Language Issues

Michelle Pilati, President

As academics and faculty leaders, we rely heavily on the use of words to convey meaning. But sometimes words fail us – when the words do not quite capture the concept, when they have multiple meanings, or when we really need a new word, but one just does not seem to exist. Despite language having infinite generativity (anything can be said in multiple ways), we find ourselves stuck. This subject emerged at a recent Academic Senate Executive Committee meeting and caused me to reflect on the various times it has emerged over the past decade.

We have long struggled with word issues in our system. Explaining noncredit versus not-for-credit curriculum to the uninitiated is always a challenge. And being stuck with the term “noncredit” for an important component of what we do has always been problematic. Alas, attempts to come up with a new term have failed. Related to noncredit and efforts to clarify our use of terms, we now have three types of specifically defined certificates: two for the noncredit realm and one for credit. Almost a decade ago, in the process of determining what Chancellor’s Office approved credit certificates should be called, we came to a dead-end: there was simply no better term than “certificate of achievement.” Consequently, any college that was using this term for certificates other than the Chancellor’s Office approved ones had to find a new one, and that new one could also not be either of the terms reserved for noncredit certificates. Perhaps we should have abandoned the word “certificate” entirely and spoken of some sort of “credential” or, if we wanted to amuse ourselves, “badges.” I personally like the term “badges”: our college catalogs often seem similar to the Girl Scout handbook. And given the pressure to get students through more quickly, perhaps a student should be able to complete a community college “badge” on a rainy afternoon. Imagine graduation with students wearing sashes dotted with the badges that demonstrate their many accomplishments as they are awarded for varied incremental advances toward their ultimate goals. This image might be pleasing to those who are only concerned with counting completions, but it would add little to the actual academic achievement of our students.

Over the past few years, we have been dealing with the challenge of separating course repetition from repeatable courses. To make the situation more confusing, the rules for both were changed in quick succession. Things would have been much simpler if we never spoke of repeating a course due to a substandard grade. If we had referred to it as re-taking or a “do-over” when a student repeated a course due to poor performance the first time around, many conversations over the years would have been simplified. But once we use a word in a context, changing that practice is a challenge. In order to be clear, we are forced to use more words. “Repetition” becomes “repetition for a substandard grade,” and when we speak of “repeatable courses” we must emphasize the word “courses.” And today colleges are contemplating what a “family” of courses means as they modify their curriculum to be consistent with the 1proposed repeatability rules.

Language has always been a challenge in the development and implementation of the Student Success Task Force (SSTF) recommendations. “Success” was never adequately or clearly defined, and even agreed upon aspects of what constituted “success” appeared to be forgotten at various times. The initial drafts of Senate Bill 1456, for example, effectively limited “acceptable” goals to “programs of study,” a term not explicitly defined or commonly used in the California Community College System and one that is narrow in scope as defined in other contexts. Efforts to change this language were successful, and the term “course of study” was employed and explicitly defined to capture a broad range of student goals. This is an instance where we strove to fix a language limit and we succeeded. Similar distinctions were needed with respect to another focus of the SSTF: the nearly omnipresent “education plan.” Matriculation professionals have worked diligently to clarify the distinction between an initial education plan and a comprehensive one. Work remains to be done in educating policy makers and the like of the inappropriateness of forcing students to succumb to the development of an in-depth plan prior to some experience at the college. We do need to help students better define their initial goals and better understand what is necessary to achieve them, and we should be gathering data with respect to those goals on a regular basis. However, laying out a two-year plan upon initial enrollment at a community college for all students is not only fiscally and temporally impossible, but it is not an effective use of resources and is contrary to foundational assumptions made by the SSTF.

The topic that had me contemplating the limits of language was one that is not so much about the limits of language but rather about the limits of our existing processes and, possibly, the need for a new process with a different name. It is likely that many of you have been either dusting off your program discontinuance process or advocating for that process to be followed as your college strives to respond to our current fiscal crisis. Program discontinuance processes are not intended to be a vehicle for picking off the most vulnerable in a time of crisis; they are a mechanism for examining a program to determine if perhaps it should be discontinued. Modification or some other form of “correction” is an implicit alternative consequence when programs are being judged on their academic and vocational merits. But a different process may be necessary when, for purely economic reasons, a cut needs to made somewhere, regardless of program merits. Alternatively, some may claim that no valid circumstance exists when decisions about programs can be made based on finances alone. While the concept that fiscal considerations may sometimes have to trump the academic is easy to understand in practical terms, some would see such an idea as a slippery slope we do not want to start down and claim that we must stand by our commitment to academic integrity and institutional quality and argue that all decisions must be solely “merit-based.” Such a position, no matter how appealing it may be in principle, fails to help answer the critical question of the current moment: How and what do you cut when there is nothing left?

As we look to November and a post-election status that either continues to be bad or becomes dramatically worse if Proposition 30 should fail, what should local senates be doing? As with many situations, no single right answer can apply in all cases. Locally, senates must strive for a reasoned and informed approach to cuts. Generally, the cost savings of discontinuing a traditional academic program are minimal and not realized immediately. As a consequence, costly career technical education programs may be targeted, yet these same programs are likely to be the ones most critical to the economy as a whole and the hardest for anyone to discontinue with clean conscience. “Meritbased” program discontinuance should be what we strive for at all costs. But we also must be willing to assist in identifying where cuts can and should be made when fiscal circumstances demand them. A skillful surgeon can save an infected body part, whereas an unskilled one just lops it off. Faculty must participate and help to inform difficult fiscal choices if they want those choices to be academically sound.

1 While the Title 5 change has been approved by the Board of Governors at their July 2012 meeting, it has not yet cleared the Department of Finance.

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