few job opportunities for graduates, especially in the local area, is difficult to do. 

These are just the big five.  I fully expect SMC to submit at least 15 pages of activities for Board resolution.  The best thing may be that a college's own board members may not fully know the extent of each community college's "strategic" value partnerships to the local community.  I hope they appreciate it, because I'm convinced the legislators will completely miss the boat when they review.  But, that's o.k.  The elections will be over and legislative sights will be set on something else.