Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Ouroboros goes to school

You can chase your tail, too

“Dude! Get this!”

My junior colleague was perturbed. In his tweens and unjaded, he's still capable of surprise at the weird problems generated by bureaucracy. He was reporting to me on a student's dilemma. It was indeed beyond the ordinary.

“You won’t believe this, Z. I just found out! I have this student who can't take my arithmetic class unless she gets financial aid.”

That was not the extraordinary part. We have lots of students who need financial aid if they're going to enroll in our classes, even as inexpensive as our community college is. We're open enrollment, too. As noted on our chancellor's website, “California Community Colleges shall admit any California resident with a high school diploma or the equivalent and may admit anyone who is capable of profiting from the instruction offered.” That covers a lot of students, including my colleague's arithmetic student.

“To qualify for financial aid she has to pass the ability-to-benefit test,” he told me.

“Okay,” I said. “Do we actually test for that somehow?” It sounded odd, and I really didn't know. Perhaps I spoiled my reputation for omniscience with my colleague, but there were other senior faculty he could choose to idolize as oracles. He did not, however, seize on my admission of ignorance. He was bursting to get out his news.

“But it seems we interpret ‘ability to benefit’ to mean benefiting from any campus service, not just instruction or education. In other words, financial aid is a benefit.”

I began to see where he was going.

“You're kidding me.”

“Oh, no! She showed me the ability-to-benefit test and it has a math section. The math portion is all the stuff from our arithmetic course. So, to take the course, she needs money. To get money she needs to pass a test. To pass the test she needs to take our arithmetic course. I'm like ‘Oh my God’ and ‘What the f—.’”

As stated, the situation is insoluble. It's absurd that a course should be a prerequisite for its own prerequisite. And do we insist our students know arithmetic before they qualify for financial aid? (Failing such a test should be considered proof of the ability to benefit from an arithmetic class!) I'm puzzled and doubtful. But the story is not over. I suspect some excessive literalness is affecting some part of our student services bureaucracy. It may be as simple as a single person with a tiny bit of authority and an even tinier amount of common sense. We'll have to figure a way around this problem (or this person). In the meantime, though, we're chasing our own tail.


Anonymous said...

My solution:

"I'm sorry, but according to the Powers-That-Be I am not allowed to admit you to the arithmetic class that meets in room ___ from __:__ to __:__. Unfortunately, due to lost revenues from people being turned away we do not have armed guards checking enrollment, so I'll just have to ask you to kindly not show up in room ___ from __:__ to __:__. Thank you, and good luck."

The Ridger, FCD said...

I have to admit, I was stuck on a TA in his tweens - my god, you have 13-year-old TAs????

Finally it hit me. I feel so slow...

But I agree - failing the math test should prove ability-to-benefit from a math course. John's solution is good unless she needs the credits.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Worse ... he's not even a TA. He's a colleague.

I need it to be Friday...

Paul Sunstone said...

In any bureaucracy, there are petty clerks who can say "no", but who do not have the authority to say "yes". Hence, to show they're doing something, they say "no" every now and then. The way to work them is to go around them. Ask who they report to. Then to to that person. If that person still says "no", repeat the process and go to the next highest level. Sooner or later, you will find someone with the authority to say "yes".

Anonymous said...

You get to teach arithmetic? It's frustrating to teach algebra when it's obvious that the arithmetic is so faulty as to interfere at every step.