February 28, 2005

Monster days

There are two types of monster days, though maybe I should call them bear days (as in "some days you get the bear, and some days ..."). One kind of monster day eats you alive—equipment breaks down right, left, and center, there are seven phone calls that need urgent attention right before class starts, nothing works in class dynamics, a student points out a horrendous error you made that will take days for you to fix, you get dumped with stupid bureaucratic tasks, and if the university president happens to pick you out personally to insult, it doesn't actually make things any worse. The other monster day is where you accomplish huge amounts of work or at least finish sizable chunks, and while it's not visible to the world yet, there is a sizable weight lifted off your shoulders.

No, I haven't quite had the second type of day today, but on top of finishing my annual review, getting my blood drawn for a lipid panel early this morning, and picking up a key from the campus key shop, I almost finished revising the introduction to an edited book, and over the last two days I did get my own chapter in almost-ready shape (need to recontact some sources first) and finished all of my own work on the other edited book. So the two days combined make a monster day. (Whew!) It probably would be a monster Monday by itself if I had another three or four contiguous hours left, but the day is broken up by picking up children (for which I need to leave campus in a few minutes).

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Posted in Writing and editing at 3:54 PM (Permalink) |

February 26, 2005

The Art of the Annual Review

My annual review is due on Monday, and it's time to acknowledge that there is an art to bragging about oneself in a way that fits with the format of our over-bureaucratized annual review form in my college, with its headings and required entries (how much time were you assigned for this type of teaching, or research?). If one focused on the headings and boxes, you'd never get anywhere with the form.

The key is to remember that this is not a sonnet, and the structure is not fixed. There is usually an option to add one's own statement, a narrative, somewhere (in my college, at the start of the form), and that narrative is where I put most of my efforts. Since this year is the tenth I've been working with essentially the same form, much of the narrative remains the same from year to year. For a few years before tenure, I used the annual review as a rehearsal—could I project my 'academic persona' effectively? And now, having developed a workable form, I spend a few hours fiddling with it, making sure my vitae is up to date, and that's it. Last year, a colleague showed me that she was putting most of her documentation on a CD-ROM, which seemed much more sensible than a carton of stuff, so I followed suit.

I'm sure everyone has their own "tricks" to present themselves, but here are some of mine:

  • A chart to show progress on different projects (for those from different disciplines in my department, where the expectations is for more frequent publications than mine), with one row per project and one column per type of activity (grant proposal, primary research, presentations, publications, and works in progress), and that year's set of activities in boldface (a wonderful suggestion of my chair, Harold Keller, when a colleague and and I were going up for tenure in 2001-02 and worried about how to discuss our productivity")—
  • Beginning my discussion of teaching by talking about the key goals of the discipline (again, necessary because of my interdisciplinary department)—
  • Trying to link my service with goals either for teaching or resesarch—
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Posted in Random comments at 8:01 PM (Permalink) |

February 18, 2005

Editors meeting

One of the promises I made in the proposal to become editor of Education Policy Analysis Archives was to head to the Phoenix area for a meeting to coordinate the transition early in 2005. Well, it's early in 2005, I'm on my way to the unveiling of my father's headstone, so I'm stopping off here to meet with Gene Glass (former editor), Chris Murrell (who does the technical stuff), and Gustavo Fischman (co-editor of the Spanish/Portuguese section of EPAA). I'm at the endstage of a cold—stuffy nose, forgot the decongestant at home—so I'm awake at about 4 am local time (6 am Florida time) and will try to get a bit more sleep shortly. But there are arcane matters of style to discuss, such as leading (pronounced "ledding"), indentation, bullet-point uses, etc. Or at least to just figure out. And I'm sure Gene has things he wants to discuss. No, not at 4 am! Maybe in 6 hours.

IRB exemption!

This week the IRB exemption came that allowed me to open up the package with individual-level data from the Florida Department of Education. This is anonymous enrollment and graduation information from 1999-2000 and 2000-01, so I can test working with age-specific data . Hurrah! Now, where do I find the time for this? (That's okay: good dilemma.)

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Posted in Research at 5:49 AM (Permalink) |

February 12, 2005

Churchill and standards

A friend from an educational psychology background wrote me last night,

It appears that Churchill is being revealed as an incompetent and likely dishonest historian. Is that grounds for dismissal, or merely rehabilitation?

Plenty of historians make mistakes about the factual record or misinterpret evidence, and it's not necessarily grounds for firing—that's what we call material for criticism and reevaluation of the record. It's a question of degree and circumstance. The devil's in the details, and that's best left up to faculty and administrators at UC to figure out.

Churchill's not an historian by discipline, as far as I understand, and it depends in part as well on whether he was blithely repeating myths that he had heard from others or was actively making up stories. The first is the historian's equivalent of practicing without a license (or training), and the second is deliberate fraud.

The other thing that's troubling here is that people who didn't like him went on a fishing expedition, obviously. The passive-voice phrasing, "is being revealed," is significant. People who are rankly incompetent or dishonest should be tossed out on their ears, but how many of our minor mistakes could be distorted into allegations of fraud in the heat of political conflict, with dozens of paid hype-masters focusing on every jot and tittle we've written? When I was looking up some materials cited in David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot's Learning Together, I discovered that their citations on one or two matters were incorrect. I don't think that's misconduct, since any historian's book has a few hundred citations, and it's likely that a few are incorrect. Then, a few years ago, a student pointed out that their interpretation of one photograph from a Washington, DC, algebra class was flawed. The student is absolutely right. Do those errors jointly make the book fraudulent? I don't think so, but if David Tyack weren't such a nice guy, he might've attracted those sorts of allegations for the everyday minor mistakes he's made in a generally stellar career.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 6:56 AM (Permalink) |

February 10, 2005

Eyes on the Prize held hostage

As reported in Wired, Blackside Production's Eyes on the Prize is currently unavailable because it only negotiated the rights to all of those film clips for a limited number of years, and it was never released on DVD. Downhill Battle is organizing screenings of the documentary, using Henry Hampton's prize-winning work to make its case that our copyright laws are arcane and obfuscatory.

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Posted in Random comments at 10:00 PM (Permalink) |

February 9, 2005

The "bits and pieces" stage

I have to get my head back into a few pieces of writing I haven't seen in several months, disparate chapters from two books I'm co-editing. For one, Schools as Imagined Communities, I volunteered to add material to the introduction on a semi-chronological overview of what we could say about schools as communities, before the monographic chapters. Then I need to fix a few items in my own chapter. For the other book, about Florida's education reforms, I need to update our first chapter, make sure the citations for the chapters I'm a co-author on are tight, and hope that a mostly-revised chapter comes in shortly. Each book has been in the works for a few years, and I'll be happy to shepherd them into the hands of editors.

The first book is a set of historical perspectives on the notion of schools as communities, using Benedict Anderson's framework as a springboard for more detailed (and historically nuanced) discussions of how we have defined school communities. (Anderson's framework is provocative, and while historians have a number of arguments with it, we see it as useful primarily for the questions you can ask about communities.) The second book is the collaboration of historians and sociologists of education providing perspective on and evaluating Jeb Bush's education reforms.

But the process of finishing each manuscript will be detail-heavy. My brain will feel like I'm slogging through mug, even as I attempt to cut back drastically on caffeine...

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Posted in Writing and editing at 11:07 AM (Permalink) |

February 8, 2005

Directions, directions, ...

Okay, to reprise the burgeoning research on student net flows for my 2.5 readers ...

December 2003, I had one of these painful epiphanies that one could estimate dropping out effectively by looking at everything else in a demographic balancing equation: population starting point and ending point, entries into an age or grade (through birthday or promotion), exits out of an age or grade (through birthdays or promotion), and exits through graduation. A bit of adjustment for mobility and mortality through the students before the age of typical dropping out, and voila! you have a way of estimating dropping out (and graduation, incidentally) in a way that should be sensitive to year-to-year changes and not require longitudinal record-keeping.

First idea for application: look at school systems in states that provide promotion/retention data (necessary for grade-based estimates). I submitted grants to NIH and NSF in 2004, both of which were turned down with comments suggesting the projects were fundable if revised.

Second idea for application: historical records. I visited Harvard's education library, found a bunch of public school records with stats by age, and wrote a paper for the History of Education Society meeting last year. That led to the ...

Third idea for application: a huge set of age-grade tables produced yearly in Georgia by every school system from 1938-1968 (separated by race until the mid-1960s). This is a way to look at the John Rury argument about growing high-school enrollment and attainment for African-American southerners. The obvious question here is whether the change we can identify in that era was concentrated in city school systems or spread throughout the state. It's a fairly important question because the assumption by Rury is that it focuses on cities (as the places most likely to be under pressure to desegregate). When I was in Georgia in early January, I collected age-grade tables selectively from 6 districts around the state, and I could bring a digital camera and just take pictures of every such sheet.

Fourth idea for application: look again at contemporary records, except on a school-by-school basis. Florida's Department of Ed has sent me individual-level records for 1999-2000 and 2000-01 (without identifiers), noting all the relevant information to construct the school-specific statistics by age that don't rely on grade-level retention. That's sweet, and as soon as I have an exemption from the IRB, I'm delving into it, as it can lead to an effective reformulation of the grant proposals.

In the meantime, I ran across one more article—recent this time, as opposed the 1980s methods articles I have been relying on —showing how I can use age-grade tables to look at attainment in early elementary years. It's not tripping off my tongue at the moment, but it's clever and make sense to me.

I've never had a "methods" idea before, so the way this is expanding out in different directions is surprising. Now I just need the time to develop it!

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Posted in Research at 11:30 PM (Permalink) |

February 6, 2005

Managing work

After an "I'm overextended!" panic entry last week, a far-flung colleague recommended David Allen's Getting Things Done. I looked at the associated website, and it's clear Allen is a "workflow" consultant whose primary m.o. is a set of streamlined (and updated) to-do lists. I'm familiar with to-do lists and have had mine on the left side of my web page front matter for a year or more. I've managed the time crunches over the past year quite adequately with to-do lists. When I feel overloaded, that's my crutch: "Okay, time to make a to-do list." I get through the crunch, relax, and ... the to-do list drops off my mental landscape.

I don't like to operate in a crisis mentality, and that's what I associate a list with. Though I haven't read the book (I may if I have time when it comes into the library!), I suspect this mental association is the secondary issue with getting mildly behind (apart from being overcommitted—the list I drafted this morning has 18 items for today, and I just thought of a 19th). I think of to-do lists and my heart starts racing. So many things! When I operate by the seat of my pants and routines, no problem. Some things get dropped, but my life doesn't feel like a set of pressures and neverending deadlines. And closing in on 20 years in academe (including grad school), I've done quite well by this method.

The challenge: can I relax when I think about to-do lists, enough to work with them and keep them as part of my routine rather than as a stopgap measure?

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Posted in Random comments at 12:34 PM (Permalink) |

February 5, 2005

Admirable consistency and the morality of universities

The Democracy Project entry on the Ward Churchill controversy is showing that several conservative academic bloggers are standing behind basic academic-freedom principles. Once Churchill was both hired and tenured, he has a property right to his position, and there needs to be due cause for hiring him—and controversial professional writings and public statements are generally insufficient cause. The University of Colorado non-action this week (setting up an investigatory committee) is an extraordinary action in the sense that most investigations of faculty misdeeds are by administrators or fellow faculty. (Sometimes, as in the case of Michael Bellesiles at Emory, administrators outsource the issue to off-campus faculty.) Whenever trustees get into the game, there is political pressure afoot. These days, it is as likely a politically astute way to defer pressure as it is to overrule faculty. The trustees could have taken the extraordinarily stupid step of trying to fire him this week, or asking administrators to—my own university took that step with Sami Al-Arian in December 2001. The fact that UC trustees didn't go down that path suggests that they understood the political problem they had both off- and on-campus. So they went from extraordinarily stupid to just extraordinary (if not too wise). The conservative commentators have correctly pointed out that the responsibility for giving tenure to Churchill (or any faculty member) resides with the faculty and administrators. In the end, great universities are larger than individual faculty members.

But I want to consider the ideas of those who call for Churchill's immediate dismissal based on what he has written and said. The general argument has been to acknowledge his first-amendment rights to his opinions but to claim that public funds should not be paying him at the University of Colorado. The assumption here is that a university has an obligation to conserve values, and that paying faculty a salary in essence endorses some part of what they write and say. One aspect of this moral argument for on-campus censorship concerns the educational mission of universities: we're teaching the young, in some sense, and have an obligation to make sure that their education is properly shepherded.

This moral argument conflicts violently with the definition of the university as a place to explore a diversity of views and create new knowledge. One cannot simultaneously define correct views and also explore new ones—unless you have the precognition of knowing who will be exploring the "right" ideas. (Please don't assume that I have a pragmatist's view of knowledge; that's a separate topic, though most of the problems with pragmatism stem from its early proponents' defense against the charge of relativism.)

At the same time, universities have a far greater moral crisis in its sponsorship of semi-professional athletics at the expense of academics and, for many, the corporatization of universities. Which is more corrosive of academic values at the University of Colorado, the continued salary of Ward Churchill or the coverup of the athletic-recruiting scandal?

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Posted in Academic freedom at 1:45 PM (Permalink) |

February 3, 2005


Head colds are nasty enough in life, they shouldn't make me restless and unproductive, but they tend to. I hope this is one of the few bad head colds (and I'm quite sure it's one of the few bad ones in a year) that does not keep me up until 2:30 or 3 late in the process. I've already run through this week's Sleep Equity, and while the weekend looks pretty good, I want energy next week to use my two free days for scribbling productively. I'm gonna be selfish and write write write!

And that would be the plan except for this darned cold. I'm sure I'll plow through writing and other tasks, but not as effectively. And my mind does funny things with head colds (and the resulting lower oxygen flow to my brain). For some reason, while I can do many things after 1 am or on little sleep the next day, thinking clearly and deeply about my research isn't one of them. Instead, my mind flits to random and useless topics like the rhetorical power of humorous triplets of pairs, or whether I can afford another dark-chocolate dessert this week. (You thought only female academics had such urges? Hah!) Or bad attempts at witticism like this union organizing line I will not use: "Dues or dues not. There is no try." As I said, I didn't guarantee quality under these conditions. Open brain, insert foot.

And I'd probably describe some of the productive things I did, except I've forgotten. I'm just glad I did them before I forgot.

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Posted in Random comments at 10:13 PM (Permalink) |

Ward Churchill fallout

KC Johnson's post on the Ward Churchill imbroglio is showing far more sense than other outraged outlets I vaguely recall at this point. (Hey, my day job takes precedence over blogging, right?) I'm quite worried by the use of "security threat" as a reason for Hamilton College to cancel a campus speech, since that's allowing a heckler's veto to determine decisions on a campus.

At my campus, "security" became a convenient excuse in the December 2001 star-chamber hearing in front of our Board of Trustees. Yes, the university police were overburdened by the threats because of the controversy surrounding Sami Al-Arian, but the fundamental problem was not the immediate situation but the underfunding of that department in the first place. (Case in point: there are four patrols maximum at any point on the Tampa campus. We have dozens of labs with sensitive equipment, including medically hazaroud materials. And we have 40,000 students, along with 1500 or so faculty and 1500 or so staff. When have you known a town of 40,000-45,000 have only four patrols?

But I digress. I suspect the cancellation of the speech and Churchill's resignation as department chair will feed the frenzy a bit more for his removal as a faculty member—and if Colorado's politicians push the point, the university will suffer the consequences of the political interference. I'm coming to the conclusion that there is an interplay between broader institutional and political trends (see for example reports of Brown University's presidential speech about intellectual diversity, being spun in various ways), on the one hand, and specific events or crises that turn otherwise unknown academics into poster boys and girls for academic freedom violations. That's a mundane point, and I'm not sure how to make a more nuanced explanation at the moment. C'est la vie.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 12:18 PM (Permalink) |

The shameful voting record of academics

Well, the bloom's off the rose, definitely, for the view of academics as politicized. It turns out that, if we trust the methods in one study of academe's party registrations, the greatest threat to the patriotism of universities is in the apathy of the faculty, not its politicization. Daniel Klein and Andrew Western's study of voter registrations at Stanford and Berkeley show that a surprising number of faculty aren't registered as either Republicans or Democrats! Almost 50% of academics for whom Klein and Western scoured records for were either not found or otherwise didn't fit into a Republican-Democratic dichotomy. From the accompanying Excel file, we find that the most apathetic departments must be in business disciplines. In the marketing and accounting departments at these two universities, for example, more than two-thirds of the faculty were either not found or didn't have major-party affiliations (19 just not found). In general, professional schools and disciplines are the "worst:" out of 346 faculty the study looked for, they couldn't find major-party registrations of 186 (or 54%). But the Music Department at Stanford shouldn't be cut any slack, either, as only 4 of 13 had major-party registrations. How awful!

Let's take a step back and look at the methods, though: this study relies on what social historians know quite well as the imperfect, often atrocious, attempts at matching individuals across different databases. In the 1970s, there was a small cottage industry in matching census records to city directories and other databases, and what historians found out is that matching is a very hard business indeed. Names change, they're listed in variant forms, and so forth. Other names are so common that you can't reliably assume that the Tom Smith you've seen in the census is the same person you found in the city directory.

Klein and Western acknowledge some of the difficulties, but they generally gloss over them (in part because they're not historians or from fields with similar work experience). The discussion that I found most painful to read is this not-quite-acknowledgment of the flaws when they discuss disciplines outside the liberal arts:

The matter of the business school is important because when claims of political lopsidedness are raised, people often suggest that the business school leans in the opposite direction and helps balance things out. Our investigation provides evidence to the contrary, but we did not get as good a reading as we had hoped to. (p. 24)

When the clear majority of faculty are simply not found, it's hard to make any claim, and certainly not anything like an "established fact" (p. 31) as the authors write at the end of the paper. I don't think anyone should be surprised that there is disproportionate party registration in fields, nor that liberal arts outside the sciences are disproportionately liberal at Berkeley and Stanford. That's a far cry from discussing "the campus" as a monolithic entity on such data, assuming that Berkeley and Stanford is representative of colleges and universities more broadly, or describing it in such quasi-conspiratorial ways as I've seen in the more hysterical forums. Why not conduct the same study (with more caveats about the matching, of course) at Santa Clara University (where Klein works)?

And, of course, I can't help but suggest folks read the far more witty comments on keeping conservatives out of academe and campus brainwashing" by Michael Bérubé.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 11:38 AM (Permalink) |

February 1, 2005

We're Number 200-something!

The University of South Florida now ranks in the 200s in Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Institute of Higher Education Top 500 World University "study" (thanks to Frog in a Well for the link). The method (incorrectly termed "methodology," but that's a different rant) is better on some levels than the North American rankings based substantially on reputations, but it relies on quantitative indices that measure the international "greatness" of a faculty (Nobel and Field prizes of faculty and alumni, statistics in certain citation indices, etc. ). The vast majority of productive research faculty who fail to win Nobel Prizes still contribute to their fields, and I can easily imagine "great" universities coddling the relative handful of stars while ignoring needs of the bulk of productive faculty. And that's still refusing to acknowledge teaching, left untouched by this "university league standings."

My guess is that my university president will tout this ranking as evidence that we're moving up in the world. But maybe we need to trade for a good center, centerfielder, or quarterback, depending on your choice of awful sports metaphor.

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