September 30, 2006

Sociology of medicine dissertation topic

Advice to grad students in science studies: Wired's The Thin Pill describes the controversy over metabolic syndrome. It would be a great dissertation topic for a medical sociologist or anthropologist.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Random comments at 5:11 PM (Permalink) |

Academic joke of the day

Q: How many faculty does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: I've heard the administration tried to buy it out, but we're just going to live with it and let it figure things out from bad annual reviews.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Random comments at 9:49 AM (Permalink) |

September 27, 2006

Spellings Commission DOA?

Is the report of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education dead on arrival? Secretary Spellings's touting it might suggest she'll put some effort into implementing the recommendations, despite David Ward's refusal to sign it and dissent from some of the basic arguments by the AAUP and others. I try to think of the specific recommendations rather than the general environment...


Some of the recommendations truly are DOA, while others are likely to be implemented partially or fully. It's the ones that are most likely to be implemented partially where long-term issues will be interesting to observe:
  • Aligning high school graduation standards to employer and college expectations: Extending NCLB principles to high schools is a nonstarter politically at the moment. Achieve's American Diploma Project is the only infrastructure for this, and I'm not sure if there's much more than lip service in the 22 states that have signed on.
  • Early assessment initiative and information to low-income parents about how to apply for scholarships, etc.: given the attempts of the Bush administration to kill or maim Upward Bound, I'm doubtful there will be anything on this at the federal level for the next 3 years.
  • Reworking NAEP in 12th grade to be a college-readiness measure: no idea, but I suspect the budget's not there for the next few years. (Given that we don't really know what we mean by "college readiness," it would be an arbitrary measure, anyway.)
  • Shifting money from so-called merit-based to need-based aid: Doubtful. Institutions have a far greater incentive in the reputational arena to nab high schoolers with high board scores.
  • Simplifying financial aid forms and application processes: This is the most likely concrete result, since I suspect Spellings can order this without too much fuss. Possible kicker: omitting some questions that might be important to technical considerations of aid. (The practical question here is how much irrationality should be tamped out of the system. Given current parameters, savvy middle-class parents can manipulate their income and how things look. So it's irrational already.)
  • Funding Pell grants to 70% of in-state tuition: not mentioned by Spellings. Probably DOA, given the current budget environment.
  • "Cost control" reporting: Public-university officials will laugh at first at this, since they always have accounting demands of their own states. Then they'll consider the possibility of a second layer of reporting requirements that will have different definitions, on top of their state requirements and how they have to keep track of data for federal indirect-cost negotiations, and... DOA.
  • Easing the transfer of credits: you might have a few states going to a Florida-like uniform system of course titling for public systems, but this recommendation started as a paean to proprietary institutions. In terms of that, DOA. What would make sense is to require that institutions evaluate transfer credits within a certain amount of time after making an admissions decision. Having rolling admissions but batch transcript evaluation isn't appropriate.
  • Using technology to lower costs: Who said that paying Blackboard, turnitin.com, and other companies money will lower costs? DOA.
  • Accreditation and miscellaneous "regulatory" reform: Much of this can't happen without Congressional authorization, and accrediting agencies will have plenty of evidence that they do look at outcomes. DOA.
  • Transparent data on each institution: Spellings can authorize a reconfiguration of IPEDS, but that will have to go through the rule-making process.
  • Unit records database: There isn't the political will to fight the private colleges, and there probably isn't the money for database creation and maintenance. As someone with a demography masters, I'd like to see some data here in terms of entrances and exits from institutions (anonymous is fine), but I suspect it's DOA.
  • "Value-added" measures of what college students learn: It may happen in some state systems, but it's likely to be very low-level information, not complex or nuanced at all. There will be little or no money as incentives. Federal mandate? DOA.
  • Having the National Assessment of Adult Literacy done at 5-year rather than 10-year intervals: definitely possible. This go-round, it was minor ammunition in the discussion of higher education. Thus far, the NAAL staff have failed to respond to my months-old request for disaggregation of data on college graduates by age. I wonder why...
  • Promote innovation to "serve the changing needs of a knowledge economy:" Gee, I guess community colleges have no incentive to have retraining programs at the moment. Pardon my cynicism, but this is the most self-serving rhetoric of the report, because anything colleges and universities do in the next 5 years will be seen (probably inappropriately) as due to the commission report's influence.
  • Changing FIPSE to focus on the priority discussed above: Congress would have to be willing to engage in earmark reform first. DOA.
  • Unspecified help to adults entering/returning to higher ed: Can't tell if it would be DOA. Too vague.
  • More funding of education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields: Probably DOA, though this may protect level funding for areas within NSF.
  • More funding for foreign-language instruction: DOA.
  • Letting STEM graduates from other countries have an expedited path to a green card: DOA.
My personal response to the report and Spellings' digestion of it will appear in another entry sometime in the near future (I hope!).
Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 11:28 AM (Permalink) |

September 26, 2006

Education Policy Blog

The group I "multiblog" with (is that a legitimate verb?) have renamed our creation as Education Policy Blog. Add it to your list! Or make your life easy and subscribe to the RSS feed.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 2:19 PM (Permalink) |

An appropriate column on bipolar disorder

Today in Inside Higher Ed, Ohio State historian Mark Grimsley has a perfectly appropriate column on living in academe with bipolar disorder. Chances are that you've known someone with bipolar disorder, whether diagnosed or not, "out" or not.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Random comments at 7:36 AM (Permalink) |

September 24, 2006

An editor's joys include organized authors

The next article going up at Education Policy Analysis Archives (early in the week) came to me almost perfectly prepared (in terms of the post-acceptance process). Given my crazy week, this counts as a mechiah. (See an online Yiddish reference source such as this glossary if you don't know what it means.)

Of course, the readers should appreciate it for other qualities.

In the "when will they learn?" department of academic freedom

Vandals ruined a run of a conservative student newspaper at the University of Georgia Tuesday. (Hat tip: Ralph Luker.)

To whichever jerks did this: Great way to model respect for diversity, folks. Congratulations for advancing civil discourse. You've shown your clear moral superiority.  Now, please don't claim you're speaking for me or others on the left.

Okay, sarcasm mode off: This vandalism happens on and off on campuses; my vague recollection is hearing a story about such vandalism somewhere in the U.S. roughly once every two years or so. Though the news reports I've read aren't specific about investigations, I assume the publisher and editors filed a police report.  The question for the U.G. administration is whether they'll make a public stance against vandalism of student publications.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Academic freedom at 1:24 PM (Permalink) |

September 23, 2006

Friday blues for reading packagers

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education released a scathing audit of the Reading First grantmaking process.  I'm not sure why the department assumes that Friday releases of all the depressing news (for their initiatives) will depress discussion of it.  Not a chance. The New York Times's Sam Dillon has a piece today on the report and, as Scott Elliott blog entry puts it, it is a nasty little political fight, prompted to some extent by Bob Slavin, head of the Success for All project, one of the packages not favored by the DoE. Commentary and reports by Title I Monitor, Andy Rotherham, and Jim Horn.

I suppose the timing could be worse (three Fridays from now, October 13), but there is no good way to let the world know you FUBARed an expensive program. The structure of the Reading First grants essentially pushes districts into selecting from a limited list of reform "packages" that their more poorly-performing schools must use. If you're going to choose such a narrow approach, screwing up the approval process could be fatal to this menu-based approach to comprehensive school reform.


There are (at least) four central problems with this approach. One is that the evidence supporting a wide variety of packages is slim. The CSRQ Center Report on Elementary School CSR Models (November 2005) should be more sobering than encouraging about this approach. The report reviewed fewer than 3 dozen packages in an area (elementary education) where there should be the greatest evidence of which approaches succeed. My rough impression is that there are slim pickings. That doesn't mean that there are only a few approaches that would ever work. It does mean that we should be spending more time developing ideas than mandating them.

The second problem is that a package approach might discourage individualizing education for the weakest students (those in special education). Legally, schools must sit with parents and individualize plans. But if staff time is absorbed in the logistics of pick-your-package, I wonder how much time can go into individualization. I don't know if there's been any research on such effects, and I'd appreciate hearing from anyone who knows of any such research. I worry that there will be insufficient monitoring.

The third problem with a mandated package approach is that it treats the professional development problem of education akin to the problems of running a fast-food restaurant: standardize operations, and you have to worry much less about teacher quality. I'm skeptical for a whole host of reasons, one of which is the fact that teachers need a minimum of skills and knowledge to work effectively within any environment. It's too easy to see comprehensive school reform as a silver bullet, or at least a bronze one, have the vast majority of professional development time be sucked up into the model, and spend less energy on general professional development.

The fourth problem with a package approach is the overly scripted quality of many packages. There is a balance between anarchy and structural rigor mortis, and I'm not sure that the comprehensive school reform packages on the whole have that balance correct. In a mandated model system, there is always the danger that the staff has no idea what they're doing apart from the discrete tasks required by the system. We can test this with a scaled-up version of the snapshot criterion for determining whether a classroom environment is functional: Ask a random student in the class what they're doing, what the activity's purpose is, and how it fits into the last two weeks of activities in the subject. So in comprehensive school reform, ask a random teacher in the school what they're doing, what the purpose is, and how it fits into the year-long scope.  In both cases, shrugs and "I don't know, I'm just doing what I'm told" should raise alarms. A slim menu of mandated packages is likely to exaggerate this "just doing what I'm told" phenomenon.

I'm not saying that comprehensive school reform is a bankrupt approach to improving schools. Far from it: I've seen how a coherent focus for a school can make a real difference in what happens at the classroom level. On the other hand, an effective focus has certain requirements, and I'm skeptical you can manufacture an effective focus with a menu system.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 2:51 PM (Permalink) |

September 18, 2006

Arthur Levine gets a B in teacher education history

Arthur Levine's Educating School Teachers report is out today, with responses already from NCATE's Art Wise, Alexander Russo, and Jenny D., thus far. It's sure to get other press as well.



I haven't had time today to read the entire report in-depth, but I did look at the section on the history of teacher education and in the footnotes. Good stuff: Levine's read one of the old classics on schools of ed, Clifford and Guthrie's Ed School and one of the sure-to-be-classics on normal schools, Chris Ogren's The American State Normal School. Levine entirely missed Jurgen Herbst's classic And Sadly Teach as well as David Labaree's more recent The Trouble with Ed Schools, and those omissions may explain some blinders in both Levine's treatment of the history and an amazing inconsistency in the general approach to reforming teacher education.

To condense the historiography into a nutshell: Clifford and Guthrie looked at elite institutions and the status competition within elite institutions. Herbst looked instead at the broad reach of teacher education institutions, not just those at the top, and found both how status competition affected teacher education and also how many institutions were local resources. Ogren looked at the normal schools that often became teachers colleges and then regional state universities over the course of approximately 80 years. Labaree also discusses status competition (a common theme in his books) and points out (as does Herbst) that part of the institutional position of teacher education is related to its connection to women's work and social service.

Levine's focus on the story at elite institutions misses the broad use of teacher education institutions for more than teaching teachers. In the late 19th century, educational institutions were far less specialized than their names often implied. Often as not, a state normal school would be the local tertiary school that local residents could access. So they were as filled with general education as with teaching specific skills. The historical irony of state normal schools is that their success in providing access to general education helped many rise in that common institutional trajectory upwards into college and university status. The tried-and-true example for education historians is Illinois State University, whose college town is Normal, Illinois. (You figure out how the town got the name!)

Is that omission important? I think so. Levine ties the dislocation of ed schools from practical effectiveness to a claimed historical shift to a more theoretical curriculum in the competition with disciplinary schools (such as chemistry and psychology). He specifically calls out two social foundations areas—sociology of education and history of education—as prime examples of such theoretical lacunae (see p. 23 of the report). There are several factual problems with Levine's claim. First, if there's any discipline that colonized teacher education, it was psychology, not sociology or history. Second, this story is true primarily for elite institutions, where the influence was largely with administrators, not the bulk of teachers. It isn't even true at some very important teacher education institutions, historically Black colleges and universities, which have never risen as high in institutional status as their historically white counterparts. Third, the only institutions where humanities and social-science perspectives on education dominate teacher education are in liberal-arts colleges with educational studies programs. My impression is that many schools and colleges of education attacked their social-foundations components in the 1980s, leaving many teacher education programs with the shells of disciplinary perspectives on schooling. Whether that has led us to better or worse teacher education is beyond the scope of this entry, but teacher education programs are more likely not to know what is the desired relationship of pedagogical knowledge to professional perspectives than to go off in search of the theoretical. Or, if my non-foundations colleagues are in search of the theoretical, it's less likely to be based in disciplinary fields than Levine implies.

The broader (nay, even theoretical) problem with this selective understanding of teacher education's history is with Levine's implication that the Search for Status has crippled teacher education by dividing faculty from the work of schools. The problem with Levine's narrative is that distance from schools is not clearly related to distance from teacher education. In some cases, the Search for Status may encourage faculty to leave teacher education for the loftier status of graduate and research education or (even better, for some faculty) mostly research. But there is nothing in that status competition that is related to "connection to schools." I know many colleagues who spend much of their time in graduate education and research programs who engage schools deeply. They design programs to be tested in real classrooms, encourage their graduate assistants to "get dirty" in real schools, and so forth. They're still isolated from teacher education but not from schools.

By contrast, I know many faculty who spend most of their time in teacher education but little time in schools. Some have spent plenty of time in professional development schools but found the work largely unrewarded by a university that promotes a relatively narrow view of research. Others are absorbed by their teaching assignments and barely eke out enough time for writing.

The pragmatic fact of life is that faculty can't Do It All. We only have 200 hours in a week, which is more than mere mortals (thanks to the colleges of education which declared in 1937 that they would operate by the Metric Week) but still less than what would be necessary for all of us to research our hearts out, write, engage in teacher education, do graduate education, and also have a life and stay alive past 45. The tensions and problems in teacher education units are very real, but they won't get any better by asking for academic speed-ups.

As I have written, I haven't had enough time to digest the entire report, and I'm sure there will be both provocative and useful observations in the rest of it.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 8:10 PM (Permalink) |

September 17, 2006

Michael Bérubé in the NY Times

Michael Bérubé's The Academic Blues is a succinct response to claims of academic bias and a must-read.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Academic freedom at 6:52 PM (Permalink) |

September 16, 2006

Overquoting

Excerpts from a note to a class after grading one set of quizzes:

There were two reasons why the quiz scores were lower for this quiz than for the others. First, the material is more difficult, and most of you haven't had experience with legal opinions. I wouldn't be surprised at all if this quiz had the lowest measures of central tendency in the entire semester. (I hope so!)

In addition, many of you turned to quoting chunks of the opinion, ... Reading an answer that is mostly a quotation frustrates me, because my obligation is to evaluate your understanding; did you understand it and select an appropriate excerpt, or did you get lucky? It's also very hard for me to give you any constructive feedback if you don't use your own words; if we agree that quoting is appropriate, then any feedback would consist of, "Well, select a better quotation next time." I hope you'll agree that wouldn't be very helpful!

Because of my experience reading the quiz answers this week, I strongly advise you to avoid quoting in your answers for the rest of the semester.


I can't mandate the no-quotation rule for quizzes (though I will next time!), because I didn't put it in the syllabus. But does anyone else get frustrated with the fallout of coming after teachers who do reward the extensive quoting of source materials in lieu of paraphrasing?

One well-known writer in education (whom I'll call Dr. Overquote) has a habit of quoting other sources for a good chunk (sometimes more than half!) of the typical Dr. Overquote article. Dr. Overquote is a nice soul and does a very nice job of synthesis when it's Dr. Overquote's own words, but, sheesh, it's sometimes as frustrating to read a Dr. Overquote article or book as the student answers that prompted my note quoted above. Some years ago, Dr. Overquote was lured away from Grand University to Big State University, and Grand University then proceeded to bid him away from Big State University, to return to their genteel and loving climate. Since then, I've had the idea to prepare a joke article manuscript that would be a ransom note in Dr. Overquote's style, if just a bit exaggerated.

"Dear" (Overquote, 198x, p. n) "Grand" (Overquote, 199x, p. n) "University" (Overquote, 200x, p. n),

"We" (Overquote, 198x, p. n) "have" (Overquote, 199x, p. n) "Overquote" (Overquote, 200x, p. n) "and" (Overquote, 198x, p. n) "will" (Overquote, 199x, p. n) "not" (Overquote, 200x, p. n) "return" (Overquote, 198x, p. n) "your" (Overquote, 199x, p. n) "perfesser" (Overquote, 200x, p. n) "until" (Overquote, 198x, p. n) "you" (Overquote, 199x, p. n) "give" (Overquote, 200x, p. n) "either" (Overquote, 200x, p. n) "us" (Overquote, 198x, p. n) "or" (Overquote, 199x, p. n) "Overquote" (Overquote, 200x, p. n) "3.2" (Overquote, 198x, p. n) "gazillion" (Overquote, 199x, p. n) "dollars" (Overquote, 200x, p. n).

"P.S."* (Poobah1, quoted in Overquote, 198x, p. n) "Don't" (Poobah2, quoted in Overquote, 199x, p. n) "go" (Poobah3, quoted in Overquote, 200x, p. n) "to" (Poobah4, quoted in Overquote, 198x, p. n) "the" (Poobah5, quoted in Overquote, 199x, p. n) "fuzz" (Poobah6, quoted in Overquote, 200x, p. n) "or" (Poobah7, quoted in Overquote, 198x, p. n) "you" (Poobah8, quoted in Overquote, 199x, p. n) "will" (Poobah9, quoted in Overquote, 200x, p. n) "be" (Poobah10, quoted in Overquote, 198x, p. n) "sorrie" [sic] (Poobah 11, quoted in Overquote, 199x, p. n).

The key, of course, would be that the references section would be about seven times as long as the "article."

*—I'm doubtful that I could find a "P.S." in an article except as first and middle initials, and I'd have to be lucky. Everything else I'm sure I could find some version of.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Teaching at 9:59 AM (Permalink) |

September 14, 2006

Peter Ratener, not the swiftest test item writer in the world

The math professor at Bellevue Community College is a fool at best to start out a multi-part question with the following:

Condoleezza holds a watermelon just over the edge of roof of the 300-foot Federal Building, and tosses it up with a velocity of 20 feet per second....

When originally written in 2004, the exam using this question provoked no response.  This year, when a colleague used the same exam, students complained, and it became a public debate in Seattle, with the local Urban League pressing the college to respond. Eventually, both Ratener and BCC's top officials apologized, and BCC docked Ratener one week's pay. FIRE is framing the issue as a First Amendment controversy and a matter of "an accidentally offensive math problem."  Inside Higher Ed reported the story this morning.

I suspect the arbitration of the case (Ratener's grievance is going through a collective-bargaining-agreement grievance process with the help of the Seattle Community Colleges Federation of Teachers) will depend instead on more mundane discipline questions, such as whether the college met the procedural standards for finding just cause to discipline Ratener, and whether suspending someone for a week right off the bat fits the definition for progressive discipline (Google search results). (My apologies for referring to Wikipedia and Google, but I don't have great links to those concepts at my fingertips.)

But I am bewildered at the phrase "accidentally offensive." Ratner acknowledged he made "an embarrassing and careless error" and framed his concern in the progressive-discipline context. That focuses on his conduct. FIRE's odd phrasing, though, suggests that what's offensive depends on intent. Maybe it comes in different flavors: accidental and I suppose deliberate. What about unconsciously offensive material? Coolly offensive and jazzily offensive?

It would be better to stick to the "this was stupid but not discrimination aimed at a class of individuals" distinction, which FIRE should know about.

September 13, 2006

My students are smarter than ed-policy wonkish types (including me)

Tonight, my students have made fools of us all—or those of us who have talked and written and read about vouchers for the last 17 years, since the creation of the Milwaukee program. That's all. We've been talking about public-private comparisons, competition, sample attrition, and the like, and we've been forgetting about the complex, lived experiences of families who go between sectors, sometimes multiple times. We've been debating gold standards and platinum standards of research, drive-by research and how-sly research, and as far as I'm aware there is only one longitudinal study going on that follows a population of resident children through whatever schools they attend in an environment with vouchers. And in the focus on a limited set of questions and limited resources, there is an enormous amount of unused information from the IU study of the Cleveland voucher program.

As a research community, are we so devoid of imagination that the transition between sectors ends our involvement with a family in most of the voucher studies? Is our view of voucher research so sterile that we are more interested in proving a point than in describing lives?

And why should it take a few students in a masters class, relatively untrained in research, to point out the obvious?

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 10:05 PM (Permalink) |

September 11, 2006

September 11, five years later

Personal recollections

Five years ago, I remember heading to class just before 10 on a Tuesday morning and stopping by the gathering of people looking at the monitor that someone had changed to CNN. Some time before, a colleague had knocked on my office door while I was screening the PBS documentary School. She was looking for someone with news on. I was caught up in a segment, she closed the door quietly, and only after the segment was done did I wander out and discover the attacks. Then, as I was headed to class, I watched the images of WTC 2 dissolving. I felt sick, thought about the other tower still standing, and stumbled to the classroom.

More is in the complete entry.


My students sitting in the room didn't know about the collapse of the tower, but most knew of the attacks, or some version of them given the confusion at the time. With a flat voice, I told them roughly what I knew, that this probably wasn't a good day to have a class, and that we'd get together again on Thursday. Then I walked out, back to the hallway where the television was on, looked for a few seconds, and went back to my office. I went by the monitor a few more times that day, but I spent more time online trying to catch news, among the sites that weren't flooded.

I was never so relieved to live without a television as in the following weeks. Several times a day, I saw students and staff transfixed in the hallway, watching the monitor tuned to CNN. The crawl on the bottom of the tube—that damned crawl!—suggested that the next disaster was just waiting to be announced, and you had to watch continually so as not to miss the news. I didn't have to wonder what it did to children. The daughter of one friend kept watching the news and the replays of the towers' collapse over and over again, until her mother finally turned the television off.

The day after the attacks, I tutored a child in my daughter's 4th-grade class as I usually did on Wednesdays, but her teacher asked me to stay afterwards, and she opened up the class to student questions. I think she wanted to do that but needed some support. My daughter's classmates had the usual sharp questions you'd expect from 9-year-olds: would my parent working at MacDill Air Force Base be in danger? do they know who caught it? I heard [whatever rumor was floating around him or her]; is that true? The previous academic year, most of the same class had been together for the excitement of the 2000 election recount controversy. This was an utterly different history in the making.

Over the week, I did the same checking-up on friends and family that I think many of us did. I didn't know anyone who died, but I know a few who had close calls one way or another. One of my cousins worked opposite WTC, and he was probably saved from having glass fall on him during his exit from the WTC subway station at his usual time by his stopping to vote that morning. I wonder how many people the primary saved. Someone from college I dated for a short time lived in the WTC neighborhood, and she and her family evacuated because of the pollutants.

Professional perspectives

Late on September 11, I became disgusted with the first attempts to guess at the body count. How morbid, I thought, and then kept running things back in my head about the scale of disasters in U.S. history. The Galveston hurricane of 1900 (about 6,000 dead). But that was a natural disaster. News broadcasters mentioned Pearl Harbor (2,403 dead). There was D-Day, with its unknown dead (somewhere between 2,500 and 5,000, I've seen). But I kept thinking of the highest one-day casualty figure in the Civil War: the battle of Antietam. While about 3,600 died that day, certainly hundreds more who were declared missing had actually died, and probably a few thousand of the battle's wounded died from infections. I thought about the offices in the WTC and the Pentagon and the thousands who worked in those places daily. I kept thinking, Please let it not be an Antietam or worse. And gave blood later that week.

For all the horror of that day, it wasn't Antietam. More than 2,000 died, and who knows how many survived by sheer luck. As with my cousin, we'll never really know what would have happened. It was bad enough, as it was.

And now, more American soldiers have died in the invasion and occupation of Iraq than died that day. More American soldiers have died in this war/occupation than died in the War of 1812 or died in the Spanish-American War. If he had not chosen to invade Iraq, I suspect President Bush would be seen as a largely successful president, however polarizing. But one must be careful in playing what-if.

I decided to do something constructive with my own feelings about the impending war against someone (we knew fairly quickly, probably Afghanistan's Taliban rulers as well as al-Qaida). Five years ago, minus 8 days, the History News Service distributed my op-ed column, War May Raise Serious Issues at Home. Written hurriedly after President Bush's address to the country, it shows obvious signs of oversimplification (factual goofs are left as an exercise for the reader), but it's interesting to look at my argument anticipating debates over the role of the federal government and think of what I did get right.

Maybe there's a crystal ball in my future, after all, if I only bring it out every once in a while. Richard Jensen's 1998 prediction that Clinton would resign was not that accurate, though he was bolder than I was. I could not have anticipated a war in Iraq being justified by an Al-Qaida attack. But there are always surprises.

One such surprise is the failure to link education with the war on terror. This has surprised me, because it's a common pattern of education politics to urge schools to help fight the national enemy, whether the enemy is the Soviet Union, poverty, racism, or our economic competitors. So why not terrorism? Who knows.

And then, of course, there was the explosion of conflict on my own campus, at the end of the fall semester. A few weeks after September 11, the Fox News O'Reilly Factor producers invited computer-science professor Sami Al-Arian onto the show, he thought to discuss civil rights and what he alleged were his interfaith efforts. The red label on the screen for the country was terrorism at usf?, and the phones were ringing off the hook in the president's office for weeks. Al-Arian was given paid leave, there was extraordinary pressure to fire him for pretextual reasons, the faculty became disillusioned with our administration's attacks on academic freedom, and the shadow of the controversy dogged the campus for months. But that's another story, about which I had a hand in explaining in an article co-written with colleague Greg McColm. Surprises indeed.

And one more: I didn't expect to go on for so long. We all have our recollections and perspectives now.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in History at 7:32 PM (Permalink) |

Education reading for next week

The next report in Arthur Levine's project looking at colleges and schools of education will becoming out next Monday. Educating School Teachers will be the subject of a forum at the National Press Club September 18, 10-11 a.m. (EDT) I expect the report to be released simultaneously on the Education Schools Project site.

And it will be controversial. No, I have no insider knowledge. I'm just guessing. Beyond that, though, this historian knows it's wise to stick to mirrors than explore crystal balls.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 5:10 PM (Permalink) |

NCLB reading for the week

As suggested by Eric in one of Jenny D.'s Hechinger Institute confab entry, here's a recommendation for Hayes Mizell's speech in 2003. Mizell's explanation of NCLB's origins ("For decades, local policymakers and school officials turned a blind eye to a set of vexing problems in public education") assumes there was no such thing as accountability before 2002, and I doubt his suggestion for creativity will solve the many problems with NCLB, but his argument about the dangers of both conspiracy theories and blind compliance efforts is well taken.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 10:06 AM (Permalink) |

September 10, 2006

9/11 and academic freedom, the weird side

And now, just days after Brigham Young suspended physicist Steven E. Jones, there's an article about pressure on the University of New Hampshire to fire William Woodward, who (like Jones and Kevin Barrett) is a member of Scholars For 9/11 Truth. Especially troubling is word that ACTA has called for an investigation into Woodward, presuming that because he's a nut on 9/11, he must be bringing it into classes and is otherwise suspect.

To borrow from Evelyn Hall (who put a certain saying in Volaire's mouth... long story), I think Barrett, Jones, and Woodward are dead wrong on 9/11, but I will defend their rights to academic due process. Ad-hoc investigations outside established procedures are generally dangerous on campuses, and the pattern of attacks on these relatively marginal figures makes me wonder what's behind them. They're not going to convince large numbers of people that the WTC fell because someone planted thermite in the buildings, and in some ways the attacks on them will bring attention to their views.

I can think of a few explanations, but none is satisfying (see the full entry):


  1. The new lese majeste. If this hypothesis is true, some people think that the 9/11 conspiracy claim somehow attacks the head of state and our government in an illegitimate fashion. Major weakness: I don't know of any widespread attempts to fire other faculty who disagree with Bush on a whole host of policy issues.
  2. Pure politics. If this hypothesis is true, the attack on 9/11 conspiracy theorists is designed to attack political outsiders. Major weakness: See the weakness with #1 above.
  3. A sacred memory. If this hypothesis is true, some people view the public memory of 9/11 as sacred, and challenging that memory violates our commitment to remember the day in a certain way. Weakness: Given the arguments this weekend over the ABC fictionalization auto-mockumentary fraudulent folktale, I'm skeptical that there is some sacred consensual memory.
  4. Attacks on academic freedom as cultural capital. Personally, I'm partial to this explanation, that those who attack academics and know of other attacks somehow are sharing some visceral experience. It's like... an echo chamber with endorphins! Yes, that's it. Weakness: while this explanation might be consistent with social networks, there is (as yet) no evidence that there is a social network behind the attacks.

But enough of such lingua franca-style academicizing. Thus far, UNH has resisted the pressures. Kudos to New Hampshire Chancellor Stephen J. Reno!

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Academic freedom at 10:10 PM (Permalink) |

9/11 conspiracy theories and academic freedom

Brigham Young University has placed physicist Steven Jones on paid leave while it investigates his publications related to 9/11 and his claims that evidence shows the use of thermite in the collapse of the WTC. Let me state right off the bat that I don't find his argument credible. Jones is also one of the original cold-fusion gang (though with important differences from Pons & Fleischmann)—not exactly someone to inspire confidence in fringe engineering judgments.



Nonetheless, putting someone on paid leave is extraordinary for a university and suggests that his actions are potentially so dangerous to the university that temporary separation is unavoidable. The danger of his employment? Well, it can't be to science, because fellow physicists were far kinder to Jones than to Pons and Fleischmann, and in any case the cold-fusion hullaballoo is a few decades back. You don't get scientific misconduct investigations a few decades later that suddenly become an extreme danger to a university.

BYU doesn't grant tenure. Apparently, Jones's status is "continuing employment." But the relevant question is not whether Jones's writings on 9/11 are scientifically correct and valued by the relevant community of scholarship. (They're not.) The question is whether Jones's work as a whole is of value. If 9/11 is his entire work right now, that's one thing, but it should come out in annual reviews (or whatever the regular evaluation mechanism is at BYU).

Putting Jones on paid leave suggests that the real danger that BYU feels is political embarrassment, always an unjustifiable motivation in dealing with faculty personnel issues.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Academic freedom at 8:50 AM (Permalink) |

September 9, 2006

Backpedaling on the achievement gap

I've been puzzled by Kevin Carey's blog entries Thursday and Friday, in response to a Richard Rothstein essay and AFT's NCLBlog, respectively. Here's the critical claim of Carey (from Thursday):

NCLB is not based on the premise that good schools can erase the achievement gap. It's based on the premise that good schools can raise disadvantaged student performance to a defined level, proficiency.

In a word, dear readers, this is baloney (technical educational policy term). The mechanisms of AYP notwithstanding, rhetoric about NCLB has consistently been about the achievement gap. I'm not sure if Carey is echoing Fordham's Michael Petrilli (see my earlier entry on that), but when anyone starts to lowball expectations, it's, well, it's, well, ... soft bigotry? I'll avoid the purple prose and just note that defenders of the AYP mechanism and high-stakes testing are engaging in this rhetorical dance because NCLB and most accountability frameworks avoid concrete discussions of standards. We must have them, proficiency must be defined, but your everyday Joe wouldn't know what that means. Heck, I don't.

I'm not sure if we're headed towards the worst possible outcome of oversold education reforms (regression towards deterministic views of human capacity), but when defenders of high-stakes accountability start backpedaling as fast as they can from the rhetorical framework that's been the political underpinnings of NCLB, it's not good news. No, this is not earthshaking stuff, but I don't think it's helpful.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 6:44 AM (Permalink) |

September 7, 2006

Adventures in postmodernist typos

So after reading Michel Bérubé's blog entry yesterday, wherein he discusses "residual humanism at work in Marxism [Raymond] Williams-style," and why he likes it, among other things, something in it reminded me of his July 25, 2005, entry, wherein he had discussed the latest Harry Potter book and cultural studies, writing at the end,

If indeed cultural studies is partly responsible for making it respectable to read and discuss work like Harry Potter, and I do believe it is, then surely someone like Janice Radway deserves a cut of the action. And maybe people who point out that people like Radway deserve a cut of the action could put in for a cut of a cut of the action? Just asking. We cultural studies types have to take our mass-cultural triumphs where we can, you know.


In comments, I had written (comment 18):

Very restrained of you not to mention Michel De Certeau along with Radway (or, for SF-nal folks, Henry Jenkins's Textual Poachers), or you'd have to figure out how the heck HMS Pumpkin Pie is related to the Potter universe (not that I agree with those folks, you understand).

His response (comment 22):

And Sherman, I have to admit I never really loved the whole de Certeau moment in cultural studies. It produced rafts of assembly-line essays in which the good guys had tactics and the bad guys had strategies, and there was much invoking of the "everyday." What made (and makes) Reading the Romance so fascinating, I think, is Radway's juxtaposition of her own training as a narrative theorist (influenced by Proppian structuralism) with the readings of the fans. Cultural studies took a wrong turn a bit later, I think, but the question of how to do an ethnography without simply ceding interpretive authority to the ethnos is still with us. I will, however, save this larger point for a future Theory Tuesday.

Well, he hadn't yet, but yesterday, Bérubé's riffing on Williams's riffing on Gramsci's riffing on hegemony led to sentences like

The argument that The People line up with the radical left "naturally" and are diverted from their true interests only by a furious elite propaganda barrage is not only bad politics; it's bad theory, the kind that some leftists fall back on to explain to themselves why their followers are so few.

There's a serious point here about the difference between hegemony and ideological structure and the work that goes into the maintenance and evolution of the deeper structures of thought in a society. This is at the intersection of history and culture studies, and Bérubé is touching on the problems with assuming intentionality and with ignoring it, with determinism and with a decontextualized celebration of agency. In critical studies of education, this has wandered back and forth over the landscapes of functionalism, reproduction, resistance, and so forth... lots of fallow ground at this point, more than 30 years after the beginning of the interpretive education-studies wars. But do I treat this seriously?  Nah...

Nice to see an acknowledgment of Foucault's weakness as an historian from a literary guy. Thanks. And "power produces resistance" is going to be my mantra when I exercise for the next week. (Or is that one "resistance produces power"?) Incidentally, I'm still left on the hook after your promise July 25 last year (see comment 22) to discuss "the question of how to do an ethnography without simply ceding interpretive authority to the ethnos is still with us." Or was that a promise to cut de Certeau to ribbons? Ech, he's not worth it.

Bérubé's response?

Which brings me to Sherman, comment 27: why, thanks ever so much for reminding me of certain ambitious promises I made last summer. I'll deliver one of these days! In the meantime, if it's de Certeau you want, repeat after me: strategies bad, tactics good. Strategies bad, tactics good. And there's a devastating treatment of this kind of thinking in Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's (very entertaining) Nation of Rebels, for those of you who are interested.

Heath and Potter argue that the notion of a counterculture is a myth, that "rebellion" feeds into the marketplace. This market-culture analysis is very close to the arguments of the old education-resistance writers such as Paul Willis (he of Learning to Labor). It looks at first glance like an academic version of "you're damned if you do and damned if you don't," where those people who rebel against "the system" in education (or culture) are feeding the system by their own choice to rebel. But that's an unsubtle look. It ignores the tremendous work that goes on by various people to frame the world around us and the context of that work. It's why (and how) the reproduction writers of the early 1970s argued that the practices of everyday life (a phrase I'm choosing deliberately to set up the end of this post) had dual purposes, both socializing individuals and also setting up a larger ideological structure (hegemony?) of meritocracy. Much of that argument was relatively crude, and I think they got much of it wrong (life is more complex than the deterministic assumptions of Bowles, Gintis, and others from that era), but there are different layers at work in the practices of schools and shopping malls.

De Certeau's work fits into that discussion in its celebration of the rebellion. That's where the strategies-v.-tactics comments above come in. Historians have a similar high-wire act they play among the grounds of focusing on the structures that make life difficult, recognizing the agency of individuals under difficult circumstances, and romanticizing survival in oppression. The whole historiography on North American slavery is replete with such arguments.

To check my sense of this, I did a simple search on de Certeau and ran across a set of online notes on Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life (translation, University of California Press, 1984), on the site of Dave Harris. And I came across a wonderful typo, one that captures the sense and problems of overweening celebrations, a post-Freudian slip that says it better than I ever could.

Tactics "often involve victories of the week over the strong."

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Random comments at 12:21 PM (Permalink) |

What do you think of this accountability mixed metaphor?

I'm now done with the preface and chapters 1-2 of Accountability Frankenstein, and I just noticed the following mixed metaphor:

For a school official to say blithely that elementary teachers should deemphasize -ing word endings in language arts because -s and -es endings are on the test but -ing endings are not is letting the fear of test consequences drive common sense out the window (Tobin & Winchester, 2004)

Normally, you don't drive in and out of windows. But on the other hand, maybe the idea of a car going through a window is precisely the image I want to convey. 

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 10:52 AM (Permalink) |

Did I really say that? and other interactions with journalists

This morning, I was quoted in a local newspaper article on our school district calendar as saying, "There was much kind of grumbling on the committee about those options." Much kind of?? Someone please remind me to write everything down before I respond to off-the-cuff questions of a journalist.  Peter Jennings I'm obviously not.

Marilyn Brown was taking notes by hand, so I'm not sure I spoke those words as she took them down, but the sense of the statement was true: I was saying that some members of the local calendar committee had grumbled a bit about some of the restrictions that district staff had implied on the calendar.

Hey, at least she spelled my name correctly! 

And now you know why I take Philip Graham's canard about journalism's being the first draft of history quite literally. First drafts always get some things wrong. So I figure that a newspaper account that is 70% correct is doing fairly well.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Random comments at 9:16 AM (Permalink) |

September 5, 2006

Jay Mathews discusses the prospects for national testing

Sunday's column by Washington Post writer Jay Mathews focuses on renewed arguments for a national test that every student would take. The dramatic difference between the proportions of students in various states' being labeled proficient based on the state test vs. the National Assessment of Educational Progress is the fulcrum of the argument. I think. I suspect this is a piece largely engaging in celebrity-wonk showcasing (no chance that a president with approval ratings in the 30s will successfully push any major education initiative that rocks political pathways, as I explain below), but I'll address two issues raised in the article.


Standards vs. Cut-scores

Jerry Bracey has been going after NAEP's value-laden labels for the achievement categories for a decade or more, and his pre-publication e-mail to Jay Mathews gives you a sense of what he thinks of this reporting. Essentially, Bracey's argument is and has been that NAEP's labels don't mean much: The governing board set "basic" to be fairly close to the mean scores many years back, which makes one wonder what they thought the majority of students were doing in school. That's an interesting counterweight to the hype in this story (and others) that students in the U.S. are mediocre.

The truth is that neither point has much weight except for political symbolism. The levels or bands on NAEP are ordinal in the sense that scores in higher bands represent greater achievement on the NAEP scale than scores in lower bands. Yes, Bracey is correct that the values chosen have no inherent meaning. Moses did not come down from the mountain and have tablets written that such-and-such a score on the NAEP is proficiency. That's true of all cut-scores. But I think Bracey is missing the forest for the trees.

The greater sin of the reporting by Mathews is the confusion of standard-setting with cut-score setting. The rhetorical flourishes to justify a national test this go-round (oh, my, the states and feds don't agree on the proportion proficient!) imply that if the stats disagree, the states must not be setting standards, and a test must do that.

That's balderdash or policy bravado, and I'm not sure which. Oh, and it might just be sloppy reporting, too.

For more than 15 years, the education policy ether has been filled with discussion of standards and alignment. Standards are sets of statements of what we think students should learn and be able to demonstrate. Students should know the reasons for the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the ways in which people have used its rhetoric for political and social purposes is an example of a standard one might write for history. I don't think any state has such a standard, because it crosses historical periods and countries, but you could write such a standard.

In the theory of action of standards and alignment, the establishment of standards would determine both the focus of instruction and the scope of assessment. That hypothetical history standard would probably force a reorganization of history teaching if it was central to a course, for example, because it would break down the neat compartmentalization of the Declaration in the 18th-century "unit" (though there might be a text that pushes students to ask such questions). Back when Lauren Resnick was our standards theory king, the tests were supposed to be challenging, assessing higher-order thinking, and so we needn't worry too much if teachers taught to the test. The 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act had all of that high-falutin' stuff in there, taking the standards piece of the Goals 2000 legislation and saying, Thou must apply this standards stuff to schools with high concentrations of poverty, too. In 1997, the reauthorization of the federal special-education law (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) added ... and to students with disabilities as well.

How far we have fallen, if one of our star education reporters can't see the differences among standards, tests, and cut scores.

I don't know if Mathews is accurately reflecting the views of those he interviewed (I figure that if a journalist gets 70% of the facts correct, he or she is doing a decent job), but any attempt to use a test to "set standards" is getting things backwards. Don't we first decide what we want students to do? Of course, part of the problem with the debate is how the backwards-reasoning is promoted by the AYP requirements in No Child Left Behind. You want high-stakes testing? Fine: Let's see how You, Ms. Education Commissioner/Superintendent, game the system. First, you say you agree with the goal that 100% of students will demonstrate proficiency in reading and math by 2014. Then you quickly ask your staff what cut score would allow your state to declare AYP in most schools for a number of years until the policy changes or you intended to retire or run for higher office, anyway. Next step: Define proficiency so you get that cut score, and then finally figure out some way to tie that notion of proficiency to your standards. If you're currently paying for off-the-shelf commercial tests, or you haven't written standards, you get to design this set of links from scratch.

No, not all states have done this. Some have overpromised and are reaping the rewards of such expectations by having the state label most schools as Peachy-Keen while the state AYP definition labels most as Not Meeting AYP. But the debate still revolves around differences in labels rather than whether instruction is decent and what evidence exists.  And the talk about a national test says nothing about the expectations we should hold for students and schools. Does anyone think that any sort of national test would mean we'd first have an exercise in setting national education standards?  Whooooooooooeeeeeee! We tried that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the result were some mediocre standards, some decent standards, and a set of history standards that was viciously lied about by the future Second Lady.

So if there were a national test every child takes, I predict that there would be a yawning gap between the test and any sense of real standards or expectations.

(For those who think of standards as a term of art in assessment with a different definition, please accept my apologies. I don't think there is an agreed-upon term-of-art called standards, so I'm going with the wonkish use of the word over the past 15 years. But I'll be happy to be educated on this.)

"Local control"

The phrase "local control" is policy short-hand that refers to the fact that education is not mentioned in the constitution, that it really did used to be controlled at the community level, and that members of Congress jealously guard their states' ability to decide on policy within the state. The confusion of Mathews is understandable, but it's important to note here that local control in education politics at the federal level refers more specfiically to state decision-making and not control by a community. As an historian, I'm not sure how fair it is to term the state politics as local, since states wrested control away from rural and truly local communities early in the 20th century.

We would be more accurate if we talked about state police powers rather than local control, but I suspect we won't be very accurate here. Why should education policy debates be accurate?

But, in any case, Mathews and other observers are correct that the idea of national tests currently have about as good odds of coming true as John Kerry's getting 70% of the vote in Houston. Whether you call it state police powers or local control, few politicians with state or local constituencies (i.e., those in Congress) will have the stomach for much centralization at this point.

Also see commentary by Jim Horn. Update: also see Andy Rotherham's followup, which refers to a July 2006 explanation of cut-scores he wrote and the Fordham Foundation piece on standards and tests. The one thing I noticed right away was Checker's and his coauthors' inattention to baseball pop culture. The phrase is not "If you build it, they will come" but "If you build it, he will come." Mathews also implied that all of the wonkish folks surveyed in this not-quite-Delphi-questionnaire process were coauthors or endorsers of the Finn et al. approach, something that is not true.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 10:34 AM (Permalink) |

September 3, 2006

Losing our way

Shameless plug: Fellow Haverford grad Ken Bernstein has a new post up at The Wall of Education called I think we have lost our way. Provocative, thoughtful stuff, regardless of the extent to which you agree with his perspective.

(Disclosure: I'm a fellow writer on this multiblog.)

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 9:29 AM (Permalink) |

Of liberal arts colleges, a core curriculum, and contingent faculty

One might suppose that the following is an object lesson about the type of overgeneralizing that Donald Kagan swims in for his Commentary magazine piece about imperious faculty. (Much better: head to University Diarist's corresponding entry and the fascinating comment thread.) Are faculty blocking a core curriculum either through their pomo aspirations or laziness/caring more about research? Given that Kagan wants us to see all institutions as he paints Harvard, I'm a bit skeptical, but let's head to another institution, one that not only is a liberal-arts college but one where the faculty deliberately tried to craft a common entry point for students.


About 23 years ago, give or take a week, we freshmen at Haverford College were at the end of Customs Week (i.e., orientation) and starting classes. Every one of us was enrolled in the new all-frosh English class that the faculty had decided was critical to a good undergraduate education. Before, there were composition classes and English requirements, and students who had certain AP scores had been exempt... but no longer.  We want everyone to go through a common experience, faculty explained to us. You will read Great Literature and have Intellectual Experiences.

For those who don't know about Haverford, it's a small (thousand-student) college that is still loosely associated with Quakerism. It has an honor code that students administer. In my day, students proctored the exams, where I chose which exam slot to take a final in, signed out the exam, walked to any of several available rooms, and completed the exam (usually with a handful of classmates who are taking finals from different classes). The full load was four courses, which made sense given the reading and general workload of courses. I was a bit of a geek even among Haverford students, but the environment was thoughtful and intellectual.

The faculty is small enough that they can all get together and debate the curriculum. It may take a large room, but they can fit into a big room (and not an auditorium). So they can craft a direction for undergraduate education, and they do, both within departments and the college as a whole. In the mid-1980s, the history department's intro history class was a large-for-Haverford (i.e., 150-person) lecture twice a week and then individual sections taught by faculty on Fridays. I truly enjoyed my first-year physics class (Lyle Roelofs and David Pine deeply impressed me as teachers), but the physics faculty were ambitious enough to redesign it entirely several years after I left. So when the faculty decided to create an all-frosh English experience, they meant it in a serious, ambitious way.

And so we exposed ourselves to Great Literature, such as Moby Dick and Invisible Man (the Ralph Ellison book, not the Claude Raines movie). We all tromped into Quakerish not-quite-comfortable Roberts Hall to listen to Literary Muckety-Muck mumble into the microphone about Ellison's meaning, we all had relatively small sections with individual faculty, and we wrote. Oh, we wrote.

Haverford is an all-undergraduate institution (well, not quite: I knew one masters student in biology when I was there in the mid-80s, but she was the only one as far as I was aware). So there were no graduate TAs to take on the burden of the English classes.  Every member of the English department took at least one section, but that wasn't enough. Even at Haverford, they could not manage to run a common experience, one with thoughtful, serious intellectual intentions, without either hiring contingent faculty or breaking down the commitments of the faculty in other departments to their own disciplines and the courses students expected to take in their majors. There was no other way to run the frosh English course, so the college hired contingent faculty.

I was taught by such a visiting assistant professor. He was nice and a Milton scholar. He told us in the spring that every time he taught Milton, the majority of the small class who took it had serious life crises. I'm not sure if that's the nature of Milton or those who study him, but in any case, he tried hard.  I think he tried a bit too hard—our papers were returned with all sorts of codes and different colors of pen and highlights for his comments—but he did his best under the circumstances and, a few years later, moved into banking. He came to our graduation, and for a few seconds I didn't recognize him.

But my first-year experiences at Haverford—taught by a visiting assistant professor not only in English but also in history and math—illustrate the limits of the teaching faculty at any institution with disciplinary boundaries and commitments to existing students. If you have existing, established courses of studies, where you must teach courses for majors, then who teaches the common-experience courses? You can't just rearrange the specialists to teach the general courses, because they're committed to the upper-division courses. You might stretch the faculty a bit to accommodate a few core courses, but the stretching is limited in those institutions where there already are problems covering the existing courses (i.e., in almost every public institution). 

If Haverford is one of the premier liberal-arts colleges, and it turned to contingent academic labor when instituting a partial core curriculum, what would happen if we instituted a true core curriculum with a limited set of mandatory courses? It matters not whether the faculty are imperious or what the standard ranked-faculty course load is: there just isn't enough wiggle-room in existing commitments to shift around where people teach. Unless a miracle happened and someone committed to hiring tenure-track faculty for these positions, we would see tremendous hiring of contingent labor to fulfill these responsibilities. We all know the grinding nature of English and math courses at state universities—here, where there is at least part of a potential core curriculum, we have the worst exploitation of contingent academic labor, the worst budget situation where the central administration treats the departments as teaching cash cows, and the worst gap between the promise and the reality of university education. Many who teach calculus and English comp do fabulous jobs, but they do so in spite of the conditions, not because of them.

The irony is that the disciplinary organization of a university—the boundaries that make a common curriculum almost impossible without exploiting contingent academic labor—is also what allows for deep intellectual exploration either for majors or for graduate students. Yet that disciplinary organization and the resource and prestige competition the disciplinary boundaries foster also encourage territorialization, turf defenses that dovetail with faculty identifying with a discipline. I tend to value that identification in many regards. I'm an historian in an interdisciplinary field (social foundations of education), but I am not competent to teach other things in education (such as psychology), and I am skeptical of efforts to infuse what we do in other courses. Yet I know that such a structure also creates limits. Part of the reason for the menu-like structure of distribution requirements is because allowing different departments to offer courses that satisfy the requirements evens out the burden of teaching the general-education reqirements more than might otherwise be the case.

I suspect that most of those who call for a core curriculum do not wrestle seriously with these institutional arrangements. I looked through ACTA's Becoming an Educated Person (2003) and could find no references to the funding or resource arrangements needed for what they define as a true core curriculum. I certainly wouldn't mind additional tenure lines in areas such as English, math, and history: there's nothing wrong with an historian's full employment law! But that's unlikely, and I'm not sure the alternatives would provide a sufficient base for a quality undergraduate education.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Academic freedom at 12:36 AM (Permalink) |

September 2, 2006

Top 10 no-sympathy lines, and 10 top must-answer lines

Via a friend's recommendation (thanks, Rob!), Wisconsin-Green Bay geologist Steve Dutch's Top 10 No-Sympathy Lines that students shouldn't try. To balance out the professor snark, let me add a few concerns of students that faculty should always be willing to address and should, ideally, be described in the syllabus or other documents available early in the term.

  1. What is important to you in this course and in your field?
  2. When do you want us to complete readings and assignments (by individual assignment)?
  3. Can you either tell me how you're going to grade assignment X or point to some examples of well-done student work (or model professional work) for this or a similar assignment?
  4. What citation system do you prefer?
  5. What are we responsible for completing entirely by ourselves as individual students?
  6. If we are working in groups, how will you address the free-loader problem?
  7. How will you decide final grades for the semester?
  8. What's the best way to contact you when I have questions?
  9. What's the reason for you trying to teach us concept X with method Y?
  10. I haven't learned concept X with method Y: Can you suggest another approach?

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Teaching at 3:22 PM (Permalink) |

September 1, 2006

Emergency! Abstract needed!

The first author of a piece I'm third or fourth author of e-mailed me with an urgent request to shape the abstract before it's sent off, tonight, to an editor. This is a long MS (88 pages), and he hoped to have the abstract in an hour "or so." 

I leaned on the "or so" heavily.

It's an important piece to me, or I wouldn't have seen it as an urgent request, but occasionally you can drop everything else without going nuts. (And there are other considerations I won't describe.) I'm glad he didn't e-mail in the middle of my make-up chat to take care of students who were absent from Wednesday's chat thanks to Ernesto.

But it's an act of relative concentration to review a MS that you've seen most (but not all of) in a prior draft and try to squeeze the ideas into 250 words in a short time.  I failed: my abstract draft was 350 words. And I still cut out many of the rather cool small points (that other coauthors wrote).

I think I just experienced what writing on a deadline is like. I haven't done that since my stint as Junior Journalist in high school. I can do it, but it's not my joy.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Reading at 11:13 PM (Permalink) |