Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

All I Want For Christmas…

with 3 comments

Well, okay.  That could cover a lot of ground.

What I really meant when I wrote that title was:  all I want for Christmas is a title for this damned book, which is not a Gregor but does take place just around Christmas and in a bed and breakfast that allows cats.

But it’s not a cozy.

You see my problem here.

But there are actually other things I can think of, and they start with a return to sanity in just the day to day procedures of the institutions I’m involved with.

It’s not just that society at large has become rule-bound and bureaucratic, it’s that everything has–at my place, there’s an automatic appeal hearing any time you give a student an F, for any reason; the process required to get a student thrown out of school makes putting someone on death row seem quick and transparent; you can’t get a student expelled for plagarism at all, even if he engages in it multiple times.

What’s more, we’ve gone from the requirement that we all provide a syllabus, to the requirement that we provide a syllabus including three to five pages of boilerplate bureaucrateze on everything from college policy on students with disabilities to grandiose (and completely incoherent) statements on “measurable outcomes” that are often not measurable.  Then we were required to treat the syllabus as a “contract’ with students, meaning that we couldn’t change it mid-stream for any reason at all.

Am I really the only one who finds that most of her classes vary in terms of the average abilities of the students in them?  I struggle every single term with classes that sometimes far exceed any expectations I could have had for them when I started, or fall far short.  I’ve got all kinds of things planned out on every one of my syllabi that are either not needed when we get to the point, or that lack some specific training in a skill set I wouldn’t expect to need.

I’ve taken to putting in a disclaimer saying I can change anything I want any time I want, but you really can’t do that.  Students have learned to rely on the syllabus, and they will often follow it rather than anything you say in class.

I’m getting wound up on myself here.  I don’t mind writing syllabi, and I think it’s a good idea to have one, but I am very unhappy with the rigidity of the way the system is run. 

And the rigidity creeps into everything–to the relationship between teachers and students, certainly, but also to the relationship between the students themselves and the university.  It’s like trying to maintain a marriage with a pre nup in one hand and Robert’s Rules in the other.

For those of you who think government always does things worse than the private sector, and the private nonprofit sector always does things worse than the for private for profit sector–when it comes to education, you’re wrong.

The public colleges and universities around here are far and away more sane in their administrations than the for profit ones, which may have something to do with less need (or desire) to overdefine everything.

That doesn’t mean the public universities don’t overdefine everything–this is academia, it’s what we do–but they tend to fall short of six page mission statements full of indecipherable “visions” that would be unrealizable in Utopia.

At least the public colleges and universities know what they’re there for–provide the local community with a certain set of skills meant to enable them to do a certain set of jobs, or to go on to graduate work to for a professional degree. 

The private places have sort of hard to articulate ideas about “and educated citizenry” and “achieving success in a dynamic future” that turns your brains to mush.  The for profit places are worse because they both want that kind of mission statement and feel the need to sell themselves as a surefire pathway to career success.  Or something.

The problem with the for profit places, I think, is that they’ve got a business model that does not really accord with reality.  They exist largely because they see places like Harvard and Swarthmore and Vassar and Johns Hopkins charging $30K, $40K, $50K a year and figure that they can make a lot of money that way–keep costs down, but charge the going market rates.  Parents will pay anything to get their kids through college.

Most for profits are in for an initial shock when they find out what most people actually pay at the private non-profit places like Smith and Wellesley.  The sticker price may be $52K, but the actual out of pocket expense is almost always under $10K, the rest made up by grants and scholarships.

The goal then becomes getting to the students who for some reason will not be offered that kind of aid at the private nonprofits, and who find the idea of attending a public school to be sort of low rent and unacceptable.

And there are fewer of those than you’d think, and most of them would rather throw the money at Syracuse and NYU instead of the local small school with a big price tag.

This wouldn’t be such a bad plan if the for profits actually delivered students who were better–or even competently–trained in the skills employers wanted, but they don’t.  In fact, sometimes they do a lot worse.

When I say this whole system is unsustainable, this is what I mean.  Robert asked once who got hurt by it but students and their parents, but this isn’t true–employers also get hurt by it when they end up hiring “credentialed” people who cannot write a grammatical English sentence, can’t spell anything, don’t actually know how to operate a human resources office, et cetera and ad infinitum. 

Around here, a fair number of employers have started their own remedial schools, little training sessions in things like how to write a report and avoid slang and how to read a spread sheet. 

And this is why I say that we’re on our way to an alternative method of credentialing–you can rip off parents and students all you want and they’ll still pay up, but when you rip off employers they will find other and better methods of getting what they have to have.


In a world where you need an “associate’s degree” to be a car mechanic, at least the public places are cheap.

Written by janeh

December 9th, 2010 at 10:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'All I Want For Christmas…'

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  1. A lot of the bureaucracy is a kind of over-correction. People get mad when Susan is excused from some work because of a reason they don’t believe or Mr. Impulsive changes the course requirements half-way through or John gets tossed out in disgrace for plagiarism while Dick never gets caught in the first place and Harry gets off when his old man leans on the principal. So well-meaning people try to specify exact regulations for every possible situation. This, naturally spawns newer incidents of injustice, and newer rules. I personally tend to like the view that you need basic, simple clear rules with the possibility of special exemptions, but have to admit that kind of system does tend to inequalities – but then, they all do. I think that one, run by honest and clever people (and there’s the catch) is better than average.

    We’ve had our own small-scale experiments with private post-secondary schools of the community college/job training type. A few survive still from the previous expansion. Most collapsed pretty rapidly. They tended to offer bare-bones education with minimal facilities like libraries and computer labs (and of course not even bothering with the in-demand courses that also required very expensive training equipment). Teachers were underpaid compared to the public equivalent, and students paid more. But they’d start a program immediately if they had enough warm bodies to pay the rent and the teachers, while the public institution often had a waiting list for the (theoretically) same program. And they usually – but not always – remained in business until their students graduated, so I suppose they perform a useful function.


    9 Dec 10 at 1:43 pm

  2. Hmm. So the part of government that has no powers of compulsion and no enforced monopoly is reasonably efficient? What an amazing coincidence!

    For the record, the problem is not bloated bureaucracy and idiots in power as such. They don’t last long when people have a choice. The problem is legal monopolies, compulsion and immunity. And the problem with government is that those pretty much define the core missions of government–and must. Competing law codes work about as well as police forbidden to use force. We know the problem. It’s the solution that gives us troubles.

    I also note we slipped from “private” to “for profit” at one point. JHU and Harvard are as private as they come, and rightly so. They just pay dividends in influence and prestige rather than cash. Is one better than the other? Are there times you’d rather pay cash than flatter someone? How about the other way around?

    If overdefining everything is what academics do–mind you, I’d agree on a bad day–it is the failure of scholarship and reason. When you do it right–the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, several Lincoln speeches or that mobilization order from the French Revolution–everyone knows what is expected of them, and the principles which should guide them when something unexpected occurs. Cries of “It’s in the handbook somewhere!” and “How does paragraph 2(c) apply in Section III?” indicate a system on the verge of collapse–or never intended to work. Mind you, I’ve seen military orders every bit as bad–but see above, compulsion, monoploy and immunity.


    9 Dec 10 at 6:46 pm

  3. I’ve been away from the US for so long that I don’t think I can make a useful comment. But I do wonder how much of the bureaucracy that Jane describes is due to fear of law suits?


    9 Dec 10 at 8:18 pm

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