Thursday, October 29, 2009

Academic Freedom

I was forwarded a link to University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer's address at Columbia University on academic freedom. You can find the text here.

Freedom is an interesting idea, and not without its perils. Freedom allows you to try out new ideas. Some new ideas are good, and some not. Natural selection sorts them out, and it can be unpleasant for the losers. But the danger of not exploring the survival-scape is also dangerous. Perhaps that explains the tub-of-war between left and right in the political realm, which might echo the similar conflicting emotions of hope and fear when we consider the unknown.

In the context of the academy, Pres. Zimmer expresses the desire to "move us beyond the views of academic freedom as a near theological principle on one hand, or as a peculiar entitlement for a privileged few on the other." Those would be the views from the inside and outside, respectively.

Zimmer references the founding of the University of Berlin in 1810, calling it the "birth of the spirit of the modern research university as we know it today." Here it is in 1850:
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

This "German model" was formed with these objectives (quoting Zimmer):
[F]irst, that the goal of education was to teach students to think, not simply to master a craft; second, that research would play a role of central importance―and teaching students how to think would be accomplished through the integration of research and teaching; and third, that the university should be independent, and not be in direct service to the state.
The first of these resonates with the aim of liberal arts and its associated complex thinking outcomes. Zimmer quotes Friedrich Schleiermacher, who presented the idea of students enabled
to become aware of the principles of scholarship, so that they themselves gradually acquire the ability to investigate, invent, and to give account. This is the business of the university.
If I may paraphrase: perpetuating our ability to create new knowledge is the aim of the university. More idealistic is the description of the relationship between the university and the complex problems that bedevil the world outside the ivory gates:
[I]t is universities’ openness to ideas, to analytic debate, to rigor, and to questioning, and the provision of an umbrella, and in fact safe haven, for clashing thought and perspectives, that best illuminate societal, scientific, and humanistic issues.
Ideas and careers coincide in academia, and the ills of one infect the other. But success as a professional thinker inside the gates also depends on political skills and personal relationships. Fads sweep through the academy just like they do in pop culture. What's "hot" can force what's not into the deep shade of that umbrella. That, however, is the nature of freedom.

Zimmer notes that there are external forces that do not understand and have sought to curtail this freedom, which produces voices from the academy that discomfit the administration from time to time. He sketches a scenario:
Suppose there is a war that is very unpopular with the faculty of university X. A motion comes before the faculty governing body to the effect that the faculty of X declare themselves opposed to the war and call upon the government to end it immediately. What should happen? Is this faculty expressing their views? Or is it a chilling act that is inappropriate? What do considerations of academic freedom say?
This is the view from the President's office, and he notes that it becomes more complicated if said president is "politically active," which he advises against. The reason is far-sighted:
Universities are institutions with a long history and the prospects for a very long future. It is essential to preserve their value, their capacity for inquiry, discovery, and education over time, which will inevitably far outlast any particular political issue of the day, no matter how important it is.
It made me think of Spinoza, this speech. Bertrand Russell shows his affection for the philosopher in The History of Western Philosophy, with a poignant introduction (pg. 569):
Spinoza (1634-77) is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme. As a natural consequence, he was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness. He was born a Jew, but the Jews excommunicated him. Christians abhorred him equally; although his whole philosophy is dominated by the idea of God, the orthodox accused him of atheism.
We owe our intellectual heritage to those who, with or without the shields of academic freedom, presented their ideas. Many did so despite fear of execration. The ideas themselves may or may not be ultimately successful, but nothing can replace the hard work of creating and disseminating them to find their fates. The fewer the barriers, the better.

Critical Thinking Buzz

Yesterday I promised to revisit the different points of view about critical thinking evidenced at the Assessment Institute. This is a big topic, and I've babbled about it before (here). It's important because so many institutions plug it in as a learning objective. It's especially dear and near to the circulatory organs of liberal arts schools.

First, I have some bad news. Just look at the graph of search hits from google trends to unveil the sad tale.
The story is clear: searchers are becoming less interested in thinking and more interested in ignorance, with the latter spiking in about June 2009. In case you think student engagement might be riding to the rescue, the sad little red line at the bottom says otherwise. Interestingly, searchers seem to lose interest in either aspect of cognition around the holidays. After much research, I discovered the reason behind this, shown below.

Okay, maybe that's enough silliness :-)

Here's what I heard about the subject at the conference. Three things. First, as I mentioned yesterday, the opening plenary revealed a divide among the panelists when the topic came up as a part of a wider conversation. I was writing furiously and am not sure who to attribute this statement to:
There is no evidence that there are generalizable skills like critical thinking. You have to master one domain first.
This echoes my own thoughts and classroom experiences on the matter, which I've described previously. In a nutshell: developing significant ability to do deductive reasoning is a prerequisite to doing interesting inductive reasoning. If this is true, major programs are more likely to cultivate complex thinking skills than a broad curriculum like general education.

Other panelists disagreed, but there wasn't time to have a proper debate on the issue.

The second encounter was in a session about integrated assessment, where gen ed-type skills like communicating and thinking are threaded throughout the curriculum. Critical thinking was explicitly one of those. During Q&A I offered my own (heretical, I suppose) thoughts on the topic and was rather sternly admonished that the problem had been solved by psychologists and all I had to do was look in the literature. Heck, that may be true, and I've started looking. I'm a math guy after all, not a psychometrician. But if there was overwhelming theory and empirical evidence for a particular model, why is there still debate? Is it like Darwinian evolution, where some simply reject it because of dogma? I doubt it, but I'll try to find out. In the meantime, color me dubious. I asked the session speaker for some references yesterday by email.

I did find an accessible article by Tom Angelo, who was on the plenary panel, called "Beginning the Dialogue: Thoughts on Promoting Critical Thinking." It was published in 1995, and the opens by saying about critical thinking that "Despite years of debate, no single definition is widely accepted." This was actually confirmed in the session I mentioned, where it was taken for granted that critical thinking in an English course is different from in a Math course. This by itself isn't fatal to the idea; after all, writing is different too, but we can try to teach writing across the curriculum. But the subtleties are important.

For one thing, on a very basic level, I can watch Tatiana write a paragraph and say with confidence "this student did some writing." Evidence of thinking is different. I can look at that same paper and try to imagine what went on inside her head when she wrote it, but I can't really know that she was thinking at all. Maybe she put random words on the paper, or quoted something she had memorized. There's an empiricism gap. I can count words written. Quantifying (even with a binary yes/no) critical thinking is not so straightforward. To push that a bit further, imagine taking a piece of work from an English class and sticking it into a stack of math papers being graded. The math prof squints at it and wonders what the heck this is. Can the prof then pronounce whether or not critical thinking has taken place in the English class by inspection? Or is he/she only competent to judge in the domain of math? Reverse the situation. An English instructor sees a complex page of handwritten formulas and text, purporting to settle the Continuum Hypothesis once and for all. If you don't have technical expertise in an area, it's virtually impossible to judge what level of thinking has occurred. But maybe that's not what we mean. Here's a definition Dr. Angelo likes in the article, quoting Kurfiss:
[Critical thinking is] an investigation whose purpose is to explore a situation, phenomenon, question, or problem to arrive at a hypothesis or conclusion about it that integrates all available information and that can therefore be convincingly justified. In critical thinking, all assumptions are open to question, divergent views are aggressively sought, and the inquiry is not biased in favor of a particular outcome.
Allow me to point out a couple of things here. First, the creation of a hypothesis is (if true) the creation of new knowledge. And because we want it to conform to facts and hold up to new evidence that arrives, this is very similar to inductive reasoning. It sounds like the scientific method. But in order to do any kind of inductive reasoning, you have to have some knowledge of the deductive processes active in that domain. You can't write a math proof without knowing propositional logic; you can't solve a problem the rudder on your 747 unless you know how the thing works; you can't create complex financial leveraging instruments unless you understand the risks. Well, maybe that last one was a bad example.

One curious aspect of critical thinking assessment is that although the language surrounding it mentions all kinds of desirable habits of mind, higher ed kind of dodges the issue. Maybe there's some institution out there that really tackles teaching of self-assessment, open-mindedness, thoroughness, focus, and so forth. I'd love to know. Outcomes like what a student wrote on a piece of paper is far downstream from the actual events that led to its creation. There are some surveys that try to assess habits of mind--the CIRP for one. Who's trying to teach them that outside of orientation class? There is therefore a curious disconnect between our actual desired outcomes and what we teach.

I think it's healthy to ask another level of why. Why do we want students to think critically? We get stuck in our own curricular bubbles, perhaps. Let's step outside for a moment. What is gained if critical thinking--however you define it--is employed?

Is it because we want active citizens? Or we want good problem-solvers? Or we want entrepreneurs? Whatever the answer is, it's likely to be more easily pinned down than the amorphous one of critical thinking. We can actually look at evidence of citizenship or problem-solving. We can create programs and curricula to address them. And don't forget the habits of mind thing--for my money, that's an untapped vein of gold, and also amenable to assessment. At the right point in the report cycle, the assessment director can still aggregate the heck out of all the types of "critical thinking" on record and serve up a glop of statistical goo to the admins. Just put the graphs in color--that means more than any data you put on there. And be sure you put the right logo on the thing.

The third encounter with critical thinking I had was indirect; I heard about it through a conversation. What I was told was that on a Tuesday session U. Phoenix presented served up "Assessment Methods: Creating a Critical Thinking Scoring Instrument as a Tool for Programmatic Assessment." I can't find the slides online, but I'll try to get them, and ask the presenters what happened. Apparently there was essentially heckling of the presenter(s) about the definition of critical thinking, and my companion's assumption was that this was related to the fact that it was U. Phoenix presenting and not, say, Alverno College. If so, this is a sad irony. If a group of professionals gather to talk about critical thinking and don't actually demonstrate the ability to do it, where are we? I will suggest to the organizers that they replace iced tea refreshments with Scotch next time.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Creating an Office of SD

There are many organizations that have not yet of the idea of an Office of SD, so I thought I’d introduce the idea and its benefits here. The origin of this blink of genius is Dr. Howard Doing, author of Making it Slow. I had the opportunity to chat with him online. His screen name is zippy99. I have only corrected spelling and most grammar in the transcript that follows (he was online using his phone).
Zippy99: How did u track me down?

Stanislav: The publisher wouldn’t talk, but I eventually found It wasn’t easy, frankly.

Zippy99: What do you want?

Stanislav: I was hoping you could tell me and my readers about your SD office idea. Do you have time?

Zippy99: Okay. I’m just driving down I-95 anyway.

Stanislav: What gave you the idea for the book?

Zippy99: Well, I’ve been a student, professor, and administrator at several colleges and universities. I’m not saying how many, but there was one common theme at all of them: the need for consolidation. I really saw the benefits at a campus in the Midwest, where they created a building just for classrooms. No offices, nothing but stories of classrooms. Even skimped on the elevators and stairs to make more room. Brilliant!

Stanislav: It’s more efficient?

Zippy99: It’s the concentration of purpose that's the beauty of the thing. It should be obvious to even a […] who are you, again?

Stanislav: Just an admirer of your work. I direct exotic plumbing projects in real life.

Zippy99: Well, at IU they didn’t take it far enough. I tried to convince them that they should also have a building to concentrate all the bathrooms in, but they wouldn’t go for it. I suppose the time wasn’t right. That was my building phase.

Stanislav: What got you thinking about processes instead of buildings?

Zippy99: The shear grinding boredom of trying to get anything accomplished at a university. Every committee and office had an assigned—and no doubt useful—function, but they each all had a common secondary effect as well.

Stanislav: They all made you wait.

Zippy99: YES! It began to drive me mad once I realized it. It would take weeks to get paperwork through the business office. The lead time on any Human Resources change was at least two months. And don’t even think about the faculty committees.

Stanislav: So how did your inspiration strike?

Zippy99: I was in the bathtub thinking about it. Suddenly I realized all this stuff around me is water, and there’s me here. I’m mostly water too, and if I could remove the water from my body---it gets a little fuzzy after that, but you see the point.

Stanislav: Actually that makes no sense at all. Can you explain the office of SD’s function?

Zippy99: Let me set it up first. Imagine if you could take all the slowdowns out of all those offices and committees I mentioned: distill them out, so to speak. They would be much more efficient, and everyone would be happier dealing with them. Then you could concentrate all the slow-downs into one NEW office: the Office of Slowing Things Down. People would be irritated at the SD office, but at least they’d understand it’s just fulfilling its purpose. It’s beautiful.

Stanislav: And you didn’t call it the STD Office because…?

Zippy99: That one was already taken, unfortunately. It’s actually one of the more efficient offices on most campuses.

Stanislav: How does it work in practice?

Zippy99: We’re seeking grant funding to answer that question. Lumina has expressed some interest, but the big player in this market is the Department of Defense. The potential applications to government are mind-boggling. And my mind is not easily boggled.

Stanislav: So you’re looking for pilot institutions?

Zippy99: Yes, absolutely. I’ve had some interest from a couple of small privates, but I think the benefits will be greater for a large state institution.

Stanislav: What kind of staffing would you need?

Zippy99: Delaying processes is hard work, and it takes a dedicated staff. An experienced Director of Delay, an Assistant director, and perhaps 7-10 staffers, depending on the size of the university.

Stanislav: How do you find experienced directors, given that you’ve just created this idea?

Zippy99: Oh, that’s not hard. I’d advertise for an IRB chair.

Stanislav: Supposing a small college wanted to implement your ideas, though. How might they go about it?

Zippy99: It's not rocket science. Put someone aggressive in charge of delay. It could be a faculty member with a stipend--often they have latent anger that's helpful. Then you'd need to create an ownership culture, an expectation that delay belongs to the SD Office, not to the registrar, for example. The delay director has to get in their business and say "Why are you slowing down this application? That's my job." And of course, you have to create the bureaucracy to support all of this. It really takes support of the president to enforce it. [expletive deleted] Missed my exit.
I lost contact with him at that point, but I think the case has been made. Judge for yourself.

The 2009 Assessment Institute

I'm just back from two full days in Indianapolis at the Assessment Institute. The trip was great. I made contacts and learned some really interesting stuff. Too much to summarize this morning, but here are some bits and pieces to be filled in later.

The opening plenary was shortened by an unfortunate medical incident, but hinted at some interesting fault lines. Trudy Banta, the organizer, does a good job of representing different points of view with her choice of panel, guest, and topic.

The first divergence I noticed centered on the idea of "tuning," a concept borrowed from the Bologna Club in the EU, which I blogged about here and here (the update at the bottom). It's not a lunch meeting, as you might think, but a process of comparing and improving programs across institutions. As a point of trivia, we learned from Jeffery Sybert that concert A is 440 Hz in this country, but 442 Hz in Europe. I'm quite sure I couldn't tell the difference, which is in any case greater than the intra-tuning dissonances of an equi-tempered scale. There must be an interesting story there. The topic was presented by Jamie Merisotis, President/CEO of Lumina Foundation for Education. You can read more about the project here. The panel dissonance in this case was fairly minor, turning on the question of how much authority faculty should have in the process. On the one hand, faculty own curriculum. On the other, they can be protective, self-interested, and unduly academic in their horizons (speaking as one). This is a good case of needing external reviewers to constantly check that goals and progress align. (Such as a stakeholder analysis: see below.)

There was the admonition from the panel that for-profits and their venture capitalist underwriters are very interested in producing a meaningful educational product, and by implication that the usual plodding change of bricks and mortarboard institutions won't be fast enough to compete with cyberdon. As a riff on that, George Kuh suggested that "the credit-hour is a dying concept in higher education, measuring things we no longer value." He elaborated, equating seat time with credit hours under the traditional system.

The other twanging note in the plenary was caused by the use of the term "critical thinking." The consensus position is that this skill is valuable, should be taught and "measured," etc. In opposition to that is the idea that maybe critical thinking is too fuzzy to actually be useful as a learning objective. This turned out to be a minor theme at the conference, which I'll elaborate on tomorrow. In a Q&A at one session, I was given an admonishing mini-lecture that psychology had solved the critical thinking problem and that I only needed to look at the literature. In a session with University of Phoenix that I missed, I'm told that there was rude and contentious debate about assessing critical thinking. Maybe someone who was there can comment.

I met the creator of Waypoint, which I had blogged about here. I watched a demo of the online rubric management and implementation software. More on that later.

At lunch on Monday, Jon and I chatted with an Assistant Director of CIRP at HERI [edit: fixed title] who works on CIRP. I've used the freshman survey, and found it quite useful in finding attrition trends (see this post), and I was interested to learn that CIRP is getting into the constructs business, using item response theory. I went to the session on that on Tuesday, and have some other comments that will have to wait until I have more time.

A session by Tom Zane at Western Governors University gave a fascinating insight into their system of assessing massive amounts of student work. You can read about their innovative system of using assessments to entirely replace grades here. They get between 1500 and 2000 new students each month, and are still growing rapidly. Student work is assessed by human raters using rubrics--this isn't standardized test land. Samples are rated more than once to test for reliability. Although this is still monological, my first impression is that this is as good as it gets for traditional assessment, and that the assessment side of their business could plug into this model if WGU chose do to it--providing a uniform system of credentialing for higher ed. Something like that is conceivably in our future. That might sound scary, but it's infinitely better than standardized tests running our lives.

AAC&U has a project called VALUE, which accumulates rubrics that they have found or created and refined. This seems useful, and complementary to the tuning idea. The next part of the project is to create a repository of student work that has been rated using the rubrics. A problem I noticed more than once is that designers usually don't seem to think much up front about whether their rubric is relative to the curriculum or fixed absolutely. When we built the FACS model, we used an absolute scale, in which raters say things like "student Ecks is working at the freshman/sophomore level." In a relative scale you get stuff like "exceeds expectations." The former is great for tracking longitudinal progress, the latter not so much. A good student will exceed expectations in all classes, showing no progress. By contrast, even a great freshman math major is very unlikely to be doing senior-level work. I'm not sure the VALUE leaders have addressed this.

Jon Shannon and I led a 75-minute session on stakeholder analysis in strategic planning, which had good participation. I blogged about the topic here, and you can find the presentation linked here. This is a great tool for addressing complex planning issues. One of the advantages is that it keeps the conversation on track, focused on goals everyone more or less agrees on.

The backchannel on twitter was pretty thin, or else I just didn't hit the main vein with my search. We set one up at Today's Meet and advertised it on one of our slides, but haven't gotten any activity from participants.

More on some of these topics later.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Impedance Mismatch

There's an article about NSSE in InsideHigherEd this morning about the "Wabash National Study," which studied changes in freshmen over their first year of liberal arts education. Their summary begins:
In our analysis of data from 3,081 students at 19 institutions in the first round of the study we found that, on the whole, students changed very little on the outcomes that we measured over their first year in college.
The provide an overview of findings (pdf) that give more details. In particular:
[A]lthough students’ improvement on the CAAP Critical Thinking test was statistically significant, the change was so small (less than 1% increase) that it was practically meaningless.
You can find two examples of the sorts of questions that the CAAP employs here (pdf). One asks a question about polling, referring to a hypothetical politician named Favor:
Favor's "unofficial poll" of her constituents at the Johnson County political rally would be more persuasive as evidence for her contentions if the group of people to whom she spoke had:
I. been randomly selected.
II. represented a broad spectrum of the population: young and old, white and non-white, male and female, etc.
III. not included an unusually large number of pharmacists.
The results of the CAAP and other surveys (such as student attitudes and behaviors) were correlated against six "teaching practices and institutional conditions:"
  • Good Teaching and High-Quality Interactions with Faculty
  • Academic Challenge and High Expectations
  • Diversity Experiences
  • Frequency of Interacting with Faculty and Staff
  • Interactions with Peers
  • Cooperative Learning
The summary of results shows that "critical thinking" component was correlated positively and significantly with "good teaching" and "diversity experiences."

I'm not a fan of the status quo in general education, but it does seem only fair that if we're going to judge accomplishment using tests that the tests align with the curriculum. Perhaps at the participating institutions, this is the case, but I have trouble seeing where items like those in the critical thinking part of the CAAP are actually used in first-year liberal arts curricula. Certainly, many schools have critical thinking listed as a goal, but it gets defined in many ways. I don't like the term because of its fuzziness, and this example shows that well.

Take the example given about poll sampling. The answer can be arrived at by a bit of common sense, in which case this resembles perhaps an IQ test, or one might have encountered sampling in a Finite Math course or Intro to Psychology. But it's not exactly the level of material that students come to college for. In finite math, they might learn linear programming, which is a fairly complex analytical tool used to solve constraint problems. Of course, anyone who hasn't had that material would fail miserably.

But isn't that the point? By trying to "measure" (see Measurement Smeasurement for an explanation of the scare quotes) only the least common denominator of freshman learning--a prerequisite to standardization--aren't we really just applying an IQ-like test? It would be better to use targeted tests that correspond to the actual curriculum that students actually take, rather than imagining that can all be treated uniformly. Put another way, we shouldn't be surprised if students don't perform well on tests that don't correspond to what we've actually taught them.

Other posts on critical thinking are listed here.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Automated Reporting

One of the most time-consuming tasks of an IR office is to provide answers to a constant stream of questions like "how many female psychology majors do we have?" For advisors, there are detailed questions about courses, student schedules, and course histories that are essential to have timely answers to as well, and these come all at once. Of course, any college nowadays has and electronic system of databases and interfaces that allows answers to such questions. The ones I'm familiar with, however, are much better at storing information than reporting it back--it can be done, it's just not always as easy as one might like.

What do you do if you want to find a water fountain in a building? This seems like a non sequitur, but bear with me for a moment. There are two things I always emphasize to my young daughter when we're out and about. The first is, turn around once in a while so you'll know what your path looks like on your way back, and it will be familiar. The second is "think like the designer." If you want to know where the water fountain is, try to think like the architect. A water fountain is an add-on, so it's likely to be close to other water sources: the bathrooms, for example. It's likely to be on a traveled hallway, etc... This works with interfaces too. The best software interfaces seem effortless because the designer put a lot of thought into consistency and ease of use. Most university software systems like Datatel, Banner, Jenzabar, aren't as easy to use. If you want to figure out why a particular thing is the way it is, you should keep in mind that the designer was probably a programmer, not a user. There's a big difference.

Programmers like modes, for example. Switching from one thing to another. Does your system have "modules?" You can bet some programmer cooked up that idea. Do you have to switch screens three times to do the job of one? Same thing. What's convenient for a programmer is not usually convenient for a user. An example is Datatel's implementation of its windows-based user interface. For years we used a terminal mode that looked like it was out of the 1960s, and probably was. It was ugly, but it worked, and it was fast. It was programmer-designed, no doubt, but it had the advantage that the network demands were very small for sending little packets of text back and forth and throwing them up on the screen. Response time was great, and once you learned the dictionary of short-cut keys, users could fly through the screens. Not a perfect situation, but acceptable. Datatel was probably taking heat for it though--everybody wants a mouse interface, pull-down menus, and a nice GUI look, right? Rather than starting from scratch and building the thing, as far as I can tell, they just layered it on top of the existing software stack. What this means to the user is that it was very slooooooow. After our implementation, the staff complained bitterly about it, in some cases reporting tasks that took more than five times as long as before. Of course we passed this on to the technical reps at Datatel, but they'd heard it all before, and had little tweaks instead of solutions. I hope they've fixed it by now, but this is a good example of a programmer's "solution" to a user problem--it actually made things worse. Note that this isn't an indictment of the whole Datatel system--the database itself was very stable and usable. With a package to get data out, reporting is bearable. There have been some very unfortunate design decisions in the last releases from the user point of view, but underneath I found it to be very solid (after about eight years of use as IR guy and at one point sysadmin).

So if you want to minimize calls to IR and you want to provide data to users, ease of use and response time are premium qualities to keep in mind. A few tenths of a second on a web page refresh make a difference in the real world... Simple and to the point is good.

Here's a partial solution to the problem of getting what you want out of a cranky database. It's not perfect, and it's designed by a programmer (me), but one who is also a user of the system. So it's a compromise between time programming and elegance of design. The users love it, once they get over the small learning curve.

Schematically, here's the architecture. openIGOR is my open-source project for a document repository, but I also use it to push out portal functions. It uses perl's DBI interface to talk to the databases it needs to. All of them are SQL, so this is pretty straightforward. Note that it's not at all straightforward if you mix linux and windows, but I've now ported openIGOR to windows and will be releasing that code soon.
The warehouse database contains a Reports table that has the name of the report, SQL code for the report, a list of field names to assign to the columns, and a report type. The SQL code can have variables embedded in it, which are interpolated before being sent out. For example:
SELECT student_id FROM Students WHERE (Start_Term eq '_current_term');
This is an invented example where the _current_term will be interpolated by the perl script to put in the actual current term: a literal like "09FA" or something. This makes the reports general and customizable.

In addition, the field names from the report table can have markups in them. The field names are used to label columns on the report that gets cranked out, but there are two specifications for filtering that can be included. First I use this syntax:
(simple_date) Date
To tell the reporter to run the subroutine "simple_date" on the data before sending it to output. In this case, the date that comes out of the database is a long ugly thing and I want to simplify it down to day/month/year. The second type of markup is a bit more complicated. For example,
(sub_2) [Schedule]
tells the reporter that instead of printing data in this field, it is to be a sub-report. A list of students could include a field that hyperlinks to that student's current course schedule, for example. The "2" means to hyperlink to sub-report number 2, and the brackets mean to provide a hyperlink instead of the actual data.

So how does all this programese translate to user experience? Here's what it looks like. After a pulldown menu to choose the report, the user gets a list of possible fields to choose from. Here's the one for Current Course Enrollment:

The interface is a bit busy, but it's simple to use. Select the boxes next to fields you want to see, and enter any restrictive filters on the right. Here, I've chosen to see all math classes. Here's a portion of the report that comes back:
The green hyperlinks take you to the student roster for that class. Once there, you can click to see an individual student's course schedule or see their whole course history with grades (there are some security precautions there for FERPA--I had to work it out with the college lawyer).

The requests for these reports use the cgi GET method, which means in practice that every report can be bookmarked for later use. Compared to trying to get this information out of our Jenzabar interface, this is MUCH easier.

The ability to deliver reports through the web opens up even more powerful reporting methods. For example, Excel has the ability to look at a table on a web page and grab data off of it to populate a field. Then you can do calculations. So if you wanted to know the total number of students enrolled in either math or English courses, with a few clicks you could generate those reports, embed the results into a spreadsheet and calculate the total.

But here's the really cool part. If you look at the report designer again you'll see a box at the bottom that produces the output in a text delimited format, rather than as HTML. This is great for feeding into other number crunchers. You could use Yahoo Pipes, for example, if the system weren't locked behind a firewall for security. This week I got a request for a custom report: financial aid needs to know right away if a student crosses the 12-credit mark in either direction. If they drop below, they're no longer full time, and if they go from 9 credits to 12 they become full time. Either way, there are financial aid ramifications.

Normally, solving this reporting problem would start with identifying the SQL query to pull down the data. I don't have to do that now because I have an interface. I just clicked through the report generator to ask for student identification information and the number of enrolled hours, and for good measure added the course schedule link for each student. Then I created a perl script, using the LWP web module, to run the web request, pull back the data in delimited form, parse it out, and generate a file with student ID and number of credits. Each day at 5:30 a cron job runs to check the current data against the day before, and if there's a student who passed the 12 credit threshold, email the right people. It takes perhaps a second longer to run the http request than to run a direct SQL query from the database. But in this context, a second delay means nothing.

Advantages. In general, the architecture presented above has some significant advantages. Database security is restricted to the the point of query--the reporter script--which runs on a secured database. So rather than checking each user's credentials for each report, this can be handled through openIGOR and not touch the Jenzabar credentials table at all. In addition to security, it's much more accessible: you don't need a specialized executable sitting on your desktop to run the report, just a web browser. You can do it from your phone. From the perspective of the IR office, imagine being able to send a hyperlink to a live report back to a requestor, rather than a number that will only satisfy them for the moment. Most users are sophisticated enough to generate their own reports after being shown the interface.

Disadvantages. The reporter does not try to be fancy about SQL queries. It works from the one given in the report definition, which generally pulls a swath of data on a topic, like enrollment. The filtering happens only after the whole table has been downloaded. This is an inefficiency because it's a lot faster to know up front if you only want math classes, for example--then you can as Jenzabar (or other database) for just the math classes, rather than all classes. Therefore, the reporter as described would not be suitable for very heavily used reports, running all the time; those you'd want to optimize. Rather, it's designed to be very flexible and to make it easy to drop in new reports.

Implementation. The code for running all this is not all that complex. I've made it work for Datatel and Jenzabar, and in principle it works for any reasonable configuration of database tables. Setting it up to work the first time requires some expertise--it's not plug and play. But I'd be happy to help others do that if there's demand.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Halloween Stories

One of the joys of working in higher ed is being surrounded by smart and creative people. Once upon a time, a group of us started a halloween tradition that consisted of swapping names, writing a spooky story about that person, and then reading them all at a party. Over the years we accumulated quite a number of these. It was a fun exercise to imagine colleagues and co-workers placed into crazy situations, and there was a lot of laughter at these parties. I have taken one of these stories I wrote and edited it to change the names and take out the inside jokes, except for the title, which I will explain:

Some of us were walking back from lunch at a local restaurant one summer day with a senior colleague named Jack. Jack had a long history with the institution and was always good for a unique perspective on things. On the stroll back, he started warning us about the president's 'secret signals.' One of these was that if the president pumped your hand three times on a handshake, it mean you'd be terminated. We just laughed.

Not more than three minutes later we encountered the very man--the president--on his way somewhere. He greeted Jack heartily and grabbed his hand. The pres was a two-handed shaker, right hand gripping yours and left hand holding your elbow tight. We all watched one pump...two...and as the president seemed prepared to go on, Jack ripped his arm away as if he'd been bitten. And that's why this story is called...

The Third Squeeze

Under the hot midday South Carolina sun, light washed off the wakes of overpowered john boats on Lake Wateree. Two men sat comfortably in swivel seats in a sparkling new fiberglass racing hull. The enormous Evinrude outboards weighed down the stern so that even dead in the water the boat's bow stuck up as if it were planing. Tim Spear sat in the front seat, farthest from the controls but closest to the cooler, which was fine by him. He wiped sweat from his forehead with an already saturated towel. He glanced under the brim of his Duke baseball cap at the elderly owner of the boat in the other seat. Ezra Warren seemed unmoved by the stifling heat. He was meticulously unclipping a purple worm from his swivel. The replacement--a yellow popper--was sitting on the president's lap. Soon to be ex-president, really, since he'd already announced his retirement. The politics of who would replace him were intense and unavoidable on the campus of Rocke College. Tim wondered for the hundredth time why the president had invited him on this fishing expedition.

"A little hot for October, don't you think so, sir?" Tim asked. He couldn't stand the silence for more than about five minutes.

"Nah, not really. I've seen it so hot at Thanksgiving that the fish had to come up for air. After a whole summer of the water not cooling enough to turn over, the dead vegetation at the bottom of the lake just used up all the oxygen. All we had to do was scoop the bass off the surface. Wasn't fair, really. I think Dan Birch was on that trip. You can ask him about it."

"Who, sir?"

"Dan--oh, I guess that was before your time. Dan was the veep for business operations before the new guy came on board. Got my bleep into bleep-load of trouble, he did."

Tim had already noticed that the president's manner of speaking was a little different on a fishing expedition than it was in front of the senate, but it was hard to get used to this continual swearing, which seemed to get worse with every beer the man consumed.

"What happened to Mr. Birch?"

"He went elsewhere. Just in the bleep-bleep nick of time too, or I'd have booted his sorry bleep the bleep over the horizon. Hand me another beer there, if it isn't too much trouble."

Tim hurried to comply with the request. He was relieved to see that there were only a few bottles left. Surely this tortuous expedition would end when the president ran out of drinks. Tim fumbled with the opener as the president belched a loud one and suddenly hollered.

"I got me one!" Sure enough, the tip of the fishing pole was bent over in a graceful curve that could only mean something substantial on the business end of the line.

"If this is another turtle, I'm gonna A-S his green bleep," the president muttered. Tim had heard this curious circumlocution several times on the trip already and was still no wiser as to what it meant. He had a good buzz on already from the heat and alcohol, but was managing admirable self-restraint. Just imagine that you're in his office, he reminded himself through the haze of free radicals.

It was no turtle this time. Instead, a nice sized olive and silver fish flashed to the surface and flailed once before diving under the boat.

"On the motor boy!" the president yelled, standing and leaning out over the boat. The rod was bent into a U. Tim had been well coached on this maneuver, and he leapt to the bow where a trolling motor was mounted. Hoping he wouldn't screw anything up, he thumbed the switch to the 'on' position. The boat immediately started circling. The wrong way.

"Other way! Son of a cabbage, don't let him get away! This one's a keeper!" Tim complied as quickly as he could, jerking the tiny helm around 180 degrees. He tried to shake the mist from his head. Was the president really cursing in vegetables, or was his abused brain merely taking artistic license?

"Got him! He's coming up! Grab the net Ben!"

Tim didn't think this was the time to correct the man on his given name, so he grabbed the net, trying to look like a Ben. By a stroke of luck, he managed to neatly sweep the flopping bass up in a single try, and held it up for the other's inspection.

"Hot yam! That's a mother-tuber of a nice fish! Wait 'til Sarah sees this one!" He did a little dance. After yanking the hook out of the fish's mouth with a pair of pliers, the president deposited it into the live well. It was the first one they'd landed worth keeping. Tim himself had had only nibbles.

"Way to go, sir!" Tim congratulated his boss.

"Well now, a few more of those and we'll have a meal. You can turn off the troller now." After the boat was dead in the water once more, the president checked his lure for damage before flinging it back into the water with an expert snap of his wrist. The line whispered through the reel until the yellow popper smacked into the water near a log. They fished in silence for a while. At last, the president gave a grunt of disgust.

"I think we'd best move on to a better spot, Fred," he said. "The fish have figured us out here."


The huge engines coughed once before bursting into lusty voice. The president slapped the gear handle and the boat leapt with a jerk that threw Tim's head back. He had learned earlier to hold on or be thrown out of the boat. As the speed increased the ride became smoother.

"I didn't just bring you out here to fish, you know," the president shouted over the roar of the Evinrudes.

"No?" Tim tried to seem indifferent. In reality his heart was pounding. This had to be important, he thought.

"Let me find some shade, and we'll talk," came the shout forward. Tim held on tight as the boat turned sharply and headed into a small inlet surrounded by a shallow swamp. The motors cut off and the boat glided under the largest Cyprus trees Tim had ever seen. Their passage was slowed to a stop by thousands of lily pads.

"There. Out of the sun for a few minutes. Better, huh? Betcher cabbage it is." Tim wasn't so sure. He could already see clouds of mosquitoes approaching.

The president finished shutting the electrical system off, and then swiveled around to meet the gaze of the English professor. He didn't say anything for a full minute. Tim fidgeted, slapping at imaginary bugs. What did this guy want, he wondered.

"I know you've been applying around," the president said finally.

"Oh that. Nothing, really. I wasn't sure I'd get tenure, so I just..." Tim trailed off as the other held up a hand to stop him.

"I understand. That's not what this is about. I just want to make sure you're not unhappy here. Your presence is valuable to me." Tim tried to keep his astonishment from showing. The guy didn't even know his name!

"Yes, in ways you may not even think of, you are indispensable to this institution." The president waved his arms and it wasn't hard to imagine that the mighty tree trunks were the columns of Founder’s Hall.

"Young blood," he continued. "That's what we need. Dean Cartwright and I are of one mind on this topic." Tim felt like he should say something, but he couldn't figure out how to make his tongue work. His face worked, producing only 'ga-ga-ga' noises that went unnoticed.

"Every great institution is based on people. There are followers and there are leaders. They're equally important. Which are you, Ron?"

"A leader?" Tim gasped.

"No. You're a follower. Nothing wrong with that, boy. Less headaches, trust me."

"Fewer headaches," Tim croaked, and then was horrified that he had corrected the president's grammar. This too, went unnoticed.

"The followers are the really important ones, anyway. From Idaho Beach to the setting foot on Mars. Followers get the job done. No shame in that, now is there?"

Tim violently shook his head as if dismayed by the thought.

"I, or rather WE, have a job for you. The kind of job not just anyone could do. There are so few people around with real talent for the kind of work that's genuinely needed. Smart-mouth intellectuals are a dime a bushel, but real solid DOers, they are hard to come by. Dean Cartwright and I think you are such a person." The president's dark eyes bored into Tim's skull. He had no more chance than a rabbit on board with a cobra. He nodded numbly.

"Good. I knew you'd agree. Then let me tell you specifically what we have in mind. Do you want another beer?" Before the dazed Medievalist could object, the last frosty can was popped and thrust into his hands.

"First of all, you need to know that you've been watched very closely and groomed for this special position. Your wife's job, your committee assignments, and even some of your classes have been arranged for this purpose. Also putting a chair in charge of your department that would drive you crazy. Make that two chairs, although Dr. Gibbon was just a happy coincidence. I have to apologize for this now, but we wanted you unsettled, almost unhappy. The last thing we wanted was a complacent, fat, and lazy Ron Spear."

"Tim," Tim squeaked.


"My name is Tim. Not Ron. Tim. Short for Timothy. Rhymes with Jim, whim, and slim. Not like Ron, which rhymes with begone, Jon, and c'mon." Tim was in full babble mode and the breaking gear was stripped to the shaft. He continued in the same way until the president physically forced him to drink the rest of his beer.

"I can see you're surprised. Shocked even. Here, you need something a bit stronger than that lite beer." President Warren dug into a cabinet and came up with a bottle of rum.

"Pusser’s Rum okay? It's good enough for the British navy. Never touch the stuff myself, but I keep it for emergencies. Here you go."

Tim downed a swig of the sweet liquor. Sweat ran down his face.


"You becher sweet tomatoes it's good. That's the reason the good lord invented sugar cane. Have some more. That's right. You just hang onto the bottle, and I'll tell you a story or two." The president opened the top button on his shirt and settled back into his seat. He reached into his pocket an produced a crumpled pack of Camels. He pushed in the cigarette lighter button next to the ignition and waited for it to pop out while he fished out a slightly bent cigarette. Breathing life into it, he sucked deeply and visibly relaxed his posture. He seemed years older to Tim in that instant. The alcohol had instantly penetrated his dehydrated brain, though, and his judgment had flown to the four points of the compass. He waited dumbly for the other to top the astonishments that had already transpired, sure somehow that that was to come to pass. Pungent blue smoke from the cigarette enveloped the boat. Any mosquito that flew into it immediately perished. Finally, the president spoke.

"The college has always had a need for a strong personality to keep troublemakers in line. To make the machinery operate smoothly. Without people like Stonepot the whole system would break down."

"Stonepot?" Tim said in surprise, before he could think.

"Sure. Good ole' A-S. But you know, Ahab is getting old. He can't see as good as he used to, and he gets out of breath so easily. For some things he's still at the top of his game, but there's definitely a need for some new blood."

"What? You want me to become Stonepot?" Tim wished his mouth would just shut up, but it seemed to be no longer connected to his rational parts. He tried to wrap his mind around the connection between him and the faculty’s most opinionated and vocal--and feared--member.

"Tim, I know it's a big assignment. I know it seems impossible. And we know that you'll bring your own unique style to the job. You won't be Stonepot--hell, who could be--but you'll be Spear. You'll be the Stonepot that Ahab only dreams of."

"I'm not quite following all this. You aren't talking about being a sociology professor, are you?"

The president laughed so unexpectedly and loudly that Tim nearly peed his pants in terror. Heretofore he had only heard the man chuckle during a faculty senate meeting. This long orgasm of hilarity that went on and on left his hair standing on end. Who was this person he was in a boat with, he wondered suddenly. He began to be the tiniest bit afraid beneath the anesthetic fog of the alcohol. The truth is that he should have been running for the hills at that point, but how far can you run on a twenty foot fishing boat? Besides, how was he to know that some very fine German optics had produced a rifle scope that was trained on the back of his head with the whisper-thin crosshairs picking out the bumps at the exact spot where his skull met his spine? Only a psychic would have known that a certain aforementioned sociology professor was sweating his bleep off in the swamp adjacent to the boat, and that despite the uncontrollable natural elements: mosquitoes, snakes, and even alligators, his right index finger never wavered on the trigger.

"No," the president wiped mirth from his eyes, "not sociology. What we need is a strong arm man. An enforcer. What Ahab brings to the job is the ability to make certain recalcitrant faculty members work hand in hand with the administration. This is not ordinarily the case, you understand. For example, take Gibbons. She knows if she screws up she'll start getting phone calls in the middle of the night asking her if she knows where her dog is. The secret is to be proportional. That's not Ahab's strong suit, frankly. He goes for the nukes right off the bat. I think you've got more sense than he does, though. Are you following any of this?"

Tim couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"This is a joke, right? You guys are having me on. What, is there a video recorder somewhere here? C'mon, an 'enforcer?' You can't be serious."

"Serious as a heart attack, my boy. But I can see you need some convincing." The president stepped to the bow and engaged the trolling motor once more. The boat eased through the lily pads to an enormous tree trunk sticking out of the water. Pulling alongside, the president turned the motor off. He pointed at the tree.

"You see that spike in the side of the tree there?" Following the pointing finger, Tim made out a slime-covered railroad spike hammered deep into the wood about an inch above the water. There was a chain attached to it.

"Pull up that chain for me, would you?"

Tim leaned over the side and stuck his hands into the water with evident disgust. Algae covered the chain. It was quite heavy, and he sweated and swore under his breath trying to bring the thing to the surface. A mass about the size of a basketball emerged. It was impossible to tell what it was because of the goop covering it. Tim looked at the president for instruction.

"Well, put it in the boat, boy. We don't have all day." A trace of tension showed in the old man's voice for the first time.

"Yes, sir." Tim heaved the mass into the boat, covering himself with green ooze in the process. He looked sadly at his clothes. They were already beginning to stink.

"Open it up."

Tim looked more closely at the thing. It was a canvas bag with eyelets through which the chain ran, forming the top of the sack. He loosened the chain and pried the top open.

"Go ahead and dump it into the boat. It won't bite." The president gave a sharp barking laugh. He retrieved another cigarette and stuck it between his lips where it dangled, unlit. Tim turned the sack over and shook it. Water rushed out into the boat. Whatever was inside was too big to fit through the opening, so Tim fed some more chain into the eyelets and then shook the bottom again. A round thing thumped into the boat and rolled against Tim's feet. It had been in the water for a long, long time, but it could only be the skull and decomposed remains of a man's head. A few strands of matted hair remained on the scalp. The president grunted in satisfaction. Tim turned and spewed the contents of his stomach into the lake. He lay gagging, half in and half out of the boat, for several minutes.

"Meet Mr. Birch," the president said to his back. "He just couldn't see eye to eye with us on some important issues. Thought he ought to go tell the board of trustees about some things that were going on, and did so behind our backs. Some people just don't know what's good for them."

" killed him?" Tim croaked weakly, still staring at the water. He had no desire to look back in the boat. The president stuffed the loathsome object back into the bag and dropped it over the side.

"It's safe to come back in now," he chuckled.

Tim felt a hand on his elbow, and allowed himself to be helped back to his seat. The president thrust a towel into his hands and sat down himself.

"So," he said, "now you know where ONE of the bodies is buried." He laughed and finally lit his cigarette.

"Why me?" Tim asked, his voice shaking.

"Well, you're smart, for one thing. And you've got your head screwed on straight. Stonepot, he likes his job just a bit too much. I think you'll be much easier to handle. Who knows, maybe you could be a dean or president yourself some day."

"Thanks oh-so-much for your kind offer, but I wonder if I could have some time to think it over? Run it by my wife..."

"No can do, boy. You're smarter than that. I've done showed you where the Mr. Birch is. You can figure out for yourself that we can't just let you go blabbing your fool head off about this. Not that anyone would believe you, anyhow, of course. But you've got to decide right now if this is something you're interested in."

"And if not?"

The president's eyes turned reptilian.

"No problem," he said carefully. "We'll just shake on it, and agree never to talk about these events again." Then he brightened. "But that won't happen, I'm sure. Once you think about the benefits, you'll agree. For starters, we'd double your salary--off the books, of course, so you don't have to pay taxes on it. You could be chair of your department, chair of the senate... Anything you want, within reason."

"It all sounds very nice, really. Uh, the phone calling and heads in swamps. It's what I've always dreamed of, but I just don't think this is the right career move for me at this time. It's very tempting, and I'm so flattered by your generous offer that it leaves me breathless. But I'm really just an academic at heart. I'd much rather read about slaying and goring than actually participate."

"This is a big decision, you're making son. Are you absolutely certain that you're not interested in helping us out?"

"Helping you out is one thing. Being a bully is something else. I really don't think I'm cut out for that line of work, as tempting as the offer is. So, yes, I'm sure."

"I understand your decision, Ted, and I respect that. Really, I do." The president's expression was indecipherable. He spat the cigarette out of his mouth and into the lake.

"It wasn't supposed to be you," he said sadly, after a moment had passed. "You were a substitute."

"It was Sean, wasn't it?" Tim said with a sudden flash of insight.

"See, I told you you were smart. Yep, we had high hopes for Dr. Links. He really had what it takes. He didn't bat an eye when I showed him what's left of Dan Birch. Just asked where to sign up, cool as a cucumber."

"So you didn't kill him too?"

"Don't be an imbecile. No, we gave him that sabbatical as a perk--a kind of welcome aboard gift. Then he went and got hisself killed by some kind of swamp monster down near Savannah. Well, you know the story as well as I do. It's a damned shame. He could have eaten Stonepot for breakfast." The president made a dismissive gesture.

"Well, I guess we'd better head back," he said. He stood and held both arms straight up in the air for a moment. Tim stared at the unusual behavior, wondering if the sun was getting to the old man. Then he blinked. A perfectly round hole had just appeared in the empty beer can sitting on the gunwale. Half a second later came a flat report. Time seemed to almost stand still. Tim turned to look at the president, who no longer had his arms in the air. The man was watching him with cool contempt. Tim's brain was still trying to catch up to current events when a spattering of fiberglass slivers rained across his arm, followed closely by a second report. The president lost his composure and bellowed at the trees.

"You shot my boat, you frog-basted celery dip!"

Tim's mouth hung open in amazement. Shots? He was being shot at? By whom? He peered into the swamp and saw a small flash of light. Something whined by his left ear in a most peculiar way.

"Someone's shooting at us!" Tim gasped, and hit the deck. "Get down!"

"Stop!" the president bellowed across the water to the corpulent would-be assassin. "Stop shooting! You'll sink us, you idiot! Or worse, you might hit me," he muttered.

A faint voice spoke from the trees. "Did I get him?"

"No!" the president shouted back. "You couldn't hit a barn with a bazooka! Now cease fire!" Then he said to Tim, "You've got to do the job yourself if you want it done right."

Tim looked up to see the president heft a large wooden boathook. Squealing with alarm, Tim scrambled out of the boat and into the stagnant water. The boathook nearly parted his hair during the rapid egress, but he splashed into the lily pads unharmed. He flailed at them until he realized he could grab the stalks and pull himself through the water much faster than he could swim. He ducked under the water and made for the shore. He knew Stonepot was waiting there with a rifle somewhere, but swimming across the longer part of the inlet was out of the question. The president would surely run over him with the boat if he tried that. He quickly ran out of breath and surfaced to get his bearings. He wiped his eyes and looked for the boat. It was still there. Stonepot and Warren were shouting at one another. Tim submerged again and headed toward the thickest part of the trees. After half a minute he surfaced again. There was no more shouting now. He checked on the boat. It was still in place, and the president was doing something... Suddenly he felt an intense sharp pain in his right ear. His head was yanked around to the right, almost ripping his ear off his head. He screamed, and slapped at it with his hand. Then he saw the president standing on the boat with fishing rod in hand, cranking furiously on the handle of the reel. He'd been hooked just like a fish! He cursed and sputtered, but there was nothing to do but head back toward the boat to ease the pain. He briefly thought of trying to wrap the line around some obstruction, but the line was simply too taut.

"Stop pulling, you evil bleep," he bellowed. The president laughed and cranked away. Tim tried to grab the line with his hand, but it was too slick to hold.

"Got me an assistant professor, Ahab!" he yelled. "Think I should throw him back?" A laugh came from within the swamp. Tim despaired. He was completely exhausted by the time he reached the side of the boat again. The tension on the hook set in his ear never let up.

"Get back in the boat," the president ordered. Tim tried to comply, but the side of the boat offered little purchase for that purpose. Finally he grabbed the anchor line and managed to use it to pull himself up high enough to grab one of the safety rails on the gunwale. He used the last of his energy to heave himself back over into the stern of the boat. He closed his eyes and wheezed, waiting for the boathook to come crashing into his skull. After a while, he opened his eyes. The president was bent over in his seat. His face was very pale, and he was gasping for air like a fish out of water.

"My...heart..." he croaked. "...pills..." he pointed shakily at a blue and white windbreaker stowed new the engines. Tim reached over and shook a prescription bottle out of the pocket.

"This what you want?" he asked.

"What's going on?" Stonepot shouted from the swamp.

"I think he's having a heart attack," Tim shouted back. He popped open the bottle and looked at the little white pills.

"Holy Chitaquata smothered mushrooms!" Stonepot threw down his rifle and began slogging out to the boat as fast as his awkward hip-high rubber waders would allow him to move.

"How many pills should I give him?" Tim asked him.

"How the heloaise should I know? Give him the whole bottle."

"The whole bottle? There's like two dozen pills in there!"

Stonepot was having problems of his own. Once he got out deep enough, water had rushed into the waders and turned them into anchors. He sank in the soft mud until only his head, shoulders, and increasingly frantic arms remained above water. The president suddenly fell out of his seat and collapsed into a ball in the bottom of the boat. He made strange sounds.

"Hey Ahab, you know CPR right?"

"I think I'm sinking here!"

"What's a death rattle sound like? Listen, can you hear that?"

"I can't get my feet out of the mud! Help!"

"It's really more of a grinding wheeze than a rattle, though. Should I go ahead and force a pill down his throat?"

"Throw me a life preserver! I can't get these waders off!"

Tim thought about it for a second. His ear felt like it had been removed with a steak knife. Shrugging, he uncoiled a line attached to a white floatation ring. It said 'Sarah II' along the side. Holding onto the bitter end, Tim tossed the ring at Stonepot's head. His shoulders had disappeared. The throw was accurate, and Stonepot gratefully snatched at the ring.

"Pull me out," he ordered.

"Why should I?" Tim asked. "You were trying to kill me just a few minutes ago."

"That's true. I didn't though. That should count for something. How is he?"

"Oh, I think he's not going to be forming any blue ribbon committees anytime soon."

"He's not dead, is he?" Panic showed in Stonepot's voice again.

Tim nudged Rocke's chief executive with his toe. He lifted an arm and let it drop. There was no response. He rolled the man over onto his back. His eyes were still open and bulging. He wasn't breathing. Tim felt suddenly dizzy and sat. Two dead people in one day was too much, he though.

"Well?" came a pathetic voice from the swamp.

"I believe the technical term is deader than a doorknob."

Stonepot actually sobbed and hid his face.

"There wasn't anything I could do," Tim said. "Anyway, he tried to kill me too. You people are twisted. Stop crying. Did he owe you money or something?"

"Worse. Why do you think I put up with his stinking carcass for all these years? He has all the dirt on everybody! He's like the J. Edgar Hoover of Rockeville. Spies everywhere! In the event of his death, it all comes out. Why do you think everyone is--was--so deferential to him?"

"So he really does know where all the bodies are, then?"

"Well he put about half of them there himself, so yes. I'm a dead man. I can't go to jail, Tim. I'm too old."

"I guess you better just stay out here in the swamp then," Tim said. "I can't help you." He was looking around for a tool box. There had to be one somewhere, he figured.

"I think I'm still sinking, even with this ring. These waders have filled up with swamp mud, I think. They must weigh a ton."

"That wasn't very smart, running out into the lake." Tim located a small bag of hand tools by the engine controls and snapped it open. He located a pair of needle-nose pliers that also served as wire-cutters. Perfect for what he wanted.

"I know. I'm too old for this. You were supposed to take over."

"You mean Sean, don't you?" Tim gritted his teeth and snapped the end of the hook off. The yellow popper fell to the deck. The right side of Tim's head was sticky with drying blood, and his ear was swelling up like a grapefruit.

"Sean Links? Yeah. He would've been good at it. Frankly he scared me. We could still do it, you know. We just have to find out who Warren's lawyer is and make him tell us where the files are. You probably are in there too somewhere."

"Me? I haven't done anything."

"Never had an affair? Never said the wrong thing to a female student, or had a conference with the door shut? You'd be surprised how some things look in the right light."

"No, nothing like that. Don't try to drag me down to your level, Stonepot." Tim suddenly laughed as he realized he'd made a joke.

"Are you going to get me out of here or what?"

Tim nodded. He cleated off the end of the lifeline.

"Hang on, and I'll pull you out." Without waiting for a response, he moved the body in the boat to the stern where it would be out of the way. Then he turned the ignition and fired the huge dual engines to life. He shoved the gear lever into forward and eased the throttle up. The boat nosed out of the inlet, leaving a wake of chopped lily pads. Stonepot was pulled out of the mud, and towed along behind the boat.

"Hey--" he sputtered, trying to get to the air--"I can't breathe. Slow down!"

Tim didn't hear him. He shoved the throttle forward. The wind felt great in his hair. He looked back to make sure Stonepot was still there. The life ring was nearly submerged from the rushing water and substantial weight attached to it. I wonder why he doesn't stick his head up higher, Tim wondered. He could probably breathe better that way. Maybe if I increase the speed he can body surf. He shoved the lever to the wall and the engines screamed. He had to steer in a serpentine route down the lake because he couldn't see straight ahead, the bow was up so high. Halfway across the lake he looked back again and saw that Stonepot had let the ring go. It skipped easily along the waves, unfettered.

Just as well that he decided not to face the music, Tim thought to himself. It'll be easier that way. He went over his story again. The president had invited him out on the lake. Tim had accidently hooked his own ear. Someone had shot at the boat, probably accidently, and the president had gotten so excited he'd had a heart attack. There would be no words about rotund assassins or decayed heads. No, once he had a real chance to think about it, Tim realized that the president had been pretty shrewd. Some things would have to change, of course. No need to be so heavy handed. First, of course, he had to find out where the files were. Happy engaged in the project of figuring out exactly what pressure to put on Sarah Warren, Tim sailed straight into a freshening breeze and a brighter future.