September 23, 2005


Lots of little things done this week but no long stretch of time where I could get one or two significant things done. To steal from the nursery rhyme (can anyone give me an authoritative source, or is this "Trad."?):

Monday's work was fair for meetings.
Tuesday's work had student seatings.
Wednesday's work was lots of grading.
Thursday's talks were very sating.
Friday's meetings were very long.
Saturday's work would turn out wrong.
The work I'll do on the second weekend day
will surely turn my remaining hair gray.

I was hoping to get an Education Policy Analysis Archives issue out today, but some issues on each of the next two articles are still unresolved, so that's delayed. I've started to climb that particular learning curve, and then a few others hit, with no immediate resolution, and then lots of short things ate up the rest of the time.

And then there's indexing of the Schools as Imagined Communities book, whose proofs go back at the end of next week. Aiiieieieieieie! Nothing's inherently wrong, I'm keeping up with essential things and have almost everything else lined up in some reasonable way, but I haven't had two hours' open time for anything but grading. And Blackboard isn't coughing up feedback for my students, so I'll need a workaround if the Blackboard techies can't help by Monday.

Nothing wrong, at all, that a little time and the bashing of Blackboard won't accomplish.

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Posted in Random comments at 10:04 PM (Permalink) |

Speech codes at USF

My brief column on speech codes at the University of South Florida came out tonight on the union e-mail newsletter, describing a grievance I filed and then amended in June (PDF file). I've been sitting on this item for a few months, but it's clear that between a changeover in the administration staff member who handles grievances and other items, addressing a fairly cut-and-dried violation of academic freedom was not a priority. It's not about academic freedom itself—I'm not the only member of the union deeply concerned with some sloppiness in handling relations with faculty. This Just Happens at most universities, because maintaining good relations with faculty requires consistent good habits and prioritizing, and for good or ill, communicating with faculty and defending core academic principles are not the highest priorities for many college and university administrations.

We'll see whether stuffing that item in the e-mail newsletter gets the attention of administrators in a constructive way. If not, it's on to a formal grievance hearing. This may turn out to be the first hearing of our administrator newly in charge of processing faculty grievances. That's pretty unusual (for a hearing to be about an academic-freedom matter). In most cases, grievances are about things most readers might find more mundane: discipline, assignments, evaluations (including T&P), nonreappointment, and pay. That doesn't mean those items aren't about principles. Often, they are. Rather, this grievance is about a matter of principle before someone's job is on the line. How does that matter, you ask? Well, we'll see if this gets to a hearing...

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Posted in Academic freedom at 12:02 AM (Permalink) |

September 21, 2005

Tensions in higher-ed debates

Erin O'Connor is onto something in her discussion of this week's Chronicle of Higher Ed article reporting a study of college student's career orientation and lack of interest in a liberal education, and how a liberal education may well be at odds with the world-competitiveness language accompanying the announcement of a blue-ribbon commission on higher-ed directions in the U.S. Only one quibble: O'Connor's claim that liberal education is clearly disappearing is a standard myth of declension, assuming that there was some mythical Golden Age when college students gladly focused on a liberal education, when faculty taught it (well), and when everyone agreed on what a liberal education was.

(And now, back to the grind of grading for me, and then editorial stuff, indexing, ...)

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Posted in Academic freedom at 11:36 AM (Permalink) |

Student gripes

It seems a bit early to be hearing students complain about grades, but what do I know? There are various student gripes circulating around the net. And a colleague told me of a student who claimed that policies at my institution required that all grades be based on a 90%=A, 80%=B, etc., scale. (No, they don't.) It's only the first day of fall! But maybe it's karmically related to fewer A grades at Princeton.

Well, I don't have any of those (yet) this semester, but I can add the student who complained last year that his A- in my class "ruined" his perfect 4.0 in a program and asked if I would reconsider the grade. I'll admit that was a new one for me. No, I didn't. I don't see anything inherently worthy about grading—it's an institutional routine with constructed value. I'd be as happy giving out pass/fail grades. But we have grading, it's part of student motivation, and I'd make my life and the life of my colleagues much worse if I didn't stick to what I described in the syllabus as standards.

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Posted in Teaching at 6:37 AM (Permalink) |

September 19, 2005

Hosty appeal

From the FIRE blog The Torch comes the news that FIRE and the Student Press Law Center is appealing the Hosty v. Carter decision to the Supreme Court, in hopes of resolving inconsistent Circuit-Court opinions in favor of college student press freedoms. I think the decision is a bad one, and while I'm not sure that appealing it is strategically wise, I certainly wish the litigants the best of luck if it's granted cert.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 2:04 PM (Permalink) |

September 16, 2005

"Declining (x) literacy"

Now that Constitution Day is nearly upon us (tomorrow, folks, the 218th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, not that its signing had much historical significance—quick, what was the criterion for ratification?), the New York Times has its obligatory obeisance-and-reflection, which turns out to be a bunch of historically-unreflective pap about "historical literacy:"

The new law takes effect as many historians are voicing alarm over the dimming historical memory of the nation.

James Rees, executive director of George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, said that in his 22-year tenure he has seen a growing historical ignorance among visitors. ...

Some educators believe that young people's history proficiency is declining because they watch too much television,...

Some experts say the problem is worsening because history and civics are receiving less attention in public schools, the result of a nationwide focus on reading and math.... (emphases added)

One of the great signs of historical ignorance is when people take on one of the great trend-y myths of popular belief, like the myth of declension. Whoops. Looks like Sam Dillon, the reporter for the Times, catered to that myth in the article. While Americans may not know enough of their own history, I doubt that such ignorance is greater now than at any time in the past, except maybe September 17, 1787, when there was very little national history to regurgitate on standardized tests.

Moreover, the usual definition of "historical literacy" is focused on fragmentary bits of information that look remarkably like trivia. In the case of the Times article, the obligatory quiz question was the commander of colonial forces at Yorktown in 1781 (hint: not William Sherman, Ulysses Grant, or Douglas Macarthur). While I'd like folks to have a clue to who was the commander, I'd also like them to know a little more: why the battle was important and who else was involved besides the colonials and the royalists, for starters.

As historian of education Harvey Graff has noted, we use the word literacy when we want a trump card to tout the importance of a topic, even though any particular literacy concept is historically contingent and constructed. To add to computer literacy, economic literacy, math literacy, physics literacy, among others, we now have historical literacy. And, after a bit of searching, I've discovered that there are at least 31 pages referring to condom literacy. That puts the dispensers in gas station men's rooms in a whole other perspective. Postmodernists should be so happy, that we are constantly commanded to read the world in so many ways.

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Posted in Education policy at 5:53 AM (Permalink) |

September 10, 2005

Fowler's English

While Henry Fowler's Modern English Usage (2nd ed.) is not available online (being reprinted by Oxford University Press—get the 2nd ed., not the 3rd), his brother H.W. Fowler's The King's English (1908) is available online.

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Posted in Random comments at 11:45 AM (Permalink) |

September 2, 2005

The institutional memory of survivors

One of the dominant undercurrents of reporting this last week has been the terror and outrage of journalists caught in the hurricane and its aftermath. The CNN and NPR reporters at the Convention Center yesterday were clearly witnessing as well as reporting, and I suspect most journalists in New Orleans right now will come out of this with firm beliefs about the powers of government and the effects of negligence.

The tenor of these stories, however fleeting, should remind us that survivors and witnesses of great historical and demographic events have a lasting impact on national memory and culture. And there is no doubt that Hurricane Katrina is one of the great demographic events of our country's history. The hundreds of thousands of refugees will be stranded for months until they either give up on New Orleans, resettling, or find their way back to whatever New Orleans becomes. The deaths from Katrina will include not only those directly killed this week but also those whose health was and is yet to be affected by the stress of evacuation or living in the affected area after the hurricane. Southeastern Louisiana and southern Mississippi will be suffering for years to come in terms of infrastructure and culture.

Journalists are some of the most powerful historical observers, because they can reshape national perceptions in a matter of hours and days. The reporting of the civil rights movement helped shape national opinion about civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. But journalists aren't the only ones who survived, observed, and will retell over the years. Some of the survivors will remember and pass on the sense of terror at nature's fury. Others will focus on the lack of preparation, the shoddy assumptions built into the levees, and the underfunding of the levee projects in the years prior to Katrina. Yet others will think largely about the aftermath, either of the New Orleans residents who terrorized their fellow citizens or the agents of government who could not mount an effective evacuation or recovery effort until it seemed all too late.

I suspect that the white-collar survivors will choose either the second or third as the focus of remembrances, plus a universal one: the dislocation at the loss of a beautiful American city and the utter rupture of communication with loved ones and friends. Among historians, I think of Rosanne Adderley, who was in grad school with me at Penn and is/was working at Tulane. I hope you're safe, Rosanne.

Unfortunately, it looks as though my prediction of fires is coming true all too soon. I feel foolish for having thought of it this late. As others (Penny Richards and Steve Savitzky) have noted, fires followed both the Johnstown flood in 1889 and the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. A good historian shouldn't lose perspective just because more than a million fellow citizens are homeless and thousands dead and ... oh, heck. I'm going to assume that some competent planner years ago put "likely fires" in the assumptions for a post-hurricane New Orleans. But municipal and national politics being what they are, such wisdom is probably buried in the muck of City Hall file drawers. No, I don't think that the current administration's underfunding of FEMA is the only human-oriented culprit (though it's one).

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Posted in Random comments at 1:09 PM (Permalink) |

The foreseeable burning of New Orleans

Signs are increasingly clear that, at some point in the near future—maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week—a significant portion of New Orleans will burn to the ground.

Any reasonably-conscious social historian and civil engineer can tell you the consequences of a large city with significant petroleum on the ground (and fumes near the ground), with no water pressure, little or no police protection for what minimal fire-fighting infrastructure still exists, no power, and gangs of thugs running around.  Maybe it will be arson, or maybe it will be an accident—and the explosions this morning could have been either, at least from my lack of knowledge about it at the moment.  But at some point, one of the fires around town will ignite petroleum on the ground or vapors in the air, and the fire will spread.  Depending on wind conditions, this could ignite a firestorm, though that's unlikely.

What is certain is that any fire of significant size in the devastated city will not only destroy the area in which it starts but will also spread toxic pollution, killing hundreds of already-fragile refugees who have no inside shelter and further complicating rescue efforts. FEMA and other rescue crews will likely withdraw to an area where they can be safe, leaving more to die from dehydration, exposure, and violence, plus the new threat of smoke inhalation.

And after it, FEMA and Homeland Security heads will scratch their heads and say, "This was so unexpected.  How could we have known that this could have happened?"  

Tell them they're full of bullshit.  

Better yet, call the White House comment line (202-456-1111) now and tell them that unless FEMA and other rescue crews have smoke-inhalation and other gear that should be in place when expecting a massive fire, the federal government is going to be killing hundreds more through another act of negligence. Because while I dearly hope I'm wrong, I suspect a massive fire is in the offing.

Whether you spread this message in your blogs is your choice, of course.  

Update (9:22 am EDT): The White House line is clogged. I've contacted my senior senator as well as Sen. Landrieu's office. My apologies for the strong language, if you're offended; I thought of changing it after posting and then decided that, occasionally, my professional judgment as an historian backs up the strength of such expressions. And it is ignorance at best to claim that a fire is unlikely in circumstances anything like this.

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Posted in Random comments at 8:01 AM (Permalink) |