January 31, 2005

Time and pacing

This afternoon, I'm trying to finish as many short student papers as I can. Around Labor Day, when the second of four hurricanes hit Florida, I realized I had to start pacing myself for the duration of the term. Then two other hurricanes hit. Yikes. That pace became grueling, as I spent hours each week out of the house (to avoid taking out my aggravation on my wife and children), desperately keeping up with grading.

Right now, I'm taking a brief break. I have ten papers to go (out of forty submitted last week), and since they're low-stakes, I suspect I'll finish before I go to bed. Other things have gone by the wayside yesterday and today for this, but my sense of the world is that I need to get that done. On the other hand, I've thus far dropped (or avoided?) last year's habit of drafting long lists of things to do, akin to profgrrrl's frequent to-do and checkoff list. It's probably a response to keep my sanity, though I know some things minor things are slipping through the cracks. What I've learned last year is that something will always slip through the cracks, and priorities are not necessarily guaranteed with to-do lists. Well, that's a rationalization at least. Mel, of the academic In Favor of Thinking blog, recently discussed her rebalancing work and life. I'm still trying that, but my work instincts are getting the better of me today.

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Posted in Teaching at 4:49 PM (Permalink) |

The fake academic freedom debate?

From A.G. Rud's blog comes a link to an online debate of sorts between California AAUP official Graham Larkin (from Stanford) and Front Page Magazine's David Horowitz about academic freedom and the proposed Academic Bill of Rights. The set of links is useful primarily for documenting the shrill nature of this "debate."


Here's the substantive part of the linked text, as far as I can tell:

I'll skip the rest of the tit-for-tat from Larkin and Horowitz, since they essentially repeat their basic arguments. In many ways, it's very sad that David Horowitz has taken it upon himself to be the point person for changing higher education. He is a sloppy writer, and it's hard to take seriously his claim that he doesn't want ideological affirmative action in higher-ed when one of the slogans of his book (which reappears on the web site of Students for Academic Freedom) is "You can't get a good education if they're only telling you half the story." The so-called studies of "liberal academe" are shamefully slipshod, as Larkin has pointed out as well.

Why sad? Because there are serious problems with universities as intellectual environments. Many of the causes are in proliferating adminstrative bureaucracies, some chunk from political grandstanding locally, and occasionally from some professors and students. When my liberal colleague Jonathan Zimmerman (at NYU) talks about the need for intellectual diversity in individual departments (emphasis added), I get the sense that he's not being brainwashed by Horowitz.

But analysis of universities is not advanced by Manichean claims by Horowitz or others. A good study of ideological propensities would probably show the liberal slant he claims in some disciplines and in some types of institutions, but not everywhere! I suspect that the greater cause of such slanting has to do with self-selection in disciplines and the disciplinary prejudices inherent in writing job announcements. The vast majority of academic jobs are in public state universities and colleges (not the Ivy Leagues or research flagships that Horowitz focusese his ire on), and there job ads are quasi-contractual in terms of requirements and fields. These are my seat-of-the-pants hypotheses, but I'll be happy to be shown evidence of different patterns. Any day I learn something is a good day.

The ABOR itself is generally a principled statement except for a few items that raise serious flags for me.

  • Faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination. We shouldn't, but what constitutes sufficient evidence of indoctrination—counting the ideological leanings of readings in my syllabus? (Here we go back to the potential for ideological quotas, a la Lynn Cheney's ghostwriter who counted the appearances of Cheney's historical heroes in the first version of the national history standards guide.)
  • ...academic institutions and professional societies should maintain a posture of organizational neutrality with respect to the substantive disagreements that divide researchers on questions within, or outside, their fields of inquiry. This clearly violates the academic freedom of disciplinary organizations, who are free to make statements about anything in their collective area of expertise or to make professional standards. If this had been in sway when the American Psychological Association first created standards to prohibit sexual relationships between psychotherapists and clients, it would never have passed because a minority of lechers could have blocked it. Should the American Historical Association have been able to take the Bancroft Prize away from Michael Bellesiles, even though he still has a few defenders? I think it has that power.

Maybe the ABOR would be entirely innocent in practice. But I think it's reasonable to be skeptical here when the sponsors of such bills in state legislators are neither educators nor bipartisan. David Horowitz should go watch 1776, especially the first musical number. He might end up improving the odds of agreement just by sitting down.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 12:35 AM (Permalink) |

January 26, 2005

Reviewing books to kill Benjamin Bloom

In the middle of the 20th century, Benjamin Bloom became the best-known psychologist to categorize abstract thinking (or rather in a project to categorize the types of thinking in educational environments). His work has become known collectively as Bloom's Taxonomy of knowledge, and people in colleges of education can spout the categories almost by heart: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

So far, so good. Having terms for the different ways you want to see students sweat while thinking can be useful for designing work for them. That's what we in academe call a heuristic classification scheme, devised to be useful. Philosophers might call it pragmatic in the sense of calling something real if it's useful.

Unfortunately for pragmatist philosophers, something happened to this taxonomy once it was released into the wild. Many people decided that it was real in all contexts, not just useful in a limited set. And, having done so, they started describing the categories in a hierarchical sense. In this way, you will commonly see descriptions of higher-order and lower-order thinking skills, with knowledge and comprehension as clearly "lower-order." When I see or hear such description these days, I want to scream. What is it about humans that make us classify things in a hierarchical scheme and then latch on to them in this addictive fashion?

Wait. I should probably explain why I don't agree with a hierarchical scheme of knowledge: book reviews. Profgrrrrl wrote yesterday about voice and book reviews, and the tenor of comments is consistent with what I advise students about one critical skill in reviewing books: listening carefully to the author's voice. If I were to categorize that in Bloom's Taxonomy, knowing the author's perspective would be "knowledge," the lowest, basest form of thinking according to the hierarchical thinking-classifiers. And yet it is the hardest task in reviewing a book.

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Posted in Random comments at 8:48 AM (Permalink) |

January 23, 2005

Irregular verbs

When I first saw Yes, Prime Minister, I was charmed by its wit and insight into politics. Probably the best lasting contribution was the invention of the irregular verb, a pointed description of different (and egocentric) perspectives:

  • I have high standards.
  • You sometimes let your students get easy A's.
  • They are letting grade inflation run rampant.

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Posted in Random comments at 10:53 AM (Permalink) |

January 17, 2005


No assigned work today—holiday, and Elizabeth helps me enforce my standards on this sort of thing.

I'm allowing myself to do stuff that's linked to social activism, in the spirit of MLK, but that's it.

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Posted in Random comments at 1:59 PM (Permalink) |

January 16, 2005

Armstrong Williams as entrepreneur or idealogue?

There's continued hullaballo over Williams' failure to disclose his $240,000 contract with the U.S. Department of Education to promote the No Child Left Behind Act, after Williams's apology, and continued criticism that he was never really a journalist. There is, for example, a potentially apocryphal story about an interview to be Armstrong Williams's ghostwriter, but I find that one hard to interpret.

And perhaps we really don't have to go too far. The sad part here is the extent to which taxpayer dollars that can be used legitimately for educational purposes are instead being used to explicitly advocate for policy. I know postmodernists will point out that it's hard to tell the two apart, but the difficulty making distinctions doesn't mean that we shouldn't try where they're useful.

The President has an absolute right to use the bully pulpit to argue for policy purposes. But branches of the federal government shouldn't be doing so, because it will taint the implementation of statutes. If members of the Bush adminsitration wanted to do their best to demonstrate that they are primarily interested in PR and propaganda, the Williams scandal is a good way to advance their aims, as is the use of Social Security funds for promoting Bush's agenda.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:42 AM (Permalink) |

Teaching models

This morning, the New York Times has an article by Richard Panek on new teaching models, primarily the Program in Course Redesign at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Center for Academic Transformation. I haven't seen the reports at all (something else to do in my copious free time!), but the article jibes with my sense of teaching: jiggling academic routines a bit can help dramatically, but entirely online experiences risk high attrition.

Of course, I say this at the start of a semester with an entirely online class. After my last experience a few years ago, I'm spending a lot of effort with the "soft" part of the course—encouraging students separate from the academic content, setting up opportunities for them to engage in the conversational parts of an in-person course that allow repetition of key information in different formats and times. I'm also trying to have a bit of fun with different things in online lectures (now that most students have much more ready access to broadband and I have tools on my laptop that are sufficient for most things). So the first-unit lecture has a takeoff from the scrolling-text start of the Star Wars movies, and another will involve philosopher-puppets. But I'm not sure that quite counts in what this redesigning-coursework project is doing.

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Posted in Teaching at 10:29 AM (Permalink) |

January 15, 2005

Trying comments again...

After checking out several other academic blogs like Playing School, Irreverantly, I've decided to try using Haloscan's comment accounts because it appears it's less subject to comment spam. So we'll see if anyone's interested enough in this to comment! (Hmmn... does this say anything about my time management on Saturday evenings? Maybe because my spouse and daughter are on a Girl Scout encampment...)

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Posted in Random comments at 10:52 PM (Permalink) |

January 14, 2005

Columbia University

In the burgeoning controversy over Columbia University's Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) department (allegations that faculty have intimidated students who disagree with them politically, counter-allegations that this is a threat to academic freedom, counter-counterallegations that the counter-allegations are the real threat to academic freedom, etc.), the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has sent an absolutely wonderful letter to Columbia President Lee Bollinger. The letter gives institutional autonomy more weight vis-a-vis individual faculty academic freedom than I think appropriate, but on the whole the letter is coherent and very sensible.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 7:16 PM (Permalink) |

January 10, 2005

The cognitive blogroll

After setting up my Bloglines blogroll last week, I had this startling thought about RSS aggregators like Bloglines, niche (and partisan) media outlets like Fox News, and selective "hearing" that students occasionally engage in when reading: part of the freedom to pick and choose what is convincing—and select one's sources for reading (or believing)—is the freedom to be willfully narrow-minded.

I'm not an educational psychologist, so I don't know if the literature on constructivism has discussed this potential. (Anyone know? Please e-mail me!) One hundred years ago, yellow journalism and propaganda was a broadcast entity. Today, people have much greater freedom to have minimal exposure to diverse perspectives, blow them off, and shut them out.

There are many who talk about the sheep mentality of those with different partisan leanings, from Rush Limbaugh claiming that African Americans are the colonial victims of Democrats to Mary Daly's discussing anti-feminist activists as "fembots" to what neighbors say about each other after this last vicious campaign. What these explanations miss is the fact that culpability requires choice (unless you're a strict predestinationist in the Calvinist vein). And intellectual freedom includes the absolute right to be ill-informed and the right to filter information through one's preexisting knowledge and prejudices. (I think educational psychologists use the neutral terms "activating prior knowledge" and "using schema".)

And I suspect that there is no easy way to distinguish the need to be selective in reading/learning from prejudice.

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Posted in Teaching at 7:04 PM (Permalink) |

Sheer pleasure in an archive

The last occasion I spent time in the Georgia State Archives was in 1991, when I was in the midst of dissertation research. I was there last week looking at a series of local school-district reports from the late 1930s through the 1960s that had detailed numbers on the age and grade of students, exactly what I need for my current research obsession. My experience over a few days was even more pleasurable than 14 years ago (when my dominant emotions were excitement and relief at finding my huge plunge into unknown archives). This time, I knew the materials were there.

In part, what was new was the building, now housing the archives close to the Atlanta airport (and the new Southeast National Archive and Records Administration building. They have a whole room of lockers for personal effects, computer bags, coats, etc., as well as a break room for lunch and snacks. But the extra bonus is the beeper system they have when you request original documents. Talk with staff, tell them the series and boxes, and they had you a disk that looks remarkably like the oversized beepers that restaurants give out to diners waiting for a table:

(sample picture and page, in case I'm not being clear—not an endorsement)

So I had two and a half days of luxuriating in state reports with the tables I needed and then enough time to scarf down selected years for Atlanta and five rural counties spread around Atlanta from the Sea Islands to the northern Georgia mountains. When I leave an archive as satisfied as I was Friday evening, I know I'm in the right career.

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Posted in Research at 6:49 PM (Permalink) |

January 2, 2005

Relationships between faculty and students

Today's St. Petersburg Times covers USF's faculty debate over faculty-student relationships and the appropriate policy: discourage or prohibit? The article is pretty good for journalism: I didn't catch any inaccuracies, and it covered at least 60% of the substantive issues on campus. (There's only so much you can do given the news space even in good papers like the Times.

The problem is not in discouraging such relationships: I think they're stupid, regardless of defenses like bell hooks's ("Erotic student/faculty relationships," Z Magazine, March 1996). You don't have to patronize students to say that student-teacher relationships are destructive to the academic environment. The problems are in the practical contortions necessary to regulate faculty's private lives and student's rights.

Ban all relationships between faculty and students who are taking any courses in their departments? Then what happens with a faculty spouse in another area needs to take a required course in the spouse's department? (That happened to my wife—let me declare that personal bias here.) Carve out an exception for spouses and you run into sexual-orientation discrimination on campuses with such policies (including USF). Say that it's okay for a partner to take a course in the department but not be a student majoring or specializing in that area? Then some students in a course you don't teach are "off limits" but others aren't. Decide that the issue is starting relationships and then you get into the muddy area not only of regulating sexuality but defining it (never mind you're there already).

Suppose you narrow it down to prohibiting sexual relationships between a teacher and students of that course or between an advisor and student, as one respected colleague of mine suggests (or pleads for at least that much prohibition)? But then you're left with the issue of students who don't take one's courses but are in the program area, up for scholarships, etc. Ban undergraduate-faculty affairs and you're leaving the more serious problem on a large university campus of graduate student-faculty relationships.

There are three fairly clearly-defined concerns that one can address without a strict prohibitionist policy:

  1. Sexual harrassment. Most campuses, like USF's, already have a sexual harrassment policy, but egregious harrassers can and apparently do use the prior existence of a consensual relationship as a defense. You can simply prohibit that as a legitimate defense. (I don't know the legalities involved, but I suspect it would hold up. States often explicitly prohibit specific defenses, such as the DUI offender's claim that the time she or he was driving was the time when the alcohol had been drunk but not yet absorbed into the bloodstream.)

  2. Conflict of interest. The general approach to conflicts of interest—appearances of impropriety as well as egregious favoritism—is the management of apparent conflicts of interest. Faculty preparing grant applications involving a private company have to disclose investments, and the university then manages the conflict. "Disclose and manage" might seem like an incredibly dry phrasing for handling affairs of the heart, and I'm well aware that it puts chairs on the spot, but it's feasible, has parallels to other policies at large universities, and most importantly, provides a clear bright-line standard that serious abusers are sure to violate. And that, in the end, is what a policy needs to handle.

  3. Ethical guidelines. Several of the prohibitionists on my campus (including one chair interviewed by the reporter at the Times) are from psychology, where ethical guidelines do clearly prohibit sexual relationships in a broad range of professional areas. And a sensible policy would require faculty to observe the ethical positions of their disciplinary bodies. I think prohibitionists would like to believe that a clear prohibitionist policy provides that guidance and only a prohibition provides the necessary guidance. Hmmn... on that basis, we should prohibit students from quoting any secondary source for fear that they might plagiarize from a lack of judgment. Instead, we take the view that education is the better route, even if it's highly imperfect. I think the same is true here.

I may be on the losing side of this argument locally. That's acceptable, because these are differences in approaches, not our reaction to student-faculty affairs. (My "ugh—gross!" wasn't quoted in the article, somehow...) And, more importantly, I'm confident that the faculty judgment here will decide the shape of the policy, rather than its being handed down from the administration without collegial governance.

So I'll take the results, no matter what they are, as long as it's at the end of faculty deliberation. To paraphrase Warren Rudman's comment at the Iran-Contra hearings, the faculty have the right to be wrong. And I don't think they're going to be too far off at USF, no matter how it ends up on this policy.

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Posted in Random comments at 11:37 AM (Permalink) |

Public intellectuals

In Favor of Thinking's commentary on Susan Sontag points out her role as a public intellectual. Is Sontag's death the end of an era? I suspect not, for several reasons?

First, there are already well-known public intellectuals who are as interesting as Sontag, more palatable than Mailer, less trite than Noam Chomsky, and who will outsurvive all of them. Second, there are others, waiting in the wings—perhaps among the many academic bloggers—who are public intellectuals but just not well-read. They will become so in the next few years. (No, not me—I suspect I'm destined to be recognized as a solid public mensch but no academic star. That's okay. I'll take well-earned local gravitas in the long run any day.)

But perhaps the most important reason for the survival of public intellectual life is that there will always be a demand for well-articulated, interesting writing on events and culture of the day. The reason why two of Michael Berube's books are in the top 100,000 sellers on Amazon.com this morning (as opposed to 400,000 and below) is partly because of his writing, but moreover because there are plenty of readers who are in search of good writing about interesting things. Not all academics will match those interests—and researchers should not in general worry about selling loads of books—but enough of them will always match the interests of voracious readers to provide a ground for public intellectuals.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 2:02 AM (Permalink) |