November 29, 2004

See George dissemble

No, I'm not talking about our president but George Will, whose November 28 column on academe repeated the distortion of the American Enterprise Institute's Karl Zinzmeister that our campuses are one-party operations. If you look at the graphs from this "study," it appears as if American academics have only a left wing, because—gasp!—there were five Brown University economists who were registered Democrat and one registered Republican. Oh the horrors!

University of Michigan historian Juan Cole has written a rebuttal of Will's column based on general principles. But let's look at the actual Brown University economics department, shall we? Admittedly, in the fall of 2004, there will have been some turnover over the past few years, since the "research" was done. According to the department's listing of faculty, there are more than 30 tenure-line faculty in the department. Sure, some of them aren't American citizens, but that should leave about two dozen faculty members who are eligible to vote in the U.S. So why didn't the article by Zinzmeister report the registrations of the vast majority of the faculty? Maybe most of them are registered as a member of no party or of minor parties. Maybe the majority are too apathetic about public policy to register to vote (now, wouldn't that be a real scandal!). Or maybe the "study" was just plain full of baloney.

Now, the fact that neither George Will nor the American Enterprise Institute can get the facts straight on academic's political inclinations isn't too surprising. Nor does it eliminate the fact that there are political leanings in any department. But that doesn't mean that academics as a whole are more liberal than similarly-educated residents in their surrounding communities. (Testing that would be a challenging study.) And while hydrophobic folks like Zinzmeister and David Horowitz blather on about the most well-known universities, the vast majority of faculty and students are at anonymous public 2- and 4-year institutions.

(Horowitz, in particularly, has been on a raging crusade over the past few years about the evils of campus liberals. I wonder what he thinks the appropriate solution would be. But we know already from Horowitz's claims of a campus blacklist: mandate "balance" in every single syllabus and department meeting. So does Horowitz want ideological quotas? Hmmn...)

There is a serious argument to be made about the failure of academics to live up to their obligations as public intellectuals. Russell Jacoby made that case in The Last Intellectuals (1987). On that score, regardless of one's political inclinations, you'd have to admit that the public face of most campuses is in the football or men's basketball team, not the faculty. I don't know how much of that is the fault of faculty and how much is the public-relations trap colleges and universities find themselves in. But I wouldn't expect George Will to write about that any time soon.

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Posted in Random comments at 11:22 PM (Permalink) |

November 4, 2004

The second Bush administration and educational research

One of the sotto voce points of the AFT study on charter schools is that the Bush administration suppressed the information (and thus AFT staff members went looking for it). This parallels the criticisms that the Bush administration has politicized physical and biological science. The irony is that the language of the No Child Left Behind Act repeatedly refers to scientific research in education and prioritizes quasi-experimental research.

With a second Bush term, researchers should be alert in cases where political appointees or their direct underlings might be using bureaucratic tools to make research more difficult. Over the last few years, there has been substantial criticism of the reorganization of ERIC (Educational Resources Information Clearinghouse), and specifically the end of dedicated clearinghouses for specific topics within ERIC, funded by contract with specific organizations. At the time, I was skeptical of the approach taken by some dissenters on ERIC (not the site linked to above—but you can see a June 2003 archived version of the "Save ERIC" web site), because the rhetoric seemed paranoid and because I thought it might have been more aimed at saving the several clearinghouse contracts than the value of research access. The ERIC digests never seemed to be worth all that much to me, and ERIC was falling increasingly behind the curve of Internet research distribution.

But if there is clear evidence that scientific research and advice is being thwarted in other areas of the federal government, it is something to be alert to in education. After all, you can't just be in favor of scientific research when that research agrees with your predispositions!

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Posted in Research at 5:56 AM (Permalink) |

November 2, 2004

Academic-freedom juggling

Yesterday morning, former USF adjunct professor Lynn Stratton called the St. Pete campus the University of Silence in Florida because an administrator called for faculty to "monitor" what they said in the classroom in terms of tomorrow's election. I suspect it's going to be a relatively hot topic over the next few days on this campus, in addition to the election. Part of the concern is the recent history of academic-freedom troubles at USF and elsewhere in Florida. But there's a more mundane issue at stake here.

From what I gather (and at the moment I don't have an electronic copy of the original memo to plug in here), Arts & Sciences dean Mark Durand received complaints from students about adjunct faculty using class as a forum to advance their political views. So he responded with a memo asking faculty to monitor their speech since politics and religion are sensitive topics, "especially in Florida."

Ouch. To many reading this memo (including Stratton), this smacked of politically-correct thought policing at worst and malodorous censorship at best. That interpretation has its origins in the recent history of censorship and attempted censorship around Florida (including the recent recalling of an invitation to a speaker at FGCU because of her political views), as well as the political pressures to fire three USF employees since Judy Genshaft was appointed president. (You thought Sami Al-Arian was the only one?)

Let's pretend, for a moment, that the original incidents weren't at USF but at Famous Private University, which doesn't answer to political masters in the same way. A few students go to a dean and complain about the politicking of an adjunct faculty member. What does the dean do? What should the dean do?

The dean should do nothing immediately except counsel the students to talk to the faculty member. Students have academic-freedom rights as well as faculty, but they need to assert them positively. (The same is true of faculty, by the way—if no faculty member complains, rights do get trampled on.) Trying to intervene in any way without requiring the student to talk to the faculty member is only acceptable in cases where the student clearly needs protection because of the nature of the allegation (such as sexual harrassment, and even there some coaching in assertiveness can provide at least documentation of intransigent behavior). Part of the reason for diffidence is because students can (and sometimes do) misunderstand what a teacher says, and that can be clarified by discussion. Part of the reason is because students can learn some useful skills by talking to faculty—it's a rare person who doesn't need to negotiate with a person in authority, and I'd like to think that college graduates have some experiences so they're not milquetoast in the workplace. But the main reason for putting the responsibility on students to talk to teachers about issues in the classroom is because the main relationship in a class should be between teachers and students. That's the way it is with concerns about grades, and it should be the same thing with regard to political or other issues in the classroom.

So should Durand have written anything? I suspect not. If he had to, this is what I would have written:

I have received some complaints recently from students upset that, in their view, adjunct faculty have used classes to evangelize about the current election. In every case, I have told the student in question to talk directly with the teacher to clarify and, as appropriate, ask for time to present alternative viewpoints. In my view, the primary relationship in a classroom is between teacher and student.

I am writing about this to all of you because you should be aware of how administrators handle these types of complaints and what my attitude is. I trust USF faculty to bring their expertise to the classroom, and I trust that they will use their academic freedom in the classroom to maximize what students learn about the subject matter. I trust departments to supervise and provide feedback appropriately for both adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants. I trust that faculty will reflect thoughtfully on any concerns that students raise about a class. And, most of all, I trust that the faculty we hire are competent and should not be second-guessed for their everyday decisions.

But I guess that's why I'm not an administrator.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 6:04 AM (Permalink) |

November 1, 2004

Education Policy Analysis Archives

Sometime in the next few hours, I expect the public announcement that I'll be the next editor of the Education Policy Analysis Archives. That's an honor, a challenge, and a long-term commitment.

The founder and first editor, Gene Glass, has done enormous work to build up not only EPAA but the general notion of on-line publishing. When I first encountered it, the journal was an e-mail distribution of text files only. Now it's among the most widely-read education journals, accessed from all over the world.

I've been on the editorial board for a number of years, and I'm committed to maintaining its visibility and vibrance. Around the end of the month, I'll put out an announcement about a major development that was in the proposal to become editor. But I need to pass the text by the editorial board, first.

Correspondence about new submissions should go to the dedicated address epaa-editor@shermandorn.com. I won't be processing anything until December, and authors will receive an automated message in response to any e-mail before then. Correspondence about previously-submitted manuscripts, the journal in general, and a huge round of thanks for the creation of the journal should go to Gene Glass. (You may notice a preset subject line if you click on either e-mail link; what's the fun of being an online editor if you can't pull the odd HTML trick?)

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Posted in Writing and editing at 4:49 PM (Permalink) |

On great compendia

I recently received a "call for entries" in a planned encyclopedia (or handbook or ... the term doesn't really matter), expected to be printed by a Beaucoup Bucks publisher. Why am I so cynical about this project?

It isn't because I wasn't invited on board early—I don't have time for more projects! And it isn't because I think a reference book for social foundations is a bad idea. I think it's a wonderful idea. Nor do I think it bad because a commercial publisher will be getting the benefit of most revenues. Academic publishers do wonderful things on thin margins.

The project troubles me because it will get read and used by a small fraction of those who should read it. The concept is similar to the Historical Statistics of the United States: Millennial Edition, in terms of bringing collaborative reference works to a commercial publisher. In the case of the Historical Statistics project, the editors received an advance for the work and then commissioned chapters. The problem? Among others, the book still isn't out! (Was the advance enough to cover the work necessary to complete the project? Could the project have been funded better by a grant in return for public access to the data? I've heard similar criticisms by others, and this call for contributions reinforces my conclusions about it.)

More fundamentally, the idea is all backwards in terms of research dissemination. The instant a reference book comes out now, it's out of date. For major compendia of many important topics, the "out-of-date" creep is incremental and sometimes even glacial. But there is absolutely no need any longer for reference works to be significantly out of date. Online publishing allows for constant renewal of any reference work. I can think of at least two workable models for this:

  • The wiki reference. Wikis are websites that are collaborative projects. The most open wiki allows anyone in the world to edit any page. More restrictive wikis have permission systems to allow a more narrow range of contributors to edit the pages. A working model is Wikipedia.
  • An online journal/encyclopedia. An online journal could easily accumulate entries for a reference work—most obviously, encyclopedia entries—and subject them to as strict a refereeing process as any in academe, and then publish them in any organization desired (alphabetically, by topics, etc.). With this system, you could even have competing entries for the same term showing how people view the landscape of a field differently, as well as older and newer entries for important terms to show the development of ideas.

The point here is not that I know best how to organize reference works but that there is little reason to have hard-copy reference works that are inaccessible to the majority of the world.

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Posted in Writing and editing at 1:59 PM (Permalink) |