Living in a world of “known unknowns”

Donald Rumsfeld, February 12, 2002:  “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Remember Donald Rumsfeld?  Defense Secretary in the years of Bush the Younger?  Those words quoted above are – no doubt – the most well-known three sentences he ever uttered.  I remember the statement being derided at the time for being nonsensical, but doesn’t it make a certain amount of sense in the age of coronavirus?  We are living with both “known unknowns” as well as “unknown unknowns”.

We’re having class meetings and virtual meetings that can be frustrating and bumpy because of connectivity issues, people talking over each other, lag time between comments, feedback in the audio, and general awkwardness.  But – they are also fodder for short comedic bits.  Thank goodness for our ability to laugh in times of trouble.

We’re working longer hours than ever, and work and home have blurred together.  We’re feeling disconnected, but I also find myself talking on the phone (yes, an actual phone call) much more frequently than I did two months ago – so in some ways I’m still very much connected to colleagues and friends.

I came to my office today – for the first time in weeks.  I couldn’t remember the password to log onto my computer (that’s how long it’s been).  I totally blanked for a good 60 seconds before I finally had an inspiration that proved correct.  When I walked into my office, I noticed how neat it looked.  Why?  Because I haven’t been here in weeks (so all my piles of paperwork are at home).  My office was both familiar and yet unfamiliar.  And of course very folks are in the building, so the atmosphere is different.

I don’t know about you, but I miss chatting.  I miss walking over to someone’s office to ask a question.  I miss commiserating about the weather or the thermostat in the building or the traffic.  I miss running into folks whom I don’t see regularly.  I miss the predictability of my work day (well, okay, my work days were never predictable in terms of content or rhythm – but in general I knew that my work occurred mostly in my office from 8:30 to 6:30 five days a week).

I know we all feel this – we miss our “known knowns”, so to speak.  But in the age of coronavirus, we are learning to adjust to known unknowns, as well as unknown unknowns.

So from me to you – hang in there.  Thanks for coping.  Thanks for your good cheer and your vigilant focus on student success.  Thanks for being ever-faithful to our mission.  Thanks for the long hours and for pushing through the awkwardness and for moving forward.  It is all noticed, applauded, and appreciated.

Blessings on you.

Words of Wisdom

All of us are navigating our way through the fog of a pandemic that defies description.  In the midst of this, I have been encouraged, cheered, and uplifted by the words of my colleagues and friends, both here at ACC and elsewhere.

Department chairs deserve special recognition for their leadership in this time of uncertainty and constantly changing conditions.  From the Biology Department Chair – where there are unique challenges in suddenly transitioning from hands-on, wet lab learning objectives to virtual labs for the remainder of the semester:

“I want to hear . . . ways we can satisfactorily meet all our objectives for every course we offer, totally online.  It may not be ideal, but I do not want to hear why it can’t be done, no whining!  We have outstanding, innovative faculty that will present methods to meet our objectives.”

From the Math Department Chair, who is trying to lead her faculty in the transition all levels of math to online learning, from developmental courses through Calculus III and Differential Equations, and where “show your work” is paramount:

“We are losing a week of classes at the same time we are asking students to learn a new format of instructional delivery. . . I know all of this is likely overwhelming to you.  We’ll take it one step at a time (like a complicated math problem) and get through it.  Our goal is to get through this semester teaching our students as much as we can.

Students will be struggling with this as much as you are, maybe more.  It’s important to be empathetic during this time – let some of your policies, deadlines, etc. go and understand students are trying to make the best of this too.  Many of them will now have their kids at home indefinitely and won’t have the time they’d typically have to work on coursework. Many have limited access to technology . . . Some will be sick or taking care of someone who is sick.”

From a History adjunct faculty member (and long-time friend and colleague) in an email to his students:

“We, all of us, did not sign up for this. We did not sign up for the coronavirus and this pandemic.  We did not sign up for online courses, social distancing, staying home, going stir crazy, and the like.  . . What can we do? We can support each other intellectually and as human beings.  . . . We will work together to finish this course and make it meaningful to you.”

From an instructional dean to his department chairs:

“First, take a moment to breathe and think. . . . No one  would have chosen this path. No one should have illusions; compromise will be necessary. . . This is a time to lay aside the perfectionism that often goes with our calling. . . I strongly encourage you to set realistically low expectations and prioritize mercilessly.”

From the Director of the Texas Success Center:

“Students in general are dealing with high levels of anxiety, isolation, and unpredictability – as are we.  Remaining connected to ur students and providing them with stable, thoughtful support and connecting them to appropriate resources is essential.”

And from me:

We need to find reservoirs of grace and compassion.  We need to be patient a and kind and forgiving – of missed due dates, of spotty connectivity during a Collaborate session, of having to record a lecture three times before you’re satisfied enough to upload it to Blackboard.  And we need to maintain our sense of humor.

I’ll leave you with this.  Watch it and laugh and remember that we’re all getting through this as best we can.


Sometimes, in the midst of planning for every eventuality (the coronavirus), and answering questions for over an hour about your approach to record-keeping (the records inventory that is being conducted at the college), and planning for a regional corequisite conference in Port Arthur on March 21, and developing questions for a survey and focus group with students to learn more about how they plan for eventual transfer to a four-year institution, and planning a meeting about the early alert pilot in Distance Education classes, and finalizing catalog updates . . .

Sometimes, an unexpected encounter with RB just makes you smile.  As does your goofy colleague Rich Griffiths.

The Good Work of our Faculty

The Community College Daily has two articles that once again remind me of the good work of our faculty.

First, we have an outstanding history of faculty Fulbright Scholars.  This article highlights ACC’s “rich Fulbright history” and mentions Dr. Blanca Alvarado’s sojourn in Costa Rica last year (Sociology/Social Work) and Adjunct Professor Heather Barfield’s Fulbright in France this year (Drama).  Congratulations to our faculty who are always striving to learn more so that they can help our students succeed.  Whether it’s a Fulbright or a webinar or any other professional development opportunity, we have adjunct and full-time faculty who really are lifelong learners.

And this article in Community College Daily focuses on the report just released by Achieving the Dream about the OER Degree Initiative work that was done across the country.  ACC was both a cost research partner and a student impact research partner for this initiative.  What we have learned from SRI (our partner in the student impact research) is that ACC students enrolling in one or two OER courses (what we call ZTC classes) “on average attained 1.88 credits more than otherwise similar students who took no OER courses.”  And rpkGroup tells us that their cost research indicates that the “estimated cost of the 2.5-year OER Degree Initiative [at ACC] was $477,000.”  They also tell us that, in looking at credit hours attempted, enrollment in one or two Z-classes did not appear to be associated with cumulative credits attempted.  So while taking Z-classes may not be associated with taking additional classes, it seems to be associated with earning more credits – that is, with success in learning.

As you know, a substantial group of our students tell us that they sometimes don’t purchase a required textbook because of the cost.  In addition, the most recent results of the 2019#RealCollege survey of ACC students tell us that 42% of our students who responded experienced food insecurity in the previous 30 days, and 53% of responding students experienced housing insecurity in the previous year.

The work of faculty to adopt or adapt openly-licensed and freely available materials for their courses is having a direct impact on our students’ bottom line and on their ability to be successful in a class.

Kudos to ACC’s faculty who put students at the center of their work, who try new things (like open educational resources), who are constantly learning, and who, both collectively and individually, change the trajectories of our students’ lives.  You are appreciated because you do good work.

A Day in the Life of an AVP – the AMP Edition


We’re launching a new AMP.

What?  What’s an AMP?  AMP stands for Academic Master Plan.

ACC’s previous Academic Master Plan was developed in 2013, and Dr. Rhodes has asked that we begin work on a new academic master plan to drive us forward in the next five years.  If you read the previous plan (all 334 pages), you’ll see that much of what we wanted to do we have done.  Since 2014 we have (and this isn’t a complete list):

  • developed a strategic recruitment and enrollment team, plan, and process
  • implemented state-mandated changes to developmental education
  • developed an institutional strategic plan for dual credit programs
  • developed and implemented a comprehensive, faculty-led faculty development program
  • developed an institutional strategic plan for distance education
  • built not one, not two, but three (and soon to be four) ACCelerators (referred to in the previous AMP as “Math Emporiums”)
  • Launched a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree
  • Opened a Public Safety Training Center
  • Increased curricular alignment across Adult Education, Continuing Education, and credit instruction
  • Developed and supported innovation in academic areas (Z-Degrees, block scheduled Institutes, Weekend College, First Day Access, competency-based learning, academic cooperatives, the TAMU-Chevron Engineering Academy, and more)
  • Created a digital and creative media cluster (soon to be visible in Phase II of the Highland Campus)
  • Created a hospitality and culinary center (to launch in Fall 2020 at HLC, Phase II)
  • Created professional incubators (the Bioscience Incubator, the Fashion Incubator, etc.)
  • Implemented a Veterinarian Technician program
  • Implemented an Agriculture program
  • Launched an equity-minded faculty hiring plan
  • Launched an Institutional Planning, Development, and Evaluation unit
  • Expanded child watch services for students
  • Launched a student portal

In other words, AMPs matter.  They offer us a road map.  They establish aspirations.  They help ACC move forward in an intentional way.  The kick-off meeting of the AMP process was January 15.  We had a packed Board room where we talked about the elements, timelines, and expectations for development of a new AMP.  This new AMP will reflect who we are today – and to that end, it will be written at the Area of Study level.  The intent is to find common initiatives and goals across programs in each Area of Study that can be pursued jointly.

After the two and a half hour AMP kick-off meeting with instructional department chairs, deans, and student affairs deans, we segued to a meeting of the AMP Steering Committee (lunch included!) in another overcrowded room at HBC.  The AMP Steering Committee has 40 members and is co-chaired by Dr. Rachel Ruiz, Dean of Student Affairs at the Cypress Creed Campus, and Brandon Whatley, Dean of the Design, Manufacturing, Construction, and Applied Technologies (DMCAT) Area of Study.

If you want  to know more about the AMP process, visit this page.  If you want to participate, get in touch with your dean.  If you want to offer comments, you may do so on the AMP main page or in conversation with your dean.  If you want to see the timeline, process, or resources available, visit the AMP page.

An AMP is only as strong as the input and participation that occurs in its development.  My AMP day on January 15 was long, and occasionally overheated and stuffy (due to crowded rooms), but it was also a day of energy and engagement, input and interest.  So climb on board the AMP train and offer your engagement and input.  It will be welcome.

ACC’s Math Department

We have a wonderful Math Department here.  We have dedicated and innovative Math faculty who spend their time thinking, planning, implementing, assessing, and revising creative approaches to help all our students succeed in their math courses.

About a year and a half ago I interviewed our Math Department Chair Carolynn Reed for Academic Transfer in FocusHere’s that interview.   But if you’d like to watch something more recent, you can visit this page and scroll down to Getting Along with Math.  It’s a lovely view of how one student benefitted from the innovation and commitment of ACC’s Math faculty.

Math is one of the keys to our work in guided pathways.  Not all students are in programs where College Algebra is beneficial – many students would benefit much more from taking Statistics or Quantitative Reasoning or Mathematics for Business and Economics.  The idea is generally referred to as “math pathways” and is being supported by the Dana Center at The University of Texas.  As this site tells us, the goal is to help students succeed in their first college credit math class in their first year of college.  And that first class should be the right math class for their learning and career goals.  Additionally, it should be a class where the curriculum and pedagogy are informed by research and evidence.  As the Dana Center website says, it’s a “joyful conspiracy:  ensuring all students benefit from relevant, rigorous mathematics pathways.”

Too many of our students get lost in the maze of developmental math or lecture-based math courses.  At ACC we offer something different.  We offer corequisites that provide just-in-time-remediation for students.  Those corequisites are showing remarkable success rates that are four to six times the rate of the traditional developmental math to credit math course sequence.

We also try to offer clearly delineated math pathways so that students can take the right math class for their needs and aspirations.  And we offer individualized help and applied learning structures so that students can see the connections between the math concepts they’re learning and the lives they lead.

And it’s all thanks to our Math Department.  Three cheers to our Math folks! 

Image by Ciker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay.

Word Salad

I love words:  new words, ancient words, musical words, jarring words.  As one consequence of my love of words, I play word games on my phone to relax.  I also love to play Scrabble.  For me, our words – how and when and why we use them – reflect who we are and how we choose to go through the world.  Words have power and impact and should be used wisely.

I also love a good salad.  Good salads are sweet and savory, crispy and crunchy and smooth, with a little acidity – a little bite or tang.  They’re visually appealing as well as tasty.  A good salad can combine unexpected ingredients and make something brand new, just like words can be combined in new ways to foster new understanding.

So while the phrase “word salad” has negative connotations, I would argue that a word salad could be marvelous.  As educators we believe in the power of communication to change lives.  As educators, we have encountered word salads from our students that were not appetizing, but we have also seen our students put words together in brilliant and eloquent and unexpected ways, haven’t we?

Every January we hear about “words to ban” and “words to bring back”.  Lake Superior State University just released its 45th annual “List of Words Banished From the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use, and General Uselessness“, while Wayne State University just released a list of “Words that Deserve Wider Use“.

Reading these two lists caused me to cachinnate, so after a period of perendinating, I resolved to write what I hope is a luculent blog post about words.   (In other words, I laughed out loud, I procrastinated for a couple of days, and then I resolved to write an expressively clear blog post about words.)

And as I start a new semester in a new year, I also resolve to banish these words from my vocabulary for the duration: quid pro quo,  artisanal, curated, mouthfeel, vibe check, and influencer.

That resolve may be merely velleity, or it may be absolute mullock.   (In other words, it may be an inclination that isn’t strong enough to lead to action, or it may be rubbish.)

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

An AVP’s Aspen Journey – Chapter Four

Pushing Jello Across a Shag Rug

Isn’t that a great image?

At the second on-site convening of the fourth cohort of Aspen Presidential Fellows, we heard from current and former community college presidents who offered their wisdom on a variety of subjects.  One of those presidents used the jello metaphor to describe a difficult choice – as in, “it’s like pushing jello across a shag rug.  You’re not sure if you want to eat it once you’re done.”

I expect we’ve all found ourselves in such difficult situations, but I also expect we haven’t ever found ourselves thinking about jello and shag rugs.  So enjoy the notion and the visual image.

I Am Not Your Pimp

Yes, a former community college president told a story that ended with that line.  It seems that when she was president, one of her Board members propositioned a friend of hers at a hotel bar.  When her friend refused, the Board member threatened to get her (the president) fired if the friend didn’t reconsider.

The story was told in the context of illustrating a president’s role in Board management – and it certainly illustrated the range of challenges in that presidential role.  What did this college president do when it happened?  She passed the information along to her Board chair for action.  (The Board member was eventually removed.)  And she thought to herself – “I am not your pimp.”

Be a Boundary Crosser

To lead in a higher education setting, we were advised, you must be a boundary crosser.  You must learn the language of your partners, particularly your external partners such as local business leaders, area school superintendents, non-profit CEOs, and university presidents.

Another speaker made the observation that in many of those boundary-crossing settings, the common language is skills.  One of the things we do at ACC is help our students develop necessary employability skills, and those skills can be translated from curriculum to students to employers.  In other words, our boundary-crossing can move beyond jargon and insular language and instead become a discussion of skills development and economic mobility for our students.  After all, 99% of our students are in workforce programs, aren’t they?  They are all seeking economic stability and mobility and a good life for themselves and their families.  And they’ve come to us for help with those goals.

Look for the Brown M&Ms

Another story we heard concerned the rock band Van Halen and brown M&Ms.  Apparently for many years Van Halen’s contract with concert organizers included a requirement that a bowl of M&Ms be available in the backstage area before every concert, but with all the brown M&Ms removed.  If there were brown M&Ms, the promoter would forfeit the full price of the show, according to the provisions of the contract.  Seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?

It turns out that if members of the band saw brown M&Ms backstage, they knew that the promoter had not read the contract closely.  And thus they knew they would have to check every detail of their lighting, staging, and sound requirements prior to the concert.  The brown M&Ms told them something important about how to prepare for every concert.

We should all look for brown M&Ms in our work here at ACC – the brown M&Ms are the small things that can disrupt the student experience or discourage a student or make it harder for a student to move forward.  The more we pay attention to details, the more we can help our students find, navigate, and complete their chosen pathway.

The Poor Door

Have you heard this term?  I had not.  It’s apparently a 21st century phrase, and it describes housing developments that have separate entrances for market-rate tenants and affordable-housing tenants.  This segregation may also extend to gyms, pools, parking spaces, or elevators.

Community colleges are known as the people’s colleges.  But do we sometimes unwittingly have a “poor door”?  Do we focus so much on our open doors that we forget to think about how to help students once they come through the door?  That’s the premise of guided pathways, essentially – to reinvent our systems and processes so that we’re more than a poor door to limited opportunities.  We should expect the best of all our students.  We should recognize that some of our students are homeless, or hungry, or working three jobs.  We should make sure that our single door serves all students without regard to their economic or familial or linguistic or educational challenges.  We don’t ever want to have a “poor door” at ACC.

Happy 2020

As we move into 2020, I wish you a new year free of yucky jello and unnoticed but important details.

I wish you a new year full of common ground, common language, and collaboration.

I wish you a new year full of equal expectations and equitable outcomes for all, with no poor doors in sight.

Here’s to a happy, merry, joyful 2020 for us all.

A Day in the Life of An AVP – the Holiday Edition

The semester is ending.  

The year is ending.

Here’s to the passing of the old semester and the old year.

Here’s to the coming of a new semester and a new year.

Here’s to the work we do, the students we help, the lives we change, the friends and colleagues with whom we work.

Celebrate!  Here’s to the unexpected opportunities, the new initiatives, and the collaborative work that will be part of 2020.

See ya in the new year!

Image credits:  Bellinon from Pixabay; Annalise Batista from Pixabay.

Registration By the Numbers

Do you know who our students are?  Not who our students were a decade ago, but who our students are today.

If you look at the registration summary for Fall 2019 (dated 11/4/2019), you will see that our credit headcount is 41,232 students.  Of that, 11,682 students were new to ACC:  a 4.1% increase over Fall 2018.  Of the “new to ACC” students, 4,156 were in high school programs:  a 14.4% increase over Fall 2018.

Re-read that last sentence.  Our new students in high school programs (dual credit, P-TECHs, Early College High Schools) increased by 14.4% this Fall.  By contrast, this Fall there are 7,526 traditional students who are new to ACC, a slight decline over last Fall of -0.8%.  

What about continuing students?  We have 4,372 continuing students in high school programs this Fall, an increase of 7.0% over last Fall.  We have 25,178 continuing traditional students, a decline of -4.0% over Fall 2018.

What about Distance Education?  We have 12,416 students in Distance Education classes this Fall, an increase of 11.1% over Fall 2018.  2,580 are new to ACC, and 9,836 are continuing students.

These numbers are not an aberration or an anomaly.  They reflect a trend – our student population is changing.  As of today (12/11/2019), our Spring numbers show an increase of 16.7% in new high school program students, and a decline of 6.0% in new “traditional” students.  Our continuing high school program numbers have jumped by 12.9% over Spring 2019, while our continuing traditional student numbers are currently -2.0% below last Spring.  Our Distance Education numbers show an overall increase of 7.9% to date over Spring 2019.

In other words, our Distance Ed students make up approximately 30% of our overall enrollments, and our dual credit students make up slightly more than 20% of our overall enrollments.

These numbers mean we are serving different students in different settings than we did in 2009.

Do these numbers mean we should be thinking differently about how we help them learn?

Should we be thinking differently about what it means to be a college student as we head into 2020?

Should we rethink our understanding of our student population?

Should we celebrate who they are, rather than thinking nostalgically about who they were ten or twenty years ago?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Image credits:  Gerd Altmann from Pixabay; TheDigitalArtist from Pixabay