True Story

This morning I saw my neighbor filling up a water jug at her hose as I was walking home from dropping the kids at school. “I have to thank you,” she said. “You represent college teachers for me, and I have to thank you.” Puzzled, I stopped. She turned off the water, set down the jug, and walked over to me.

“My nephew went down to U of I last fall, and he lived in the dorms and he got a job and the whole nine yards. Well, he kept the job all year, but he didn’t pass any of his classes. Except for writing. Well, he kind of passed–the teacher sat him down and said, ‘Your reports are late and this and that’—but then she said, ‘I can’t wait to see what you write, because your stuff is so original and creative.’”

My neighbor stopped to gather herself, Her voice had wavered halfway through the last sentence. She’d broken eye contact to try to keep from crying, I think.

I waited.

“So he said,” her voice gathering strength with each word, “‘I’m going to stay home for a year and then go back. I’ll go to Harold Washington and get some of my Gen Eds done and go back.’ And I said, ‘I couldn’t have told you that a year ago!’ and he said, ‘Oh, no—I wouldn’t have believed you, but college is soooo different from high school.’” We both laughed, partly because we both know ourselves and each other to be the stubborn sort. She looked up again.

“My brother isn’t real big on this stuff, but I’ve always known that my nephew has something going on—maybe not a learning disability, but something…something so that he doesn’t quite think the way most people do, doesn’t process everything the same way…something. Anyway, it’s never been diagnosed or anything, and he’s always just worked with it, but hearing that one thing, that ONE THING, was enough to keep him going. Just one thing. That did it. So, thank you,” she said, giving me a hug. “I can’t thank his English teacher, so I’ll thank you.”

“I’ll take it,” I said, “but tell him to thank her when he gets back down there, and again when he graduates.”

I didn’t know (and still don’t) if it was a coincidence or if she happened to know that this is national Teacher Appreciation Week (and today is National Teacher Day). I did know that some college faculty bristle at being called teachers, but I never have–it’s the word I usually use to describe my job, so mostly, regardless of the reason, it just felt good. Smiling, I walked back into my house and left her to her watering, but the smile gave way to other thoughts that I haven’t been able to shake all morning, so I’m here to write them out a bit so I can get on with the other stuff I need to do.

There are times when I wish I didn’t know some things that I do, and this morning has been one of them. I know there are a lot of people who never get that one sentence that they need, and that sucks. I know there are a lot of people who do get it, but then get derailed later by events beyond their control. I know that it’s never just one thing. I know that it’ll be hard for my neighbor’s nephew to reach his goals. I know he’ll have people rooting for him; even people he doesn’t know.

Then, there are the things I know that make me hopeful. I know that when he enrolls at HWC, he’ll encounter a building full of people, the vast majority of whom are working hard in full commitment to providing “quality, affordable educational opportunities.” I recall Don saying at his first meeting with the full college, when he presented his data from his interviews with employees and the “pulse survey,” that what struck him was the consistency and depth of commitment to the institutional mission. When he arrived people were very clear on the mission of the college, from top to bottom, and they believed in it: “Harold Washington College has a culture that is proud of its accomplishments, mission-driven, and committed to student success,” he concluded (something borne out, or at least suggested, in the word-clouds at the end of the one-on-one presentation, which consistently show “Students” to be at or near the top of the word use frequency list). Furthermore, I know that we have helped and will help a lot of students just like my neighbor’s nephew.

I also know that some things are undeniably better than they were a few years ago—our Wellness Center has been expanded and become a model for the other six colleges who now have one, too, we have more advisors and tutors, we have some awesome new full-time faculty, we have an improved, even if not yet great, registration process, and more. Some areas that were ignored (or slashed) for years like Workforce Development and Student Services are, at last, getting significant and important attention that is for once constructive instead of destructive.

(Also, I’m willing to forget, for now, what the current administration might not know, which is at least some of the problems they are “fixing” are the consequences of previous administrative decisions. For example, every college needs a wellness center now because back in the late 90s (or thereabouts) all of the college counselors were fired, leaving ten years of students without desperately needed assistance. Then again, they DO know about the layoffs from the spring of 2011—when they fired good people and closed up positions like associate dean of student services—many of which have been (thankfully) restored over the last two budget cycles, if not outright expanded (showing that we were right to think that they didn’t know what they thought they did when they put us through the demoralizing, destablizing, and ultimately unnecessary layoffs that marked the first impression of this administrative iteration). It’s hard to forget, though, that it’s all of this kind of history that makes those of us on the credit side a bit nervous–HWC is primarily college credit, and so we’re insulated from the adult ed and workforce side of the CCC for the most part and don’t always see them as priorities, or even co-purposes, as we might if we were teaching at Daley or Kennedy-King or Truman, where they have a larger institutional role and footprint. Even those of us who recognize the need for attention in these other areas, though, know from the current political climate (Federal and State) and institutional history that there is no creation ex-nihilo–if one area grows, it’s usually because it’s eating the others’ food or, in the worst cases, eating an arm to try to grow a leg. Hence the nerves. But I digress.)

Getting back to my neighbor’s nephew–unfortunately for us, I know that even if everything goes exactly according to plan for my him, it will appear to the icy, data-driven analysts of the (outside?) world that our college will have failed him. His data won’t show up for us in IPEDS because he isn’t first time, full time. He will be coded as “degree-seeking” even though he isn’t (at least not from us) due to Federal and State Financial Aid rules, and so when he doesn’t get one, he’ll be yet another unsuccessful completer in the eyes of those sold on “the completion agenda.” I can only assume that we still can’t adequately track transfers or their post-transfer success since that metric is never mentioned except in regard to  IPEDS students and/or completers. A quick survey of the most common/likely success metrics shows how difficult it would be to document my neighbor’s nephew’s success; the most likely candidate is the Gen Ed Core Curriculum completion metric worked out by FC4 as a potential Key Performance Indicator, but I don’t think they have a handle on how to track it yet, putting us back at square one, at least until the next big software solution comes along.

Perhaps some people will read this, and say, as our President apparently did (to himself) in his first few months on the job, that warm and fuzzy anecdotes are nice and all, but data indisputably show how poorly we served (and serve) most of the students who come in the door. Maybe they’ll agree with him that the data also clearly show we’re doing a better, yet still profoundly inadequate job of serving students these days; maybe they’ll go as far as to credit, causally, the bold vision of the Chancellor and the Mayors (Daley and Emanuel) and the reinventing of the Reinventors for the positive changes, expressing optimism for the changes yet to come.

Perhaps, when they hear from former City College students or CCC staff or faculty that the City Colleges have done a lot of good for a lot of years and been a great place for a lot of people, those readers will resolve their cognitive dissonance at that and the numbers that they see touted by our administration and the uncritical education writers of the Chicago media by concluding, as our President apparently did, that those of us telling these stories are suffering from naiveté, a kind of delusion that miss-takes one out of thousands for the the norm. They may (somewhat patronizingly) forgive us for a kind of blindness to the failure all around us resulting from the halo effect of the “one or two” successes, and resolve all the more strongly to bring about the change that we don’t even know we need.

I may wish that those readers consider another way to resolve that cognitive dissonance–maybe recognizing (and, would it be too much to ask, publicly acknowledging in some sort of codified qualifier) that the picture drawn from the data is at least as flawed as any one-off anecdote, given the deep and pervasive flaws in the data from which Reinvention was born (Garbage in, Gospel out). Those readers, and our President, after two years of being neck deep in the reality of institution, might have known (or at least start to believe in the possibility), or considered an alternative interpretation of the observations, i.e., that those anecdotes were not “one-offs”, and that the college was not helping mere “ones and twos” while unsuccessfully serving thousands; instead, I would wish for them to acknowledge the possibility of there actually being a significant body of well-served, but uncaptured-in-the-data students. Granted, we probably averaged 200 some graduates out of 12,000 students through most of the 2000s, and we might have had more then with more attention on the topic and on advising and the rest, but that does not mean that we had 200 successes and 11,800 failures. To suggest otherwise is to push a story in spite of what’s being observed rather than on the basis of it.

I won’t speak for others, but if I told any narratives the day I met with Don, I’m guessing that the point was to indicate the gaps in the picture that he and the Reinventors had drawn, while never doubting that there was much improvement to be made. Then, as now, we served many and failed many while many others failed themselves or struggled with circumstances that none of us could do a thing about. Then as now, many of us–most of us–struggled and fought to get all of our students, even one more student, always one more to the success side, and left every semester more disappointed for and haunted by the ones who didn’t make it (even if we talked mostly about the ones who did, for our own morale and our colleagues’). We knew we did good–way more than the data showed–and we knew we could do better; rejecting the picture of institutional failure suggested by the data, was not an uncritical endorsement of the status quo then, and it isn’t now. To believe otherwise is to mistake the contrary for the contradictory.

In his most recent post, Don says he understood his job in the face of these discordant pictures (the naive anecdotes (my words) and the hard data) as being to bring those rare and luminous successes that filled the eyes of the rest of us “to scale.” Toward the end he suggests that though the data, to which he gives real fealty and warrant, shows improvement, it’s the salience of one student’s story (and gratitude) that fills his grinchy heart. Fair enough. It’s a great story, and he should feel good about it.

Rather than crap on it with a chart showing how many Vice Chancellors, Associate Vice Chancellors and Directors (or, alternatively, how many people there were making $100,000+) there were on Jackson Street five years ago versus how many there are now, or some inside baseball on the Chicago Civic Consulting Alliance as a queue for those eager to feed at the public trough, or any number of other unpleasantries, let’s applaud the human moment. It is meaningful.

Which, I’m sure, was at least part of the point of those anecdotes Don heard two years ago.

Still, though…something about that post feels a little like a crow pie with a dash of “I told you so” presented in a sugared up crust with a gentle pat on the head. “See?” he might have said, “Even grown-ups get all mushy eyed, sometimes, just like you, and now that things are getting better, like we said they would, we can all tell happy stories together, only now they’ll be true.” Maybe that’s just me, though; maybe I’m feeling a bit too defensive. Maybe I should just accept it as a clumsy, but well-meaning effort to express that he understands our passion for those stories we told two years ago. Maybe I should just smile, and let them have their victory lap and be done with it. Regardless, my dissatisfaction with one part of one of Don’s posts is not the point, or at least, I don’t mean to make it the point. Whatever–blog posts that annoy, like that one (for me) and this one for some of you, will come and go.

What is the point? I’m still struggling to find it, I guess, but it’s something about the thank you I got from my neighbor, and the thank you Don got from that remarkable student, and, maybe most importantly the depth of respect entailed in the simple but powerful act of thanking another person.

In another post, Don writes that he understands his job as one of building student success, meaning  “helping students achieve what they came here to achieve, while at the same time shaking up their world view to expand what may be possible for them to achieve. It means challenging them to work harder, exposing them to careers and colleges they may not have considered before starting here, and providing them with academic and career experiences that change the trajectories of their lives.” He goes on to say, “Completion is a major driver. Completion brings confidence. Completion gives the outside world assurance that one has persistence and can persevere.” We can agree about the first part without agreeing on the details of the latter.

Almost three years into Reinvention, I honestly don’t know if we’re better or worse at cultivating student success defined Don’s way, at least partly because I don’t and won’t define it as narrowly as we’re being asked to do when degree numbers are treated as a univocal term for “student success.” We undeniably have more graduates, and I think it’s a good thing. Maybe I should say thanks for that. Maybe we all should. I have to admit, though, that I’m concerned about what I’m hearing about the number/ratio of those degrees that are Associates in General Studies degrees, rather than AA degrees, since they are both less preparatory for transfer study and less rigorous. Which leaves me not knowing if we’re really doing better or only appear to be. I don’t know because I don’t accept the measures proffered, and I don’t have one of my own to substitute. None that aren’t anecdotal, anyway.

I know all of these things, and I wish in some cases, many cases, it were different, for if it were, I might have been able to walk in from talking to my neighbor and blithely pour myself some coffee, stroll out to my lawn chair, and sit in the sun to finish reading any of the six books I’m currently in the middle of instead of pecking out this 2,870 word (so far) mind-sliver that kept me from being able to focus on my book.

Yet, at a not very deep level, I know I shouldn’t really give a shinola about most of the above–because I know that the most important thing is that when her nephew shows up at 30 East Lake Street, more than likely he’s going to be standing in front of someone who will do all they can to make sure he gets a quality educational experience. It won’t all be perfect, and we can all do better, no doubt (and I don’t mean to minimize the very real challenges students face in successfully navigating our processes and systems and personalities and all the rest), but he’ll have people around him from the students in the next seat over to the faculty to the staff to the soul-less and soulful administrators upstairs, downstairs and in the  District Office on Jackson Street who want to and can help him navigate the chasm between his high school experience and the University of Illinois, teaching him along the way how to be a college student, how to be an autonomous adult, how to be an informed citizen, productive worker/docile body (depending on your ideological bent), navigator of bureaucracy and everything else, curricular and otherwise, tacit and explicit, that comes with a college experience.

It’s this last thing that makes me really proud of the work we do, and both frustrated with and dismissive of the rest of the sturm und drang, and I hope it helps you all reflect on and be proud of the really important work you’ve done this semester. Somewhere out there are thousands of people who got the one thing–the ONE THING–they needed at the time they needed it, and they got it from you.

So, from my neighbor, and thousands of Chicago success stories, and from me, and from my neighbor’s nephew (in advance), thank you. Keep doing great work.

6 thoughts on “True Story

  1. Fantastic essay to close off the semester. You know, for those of us not on sabbatical 🙂

  2. Thank you. Thanks also to your neighbor and best wishes to her nephew. I share your confidence in our faculty who might meet him a few months from now. We miss you, Dave.

  3. Wonderful essay. Thank you for that. You are correct, we have many more success stories than some at DO care to acknowledge. To them, if you did not graduate in a certain amount of time you did not succeed. Neither did their faculty/advisor. They can publicize those inflated graduation numbers all they want. The truth is faculty and staff (and yes, some administrators) have been helping students meet personal, academic and professional goals long before Don, Hyman and the other political elite who know nothing nor care to know about our students. And by the way, the only reason our numbers are up is because staff was told to call former students who had 60 or more credits and ask them if we could send them the AGS. This was top priority for student services a few months ago, before the chancellor’s contract was renewed. Ironic.

  4. At the graduation, Sheila Simon told a few student success stories. The most moving, and the one that received a standing ovation from the other students, was the story of a blind student from MX. He overcame several obstacles in order to be walking across that stage on Friday…five years after he first enrolled at CCC. According to district data, he is counted as a failure.

  5. We’re simply altruistic in a self-centered culture; therein lies the challenge.
    Just had to throw in my two-cents. Best to get back to grading now.
    Thanks for the True Story, PhiloDave.

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