Archive for June, 2014

When planning to attend the graduation ceremony for my Ph.D., I opted to rent academic regalia because purchasing it is ridiculously expensive and grad students don’t get paid that much (if they get paid at all). The situation hadn’t changed much three months later when my first convocation as a faculty member (also my first convocation in any role) was looming. Thankfully, my institution offered to rent regalia for faculty who did not own it. It turned out that all of my departmental colleagues also had regalia that the institution had rented. This worked out really well for me and I ended up using that regalia for the past five years. (All of my departmental colleagues also had rental regalia and I have no idea how the rental system worked since we all kept it in our offices year-round rather than returning it and re-renting it twice a year.)

I recently returned this rented regalia when cleaning out my office and have received no word from my new institution that they have a similar sort of system, so I decided early in the summer to purchase my own regalia. Having made that decision, I then needed to figure out which regalia to buy. There are a lot of options and I don’t really know what the differences between them are, but I settled on purchasing the official regalia of my graduate institution (thankfully, I didn’t go to Princeton, though I also didn’t go somewhere with a particularly colorful gown that I’ve admired on some of my colleagues). The official company offered three “levels” of gown that all looked basically the same to me, though the highest level offered a pass-through to a pants pocket. If I ever sell academic regalia, such pass-throughs will be standard. Despite the desirability of such an option, I opted for one of the less-expensive models.

After a number of weeks, during which I forgot that I had ordered regalia, a square box arrived with my gown, tam, and hood. My rental gown had always been too large and my rental tam had always been too small, so I was interested in seeing how this purportedly custom-made regalia would fit. I am happy to report that the gown is definitely not as big around as my rental gown had been and the tam actually fits on my head without feeling like it will give me a headache. Unfortunately, the gown still seems longer than would be ideal, but maybe that is because my preferred ground clearance is twice the recommended length (maybe in a few years I’ll go to a tailor to have it shortened and have a pocket installed…). The hood is basically like my rental, though possibly a bit heavier, which will surely make inadvertently choking myself when I sit down on it even easier.

In general, I can’t say that the most expensive outfit I own (by far) seems that special compared to my rentals. If anything, it feels stiff (I swear that the area around the neck has cardboard sewn into it). I assume that these things get broken in over time, but wearing it a few hours twice a year means that the break-in process could take years. I’ll have to wait until this year’s convocation before finding out how it really performs. Alternatively, I could always wear it around the house Harry Potter-style (I think Harry Potter’s robes have pockets, though). If nothing else, the expense of the gown and the fact that it actually fits should give me a strong motivation not to gain weight over the years.

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One of the things that I will miss the most after leaving for a new job is the colleagues in my department, who have been great to work with over the past five years. At the end of the semester they had a going away party for me and now that my office on campus is empty, I’m not sure when I will see them again. It has been hard to say goodbye, but the process has been made more difficult by all of our unpredictable summer schedules. While I was in my office cleaning and packing, for example, every time that I saw somebody could have been the last time. This meant that every time we said goodbye might have been the last. And then the next day I would see them again and we would repeat the process.

Overall, the past few weeks have been a bit like saying goodbye to somebody in a parking lot and then realizing that you parked in the same area and need to walk awkwardly next to each other since your goodbyes have already been said. On the other hand, this process of drawn-out potentially-final-potentially-not-final goodbyes has likely made it easier to leave. When somebody walked by my office door to head home for the day I could say, “I’ll see you later!” because the possibility existed that I would see them the next day, even though the state of my office made that increasingly unlikely.

Now that I’m not going to campus anymore (and have, indeed, turned in my keys), I’m not sure whether or not I will see anybody before I leave. Maybe I won’t, and the last goodbye really was final. Or maybe I’ll see them at the grocery store or at a World Cup party. The possibilities are endless.

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That was my primary response after reading Reihan Salam’s recent argument at Slate that colleges should be fined when former students default on their student loans. Citing the work of sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton in their book Paying for the Party, Salam notes:

One of their most striking findings is that standard college advising consistently failed to meet the needs of students from modest backgrounds. Students from affluent backgrounds had extensive social networks at their disposal, which helped them turn degrees in “party majors” like sports communication and broadcasting or interior decorating into jobs in glamorous, or glamorous-sounding, fields. Students who didn’t have parents familiar with the ins and outs of higher education to help them navigate the system found themselves at the mercy of incompetent, indifferent, and overworked advisers who routinely led them astray.

His solution? Punish schools for failing their students. He writes:

A good first step would be to punish colleges that have failed their students, as Andrew P. Kelly and Alex Pollock of the American Enterprise Institute have suggested. The basic idea is that if a student defaults on her student loans, the higher education institution she attended should pay a penalty. The genius of this idea, as Kelly has explained, is that it would make colleges think twice about their lackluster advising, even if the penalty were quite small. Colleges would suddenly have an excellent reason to guide students to majors that would help them gain marketable skills.

I see so many problems with this proposal that it is hard to list them all (for a start: financial punishments for schools that serve students with the highest risk has had terrible results for K-12 education, you can lead a student to a major but you can’t make her sign up for classes, if students graduate they might be less likely to default so pressure to pass everybody would increase) but for now I will focus on Salam’s apparent assumption that all schools are the same.

Salam may be surprised to find out that most colleges and universities are not like Midwest University in Paying for the Party. In fact, the middle- and working-class women who were most successful in Armstrong and Hamilton’s study were those who transferred to smaller schools closer to home where they did not face pressure to adhere to a lifestyle that they could not afford (in the short- or long-term). In addition to public flagships there are regional universities and a whole range of liberal arts colleges. Salam doesn’t seem to understand this, writing as if a college is a college and concluding with support for Obama’s proposed college ratings, even arguing that “he hasn’t gone far enough. It is egregious that students, parents, and taxpayers are the ones who suffer when colleges don’t do their jobs while the colleges in question are left untouched. We simply can’t let them get away with it anymore.”

If only colleges would do their jobs! Those jobs are apparently to prepare students for work by ensuring that they graduate from college with the right degrees. The difference between a college graduate and somebody with “some college,” then, lies solely in whether or not a given student received good advice, took that advice, received (not “earned”!) passing grades, and received (not “earned”!) a diploma, marking him or her as suitable for high-wage employment. Except…

I have spent the past ten years teaching college students. I have a job that privileges teaching and advising. I do everything I can to help my students succeed. The majority of them do. Some of them, however, do not. I can think of a handful of students in the course of my teaching career who simply were not prepared to be successful college students. In some cases, students had insufficient preparation in high school. In others, they were not emotionally ready for college or had family obligations that prevented them from focusing on their courses. Sometimes, these students took the same course with me multiple times and failed each time. Often, these students have failed to complete their degrees because their GPAs were insufficient to remain enrolled.

In my experience, the students who have failed at college for these reasons had a strong desire to succeed but could not make it happen. They were not alone, though. In addition to me and their other professors they had advisors working closely with them. They also received help through academic probation programs and took advantage of free tutors, writing centers, and counseling. It is true that they failed as college students, but it is absolutely not true that their institutions failed them.

I do not mean to downplay the factors that led some students in Armstrong and Hamilton’s study not to do well. There are clearly structural changes that Midwestern University could implement that would benefit students. Implementing the same changes on every campus, though, would be ridiculous. Sort of like trying to use a single rating to measure the success of graduates across all departments at a college or university…

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Moving this summer would be a pain even if I was just changing offices. Recently, Tenured Radical and Wendy Christensen shared some moving tips. I don’t have much to add to their experiences other than to say that my preferred form of moving has always been from one place to another in the same city, allowing me to move nearly everything myself and never have to live out of boxes (fill a box with pots and pans at the old place, unpack that box at the new place, repeat). When moving for my current position I actually had a large enough budget to have the movers pack for me. The only problem with taking advantage of that was that I didn’t do the sort of cleaning that one should do after seven years in one place. This time I plan to be more discerning in what I bring with me.

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My biggest challenge so far this summer (other than the cold that won’t go away) has been cleaning out my office as I prepare to transition to another institution. When I moved into my current office I had just completed my dissertation, which prevented me from taking the time I should have to weed through my belongings. The fact that my office had two large closets also allowed me to move things in without considering whether I actually needed them. Since I will not have any closets in my new office, I have spent the past week sorting through the things I’ve accumulated over the past five years as well as those I had accumulated through seven years of graduate school.

It turns out that one can accumulate a lot of paper in twelve years. In my closets, for example, I had my class notes from every class I’ve ever taught, even though these notes largely repeat from one semester to the next. Along with these notes I also had the attendance sheets, often with student ID pictures, that I used to learn students’ names. As I recycled all of these things I was struck by how few of my students I actually remember from my graduate school teaching. For every student that brought back fond memories there were three or four that I had no recollection of at all. I guess that my mind cleared them out to make space for new students long before I rid my office of their detritus.

In all, I got rid of nearly 40 binders of various sizes in addition to a filing cabinet full of old exams and papers, unnecessary materials from graduate school (why did I still have teaching dossiers from 2005 and 2006?!), information for advisees who graduated several years ago, and a few dozen books.  Throughout the process, I was conscious of the fact that these things accumulated because I had space for them. Indeed, most of them were just sitting in disarray on the shelves of one of my closets, preventing me from easily accessing any particular piece of information even if I had wanted to.

I hope to be more disciplined (and deliberate) about the things that I keep in my new office. The lack of closets will probably help, but maybe I also need to set aside some time for summer cleaning each year. Twelve years is too long to wait.

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