• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Friday Fragments

Crop rotation, a video interview, The Girl's first info session and a dog wearing sunglasses.

October 9, 2020

If you haven’t seen it, Susan Dynarski’s piece on college economic incentives as a market failure is well worth reading. Her argument should be familiar to anyone who took Econ 101: market failures can’t be solved by markets alone. They require intervention. The classic example is pollution, in which one actor externalizes some of the costs of production while keeping all of the proceeds. In the case of the pandemic, simple breathing amounts to pollution. But many colleges opened anyway for fear of lost revenue, basically putting the cost of the pollution generated on the surrounding community. The answer she proposes is straightforward enough: provide economic support for colleges so they don’t have to pollute to survive.

It seems to fly in the face of cultural dogma, but we do something like it for farmers all the time and think nothing of it. We pay them to leave fields fallow to prevent a devastating cycle of overproduction and collapse. The same applies here. If we want colleges to still be here when the pandemic subsides, we need to support them through it. It’s just that simple.


Josie Ahlquist interviewed me this week for her #DigLead book club. The video is here. I won’t win any awards on Room Rater, but it was fun.


The Girl had her first “college visit” this week. It was an online information session for a major university.

This is how you show “demonstrated interest” during a pandemic. Meritocracy, after all, never sleeps.

It was about an hour long, with a college rep talking over a PowerPoint. The attendees could see the rep, and message her, but they couldn’t see each other or message each other. Since we had always planned on my going with her on college visits, as I did with The Boy, I sat in on the presentation.

It was largely what veterans of the industry would expect: pretty photos of campus, information on application deadlines (apparently targeted to seniors, as opposed to juniors), an overview of the various schools within the university (arts and sciences, engineering, etc.), and some discussion of scholarships and financial aid. I was more interested in TG’s reaction.

She seemed a little tense, which I chalked up to it being her first. I’ve seen plenty of college presentations over the years, but this was her first, and her first as part of the target audience. The first time someone addresses you as a prospective college student can be a little jarring, but mostly in a good way. (In the ’90s, I would have felt obligated to make a reference here to Althusser’s notion of “hailing.” Good times, good times …)

But beyond nerves, she brought that incisive intellect to bear in ways that reminded me that the world looks different at 16. She wants to major in English, because she loves narrative and seems to have a real talent for analyzing it. Accordingly, she took umbrage at the distinction between “professional” programs and the “arts and sciences” school. As she put it, “So English majors aren’t professional?” I could see her point. When the rep mentioned that the high school math grade requirements weren’t as rigorous for the arts and sciences school, TG rolled her eyes. Afterwards, she spent a few minutes venting that it was all STEM, all the time.

She’s not anti-STEM, by any means, but she picked up strongly on what she felt was an invidious distinction. Having watched the same presentation, I couldn’t really argue.

I mentioned that liberal arts colleges exist, but she doesn’t want to go anywhere small.

So, if there are any large-ish universities out there with strong English departments, good financial aid and an appreciation for bracingly intelligent young feminists, drop me a line. I promise to pass it along.


Best line I’ve seen this week on Van Halen: “Every song sounds like a dog wearing sunglasses.” Yup. A tip of the cap to a band I never really cared about but miss anyway.


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