What’s in a number (or, trying to understand the minds of university administrators)

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After seemingly retreating from obsessive micro-managing of student numbers, certain administrators at my university have recently returned to routinely flagging “low enrolling” sections term-by-term while now also pointing to numbers of majors when citing decisions about faculty lines and other forms of program support.

I, like most faculty I know, understand the need for sound financial management and also the value in periodically assessing faculty lines and the distribution of university resources. As part of that, I accept both that not all programs will be viewed equally by administrators, and that there may be a variety of bases for determining the value of programs. As faculty, you find ways to deal with administrative priorities in whatever way you can.

However, it is difficult to understand these kinds of judgments where the logic of administrative assessment and decision making cannot be followed or is not articulated to faculty. I can think of a few reasons why there might be an intense focus on “low enrollments” and “program size” on the part of administrators on my campus right now, but I don’t actually know which, if any, of these might be the correct answer to why the metrics that are being valorized are, in fact, being valorized.

To begin my guesses, the Oregon University System is being dissolved. The larger institutions, University of Oregon, Portland State and Oregon State, have already been freed to establish independent boards. For smaller campuses like mine future governance it still to be determined. Our president has submitted a proposal to the legislature for an independent board.

It is possible that the obsession with enrollment minutiae has to do with either demonstrating “strong management” to members of the legislature to bolster the case for independence or is more practically concerned with scraping up nickels and dimes from, particularly, reducing adjunct hires, but also from not renewing tenure track lines, in order to finance the prospective board.

Second, after growing from 4,889 in 2006 to 6,233 in 2010, enrollments at Western have essentially settled to around 6,100. It is possible that the concern with micro-enrollments is a reaction to this macro-level contraction and leveling off (my data is from the Fall enrollment reports to OUS). The idea being, I suppose, to rationalize course numbers to what appears to be the popping of an enrollment “bubble” since 2010.

Third, and similar to the first, there have been a number of personnel changes in upper-level administration in the last year, particularly on the academic side of the university. What may be happening here is an attempt to establish some kind of “hard” management style or administrative united front. We have a strong union and a tradition of faculty control over curriculum. Focusing in on term-by-term enrollments and number of majors could be a strategy to divide faculty in competition over students.

A fourth possibility is that the concerns here are not so much about the present, but are about laying groundwork for future hiring decisions, that is, if administrators are on the record now expressing concern about “low enrolling courses” and “small programs”, then later, when decisions are made about faculty lines and adjunct sections on the basis of these metrics, no one can claim ignorance regarding the criteria for allocating faculty resources.

To extend this speculation further, maybe the targeting of section enrollments and rumbling about numbers of majors are expressions of an un-articulated plan for re-shaping the university, one imagines around a few select professional, pre-professional, or simply “practical” programs with currently high enrollments, while gradually downsizing, by attrition, many of the traditional liberal arts and sciences to supporting roles, with no majors and only a few upper-division courses as deemed necessary for the full programs that do remain.

This last point seems the most likely, not just because it imparts a clear logic to the imperatives at work here, but also because it seems consistent with recent actions on hiring. However, as noted, nothing like this reasoning has been directly or clearly shared with faculty.

For me, and many of my faculty colleagues, one of the biggest sources of frustration in this process is not knowing why we have to engage in the exercise of cutting or defending all sub-twelve sections every term. Assuming that the goal, or, okay, let’s say, “outcome”, is one that faculty can at least sympathize with, I am sure that many, maybe most, would be willing to reassess our course schedules and make whatever practical adjustments we can to maximize enrollment each term.

But right now no one particularly understands why every section of every course is expected to meet the same enrollment threshold every term, regardless of program, purpose or enrollment history (I’ll just note here that there are sections of courses on the schedule that are routinely capped at less than twelve). There are, perhaps, vestigial OUS directives being responded to, but that hardly explains the current level of intensity over course enrollments (and I don’t think it explains the attention being paid to number of majors at all), expect, perhaps, as part of my first guess, where dutifully fulfilling system mandates, even as the system is being dismantled, will be looked at favorably in making the case for an independent board.

Of course, if I were in upper-level administration and I had a plan to change hiring practices to favor programs that met certain metrics for section enrollments and program size, or an even more radical plan for remaking the university around those numbers, I probably wouldn’t want to share that with faculty in a direct way either. That is, if the desired outcome is contraction of most of the academic programs at the university, I would not expect most faculty to embrace that outcome.

In an immediate political sense the unspoken rationale or rationales behind both the focus on section enrollments and numbers of majors is that, currently, for faculty to make even the most minor of curricular changes requires detailed explanations (“we must have a culture of evidence!”) and an assessment plan for determining if the stated purposes, excuse me, “outcomes”, are met.

Right now faculty have no idea what the administrative outcomes are, what goals are meant to be achieved, by imposing an enrollment threshold of twelve and insisting that majors be of a certain size, or how those outcomes are to be assessed (and, it should be noted, the exact number for size of major has not been articulated).

Without that information these imperatives seem arbitrary. It isn’t difficult to think of other ways of measuring departmental health or vitality or value – whatever term you like – besides section-by-section enrollments or number of majors. Why not total section enrollments? Why not student credit hours? Why not annual enrollments? At a small school like mine, why look at the departmental scale, why not Division or College? Why look at number of majors instead of student contact hours? Why employ the same measurements or standards for all departments when different departments serve different primary functions, e.g., there are departments that are primarily service departments and there are departments that primarily serve majors? Why is teaching majors more important than teaching in the core?p

My point isn’t that these would all be better measures than the ones being deployed. My point is that how you measure value or success should depend on your underlying purpose and not the other way around, that is, I don’t think what we do as faculty, or as a university community, should be driven by metrics that are selected prior to understanding what kind of a place we want the university to be. There is no prima facie or obvious value to section enrollments, or to twelve students, as opposed to any other number of students, or to numbers of majors. The fact that we don’t know what value is being ascribed to these measures is a far bigger problem for me right now than is the insistence that they be applied in the first place. It makes me wonder why these numbers are not being presented for discussion, but are simply being imposed.

New column at PopMatters on the disposability of comics

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My latest “Worlds in Panels” considers what it means to think of comics as “disposable” on digital platforms:

While digital media are not indestructible, and publisher practices may change at some point, for the moment, the electronic “printing” and distribution of comics means that scarcity is essentially non-existent. For readers who have been only by default also collectors, this is liberating, and re-enables a relationship to the medium that is primarily about reading and pleasure and less about preservation. I have held onto any number of titles in print simply because I had hopes for a book, hopes that may not have been immediately validated, but the only sure way to see the promise fulfilled was to keep having the book pulled, or risk having it be unavailable when and if it became what I wanted it to be.

Read the column

Column and review: SUSCEPTIBLE by Geneviève Castrée

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My latest “Worlds in Panels” at PopMatters is a review of Geneviève Castrée’s Susceptible (Drawn & Quarterly, 2013). I draw on Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust (Penguin, 2001) to frame my discussion of the comic.

Solnit notes that seeing remembering as a form of walking through space is related to how we often see our lives: “If life itself, the passage of time allotted to us, is described as a journey, it’s most often imagined as a journey on foot, a pilgrim’s progress across the landscape of personal history” (page 73). Susceptible opens with a visualization of this metaphor.

Read the column

December column: looking at the comic book roots of MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.

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At the beginning of the week, my latest “Worlds in Panels” posted. I take a critical look at Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:

While the series may stem directly from The Avengers film franchise, like those movies, the show also has comics in its DNA, which may, ultimately, be more important in the long-run, assuming there is a long-run, than the cinematic attachments.

Read the column

November Worlds in Panels: Geek Girl Con 2103

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My latest column for PopMatters posted on Monday. I give my annual review of comics programming at Geek Girl Con:

… unlike other conventions, which are largely promotional in nature, whether from a corporate perspective or that of individual creators, Geek Girl is rooted in the desire for a critical unpacking, interrogation, and re-construction of the category “geek” in a way that is more open and inclusive than is normally possibly in the predominantly male spaces through which fields like comics, computer programming, and video gaming are defined.

Read the column

(On tech & teaching) Early adopting faculty, late adopting institutions

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This coming Winter I will be teaching my first fully online course. To prepare, I decided to attend some of the Moodle workshops during Fall in-service at my university. While my initial purpose was narrowly drawn to learning how to get my course up and running, this orientation also introduced me to a parallel digital institution which I had only vaguely been aware of before.

Ironically, I think my lack of awareness is not due to a lack of interest in or resistance to online communication and social media, but because, relatively at least, I have been an early user of such tools for my classes. I have, for over a decade now, been trying out, and putting into practice, a variety of resources on the public web, from my server space at the university to blogging services and sites like Pinterest, in support of my courses. I haven’t needed prompting or significant investments in support and infrastructure from my university to engage with students digitally.

After the introductory workshop I attended I immediately began thinking about whether I should be making use of my university’s official digital spaces. I did, immediately, fill out my online profile pages, which, too, I did not know about. For whatever reason and to whatever effect, administrators at Western have encouraged faculty to go online, and have slowly built an architecture that makes it relatively easy to do so, but use of these resources has largely been left to individual faculty, or faculties, to decide. Not surprisingly, this has clearly resulted in an unevenness to what, notably, students will find from professors when directed to sanctioned spaces online.

Beyond populating my profile pages with information, I have, for the moment, decided that, I will use the formal online infrastructure primarily to direct students to my more public presences, and not in place of those resources.

I would be lying if I claimed that inertia and my sunk investment in my existing workflow had no role in this decision, but I have more substantive reasons for this choice as well.

As I’ve already implied, “WOU Online” and the university “Portal” system are both variations on walled gardens, with the former being more open than the latter, but still fundamentally designed to be accessed by those with WOU ids. There’s a philosophical aspect to this, I prefer not to treat my teaching materials as proprietary, even in a de facto way, but also a practical dimension.

One of the tools in Moodle I’ve thought most seriously about trying to use right away is its functionality for assignments and grades, which can allow for an essentially seamless process of submission, assessment and feedback, and posting of grades. After giving this some thought, I decided that my current system for electronic submission, which involves students sending me their work via e-mail attachment and me uploading assignments into Google Drive, had at least the advantage of not requiring students to login to Moodle before submitting their work.

This would not be an issue if my course resources were all being collected and distributed via WOU Online, but they are not, and that’s where the walled garden concern matters. I don’t want my syllabi and other materials behind a wall and I can’t see sending my students behind the wall to perform certain operations when everything else we do is located somewhere else on the public web. Some of my students have a hard enough time tracking the online syllabus and the class blog. I can’t see asking them to also go to this other, largely disconnected, space, too. More broadly, it is now easy for students who are inclined to do so to find me and my courses online, and equally so for those already at Western and those thinking of attending, not to mention having my materials accessible by others more generally. It is a small matter, but right now my course resources also serve a public service function that would be largely lost by moving my materials into the more “secure” spaces at my university.

I don’t want to give up the resources I’ve cultivated on my own, not only because of their open and public natures, but also because I have more control over the look and feel, content, and structure of what I currently use online than I would if I were to shift to places like WOU Online for communicating and interacting with students. This is most true for my faculty website, which I built from the ground up with the help of Anne-Marie, but even services like Pinterest and Vimeo are more “design rich” than are the institutional alternatives.

I know that Moodle is more flexible than the basic set up available in WOU Online and that if I wanted to I could dig deep into how to customize, but I also think that, ultimately, I would still have to work in an institutional frame and that there are inherent limitations to using a set of tools envisioned specifically for “course management” and not more broadly for communicative purposes.

A very small minority of students the past few years have assumed my courses would be “in Moodle” and some have been critical of my not being there. Now I have course shells set up to reach those students, as well as an active profile in WOU Online. It may be that at some point I will be compelled by student expectation to move more of my course resources into Moodle – the leader of the orientation I attended told another attendee that he thought that students would soon expect to be able to track their grades online via Moodle – but until I know more about what I might be able to do in these kinds of institutionally managed spaces, and am persuaded by their advantages, I am inclined to keep communicating via the public web. I can see where Portal and WOU Online would appeal to faculty who have been reluctant to move their course resources online, at base, all you have to do is fill out forms to use these tools, but for someone like me, these UIs compel compromises that I’m not prepared to make until I can see clearer advantages to doing so, both for myself and my students.

Notes towards season two of THE BRIDGE

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I’ve enjoyed the first season of The Bridge on FX, but as others have also argued, notably Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress, the show’s creators, Elwood Reed, Björn Stein, and Meredith Steihm, and their collaborators, have split their narrative between a conventional serial killer story and a sprawling, multi-layered exploration of a place, or, maybe, places, depending on how you want to look at the border and at El Paso-Juarez. I think the series has been at its best when pursuing the latter, and at its least interesting when following the former. During the middle part of the season, from about episode three, “Rio”, through episode eight or nine, “Vendetta” and “The Beetle”, I looked forward to watching The Bridge as much as I have any show this year. Since revealing the identity of the killer, however, the series has moved strongly in the more generic direction, with this week’s installment, “Old Friends”, being especially undistinguished in terms of plot and story, albeit still strongly acted.

(Spoilers to follow)

Rosenberg articulates the tension between the show’s narrative forks well in this passage from her review and recap of “Vendetta”, referring to the revelation of the real suspect as a fairly stock white guy ex-cop:

 I think The Bridge might have been able to earn this revelation if it had spent a season or two on a more prosaic but infinitely more interesting project, sketching in the details of the societies and economies of both Juarez and El Paso. When the show gives us hints of that, as was the case in tonight’s glimpses of Graciela singing and drinking with a group of musicians on a streetcorner, or its quick sketch of Santi Jr. and his role in Juarez, it’s always the most interesting part of an episode of The Bridge. A show that was more willing to be slow, like The Wire, might have set an entire episode at the party Daniel sent Adriana to attend, an interesting freebie of a story that she’ll now turn into a blockbuster, and would have handled the characters such that it made sense that their presence their and all of their interactions during the evening felt like one of those magic paintings when it finally becomes clear. But The Bridge is so unfortunately tied to its central murder mystery that it can’t afford to linger too much.

As the series has made clear, this region has no shortage of crime, from smuggling people to gun running, drugs, and murder of the non-serial variety (though, as shown in “Maria of the Desert” what constitutes a serial killer is a matter of perspective), which could make for interesting opportunities to show border crossing, cooperation and friction, but without relying on the kind of sensationalism or master-minding (to crib from Alyssa Rosenberg again) that has driven this season’s primary investigation.

At this point it is tempting to compare The Bridge to The Killing, another series that began promising much in terms of story and place before taking different, less interesting turns instead, but I don’t think the comparison is apt (and, significantly, has become less common as the newer series has progressed).

While the backlash against The Killing is often pegged to the lack of closure in that show’s first season, for me the series had degraded long before that finale. It took only an episode or two beyond the premiere before it became evident that there was little consequence to setting the story in Seattle. I can’t think of a single notable character introduced in season one, or two, for that matter, whose reason for being wasn’t directly related to the murder investigation, and virtually all of those were presented as either suspects or accomplices at some point. Ultimately, The Killing showed little in the way of world building, no matter how many grey skies and how much rain and water appeared in the backgrounds and establishing shots. By the time season one was ready to conclude, an answer to the question, “Who killed Rosie Larsen?”, was about all the series had left (well, that plus Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman).

By contrast, The Bridge already includes critical elements that are, at most, only tangentially related to the serial killer and that suggest future plans that are more about context and less about plotting. This season will clearly only scratch the surfaces of characters like Charlotte, Steven Linder and Fausto Galvan. Local press, on the El Paso side, have already been successfully incorporated into the story world, and through Adriana the series also has at least one well-realized character who effectively lives on both sides of the border.

While there is room for growth – we’ve been shown little about the command structure of law enforcement or how the agencies networked along the border might be entangled around more mundane issues and cases; similarly, government figures, live ones at least, have been, essentially, absent, and I think that the series would be enriched by having counterparts in Juarez for Daniel and Adriana – there is also a structure in place to accommodate such growth. So, contra The Killing, as The Bridge winds down its first season, the main mystery is its least interesting aspect, and the promise of a wider, richer narrative remains authentic, if still less than fully realized.

Of course, having a serial killer driving the narrative machinery is not, in itself, a problem, but thus far the producers and writers have been unable to ground David Tate’s actions with the same sense of place that infuses other story lines and characters. There are nods in that direction, notably in the way that the tragedy sparking Tate involves figures from both Juarez and El Paso and also the fluidity of the border, but, at the moment, these seem incidental rather than integral to the plot.

At the Television Critics Association, Meredith Steihm and Elwood Reid indicated that their plan for a second season does not entail another serial killer story. While that only goes to what the season won’t be about, the most obvious alternatives, threads that are already embedded into the narrative, point to criminal enterprises that should present greater possibilities for place-based storytelling than has season one’s serial killer.