June 30, 2010

Yes, Virginia, there is a need for more science education

Today may be a lost day for me work-wise, thanks to a number of circumstances, including a raging thunderstorm overhead that threatens the power where I am. But I don't think I'm going to blame higher ed policy in Florida for all of that. I have a similar reaction to The Real Science Gap, which is an articulate explanation of the dissenting position on STEM education (hat tip). Beryl Lieff Benderly walks us through arguments about overcredentialing/overproduction of Ph.D.s, the abuse of H-1B visas, the STEM report equivalents of the old 1980s Mellon report on pending faculty shortages, the abusive treatment of graduate assistants and postdocs in many universities, the typical stereotypes about clueless faculty advisers, and so forth. She quotes Richard Freeman (who has been specializing in credentialing since the 1970s), and a number of current and former engineering students chimed in with comments echoing the article. And on one level, it is true that the usual cry for more doctorates is often based on misleading claims about national economic needs.

Nonetheless, there are a number of weaknesses in the article, generally of the okay, so STEM isn't immune from the troubles of the world, so what else is new? variety:

  • A significant part of the underemployment problem with graduates in general is the sum of broader economic woes of the world. That's as true for recent undergraduates as doctoral students. There are serious problems about the impoverishment of an entire cohort finishing formal schooling between 2008 and 2012, and I'm not going to pretend to have a great solution except that it has to address more than STEM graduate students.
  • Some of the policy issues can be addressed by institutional policies--for example, by universities' treating graduate students and postdocs better and by universities' agreeing to bargain with new grad-student unions. And that's more important for humanities students than in the sciences, which tend to have higher stipends.
  • Similarly, the "overproduction" of doctorates requires all disciplines to help students figure out career options that don't rely on tenure-track positions. In 1930, the two fields with the highest number of doctorates earned each year were fields where few doctoral students would have expected university jobs: chemistry and education. We need a little explicit "let's list and prepare for at least three options" planning. I'm not on the bleeding edge at all in this argument; some historians have been making this argument inside AHA for years, even if it's not as broad a practice as it needs to be. And I strongly suspect that STEM faculty advisers are among the most likely to have grad students head into industry. One physics doctoral student I know at USF was recently promised a job by Jabil Circuits, a local firm. Go, Jason, and go, Jason's major professor! One of my college classmates who was a physics grad student at Penn when I was a history doctorate student ended up in industry, spending some time on DNA computing and now working for a textile firm. Maybe the people I know are extreme outliers, but the idea of STEM doctorates having industry jobs doesn't strike me as either new or unknown.
  • If the "we need to double our output for economic competitiveness" argument is overblown, the arguments described by Benderly ignore the non-human-capital value of formal education. I am not sure that the type of (non-Clay Shirky-definition) educational surplus I've described before always justifies a huge social investment in postgraduate work, but it's not a horrid thing for society if an occasional chemistry doctorate ends up working in a computer company, and it's definitely a social good if she or he winds up teaching high school chemistry and inspires later generations. (Cue FSU physics professor Paul Cottle here on the need for better starting salaries for high school science teachers...)

And, speaking of high school, I'm in favor of policies that expand general science education. Yes, the "we need much larger programs for our economic future" argument is exaggerated and overpromises. Yes, the Benderly article is a good, thoughtful dissent. Maybe one of those alternate careers needs to be teaching...

Accessibility and the e-reader

A brief note about the federal government's warning on college distribute of e-readers and students with disabilities: the concern is warranted, and it's much better for the warning to come now than to come after colleges and universities spend millions of dollars (or require students to spend millions of dollars) without the due diligence needed. Every time I use a piece of technology in teaching, I worry about accessibility for students with visual or hearing impairments. A few years ago, I spent considerable time preparing Flash-based presentations for the first part of an online course, to discover that a student with hearing impairments then had to contact my university's disability-service office for transcriptions, and I decided to switch to written "lectures" for the rest of the semester. I think the communication was better for all students, not just him.

Sometimes you learn through experience, but as Ben Franklin said as Poor Richard, fools will learn in no other school. There are now thousands upon thousands of sites built upon technology with limited accessibility, notably Flash. So, for example, Sandra Day O'Connor has spent untold hours helping develop several solid online games to teach civics, which you can find at icivics.org. But they're Flash-based. That limits accessibility. Yes, I know Flash has developed accessibility tools, but at least one of the games requires quick responses, and ... well, it's a great concept, and I hope that there's a paper version of it available for teachers who decide their students need a paper version to slow things down and make that game more accessible.

The safest technology wrapper for texts or other course materials is a plain-text file, which people can put into all sorts of programs to help them. Following that is a standards-compliant website. There are now tools to make websites touch-accessible for mobile phones, and focusing on websites will probably be a much wiser use of resources for most education technology outfits than creating Android or iPhone/iPad apps.

There is a possibility, as noted in the article, that this is a way for federal officials to use universities to push the publishing industry into allowing accessibility tools in all e-reader devices and programs. If so, it's no more an abuse of leverage than the use of colleges and universities to advertise e-readers (which is part of the role of these early-adopter "give an iPad to a frosh" programs).

June 24, 2010

Botched credit hours and blotted copybooks

A week ago, Ed Sector's Forrest Hinton asked six questions about higher-education accountability. Below are the questions, my quick responses, and some discussion about the fallout from this month's hearings on accreditation and for-profit institutions:

Q. As the monolithic traditional university begins to break down and diversify, should we continue to trust providers of higher education and accreditation agencies to provide meaningful accountability?

A. What "monolithic traditional university"? There's never been such a creature in history; there has always been tremendous diversity of institutions. For the performative culture of accountability, see this morning's IHE column by Cliff Adelman.

Q. Is there a sound method of measuring student learning outcomes in higher education that won't turn college courses into workshops where students learn simple facts, algorithms, and skills?

A. Yes, but whether it's politically robust is a different question, and I think you have to give up on the singular form. The Utah Tuning project report placed on the Ed Sector blog page is both promising in terms of the faculty engagement in the project and also curious in the very different levels of detail in the expectations laid out for the two disciplines in the project (history and physics). See below for the short-term landscape in more detail.

Q. Now that the federal government is providing a lot of higher education's revenue through student loans, how much responsibility does the government have to ensure quality and monitor costs?

A. The federal government has been subsidizing college loans for decades, and since the early 1980s the bulk of federal aid has been in the form of loan subsidies rather than direct grants. What has changed in the past few decades is the cost-shifting from states to students and their families. So maybe the federal government feels more inclined towards wanting something for the dollars because the cost-shifting also shifts somewhat more support onto the federal government, but lower state support hasn't been accompanied by lower demands for accountability.

Q. Is there a trade-off between innovation and regulating quality in higher education? If so, what is the appropriate way to balance these competing forces?

A. This question is ambiguously phrased, and I am interpreting as a question about for-profit schools. (The last question is about credit hours, which covers distance education given this month's politics.) As we learned from the shadow banking sector and the financial crisis of 2008, regulators are frequently way behind creative people who want to make a buck, especially if something has been deregulated because people think history has ended (e.g., the repeal of Glass-Steagall). Right now, for-profit companies of all types peddle degrees or the mirage of a college education with widely varying claims of success, and they have become remarkably adept at vacuuming up federal funds. Some administrators in different institutions tell me that's not only in terms of college loans but also G.I. Bill funds, though I don't have independent confirmation of that claim. To the extent that taxpayers and students are on the hook for loans, that practice has to have some scrutiny. In the early 1990s, the screening mechanism was default rates. Today, I think another measure is needed, but I'm not sure what that might be, maybe federal subsidy per graduate (with some calculation of the effective subsidy for loans).

Q. If higher education's traditional accountability structures are unable to provide adequate oversight, can we make use of other ways of ensuring quality instead, like through informed consumer demand?

A. Again, what "traditional accountability structures"? Name one that has existed for at least five years in any state and that has remained stable. With all of Adelman's caveats, maybe it's something we should try.

Q. When measuring course credit hours, how do we allow innovative new approaches in education to meet the standards implied from traditional rules on seat time, lab experiences, etc.?

A. This is obviously the hot topic du jour, since regional accreditors have looked the other way while some for-profits essentially bought accreditation by absorbing a few nonprofits and since at least one regional accreditor also paid little attention when a for-profit passed off a tuition-generating mechanism as real education. So let's explore this a bit more...

The difficulty with a Wild West of education is that you don't know what a course means. When an unaccredited institution is taking students' money but it's not telling the world it's anything but what it is, and if the students aren't lying about what the diploma means, it's just an experience someone pays for. Are you paying for classes in aerobic yoga weightlifting? That sounds like something taught by the Macho Yoga Instructor my mother once had years ago, but if it's your money and just your experience, that's fine with me. It's different once public funds are involved and once credentials have an exchange value in the labor market, and even more complicated if you're a student having taken courses at two colleges and wanting those courses to transfer into a third to help you get a degree.

Given the background to this morning's hearing in DC, there are clearly bad actors (or bad actors), and the temptation might be to have a rigid definition of what a credit hour is for course purposes, either for federal student-loan purposes or for transfer purposes. For the moment let's skip the question of entirely-online class and talk about about courses that blend some class time with other experiences such as online discussions, tutorials, etc. What counts as a credit hour: the time you spend in class, the time you spend actively working on assignments, the time you vaguely think about the course? What about people who read at different speeds: does the slower reader sign up for and pay for more hours for a course than the faster reader?

The reality is that the credit hour is an institutional convention that is malleable to help everyone account for student progress through programs as well as for tuition purposes. A good example of the malleability is in performing-arts programs. No matter how long a performance music major practices for it, my guess is that a college symphony orchestra class will always be one or two credit hours, no more, because that is the way to address the conflict between wanting students to be in performance classes every semester and also graduate without having to pay more than an engineering student: you require performance and studio classes every semester, but the total of all classes (including theory, music history/ethnomusicology, electives) doesn't add up to more than 15 hours in a semester.

One feasible way to address the credit-hour issue is to have disciplinary conventions for classes that need cursory vs. more extensive inspection, something that factors in both the nature of the discipline and the credit-hour load. A performance class that's one or two credit hours? Let's definitely not worry much about that. Undergraduate U.S. history class carrying three credit hours that blends one hour of lecture, one hour face-to-face discussion, and one hour of online activity? That's a conventional discipline and credit-hour load, with a slight bit of innovation: a little more scrutiny. Vague class in an unorthodox or vocational program that's 9 hours? Let's worry a lot more about that.

In terms of the giant leap that some are going to suggest: should we have institutional-level assessment for every class that can hold colleges and universities accountable? That is more likely to work for limited courses that everyone (or almost everyone) takes in the first two years than for the broad range of classes students take in their majors. Regional accreditors are now pushing institutions to develop such institution-wide assessment for general education programs, and while I am concerned about some of the consequences of that, it is at least plausible to have common assessments in composition, first-year calculus, and so forth. But something for the Celtic Civilization course my wife took with linguist Nancy Dorian? Good luck! (For those who are curious, it was a culture class, not a language class. I signed up for it initially but had to drop it, much to my regret.)

Some observers have argued that the likely fallout from the for-profit hearings will touch far more than the for-profits, and that's right for several reasons. One is that high-tuition institutions that are either for-profit or non-profit will be involved in a disproportionate amount of subsidized loans than low-tuition institutions simply because of tuition, so they will invite scrutiny. Second is that the questions about online classes in for-profit institutions are very close to the questions that you can ask about non-profit private and public institutions' online classes. Third is an institutionalized consequence an administrator and I were discussing this week: the hearings, any changes in law, and any changes in regulations will affect regional accreditors, who in turn will push additional mechanisms down on all of the institutions they oversee. I suspect that from a paperwork-burden perspective, accreditors will have to slice up the oversight mechanisms in some way to avoid peeking into every single course. It may not be my suggested slice, but if they don't perform some triage, oversight is just unworkable.

Finally, I think I misspelled Barmak Nassirian's name in a comment on IHE in the last week, but we all need to learn how to spell his name correctly since we're going to be reading a lot of what he writes and says in his capacity as associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO). During the life of the Spellings Commission, Nassirian was the go-to person for many higher-ed reporters, and I suspect we'll be hearing a lot from him in the next half-year or so.

The value of college IV

In comments over the past few weeks, Glen McGhee has been doing a lot of work making the argument for a credentialist lens for higher education. And two weeks ago, Jose Vilson's Memorial Day blog entry raised the perennial question of what we're supposed to be educating our children for. So let me address the obvious questions that I haven't answered in the set of blog entries on the value of college. Roughly speaking, my argument is that in the absence of great social upheaval, social institutions tend to have an inertial relationship with the rest of society, and that the school-adult income relationship is an example of that inertial relationship. That's not to say it's just or predetermined or hermetic or even stationary. Rather, it's a statement of the importance of institutional structures once they're set up. Schools can maintain inequalities, they can help students change the world, and all sorts of mixes in between. In other words, formal schooling is a tool up for grabs.

We should not be surprised that without some sort of pressure otherwise, schools would tend to maintain social inequality. That's not because schools are particularly nefarious but because as Charles Tilly argued, humans tend to hoard opportunity for those close to them. So the more advantaged parents, families, and social groups in a particular society would use any childrearing practice as a vehicle for maintaining advantage, and without countervailing pressures, they'd have more options to do so than less-advantaged parents, families, and social groups. The same was true when work occupied more of the lives of children between 10 and 15 than schooling, so why should we expect anything different when formal schooling became more prominent as part of childrearing?

Except that things did not stay the same. As many have noted before me (including Karl Kaestle, Martin Carnoy, Hank Levin, Ira Katznelson, Margaret Weir, and others), the early nineteenth-century North witnessed dramatic expansion of school structures and, almost as importantly, a different way of talking about schooling. Horace Mann was not the first prominent advocate of education as a right; local Workingmen's parties were by the late 1820s, and over a few decades the advocacy of multiple parties expanded the education-citizenship link from a "schooling promotes citizenship" to "schooling comes along with citizenship." The story is long and messy in the nineteenth century, but among other things, that broadened connection was at the root of the mid-century lawsuit against racial segregation in Boston schools (that's mid-19th century), the relationship between compulsory education and compulsory attendance, the power of the state vis-a-vis parents, and so forth.

No one should pretend that Workingmen's parties said "education is a right" and all shouted "Hallelujah!" Far from it; the meaning of education as a part of citizenship was and remains contested. The notion of education became part of a citizenship bundle (what Europeans would call social citizenship, or the American version of it), and as Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick point out, it's a mixed legacy. On the one hand, it provides a lever by which millions have been able to acquire better lives. On the other hand, it has also become the lever on which we rely too much, expecting one institution to solve so many social problems.

Those who wish to use education to address inequality need to think about the multigenerational long term. Part but only part of inequality can be addressed directly in a human-capital sense. Far more has to be addressed by equipping large chunks of the population to change society in other ways, and education is an indirect lever there. W.E.B. Du Bois understood the long game, and despite his young-adult romanticism with social-science research in the Progressive Era, he was persistently thinking about the long game for an entire population. His debate with Booker T. Washington was largely about teacher education: Washington publicly argued that primary-teachers for (and most community leaders among) African Americans in the South had to accommodate racism, with advanced academic training a luxury. Du Bois argued that the new colleges for African Americans (the core of what we call HBCUs today) would inevitably train a disproportionate number of teachers and had to support academic ambitions over multiple generations. His Talented Tenth argument was not about elitism but teachers for mass education.

In part the argument in favor of expanding college experience is not that it will pay off immediately for every student who attends college but that it will pay off for the society and for college students' children and grandchildren. On an email list some years ago, I expressed skepticism when one list member argued that formal schooling was essential for social activism. There were plenty in the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement who had no more than an eighth-grade education and put their bodies on the line because they knew what was right. But it helped tremendously that some key roles were filled by African Americans and others who had a college education, a law degree, and so forth. Segregationists had some very well-educated, savvy people working on their side, and it was important to have equally well-educated, savvy people working on the side of civil rights.

That work shifted schooling in a better direction. Not perfect, but significantly better. The structures of formal schooling, including credentials, student aid, legal nondiscrimination requirements, etc., have left formal schooling moving in a different direction from 100 years ago, but the accumulated changes themselves have imparted a certain momentum to the relationship between schools and society. The role of schooling right now still is weighted towards wealthier families, but there are significantly more opportunities for poor children to improve their lives through schooling than 50 or 100 years ago. That doesn't leave schooling as a cure-all, nor does it excuse us from working towards improving the lives of people in other areas, but it gives me some optimism that we can change the way that schools provide differential opportunities, if we push hard enough and cleverly enough.

That leaves me in a somewhat odd mood towards expanding college, pushing an instrumental formal experience in hopes that all the stuff that isn't planned does even more than what is.

June 23, 2010

Collegiate Lying Assessment?

I should be asleep, but it's summer, we've released our teenage son from stricter bedtimes, and he is practicing sax. Most of the tasks on my plate require a little more concentration than I can muster after midnight, so I will write instead about lying, or whether we can tell much about someone's skills when we put them deliberately in a decontextualized situation where either the situation is a known lie or where the individual in question can get ahead by lying.

What put that into my head was the description of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) published by creators of the test. The CLA is one of the three supposed assessments of college learning that comprise options in a part of the Voluntary System of Accountability, and apart from the controversies over generic assessments of college graduate learning and the mediocre statistical properties of the supposed value-added measures of non-longitudinal samples, it's important to look at the details of the assessments themselves.

On its face, the CLA looks like a plausible assessment of reasoning skills in a written context. As described by its creators, the CLA sometimes consists of a performance task keyed to a simulated case with attended (fictional) documents, and sometimes it is a prompt to critique a specific argument. The samples provided were both from public policy--specifically, crime. Thus far, it looks something a cross between high school debate and the AP history "document based questions." I've constructed some assignments around fictional cases as a way to fine-tune what students have to confront and how it ties in to the issues they need to address. And it is common enough for essay prompts to quote someone's opinion in the topic at hand and ask for a critical assessment. As I said, it's plausible on its face.

But a funny thing happens once you remove either type of task from the subject in which it's embedded: those who are rating student responses do not have the substantive expertise to check student assertions. If someone responds to a simulated case in my class with statements about education research that are clear misunderstandings of course material, they're not going to get an A. Same with a response to a "please evaluate this statement" prompt. With the CLA, however, there is no such check unless the human rater happens to have substantive expertise aligned with the prompt (in the samples, criminology, sociology, or government). And even there, the scoring guidelines appear to ignore the veracity of student statements. It is entirely about whether someone can construct or criticize an argument in response to prompts.

In this particular case (with a prompt about crime policy), suppose a student lied about criminology research--made up four names and said that they were famous criminologists who had conducted research in effective deterrents. How should such a response be scored? I think I know the answer, because K-12 students in Florida are sometimes encouraged to make up details for the state's writing exam. As far as I am aware, such fabrication is rewarded as success in providing "artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative" (William Gilbert, The Mikado). If you know something to the contrary about the CLA, please point me to it in comments, but nothing I've read thus far is particularly reassuring on this point.

Maybe that's what we should be doing in college, producing Sophists who can turn a nice phrase and fake their way through school, through job interviews, through a daily three-hour radio political talk show, or through professional reports about things like bridge safety and oil-drilling backup systems.

Or maybe we should acknowledge that if it's to have any value, a general-education program has to have some substance, and assessments of its success need to be rooted in the areas it putatively requires some learning in. Not writing and reasoning in general but writing and reasoning about the stuff that's in the gen-ed curriculum.

June 14, 2010

The currency of higher education in America

I winced reading today's Inside Higher Ed column by Arthur Levine and hoped for a second that someone was impersonating him. I checked it against my Higher Education Commentary Bingo Card:

bubble industrial society dinosaur unchanging decrepit
distracted digital native dumbest generation swirling millennial generation
seat-time anytime/anyplace

Free (by Chris Anderson)

mobile or ubiquitous learning individualized
helicopter parents passive/active dichotomy seamless outcomes pampered
reengineering students as consumers incentivized P-20 accountability

Looks like the piece hit every item in the second column.

Levine is consolidating a set of stereotypes about higher education that is only tenuously connected with real colleges and universities. The column is written as if almost every student is an 18- to 22-year-old with an iPad and an iPhone, a BitTorrent user, and a habitual plagiarist. For any who is tempted to describe college students in this way, please look at the real students in most colleges; a substantial fraction may fit this stereotype, but it's still only a fraction. And whatever flaws today's college students have, I suspect our predecessors saw them in spades 50 years ago. I would plead the same with the column's implication that college and university structures and curricula have not evolved over the past century; look at the proportion of courses taught online or by adjuncts and tell me again how universities don't change and don't see students as consumers. Even the one item I'd otherwise be willing to give a pass on--"All education is essentially remedial, teaching students what they do not know"--implies that education is the same as knowledge. Ouch.

The painful part of reading this morning's column is not only the blithe acceptance of stereotypes but the failure to see that higher education cannot avoid having some unit of currency. Like many other pieces I have read recently, this morning's column calls for a move away from the student credit hour. With the millions of transfer students in the country, colleges and universities need some currency system to treat them fairly and process the request to bring some of their work from other institutions into the new institution. That is unavoidable, unless you want students to start from scratch at every institution. But let's imagine a world where colleges and universities no longer count seat time. So the student credit hour would be replaced by what, precisely? Some propose a list of competencies, but that's still a countable currency (if in tests/assessments passed rather than courses), and then you'd have to create competency assessments for every conceivable course in the world that a transfer student might have taken somewhere else. Does anyone really believe that's a more viable structure than credit hours/courses?

June 11, 2010

Remedial/development education, required reading

If you're interested in community-college remedial/developmental programs and you haven't yet, go read an excellent feature by Bill Maxwell that appeared last Sunday in the St. Petersburg Times Perspective section. Because it's in the paper's opinion section, Maxwell is free to add his judgment, but for the most part this is just a good feature, detailed and thought-provoking. It deserves more attention than it's gotten thus far in the week.

Why is a college education like a tulip bulb?

Dean Dad has one plausible response to the latest installation of the "college is the next asset bubble to burst" argument, and every time I come across it I grind my teeth, think of ravens and writing desks, and go on. At least Glenn Reynolds is neither an economist nor an historian, or I'd accuse him of professional incompetence. Hint to all who might think he's right: a college degree is not an excludable good that is the type normally resellable on a speculative basis. But at least I have material for this Out of Left Field Friday entry...

Some part of the argument regularly floated on this topic is an anticipatory taste of Schadenfreude: "I just can't wait for the bastards to get their due," with higher education standing in for all bastards here. As many people before me have pointed out, Schadenfreude isn't a wise basis for public policy, and desire for it tends to blind one to analytical details. Most students are not in the type of tuition-dependent institution that Dean Dad rightly points out is the only part of higher ed vulnerable to a "oh, we can't spend as much as we'd like" change in behavior. Millions still want a college education, and if they can't afford private tuition or out-of-state tuition somewhere else, they'll pop for a four-year university degree or start at community colleges.

At some level, the dissatisfaction with higher education leads to grumbling and sometimes structural changes in public higher ed (e.g., calls for accountability, today more about attainment than cognitive outcomes). Concerns about family costs have led to the changes in student loan policy. Grumbling has not yet led to changes in tax laws that would move the needle on athletic departments or large endowments. And given the labor-market queueing advantage of those with college degrees, you're not going to see people leaving colleges in droves, or at least not "college" in the abstract.

In other words, this doesn't look like an asset bubble to me in any way I'm familair with.

June 8, 2010

The value of college III

Part of the value of a good college education is that much of it is surplus. In the same way that the early nineteenth-century education of women could have been perceived as superfluous, a good deal of what students learn could be seen as not directly or immediately useful in their lives. To some economists, this may smack of inefficiency: why should we educate anyone beyond what we can see as an immediate payback on the job or in life? To others, this gets absorbed in a metastatic notion of human capital, where everything good in life is redefined as investment. (Read the new introduction in the 1993 edition of Gary Becker's Human Capital if you doubt me: not only are schooling and standalone job training considered human capital, so is love from one's parents.) Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz refer generically to education as critical to handling changing technology on the job, which makes a certain amount of sense as long as you're not operating a picture-based point-of-sale register (technology can deskill jobs as well as require greater skills). Goldin, Katz, and Uwe Reinhardt are definitely well-meaning, and I'd want them all at my back in an unlit economics-department hallway. But at some level, the economic justification of surplus education is troublesome because it is a black box (how the extra education works exactly isn't modeled); the slop between formal schooling and economic utility (which I've termed surplus) is a fundamental problem for how economists approach education.

An inefficient education as useful play

So let's turn from economics to anthropology for some help. In 1973, American Anthropologist published Stephen Miller's "Ends, Means, and Galumphing," which explored the social and evolutionary purposes of play. It's reasonably well-cited for a social-science article, but more importantly it's widely cited in areas as diverse as educational and social psychology (where you might expect it to be cited) and... well, it's cited in "Marketing in Hypermedia Computer-Mediated Environments" (1996, in the Journal of Marketing). In other words, it's got legs. Miller argues that one can define play within multiple species as activity that is deliberately inefficient and where the individuals involved gain pleasure from facing challenges that stem directly from the inefficiency, whether we're talking formal inefficiencies such as the rules of baseball and chess or informal make-believe... or activities one might find in college such as analyzing a real or fictional company's operations, writing a history paper, spending ten or more hours talking about a single play of Shakespeare, and so forth.

More importantly, Miller argues that play has some advantage for a species in that it turns specific skills into general problem-solving capacity. In play, one uses skills repeatedly and in a range of combinations. (One could argue a little differently about some videogames I know, but I'm describing his argument, not making my own, and the point would still be important even if you removed videogames that require nothing but exactly-repetitive behavior.) Play looks remarkably inefficient in one way, but it has important adaptive value in another.

So too with much of formal education. I could make the same faculty-psychology arguments on behalf of studying history that many people do: not only does it provide specific knowledge of certain times and places, it also prepares you for any career that requires the presentation of linear arguments with specific time- and place-bound evidence. (Legal brief, anyone?) It teaches you about human foibles and prepares you for situations where you have to suspend antipathy towards individuals to identify potential motives and key interests. David Brooks makes all of those arguments in his column today.

But that type of argument has always struck me as beside the point, not because history majors do not have practice in those skills but because any faculty-psychology argument is easily turned into a nebulous "this will help you learn critical thinking" claim, which my time-and-place-specific training makes me skeptical of. Yes, majoring in history will help you in a lot of fields more than not going to college at all, but it's hard to argue that a history major is better suited to a professional biochem lab's gruntwork than a math or physics major, even if the gruntwork has occasional public presentations attached to it requiring linear arguments with detailed evidence (see above on that refrain).

(Margaret Soltan argues a different point today, asserting that the value of the humanities is in the embodiment of human frailty, not its rational analysis. She writes, "For [William Arrowsmith], a prolonged encounter with the humanistic tradition amounts to a more and more sensate anguish at the recognition of our own chaos." I'm not going to argue with her or Arrowsmith, since I'm sure many a student in a Milton seminar has probably had crises of faith, and I had the odd experience of The Painted Bird as a soothing read at the end of my first semester in college. I'm just making a different point that can stretch beyond the humanities.)

An honest explanation of the value of college acknowledges that when college accomplishes what it can, a good part of that achievement is teaching students how to play with ideas in thoughtful ways and follow up that play in a reasonable, rigorous manner. This is neither a comprehensive nor exclusive way of thinking about college: formal schooling doesn't guarantee this result, and there are plenty of wise people in this world who can play with ideas without having finished secondary school, let alone college. But you're far more likely to get adults who can play with ideas in a productive sense if some critical mass of them have attended formal schooling where that was one of the outcomes.

I think Stanley Fish and gaming-for-learning enthusiasts are some of the more extreme proponents of this view, though they may not like being put in the same bin. At some times eloquently and inarticulately at other times, Fish argues (or just implies, as in yesterday's piece) that playing with ideas is the purest and highest aim of college and university life. That's a good part of the reason why he is allergic to some other conceptions of teaching (such as passionate engagement in the world). Those who have pushed for the insertion of game design in teaching likewise see value in gaming in and of itself, and they have the well-intentioned goal of spreading that joy to students through the use of gaming in teaching.

I do not think the promotion of intellectual play is the sole purpose of higher education, which is why I do not agree with Fish on his save the world on your own time refrain, which would place a wall between classes and any concern with what happens off a campus. Nor do I think that constructing game-like structures inside classes is the only way to promote intellectual play, which is why I have only experimented in a tiny way (and not that well) with game-like structures inside classes. Instead, what a good college (and many a good high school course) provides is the foundation, tools, and time and space for students to play with ideas.

This play needs to be rooted in specifics: some critical mass of specific knowledge in an area, which includes stuff we might call factual information and also knowledge about important questions that have been and continue to be asked in the discipline or field. In most (but not all) colleges and for most (but not all) students in those colleges, that foundation and set of tools require some breadth and some depth. You can't be a great student of history without knowing a sufficient amount about some critical mass of places and time, or without knowing a sufficient amount about some critical mass of other fields that bring other questions to bear on the ideas you're playing with.

And then you need the opportunities and encouragement to play with ideas in important ways. Sometimes these come in structured assignments that look playful, sometimes in serious assignments that engage students in the flow that positive psychologists write about, and sometimes the opportunity comes in extracurricular activities. Again, none of this necessarily requires formal schooling, but the playful autodidact must discipline herself or himself, and a formal school can provide structures to encourage this type of engagement. The institutional nature of a school can often grate on those within its walls, but it can also provide helpful structures. From an historical standpoint, the amazing feature of non-mandatory secondary and postsecondary education is not that one-quarter of teenagers leave high school and two-thirds of young adults do not complete a B.A. but that so many finish when there is no law requiring it. Normative expectations play an important role, and that is as true for shaping behavior within a school as standing outside it pushing students towards school.


Justifying public subsidies

Okay, some of you must be thinking, I'll follow this argument about the play of ideas as far as formal schooling doesn't cost much. But why should taxpayers subsidize this, and why should someone incur more than $100,000 in debt to learn how to play with ideas? Taxpayers should subsidize surplus education because it's worked for society in the past, which may seem highly unsatisfying but is true with one caveat (below). More pragmatically, the obviously-useful parts of higher education easily justify the subsidy, and what appear to be "frills" are comparatively cheap: try to tell a provost that the English department or history department is a money-waster, and she or he will laugh in your face with good reason: humanities faculty are generally the cheapest dates in any place, in part because of their low salaries and in part because even at the ritziest research universities they don't require several hundred thousand dollars in start-up money each. Doubt me? Go ask your local university the annual maintenance costs per student of a intro-chem lab and an intro-languages lab.

Costs to students: the car rule-of-thumb

Student debt is a different issue. I don't think someone should incur more than $100,000 in debt for an undergraduate education. However, that issue is complicated by stories about new college graduates with mountains of debt that come from enrollment in private schooling, either non-profit colleges and universities or for-profit programs. We need to watch the debt issue, but the streams of student debt origins are concentrated away from public colleges and universities (i.e., not what the solid majority of students face). There are plenty of public colleges and universities where the average debt for graduates carrying debt is under $20,000, and that's a reasonable debt to incur for the part of a college education with likely immediate payoffs in the job market (assuming that there's a job market in the next few years). In addition, the creation of income-based repayment plans is a buffer against college debt peonage if debt begins in the federal loan programs that are captured by income-based repayment. Again, that's easy when you're talking about public colleges and universities. Fortunately, a very large majority of high school seniors and their families are skeptical of mountains of debt, which is why (for example) two of my daughter's closest friends are going to the University of Florida next year rather than Rensselaer, Rutgers, or Georgia Tech (some of the other places one or the other was accepted, where they would have paid out-of-state or private tuition).

(As I've noted, private loans and gigantic debt coming from attendance at private institutions comprise a different matter, in addition to credit card debt. Part of the role of Pell grants, the new GI Bill, and federal loans is to encourage families to take on both subsidized and unsubsidized loans. That may sound remarkably like the type of public-private partnership that's become common in economic development, except that here, families and students incur substantial risk. Private non-profits and for-profits are in the same boat here, receiving a federal subsidy that's often bundled in with additional unsubsidized loans that families and students carry forward, something NYU is struggling to respond to, at least. And all university administrators who approve privacy-invading deals with credit-card companies should rot in Purgatory for a very, very long time.)

There is another way in which student debt is taken out of context: for full-time students and a number of part-time students, a significant part of the cost of college is the opportunity cost of not being in the labor market (or giving up some job opportunities, for part-time students). That can end up in debt if students borrow to pay for living expenses while going to school, and in any case, it reduces income and the accumulation of job experience. For a few years, that's more than balanced by expected greater earnings. The opportunity cost of not gaining job experience becomes a larger issue for someone who is out of the job market for an extended period, as happens with longer graduate programs (such as programs that have an average time-to-degree of nine years for students who finish, and that would be on top of the time spent in an undergraduate program).

A few rules of thumb, to summarize on debt and opportunity costs of attending college: if the direct debt incurred by going to college is on the order of magnitude of an economy or low-priced midsize car, it's justified by the anticipated concrete returns, so the chance to play with ideas isn't a giant financial risk. Don't go into debt on the order of a house note unless the degree leads directly to a lucrative career (e.g., medicine or law, and even there I have some questions). And if you're going to spend more than ten years out of the labor market as part of getting an education, definitely get that economy-car-sized education.

The assessment dilemma

Let me return now to the issue of public subsidies in part for what might look like surplus education. Part of the justification for public subsidy (concerned with value) is taken care of by the parts of college you can identify concretely as human capital, specific bits of skills and knowledge with clear social benefits. Part of the justification for subsidy (concerned with cost) is taken care of by the fact that the more expensive parts of college and university academic programs are concentrated where you see more clearly identified returns (the "humanities are cheap dates" principle). (Athletic programs and student affairs are different subjects.)

That might be enough from the perspective of some faculty (and Stanley Fish and David Brooks, at least this week), but the push for accountability in learning outcomes in higher education can easily be turned into the type of mechanism that squeezes out opportunities and structures for playing with ideas. For the foreseeable future, there will be key actors in several states who would be willing to impose reductive standardized testing on colleges and universities. That is the alternative to the current set of assessment mechanisms embedded in regional accreditation. So let's look at assessment and accreditation with regard to playing with ideas.

The black hole of accreditation-centered assessment

Assessment in the context of regional accreditation is best thought of as meta-assessment, where accreditors hold colleges and universities responsible for having a curriculum and assessing how well students learn it. That putatively gives institutions the freedom to create a structure consistent with a unique mission as long as there is assessment of student learning. In reality, this type of meta-game can be difficult to navigate, and the default behavior leans heavily towards mimesis: many colleges and universities hire consultants familiar with a particular regional accreditor, and they tend to suggest whatever structure has enabled similar institutions to pass muster. In addition, because consultants (or former consultants) are sometimes brought in-house to handle the logistics, they focus on the parts of the process that are most easily managed and cause the least hiccups internally... and that often turns into a small universe of reductive measures available commercially, especially for general-education goals. (Want to assess writing? Let's try the ABCXYZ. Want to assess problem-solving? Let's try the ABCXYZ. Want to assess critical thinking? Let's try the ABCXYZ. Yes, of course we can create our own in-house assessment, but we'd also have to justify its use to our accreditor, and it's just easier to use the ABCXYZ; why don't we at least try that as we're developing our own...) There's a reason why the Voluntary System of Accountability specified one of three cognitive measures: it piggybacked on existing trends in accreditation and institutional inertia.

My general concern is that the mechanisms of assessment through regional accreditation can become the black hole of faculty time, absorbing everything around it and making it difficult to plan a structure for more engaged projects or the type of activity I have described as intellectual play. In addition to what else I could say about that narrow range of measures, the long-term problem with institutional meta-gaming is that the rules of the game can change, sometimes with nasty consequences for faculty time. Every time that an accrediting body changes the rules by which institutions have to set rules for students (i.e., the curriculum), faculty have to rework their lives and often entire programs of studies to accommodate the changes. Every time my state reworks licensing requirements for college-based teacher education, or changes the rules for state review, faculty in my college have their time stolen by the logistics of meeting the rules. (Please don't ask a Florida dean of education to describe the double-standard between the rules for college-based teacher education and alt-cert unless you have a few hours.) One of the consequences is an overburden on both faculty and student time. Let me stop talking about faculty time and focus instead on student time: Look at a few random programs of study for baccalaureate programs in nursing or education. Count the number of elective courses. Compare with a program of studies in any social-science or humanities major. Then pick your jaw up off the floor.

On the one hand, the licensure requirements make a certain amount of sense from the perspective of professional training: you want teachers, social workers, and nurses to have the tools to do the job. On the other hand, an undergraduate education that is devoid of anything but instrumentalist technical courses is job-training and nothing else. And especially for teachers, that is inconsistent with one central purpose of college and dangerous for what we'd like them to do on the job. And the Holmes Group's proposal to shift all teacher training to the masters is unrealistic for working-class students if you apply the car-cost limit to student debt for future teachers. I am not sure there is a good way out of this problem for elementary teacher education, and it is on the extreme end of the "no room for thought" problem we face with accreditation-based assessment.

Outside elementary teacher education, there are a few escapes, but none are palatable. Ignoring assessment requirements of accreditors is either fatally brave or foolish, so what's left? Assessing intellectual play. You can stop groaning now. Yes, attempts to assess "creativity" make you tear your hair out, and the thought of assessing intellectual play makes you want to punch me out for the oxymoron or the threat of one of these projects unmoored from substance and rigor. But from an institutional standpoint for a faculty member in one of those regions with an accreditor that threatens micromanagement, you can either tilt at windmills or see what the power might be used for. I've got a limited appetite for windmill-tilting, and I've got enough blunted spears in my garage for a lifetime, thank you very much. This may sound like squaring the circle or getting out from within the horizon of a black hole, but the ability to assess intellectual play would allow faculty to justify all sorts of projects within an existing accreditation framework.

Defining and assessing a challenge

First, a reminder of Miller's notion of galumphing, or play: pleasurable activity that is deliberately inefficient and encourages the combination of existing skills to accomplish the self-defined or agreed-upon goals over and around the obstacles presented by the constructed inefficiencies. The tricky part of assessing such activity is not focusing on the issue of pleasure but instead on the meta-rules that characterize the nature of the activity. For this purpose, it's best to think about a circumscribed type of intellectual play: a challenge that is at least partially well-defined, based in considerable part on what others have done (i.e., not entirely reinventing the wheel), and that requires putting together at least a few skills. Then the assessment of the student activity has two levels: the level of the meta-game, where you assess how well the student defines the challenge, shows where and how the project relies on other work or is new, and how well the student used multiple skills; and the level of the project itself, where disciplinary conventions come into play...

And for history, at least, the disciplinary conventions match fairly well with the first level: having an appropriate historical topic, using the historiography in a sensible way, and handling a range of evidence and argument structures. The guts of most undergraduate history papers are in that last catch-all category: "handling a range of evidence and argument structures." There are a number of more idiosyncratic and less comparable assessment frames (such as student reflection on engagement), and this short essay is about the larger picture, not a detailed (let alone a tested!) framework for assessing intellectual play. And this sketch is about a narrowly-defined type of challenge, with lots left out. But it's a way to think a bit about the issue... or play with the idea of assessing playing with ideas.

Tools to explore

A few words about some recent developments to watch in this vein. The Lumina Foundation's Tuning project could have begun within a regional accreditation context, but it's geared instead towards a proof of concept that a faculty-driven definition of outcomes and assessments can simultaneously honor disciplinary conventions and also satisfy external constituencies (thus the term "tuning" to get everyone singing in the same key: I've got to ask Cliff Adelman sometime whether it's harmonic or tempered tuning). If I remember correctly, the first discipline-specific reports should have been available on the foundation website sometime this spring, but it's not there now (just a cutesy cartoonish presentation of the idea along with Cliff Adelman's concept paper and other materials from 2009). At a first glance, it looks like an application of the accountability framework of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (i.e., the liberal-arts office in One Dupont Circle). But without sample exemplar projects, it's hard to judge at the moment.

Then there's the movement for undergraduate research. When my daughter and I were visiting colleges over the past few years, it's clear that every institution devoted resources specifically to undergraduate research, whether they were public or private. Then again, these were generally small colleges where undergraduates were the only research assistants that faculty would be getting. On the third hand, undergraduate research is a type of operation that both liberal-arts colleges and universities are trying to develop and promote, albeit with different understandings of student engagement. I think my alma mater (a small liberal-arts college) now requires seniors to engage in a major thesis-like project. At my current university, that's expected only of Honors College students, and the resources of the Undergraduate Research office are available to all in theory and would be totally swamped if every student asked to be involved. Again, neither the development of Tuning and undergraduate research are models in any practical sense of the word, but they're something to watch and, if nothing else, they provide a few rocks on which to stand and survey the landscape of playing with ideas.

June 1, 2010

The value of college II

An offhand reference I made last week to Lisa Delpit is nagging at me this evening. It's the part of Other People's Children (1995) where she talks about the existence of codes of power (what others would call tacit knowledge) and how one of the jobs of good schools should be to lay those bare, damn the accusation of selling out to an instrumental view of schooling. Her argument is that middle-class parents and educators too often talk in a Romantic discourse about schooling, ignoring how advantaged parents teach a great deal about the codes of power explicitly and how unfair it is if you hide some of the secrets of power from poor children. When I began teaching at USF, Delpit's book had been published recently, and I used it for several years. It never failed to stimulate healthy debate, especially since the majority of my undergraduate students are usually of the temperament and philosophy Delpit was trying to discomfit.

While her argument was more about primary and secondary education, a great deal of it could apply to college, yeah, even to junior faculty. Earlier in the spring, SUNY Buffalo sociologist Lois Weis visited USF, thanks to the Alliance for Applied Research in Education and Anthropology (Kathy Borman's group in the anthropology department here), and one of her talks briefly referred to Delpit as a jumping-off point to a realistic discussion of what research-heavy universities are looking for in faculty. You think I was unrealistic in urging assistant professors to wait until they're tenured before sinking a lot of time into experimental forms of scholarship? Go listen to Weis; I saw at least one colleague looking to apply for promotion to full absorb every word, and I thought that was wise. Weis's talk was unabashedly instrumentalist: if there's a game to be played in academe, let's not pretend it doesn't exist, and let's make sure that the people we care about can play the game with a full understanding of the rules.

Beneath these arguments is a realistic assessment of how schools combine instrumentalism and the potential for change. Delpit doesn't worry too much that children of color will sell out; let's give them the skills to succeed, and while some may want to sell out, we'll probably learn a great deal about how many won't. Weis didn't talk about that much in the hour-long presentation, but given the type of work she does, I don't think she's on the side of getting a bunch of sociology grad students to join Wall Street. Being successful as academics mean they can make arguments for a better society in general.

One of my friends and longtime colleagues talks about the time John Hope Franklin visited USF many years ago and when asked about radical change in society, Franklin reportedly said, "Go to the library!" What he meant, or what my friend drew from what he meant, was that the textbooks reach the next generation, but to be in the textbooks, you've got to publish research that's read and influences those who write textbooks. And to publish research, you've got to go to the library. It's a conventional view of academic research coming from one of the great African American intellectuals of the 20th century, someone who grew up in Oklahoma, went to college in Nashville in the 1930s, was denied opportunities in WW2 because of race, helped Thurgood Marshall prepare cases in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and stood by his association with W.E.B. Du Bois in the middle of anti-Communist hysteria as he was ascending the academic ladder. Of course, you might say that it's easy to take that view if you're John Hope Franklin, but I suspect it was not easy to be John Hope Franklin, at least not before the 1970s.

The point of all this is that schools simultaneously serve as a vehicle for hoarding privilege and also for breaking it down. The first part is going to exist not because schools exist but because those who currently have privilege are going to use whatever institutions exist to maintain that privilege. So Romantic notions aside, you don't get a choice in that fact, in any society with formal schooling. The choice is whether we take the tools that currently exist and make those tools available to people broadly. When I first saw a link to the May 16 New York Times article on Vedder's and Murray's anti-access view on college, my thought was that Vedder and Murray were arguing that poor families should give up half the tools at their disposal for improving their lives. Are college degrees sometimes used as credentials without reference to what graduates learn? Sure, but you don't eliminate the use of credentials by refusing to gain one. Are college programs sometimes light on substance or disconnected from the job you might get within two or three years? Sure, but you get to keep what you learn for the rest of your life, not just the job you get in the next few years.

And is formal schooling sometimes mind-numbing, discouraging, depressing, oppressive, disillusioning, lock-sync, and whatever other term you want to call lit? Sure, and that's a consequence of a structured curriculum that also provides millions of children with access to the life of the mind. If you've got the resources and the background to teach your children at home.... hmmn, where might you have gotten it? ... sure, you can be a successful homeschooling parent. Of course, if you're a homeschooling parent, you might well use a prepackaged curriculum that makes your kid's education fairly close to the structured system that you just called mind-numbing, discouraging, depressing, ... well, you get it. There are many, many ways in which formal schooling can improve, and there many ways in which schools carry a political burden that is unreasonable. But that's no reason to avoid or fail to use the instrumental value of schooling as formal schooling. First let's graduate the next John Hope Franklin, and Franklin's readers, and we can also worry about the tortured, contradictory nature of higher education.

May 27, 2010

Evil Academic Overlords for Peer-Review Reform

As I've started copyediting the last batch of accepted manuscripts for Education Policy Analysis Archives (EPAA) from my editorial tenure, I've been thinking of John Willinsky's and Kathleen Fitzpatrick's comments about academic publishing, open access, the peer review process, and academic credentialing in general. In his incrementalist "let's push any move towards more open access" view, Willinsky pointed to Gene Glass's founding of EPAA as an example of one route to access, what Willinsky called the "zero-budget" journal. And Fitzpatrick's discussion of peer review (in Chapter 1 of the draft for Planned Obsolescence) pointed out the dilemmas of trying to generate a sustainable model of review that's new. As I'm seeing the end of my duties coming up (you really thought an editor's duties ended strictly at the end of the editorial tenure?), it's given me a chance to think about the trajectory away from subscription-based print journals. I don't know where academic publishing is headed, precisely, but I know what has happened in the recent past.

EPAA is a refereed journal, and I tried to run the English-language review process as close as I could to existing models, with double-blind reviews for the most part. But EPAA was and remains published completely open-access, free to anyone who can download the articles. So it moved one giant step away from the model of academic journals that dominated several decades after World War II, within a prepublication peer-review model. When Gene began the journal in the early 1990s, it was distributed through an e-mail list. This was only one of Gene's projects to broaden the discussion of education research through email lists, and he set up a number of lists for the various divisions of the American Educational Research Association.

He also set up a generic list on education policy, which is how we met in the mid-1990s. In a postdoctoral position at Vanderbilt, I started exploring lists and this new thing called the Mosaic browser. I subscribed to John Lloyd's spedtalk list on special education. Then I found edpolyan, which Gene had created, and I became deeply enmeshed in a vigorous 1995 debate about the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System. Eventually I started submitting articles, joined the editorial board, and was encouraged to apply for the editorial position in 2004.

In the past almost-six years, I have learned a number of things most social-science and humanities journal editors learn: how institutional support gives you some time, but never enough; how odd it is that submitted pieces can both fit the mission of the journal and leave you scratching your head on who can competently review them; how hard it is to get ad hoc reviewers to respond to requests; how review logistics are like cat-herding, only without the organization; how uneven your colleagues' research and writing skills are; how uneven your own are in comparison with some fabulous new scholars; how you never really knew how much you were avoiding learning the intricacies of a particular journal/citation style, and how much more successful some of your journal authors had been at avoiding that; how wonderful many new scholars are, and what a joy it is to give them a venue side-by-side with well-known scholars; what a great feeling it is to organize reviews so you can give coherent advice for revision; how you can be both absolutely on-target and completely off-base in predicting what articles get read, commented on, and cited; and how much you wish you could clone yourself so you could devote enough time to the journal, devote enough time to teaching, devote enough time to your own scholarship, and still have a life.

Running an open-access journal on something close to a zero-dollar budget (the college gave me a little break on teaching, and I had a wonderful graduate assistant for one year to help out), I learned quite a bit more: take the last clause in the sentence above and multiply it several times. A zero-budget operation is not an easily sustainable model to accomplish all the tasks required for a refereed journal. It requires a certain supply of surplus time, and there are no guarantees that an editor (or editorial team) will have the surplus time on a continuing basis for the central tasks, or that a reviewing pool will have the surplus time for refereeing.

Fitzpatrick addresses the reviewing part of the question, or at least the question of what would need to happen with a shift to post-publication review. She is on-target when she points out that the critical element is the evaluation of reviewing. In a standard pre-publication referee process, the editor (or editorial team) filters the referee reports, and any replacement would have to satisfy the discursive element of academic (meta-?)evaluation that Lamont described.

I understand Fitzpatrick's leaning towards an algorithm, carefully constructed, again because I worry about the time required for thoughtful moderation. My experience with the mass-reviewing process at one of my scholarly societies is not positive: I regularly receive reviewer comments for American Educational Research Association meeting proposals that are widely divergent and often enough show that the reviewer either did not read my proposal or had no clue what the standards of a discipline were. Because of the algorithm AERA uses to apportion session slots to divisions, there is a perverse incentive for divisions to encourage oversubmissions (and I've seen that operate in at least one division). That leaves program committee members the distasteful task of looking at an inflated number of submissions with divergent and sometimes irrational ratings by reviewers within a narrow window before recommendations on acceptances are forwarded from the division volunteers to the central processors of submissions. The result is that I frequently see at least reasonable proposals (both mine and others) that are not accepted, while the program has hundreds of sessions each year that are remarkably frugal in their use of scholarship. The frequent ridicule of AERA has its origins in a self-defeating program-development structure.

Maybe a more anarchic approach would work: scholars who have surplus time could become ad-hoc reviewers of working papers that appear online. I occasionally write brief blog entries on papers that are likely to gain attention from newspaper reporters, and I could as easily write entries on working papers that appear online in other areas of interest. The advantage: no one has to organize this, it would be transparent, and readers could judge the work in the context of what I write in other entries (as well as my published scholarship). It would also feed into Google's pagerank algorithm by linking to the working paper. The disadvantage: it's anarchic, so idiosyncratic public reviewing of working papers will not satisfy the scholarly credentialing process Fitzpatrick discusses. And though my blog has an ISSN, it would probably not feed into Google Scholar's algorithm. On the other hand, if more scholars are likely to read and cite someone else's work because I write about it on my blog, maybe that's not a bad thing. On the third hand, I don't really want to be a kingmaker in my subfield. On the fourth hand, maybe the fears of Sherman Dorn as Sole Public Reviewer for a certain area will push others to become more active either on their own or in creating the type of post-publication reviewing/endorsement organization that Fitzpatrick advocates.

I suspect I'm not nearly as fearsome as necessary to spur people to create such a system, but one can always dream of being an Evil Academic Overlord. Organize post-publication review or I shall destroy you!

May 25, 2010

"...and thereby to secure a more arbitrary and unlimited authority"

Yesterday afternoon (at least afternoon in California, where the radio station operates), Sara Goldrick-Rab and Richard Vedder debated who should attend college on KPCC's Patt Morrison Show. I am disappointed but not too surprised that Vedder skipped over who he generally thinks are the types of people who don't benefit from college: other people's children. (Amy Slaton made a similar point in this morning's IHE column: "These two assertions [of the not-everyone-should-aspire-to-college crowd], the first based on very selective logic and the second baldly elitist, become particularly nasty in tandem, making the college aspirations of minority or poorer Americans seem positively uppity.") Let me step away for a day from the question of who should attend college today and see how that logic would have been applied in the past--discouraging formal schooling for those who would not necessarily finish a certain level and for whom there wasn't an economic payoff.

To put it bluntly, that logic would have prevented the coeducation of primary schooling in the nineteenth-century North. As David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot explain in Learning Together, the first half of the nineteenth century witnessed a quiet revolution in formal education, from schooling being the domain of boys and men to coeducation in the first few years of schooling (which was generally what was available for most children in the North). There had been some colonial examples historians can identify of coeducation and women teachers outside dame schools, but they're the clear minority of experiences. When Benjamin Rush helped John Poor obtain a state charter for the Ladies' Academy of Philadelphia in the early 1790s, he was using his influence to break down existing barriers. Five years before, he had spoken at the new school, and the written report of his remarks starts with a justification for the school that (at least to me) looks to men as the audience, and only at the end does he start to speak to the students in the audience:

To you, therefore, YOUNG LADIES, an important problem is committed for solution; and that is, whether our present plan of education be a wise one and whether it be calculated to prepare you for the duties of social and domestic life.... I have sometimes been led to ascribe the invention of ridiculous and expensive fashions in female dress entirely to the gentlemen in order to divert the ladies from improving their mindsa nd thereby to secure a more arbitrary and unlimited authority over them. It will be in your power, LADIES, to correct the mistakes and practice of our sex upon these subjects by demonstrating that the female temper can only be governed by reason and that the cultivation of reason in women is alike friendly to the order of nature and to private as well as public happiness. (pp. 91-92)

To us more than 220 years later, this quaint and charming language obviously lacks the fire of Tom Paine and the righteousness of Mary Wollstonecraft, but for all its gentility it is an affirmation of common humanity and educability that Rush and his audience knew could not be taken for granted, even in Quaker-influenced Philadelphia. Tyack and Hansot struggle somewhat with the question of how coeducation could happen without significant public debate, and I struggle with it as well: how much to ascribe to the coeducational experience of dame schools, to early-national ideologies of Republican motherhood, to a practical "I want the girls out of my hair, too" attitude of rural Americans (who often sent children as young as two and three to tag along with older siblings), to the Second Great Awakening, or to the fact that rural apprenticeship was a system of sharing childrearing that included girls as well as boys (if the girls were often distributed to neighbors' houses to help with domestic responsibilities).

Whatever the causes, there are two undeniable facts about the coeducation of primary education in northern states: the expense was not easily justified by the legal or economic role of women at the time, and it had enormous benefits for the entire society for generations to come. I am sure Vedder and others would contest the first claim, but there are plenty of agrarian societies where the majority of work is or has been done by women who have little or no formal schooling. Why do you need to read and write if you're in the fields all day? Just go to a taro-harvester certificate program for a few weeks and get a job! Oh, wait: no community college currently offers a taro-harvester certificate.

More seriously, one could imagine a different history, closer to the history of the South, where coeducation happened much later, incompletely, or not at all. Primary education was an expense for communities, and coeducation was an added expense either for the community or for the parents who paid extra tuition (or private payments to schoolmasters on the side). We know that formal education was a considerable expense in part because even in Massachusetts, communities resisted the creation of high schools until late in the 19th century. The 1860 town vote of Beverly, Massachusetts, to abolish the high school was notable because it was a clear violation of state law (Beverly was one of the towns sued by the legislature earlier because they didn't have a high school) as well as because its public recording of individual votes has bee the subject of two books. Only a relative handful of students could continue to high school, and the majority of voters at that town meeting clearly thought the benefits of high school did not justify the expense. Yet by 1860, most towns in the north had coeducational primary schools, and thousands of parents had been willing to pay extra money (and had been willing to pay it for decades) to get their daughters some education, though the daughters would never be able to repay them in any concrete sense.

Yet despite the lack of immediate calculable returns, the coeducation of primary schooling in the North was one of the smartest social policies for the long term. The education of girls doubled the pool of potential teachers one generation later. Combined with lower fertility over the 19th century, the increased pool of potential teachers dramatically shifted the ratio of children to potential teachers in favor of children and education. Apart from arguments I could make about lower fertility's being a consequence of coeducation, the combination effectively provided a bootstrap for American mass education, making it easier for states to expand formal schooling generation by generation. Some parts of that bootstrap were not what we'd choose today, since it partly depended on restricted employment opportunities for educated women generally and educated men who were not white. But it would not have existed without primary education for girls and without the willingness of parents and communities to spend money that they could have easily not spent.

Part of the case against expanded educational opportunities is a show me what it'll do today argument. That's a narrow reading of the potential of people who don't currently attend college, a narrow reading of the purpose of education, and a narrow reading of the consequences of education. Yes, I think a lot more children from poor families can succeed in college than do currently. Yes, I want the people who pick up my garbage to read Shakespeare and pick out the lying statistician on a witness stand. And, yes, I am confident that there will be positive consequences for expanding college opportunities far into the future, consequences we cannot imagine today and that will dwarf the real costs of expanding those opportunities in the institutions where they will exist.

May 23, 2010

A hexadecimalful for hacking the academy

I do not regret not applying for THATCamp Prime (The Humanities and Technology unconference) this year, as it fell on the weekend of my anniversary, but I do miss the conversation as I woke up this morning reading the tweets (#thatcamp if you're curious), and I hope those participating in the game jam write up their notes for more public consumption. One of the side projects is Tom Scheinfeldt and Dan Cohen's call for contributions to Hacking the Academy, which they hope to collect within a week. A book in a week? I'd consider that a wee bit ambitious if I didn't know them. And I'm glad I'm not teaching this summer, so I have the time to write a short essay.

I am an incrementalist radical, certain that change can happen, good change, without enormous discontinuity. So my vision of hacking the academy is less disruptive than what others imagine. In many ways, the academy has been in the process of being hacked for decades. My own experience as a student and academic illustrates that history. I was in the generation of college students who often enough began high school with typewriters and ended college or graduate school with computers (mine: a Leading Edge XT bought when I entered grad school in 1987). In college, I took a Greek literature in translation course from someone who was a founder half a decade later of the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, one of the first online humanities journals. In graduate school I was among the third generation of social-science historians to learn SPSS or SAS; I hope I was among the last to do part of my dissertation research on a mainframe VAX. At the end of grad school, I searched for job openings using a Gopher connection to the Chronicle's job database. I created my first webpage in 1996, and I've been blogging jobwise since 2001 (though that first entry on March 24 could best be used to point out the frequent tedium of an assistant professor's life, not Hello, world so much as I'm in the office on another Saturday, world). In its first few years of existence, I was one of the hundreds of active participants on the H-Net collection of humanities e-mail lists. According to Google Scholar this morning, my five most-cited publications include my first book, two articles in standard journals (one sponsored by a scholarly society, one stand-alone), and two articles in an online-only journal. The most cited? My first article in an online journal. My education and professional life has been touched in fundamental ways by previous efforts to "hack the academy."

So what does this history mean? Some would say such incremental change is insufficient, and we should blow up higher education. In the Twitter stream tied to THATCamp this year, Mark Sample argued, "[H]igher ed is terminally ill and hacking it only prolongs its stay in the hospice." Historians of education are familiar with this rhetoric of radical reform, though the literature on it generally focuses on K-12 rather than higher education. There are plenty of attempts to "blow up" higher education by creating institutions that veer off from the plurality of practices. Sometimes those survive on the margins, or die out, and sometimes they become a model (if not necessarily an ideal). Antioch College, New College of Florida, Evergreen State College, and UC Santa Cruz have their origins in such attempts. Two of those started life as public institutions, one became public after a funding crisis, and Antioch's future is still in doubt. Or, if you want to go back further in time, both Clark University and Johns Hopkins University were founded with the intent to stay away from undergraduate education, and instead Johns Hopkins became the model for the modern large university, including high-priced tuition for undergraduates.

As an historian of education, I'd caution my more utopian colleagues that both institutions and people have to pay bills regularly, and that being able to pay bills allows innovation to thrive and spread. The wonderful thing about the internet is that you can do all sorts of intellectual work with minimal infrastructure. The damned thing about the internet is that resources still matter, especially if you want to foster a community of practice. Life involves compromise, even for hackers. With that in mind, here is a digital handful of ideas for hacking the academy, starting with the necessary and institutionalist and moving to what I would like to think of as the more inspirational:

0. Tenure-track faculty at research universities need to demonstrate competence in conventional ways. The bad news (if you were hoping to gain tenure at a research-oriented place with an experimental form of scholarship): if you are an assistant professor at a place that requires scholarship for tenure, you have roughly five years to get stuff published in a recognized way, and that means ways that external reviewers will recognize. The corollary: if you're a graduate student wanting to be a faculty member at a place that values research, you need to develop those competencies. The bittersweet news: because so few faculty are tenure-track at research universities, that means the vast majority of scholars can be innovative. That includes tenured faculty but also librarians, museum staff, and anyone who can find an alternative academic career path. If you are on the tenure track, you need to think about a career that lasts 20-30 years. If you demonstrate your chops in conventional ways in your first 5 years, you have the vast majority of your career to take greater risks.

1. We can build a broader coalition for reforming promotion considerations (but probably not tenure criteria) by discussing the value of taking risk in scholarship. If you're an aspiring digital humanist and are frustrated that a curated online website is not valued as scholarship in the same way as a university-press monograph, even if it's used by hundreds of classes or scholars worldwide, look at your colleagues who are conducting engaged scholarship in communities, where projects take years to get funded, help communities, and become translated into refereed articles. Or look at your colleagues who worked their tails off to earn tenure to find themselves as associate professors caring simultaneously for children and aging parents. Yes, the vast majority of them are women, and they find themselves with tenure but also with a gap in their scholarship record. The best way out of all these dilemmas is to argue that institutions should value long-term, risky projects when they demonstrate their value to the broader scholarly community. One could argue that the obligation of a scholar with tenure is not to continue to do the same work you did to earn tenure but to take greater intellectual risks. Let's find common cause by appealing to broader values.

2. The transition to post-publication review is in process. arXiv is leading the way as a recognized outlet for working papers in an entire discipline, and somehow physicists don't agonize about the peer-review process as journal publication still conveys an imprimatur of quality. How post-publication review develops is something I cannot predict, but there are a number of reasons why we are likely to head in a different direction, from the expenses of humanities journals to the diversification of bibliometrics and the weak-ethics of author-fee journals with high acceptance rates, or what some hard-sciences faculty refer to as "write-only" journals. Assistant professors may not be happy that a provost wants to see their h-index, but you should be happy that Google Scholar will find a good chunk of (if not everyone) who cited your conference paper from 3 years ago.

3. Senior scholars have an obligation to advocate for the ideas explained above. I expect to be around for another few decades, and I want my university to be a place where I like to work. What's the value of being a tenured full professor if we don't help colleagues and encourage risk-taking in scholarship? This involves both the realistic advice we have to give new scholars and ways to nudge academic administrators with arguments we know are more likely to appeal to them. If we don't speak up, we let the most powerful and conventional win by default, and we fail in our obligation to make the "codes of power" (see Lisa Delpit) explicit and open.

4. Expect large universities to abandon good initiatives on a regular basis unless there are forceful incentives that inhibit double-crossing. In April 2010, Yale University stopped contributing to the Public Library of Science journal system, despite a symbiotic relationship (where Yale scholars have increasingly contributed to PLoS journals). Institutional support: great idea. But there was nothing to inhibit Yale's withdrawal apart from reputational risk. There's a reason why Elsevier is hated: they're very effective at rent-seeking. Don't become Elsevier, but if you run an innovative project, don't avoid or hate the time you spend thinking up how to diversify income. It'll keep your people employed when Yale kicks your project to the curb.

5. Reputational markets are the tip of the iceberg in academic economies, and expanding/creating new economies is one route to hacking the academy in both peer review and funding. The Berkeley Electronic Press system has a formalized credit system for authors and reviewers in the form of its A&R bank. In the twitter stream for THATCamp Prime 2010, Jo Guldi suggested a pledge-support system for creative scholarly initiatives. This payback collaboration is a viable, sustainable model in other environments; for example, one early-childhood intervention program in Tennessee relies on a reciprocal-obligation model for services, where parents in the program are obliged to pay back services by becoming volunteers after their children exits.

6. Tight networks should raise red flags. The network of self-labeled digital humanists comprise mostly white academics, library and museum staff, and independent scholars. That is broader than disciplinary societies in one sense but misses lots of people who might consider themselves digital humanists if exposed to the idea, including the growing population of people connected to cultural heritage sites. That omission is a missed opportunity to make tools and conversations more useful as well as make digital humanities more sustainable in the long term. There is a solid reason for departments and similar structures to exist inside an organization, but your good sense should prompt occasional trips outside your hallway. Periodically ask, Who is missing from the conversation?

7. Some projects are going to be ephemeral; either plan for obsolescence or plan for periodic rebuilding. Archivists remind us regularly that formats are not forever. The same is true for individual projects that require continuous maintenance, whether specific intellectual enterprises or the infrastructure (such as base code). The earliest online journals began as e-mail lists; those which survive are now on the web. H-Net has atrophied in part because it has never been through a recent complete rebuild, despite internal advocacy for such rebuilding.

8. Some projects should be ephemeral. This is not necessarily a bad thing: like a sand mandala of Buddhist monks, an ephemeral project can teach us much during its existence even while and perhaps because everyone involved knows it is time-limited. If you work on a project that will most likely burn brightly for eighteen months and no more, be happy and up-front about that fact. Make your fans miss the project when it's gone.

9. Not everyone will or should be on the bleeding edge. Especially for specific tools, there is some maturity threshold before a piece of technology becomes more broadly usable (if it ever does). For example, online conference software exists, and particularly adept scholars can put together a virtual conference if they are willing to invest more effort than a lot of people might. With some effort I could probably create a one-day workshop using Google Wave. But how many would participate? In a few years, there might be a package that is closer to turnkey status, and then virtual conferences will be more feasible because organizing them will require less effort for the infrastructure.

A. A critical mass of users enables not only a rapid change of practice but the breaking of barriers. The corollary of not everyone's being on the bleeding edge is that one needs to know when enough people have a technology to assume its availability and to push hard at barriers. For example, now is the time to push unwieldy scholarly organizations to negotiate members' wifi in conference hotel contracts. Twitter may not exist in a few years, but internet access for attendees will make conferences more useful for whatever exists, to connect people and enable more engagement than listening to 20-minute paper readings.

B. Students need rules made explicit, and these include the hidden rules of life and scholarship, especially when a faculty member is trying something new and risky for students as well as the teacher. By rules I mean, "Here's how you get stuff done with minimal pain." And also the meta-stuff: "Here's what I'm trying that's new, here's why and what I expect you to learn, and please tell me when I'm screwing up." The immediate corollary inside a university or college is love your librarians, for they will often teach students what you forget to. The second corollary is reveal the hidden secrets in bits and pieces. I have very long undergraduate syllabi, but I know the students who most need the information are least likely to read and remember everything, so I expect to repeat the same information at key points in a term. The head of the martial-arts center I attend regularly introduces corrections with, "Here's a black-belt secret..." Everyone loves to know secrets, especially students.

C. Surplus time is necessary for students to be creative and rigorous. The explanation is left as an exercise for the reader just before going to bed. If you're working too late tonight to be able to think as you brush your teeth, please reread the first sentence of this paragraph.

D. We make our teaching more effective if we can figure out how the class can seduce students. My first year at USF, I was hoarse halfway through each semester, and I decided I needed to take voice lessons if I wanted my career to last without ruining my voice. One of the most important concepts I learned was that every time I took a breath, it was a chance to start a beautiful phrase. Every group of students has at least one wonderful new scholar, and on the first day of the term, you have not yet bored them. That doesn't mean hacking our teaching should focus on entertainment. But it should make the experience irresistible.

E. Can you explain what you do to your neighbors, and have you invited them to look at your website and at the websites of people and projects you admire? Academic freedom means that you do not cater to political whims of the moment, but higher education should not throw away the enormous benefit of being perceived as a public good. Since so much of hacking the academy results in public work, that should be public in a broader sense of being known to the general public.

F. Make time to dance. Everyone gets grumpy on occasion, but it's hard to sustain scholarship or creativity (and get others to support you!) if you're permanently grumpy. If you are no longer motivated by the joy or beauty of what you're doing, rediscover it or reinvent what you're doing until you discover a new source of joy.

April 25, 2010

An academic's brief iPad review comment

I'm going to skip all the technical stuff you can read in other reviews of the device, so here's the bottom line: the iPad is useful for anyone who needs to read a lot of PDFs without significant effort, comment on some of them, and otherwise carry around significant electronic documents. For a faculty member, this is the immediate point of the iPad (at least to justify the credit charges to one's family). Please forgive me my technoskeptic sins, but I don't give a hoot what undergraduates might do with it for now, nor do I think any university should distribute iPads in some reverie for the coming Technirvana. It's good enough for me, now.

In the three weeks I've had the iPad, I've used it to review dissertation proposals, read several technical documents on impulse, catch up with some recently published reports and articles, keep up with e-mail, triage my online reading effectively, finish light writing (such as this blog entry), read enough book samples on the Kindle app to decide I don't have intention of buying the books, etc., all without the several-minute boot-up every time I use my year-old university laptop. The iPad is not a laptop/desktop replacement for intensive tasks such as editing, writing a paper that requires considerable formatting, or number-crunching, but it doesn't have to be.

For those who are curious: it took a few hours for me to figure out how to get PDFs and other documents onto my iPad in different ways. I can use an inexpensive program ("app") called GoodReader to read documents in a variety of formats, but editing them is different. iAnnotate lets me mark up PDFs. Right now, iAnnotate can pull PDF files from a mail-account inbox, and there's a way to setup a local network to transfer files in a slightly more awkward way. (You can't do it through the USB cable.) I suspect iAnnotate will eventually allow me to pull files from the iPad's browser (Safari). Word documents will go from almost any program into the (simplified) Pages word-processor. Pages will let me e-mail edited documents from the iPad, and iAnnotate's developers promise that's coming in the next major update. Pages has some frustrating limits--it strips incoming documents of all footnotes, for example, and I can't figure out how to change the fonts (the default is an ugly san-serif). But it's workable.

Since I have accounts with Dropbox (a cloud file service) and Evernote, I can use their apps to access what I have there. Memeo Connect Reader can grab my Google Docs and store them on the device when I'm not connected to the internet (and then serve them to other programs such as iAnnotate). These six programs cost me less than $20 altogether (the three mentioned in this paragraph are free). There are all sorts of other fun/convenient apps that I suppose you could justify for academic purposes (Instapaper, yes; NPR and BBC, questionable; NBA playoff app, definitely not), but these grab, read, and comment on file uses are what I bought the iPad for.

That "I don't give a hoot" comment above does not mean the iPad won't be useful for students, but like all other technologies touted as The One to Make All Learning Effortless, the iPad is a tool whose use will be shaped by all sorts of existing habits, student ingenuity, etc. Let's just say that while I expect there to be specific iPad programs that may be of some use for students, the more likely impact will be in how it might make interacting with websites different, and how websites might subtly change for everyone as a result (less Flash, for example). In a few fields, such as medicine, the iPad and other tablets will quickly become an obvious study device for students. And for students with low vision, the ability to zoom into a page as far as one wants may be very useful.

April 1, 2010

Hilda Turner and why teachers are skeptical of John Thrasher's motives

In Tampa, there is a five-year-old elementary school named after the late Hilda Turner. The students attending Turner Elementary may not know why it's named after her, or who she was. Most legislators in the capitol probably don't know about her case against the all-white Hillsborough school board in the early 1940s and why the long history of politicized teacher evaluations give Florida teachers reasons to believe that Senator John Thrasher's bill is an attack on them.

But my friend and colleague Barbara Shircliffe knows, and she reminded me of the case today. She published a history of Tampa's desegregation case a few years ago (The Best of That World), and she's currently researching the history of teacher desegregation in the South. In the early 1940s, teachers across the South faced a split between what the federal courts had decreed and what the reality on the ground was. In 1940, Melvin Alston had won a lawsuit against the Norfolk, Virginia, schools for having separate salary schedules for white and black teachers, because the (federal 4th Circuit) court had ruled that unequal salaries were wrong. (In the decision linked above is the salary schedule that shows high school teachers were paid more than elementary teachers, men in high schools were paid more than women teaching in high school, and white teachers were paid more than black teachers.)

But most school systems didn't change anything until they were sued, and it took quite a spine for a teacher to take on her or his employer. Maybe the teaching shortage of WW2 made a difference. Certainly the fact that black soldiers were bleeding for their country played a role in growing militance (including the "Double V" campaign of the Pittsburgh Courier). Or maybe this sham of an evaluation for Hilda Turner in 1942 kicked her into action (Turner v. Board of Public Instruction, reference exhibit 3). The case quickly became messy and ugly, and I'm going to leave the story of that for my colleague's next book. But this wasn't isolated. Black teachers in Florida were treated unfairly and unequally for decades, often by their white colleagues. It probably wasn't until the mid- and late-1960s that teachers of all races in Florida started working together to address teaching conditions in the schools.

Nor were the types of spurious judgments in that evaluation uncommon. The fact that an annual evaluation was one of the lawsuit exhibits may be a legal quirk (since it was damning evidence of how the system treated black educators). But it also illustrates the controlling way that systems treated all teachers, and that continued for decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, they were subject to attacks by the state's anticommunist legislative committee, run by Horace Johns, which eventually turned to outing gay teachers. (If I remember correctly, current U.S. Rep. Bill Young was a member of that committee when he was a state legislator starting out in politics.) Teachers in general were attacked in 1968 for striking, but gay teachers were the target of another attack in the 1970s by Anita Bryant. In the following decade the state imposed a generic evaluation instrument (the Florida Performance Measurement System), designed before the recognition that there was subject-specific expertise in teaching. And all of that came before the Sunshine State Standards in the mid-1990s, Jeb Bush's A+ accountability program, vouchers, No Child Left Behind, the Bush Recession of 2008, and finally John Thrasher's bill. I can point to a number of events or policies that supported teachers, but the background has always been a recent history of blaming and judging teachers.

Because there has never been a sufficiently well-grounded system of teacher evaluation, the experience of teachers on the ground has been ineffective, useless evaluations... or worse. And what teachers see in Senator Thrasher's bill is the "worse" category. Combined with the elimination of tenure (a topic for another entry), the mandate of a formulaic approach to teacher evaluation is too much for many teachers to swallow. This is not the result of hyperbole on the part of the Florida Education Association. This is the result of Florida's history of education.

(For more on the local context of Turner's actions, see Doris Weatherford's history of women in Tampa, pp. 287-288.)

March 27, 2010

In #1b1t lies a proof of concept for microblogging for group annotation

Wired.com writer Jeff Howe has proposed a giant Twitter-wide reading experiment he's calling One Book, One Twitter, where everyone on Twitter (or a great big gob of people) read and tweet about the passages they're currently on. The topics code #1b1t (an example of a "hashtag") is Howe's proposal, and you can follow the latest discussion online if a series of disconnected 140-charater texts tapped out by people reading a book on their own is a discussion.

Ah, but the last clause is the key here: can Twitter or other microblogging services provide an opportunity for collective discussion of a text? In theory the answer is "sure, of course," but would that happen in practice? I've thought about this with regard to teaching, since the term "mobile learning" has usually had passive interpretations: listen to a lecture anytime! anywhere! Okay, I think, and where's the interaction? Oh, but we can do better: you can click on screens and get more lecture anytime! anywhere! Thanks, but that's not a substitute for intense discussion.

In the past few months, I've spent a bit of time thinking about the role of "collective exegesis/commentary" and possible tools to conduct it anywhere, anytime.

In theory, what I'd love is to see some capacity for a student who is reading some material (a novel, a primary source in a history class, etc.) to respond to questions using a cell phone and have that text message be collected for the class purposes, or to read the collective responses. Don't tell me that a smartphone can do that with browser capacities; most students don't have smartphones, and the interfaces are often clunky at best. I want any student with a dumb phone to be able to send text messages that can be collected by a secure service for a class and have some way for it to be sorted by text location (by the service or a relatively simple manual post-submission step).

There are at least two sides to that: tools and practices/culture.


What's needed in terms of tools is

  1. a way for a student to use either an SMS service or a simple browser interface to enter responses
  2. a way for teachers to provide prompts/some coding to tie comments to specific parts of the text or questions

I think the only SMS-to-secure-environment tool is ShoutEm, a proprietary microblogging site where you can set up private groups. (Several CMS packages such as Blackboard and Moodle have ways to broadcast text messages to students, but I'm not aware of modules that allow students to submit texts to Bb or Moodle modules. If I'm wrong, please let me know of the modules in comments!) Edmodo is the simplest CMS interface I'm aware of and has a good reputation for K-12; certainly it would be navigable with a smartphone, though there's no SMS-submission route that I'm aware of.

For the tagging/sorting, one could use two possibilities right now, either a hashtag system that a teacher uses tied to prompts or a set of QR-code symbols in the margins (or on a question sheet). QR codes linking to website URLs are reputedly very common in Japan, and if I remember correctly, you can construct QR codes that would start a text message (with the hashtag, yes).

Application: a student in a high school English class could be reading Hamlet at home along with a teacher's question sheet. Suppose the teacher has a list of questions ordered by scene, and I suspect most such sheets would inevitably have a question about the "providence in the fall of a sparrow" speech (act V, scene ii). Say it's the 11th question for that scene. Next to the question is a QR code and below it a hashtag: #hamlet5.2.11. The student opens her cell phone, starts the QR program, and takes a picture of the QR code. The cell phone automatically starts a text message to go to ShoutEm (or someday a CMS that allows incoming texts) with #hamlet5.2.11 already entered as text. She answers the question and sends it off. On the other end, a teacher looks in the entry box (whether it's a microblogging stream or a module inside a CMS). I could imagine teachers doing a lot of different things with the responses (probably starting with a simple sort by hashtag), and my instinct might be to pick a range of responses for a few questions and start out the next day's class with very, very different responses to several questions and asking students to decide who's right.

Or think of an undergraduate cultural anthropology class, where an assignment might require a student to observe a common gathering place on campus or in the community and answer a bunch of questions designed to teach students ethnography skills. Again, the answers could be in the form of microblogging, and that allows a student's growing field notes to be examined by a teacher between notebook-submission rounds.

Those are two possible uses, and they ignore the fact that U.S. cell phone users don't generally have experience with QR codes, QR programs are easier to find for some cell phones than others, and a lot of students do not have either cell phones or home access to the internet. And that raises the issue of ...


One critical question about such dreams is whether people will use the tools at hand, or whether a critical mass of people will. In observing how hundreds of students have responded to technology challenges in college classes in a wide range of ways, I agree with Siva Vaidhyanathan that "digital natives" is a dubious concept, and the idea of having students send text messages as way of promoting engagement with text is something to be tested empirically rather than assumed.

First question: are there any such examples? I thought of two possibilities: discussions of Talmudic commentary and Protestant Bible study. It turns out that you can find services that will text you individual  lines from some Bible (if they're 140 characters or less!), but I couldn't find examples of people engaging in SMS textual engagement in the wild (so to speak). That was depressing; if a few long-established commentary/discussion communities had never experimented with SMS commentary (there's plenty of stuff on web pages, just not much microblogging), that didn't bode well for what I had in mind.

So One Book, One Twitter (#1b1t) is another proof-of-concept test, this time with a more highly-motivated group. We'll see (maybe) if #1b1t engages a critical mass of readers, engages them with something more than superficial text, and is a novelty phenomenon or something that gets repeated.

March 12, 2010

Health care and financial-aid reform as a package

Wednesday's rumor has turned into Friday's semi-confirmation: Democratic leaders in Congress are looking very seriously at packaging together the changes to the Senate health-care bill with the Student Aid and Financial Responsibility Act (SAFRA) through budget reconciliation. SAFRA would end federal subsidies for bankers that initiate loans for college students and return an estimated $67 billion over many years to be used for better purposes, such as giving poor students Pell grants. Since taxpayers foot the bill for the banker subsidies that currently exist, students end up paying twice for their own loans, once in interest to servicers and a second time in taxes that go to banker subsidies. It's time to end the double taxation of students.

Politically, the packaging is a good move for multiple reasons. Matthew Yglesias argues that putting SAFRA in with the health-care bill changes will reassure House progressives that one of their priorities will get a vote in the Senate, and it might get SAFRA over the hump of the small number of Senate Democratic naysayers who are siding with lenders over students. Last night, Sara Goldrick-Rab explained the shame of the anti-student bank subsidies, and it sort of burns me that one of the Democrats signing the protect-the-poor-bankers letter to Harry Reid is Florida's Bill Nelson. 

To be honest, I expect the package is more likely to attract support from the Nebraska Senator Nelson than Florida's Senator Nelson, because Ben Nelson (NE) now wants his embarrassing Cornhusker Deal for health-care off the table. But both Senator Nelsons are on the wrong side of the issue with SAFRA. I e-mailed Bill Nelson to that effect early this morning, but each time I've called his Washington office today, it's been busy and the voicemail is full. Time to call his local office on Monday...

February 25, 2010

William McKeen and me

On Sunday, the St. Petersburg Times published a bizarre column by University of Florida journalism chair William McKeen, who started off by asserting that UAH killer Amy Bishop is somehow presenting a case against tenure and then headed off into the mythical nethersphere of a world where all professors are tenured sloths. 

My response will appear in tomorrow morning's paper, and my thanks to the Times editorial staff for printing the rebuttal.

Given the constraints of an op-ed column, some material was left out. For example, William McKeen's own department has 42 classes listed on the University of Florida course schedule for the spring, and of those classes, only 22 are being taught by full-time faculty. From spreadsheets colleagues at UF sent me, I know that as chair McKeen hired 12 adjuncts to teach classes in the fall and 15 adjuncts for the spring, generally paying each of them $3,000 per course. I guess that when he wrote the column he forgot about all the adjuncts he hires every semester.

And nowhere do I see McKeen (the chair of UF's Department of Grandstanding) volunteering to be the first to give up his tenure in Gainesville. Maybe that has to do with the layoff notices issued to faculty around the state and country?

What's particularly scurrilous in McKeen's column on Sunday is the attempt to link a singular incident with a pet cause: "Has tenure become so important that someone would kill when it was denied?" As many others from Margaret Soltan to "Dean Dad" have pointed out, Amy Bishop is not your typical disappointed academic. She's killed before, she was apparently a suspect in an attempted letter-bombing, and as far as I'm aware, she is the only faculty member known to have killed peers after being denied tenure.

In the anonymous Dean Dad's words, "Let's not use a deranged shooter to make points. The crime is awful enough as it is."

February 22, 2010

I cannot take credit for Sansom's departure

Apparently Ray Sansom's lawyer Gloria Fletcher has blamed bloggers for the downfall of her client. Since I was pretty active in writing about the Sansom affair in late 2008 and early 2009, maybe Ms. Fletcher means me... except that almost all I did was refer people by links to news stories written by Alex Leary or reporters at the Northwest Florida Daily News. Maybe she's referring to Tampa-area Democratic activist Susan Smith, except that I don't know that Smith blogs outside the DailyKos site (and there she's one of hundreds of thousands of writers), though she does produce a political podcast. Fletcher also blamed the House Republicans for their unfair procedural rulings. She could also probably blame the media--the aforementioned Leary from the St Pete Times and Miami Herald joint capitol bureau, as well as newspaper editorial boards around the state who jumped on the incredibly unfair bandwagon thinking that Sansom might have had a few ethical problems. And I'm guessing that when the criminal case is finally heard, she will start to blame Sansom's partners in the scandal, Bob Richburg and Jay Odom.

I don't think I played a role in events other than to keep a rolling list of links as the story unfolded. I am sure that many of the other individuals and groups played a role, but there's one place that Ray Sansom needs to look to figure out the cause of all this: his mirror.

February 21, 2010

Ray Sansom resigns from Florida House of Representatives

It's been 412 days since Ray Sansom resigned as Florida House Speaker after allegations that he had swapped millions of dollars funneled to Northwest Florida College for a job at the college. Since then, he's been a member of the chamber without a committee assignment, facing ethics charges in the chamber and criminal charges in court. Rather than face a House hearing that would have started tomorrow, he resigned today. The St. Pete Times political blog has made Sansom's resignation letter available for downloading.

February 16, 2010

Expanding digital humanities through diversification

Alex Reid's discussion of how to tip digital humanities practices into "early majority" status (hat tip) pushed a few ideas into alignment in my head, and while he has a pretty standard institutional perspective, it's headed in the wrong direction for a variety of reasons. The best and most productive way to expand the world of digital humanities is to diversify it.

Reid's idea: pick one or two tools that are on the frontier of current use among academics who think of themselves as "digital humanists" and create both investment in and buzz around the development of those tools. "Mobile computing" was the idea he focused on (as an example, not as a serious argument that it's the best focus for all institutions). There are two central problems with that narrow approach: it assumes that an institution can accurately predict the best investment opportunity in a burgeoning field, and it assumes that the best approach to evangelizing is intensification within the people who already define themselves as within the field as opposed to recruiting people who are doing very similar things but don't think of themselves (yet) as digital humanists. I think both assumptions are wrong.

If you read my blog, you'll know that I think the latest Horizon report on cutting-edge IT is likely to be mistaken in several regards. But even if you think the Horizon group can get a lot of things right, the approach Reid suggests essentially puts all of an institution's eggs in one basket. Has your college or university spent money on Second Life in the last few years? Yeah, mine too. Do you think in retrospect that was a wise investment, given the current funding situation in higher ed? Me, neither. Maybe Layar will prove me wrong on augmented reality. But if I were a provost or dean, I'd be hesitant to spend the equivalent of several faculty members' annual salaries (or more) on something that a very small number of faculty say is the latest thing and a sure bet. I'd be much more inclined to put money into a more general resource or a competition on campus and let a broad group of faculty tell me what's the most meritorious on balance (factoring in faculty strengths and records, among other things).

More troublesome than the all-the-eggs-in-one-basket approach is the almost guaranteed insularity of Alex Reid's idea. I loved going to THATCamp last summer, but one very troubling aspect of the attendees' demography is that we were almost all white, and I don't think there was a single African-American or Latino scholar attending. Oops. More than oops: it's a tremendous missed opportunity, or maybe best framed as an opportunity that self-identified digital humanists have not yet grasped. You think only white and Asian American humanists use computers? Yeah, sure. You think only non-Hispanic whites and Asian Americans are interested in exploring cultural heritage? Those who knew Roy Rosenzweig, just guess what he'd say about that. Maybe you're not aware of all the middle-aged or newly-retired professional African Americans who have started to fix up sites of formerly all-Black schools or engage in other acts of cultural preservation, a few decades after this guy named Alex Haley remade genealogy as a popular field. And professional humanists? Hint: the Association of African American Museums has a website. Really. So where are the representatives from those museums at digital-humanities get-togethers? 

I don't mean to be as accusatory as you might read the tone of the last few sentences. I know it's tough when you're starting at the edge of a self-defined frontier and trying to figure out how to climb the learning curve of JavaScript... oops, ActionScript... uh, Python,... let alone work in the collaborative groups who are putting together fantastic tools such as Omeka. That's serious hard work, and it's work that is functionally separate from engaging in deliberate outreach to expand the group of self-defined digital humanists to include people who are doing that stuff but not calling it digital humanities. So I'm not seriously criticizing today's group of digital humanists... yet.

However, those who push for the continued development of digital humanities in the current population of self-identified DHers need to look outside the window of the house they're currently building. If you're a non-Hispanic white self-identified DHer (or would that be DHist?), contact community museums and national and state parks with cultural resources when you plan your regional THATCamp. Talk to a variety of colleagues in local institutions and see what they're doing. Talk to librarians at HBCUs and Hispanic-serving institutions and see what's going on in their collections. Talk to a broad range of secondary-school teachers in nearby school districts, who are often great targets of recruiting for graduate programs. If this really is a great new world you're exploring, you want people with different experiences to show you what you don't know.

And if you're reading this and haven't gone to a THATCamp and don't identify as a digital humanist, but you know, you're reading this on a computer and wondering if the world of digital humanities is destined to remain a mostly-white enclave of academics, librarians, and museum staff? Nah... these are good folks. It'll just take a little nagging to bust the gates open permanently. (Addendum 2/17/10: case in point of "good folks:" Timothy Powell of the Penn Archaeology/Anthropology Museum, who is speaking this afternoon on Digital Ethnography at Georgetown and on Negotiating the Cultural Turn(s) at the Center for New Media and History (along with Bethany Nowviskie.)

February 6, 2010

College visits: some good, bad, and ugly ideas

Valerie Strauss's blog entry yesterday discusses the standard advice for high school students' visiting colleges and then provides links to the College Board and ACT college-visiting pages (which are surprisingly slim). Again, Strauss is speaking directly to parents -- "Be sure to contact the school in advance... If you child can sit in..." -- which has good programmatic advice and horrid parenting advice.  The high school student should be doing the contacting, maybe, if it's her or his college experience at question? But aside from that quibble, here's my take as a parent of a high school student waiting for admissions decisions:

Good: Strauss's advice for students who can't travel long distances to visit local colleges like the ones they're interested in in some way, to get a sense of what it would be like to attend a metropolitan university, a private liberal-arts college, a public regional state university, etc. That way, questions students have can be focused on the issues most likely to be relevant for a type of institution.

Good: Strauss's advice to visit classes. Wrong: her assertion that it's  "probably best [to leave that] for schools at the top of the desired list." As a parent and citizen, I think high school students should see what it's like to be in a college class as often as possible, especially in discussion classes that are never going to be on iTunes. My not-so-hidden agenda in pushing that with my daughter was to make sure that by the time she went to college, she'd know she belonged. 

Good: Strauss's advice to read student publications, and the College Board's advice to scan campus bulletin boards. I'd expand that: during tours of dorms and classroom/office buildings, look to see what's taped, plastered, and otherwise attached to the walls. 

Good: the College Board's advice to browse in the college bookstore. My daughter was interested to see if the general-books sections had her favorite authors. I wanted to know what was on the shelves for classes.

Good: Strauss's point that visits when classes are out of session or students are preparing for or taking exams is ... uh, not so wise. She takes for granted that the only way that you can visit colleges without taking an unexcused absence is during spring break. Not true! Many school districts will assign excused absences for college visits, and my local district will let students take up to three days per school year as official school business for college visits.

Good: eat in the dining halls. Caveat: this is assuming a residential college or university. But it's definitely a good idea, and many admissions offices will let one parent and the student eat lunch without paying (one reason why you head to the admissions office first).

Bad -- in fact, pretty horrible: The College Board's advice to "Try to see a dorm that you didn't see on the tour." This is a fine way to get arrested or warned off campus by the campus police or security. Dorms should not be accessible to strangers, such as high school students or their parents. Of course, if you try to get into a dorm that's not on the tour and no one stops you, that tells you something about the place, too, but I suspect you can find that out simply by observing whether the tour guide has to unlock a dorm entrance.

Not mentioned by anyone: how to ask questions of current students. The ACT page has several suggested questions, but there's something very important to keep in mind, both in asking questions of campus tour guides and other students: you can ask about the college in general, about the student's experience, and about the students' friends and classmates. Campus tour guides are trained to talk about the campus in general, but if you're a high school student, you need to know about real experiences. Best suggestion: ask about the experiences of friends and classmates. That's a healthy compromise between the generic "students here" and the privacy-invading "so tell me why you're really about to transfer at the end of the term." 

Not mentioned by anyone: if you've been accepted to a place and you don't think you can travel to visit it, ask the admissions office to put you (the high school student) in touch with a few current students who are willing to talk to you about the college. If you're interested in specific majors, ask for people majoring in those  (or related) subjects. See if it's possible to use Skype rather than a cell phone because if it's a Skype video call, you might get the benefit of talking not only with the current student but also with whoever's in the dorm room at the time. And here is where visiting a similar type of college locally can help you figure out the crucial questions to ask.

Another stupid article on "the dating scene" in college

Some of the clues that the latest article on the "dating scence" in colleges with 60% female enrollment was written by a reporter with an axe to grind and a preset angle at which to grind:

  • The featured photograph from a university with 60% female enrollment (a) is of college seniors (or I hope they're seniors) in a bar, (b) is of an all-white group of students, (c) has six women and one man, (d) has no older students.
  • Every photograph features white students.
  • All the women interviewed for the story appear to be members of sororities.
  • One of the interviewees is a former student who happens to be hanging out in a bar near campus. (So why is he representative? Why didn't the reporter step a few minutes away from a bar?)
  • The focus is entirely at a flagship public university.
  • There are no older students interviewed for the story.

Since the primary world of colleges is at the regional state university and community-college level, maybe we should skip the flagship campuses and look at the statistics of an institution such as Miami-Dade College. MDC has more than 150,000 students enrolled, and while 60% of them are women, only about 35% are right out of high school (under 21). About two-thirds are attending MDC on a part-time basis, and while MDC is now a four-year institution, I don't think there are any dorms, so every one of those students are commuters and live somewhere in the Miami area. In other words, the dating scene for straight, gay, or bisexual students is where they live as well as on campus. That's the reality for the majority of college students in the United States, not the preppy picture that the New York Times reporter and photographer portrayed.

But if you want to look at residential colleges and universities, maybe a little reality should intrude: the average age at civil marriage for women in the United States has moved back up to the mid-20s, where it has been historically for well over a century, with the exception of the immediate postwar years. College students' meeting and marrying in college is common enough but not dominant. 

And the history of colleges is not one filled with demographic "balance" in some hypothetical way. For many years, the ranks of elite residential institutions were filled with single-sex colleges and universities with single-sex undergraduate colleges, and the students in those colleges and universities had to go off-campus for a hetereosexual dating scene. And in the first decade after World War II, the GI Bill pushed enrollment in public universities in the other direction, towards majority male enrollment. If you can find more than a decade or two when the dominant demographic profiles of residential colleges, community colleges, and public universities were all fairly evenly split by gender, I'd be surprised. My guess is that maybe a decade or two will fit with the peak of the Baby Boom through the mid-1980s... when people worried about the social consequences of the sexual revolution. As one of Gilda Radner's characters would say, if it's not one thing, it's another... so let's stop obsessing with the on-campus dating opportunities of college students.

February 1, 2010

Sloppy journo skewered; readers await fix

Reporting is a hard job. These days, reporters are being asked to cover more subjects in less time with an even smaller news hole for newspapers that are losing money, laying off colleagues, and may be out of business within a matter of months. Even in good times, reporters knew that errors were going to be read by thousands of subscribers and that even if they worked twice as many hours in a day (usually impossible), they'd never catch all factual goofs or grammatical mistakes, or never quote enough interviewees to satisfy all readers. Great beat reporters are inherently improv artists.

Having said that, I know it should not be too much of a surprise that even reporters with solid reputations such as Ed Week's Debra Viadero sometimes get caught taking shortcuts. Thus far, no response from Viadero, but it's another part of journalism (and a reflection of the craft) to print corrections publicly. So let's wait and see how Ed Week acknowledges error.

January 27, 2010

Why the "college hunt" genre is unrepresentative, and the shame of the College Board Profile

This morning's blog entry by Valerie Strauss is typical of the genre: a perspective on what it's like to apply to a number of selective colleges and universities and hunt for financial aid. And it's all wrong, both from a policy perspective and (I'd argue) even a hypercompetitive parents' perspective.

Policy perspective: the colleges most students attend are not very selective. Even for the ones that don't accept all applicants, most accept the majority of applicants (including most public universities). And even in the world of "very" selective institutions, you might be surprised. Sure, both Harvard and Stanford will reject more than 90% of their applicants this year, but most of the "very" selective private liberal arts colleges accept 25% or more of applicants... and we're at the peak of the baby boom echo, so it's only going to head up from here. (Math problem: If you're a high school senior and apply to colleges where you have a 50% probability of being accepted, and the decisions of each college are random and independent, how many do you need to apply to to have at least a 98% chance of being accepted into at least one?)

So the problem is generally not getting accepted into one college but being able to pay for it and being able to take all the classes you need and succeed at them. My daughter is applying to a few places where the tuition/board combination is high enough where some institutional aid would be very nice, and last night we completed the FAFSA, which is one half of the financial-aid paperwork for one of her desirable colleges. (I'll have more to say about the other half later.) The administration's promise on a simplified FAFSA has been fulfilled, at least from my experience: you don't need a CPA to fill it out, especially for families who are eligible for Pell grants and state assistance. The administration's proposal for a 10% cap on income you owe on college loans would be another step, and a definite improvement on the new income-based repayment option. Given the gap between Pell grants and tuition at a number of public universities, pushing on income-based repayment may be more valuable in the long run than expanding Pell grants.

Where Strauss is correct from a public perspective is the gap between the time high school counselors can spend shepherding students through the admissions process and the reality of the need. I'm thinking here primarily of high school students who would be first-generation college students. There aren't too many guidelines for a ninth-grader to keep in mind, but they're probably not repeated often enough: get your act together now to make sure your first semester grades are at least a mix of Cs and Bs, and they need to head up from there; read more than what's required; go as far in math as you can; take SATs or ACTs in your junior year; tell your parents to put their financial information in one place starting early fall of senior year; expand your college possibilities in one dimension from what you're being told by those around you. I suppose there are others that high school counselors use, but for the barebones, students whose parents never attended college can get into a fine public university following this.

If there's something that worries me apart from the high school curriculum and funding for poor students, it's the narrow way most high school students think about where and how to look for colleges, and the way that adults encourage that narrowness in part from their experiences or perceptions or because of tacit knowledge. There are sometimes circumstances that restrict students--those who need state assistance will be staying in-state, and often first-generation college students (especially young women) live at home while attending classes at a public university, at least for a year or two. (I know of one very large community college where faculty get the benefit of teaching incredibly talented first-generation students because their parents wouldn't let the students move away for a few years.) High school students can be creative in working with family preferences--Orlando high school students often prefer the University of South Florida (here in the Tampa area) and Tampa area students often prefer the University of Central Florida (Orlando) as a "far enough away from home so I'm not visited by my mom twice a week, but close enough to drive home on weekends" solution. But that's like chain migration: if you hear about an option from someone you know, you can use it.

What about the options you don't personally know? I've had some conversations with teenagers and parents in the past year or two where presumptions have become stereotypes and blinders. One parent completely dismissed a nationally-known public liberal-arts college because she knew some students with learning disabilities who saw that as a friendly place to attend... so it must not be good enough (i.e., prestigious). A student who is one of the most hard-working teenagers I have ever known and interested in engineering schools didn't know the difference between tuition-dependent private schools and those with endowments and substantial institutional aid. She was thinking very hopefully on an engineering school within driving distance that is tuition-dependent and where there was no way that she could get aid (and thus attend). She hadn't thought of CalTech at all, though it's well off and where she might get a boost because of the dominance of men in their undergraduate enrollment. Another student who moved to the U.S. four years ago was disappointed in her board scores and thought colleges wouldn't want her. She's another incredibly hard-working student, one who admissions officers would drool over in reality. For the students in these cases, I'm not worried because it didn't take much to persuade them or their parents to think a bit more broadly (and optimistically). For the millions of talented high school students I can't persuade personally to think a little more broadly about colleges, I worry about the mental shortcuts we take when looking for colleges. It's an understandable but sad statement about our country when some of the most effective recruitment of college students is done through Saturday television broadcasts in the fall.

Private perspective: As I wrote above, the FAFSA is one of the pieces for institutional aid for a college my daughter is keenly interested in. The other is the College Board Profile. Last night, I printed out their 19-page worksheet and filled in answers for the several-hundred questions about parental income and assets so my daughter can enter the data this afternoon. I'll just say this to the admissions officers for the private institutions using the College Board Profile: you've just demonstrated to me why your efforts at recruiting a diverse population of students is often a facade. When your chosen tool (which you don't have to pay for) is several orders of magnitude more difficult to complete than the old, more complicated FAFSA, it's clear that you don't have a clue about how to get poor students to apply for financial aid. And College Board? Shame on you for requiring poor families to pay for the privilege of having one more barrier to receiving financial aid.

My daughter will do fine, and unlike other college seniors, she hasn't panicked. Several years ago, when it was clear she was interested in Type X college, her mother and I talked about the financial feasibility of that. (I'm a public-university professor in a relatively low-paid field. Well-off? Definitely with respect to human history! Able to send my daughter to Type X college on my and my wife's income alone? .... uh, what type of cat food tastes good?) We figured we could expand her horizons, but given that her spine is stiffer than mine, I expected it would be in one direction.  Let's see: ask her to consider Type Y college? Not going to happen. Z? Not a chance. Type X-public? Hmmn... that worked. In the fall of her sophomore year, I told her that if she could find a Type X college that would let her visit classes, either public or private, I'd take her. And she found such a place, so we went. As a result, we spread out college visits over a few years, not a few weeks. That first college is still on her "very interested" list, and overall she liked (and applied to) roughly half of the places we visited, most of which were Type X colleges. Her interests have changed a bit, but she'll do fine in any of the places she's applying to, and it's her life, not mine. Yes, she's been accepted to at least one. As I stated above, if you've worked hard in high school and you're not set on getting into the One True Place for You, you'll get in somewhere you can learn a great deal in.

January 24, 2010

Horizon 2010 report mostly wrong

At least this year's EDUCAUSE Horizon report on emerging IT doesn't predict the tremendous growth of Second Life. But it has plenty of misjudgments in what it predicts will be Big Higher-Ed IT in the near and medium term. Below are my quick judgments of what Horizon 2010 thinks will be big:

  • Semi-correct: the impact of "mobile computing." The sloppy use of the term indicates that the report writers have bought into the hype. There is just too much fragmentation of operating systems and too many students of moderate means who cannot afford smartphones for this prediction to be anything but wishful thinking. Mobile computing will work for certain professional programs, largely at graduate levels, where either there is a reasonable expectation that students will buy equipment as demanded or where there is support for a specific set of devices. My guess for the most common application of mobile devices today? Clickers. Maybe some company will figure out how to combine clicker technology with prepaid (term-length) cell service for specific purposes. Until then, mobile computing will generally be project-specific.
  • Semi-correct: the likely impact of ebooks. Again, this is going to be more selective than the report indicates (and I say this as a relatively early adopter). What ebook readers may provide is more flexibility to read generally-formatted text documents (such as PDF), rather than expansion of types of formats (such as multimedia).
  • Largely incorrect: expansion of open content. In a few subsidized areas this will continue, but we've already seen the shuttering of one major open-content project. The reality of open content is that it requires resources to create and maintain; witness Valley of the Shadow Project, a wonderful online history project that is now officially "archived." Obvious sign of the report's failure to connect with reality: no discussion of the shutting down of Utah State's OCW project. Ouch.
  • Largely incorrect: gesture-based computing. These applications will be quite complicated and expensive, and they will be limited to disciplines where the investment pays off. 
  • Philosophically problematic: the hype of "visual data analysis." I use graphs in teaching. I do not assume that because I use graphs, students can competently conduct data mining just by looking at pictures. For some reason I cannot fathom, the report highlights Wordle; a tag cloud is the humanistic equivalent of USA Today "infographics." Horrid. Kill this idea now, please, before you do more damage.
  • Major goofball hype: augmented reality. Yeah, right, in the same way that Second Life took off and CAD is used in English courses. Whenever the most obvious use of a particular tool is in the field of architecture, you know that you're not talking about a tool that is going to be used widely across higher ed.

I need to return to my Sunday copyediting task (a wonderful but very long and editing-needy article MS). Maybe my focus on copyediting today is making me a bit grouchy with the Horizon report; I know that since I've criticized the report, I should probably provide an alternative perspective, and I'll think about that over the next week. In a year or five, you'll be able to see who was correct.

January 22, 2010

Collegiality: It's harder to separate ideas from people than you might think

As the president of the USF chapter of Florida's statewide faculty union, it's part of my job to defend the academic due process rights of That Guy.* If you've worked at a college or university, you've had to deal with That Guy, a generally prickly personality more commonly male than female who may have some good ideas (and in some cases, That Guy is usually correct on the merits) but tends to express them in ways that attack people rather than focus on the relevant issues. That Guy's standard mode is bullying in private and either high dudgeon or deliberate attempts to embarrass in public. That Guy's vocabulary can be littered with terms such as moron, idiot, and liar... usually in reference to people who disagree with That Guy. That Guy usually refers to high motives and ethics to justify That Guy's behavior, but from the outside, it looks like That Guy's model is more likely to be John Bolton than Martin Luther King, Jr.

It looks like Ohio University assistant professor Bill Reader may be a That Guy in the eyes of his colleagues, and his tenure case revolving around collegiality has now hit the news. The 1999 AAUP statement on "collegiality" as part of evaluation argues that there is a difference between evaluating collegiality as part of someone's job (that is, in teaching, research, and service), on the one hand, and having a free-floating collegiality criterion separate from the different parts of one's job, on the other. The more radical view of John Wilson is that even tucked inside teaching, research, or service, collegiality is an inappropriate expectation at a university. On the other end of the spectrum, I can probably find a number of administrators who will explain that if someone is truly destructive in a work environment, it's part of their job to deny tenure to prevent the problem from saddling an entire department or college with dysfunction for a person's whole career. The AAUP statement is still the best guide to navigating the issue of That Guy on any campus, but it takes a bit of guts on the part of those around That Guy to enforce reasonable norms of behavior.

Part of a university's job is to explore uncomfortable ideas. This will inevitably prompt outside Astroturf pressure groups to criticize a university on occasion, as happened this week with USF. That's why it is right for those concerned about collegiality criteria to warn that collegiality is not congeniality and that a free-floating collegiality criterion could chill speech. On occasion, we all make stupid mistakes in social settings, and we should still get a hearing for our ideas. If a perfect recitation of Judith Martin's Miss Manners books were a requirement for an academic job, I suspect few faculty would ever have our jobs. And if we kicked out faculty who occasionally lost their tempers, we'd be setting a poor model for students, whom we'd like to socialize into recognizing that good ideas come from all sorts of places and people. On occasion, people engaged in ideas act in ways that are uncomfortable. There has to be wiggle room in our ideal of a conversation that focuses on ideas rather than people, or we'd have sterile, passionless universities.

And yet, while that wiggle room should be broad, it should not be infinite. That Guy may entertain or amuse faculty with thick skins and who are not the targets of That Guy's tactics, but That Guy's tactics often push a good segment of faculty (either in a department or more broadly) to withdraw because they don't want to be targets or to say To hell with serving on this committee or task force; I'm going to go back to my office and work on what I know is valuable and not a waste of my time. That Guy's behavior shrinks the active public space at any college or university.

That's the core dilemma in the discussion over collegiality as a criterion used in evaluation. If universities can casually dismiss faculty because they're prickly, administrators can destroy that common space for debate in an a priori sense, because ideas are taking a lower priority than deviation from an arbitrarily set norm. But if That Guy can run rampant in a department, college, or university, the behavior effectively destroys common space for debate in a factual sense, as only a small handful are willing to be in the presence of That Guy, and you get a rump caucus masquerading as collegial governance. Obsess about personal behavior that is pricklier than your norm, and the ideal of paying attention to ideals is lost. Assume everyone has mental Kevlar, and the reality of a broad discussion is lost.

The AAUP statement is a practical and professional way to address the dilemma by forcing peers and administrators to be cautious in judging interpersonal prickliness: see where it affects the job. And the statement is explicit in warning that extreme behavior is not protected: "Professional misconduct or malfeasance should constitute an independently relevant matter for faculty evaluation. So, too, should efforts to obstruct the ability of colleagues to carry out their normal functions, to engage in personal attacks, or to violate ethical standards." The AAUP statement should not be much comfort to That Guys the world over, because it gives peers and administrators the ability to judge truly odious behavior as odious, if they choose.

Ah... it's the if they choose where the rub usually lies. Faculty have very little training in confronting colleagues about their behavior. It's a little too easy to avoid conflict, to avoid pointing out that lying and backstabbing is inappropriate, because that's a horrible conversation to have no matter what its outcome. And when it comes to annual reviews for tenure-track faculty, it's tempting to be encouraging and avoid telling colleagues that they're not doing enough in research or teaching... or in treating colleagues, staff, and students like human beings. I understand the temptation of administrators to have collegiality as a separate item for tenure reviews: in many departments, there will not be the guts to stand up to That Guy, and the separate item seems to be a reasonable alternative, or an alternative for desperate administrators. But then you're left with one end of the dilemma I've sketched above, and you've betrayed core academic values.

There is another problem with the separate collegiality criterion: you're failing to address the underlying problem in those cases, which is with peer evaluation that does not look at what's actually happening. If a tenure-track faculty member comes up for tenure and close to a majority or a majority of colleagues votes against tenure for reasons of collegiality but no one told her or him of the problem for five years, how much of the problem is with the candidate for tenure and how much of the problem is a dysfunctional pattern in peer review? And suppose you deny tenure in that case... there are always likely to be tenured jerks as well as untenured jerks, sometimes even jerks as deans or provosts. Don't you want faculty with integrity and savvy willing to stand up to the tenured and administrative jerks and thugs? Unless you foster an environment where everyone looks at problems with open eyes and talks about what's as plain as the nose on your face, the type of faculty member most likely to stand up to administrative thugs is ... That Guy. Congratulations: you've just created/maintained an internal audience for That Guy.

* A friend who is a very active defender of academic freedom used That Guy in an e-mail to me a few months ago as a generic term for department/campus jerk. The friend's department apparently has two That Guys, one male and one female.

Update (1/23): Bob Sutton has additional, very thoughtful comments, including the perfect reading recommendation (Gunsalus's book on academic administration).

December 31, 2009

Education stories of 2009 (U.S.)

The end of the year is the traditional time for journalists and laypeople to look back and identify major issues in a year. As Phil Graham (or maybe Ben Bradlee) said, journalism is a first rough draft of history, and you know what a first rough draft looks like. Nonetheless, as an historian I'll take a stab at what I think will be seen in retrospect as key developments in education in the U.S. They may even have been key issues this year!

  1. The Great Recession and students' lives. More children are homeless, hungry, or displaced in some way because the adults in their family have lost jobs or their homes. We won't know the exact extent of the effects on children's lives for a few years, but the news stories of the recession's effects on children are first indicators of a quantum leap in child poverty. And there is also an effect on the lives of college students, though the effects are more complicated. People are returning to school at a rapid clip, but because financial resources are lower, there is also a greater demand for financial aid at college.
  2. The Great Recession and the education stimulus packages (plural). In late 2008 it became obvious that for several years Florida had been leading the country again... in declining state and local revenues. Around the country in early 2009, school-system budgets for 2009-10 looked like they were going to collapse, resulting in catastrophic layoffs that would affect not only schools but the whole economy. Federal spending kept hundreds of school systems afloat and is a good part of what saved the economy from a much worse decline in aggregate demand. The early-2009 stimulus package (aka ARRA) is the major part of the story but not all of it. If you didn't hear about the mid-December shifting of $23 billion from TARP into an account school systems could use to save jobs, you missed a substantial increase in the stimulus that should be considered part of December's second stimulus, along with an extension of unemployment benefits and federal subsidies for COBRA payments.
  3. College financial aid reform. The Obama administration is combining administrative changes to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) with a push to eliminate the federally-subsidized private lending program and shift resources into direct lending. While it is not politically possible (and probably not legally possible) in many states to require that all students complete the FAFSA, it is possible to make it much easier to complete, encouraging more students with real financial need to take advantage of financial aid.
  4. The growing role of community colleges... and erstwhile or soon-to-be-erstwhile community colleges.The July plan to give $12 billion to community colleges is a relatively small part of the overall policy emphasis of the administration on community colleges, from the appointment of a community-college president as the chief administrator of higher education policies to the greater scrutiny of proprietary training institutions (where do you think students who would otherwise go to proprietary job-training programs will be headed instead?). Ironically, two of the largest states are headed in a different direction, with Florida's community-college system disintegrating or morphing into a "state college" sort-of-system, and some voices in California voicing a similar idea with new caps on Cal State enrollments. (DC is headed in the other direction, with UDC splitting into two- and four-year institutions.)
  5. Race to the Top. Some of you may wonder why this isn't #1, but I'll defend my judgment that it's important but whether you like RTTT or not, it's not nearly as important a change as the issues I've put above this. But don't fret if you disagree: see #8.
  6. Common core standards effort. The halting, awkward, adolescent-like steps towards creating at least some vague national-level standards developed, and while Alaska and Texas may not be involved, and other states may opt out later, this is the curriculum equivalent of the 1989 Charlottesville summit, in that it is a national rather than a federal effort.  (See Maris Vinovskis's recent book for that story.)
  7. City school control battles. From the renewal of mayoral control in NYC (and Bloomberg's relection) to an emergency manager in Detroit and the apparent devolution of Los Angeles Unified, governance is once again front and center in urban school politics. Well, maybe it never left as an issue, which is a cynical historian's perspective. But if you think I'm cynical, wait until Diane Ravitch's new book comes out in a few months. No, I haven't read the manuscript. But you don't have to before you can take a good guess at what Ravitch will say about New York City. (Recent developments in Detroit and Los Angeles came after she must have submitted her manuscript.)
  8. Teacher evaluation in local bargaining. Collective bargaining agreements put the AFT in the center of teacher evaluation debates through its support of new arrangements in New Haven, St. Louis, and even Detroit. And both teacher evaluations and collective bargaining more generally are at the heart of disagreements between the Minnesota and Florida teachers union state affiliates, on the one hand, and state departments that would like teacher union signoffs on RTTT applications, on the other. Disclosure: I am a member of the Florida Education Association and was on the governance board for a two-year term that ended this past summer. I haven't had time to learn much more than what's available publicly on the Florida disagreement, but I'll give you one idea in the back of my mind that's also in yesterday's Ed Week story (requires subscription) by Stephen Sawchuk: both affiliates are merged (i.e., in both the NEA and AFT).
  9. Sexting as a news topic. This is the latest object of our perennial concern about youth behavior, made  highly visible with the suicides this year by Jesse Logan and Hope Witsell. The main difference between teens' sending racy photos of themselves by cell and other foolish teenage behavior is that cell-phone technology enables a social chain-reaction from an MMSed photo that other (and more fundamentally stupid/dangerous) behavior does not. Not that any of these is a good choice, but if you knew that your teenager was either going to get addicted to a drug, become pregnant/impregnate someone, or send or receive a sext message, which would be the least inherently dangerous behavior?  Fortunately, Mike Petrilli is correct about the state of American teenagers: the trends on seriously dangerous adolescent behavior is headed in the right direction... not that any reporters covering the sexting issue noted that fact.
  10. Textbook affordability. Arnold Schwartznegger's midyear ramblings about ebooks aside, there has been movement in several areas to address the rent-seeking behavior of both textbook publishers and college bookstores. This includes public and private ventures to create online textbooks with inexpensive print-on-demand options and textbook rentals, and Florida is probably not going to be the last state where public colleges and universities need to list textbooks for all courses at least a few weeks before a term starts, to allow competition. There are some logistical problems with the last, such as with brand-new courses or new sections opened up to serve demand, but some tweaking will probably result in an institutionalized arrangement allowing students to search for books they can find anywhere.

So what have I missed? Any errors in judgment on the ordering? What do you think the issues for 2010 will be? Time to kibitz!

December 9, 2009

Online grandiosity failed, so get back to work

So U21 Global looks like it's failing, after the dumping of U of I Global and the morphing of Western Governors from the "we're going to conquer the world through online enrollments" stage into the "we'll settle for 10,000 students based on a Netflix model of tuition with half of our students in teacher ed" stage.

This is not the death of online education, which exists at virtually every institution of some size. Nor is it the death of scaled-up online education, since there are several outfits, notably the K-12 Florida Virtual School, which appear to have done just fine at a large size. So what's made the difference between the thriving programs and the dying programs?

  • Thriving programs serve specific purposes. Florida Virtual School is not trying to conquer the world. It addresses a few specific needs, notably providing catchup classes, a few basic requirements that many students would like to "get out of the way" to take other classes they prefer face-to-face, and some opportunities unavailable in smaller districts. The fact that thousands of students in Florida find those valuable is related to the size of Florida, not a lack of specific planning on the part of the Florida Virtual School's administration.
  • Thriving programs have stable (and nurtured) feeder relationships. An online program within a university can develop constituencies much more easily than Vague Global Program, and the Florida Virtual School has cultivated or taken advantage of a number of ways that students find out about its strengths (as far as I can tell, from other students and from counselors).
  • Thriving programs have staff and teachers in a relationship modeled on bricks-and-mortar schooling. Florida Virtual School has made a point of explaining its acceptability in part because it has a dedicated staff and faculty "just like" the local public school down the street. As far as I can tell, thriving online programs within universities tend to treat faculty teaching online like other faculty, largely because they are faculty in regular departments and because the hiring patterns for full-time faculty normatively follow departmental patterns. How many ads in the Chronicle have job positions in an "online" department as opposed to a position in anthropology, economics, marketing, etc.?

What appears to have died is online grandiosity, and that's a good thing.

November 30, 2009

Great day in physics!

Last Tuesday was the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, and today it's the turn for physics. Yeah, I know: you have already probably heard about the record collision at the Large Hadron Collider announced this morning. But that's not what I'm talking about. It's my oldest nephew's 25th birthday, and I get to brag on him. Lucas Parker is a graduate student under the wing of Lyman Page at Princeton, working on the Atacama Cosmology Telescope Project and chosen for one of the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship program slots this year to work on a polarimeter prototype (if I remember correctly something that could theoretically go on a space vehicle). 

Happy birthday, Lucas!

November 4, 2009

Read Cliff Adelman's new report

Cliff Adelman's brand new report on international comparisons in higher-ed attainment (hat tip) is a must-read. I just wish I had enough time to read everything I should, including this item. (My reading lists: want to, need to, should have read three months ago.)

I therefore assign you, my dear reader, to read the report. This is your chance to get ahead of me. 

October 30, 2009

Do Times reporters know the difference between percentages and raw numbers?

I suspect the following is an unfortunate placement by the reporter on a story about record high percentages of young adults in college (with an emphasis on percentages):

"What's behind this," Mr. [Richard] Fry added, "is that we have the biggest pool of young adults we've ever had who've finished high school."

I suspect that this is in reference to the growth of enrollment in two-year colleges, not total college-going. That distinction was not clear in the article.

Florida Student Group Fights for Zombie Rights

Tallahassee, Florida (Dissociated Press) -- At an early-morning press conference in the state capital, five zombies attending Florida state universities announced the formation of the new organization Florida Upbeat Zephyr Zombies (FUZZ) to fight for zombie rights.

"There are organizations that fight for the rights of students to be free from discrimination on all sorts of grounds," said FUZZ President B. Ray Andy-Indira Nougat. "Until now, though, no one has fought for the dead and undead. That all changes today."

The leaders of FUZZ explained at the press conference that after the suppression of student zombies Wednesday at the University of Florida, and the discovery earlier in the month of a plan to fight zombies at the same university, there was a pressing need to act immediately.

"The official stance of the state's flagship university is anti-zombie, and that's unacceptable," said the FUZZ vice president, Yasmin Urgun-Morales. "There is a stigma that all undead students face in schools. But we're supposed to be educating all Floridians who can benefit from college." 

A staff member for Governor Crist said that he was unaware of any need for protection of zombies or other undead Floridians, though she admitted off the record, "Oh, what the hell. We have zombie mortgage companies, a zombie professional football team, and utilities that act like vampires. Why not a zombie student group?"

Later, the governor's office issued the following statement: "Governor Crist welcomes the productive contributions of all Floridians to the welfare of the state and looks forward to working with zombie students to advance the state's education system and economic development."

University of Florida officials had no comment for this story apart from a one-sentence statement: "The University tries to create an environment free of disruption, and the university will not tolerate actions by any student who threatens to eat classmates or any vital organs or significant parts of classmates."

In an unrelated story, researchers reported this morning that this reporter's brains are entirely unappetizing.

October 27, 2009

Why unions need competent administrators on the other side

Dean Dad neatly explains why Southwestern College's leaders aren't even competent Machiavellian administrators. While I've occasionally heard from people that the best union recruiting tool is a horrid manager, life is more complicated. Yes, there are threshold effects of managerial incompetence and cruelty on organizing campaigns, but for an already-recognized union with plenty of duties, competence from most of management is far better, for a number of reasons:

  • Most union members--including most vigorous union members--do not want to spend their entire lives in conflict with coworkers (which most managers are, in terms of daily contact). Unions as advocates,  watchdogs, and the workplace equivalent of public defenders? That's a sustainable metaphor for what unions do. Us-Them metaphors can get people through a crisis, but not generally through an entire decade without some loss of integrity (see the great new book Staying with Conflict for more on the long game from a conflict-resolution expert's perspective). 
  • It's better to win grievances by persuading managers on most cases than be taking every issue to an arbitrator. In a large enough workplace, there will inevitably be contract violations, if for no other reason than because most managers don't understand collective bargaining agreements and there are many pressures to take short-cuts on process. Informal resolution of the vast majority of such situations is in the interest of union members, and you're much more likely to get that if the people on the other side of the table are sane and competent.
  • Competent and sane administrators are less likely to do extraordinary damage to your members. That's not a foolproof, money-back guarantee, since everyone makes mistakes (see the last point), but I'd rather save my resources and time for a handful of problems than try to address dozens of serious problems every year.
  • Competent and sane administrators can be engaged and taught how to improve relationships with the people you represent. Everyone has an ego, but I'd like to work with people where a solid majority can put aside their egos and ideas to learn how to work better. And where I might learn a thing or two in return.
  • Part of a union's job is to promote the careers of its members, and that may take them into management. Do you want managers who understand the needs of the people you represent? If you put a target on the back of every current manager, you discourage your coworkers from becoming sympathetic managers.

At this point in my career and union work, I am convinced that patience, a good ear, and large doses of self-deprecating humor are important tools of power for union leaders. Using them requires suspending a belief in the Force (which is required to believe in the Dark Side). As in all things automotive and judgmental, your mileage may vary.

October 18, 2009

The curious case of Larry Summers

Okay, maybe I can't let well enough alone on economics. About a decade from now, someone will have both the material and distance to write a fabulous biography of Larry Summers. On one level, he is a brilliant economist. At another level, he has been a total MF, and at Harvard the financial games and the Schleifer scandal are worse than his noncollegial style and tendency to say tremendously stupid things in public. I think he clearly has matched Bill Clinton on the "fast thinker with a deep mental problem" scale. The extent of all this is unknown at the moment. We have some interesting pieces by Ryan Lizza on his role on the White House economic team, Vanity Fair on the collapse of Harvard's endowment, and evolving coverage of what was clearly a bone-headed move in interest swaps* that the Boston Globe reported Friday but bloggers had uncovered in the summer (as Margaret Soltan explains). I know that Mark Ames tried to put things together last fall on Summers, but events move faster than journalists and sometimes you need a real historian and real time to put things in perspective.

When that time comes, you'll need someone with financial acumen and knowledge of higher education, as well as politics. That will be an interesting challenge, but I look forward to reading the Summers biography when it eventually comes out. If you're 13 years old and looking for a great dissertation topic, here's the one to keep in mind!

* In response to a colleague's concern many months ago about swaps, I looked at the interest-swap agreements of my own university. Mind-numbingly dull and mundane, they were the ordinary kind where the university bonded out debt at variable-rate interest and then turned around and agreed with a bank to pay the bank a fixed rate in return for the bank covering the variable-rate interest on the bond. It's a hedge against inflation, and because interest rates can't go below zero, the ordinary interest-rate swap looks like it has a limited liability. What Summers did at Harvard was different: Apparently Harvard agreed to interest-rate swaps on debts that Harvard would not incur for years and years. 

** The swap-swashbuckling was compounded by the other bone-headed move of investing operating funds in less-liquid, more-risky investments.

October 12, 2009

"Timmy's legislator let him do it!"

I don't know what I'm more disgusted at, last week's dismissal of official-misconduct charges against Florida Rep. Ray Sansom, or news that something very similar has been happening in Virginia with state Senator Tommy Norment and the College of William and Mary and state Delegate Phil Hamilton and Old Dominion University (IHE hat tip). Hamilton apparently "did not recall getting into those in-depth conversations about the [teaching] center" that eventually went to Old Dominion, where he wound up getting a job.

October 9, 2009

Outside cultural studies classes, "Love Boat" != instructional material

Apparently a University of Wisconsin-Madison business professor used state funds to purchase DVDs of various television series, including Love Boat, Family Ties, and Get Smart. (Hat tip.) The explanation was that he would use clips "to illustrate aspects of business and management."

Reality check: I use cartoons in lectures. I also buy the materials I use, whether it's the complete Far Side collection, the huge book of New Yorker cartoons, or Calvin and Hobbes books. And then I rely on my judgment and educational fair use. But it's my money that bought the materials, not the state of Florida. If my university buys instructional materials, it should be in the library or another collection for general use.

October 6, 2009

We could do without all the excitement, thank you

I was off campus by 12:30 yesterday afternoon, so I didn't have all the fun of several reports of gunmen on the USF campus in Tampa (student-run USF Oracle, Tampa Tribune, St. Petersburg Times, CNN). As the press representative of the campus police noted, you can't ignore called-in threats or reports, even if you think they're false. My thanks go to the law-enforcement personnel who responded quickly, and I'm glad that there was no serious threat.

September 29, 2009

St. Louis University

I am certainly not the first one to point this out, but St. Louis University has shot itself in the foot by apparently attempting to cancel a David Horowitz speech. Its only (non-saving) grace is that it explicitly has a "we get to decide if your desired speaker says what we want" policy. Too bad that the university's idea of being "consistent with the mission of Saint Louis University" does not include discourse about controversy.

September 15, 2009

And now, Harvard digs deep in the public interest--NOT!

Is there anyone else who read of Harvard's new tuition-free doctorate in ed leadership supported by the Wallace Foundation and first thought, "Oh, that's in competition with the Broad leadership indoctrination inbreeding mutual backscratching society training"? I know what faculty and administrators thought: if there's a (reputational) market for a tuition-free, glitzy finishing school for superintendents, why shouldn't Harvard get in the game? 

September 11, 2009

Health insurance reform and college completion

I have yet to see anyone discuss the obvious relationship I see between health-insurance reform and education policy: health-related financial crises and college completion problems. There are many reasons why students leave or switch colleges, but one of them is the financial fallout from health crises of students and their immediate family members. Over the years, I have known about a number of students who have either cut back from full-time to part-time status or left college entirely because someone got sick (either them or a relative) and that left a huge hole in the family budget. Especially for first-generation, older students, many of whom have children, many of whom are going to college to escape the dead-end, no/low-benefits jobs they're currently in, this is a nasty catch-22.

I do not know the extent of the problem, but the discussion within higher ed often runs something like this:

  • We know some students drop out because of health problems, either directly or indirectly from the financial fallout.
  • We have college-sponsored insurance plans, but either the premium or the coverage is lousy because the only people in the pool are the people most at risk of having problems.
  • Let's recommend mandatory health insurance for all students!
  • Oh, shoot -- the legislature is telling us we can't, in part because we're already in a financial hole and can't subsidize poor students.

That's what happened in Florida: one university started discussions about mandatory insurance, another (Florida State) took the lead and mandated insurance, a statewide group at the university level continued discussions, and the legislature (this year) banned any university but the first mover (FSU) from mandating insurance.

I don't know the exact extent of the problem, but this is one of the reasons why I am bewildered that major business groups continue to oppose health-insurance reform that would create nearly-universal coverage. With assurance of coverage, people can go out on a limb and start new businesses, something that business groups always claim they want to promote. With the dramatic reduction of health-induced bankruptcy and financial crises, more people would complete college, something business groups say they want.

August 28, 2009

Charlie Crist, George LeMieux, and higher ed searches

Well, it looked like a foregone conclusion early on, and though the hiring authority promised a wide-ranging search for the best talent available, and he went through all the motions of a search, in the end it was the inside candidate who won out, just as a number of people predicted.

Yep: Florida Governor Charlie Crist picked his alter ego, his political shadow George LeMieux, to replace Mel Martinez and become Florida's Interim Senator until the 2010 election. 

There are two reasons why Crist picked LeMieux: he can rely on LeMieux to act in ways beneficial to Crist's own bid for election to the seat, and because Crist is human and susceptible to the availability heuristic. Like all of us, he is biased towards the most easily thought-of explanation or solution. In this case, it's his good friend and confidante George LeMieux.

August 22, 2009

H1N1-motivated (and very brief) reviews of CamStudio, Captivate, and Elluminate

Preparation is better than panic, or so they say. With questions about the expected wave of H1N1 infections this fall and winter, my administration is trying to gently prod faculty into thinking about what might happen if 30-40% of students in a class are infected and absent. (Well, I'd hope they're absent if they're infectious.) While I've heard from one colleague who thinks that the admin is being unreasonable, at least my first impression is that they're not being heavy-handed (and certainly not as heavy-handed as a "gee, that's a lawyerly rather than educational" response over the summer to FERPA complaints, but I think the faculty will solve the latter problem quickly, now that the fall's upon us). One issue is the question of whether and how to adjust attendance policies (see the quick survey responses of about 100 USF faculty here). Another is the issue of making material available to students. Students would like classroom capture, and apart from the fact that the technology isn't there yet for a lot of situations, we need to address some intellectual-property issues before that becomes widespread.

But then there's distance education. Hi, Margaret! For many classes it is far from the ideal, but it may be a backstop in case H1N1 develops a more virulent strain (and here, virulent might well mean "upchucking for a day, followed by fevers, chills, and no capacity to read or do work for a week" rather than high mortality). At USF, as at many places, staff in many places are already skeletal, and it's the spread of H1N1 through staff more than students that could cause a university to close for a week or two.

So... what's a faculty member to do? One week? "Let's see where we are when we reopen" is as good for a short-term flu-related closure as hurricane/earthquake closure. More than two weeks?  Hmmn... the options there are mixed. Today, while preparing a few things for a class I designed to be online, I tried out the latest versions of three technologies, one geared for tutorials (CamStudio's capture/narrative of Things You Do While Computing), one geared for one-way presentations (Captivate, which has some interactive features but is probably most quickly learned as a way to narrate presentations), and one geared for recording live online sessions (Elluminate, which has a tool [Elluminate Publish] that can export the recording to mp3, mp4, etc.).

CamStudio: Best for tutorials. I suppose this might be modified to work for an MST3K version of commentary on video, but I'd recommend other software for that. Nothing else, I think.

Captivate: Produces a very slick Flash file, and if you have a decent microphone, it'll work fine for one-way presentations sure to put your students to sleep, which they might need anyway with the flu. I happened to be using my onboard mic inside my office, and until I discovered a way to improve a pop screen for the computer's built-in mic, my recordings were echoey, harsh, and POPoPOPped far too much.  Pop screen workaround: multi-folded kleenex over the tiny hole leading to the mic's diaphram. Now the recordings were just echoey and harsh. Much better. The interface is relatively easy to master, but I found it very clunky to use, in part because when I talk to students I am talking to real, live students, not to a hole on the top margin of the inside of the laptop's clamshell. For those who point to the inestimable Scott Simon as the paragon of radio storytelling, I can only say, Scott Simon is also talking to real, live human beings, the recording engineers in the studio!

Elluminate is a clunkyish way of connecting to students live, while everyone is miles away. I spoke with two students using it today and used Elluminate's publishing tool to turn a test recording into an mp3, an mp4, and a few other items whose purpose I couldn't quite figure out. The benefit: Ah, real students who can respond, ask questions, and keep me feeling a little as if I'm not alone in the world! The cost: oh, the pain of audio compression! Ugh. It's bad enough when you have a crackly connection and you know you're coping because, well, you have to cope. But while my voice in the Captivate Flash file was uncomfortable to hear, at least it didn't have the type of quality you'd associate with mid-20th century AM nighttime radio bounced off the ionosphere. 

My personal plans if USF closes for any reason this semester? Captivate for anything I really want to record (and figure out how to work that without feeling like I'm talking to a computer), Elluminate for connecting with students who know how to log into our CMS and almost nothing else, and then pray that students start to learn how to use Skype.

August 2, 2009

The liberal arts and narratives of declension

There is a teacher's voice in my head, asking the logical question of New York Times reporter Patricia Cohen who speculated whether the humanities are in decline (perhaps because of the Great Recession) and whether older history subdisciplines are also in decline: "where did she go to school, and who were her teachers?" Evidently, the Times is hiring reporters who either never had good history teachers, never paid attention to them, or forgot one of the basic lessons in a good college history class: beware narratives of climbing societies, falling societies, or any society-wide "rise and fall." The February article brought the expected number of letters to the editor to a newspaper that might just depend on readers who want to read (you know, that humanities-ish activity), Timothy Burke had some words, and Michael Berube had solid things to say in early June and late June. About the second article, again see Burke as well as Mary Dudziak, Mark Grimsley, Claire Potter, and David Silbey. I am months late on this, so I will do what I can.

First, before panicking it probably makes sense to divide what parts of the proportionate decline of humanities majors in the past few decades are attributable to different factors: the growth of undergraduate professional degrees, the growth of higher-education enrollments more generally, the decline of GI Bill-related enrollment as a proportion of undergraduates, and any leftover changes that just might be related to the nature of the disciplines themselves. In part because the expansion of higher education came side-by-side with the belief that a college degree's main utility was getting a job and growing credential requirements for jobs, enrollment grew faster in professional majors than in the humanities.

Maybe I should cry over the fact that a lower proportion of students are history majors than there used to be (though the percentages bounce up and down), or maybe I should celebrate the dramatic expansion of college attendance in the past 70 years and the fact that even if the proportion of history majors has dropped, there are still more graduates with history majors living in the country today than were living in 1950. Remember new "old saw" about the total population of China and India; apply as balm to humanities woes. Not only does the general expansion of college attendance make me less concerned than others are, but my guess is that they're more likely to be exposed to teaching that asks important historiographical questions and that uses primary sources. I didn't say immersed in: exposed. 

Those perspectives do not completely eliminate concern about the future of humanities teaching and humanities departments in colleges and universities. Though regionally accredited colleges and universities have some version of a distribution/breadth requirement or general-education program (depending on your regional accreditor), that fact does not mean that a department has to be anything more than a "service outlet," the higher-ed equivalent of the quick-lube shop tucked in between the strip malls of Finance and Psychology. "Shakespeare while u wait! Fulfill writing requirement in 30 mins or ur money back." 

On the other hand, while the standard choices of academe has been for greater adjunct use in all high-student areas (and that is true whether they're called adjuncts or graduate students), the reality is that humanities classes are cheap in comparison with science and math if one looks at course credit earned. High failures rates in algebra and the costs of maintaining labs add up in a pragmatic sense, and that's only looking at credit courses. What about community college remedial classes? As DeanDad has noted, developmental courses in math are a death march in comparison with other noncredit classes. Teaching-heavy institutions may short the humanities in individual places, but the combination of gen-ed/distribution requirements makes it virtually impossible for college students to graduate without some liberal-arts classes and thus virtually impossible for colleges to eliminate liberal-arts programs entirely.

And then, if you look at the costs of maintaining the research capacity of faculty, the humanities look even better: no lab animals to house, fewer research assistants to hire, and the primary need for many scholars is a computer, some travel funds for conferences or research trips, and time. The big difference is in universities with doctoral programs, where the expectation of support for doctoral students has both direct costs (tuition waivers, which are on top of the pitiful stipends for TAs and RAs) and also indirect costs (in terms of the classes that graduate faculty are not teaching while they are running seminars and advising students). What I'm seeing in Florida universities is a combination of closing small doctoral programs as well as some atrocious decisions about closing departments. 

The probable consequence of the first type of decisions--closing down small doctoral programs in the liberal arts and in other areas--is a change in the doctoral-education opportunities in those fields, somewhat different workloads for those faculty, and perhaps a bit of status shift back to traditionally-elite programs. It's not as though small-program closures is going to bump the publication trends in any significant manner, and Cohen's articles presume that the rolling crisis in academic publishing is in an entirely different universe from the mythical status decline she posits. In her February article, the world of publishing is entirely ignored, and the June article only discusses a presumed shift in journal publishing. In the real world where I live, as opposed to the make-believe world of the New York Times reporter, the long-term crisis in the liberal arts is in academic publishing and questions about the economics of monographs and the long-form argument.

(Among the atrocious departmental closure decisions, the University of Central Florida almost shut down its statistics department the same year it's opening up a new medical school, and Florida Atlantic University reorganized its engineering college into the Department of Tenured Faculty We Like, Department of Tenured Faculty We Hate, Department of Tenure-Track Faculty, and Department of Non-Tenurable Faculty Who Teach Boatloads of Undergraduates. Those weren't the official names of the reorganized units, but that's the central function of the reorganization. Guess which "department" was closed, with the tenured faculty told to leave by August 7?)

July 8, 2009

Ward Churchill, part omega?

Yesterday's decision not to give Ward Churchill his job back (Denver Post, Inside Higher Ed, New York Times) suggests that we're probably close to the end of the Churchill legal saga. His lawyer will appeal, but my gut sense is that while the immunity question is a matter of some interest, the question of whether UC had to take Churchill back is the type of judgment call that an appeals court is going to find hard to reverse. That's generally what trial judges are for. That doesn't mean that the judge was always correct in his reasoning (and certainly not on the point that concerned Cary Nelson, the judge's implication that issues extraneous to the research misconduct charge were relevant). But this was a messy case from the beginning.

I've held off responding to the AAUP National Council statement released in April until after the judge's decision, but I want to explain why I think the National Council was incorrect. Here is the statement in its entirety:

We believe the disputes over Ward Churchill's publications should have been allowed to work themselves out in traditional scholarly venues, not referred to disciplinary hearings. We believe Churchill should be reinstated to his faculty position at the University of Colorado.

The gist of the statement is that most intellectual disputes should be addressed in a publication venue rather than discipline, and that's correct. But the allegations regarding Churchill were about research misconduct. I'm no expert on the history of research misconduct, but I strongly suspect that you'd find some claims of research misconduct first appear in scholarly venues and sometimes they appear outside scholarly venues. And at some point the allegations and evidence are sufficient to warrant discipline.

The critical question is not when that threshhold is crossed into potential misconduct but who should make that decision, and it is the AAUP's long tradition of upholding faculty judgments on their peers' work. Not "faculty judgment when it appears in a refereed journal" but faculty judgment, with a clear preference for judgment of peers at the institution where a scholar works. Not "faculty judgment in the AAUP National Council" but local faculty judgment. The AAUP National Council would have criticized any other national body for making that kind of judgment precisely because of the AAUP's longstanding positions, and in April the National Council was wrong when it substituted its own judgment for the judgment of the peer committee in Boulder of whether Churchill's errors justified disciplinary investigation and action.

July 7, 2009

Kill the AHA Job Registry now

What David Evans and Tenured Radical (aka Claire Potter) said. The Professional Respect Abbatoir should be dismantled at all academic meetings and be replaced by phone interviews or (gasp!) inviting one more candidate to a campus interview. Especially in the current environment, when graduate students and new scholars might not be able to afford to come to the AHA for one- or two- nanosecond interviewlets, the AHA Job Registry and similar creatures should die.

The integrity twins in Illinois

Richard Herman "is shocked, shocked to find out that" influence peddling is going on in the University of Illinois. (Hat tip.) And plagiarist Glenn Poshard is certain that the "unfortunate incident" will not tarnish the reputation of higher education in Illinois more generally. (Hat tip.)

Well, I'm glad that's settled.

(P.S. For the whippersnappers who don't watch old movies, the first quotation isn't really from Herman.)

June 19, 2009

Conversation often works ... where it's tried

Today, ACTA's Anne Neal thanked the AAUP and AACU for welcoming her outreach efforts.Towards the end of the blog entry, she writes,

ACTA also shares many faculty members' legitimate concern about administrative bloat and about trustees who lack a sensitive understanding of the special protocols and values that underwrite the unique enterprise of higher education. That said, we also believe that it is the professoriate's job to reach out to trustees. Faculty should understand that presidents and trustees are engaged in enormously complex, vital, and often urgent fiduciary endeavors. They should also understand that, going forward, trustees must be included among academia's primary stakeholders, alongside faculty and administrators.

I hope that's possible; that depends both on faculty and on trustees not accepting upper-level administrators as gatekeepers. My experience in Florida is that trustees often accept the role of administrators as gatekeepers of information, so that a president can essentially filter out quite a bit. I know of one UFF chapter at a community college that was able to meet with the chair of the trustees and establish a good working relationship, but that's rare. Far more common is a fairly uncomfortable and unproductive divide between trustees and most faculty, with a handful of administrators controlling the interaction.

I suspect that there's a pretty easy way to prevent greater access from becoming a vehicle for cranks and sophists (who will get their word in, anyway): err... asking faculty to provide the reality-check filter.

For those readers outside Florida, what is your experience with the extent of interaction between governing-board members and faculty?

June 16, 2009

Iran's university students and faculty under threat

According to a Chronicle of Higher Education report late today, as well as Twitter reports and images/videos from bloggers who have been able to post, Iran's universities are under attack, either physically (with property destroyed and some reports of student deaths) or political pressures. If the clerical authorities gave orders for the Revolutionary Guard or other forces to attack universities, they are willing to throw overboard civic institutions as well as electoral politics to preserve their power. I'm not surprised. I'm very saddened, but I'm not surprised.

June 9, 2009

"Manufactured Controversy" the paper

Last week, Free Exchange on Campus published the latest thing other than student work to go on my to-read list: Manufactured Controversy, on the lessons to be learned from the attempt to politicize universities by David Horowitz and his allies. 

No, I haven't read it yet. But that's good news: this is a chance for you to get ahead of me in yet one more thing!

June 4, 2009

Clemson, prestige, and reputation

Despite its attempt to claw back from an unintentional statement of truth, Clemson's apparent manipulation/gaming of the U.S. News rankings system should give people one more reason to read Brewer, Gates, and Goldman's In Pursuit of Prestige (library copies), about the difference between colleges and universities that try to move up the rankings, on the one hand, and those that try to serve their students, on the other hand.

As I've stated before in a few contexts, few governing boards will hire a university president applicant who says, "Yep, you've got it just about right. I'm not making any changes and have no further ambitions for this place." That's just not the nature of the beast, and U.S. News rankings are often part of the discussion of institutional ambitions. So what to do to forestall this type of corruption or battle against the subtler forms, such as when universities want to raise the average SAT score of incoming first-time-in-college students? One way inside a university is to push for the inclusion of measures that focus on the service to the public. On the education side, that includes things such as the percentage of undergraduates receiving Pell grants and the percentage of students who are in the first generation of their families to attend college. Those links are to my own institution's strategic-plan data system, and they show that we're headed in the wrong direction on these important indicators, though the change on the Pell-grant proportion is small. I know from the development of this strategic plan that one of the measures was in there to begin with (for which the university administration deserves credit) and another was pushed by a faculty member (for which both the faculty and the university administration deserves credit).

Now here's the frustrating part: no one is holding us accountable for this. In the abstract, there are writers such as Peter Sacks who can uncover the shenanigans Clemson's administration apparently is engaged in and explain the connections to the college opportunities for children from poor and moderate-income families. But that's pretty abstract. In the din surrounding education budgets, together with shrinking news holes in your nearest metropolitan daily, there's little chance for the type of accountability that matters: discussion in a community about the public value of a college or university and where the institution should be headed to increase that public value. 

And, yes, that includes private institutions: you and I are indirectly paying for them with tax deductions to their donors.

May 24, 2009

The three-year degree already exists

Yesterday's Washington Post article on the three-year degree argument skimmed over what most such proposals ignore: there already is a three-year degree, and I don't mean the small number of three-year degree options that have largely failed to attract students. I mean the way that students currently speed up their college education: AP classes and dual enrollment in community-college courses while in high school. The Post story briefly mentioned George Washington University student Justin Guiffre, who might graduate a year early with AP credit. A college friend of mine did the same in the 1980s. I have known some students at USF who have also used AP class credit to finish general-education requirements early, which makes graduating a semester early almost automatic, and a year early quite possible.

Maybe I am naive or out of touch, but I don't recall this being a focus of any discussion vis-a-vis the three-year degree. Instead of blathering on about "better marketing" (which always rescues flops regardless of the merits of an idea), maybe American Council of Education President Molly Corbett Broad should be asking where students use AP credits and where they don't, and why. And maybe we should be asking whether a three-year-degree option would address the reasons for swirling or academic probation or lack of academic support from the institution, or any of the many reasons why degree completion is lower than many of us would like. Until then, the three-year-degree proposal is facile, not substantive. 

No-shoe-leather-used alert: did anyone else notice that the only students Valerie Strauss quoted were from George Washington University, less than two miles from the Washington Post headquarters, and Howard University, which is within three miles. They're both private, nationally-known colleges and not the typical college or university. Maybe she should have talked with University of District Columbia or University of Maryland students to see what the public-university student perspective is.

May 19, 2009

I know that guy! (Delta higher-ed cost project)

I am pleased as punch that Nate Johnson's new Delta Cost Project report is being publicized nationally. I first met Nate about a decade ago when he was working deep in the bowels of the Ralph Turlington Education Building in Tallahassee, before he was plucked by the former state university system chancellor to be his data guru, and it was a good choice. Nate now works at the Florida branch of the Evil Empire (aka University of Florida), but I'm sure we can rescue him from the Dark Side some day, and until then, maybe he can have occasional opportunities to do work like the project released today. If it's like his other work, it'll careful and cognizant of a range of ways to look at important issues.

May 14, 2009

Changing higher ed, from Mr. Obvious Man

Craig Smith tagged me in an AFT FACE entry asking about the future of/a better vision for higher education, and given the way that Mark Taylor's schizophrenic vision of higher ed prompted not only a flurry of comments but thoughtful comments by Dr. Crazy, Dean Dad, Marc Bousquet, Timothy Burke, H. Saussy, and Michael Berube, among many others, not to mention Andrew Delbanco's review essay, it's time for me to underwhelm the universe with ten obvious comments about the future of higher education.

  1. Marc Bousquet is wrong in some very significant ways, but he's absolutely right in many others, and if his creative ravings prompt a healthy discussion of higher ed in the long term, my hat is off to him.
  2. In addition to other criticisms of Mark Taylor's curricular utopia, an important purpose of a stable curriculum is to eliminate one huge potential (expletive) waste of time reinventing wheels. It's far more productive to improve the wheels we've got and maybe invent a few carbon-fiber ones than to figure out how to make wheels made of hemp, green beans, recycled computer parts, and spent nuclear fuel rods.
  3. The entire discussion of college "costs" and tuition is off the deep end even while there are interesting sub-arguments. The discussion of tuition almost always ignores opportunity costs and generally ignores non-tuition costs (such as books or the cost of living). The Delta Project's analysis is interesting but entirely ignores the definitional problems in IPEDS reporting and the division of labor in colleges and universities. (I'd love to wave my hands and say, "Yes, fire all the student-life administrators, plow the money into faculty, and don't ask me to advise students!" Somehow, I don't think that's a practical suggestion) The human-capital arguments in favor of debt ignore the fundamental way that college student loans privatize the risks of going to college. At the same time, we have the chance to make a substantial incremental improvement in helping students with a shift to entirely direct lending and the automatic indexing of Pell Grants. I'll take the incremental improvement (it's HUGELY necessary) and still wish for some better model-building. I have no grand theoretical synthesis, but anyone who wants to buy me a good whiskey some evening and talk this over is more than welcome to!
  4. The vocational rhetoric surrounding higher education benefits the liberal arts because it implies that college students are responsible for their own affairs and should not be babied. This is in tension with arguments that liberal-arts programs and either a core or general-education curriculum should be at the heart of undergraduate studies, but on balance the vocational rhetoric of higher education has drawn far more students to college than would otherwise have been the case. We liberal-arts folks should be happy to have the chance to evangelize rather than preach to the converted. Give me 100 enrollees in my classes for a requirement, and I will convert 90 of them into students.
  5. The only national organization right now with a productive agenda on higher-education accountability is the American Association of Colleges and Universities. I'll take that good with the other, mediocre attempts funded by Lumina, but this is not a healthy state of affairs in the long run. The Shopping Mall High School's thesis is as applicable to large universities as to high schools, and until we can clone Cliff Adelman, we need a group of people with intellectual depth discussing the curricular problems at universities. 
  6. Right now, discussions of student learning are largely isolated from the widespread reliance on contingent faculty. Half of the discussions I see blame tenured faculty for avoiding teaching (as if all tenured faculty work at the University of Chicago). Does anyone else see the problems with this?
  7. Academic freedom can survive with a core of tenured faculty at an institution with non-tenure-track faculty, but we don't know the minimum size of that critical mass. For a variety of reasons, while the aftermath of 9/11 threatened academic freedom, it has been far more robust in the past decade than the worst fears in late 2001, including at my campus. At the same time, there are continuing threats, both inside and outside colleges and universities. In many places, tenured faculty are the most active defenders of academic freedom because they are safe; that was a crucial rationale for tenure in the first half of the 20th century, and it remains a valid argument. I have yet to see anyone who simultaneously advocates the abolition of tenure and can also point to a place that survived a real threat to academic freedom without any tenured faculty.
  8. Faculty are fragmented into too many communities of interest to defend academic values in a robust way. All too often, two-year and four-year faculty fail to understand the worlds that the others work in, let alone teaching institutions vs. research institutions, or even primarily teaching faculty and primarily graduate or research faculty in the same institution. Unions and the AAUP provide national organizations to defend values, along with disciplinary organizations, but the barriers are significant.
  9. When administrators ignore faculty organizations or do their best to do end-runs around them, they are missing substantial opportunities to advance institutional interests and feeding the behavior they presumably hate. I winced when I read one book by Derek Bok advising university presidents to do their best to go around the faculty senate or equivalent, because they're largely dysfunctional. Let me see if I understand the reasoning: if faculty senates are full of deadwood, and you go around them, what faculty support can you claim for your initiatives, and what incentive do you give the faculty you think should be in the faculty senate to serve? Oh, yes, and any monolithic model of your university demonstrates an essentially anti-intellectual temperament.
  10. Conversely, faculty who think that all administrators are evil are doing a remarkably good job of undermining collegial governance. There are serious problems with the development of academic administration "tracks" in the past 50 years (see item above), but the fact is that colleges and universities have administrators, you want the administrators to understand faculty and work with them, and what incentive do you give your colleagues to be willing to serve as administrators if they know you'll be the first one putting a target on their backs? Oh, yes, and any monolithic model of your university demonstrates an essentially anti-intellectual temperament.

May 11, 2009

Elsevier and qui tam lawsuits?

Is there anyone else horrified by the Elsevier journal scam waiting not just for academic righteousness but legal action in the U.S. based on the False Claims Act? If federal money was entangled at all in any of the journal nonsense, statements made by any of the fraudulent Elsevier journals could conceivably implicate the publisher if the publisher was knowingly complicit. Because the False Claims Act allows for third-party plaintiffs, anyone who knows of the shenanigans could get a lawyer to work on this very quickly.

May 8, 2009

No holy grail, just inexpensive texts, please

I love the inspiration of the Student PIRG Open Textbook campaign as well as the Hewlett Foundation Open Educational Resources initiative, not to mention the excitement over H.R. 1464 over at iterating towards openness (relevant entries one, two, three, and four). I think I'll take the latter's subtitle as my theme on this topic: "pragmatism over zeal." The blog's motto is about open content. I'm going to apply it to the practical issue when common-course texts are more expensive than community-college course tuition: we need good, inexpensive texts.

Open content may be one way to the goal (good, inexpensive texts), but it is not the holy grail. It's a possible path. There are a number of reasons to avoid putting all one's eggs into the open-content basket: the need for development and updating material, respect for the effort that good text authors expend, and the legitimate need to provide an incentive for good texts as opposed to any texts that don't count as highway robbery. In this, I take my philosophy from John Willinsky's The Access Principle: we'll take improvement as it comes.

What are the different paths towards this goal? Let me imagine a few:

  • Open content writing supported by private or public grants.
  • "Loss-leader" investment in texts by institutions.
  • Open content writing supported by communities of users.
  • Self-published textbooks using print-on-demand technology.
  • Some combination of the above.

Some explanation is in order on each of these. Currently, Hewlett is banking on the first: if the foundation can support the writing of text material for some of the most common college courses, it will save thousands of college students. That's pretty good leverage where appropriate. But that's not the only path, and it's important not to rely on that for a few reasons.

One reason to be cautious is because an institution can and should be free to innovate, and sometimes that innovation requires a different approach to material. Or faculty in a department may decide that a grant-supported open text in accounting or college algebra is just junk. So what else to do? In many public universities and colleges, the cost of a textbook for a single large-enrollment class is often greater than even a noticeable tuition hike. (Think calculus texts at $200+.) If a community college or university subsidizes textbook writing for a handful of large-enrollment classes, it can simultaneously save students hundreds of dollars, make a substantial point in public about how it serves the public, and protect its political legitimacy.

A variant of the grant-supported development of open content is the community support of open content text materials. This is a lot harder to organize (even along an open-source software model), but especially in technical fields, this may well be developing even as I write. But it does require some organization.

But what about the many college classes that have a niche but not enough enrollment to attract the attention of a Hewlett Foundation, the federal government (if the bill on open-content support goes anywhere), or an institutional investment? And where there isn't a community of faculty nationwide or worldwide to write and rewrite texts? In essence, grant-funded and community-supported open-content textbooks are going to be most feasible for the largest-enrollment classes. For many other classes, I suspect that faculty could develop texts inside the classes they teach, make electronic versions of the texts available for free inside the institution (to avoid conflict-of-interest problems), and then self-publish the material through a print-on-demand outfit either for their own students who want hard copy (and because that is optional, the conflict of interest is mooted) or for other institutions. Or publish through the Kindle mechanism at Amazon. For a variety of reasons, this allows faculty authors to bet and win on the long tail in niche courses. And for students, the cost of a text can be minimal while still providing net income to authors comparable to royalties through standard text publishing.

There are variations on the theme, but I hope that the obsession with open content for its own sake is replaced with the end goal: cheaper texts for students. I suspect students don't care whether the $25 text they might have access to is published through Lulu.com, is available on their Kindle, or is published through LightningSource and bought online. I suspect that if the text works for them, they'd be happy to pay $25 rather than $200.

"My university administration has asked me not to speak to the press"

Fellow education policy blogger Sara Goldrick-Rab wrote a painful entry earlier this week about how her administration treats her speaking up on a policy issue in her area of expertise (in this case, her opposition to UW-Madison's tuition hike), and I'm sorry I haven't followed up before now, because if she is reporting correctly (see the comments attributed to her in the Madinson Capitol Times), the University of Wisconsin-Madison administration is infringing on her academic freedom.

I was contacted the night before the initiative was rolled out by vice provost for enrollment management Joanne Berg, who informed me of the news and told me to refer all press inquiries to the University Communications office.

I should note that while I am sympathetic to Goldrick-Rab's policy perspective, I think she's wrong about the policy (for reasons I'd rather explore in a different entry). But my disagreement with her on specific policy grounds is very different from my absolute support for any colleague who is speaking on a matter of public concern, including employers' actions, from her or his expertise. This is one of those cases where I'd prefer knowing more about what's going on at the ground level, but at a first glance, it looks like Berg was acting the bully. Even if there were a miscommunication involved, Berg owes Goldrick-Rab a blunt apology for not remembering that tenure-track assistant professors have a pretty rational paranoia and a finely-tuned power meter. Berg could even use the wording President Obama has to acknowledge error: "I screwed up." 

Anyone want to guess what the odds are that she'll do that?

April 29, 2009

No such thing as a "failed search"

I used to hate "student evaluations" as the most ill-used expression in higher ed,* but I have a new pet peeve: "failed search," as in claims that the "second major search for a dean [of Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism] is on the verge of failure."

Piffle and lizard snot.** There is no such thing as a failed search, or at least 90% of the searches without a hire at the end are far from failures.

The phrase failed search implies that the job of a search committee is to run a process that ends in a hire, some hire, any hire, any hire at all, and no matter what the qualifications of candidates who applied, by golly, if you don't get that quarterback-of-a-dean (or chair or faculty member), you've just got to take the person who fogged the mirror the best. It's written there in policy. Or the state's regents expect it. Or it's better to make the wrong hire than to potentially lose a tenure-earning line to the provost's/dean's/Sheriff of Nottingham's greedy fingers. Or gravity will cease to function in the next academic year.

One of my colleagues is fond of quoting Lawrence Iannaccone as saying, "No hire is better than the wrong hire." I agree. The job of a search committee is to solicit and recruit applicants and then sort through them in a professional and legally appropriate manner. If there's a good fit with an applicant, and the institution comes to an agreement on salary, etc., hurray! But if the search ends without a hire, often that means that the search committee did its job properly. It's an inconclusive search, or a search that discovered something important about the field, or about the institution, that requires rethinking what's appropriate.

I have no idea what's going on with the dean's search in Berkeley, but the casual expression hides a stereotype of searches as conclusive or failed, and that just isn't so.

* As I wrote last week,

They're NOT evaluations!!!

Personnel evaluation at universities should be conducted by peers and chairs, not students, so we rule that out. And you KNOW that your students are evaluating the course in the real sense from the first day, and by the time they fill in the bubbles (or click on the bubbles online), they've already told their classmates what they think of the class.

They're ratings. Evaluation is a thoughtful reflection on what's happened or is happening, geared towards changing practice. Ratings can be part of that, but the student end-of-semester surveys are not the sum total of evaluation, and I wish people would stop using that term.

** Apologies to Bruce Coville fans. I don't think that there is a lizard species that has nasal mucous membranes.

April 27, 2009

PCAST, mostly very good except for Rensselauer's president

Today, the White House announced President Obama's picks for the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), and with one exception, they look great to me.

The exception is Shirley Ann Jackson, whose scientific reputation is fine but whose administration of Rensselaur Polytechnic Institute is rife with signs of problems, from the close vote of no confidence in 2006 to the dismissal of the faculty senate in 2007, stripping a professor emeritus of e-mail privileges, and (just discovered a few months ago) the provision of a second home in the Adirondacks for her at a time when RPI was laying off dozens of staff members.

I don't think that PCAST's reputation is well-served by one of the poster children for administrative arrogance in higher ed.

April 26, 2009

What are the costs of education at universities? A quibble

Sara Goldrick-Rab reports on Kevin Carey's visit to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. One thing about his comments and the Delta Project on higher-ed costs makes me wonder about the failure to talk about messy data with college costs, or rather what Goldrick-Rab reports on his comments:

Of course, Madison is a research university, a very good one, and research is expensive. So let's set all that research aside and look only at spending on what the feds classify as "instruction, academic support, and student services."

The problem is that it's not possible to rely on IPEDS reports to separate out the costs of research from the costs of instruction etc. If you want to read the relevant glossary items from IPEDS, you can scroll down this page to "instruction," but the gist is that IPEDS cost reporting for instruction can include a broad range of stuff you could describe as research-oriented including the salary of faculty (WITH time spent on research), salaries of academic deans, and even in some cases the depreciation of buildings when distributed to different functional categories. I don't know where graduate research assistant stipends and tuition waivers would be counted, but the point is that even without delving into support and student-services categories, lots of spending at research universities that is research oriented is counted as instruction for IPEDS purposes. Essentially, the IPEDS cost categories are functional to a moderate extent but not comparatively useful in the way that many assume.

That messiness makes it hard to have productive political conversations around instructional costs. On principle, Carey is right: students deserve the same general education wherever they go, and flagship public universities are often favored over community colleges and regional or directional state universities. But the key adverb is "often," and in some states it's a favored community college that receives interesting treatment (e.g., Northwest Florida State College and the Destin airport hangar... oops, educational building at the airport 15 miles from campus). And historical trends are relevant: many states ramped up raw-dollar investment in community colleges in the 1970s and 1980s as they were starting to disinvest in universities when examined per-pupil. That doesn't make the institutions equal by any means, but I suspect institutional leaders can point to inequities in how their sector has been treated by the legislature. They're different inequities, of course.

I don't mind Carey's asking the question about the relative costs of instruction -- even based on mediocre data, it's the right question. But I don't think it's easy by any means to have a single formula that apportions instructional costs per student FTE, advising and support costs per head-count, and research infrastructure with some other function. I'd love to be proved wrong with something that would be politically robust and not end up with all state support being zeroed out (in which case all institutions are certainly treated equally), so kibitzing is most welcome!

Two gems this morning

I have the distinct pleasure of reading the St. Petersburg Times from cover to cover most mornings (or later in the day). They are one of the few papers to keep a number of reporters covering education in a substantive way, and while reporters at other papers find themselves stretched between too many assignments (such as Adam Emerson and Lindsay Peterson of the Tampa Tribune, both of whom are excellent), the Times continues to invest in ways that I wish other newspapers would/could.

The Times/Miami Herald joint state-capitol bureau is another example of this investment, though that is a joint bureau that is less powerful than it used to be (e.g., with Gary Fineout out of the Herald). But it still manages to churn out great work, including its investigation of the deals between the now-indicted Ray Sansom and Bob Richburg. I would not be surprised if that investigation leads to professional awards, and it has earned my gratitude for its work.

The columnists are also nothing to be sneered at, and today's columns by Howard Troxler on higher education and Lucy Morgan on the state's legislature are gems.

April 18, 2009

More on Sansom and Richburg indictments

The Northwest Florida Daily News coverage of the Sansom and Richburg indictments is more extended than that of any other Florida paper other than the Times and Herald, and it has the coverage of local reaction that other papers couldn't provide; it's clear that while many have sympathy with Sansom (not all!), NWFSC President Bob Richburg is far from a beloved figure in the community.

One other brief comment: The Times/Herald capitol bureau's Alex Leary deserves enormous credit for his investigative reporting. I would not be surprised if this coverage wins awards. And this is the type of stuff that requires a long-term investment in reporters, an investment that we are less and less likely to see in the next 5-10 years. (The St. Petersburg Times is unusual in that it is owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute. It's still being squeezed by the decline of newspaper revenues, but it doesn't have the extent of problems that most other papers have right now.)

April 17, 2009

Sansom and Richburg indictment and grand jury report...

... are available online thanks to the St Petersburg Times.

Are GPAs dirty while the SAT-I score is clean?

Before I dive into a minor patch of weeds, some basic issues: Above all else, the vast majority of college and university admission slots are not at selective institutions, so the debate over SAT use for deciding admissions should largely be tangential to policy concerns about postsecondary attainment. This is akin to spending all one's time thinking about the undergraduate curriculum at Harvard or the civic engagement of students at Oberlin. Even if you look at the institutions that require SATs, I suspect the vast majority of slots are at selective institutinos only in the barest sense of rejecting some applicants. But the use of SAT scores is a political hot topic because it stabs into our ideas about meritocracy (as Nicholas Lehmann has written) and also because it has been used for status purposes by institutions or pushed down on institutions (either by state politicians or U.S. News & World Report).

So when Michael Kirst gives us a heads-up that a forthcoming book will argue that SAT I scores have no added predictive value for finishing a degree (not first-year grades, but finishing a degree), I am not surprised one whit. I will wait for the book to see if the evidence is convincing, but I don't think that it will change either the use or the dominant themes in the debate. When SAT scores are used for things it was never intended to and for which there is no documented validity (as a placement tool in college, or for use in judging high schools), you're talking about culture rather than rationality and evidence. A case in point is Chad Aldeman's recent discussion of the SAT debate:

It may or may not be biased against minorities and low-income youth, and kids can be coached on how to improve their score. But, what else do we have that's better, that elite colleges and universities would trust as a replacement? High school GPAs are tarnished by grade inflation and high schools themselves are yoked to reputations. Personal statements are no less coachable than SATs, and extracurricular activities favor the children of parents with time and money. Even worse, none of these things are objective; a student in Abilene, TX cannot be compared to a student from Anchorage, AL on these things. The SAT, on the other hand, is a national test.

Since Aldeman had previously argued that selective institutions should set a basic "we think you can do the work" threshhold and then run a lottery, this is a fascinating defense of a largely defenseless practice. Here's the gist: plenty of research documents that despite all of its problems, a high school GPA is (roughly) at least as good as the SAT in predicting first-year grades. But while many people understand that imperfect data can still be useful (and I suspect that would be Aldeman's defense of the SAT), there is a theme in the excerpt above that appears commonly in debates about admissions standards: GPAs are dirty, SATs are clean.

The argument is almost always laid out the way that Aldeman does: high school GPAs are inconsistent from place to place. Even course titles don't mean the same thing; first-year algebra in one place can be remarkably different from algebra in another. Grades are often a reward of students' putting up with seat-time rather than a demonstration of accomplishments. In contrast, the SAT is a nationally-normed test, and whatever weaknesses it has, it more than makes up for that in its being objective.

One practical problem with this argument is that college is not a set of SAT-like tests. College is messy in all sorts of ways, and for all its flaws, there is something in a high school transcript that has more information about a student than an SAT score. We'll have to wait for the book to come out to see more, but there's a reason why a regular diploma is a more valuable credential than a GED, and the GED is also a nationally-developed test.

A second problem with the "GPA dirty, SAT clean" argument is that the use of the SAT can most harm the chances of students who come from high schools with the lowest graduation rates, schools where one could argue a relatively high GPA says a great deal about relative persistence. As Ted Sizer argued almost a quarter-century ago in Horace's Compromise, suburban schools are filled with the types of classroom treaties that result in grade inflation. But in a school where roughly half of the students never graduate, grades tell you a great deal. They may not tell you if someone who finished algebra I with an A can derive the standard binomial-equation solution (the SAT-I doesn't tell you that, either), but they tell you how much a student has persistence, guts, bureaucratic navigation skills, etc. And if someone from such a school writes an essay (we're talking about selective institutions, again), I suspect it would be far less likely to be coached or professionally edited than the essay of a student in a comfortable suburb. 

As an historian, my professional judgment is that the debate over the SATs has almost nothing to do with whether there is a rational justification for its use in admissions. Instead, the public debate is almost entirely over our ideas of merit, and the framing by one side of the debate as a claim that the high-school GPA is dirty while the SAT is clean is confirmation of that judgment.

April 11, 2009

Bewildered at arguments about rent-seeking

Not to accuse the conservative left hand of not knowing what the conservative right hand is doing, but I am bewildered by the latest publication of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. (Hat tip.) The report repeats an argument I have heard before why student aid is horrible: it feeds rent-seeking behavior from colleges and is therefore counterproductive in terms of larger spending patterns. Apart from the thin evidentiary base and failure to consider alternative hypotheses (primarily, that public colleges universities raised tuition as state appropriations per student have fallen), there's a gaping inconsistency between the "it just encourages them" argument against student aid and arguments in favor of publicly-funded vouchers that pay part of private-school K-12 tuition.

Some K-12 voucher programs are conditioned on schools' accepting vouchers as complete payment, but that is not true with either Florida's tax-credit voucher program or its voucher program for students with disabilities. Yet--not to my complete surprise--I don't think that anyone who has argued that college student promotes rent-seeking basis has lifted a finger to see if there is rent-seeking behavior with K-12 voucher programs. This is not a call for anyone to research this, particularly, since I don't think the salient issues with K-12 vouchers are the possibility of rent-seeking.  But it's an inconsistency in conservative education policy arguments that is rather curious.

April 10, 2009

Remedial math in community colleges

The anonymous community-college Dean Dad wrote this morning about remedial math classes in community colleges, and I'll use this as an excuse opportunity to bring together several thoughts I've spread around in different places or have not articulated:

  • Remedial education in community colleges should be the logical place where we try Carol Twigg's approach to improving essential common instruction.
  • We should stop blaming a mythical lack of alignment between high school and college for remedial-education needs in community colleges. I'd bet a bundle that every high school counselor tells students that algebra is required for college, and I'd bet a bundle that students who pass algebra and then are slotted for remedial education in community college knew far more algebra at the end of the algebra course than when they took the placement test for CC. My alternative hypothesis: students forget, especially if their hold on algebra in high school was by the fingernail. I'd be happy to be disproved wrong here, but someone has to do the research to keep stating the myth without my tossing tomatoes.
  • There should be no conflict between the National Mathematics Advisory Panel's final report recommendation emphasizing fractions as a central pre-algebra skill, on the one hand, and the desire to teach probability and statistics, on the other hand. How can you teach probability without students' understanding fractions? 
  • My guess based on observing weaknesses in communicating math-ed expectations is that one key stumbling block in learning fractions and teaching them is grasping/explaining how they can represent multiple properties and how the same properties of a fraction can be represented in different ways. If someone understands that 2 is a fraction, and that 67% not only is close to 2/3 as an abstract value but also can represent an approximation of the same darned thing (for a whole load of values for "thing"), then the concept of rational numbers is a small step, or at least a much smaller step when someone responds to the first statement with "huh?"

More notes on college visits

I'm continuing my series of notes on college visits (the last one was from the fall). Thanks to frequent-flyer mileage, my daughter's spring break, and a few other things, we're spending almost an entire week in a part of the country where my daughter has never visited. I've been in one metro area before, but not for an extended period of time, nor with enough time and transportation to investigate the place well. And for one of the colleges, we went a good ways away from the metropole to a part of the country and a geomorphological area I haven't visited, either. We still have a few days left here, but the schedule is much looser tomorrow than it has been, so I'm not stealing that much from my sleep to type out these notes.

  • Reason #1 to visit the bookstore (confirmed now, after multiple college visits): see what's assigned. See which disciplines assign texts in all campuses, which assign trade paperbacks. See which English departments assign all Great Canon Collections (i.e., Norton anthologies, Riverside Shakespeare, etc.), which assign all non-collections, and which are a mix. See how many books don't come in on time (only possible if you're visiting close to the start of a term). See which bookstores have prominent posters advising students on financial aid what to do under various circumstances. (With the except of the last, creating broader access to this information is a hidden benefit of all the attempts to lower text costs for students: if colleges have to post what faculty are requiring, everyone will have access to the same information my daughter and I have acquired by browsing shelves. I still like browsing, but...)
  • Reason #2 to visit the bookstore on a public campus: chat up the bookstore manager. Ask what students are reading for pleasure. Ask what's the number-one error students make in buying books. If there are multiple staff members, browse quietly and listen.
  • One last item on bookstores: I've now come across two college bookstores without a general reading section, and the bookstore manager confirmed that as students have started ordering their pleasure reading online, it makes no economic sense for the bookstore to devote space to general reading. She's happy ordering books one-by-one for students who don't want to give up their credit card #s online, but she can't afford to have that chunk of space devoted to Calvin and Hobbes, Al Gore, etc.
  • After telling my daughter my previously hidden curriculum for making sure she sits in on a class at each campus--that by the time she goes to college, she'll have spent enough time in college classes that she can't feel like an imposter--she still wants to go to classes every campus. Then again, since the topics of classes included Mort d'Arthur, Shakespeare, and poetry, I'm not surprised. (I wish that someone would create a "video capture" setups that would work in a seminar or studio class; while I have the time and frequent-flyer mileage to take my daughter to various colleges, that is NOT available generally, and as I have said repeatedly here, there is something shameful in the fact that iTunes has perpetuated the myth of college classes as lectures.)
  • Then there's yet another reason for a prospective student to visit a class: so the parent can do more shmoozing during the free time.
  • Thought during one campus visit: "Wow. That's a unique demographic profile for this type of school, and I never would have thought about it before visiting, but it makes perfect sense."
  • Thought during another campus visit: "Well, that would have gotten the school in trouble 40 years ago. Probably did, too."
  • Explanation to my daughter about a different demographic pattern (at a different college) from the one referenced above: in the same way that there's chain migration, there's also chain application/matriculation, in part a deliberate institutional strategy.
  • One tourguide early on mentioned the famous campus quirky tradition that was a plot point in a novel written by an alum (and in the college's bookstore). Then again, I have yet to visit a small four-year campus that doesn't have at least one quirky student tradition, and I've seen enough quirkiness at large places, too.
  • Undergraduate research in science is the new astronomy in small colleges: ubiquitous and visible on campus. 
  • My daughter has seen far more birds of prey this trip than I have.
  • Only once in eight official or unofficial campus visits has the following explanation been relevant: "They were frozen vegetables put in a steam tray."
  • An admissions office in early spring can be a madhouse, with a mix of high school juniors looking and high school seniors deciding. I think I like the chaos a bit more than the more rehearsed admissions presentations at other times, or at least it gave me an opportunity a few times to gather a different type of information than I otherwise would have.

One more reflection: The only "safety-school" application possible is the total number of applications. How would you feel if a financial advisor told you to sink your investment portfolio into three companies and only three companies: a "safe" low-risk bond; and two companies with stock and varying levels of assumed risk? That's bonkers: you choose the overall level of risk you want and diversity across and within classes, and those of us without enough money to diversify by individual company invest in mutual funds (and now ignore the statements we receive). We've been talking about this explicitly in my family (if not with the same metaphor) to encourage sanity and from a realistic sense of how the admissions offices work in the colleges in which my daughter is interested. First, for the sanity: one of the educators in my daughter's high school evidently has had too much contact with parents who really believe that their children can improve their chances by adding one more AP class or adding one more extracurricular activity instead of challenging themselves to a reasonable extent and being themselves very well. So I've given my daughter full permission to stop at X AP classes (X being many more than I or her mother took).

That's reasonable not only because the "climbing the class rank" game is not a healthy approach to high school but also because college selectivity never has been and never should have been thought of in the way it became common to before or during my generation. High school counselors are still pushing the "safety school" and "stretch school" approach, and that advice incorrectly implies that the selection process has a monotonic function of likelihood (i.e., that you can predict the ranking of difficulty in getting into a set of schools both by attributes of a student and by the characteristics of a college). Schools that operate by a formulaic approach may do that, but for them, you know that the only things that count are GPA and SAT/ACT scores. If there's any qualitative judgment, it's both sanier and more rational to assume that if a prospective student passes a certain minimum threshold where the admissions officer thinks, "Okay, this student can do the work," everything else is a matter of admissions decisions on who would be a "good fit," and all of that to families just means a crapshoot. So treat it as such! Demonstrate you can do the work, and then be yourself and a very good yourself.

Chad Alderman has an interesting proposal on that point: that above the threshhold that a prospective student presents a reasonable expectation of success in college, colleges should just operate lotteries.

(P.S. Community colleges are no longer safety schools, not because they're turning away students but because they're not being given enough money for next year to have all the classes students need. A hunting license for classes is not safety.)

April 5, 2009

Fish ferociously flubs

Excuse me while I pick my jaw up off the ground after reading Stanley Fish's latest piece, wherein he argues that because some substantive academic arguments are heated, we should see through the University of Colorado faculty committee's misreading of a typical scholarly debate as research misconduct. One can make a number of plausible arguments about the university's response to the committee report (e.g., that it ignored the majority's view that the appropriate punishment was a demotion and suspension, not firing), but to claim that the committee erred while passing off the sleight-of-mouth that he admitted being "not competent to judge Churchill's writings" is just astounding. If a peer committee with more expertise in the area than Fish is not competent to judge research misconduct in such a case, who should be allowed to pass judgment? 

There are other fallacies in the piece: Fish's defense of Churchill doesn't match the central argument the jury was exposed to (political bias and pressure motivating administrators), and I still don't understand why it should matter to the University of Colorado that Doris Kearns Goodwin is still making moolah after admitting plagiarism. Dick Cheney is still earning a pension after encouraging torture. Would that excuse my waterboarding a neighbor? Sheesh.

In protest of this illogic, I am going to exile myself from Florida for a week to Minnesota.

March 31, 2009

Not closing up shop just yet

Kevin Carey's Chronicle column this week, What Colleges Should Learn From Newspapers' Decline reminds me too much of Willard Daggett's slipshod prognostication: oh, yes, there will be surgery-by-wire where you can stay in Podunk while a surgeon in New York City opens up your heart (something close to what Daggett claimed in one speech I witnessed). And because some colleges on the margin of financial survival will close in the Great Unraveling (as Krugman has termed it), that means there are huge segments of higher ed doomed in the next five years!

Pardon me for the historian's skepticism here, but if that were true, then the quick closure of Atlantic University in 1932 should have presaged disaster for higher education later in the 1930s. Didn't happen. The Depression caused lots of trouble for both K-12 schools and colleges, certainly, but I don't see what Carey sees. The newspaper business is imploding because of a combination of several things:

  • Owners began to expect absolutely unreasonable profit margins
  • The revenue model for newspapers depended not on readers but on selling advertisers the valuable access to readers that eroded in the internet era.
  • Newspapers have been unable to replace that revenue model.

We may see similar levels of idiocy in some institutions, but that's true no matter what the era. Peabody College for Teachers was an independent private institution having financial difficulties in the early 1970s, but what put it over the edge and forced the merger with Vanderbilt several years later was the amazingly inane decision of administrators to eliminate non-education programs, thereby swiping the financial legs out from under the place. (Retaining the non-education programs may not have saved Peabody in the end, but eliminating them ensured its demise as an independent college.) That type of misjudgment is possible anywhere at any time.

One significant difference between newspapers and colleges and universities (and the relevant one here given Carey's argument) is that colleges and universities have already responded more successfully than newspapers to dropping support from the constituency that used to pay for access to readers ... er, students, or more properly, graduates. The decline of state support for public higher education began several decades ago, and while Carey and I may not like the shape of the response, no one can claim that it has fallen on its face in the same way as (or even in a remotely similar way to) newspapers trying to gain money from online readers. Because businesses have paid for access to graduates (i.e., they pay more to adults with baccalaureates than to high school graduates or high school dropouts), that has been enough not only to sustain higher education but given it substantial growth over the past 30 years.

In other words, higher education already had its newspaper-circulation problem, and it's on the other side. Update: Brad DeLong embarrasses me by coming up with the ultimate "already had its problem and went past it" example: books didn't kill universities. Current score counting macroeconomic analysis: DeLong, 501; Dorn, 3.

March 24, 2009

Ward Churchill, delusional

A little over three years ago, I noted that Ward Churchill was an awful poster boy for academic freedom, and he continues to astound me with his trial against the University of Colorado. According to both the New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Ed reporting on his testimony today, Churchill claimed both that his firing was motivated by external pressure and also that he should have been judged by academics outside the University of Colorado. But if there hadn't been an internal committee, I'm sure he would have pointed to the AAUP guidelines that tenured faculty should be judged by university/college peers before being fired for research misconduct.  One wonders what sort of procedural safeguards Churchill would claim is sufficient, if asked, or if he'd just like to get off scot-free with any potential misconduct if he's outlandish enough.

I disagree with my friend and fellow historian of education Philo Hutcheson, who testified on behalf of Churchill, arguing that firing him for research misconduct is too harsh because Harvard didn't punish its famous plagiarists. That may have a tiny bit of surface plausibility, as Margaret Soltan sarcastically notes, but Harvard's lapse is not Churchill's excuse. The inequitability-of-punishment argument holds within an institution, not across institutions, or no plagiarist could ever be punished because once upon a time, Harvard or its equal in this sort of academic prestige, Southern Illinois University, had famous plagiarists who did not have to carry the full consequences of their actions.

March 21, 2009

Michael Crow and Bernie Machen up the yin-yang

Monday's New York Times story on Arizona State University stole my point earlier this month about the expenses of public research universities and the tension between undergraduate teaching and the building of a research infrastructure. Either that, or I was stating the obvious (I think I was stating the obvious). The Times quoted the ASU student State Press in pointing out that the budget cuts had turned ASU into the Neutered American University instead of Crow's "new American university."

Today, Timothy Burke has another thoughtful entry about the future of higher education, this time on the difficulty of building the core of a great teaching university, on top of September's argument that the party's over as far as a several-decades boom is concerned. And Thursday's news about prospective cuts at the University of Florida's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences should be sobering given that UF is putatively part of the Association of American Universities, the country club of higher education in the U.S. Michael Crow's ambitions did not protect ASU from a fiscal fiasco, and after Bernie Machen continued a decade-long trend to turn UF into a medical center with a university appendage, budget cuts have resulted in a layoff grievance that my union won decisively this month, pending disaster for science at UF, and the widespread destruction of morale around campus. So much for the value of being a member of the country-club set.

ASU and UF are the extremes of this pattern of overweening administrative/political ambition, stories of mission creep having become mission sprint and now the mission trots. Other institutions may survive this downturn without as much of a visible fiasco, and well-placed institutions might even benefit, at least in comparison. The irony of the entry title is that while "up the yin-yang" is slang for extremism (well, in one of its uses), the reason why Crow and Machen are in the Academic Hall of Shame right now is because they have not understand balance at a public university. I suspect that there is a reasonable balance, and part of my job as a faculty union leader is to do my best to push that balance. But I recognize that historical trends and current budget crises make that balance much more difficult in most places.

March 6, 2009

"Cut the c***, governor, and tell us what you'll support"

I'm reading between the lines on this report of a Florida legislative committee hearing from yesterday, but I think the reported interaction between (majority) committee members and the governor's representative is an indication that my guess a few days ago was correct: Florida's state senate leaders are almost to the point of saying out loud how fed up they are with political games.

Next Friday, naf eht stih tihs eht with the March revenue estimating conference, when the state's economists will reveal the state's equivalent of the Fed beige book: we're in deep trouble still, deeper than the assumptions built into the governor's budget proposal. As I've said, Governor Crist is the second most disciplined politician I've seen in my life, but it's one thing to strategize over one of your campaign promises and it's another thing to put the entire state budget at risk for something... I'm not sure what, but something. And while I disagree with state lawmakers who want to refuse federal recovery funds, I understand their not wanting to stick their necks out for unpopular tax increases or long-term commitments if the governor's going to claim that the state can increase education funding with no tax increases. This is a rosy budget proposal that Salvador Dali could write. 

In the least painful of all possible worlds, the state would accept federal assistance, streamline sales-tax collection to make it enforceable with online sales, eliminate egregious sales-tax exemptions, raise tuition 5% and allow universities to raise tuition 10% more as long as large chunks go to financial aid, raise the state sales tax one penny for three years, and raise the cigarette tax to $1.50 or $2 a pack. What is easiest politically are the elimination of a few hundred million dollars of sales-tax exemptions, the tuition hikes, and a cigarette tax of $1 a pack, possibly the streamlined sales-tax collections. But that's not going to be enough to do what the state needs over the next year and make schools, colleges, and universities a priority. I hope the legislature does more than what it's signaling now is likely. As with the recovery package, half a loaf is better than none, but it's my job as a citizen to point out that we really need the whole loaf.

March 4, 2009

Higher-ed policy conundrum: I'm a cheap date, but my brother isn't

Yesterday's hearing on federal science funding highlights one of the dilemmas of increased funding: how do you do it in a way that is sustainable and does not lead universities to invest in a research infrastructure built on untenable assumptions (i.e., building lab space that will be empty when funding falls and hiring postdocs who will have to be let go once a single grant period ends).

But that's not the major problem I see. One of the inevitable tensions in the Obama administration's higher-education policies revolves around the relative investments in teaching institutions vs. research infrastructures. The vast majority of college students attend nonselective 2- and 4-year public institutions, and if one goal of President Obama is to increase the American public's time in higher education, that is where the time will expand. To do that without making the initiative counterproductive, both the federal government and state governments will have to put money into teaching institutions. For community-colleges, that investment is usually an easy sell, up to some limit; community colleges always argue for their budgets as cheaper than universities, student-for-student. And for state 4- year colleges and universities that offer no more than master's degrees, that's also fine.

But for public universities that either claim to or aspire to conduct significant research, the policy focus on undergraduate education is in tension with another Obama administration goal: increasing research in health and science, especially that connected with energy conservation or renewable energy production. That tension isn't direct: ask any president of a large university if it can both educate undergraduates and conduct stunning research in bench sciences, and the answers, "Absolutely." Rather, the tension is subtle, indirect in terms of the implied investments at the state level.  Last year, Kevin Carey asked why Illinois cheated Chicago State by favoring the University of Illinois, and his pointed question is another form of the one any state should ask: how do you divide the available dollars between education and research?

Part of the question is about teaching loads of individual faculty, but that's not really true in major research universities. Even if you tell a department chair to produce N student credit hours, that doesn't tell the chair how many classes an individual faculty member teaches. There are a variety of ways to provide time for faculty to research. Large universities can shift teaching from tenured and tenure-track faculty to contingent academic labor. Wealthy liberal-arts colleges have generous sabbatical opportunities to compensate for consistently heavy teaching at other times. Time is the cheaper resource to provide faculty, relatively speaking. To put it bluntly, as an historian whose research interests lie in the U.S. and where my projects sometimes rely on secondary analysis of quantitative data available for free, I'm a cheap date. Give me time, a reasonably up-to-date computer, occasional funding for travel, and I'm on my way.

But my brother's another story. He's a geomorphologist at Arizona State University, and his research activities have required spectometry and X-ray microscope time as well as equipment, graduate-student funding, and travel funds to collect specimens in the field. And a lab at the campus. The funding required to make this work is a different order of magnitude from what I do. Then there's comparative medicine; a former VP of finance at USF once told me that it is cheaper to house me in my office than a lab mouse in a tiny cage.

Because there is no feasible way to make bench sciences and medical research operate entirely on grants--you can try to do that for a time, but funding rates go down as well as up, and you can't expect institutions to rebuild an infrastructure from scratch every time that federal research funding spikes--there has to be some decision somewhere on research infrastructure investment. Here, sabbatical opportunities are nice but don't begin to satisfy the bottom-line needs of research. This is investment in equipment, in reasonable expenses, and in people as well--the professional lab employees, the graduate students--and bridge funding to preserve teams is one sensible (I'd say required) element in building a research infrastructure. 

Easy, says the observer who hasn't lived in Florida: just limit which institutions engage in capital-intensive research. Then you can concentrate the necessary funds, gain economies of scale, and we can satisfy both goals reasonably. I've seen two attempts to do that in the state in the past decade, and both efforts were swallowed whole by the maw of the Higher Education Status Machine. The Status Machine is fed by the nature of modern academic administration and also by the local booster role of higher education. In Florida, we have runaway institutional ambitions, where even a small community-college president in the panhandle dreams of turning his institution into a four-year college, and where half of the university presidents are insulted if you point out that their research programs are just a wee bit smaller than Princeton's. Then the legislature gets into the game: the soon-to-be (and now erstwhile) House Speaker maneuvered an "everyone can become a four-year-college" bill through the legislature last year, funneled millions to his friend at the now Northwest Florida State College, and was still less wasteful of state resources than the legislators who pushed through two new law schools and three new medical schools in the past decade. Huey Long would be so proud: in Florida, every man can be a king, just as long as she or he runs a public college or university.

Let me step back from my local and immediate cynicism. One of the persistent patterns in U.S. higher education is the upward institutional status trajectory over time. Many normal schools later became teachers colleges and then undergraduate state colleges before they transformed late in the 20th century into universities with significant research programs. Boosterism likewise not a new phenomenon. And the expansion of doctoral programs focused on post-degree employment at research institutions has played a role in this, even if it is much smaller than historic boosterism in higher ed and administrative status envy. But the latter two? Let's put it this way: no candidate would say the following at a campus interview for a public university presidency: "You're perfect as you currently are, and I will do nothing to advance the institution beyond where it is now." 

I am not certain if there is a solution to this dilemma. Theoretically, a state could simply divest itself of research ambitions. That appears to be what Arizona is doing, and it's going to be a disaster. A state could underfund its community and 4-year colleges, which is what Carey accuses Illinois of doing. A state could attempt to ration the upward ambitions of institutions, but you can see how short that idea lived in Florida. You could also pretend that a state's public institutions can be all things to all people. That's where Florida is now.

At the federal level, I suspect that this topic won't even be discussed, because there is no easy solution and the same booster dynamics exist at the federal level (witness the earmarks throughout the federal budget to help specific university-based projects). There's also the dynamics within an administration to consider: to put it honestly, someone like new White House aide Roberto Rodriguez might be articulate and sharp, but that's not going to hold a candle against a cabinet secretary with a Nobel Prize. It would be great to be a fly on the wall for the conversation, though.

February 27, 2009

Real news on education

For some reason, U.S. News and the Christian Science Monitor decided to take my comments on the president's speech Tuesday out of context and spin one clause as an "I'm not impressed with the president" remark. Sheesh. I'm generally happy with his actions thus far as president, but I can also recognize that there was relatively little emphasis on concrete education policy Tuesday night. Stating a desire for higher educational attainment is not exactly new in presidential speeches.

The real news on higher-ed policy this week came yesterday with the proposed budget and how it addresses college affordability. It's one thing to say that we want people to attend and complete college, and it's another to propose how to get there. For any reporter who happens to read this, I'm delighted with the proposals to index Pell Grants, shift loans to the direct-loan program, and create a partially refundable tax credit for tuition and fees. Here's where the most important battles will be fought.

February 20, 2009

Some things not even Dave Barry can make up

I wish the strange case of Dr. Rao were fictional, but it isn't. My imagination just got served by reality.

February 15, 2009

Propagation of the rock-star professor myth

A few weeks ago, I worried about how the distribution of lectures on iTunes was promoting the idea of higher education as lecture. Along comes Academic Earth, which is collecting what appears to be the most charismatic of the iTunes professors. On the one hand, there are some wonderful lecturers, this is a great advertisement for good lecturing, and it sets the standard for what we should be doing when we choose to lecture.

On the other hand, this propagates the idea of the student as a voyeur, someone who watches a charismatic (generally male) teacher rather than works with the material. A class is not a lecture, and iTunes does not currently showcase great discussions and cannot showcase your personal experience in a class.

Richard Ludlow's project (and its showcasing of lecturing) is great as a small taste, a teaser for college that could democratize the appetite for a good class. But if it's not quite Don LaFontaine's voice (the trailer for Quantum Physics: "In a world where matter appears and disappears faster than you can observe it..."), it's still not the whole experience. 

See also Stephen Downes's concern about Academic Earth's reliance on U.S. faculty.

February 9, 2009

Easy prediction, the bad kind

When a university lays off a large proportion of its faculty (including those with tenure) when (a) the university has not declared financial exigency, (b) faculty representatives gave the administration options to address the financial problems without laying anyone off, and (c) faculty were not involved in deciding who would be laid off, it doesn't take a genius to expect an AAUP investigation.

The history of Atlanta University makes this particularly painful, and the larger context is a set of ugly circumstances around the country that will make for a lot of ugly scenes where administrators ignore faculty.

January 29, 2009

The colonic theory of school reform

Looking at news this morning of university-wide furloughs at Arizona State, where my brother is a professor of geography, has put me in a sour mood. Not only does this affect my family and a bunch of friends elsewhere on the faculty, but it puts the lie to the "this is a great time to winnow out bad programs" argument. When there are draconian budget cuts, and they come quickly, there is no way to avoid damaging good programs as well as bad ones. Even if a university avoids across-the-board cuts for a time, when the cuts become severe enough, everyone feels it. The pain is not felt equally, but it is widespread, and there is going to be damage to good programs.

My friend and predecessor as faculty union chapter president, Roy Weatherford, explained his disdain for the political argument that events needed to get truly bad for the voters to kick out your opponents: "That's the enema theory of politics," he's said on various occasions. There are some advocates of this approach in any political organization, I'm afraid. If you subscribe to it, you hope for the worst instead of arguing for the best.

The parallel argument is now being made with respect to budget cuts: they're good! (I've also heard that argument from one state legislative aide in Florida. That was last spring, and I haven't heard that argument since, at least in Florida.) That assumes that at some point in an organization, the pain is so bad that decisions get better. I'd love to see any research on this, but I suspect this is a seat-of-the-pants argument (see Andy Rotherham and Kevin Carey for more on this point).

For those who still believe that draconian budget cuts somehow make things more efficient, pretend for a moment that there were such as thing as perfectly rational management. Even if that were the case, there is no management system that simultaneously has a perfect understanding of the value of all organization components, is effective in organizational politics, and has not yet optimized stuff. (For the market fundamentalists out there, this is the parallel of saying that stock prices automatically reflect the knowledge that "the market" already has. In this rationalistic world, if there already were information to justify cutting a program, effective managers would have found a way to do that, or they're not effective.) That means that when stuff hits the fan, even if you thought there could be an objective way to make budget-cutting decisions, decisions will be made that cannot be justified based on what's known at the time. That's because there is no such thing as objective ways to make budget cuts, there isn't good information, or the decisions will be made for the wrong reasons.

Decisions should be made for the right reasons at all times, and any claim that "this is the perfect time to do X" strikes me as opportunistic, along the lines of arguments for tax cuts:

  • We have a budget surplus, and it's the people's money, so we should give the money back.
  • We have a budget deficit, and the best way to solve that is through growth, so let's cut taxes as a stimulus.
  • Times are good, so let's cut taxes.
  • Times are bad, so let's not put a greater burden on families.

This reminds me of the classic British argument for tea-time:

  • Working hard in the afternoon? Have some tea.
  • Spending time with friends? Have some tea.
  • Not feeling well? Have some tea.
  • Want to celebrate great news? Have some tea.
  • Nuclear war? Have some tea.

While it's a delight to see intellectual flexibility among my fellow Americans, at some point it is hard to argue that program and policy decisions should be rational when your argument for making those decisions is fundamentally irrational; don't simultaneously indulge in Machiavellian fantasies and then claim that it's all in the service of decency. Maybe I'm the education blogosphere's hobgoblin this morning, but there it is. It's a small consistency I'm asking for, that's all.

January 25, 2009

Minimal Sansom blogging for a while

At least for a few weeks, there will be little discussion here about Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom because there are multiple investigations under way, from a grand jury in Tallahassee to an ethics commission and maybe others. While others such as Howard Troxler are having fun, I'll enjoy their work and wait for the results of the investigation(s).

January 23, 2009

iTunes rock stars and the cultural script of college teaching

Listmania time! I'm glad that I'm in the tenth hottest profession (though some would disagree). And apparently I have the seventh best job in the whole world. Yeah... Let's be clear: tenured university faculty (who are the minority of faculty in the U.S.) have significant benefits in terms of due process on the job and (for the most part) being able to choose which hours you work each week. (I'd steal the "I can work any 50 hours I want" line if it hadn't already been written for lawyers.)

But there are two deep problems with these lists. As everyone should know by now, "historian" is a great job if you're employed full time with job security (see the "tenured" bit above), but it's entirely inapplicable to adjuncts and other contingent academic workers. The other problem is about cultural stereotypes: there is something unreal in the promotion of professors as personalities instead of looking at the social organization of colleges and universities. (That's true for all professions--I much prefer the "best organizations to work for" lists to the "best occupations" because for your job satisfaction, where you are is at least as important as what you do.)

Let me focus on the cultural stereotypes of the professor and understandings of college teaching. A case in point is standout lecturer Walter Lewin of MIT. He's become famous for the video lectures available through iTunes, and from the lectures I've watched, justifiably so. Yet his fame (and iTunes availability) also reinforces certain cultural stereotypes about higher education: the lone lecturer who is engaging and charismatic at the front of the stage. It's a heck of a lot better than other stereotypes of faculty as absent-minded, clueless, and uncaring, but there's still the common script of the university as a set of lectures and exams. 

What is missing from this script is the discussion and other non-lecture stuff in and out of classrooms. I've never seen an iTunes recording of a seminar discussion, and certainly I doubt there's an iTunes track of an organic chem lab. The reverse is true, too. When Sara Rimer wrote about the redesign of the MIT intro physics course less than 13 months after writing about the famous iTunes lectures, Lewin was absent from the discussion of teaching physics at MIT. It was as if the two articles were about different universities, though the department and the Times reporter were identical, in a subtle act of journalistic amnesia that made me wonder if Lewin had been interviewed and what his thoughts were about redesigning courses away from lectures. 

But one thing you can be sure of: to borrow from Gil Scott-Heron, the evolution will not be televised ... or on iTunes.

January 22, 2009

Cooling the mark out -- an explanation

Several comments on my discussion of CC remedial/developmental education asked what "cooling the mark out" meant. In 1952, Erving Goffman's "On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure" appeared in Psychiatry. (At the time, Goffman was a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago. Not a bad start to his career!) Goffman used a routine in crime--where designated members of a gang would "cool out" unhappy con-job "marks" by explaining to them why it was just that they were taken advantage of (or that they weren't taken advantage of, or somesuch)--to point out that such cooling-out functions happen broadly in society, where people unhappy with how they're being treated are let down in some way to avoid ruffling feathers. (And apropos the Bernie Madoff story, Goffman discusses the social distinctions between petty con jobs vs. white-collar crime.) In this way, Goffman argued that the con man, the restaurant host, and the complaint department of a business all serve the same essential function.

The con man who wants the mark to go home quietly and absorb a loss, the restaurant hostess who wants a customer to eat quietly and go away without causing trouble, and, if this is not possible, quietly to take his patronage elsewhere--these are the persons and these are the relationships which set the tone of some of our social life. Underlying this tone there is the assumption that persons are institutionally related to each other in such a way that if a mark allows himself to be cooled out, then the cooler need have no further concern with him; but if the mark refuses to be cooled out, he can put institutional machinery into action against the cooler. (p. 17 in the reader)

In 1960, Burton Clark's article The "Cooling-Out" Function in Higher Education ($$ American Journal of Sociology) pointed out that the same dynamic exists in higher education. Using his observations of counselors at San Jose City College, Clark argued that education inevitably must address the gap between the promise of an open American educational system, where everyone can theoretically return to school at any time, and limited upward mobility in the labor mark, where not everyone will have a job (or a good job). In contrast to the "hard" letdown of universities that kick students out when they fail classes, Clark said that community colleges have a "soft" institutional repertoire of testing students before they can take credit courses, counseling them to take vocational programs, requiring an "orientation to college" class, and repeating the testing and advising routine if necessary until and through probation until a student is resocialized to accept a lower fate. As he write (p. 573):

Adverse counseling advice and poor test scores may not shut off his hope of completing college; when this is the case, the deterrent will be encountered in the regular classes. Here the student is divested of expectations, lingering from high school, that he will automatically pass and, hopefully, automatically be transferred. Then, receiving low grades, he is thrown back into the counseling orb, a fourth step in his reorientation and a move justified by his actual accomplishment.

Clark argued that there were several traits of an institution with a cooling-out repertoire: alternative definitions of achievement, incremental rejection, use of a paper record to persuade the mark, the existence of "agents of consolation" (academic advisors), and the dissolution of hard-and-fast standards. By diverting students without having to tell them a painful truth of limited opportunity and personal worth, community colleges had an essential role: "the cooling-out process in higher education is one whereby systematic discrepancy between aspiration and avenue is covered over and stress for the individual and the system is minimized" (p. 576). Ginsburg and Giles's 1984 article pointed out that within community colleges, selective programs have options in how to divert students (in essence replicating the soft/hard distinction that Clark assumed was the division between public universities and community colleges). Steven Brint and Jerome Karabel's 1989 book The Diverted Dream put this argument into an historical setting, the postwar development of community college systems.

It is important to note that this argument does not go unchallenged. One challenge is to the history that Brint and Karabel present; their example (Massachusetts) is late and arguably unrepresentative in the status and policy environment for the system. Robert Pederson's 2000 Teachers College dissertation is the most vigorous challenge that I'm aware of, essentially a brief against inferring broader patterns from junior-college and community-college history. Then there are the contemporary challenges, academics pointing to specific programs that feed into jobs, states with articulation agreements that do enable transfers, the solid teaching that exists in hundreds of 2-year colleges around the country, ... and literature leading to today's IHE article.

But for those who were curious about the term "cooling the mark out" and community colleges, that's a brief gloss.

January 19, 2009

Redesigning remedial education

The Bailey, Jeong, and Cho study of remedial education reported on by Inside Higher Ed today is not surprising, but it is still depressing: for the community-college students who most need direct assistance in skills, they are also the least likely to finish a sequence of remedial (aka developmental) courses and also likely not to start on such a sequence at all. I have a strong suspicion that these are not the students in their mid-20s who passed high school algebra courses with a B or higher and forgot the content over 6-10 years (and for whom high-school-age "college readiness" is an irrelevant concept). These are students who are barred from the regular curriculum by testing prerequisites and, at least according to this paper, are the least likely to finish a developmental sequence and start earning college credits.

In 1960, Burton Clark wrote an article that extended the 1952 Erving Goffman "cooling the mark out" argument (in the Goffman Reader) to community colleges; in 1984, Mark Ginsburg and Joanne Giles echoed that, and that's what the Bailey et al. paper appears to suggest: when remedial courses and a sequence of several courses is a gatekeeping mechanism that colleges use before a student can take a for-credit class, it discourages students not only from completing the sequence but often from beginning the sequence in the first place. (Also see John L. Johnson's article a few decades ago in the Journal of Special Education for a parallel argument with a sharp twist.)

Community colleges are in a bind here: faculty and administrators do not want to use the limited resources available to community colleges by giving seats to students who are unlikely to pass a class. But remedial classes are not costless, and I assume most faculty know that testing prerequisites also screen out a significant number of students whom colleges are supposed to be serving.

Here is where Kevin Carey's argument from the November Washington Monthly applies, if it applies generally. I shook my head when I read Carey's article a few months ago, because he was assuming or implying that most spending in public four-year institutions is on instruction (something the Delta Project should be disabusing us from). While there's another entry I need to write about how to think about spending on instruction, research, and football, let me get to the meat of this. Carey argued that there could be much better instruction squeezed from existing resources. This argument is based on the work of the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) and the evangelism of Carol Twigg on course redesigns. Twigg argues (and Carey picks up on this) that one can use technology to engage students more and use faculty, T.A., and staff time more efficiently.

I've talked with some thoughtful people in the college teaching-effectiveness world who are skeptical of Twigg's more extensive claims, but I'm willing to skip over those debates and say that below some level of resources, it is not possible to provide extensive one-on-one coaching, let alone individualized instruction on key topics in a course, and that Twigg's approach is most likely to be a reasonable strategy when resources are low and the material is reasonably standardized.

Remedial/developmental math courses seem to qualify on both fronts: in general it is in community colleges where resources are lowest and where there are a common set of expectations students must meet in reading and math.

But this is in the abstract -- obviously, many community colleges would need a short-term infusion of resources to transform developmental courses, and this should be tested rather than assumed to be true. Unfortunately, of the NCAT's current membership, there are only 8 community colleges (the majority in Texas), and no community college appear to have been involved in the FIPSE-funded projects in the past few years.

But this is a look from afar--those who teach or work in community colleges, please have at this idea!

Addendum: in comments, skoolboy (aka Aaron Pallas) properly takes me to task for forgetting Burton Clark. Mea culpa!

January 14, 2009

"Ther" Florida State University

"He's Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don't you know what 'ther' means?"
"Ah, yes, now I do," I said quickly; and I hope you do too, because it is all the explanation you are going to get.
--A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Apparently, Florida State University's administrators are going ther route of adding ther definite article to ther university's name, in a vain hope that definite articles do anything for image. (Hat tip.)

Second thought: Maybe this would have been more interesting if ther administrators had put "the" in the middle of ther name. Imagine, if you will,

  • Florida State the University
  • Ohio State the University
  • Johns Hopkins the University
  • State University of New York the Press

I'm not sure that's an improvement, but at least it has ther advantage of making you think a bit.

January 13, 2009

Where is the bureaucracy reenactor crowd?

In the past few months, I have been struggling with how to teach a difficult topic: bureaucracy. It's not hard to enter the topic with a class; everyone experiences bureaucracy in ways that they can talk about at one level. Generally, I find that students absorb notions of street-level bureaucrats, scripts about "real school," and loosely-coupled systems. And one of the most popular books I assign is about bureaucracy: Tyack and Cuban's Tinkering toward Utopia. Especially for current school administrators, bureaucracy can be a very attractive topic.

But at another level, a bureaucracy is hard to learn. Though we experience the status games that Weber discusses, and though most adults spend months and years learning the tacit knowledge that Polanyi has described, I know relatively few friends and colleagues who can reliably describe the weird ways that bureaucracies work.

It's not that people don't theorize, but that their theories are often two-dimensional: bureaucracies always behave a certain way, at least in many of the explanations I hear. But that's not a legitimate generalization. Large organizations have repertoires of behavior, and the choices of individuals matter. The truth is somewhere between guessing the psychology of individual administrators and making cookie-cutter pictures of school bureaucracies.

There are two common errors I have observed in the lay perspective on bureaucracy, even from people who work within them. First is an inattention to the interplay of explicit and tacit knowledge, an inattention to the relationship between formal rules and the inevitable discretion in applying them. At universities, this is often played out in arguments about what an accrediting body will or will not call a university on the carpet about. Some things are no-brainers: if news reports show that an institution is the victim of massive financial fraud and mismanagement, an accrediting body will almost inevitably place the institution on probation. But the rules are often more flexible than what a reader may assume. So while my regional accrediting body requires that college teachers have a masters degree with 18 hours in the instructional area, institutions (usually department heads) can certify an individual as qualified without meeting that requirement. Too many such exceptions will raise red flags, but not the occasional one.

At other times, people confuse the discretionary authority of administrators with what is politically or financially possible. In many universities, for example, there is a political balancing act between a provost's office and departments. While in theory many a provost can overrule every department recommendation on tenure and promotion, in few cases will university administrators ignore recommendations that come from both the tenured faculty and a department chair. If the recommendation is to deny tenure, few provosts want to discourage what they perceive as higher standards. And if a provost consistently denies tenure to faculty that are recommended for approval at the department level, there will also be a political price to pay. 

A related error is inattention to institutional routines. I recently read the novel manuscript of a friend, and while I loved the plot, I winced whenever the author confused jails with prisons, swapped police and sheriffs' deputies, ignored the existence of continuances, and so forth. I do not read many mysteries these days, and when I have, I have usually enjoyed the Agatha Christie more than police procedurals. But there is something about the details of institutional behavior that matters to me.

I suppose I am the bureaucratic equivalent of a Civil War reenactor: I have an acquired instinct for institutional behavior and can spot inaccuracies faster than you can say thin slice. I have no idea where I acquired it, and I am not sure how to teach it or if one can teach it at all. But that knowledge should be teachable, because many of the problems that frustrate parents on a day-to-day basis is bureaucratic behavior. "They're just unfair" is an understandable reaction to events, but neither despair nor screaming at principals (or threatening lawsuits) will get your child the best opportunities, or at least not without considerable cost.

January 11, 2009

Sansom watch, January 11 edition

With Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom's resignation Monday from his job at Northwest Florida State College, I wondered whether the story would disappear. Not by a longshot. Editorial boards of the St. Petersburg Times and Bradenton Herald as well as former friend and fellow Republican Joe Scarborough continued to savage Sansom. Investigative reporter Alex Leary discovered that Sansom met with key players in early December in what Destin's mayor called "CYA time."  The Leon County prosecutor referred the case to a grand jury for an initial inquiry. And in its coverage of the grand jury referral, the Times reported that another Florida citizen filed an ethics complaint.

Sansom's colleagues in the Florida House of Representatives who were relieved on Monday may well find themselves squirming by the start of the general session. Sansom's defensive speech on Monday and a television interview this week will not help, especially when the spotlight shifts to other legislators who have public jobs and who either acquired them in a backroom fashion after their election or received suspiciously high raises.

In March, if Sansom continues to refuse interviews with most reporters, those reporters will turn to other legislators and ask them questions both about the legislative session and the speaker's position. And other reporters may do what the Times has done and requested copies of constituent correspondence about Sansom from House leaders. Usually the House and Senate are coequal in the annual tug-of-war we call the regular session of the legislature. But with a tacit Speaker, the lower chamber may find itself in a much weaker position vis-a-vis the Senate.

January 9, 2009

The big news in college football this morning

Congratulations to Western Washington University, which has decided to eliminate its football program rather than have more money sunk into athletics. Athletic Director Lynda Goodrich said, "We are facing a dire financial crisis now and the university wasn't prepared to continue to bail us out and absorb our budget cuts and our foundation issues."

Tom Palaima and Nathan Tublitz would applaud WWU.

January 7, 2009

Off the deep end on Griggs v. Duke Power

Before I get to the main topic this morning, my thanks to everyone who has participated in the reader survey, which will stay available through the weekend. It takes just a few minutes (or more if you want to give me lots of ideas for topics). Tell me what to do by taking the survey!

On Sunday, George Will decided to use a think-tank paper last year by Bryan O'Keefe and Richard Vedder to argue that policies have unintended consequences. Thanks, George: we never knew that without your help. But because Will accepts O'Keefe and Vedder's argument at face value, I have to correct the record.

O'Keefe and Vedder make an argument that Vedder has made repeatedly over the years: the Griggs v. Duke Power (1971) decision discouraged employers from using intelligence tests and therefore falsely magnified the credential value of college degrees as the easier way for businesses to make distinctions among applicants. In the case, 13 African American employees of Duke Power complained that after the Civil Rights Act, Duke Power changed its promotion criteria to eliminate references to race and to add a high-school credential requirement as well as specific scores on two tests. Because the combination of these disproportionately affected African American workers, the plaintiffs argued, Duke Power was using race-neutral means to maintain discriminatory outcomes. The Supreme Court accepted the reasoning of the plaintiffs, and Griggs was a landmark in disparate-impact litigation. O'Keefe and Vedder argue that because the Court said that credentials and tests had to be tied to business necessity, businesses began to turn from general IQ tests to college diplomas as the main screening device used in personnel decisions. 

There are several reasons why this argument holds little water, and let's start with the case itself. O'Keefe and Vedder are correct only if the Court discouraged IQ tests and let educational credentials alone. Without that distinction, there's no argument that businesses used college diplomas as a substitute for IQ tests. So let's peek into the crucial passage:

On the record before us, neither the high school completion requirement nor the general intelligence test is shown to bear a demonstrable relationship to successful performance of the jobs for which it was used. Both were adopted, as the Court of Appeals noted, without meaningful study of their relationship to job performance ability.

Maybe I'm misreading the case, but it looks as if the Supreme Court said both credentials and IQ tests were indefensible unless tied to job performance. I don't understand why Vedder has made this argument over the years without addressing the obvious problem with his line of reasoning.

But even if the Supreme Court had written differently, or even if HR professionals developed the same misreading that Vedder did (in which case the fault lies with them, not with the Court), it's a stretch to tie credentialism to a specific case. To believe that, we would have to believe that in the entire history of industrialization no one thought about using educational credentials as a screening tool until the 1970s and then--pow!--employers discovered that some applicants and employees had college degrees and others didn't.

In the paper, O'Keefe and Vedder do not even attempt to collect or display evidence that any industry started using college degrees after 1971 when they had used IQ tests before. And the reference they use to imply a broad historical sweep?--

In fact, according to Staffing Industry Report, a human resources newsletter, 65 percent of companies reported using some type of pre-employment screen, up from 34 percent in prior years. (p. 12)

--is from a 2008 New York Times story titled Dilbert the Inquisitor. I have no clue what "up from... in prior years" means, but it's not pre-1971. I know what business history is. I've read business history. Bryan and Richard, you are not business historians.

Keep in mind the broader uses of this argument that Vedder's shown: because college expanded in significant measure due to businesses' inability to use IQ tests, we have credential inflation and a greater use of college that is warranted strictly by human-capital needs. Ergo, we should invest a lot less in college.

Well, Richard, we already have: starting almost with the time of Griggs, states have dramatically shrunk their subsidies of undergraduate education at public colleges and universities. Students and their families have continued to see college as a good thing, even though they are having to acquire more debt as a private investment instead of a substantially public investment. Part of that is credentialism, but if so, I don't think you can blame Griggs. There are arguments to make about the problems of student debt and college waste, but O'Keefe and Vedder's argument is bad history.

January 5, 2009

Sansom resigns

Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom has resigned his post as Vice President of Northwest Florida State College. The Tampa Tribune's political blog is reporting his full speech.

January 4, 2009

Sansom watch, January 4 edition

Recent items in the news on Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom and his position at Northwest Florida State College:

  • On January 1, the Miami Herald's editorial board wrote that other legislators' silence was as damaging as Sansom's actions: "When the principal figure in the House is himself accused of wrongdoing and followers in his own party can't seem to bring themselves to confront it, the people of Florida have to wonder about the quality of their leaders."
  • Also on January 1, the St. Pete Times's Donna Winchester profiled David Plyer, who filed the ethics complaint in December against Sansom: "'Whether this fellow is guilty or innocent is not for me to decide,' Plyer said. 'But we need to know the facts before we can go anywhere, and the facts seem to be hard to come by.'"
  • On January 2, the Panama City News Herald editorial board wrote about the Speaker's fatal wounds: "Sansom showed appalling judgment getting so deeply involved in [Northwest Florida State College President Bob] Richburg's plotting, especially after he'd been tapped to become speaker. He has a higher duty than to be some college president's legislative flunky.... Sansom does not have the standing to continue as speaker."
  • January 2, the Tallahassee Democrat mentioned Sansom's office's deletion of e-mails in an editorial on public records: "It's troubling, however, that the Legislature itself, which makes the laws, has exempted itself from an array of Government in the Sunshine provisions that other agencies and levels of government must follow. Just this week, for example, when information regarding e-mails to and from House Speaker Ray Sansom's office were sought, it was revealed that his e-mails are purged every 30 days, rather than archived, ostensibly to free up server space."
  • In the same issue in the Democrat, Ray Bellamy called for Sansom to resign: "The Republican Party's failure to address Sansom's apparent violation of ethical standards and conservative principles is disheartening and downright disgusting. As a registered Republican, I call on the party leadership to act now to restore integrity to the party and respect for the legislative budgetary process."
  • In the St Pete Times January 2, Dan Ruth proclaimed Sansom "a walking Blue Light Special of political opportunism, who has managed to set himself up as more ethically challenged than Snidely Whiplash before he has even gaveled his first session of the lower body to order." In the same issue, the Times editorial board said legislators should be prohibited from benefitting from dubious insider hires: "Florida's universities and community colleges, like all of state government, need to hire the best people. Only open and transparent job searches assure that's happening."
  • On January 3, Northwest Florida Daily News staffer Pat Rice referred to reporting on the Sansom scandal when making the case that journalists are essential government watchdogs.
  • Also yesterday, the Treasure Coast Palm editorial board gave a thumbs down to the e-mail erasures in Sansom's office. 
  • This morning, the Daytona Beach News-Journal's Mark Lane ripped Sansom in a column, Speaker at work: "House Speaker Ray Sansom's doing something I hadn't thought possible -- he's making fellow legislators squirm in quiet ethical embarrassment."
  • The Bradenton Herald's editorial board is the latest to write, [The] Speaker should go: "This avalanche of ethics lapses imperil Sansom's leadership role in the House. He has violated the public trust."
  • The Tampa Tribune editorial board used Sansom as the object lesson in its editorial today, arguing that the state should combine better pay for legislators with a stricter set of ethics rules to prevent conflicts of interest.
  • And about 90 minutes ago, the St Pete Times education blog reported state Senator Charlie Justice's comments about public agencies who hire legislators: "I think the broadest line should be drawn between those of us ... who were working for the university prior to getting elected. If you get elected and you're a chairman of a committee that funnels money and then you get hired, certainly that doesn't look as good."

This issue isn't going away until Sansom leaves one of his jobs.

December 30, 2008

Sansom watch, December 30

Recent items in the news on Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom and his position at Northwest Florida State College:

  • Sansom hired attorney Richard Coates to represent him in responding to the ethics complaint filed against him.
  • Reporting on the ethics complaint by the Tallahassee Democrat, Tampa Tribune, and Capitol News Service. The only additions to the first wave of reporting appears to be comments yesterday by the complainant (David Plyer, of Clearwater). 
  • State legislators weigh in on Sansom appeared this morning in the Pensacola News Journal. Senator Don Gaetz: "I would leave my house keys and my children with Ray in a minute. I'm troubled by his association with Dr. Richburg, who is someone who's had his problems with his credibility."
  • The Tallahassee Democrat's editorial, Speaking of subterfuge: Give it up, Mr. Sansom, called for the Speaker to resign either from his college job or the Speakership: "Mr. Sansom has already created a terrible legacy for himself, further contaminated legislative credibility with the public, and stained his party's honor. What more can he possibly have in mind?"
  • Speaker's office routinely deletes e-mails: The Miami Herald published an AP report that the Speaker's office said it found no e-mail record of correspondence between Ray Sansom and his business interests: "House Speaker Ray Sansom's office deletes e-mails about its business dealings every month, in part because lawmakers have fewer restrictions on preserving their records than most of state government."
  • Alex Leary reported that Northwest Florida State College President Bob Richburg talked about a potential veto of construction funds by Governor Charlie Crist, and in a December 22, 2007, e-mail he urged Sansom to be proactive in defending construction funding to the college: "You asked if I had any advise [sic] on the initiative you and the delegation are working on in the west. I'm sure you have thought about the governor and making the project veto safe. If not, that's my advice. He is such a populous [sic] that I could see him stepping in at the last minute and vetoing the work that you and others have done. I guess that goes for our other projects as well."

December 29, 2008

Sansom watch, December 29 edition

This morning, the St. Petersburg Times reported on an ethics complaint filed earlier this month with the Florida Commission on Ethics. The allegation in the complaint is that Ray Sansom "used his public position as a representative of the people to secure a $110,000 per year job as a vice president of Northwest Florida State College." The first substantive step for the commission is a review of the complaint's sufficiency: "Complaints need not be as precise as would be required by the rules of civil procedure in a court of law and shall be deemed sufficient if the complainant under oath upon knowledge or belief alleges matters which, if true, may constitute a breach of public trust." If it meets that test, the commission's executive director will request an investigation, and if the investigation finds probable cause, there'll be a hearing. But the length of this process looks indeterminate, other than required minimum periods to allow the respondent time to reply at several steps. If you are thrilled by administrative regulations, you can read the commission's full set of rules on reviewing, investigating and holding hearings on complaints.

December 28, 2008

Sansom watch, December 28 edition

Recent items in the news on Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom and his position at Northwest Florida State College, all today:

  • Alex Leary reported that Sansom and Northwest Florida State College President Bob Richburg e-mailed each other extensively on multi-year plans to funnel $122 million dollars to the college.
  • St. Petersburg Times correspondent Lucy Morgan reported that Richburg is one of the state's public executives who took advantage of an early-retirement program and then returned to employment, in his case receiving a lump-sum payout of $553,228 in 2007 before returning to work a month later at a $228,000 annual salary and a $8,803 per month pension. (I think Florida law requires that Richburg abstain from the pension for a year to keep the full pension income after returning, but Morgan does not specify what happened in his case.)
  • The Jacksonville Times-Union's editorial, Speaker flap: Sansom must choose, is straightforward: "Sansom's school ties have damaged his credibility and degrades public perceptions of the Legislature as a whole."
  • The Orlando Sentinel's Jane Healy argues that hiring legislators as employees or politicians as presidents is How not to improve higher education, and Sansom is the first example she gives on hiring legislators: "While this approach might work in the short term--more money to your college or university--it stinks to high heaven as a way to improve Florida's system overall. All it does is encourage more legislators to try to get the same deal from their local universities or colleges.... That's no way to run a system, particularly when money is scarce."
  • In St. Petersburg Times opinion piece, Eckerd College President Donald Eastman described the state-college-system plan as emblematic of the state's failure to coordinate higher education policy: "Florida's higher education landscape is like the Wild West, with powerful politicians making self-serving decisions about where new campuses will go and community colleges abandoning their original mission to now become four-year schools."

I suspect the phrase "where new campuses will go" refers to the next campus of USF Polytechnic, which sits near land of one state senator. There is some self-interest in Eastman's column: In the next round of budget cuts he will be trying to protect the state subsidy to in-state private-college students, and part of his defense will be to argue that the grant program is less expensive than public higher education and also more efficient (and less prone to politicization). But fundamentally, he's right. As one former university system Chancellor Charlie Reed described it earlier this decade (in reference to the state universities after the destruction of the old Board of Regents), Florida higher education governance has become a goat rodeo.

Update: In the first half of his year-in-review parody (the rest will be published January 4), St. Petersburg Times columnist Howard Troxler writes, "June 6: Loss of talented professors at Florida universities solved by plan to replace them with state legislators."

December 27, 2008

Sansom watch, December 27 edition

Recent items in the news on Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom and his position at Northwest Florida State College:

  • Yesterday, the Lakeland Ledger published Sansom's handsome pension, which calculated how much his state pension would rise from his new position at NWFSC Vice President if he stayed at least 5 years: $4,236 more a month than if he had just been a state legislator.
  • Today, the St. Petersburg Times published capitol correspondent Steve Bousquet's column, House members stay quiet as public blasts speaker, which discusses the legislature's code of silence, and how ordinary Floridians are reacting to that silence. He quotes Marilyn Weaver's comments, aimed at Pinellas legislators: "Our household is so disgusted with the current Florida legislators for not speaking out and condemning what Speaker Sansom has done in enriching himself and bestowing favors to his college."

For those who are curious, yes, I will continue to note any news items I find on Sansom and his position.

December 24, 2008

Sansom watch, December 24 edition

Three new items on Ray Sansom and his job at Northwest Florida State College (all commentary):

  • Sansom has no place to hide, Pennsacola News Journal editorial Dec. 23. "You know the situation is getting critical when politicians under fire begin refusing to talk to the reporters uncovering inconvenient facts, and throw down the 'partisan politics' card."
  • Deceit further shreds Sansom's credibility, St. Petersburg Times editorial Dec. 24. "What's nauseating is Sansom's hypocrisy and his unwillingness to candidly answer for steering college construction money to an airport hangar project sought by a friend. What's equally disturbing is that his Republican colleagues in the Legislature are not demanding answers from the speaker who is tarnishing them all."
  • Job-bliss, I-110 good, a dog's life ("Sansom saga" subhead). Mark O'Brien column in Pensacola News Journal Dec. 24. "[I]t's refreshing and ironic to see South Florida people upset about what a Panhandle politician did. And so depressing to see how few leaders will stand up to Sansom and say, 'This is wrong.'" First good joke from this scandal: "And what about Judy Bense, now the interim president of the University of West Florida? Her brother, Allen Bense, was House speaker a few years ago, but UWF hardly cashed in on the Sansom scale. Maybe someone should get Bense a T-shirt: 'My brother was Speaker of the House and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.'"

December 22, 2008

Ray Sansom has no credibility left on education, and neither does Northwest Florida State College

Yesterday's Panama City News Herald called for Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom to quit his leadership post in the legislature, a month after the Northwest Florida Daily News broke the story December 19 that he had become a vice president at Northwest Florida State College. December 19 was the same day he became Speaker of the Florida House. His official position is Vice President of Planning and Development, but one suspects the true title is Vice President of Mutual Back-Scratching. Here's the sequence of what Florida citizens have learned, thanks to solid investigative reporting, especially by Alex Leary of the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald capitol bureau:

  • On November 20, the Daily News reported that Sansom's pay is $25,000 more than his predecessor's. Sansom tells the newspaper that he sees no conflict of interest, and Common Cause of Florida says it cannot pursue the common-sense concerns about such conflicts because the legislature's standards on conflicts of interest are "notoriously weak."
  • On November 21, Alex Leary reported that Sansom's new job is $27,000 more than his former job for the Alabama Electric Cooperative, that Sansom put $200,000 into the state budget to create a "leadership institute" at the college (Sansom was budget chief in the state House last session), and that he was a prime mover behind legislation to turn a bunch of the state's community colleges into "state colleges" with four-year programs. In doing so, the former Okaloosa-Walton Community College became Northwest Florida State College. (Disclosure: I work at USF, and there are concerns in the state university system that this ad hoc state college system is going to lead to massive duplication of programs and conflicts surrounding supervisory authority over baccalaureate degrees.) Liberal state activist group Progress Florida asks whether there was a quid pro quo, Sansom's job in return for money and more authority funneled to the college. "Absolutely not" is the response of the college's president, Bob Richburg.  
  • On November 24, a Orlando Sentinel editorial declares that Sansom's new job has a "rotten smell," asking, "Who would have thought that the state's public colleges and universities would turn into a jobs program for state legislators?"
  • On November 28, Leary reported that Sansom steered far more to Okaloosa-Walton/Northwest Florida than had previously been reported. He performed a magic trick, turning $1 million in recommended capital construction funding into $31 million (more than any other community college in Florida, even those with far more students). And the startup funds for the college's "leadership institute" was $750,000, not $200,000. 
  • Also on November 28, editorials in the Palm Beach Post and Panama City News Herald call for Sansom to resign his position at the college, and on November 30, the St. Petersburg Times editorial board said Sansom had "the lowest personal credibility in memory for a new House speaker." (Yesterday, the News Herald went further by calling for Sansom to quit his leadership position in the legislature.)
  • On December 4, the Northwest Florida Daily News editorial board said that Sansom "deserves every bit of the grief he's getting."
  • On December 7, Leary reported that one of the capital construction projects for Northwest Florida State College was not at the college but an "emergency training center" at Destin Airport, on land belonging to Jay Odom, a Sansom friend and contributor, and the owner of a general aviation company on whose planes Sansom flies (at Republican Party expense, according to the article). State funding for the project through the college came after the state had rejected Odom's prior proposal for an almost identical project. In 2007, he had proposed creating an airport hangar that would be hurricane proof and thus could be turned into an emergency shelter; in other words, he would be able to get public funding for his commercial business. (A hardened structure would be easier to get insurance for.) While Odom denied that the college project was the same idea in a different guise, and that his airplanes would not be parked in the building, one of his employees told Leary otherwise, and the architectural plans refer to aircraft. Sansom denied that the project would benefit his friend, but Odom was part of e-mail correspondence with Sansom and Northwest Florida President Bob Richburg about the airport project. The project was not submitted through the normal legislative process but instead added through back channels. 
  • On December 8, the Palm Beach Post reported that the VP job given Sansom was not advertised openly, that Sansom was the only applicant, and that Sansom's legislative staff (who are state employees) faxed the application to the college from his state office. Sansom's communications director claimed that it occurred without his knowledge, but I'm trying to figure out how he could not have been aware of this: "Uh, I just printed out this application, and I know that I need to get this over to the college president's office 150 miles away, when the board meets tomorrow.  No, I'm not telling you to fax this using state resources. But maybe fairies will help me while I'm at lunch." Riiiiight. The position was added to the college board's consent agenda the next day without prior public notice. (See the minutes of the November 18 meeting for the mention of the tardy addition, one day after Sansom's office had faxed over the application and the day before Sansom became speaker.)
  • On December 10, Leary reported reactions both at the state capitol and also in Okaloosa and Walton counties, and ordinary Floridians were angry. One Tampa resident (Charles Luthin) wrote, "Your decision to hire Rep. Sansom and his decision to take the job not only appears wrong, IT IS WRONG." When asked by reporters of his reaction to a call for an investigation of the deals, Governor Charlie Crist snapped back, "Yeah, next question."
  • On December 14, Leary reported that Northwest Florida President Richburg essentially became Sansom's legislative strategist during the spring session, to secure legislative approval for the new "system" of state colleges. (See disclosure above; I think this is going to be a complete mess.) One of the barriers was getting the college's trustees on board, and at this point here is the one clear violation of Florida law: Okaloosa-Walton gave notice for the meeting in the March 17 Daily News (a small-circulation newspaper in Okaloosa County), but the board met March 24 150 miles away in the state capitol, apparently in a closed room at Florida State University. Richburg wrote Sansom, "It's probably the only way we can do it in privacy but with a public notice here." As the First Amendment Foundation's Barbara Peterson told Leary, "That's a fairly clear statement of intent to avoid, as much as possible, public attendance and/or oversight." 
  • On December 15, the Northwest Florida Daily News reported Sansom's defense of the capital construction funds (finally!). According to Sansom, the expansion of capital funding came as a job booster, and it was tied to existing plans for a student activity center that otherwise would not have been funded or not have been built as quickly. To him, it was completely transparent. (Sansom did not mention the airport project.)
  • On December 17, current MSNBC personality and former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough called for Sansom to step down from the speakership: "The Ray Sansom that I have heard about bears little resemblance to the guy I have known for 15 years. It is maddening to see what power does to some men."
  • On December 18, Leary reported that Sansom's funneling of funds to the college began in 2006, when he became the budget chief for the state House, and total construction funds climbed from the under-$5 million annual funding in the prior four years to over $7 million in 2006, $26 million in 2007, and $31 million in 2008. 
  • Also on December 18, the Northwest Florida Daily News reported Richburg's defense of the March 24 meeting as open. Only one trustee would talk with the Daily News, to say that the meeting wasn't intended to be private. The article also reported that there were no minutes of the meeting.
  • On December 20, other Times and Herald reporters wrote that 18 current or recent legislators had jobs in Florida's public colleges or universities. Of those, 9 had their current jobs when they were elected, but 9 either switched jobs within higher education or like Sansom became college/university employees while they were legislators. (Florida's legislature is part-time and pays relatively little, and most legislators have other jobs during their terms. Disclosure: my union has three members who are legislators, and one who just was term-limited out; all had their current jobs when they were first elected.) 
  • On December 21, Leary reported that public records confirm what he had inferred December 7: the airport project for the college was the hangar that Sansom's friend Jay Odom had wanted public funding for in 2007. From city and other records, it appears the only difference is that the project funded for the college has a few classrooms added on. They college says the project "isn't a hangar but a training center for students in emergency response [and a facility] that will be used by officials during a storm" (Leary's words). The clinching piece of evidence on the manipulation is an e-mail from college President Richburg to Sansom when they were collaborating on a PowerPoint for the March 24 college trustees meeting--the one in Tallahassee but with a notice 150 miles away, and putatively about the state college system. "Somewhere-somehow you should acknowledge how much you appreciate the Board accepting the responsibility of the Destin Special Purpose Center--first responder and homeland security training and local EOC [emergency operations center]."
  • Update: Today, Leary reported in the St Pete Times education blog that Richburg had given Sansom a $122 million wish-list for what he'd like Sansom to funnel to the college before he left the legislature.
This isn't the first time that the little college in Okaloosa County has tripped up a Florida House Speaker: 16 years ago, a similar controversy erupted over Bo Johnson's employment at what was then Okaloosa-Walton Community College. Johnson quit his college job, but he had other troubles, eventually being convicted of tax evasion and serving time. And as reporters have noted, Sansom isn't the only legislator who currently holds a job in a college or university that he got while serving in the legislature. If the legislature is going to be part-time with low pay, you cannot forbid legislators from holding or seeking jobs with public agencies. But there should be a bar on current legislators' taking public jobs that are not openly advertised and competitive, and there should also be a much stricter set of conflict-of-interest rules in the legislature where the state budget is concerned.

Richburg, the college's trustees, and Sansom are all at fault: Richburg, for selling the integrity of the college; the trustees, for looking the other way; and Sansom, for funneling funds to his friends and for refusing to acknowledge or respond to the public outcry in the last month. The members of the board of trustees:

  • Wesley Wilkerson, Chair
  • Sandy Sims, Vice Chair
  • Elizabeth S. Campbell
  • Joseph W. Henderson
  • Brian Pennington
  • Dale E. Rice, Jr.
  • Vercell Vance
  • Esteena "Teena" K. Wells

December 21, 2008

Student debt, social investment in education and the search for a basketful of school

At the Social Science History Association conference this year, there were "author meets critic" sessions on two important books, Kathryn Neckerman's Schools Betrayed: Roots of Failure in Inner-City Education and Claudia Goldin and Laurence Katz's The Race between Education and Technology. Together, the two books represent solid new work in understanding urban education (with Neckerman) or arguments about the relationship between education and the economy (with Goldin and Katz). In particular, Goldin and Katz's argument is both a brief in favor of investment in education and a reply to skeptics such as Alison Wolf, author of Does Education Matter? Myths about Education and Economic Growth (2003). (Wolf updates the older arguments along the lines of Berg, Freeman, and Braverman.)

In Neckerman's book, we see the behavior of parents and cities (or one city, Chicago), embedded in a very specific historical context. In Goldin and Katz's book, we see the behavior of parents and societies more generally, across more than a century. I suspect most of the reviews of Goldin and Katz will focus on their human-capital assumptions and their claims that the ratio of skilled-worker wages to unskilled-worker wages (and thus wage inequality) will drop if we move more of the workforce to the skilled (i.e., educated) end. I hope that at least a little of the discussion will make things a bit more complicated, not because Goldin and Katz are entirely wrong but because we need a better way to talk about how schooling works. Yes, education builds human capital, but it does a lot more, and even within a human capital lens, a focus on education and only education ignores a few other things. The rest of this post addresses some of the problems of social investment in education from within a human capital perspective. Criticism of that perspective and alternatives waits for another post.

Let's start with a family-strategy question: if you're a parent, what is the best strategy to make sure that your kids are healthy and happy adults and that they can raise their own children (your grandchildren!) in a life that makes you proud? A human-capital perspective says that education is the best investment, almost universally. Well, that's not quite right. If you happen to have five million dollars to invest in your child by age 25, you certainly can spend a good chunk of that money on what you could call human-capital investment: private schools, tutors, great experiences, colleges, grad school, etc. (You could also spend some of that money working less so you can spend quality time with your child; economists would still call that a good investment in human capital.) But you wouldn't spend all five million dollars that way: you'd invest the majority so that your child (and grandchildren) can have a safety net. (Let's assume that not all of that was invested in Lehman stock.) So for the very wealthy, education as human capital is part of a family strategy. If you're wealthy enough, your child will survive and do quite well almost no matter how foolishly she or he behaves as a young adult. But education is a good thing, too. In this framework, education is part of a diversification strategy. Even if you did invest $4 million in Madoff's enterprise or Lehman stock (along with other large chunks of the portfolio in WorldCom and Enron), your kid still has an education to fall back on. The one security of an education is that no one can foreclose on the knowledge in your head. In other words, education as human capital in part is a hedge for the very wealthy.

If you're extremely poor, your choices are much more limited. You worry about whether you can put food on the table and take your child to the doctor long before you worry about how to pay for college. There's no such thing as a nest egg you can put away for either yourself or your child, and everything is a matter of (often cruel) tradeoffs. The choice is sometimes between investing resources in immediate survival (absolutely necessary) or in education (a long-term investment with an inherently uncertain return). So in contrast with very wealthy families, formal education is both the best long-term investment and also one that is the most risky one... not because there are less risky ones but because there is no other option. 

The majority of Americans are neither very poor nor extraordinarily wealthy; most of us have enough to live on but not enough where our children's education is a hedge against other investments. For many parents, the choices are between approximately equally valued options, but they're often framed as avoiding harm: not making our children pay for us when we retire, not losing a house, not having our children on bread lines, etc. And all of the options have some risk and require tradeoffs. Do you save more for your retirement fund or save for your child's college? Do you pay for tutoring in middle school, knowing that doing so has a harsh long-term penalty for college savings, or do you hope that she or he gets straightened out and justifies socking away more for college? Do you get a new roof or save for college or get tutoring or stuff more money into the cash fund in case you're laid off ...? Oh, yes, and do you put in overtime and thus spend less time with your child? On the one hand, being "middle class" provides far more options than being very poor. On the other hand, the options are not necessarily easy choices or ones with great certainty.

Thinking about education as a family strategy should put a spotlight on the gap between a microeconomic perspective (that the rate of return on education makes it a good idea) and an individual or family perspective: individuals don't have a smooth return-on-investment ROI curve. You're employed, or not, or have part-time work, or work overtime. You only have one job (or two), and one salary (or two). Abstractions such as ROI make sense when you're speaking of populations, and millions of Americans understand that abstraction: that's why mutual funds have expanded so dramatically in the past few decades (well, expanded in investments before they shrank in value...). In buying a mutual-fund share, you're buying a basket of property, getting diversification on the cheap (well, if you watch the fees). But you can't diversify your family that much: "I'll send 5% of my son to manufacturing industry, 10% to financial services, 10% to information technology, ..." You make investment choices for one child at a time. And there are no guarantees for that child (or for you). On the whole, investing in education is a good choice. But you're still trusting to a great deal of luck.

And even if you look at populations, behavior can look inconsistent with the incentives microeconomists assume. Sociologist Roz Mickelson focused on such an inconsistency in her classic article, Why Does Jane Read and Write So Well? (1989), and her follow-up, Gender, Bourdieu, and the Anomaly of Women's Achievement Redux (2003) (both subscription based/$$ required). Why have women dramatically expanded college attendance in the past half-century, even as the return on that investment has lagged behind the value of college for men? Her argument five years ago was that women are more likely to try to balance the social value of different spheres in life: work, family, etc.

We'll come back to Mickelson and Bourdieu another time. Today, let's focus on the individual-population gap. To a great extent, the problem of student debt is that it concentrates the risk at the level of individuals and families. In contrast with purchasing private insurance or a social insurance program, either of which spreads risk, parents or college students take on substantial parts of the risk that the college education will not pay off, because of dumb luck either in the economy of the moment (cross-sectional dumb luck) or in the lifetime of the student (cohort dumb luck). 

As states have withdrawn support from undergraduate instruction, this privatization of risk has accelerated. If you care about equity, you should be worried by the consequences. But even if you don't care at all about fairness, you should still recognize that the assumption of greater risk will change the behavior of college students. (I won't call it distortion because I am not likely to be convinced that there is any theoretically neutral behavior of college students.) To be honest, I do not pretend to know for certainty how the behavior of college students changes with the assumption of greater debt. I will leave that empirical question to sociologists and economists.

I am not sure how to spread the risk across either individuals or cohorts. A tuition-free undergraduate education that public taxes support would be one way, but I suspect we're not headed there as a society. Among other reasons, people think that college students should bear some of the burden of their own education, a result of the vocational rhetoric surrounding college education (including the human-capital rationale itself). But even in a world with tuition and debt, there should be some way to create a "basketful of school," creative mechanisms that spread risk so that students from families of moderate means can attend college with the reasonable security that their futures are not going to be shackled to student debt.

December 17, 2008

Stupid leadership at...

  1. Michigan State University
  2. Yeshiva University
My deepest sympathies to the faculty and students at both places. May the skies open up and give you something more than Schadenfreude.

November 18, 2008

Brief notes on a college visit

My daughter and I took advantage of Veterans Day this year to make another college-visit trip, to a different region of the country from February's trip, this time to two Colleges of Potential Choice. I was wrong last time when I said I kept having facultyish thoughts in February as well as parent thoughts. I have at least three lenses through which I'm seeing colleges we visit: parent, faculty member, and person who studies education. Thoughts during the visits Monday and Tuesday:

  • The campus tour is a genre of performance art with its own conventions and rituals (including the tourguide's walking-backwards-and-tripping bit). 
  • All of the institutions we've visited together try to make students feel special/entitled, and their values are embodied in how they do so.
  • She's enjoying cooler weather (again). We've definitely lost her as far as staying close to home is concerned.
  • As a parent, I waver between wanting a tourguide to pour forth the information and hoping that the tourguide is just a little rough around the edges so we get a better sense of the institution. Same with the admissions officer who conducts the information session.
  • Oh, dear. I spaced out precisely at the time when the tourguide said something surprising (and alarming) to my daughter. Time to conduct some quick research online while she's in class!
  • That is both an odd and perfect place for the science fiction collection.
  • It is a surprising phenomenon that slight changes in the architecture can make a difference between a campus that feels intimate and a campus that feels monumental. 
  • Stone, wood, plaster, brick, concrete. Someone's got to write a song about campus building materials.
  • That must be awfully slippery in the rain. The other flooring isn't, but it's awfully ugly. Isn't there any flooring that is both safe and pleasing?
  • I think the charm of both places is almost guaranteed in contrast to my daughter's bureaucratic high school.
  • Oh, they don't have that here? I made an assumption; thank goodness I didn't voice it with my daughter.
  • Oh, my, that's an amazing... indulgence is not quite the word. Neither is entitlement, since it's valuable for its educational purpose. Serious flabbergastery, and I'm someone who's been around for a good while. 
These random notes are brought to you by a day that started at 5:15 and is going past 11 pm, with a few breaks for chauffeuring, music, and light napping. I am still far behind on stuff I need to do in almost any realm of life. It's everything I've taken on, plus the time of the semester, but I think I'm going to declare temporal bankruptcy. Warning: if you're not a family member, I'm afraid you're not a secured creditor on my time. Maybe my problem is prioritization and sequencing. I was trying to finish up a project today with an acquaintance, when she snapped back, "Sherman, you are just too little, too late. I already voted!"

I think I will stop now before I commit worse jokes.

November 11, 2008


So the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) is changing its name to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU). No wonder the group's "leaders want the new name to be read as a series of letters": if you pronounce the acronym, it sounds like Apple U. or that the speaker needs a kleenex.

October 22, 2008

Palin is more typical than you think

Robin Abcarian's L.A. Times story yesterday about Sarah Palin's college career tries to establish a contrast with the three other major-party nominees:

Sen. John McCain is remembered as a passionate contrarian... Sen. Barack Obama... is remembered as a daunting scholar and calming influence. Sen. Joe Biden... is remembered fondly by professors who found him charming. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, however, is barely remembered at all.

"Looking at this dynamic personality now, it mystifies me that I wouldn't remember her," said Jim Fisher, Palin's journalism instructor at the University of Idaho, where she graduated with a bachelor of science degree in journalism in 1987. Palin, he said, took his public affairs reporting class, an upper-division course limited to 15 students. "It's the funniest damn thing," Fisher said. "No one can recall her."

It's not "the funniest damn thing" at all. It's all too typical of American colleges.

In a world where the majority of college students are either at community colleges or at public universities and colleges, anonymity is too often the norm. At huge places students can find niches, but if the various surveys of student engagement are any indication, it's all too easy to graduate from college without talking with a faculty member outside class, without having the same faculty member twice, and without the type of engagement with either faculty or classmates that people would remember years later.

I should know: I've had well over 2000 students at USF, and I have only had a handful for more than a single course, 15 weeks (or 10, in the summer), in, out, and often halfway out the door at the end of class, rushing to the next class, or to work, or somewhere. I struggle against the anonymity and my own bad memory for names and faces; and at least in the context of a single class, I can use Mnemosyne to learn names. But a few months after the end of a semester? If I've only talked with them a handful of times, and never in office hours or about interesting subjects, I really don't know them. The few who have kept in contact after that one semester? I'll remember them for years.

October 19, 2008

The buttons we bear... or the crosses, or other things

In the last week I've been criticized by both Stanley Fish and Andy Rotherham, so I must be doing something halfway interesting. As Leo Casey notes, the legal problem in banning any and all campaign buttons from the classroom is the question of other forms of passive advertisement of individual commitments. How can one construe a school system's ability to ban campaign buttons without also prohibiting teachers from wearing a cross, a Star of David, or a head scarf? Fish's column this week has his answer, starting with the answer commenter Elizabeth Fuller gave:

"They signal a person's individual choice, not necessarily advocacy." That is [adds Fish], they don't ask you to do anything except recognize the self-identification of the person in front of you. A campaign button, on the other hand, is asking for your vote.
That argument presumes that one decoration is nothing more than a private declaration, while the other decoration is unhesitatingly a request for action. Doesn't that rather depend on the specifics: would a half-inch cross be acceptable but a cross that's five inches across be susceptible to banning because it's more of an advertisement? And if a 2-1/2" McCain button can be forbidden, what about the tiny half-inch Obama state lapel pins that are almost impossible to read? Those definitely strike me as a private declaration. In terms of the legal question, if the UFT wants to test this principle, they should find one teacher to wear a very large religious symbol and another teacher to wear an unreadable Obama lapel pin. Because UFT's case this month was making a facial challenge to the NYC DOE regulation, that sort of dilemma was not evident. But because I suspect the outcome of a real case would depend on the specifics of this type of contrast, I don't think you can make an abstract rule. (The federal district judge in the case denied a preliminary injunction about the buttons-in-the-classroom issue. because the standard for preliminary injunctions in First Amendment cases is whether the plaintiff is likely to win the case in the end.)

But even if a K-12 teacher or faculty member has the legal right to wear a campaign button, is it appropriate? Here we get to Fish's false dichotomy on professionalism: the behavior in question is either correct or forbidden. Nowhere is that fallacy more evident than in Fish's response to the "what if I'm asked explicitly?" hypothetical. Fish's ex cathedra answer rings false:

Should teachers avoid responding to students who ask them about their political preferences? If my students ask what candidate I favor, am I bound to refuse to answer? (Cary Nelson). First of all, if you're teaching a class and not leading a rally, there should be no opportunity for that question to arise. But if it does, yes, you should refuse to answer it, and perhaps throw in a little lesson about why it is irrelevant to any issue that might come up in an academic discussion.

Here, the faculty member is supposed to respond to an honest question with hectoring: stop asking such nonsense! Let me try to understand Fish's position: before answering each and every student question, I am supposed to parse it for tight connection to the course content, filtering out anything that doesn't clearly pertain. Faculty should be free to ignore obviously irrelevant questions, but this strikes me as a strained position designed to be consistent with Fish's prior position rather than be workable and sensible.

There is a further problem: if Fish is correct that anything is appropriate if only pinned by an academic lepidopterist*, then the student can turn any supposedly inappropriate question into an appropriate one by making it academic. So if the student is not really asking about the faculty member's persona politics (or family, or reading habits, etc.) but studying the response of faculty to nosy questions not directly related to a class, is it then appropriate? By Fish's rules, it must be. I can think of a few other ways for students to "academicize" the rudest and least relevant question. 

But that effort to Godelize Fish (or hoist Fish on his own petard) is a bit too esoteric. The fundamental point is that efforts to make clean distinctions between private actions and intruding statements is very difficult when you're interpreting what people wear. I've never worn a campaign button when on campus, but that restraint is because of my sense of what's appropriate, not because that judgment is something I can defend as an absolute. 

* Many years ago, Suzanne Bender gave me the metaphor of lepidoptery for all sorts of things, and it seems to be appropriate here.

Oh, good grief!

Apart from a few blog entries, I've been staying out of the fray on Ayers. I didn't sign the online petition because at the time it went up, it didn't appear as if Ayers' academic freedom was being directly threatened. In this regard, I agree with Erin O'Connor, that public criticism is not the same as a threat to academic freedom. The arguments about Ayers' connection to Obama are specious and many border on the disgusting, but using libel and slander during an election is an old tactic. For a reasoned explanation of why someone who disagrees with the petition's wording nonetheless signed it, see Deborah Meier's explanation on Wednesday. My view is very close to Meier's, except I decided not to sign the petition.

What has changed is the reversal of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's invitation to have Ayers speak on campus after the election. As John Wilson notes, the pretense of "safety concerns" is a naked excuse to bar Ayers because he is controversial or embarrassing. After the election, regardless of the outcome, Ayers will be an afterthought on the national scene. Would UNL bar any of the major-party candidates for president or vice president because of the costs of providing security or updating infrastructure? I didn't see any of the hosts for this year's presidential debates shy away from those costs. UNL's decision is a violation of academic freedom principles.

October 8, 2008

Yglesias on Ayers

Matthew Yglesias's take seems about right:

One thing you can say in Ayers’ defense is that it’s perfectly clear from his present-day conduct that he, in fact, realizes that unleashing a podunk domestic terrorism campaign would be a stupid and immoral thing to do. He could be going around setting off bombs. Instead, he’s a professor and a community activist. On the other hand, he seems sufficiently entrenched in egomania and self-righteousness that he can’t bring himself to actually admit that. And until he does admit that he was wrong, he’s hard to defend.

That seems pretty close to Oliver North, if you're looking for parallels—with North as a former talk-radio blowhard who has never apologized, but he's just a former talk-radio blowhard who speaks to conservative audiences.

October 4, 2008

Bill Ayers and double standards

Yesterday's New York Times story on Obama and Bill Ayers suggests that Bill Ayers is not particularly reflective about his time as a Weatherman (their bombings weren't that bad because of the magnitude of the crime they considered the Vietnam War to be??) but that it's a real stretch to claim (as a new ad from the independent attack-ad group American Issues Project does) that Obama is an Ayers-ite. Apparently almost all of the contact between the two came before 2001, when Ayers' memoir (with its embarrassing statement) was published.

More generally, it's unfair to hold someone who is in public life and community affairs for several decades to an impossible "Caesar's wife" standard of whom you know and meet. I suspect that John McCain has (gasp!) met with Oliver North, who is responsible for some pretty despicable things (at least in my view). But I don't really expect Sen. McCain to have denounced him, and it would look pretty silly (and desperate) for any of Obama's supporters to say that the main reason why we would not want McCain in the White House is because he has not yet denounced every single shady conservative actor he's met more than three times. Obama hasn't even focused on the links between the savings and loan crisis and the current disaster, and on McCain's being a part of the Keating Five. (In any case, I suspect that would be a useless issue politically, for a variety of reasons.)

Maybe a bit of perspective here would be worthwhile. Some years ago, one of our neighbors suffocated her nine-month-old infant about half a year after her family moved into a house they rented on a nearby street. My children had been friendly with her stepsons, and we had talked with her occasionally. After she killed her baby, we had some long conversations in our house about the nature of evil, and we asked the questions I expect anyone would ask: could we have known what was going to happen? could we have intervened? are we fools for not having asked her more questions about how she was doing? That's the situation where you question your ability to observe and draw conclusions about your fellow human beings. Occasionally going to meetings with Bill Ayers over 20 years? Not the same issue.

So for the record, if I were ever invited to a panel with someone I thought had done some damaging things in the past, yes, I'd make my decision based on the general question of whether it was worth my time, not on the symbolic and meaningless issue of whether my presence on said panel would be an endorsement of everyone else on it. I can even shake the hands of Bill Ayers and Oliver North without implying that I agree with their stupid or criminal acts.

Addendum: At this point early Monday afternoon, the Ayers-Keating-what's-next mud now appears to be flying around more generally. At least this means the EDIN08 effort will not be the low point in the 2008 campaign.

September 27, 2008

Both Fish and Bérubé are wrong

Some years ago, I ran across someone who was so firmly convinced that schools were heterosexist, he thought that K-12 teachers should be forbidden from mentioning anything about their private lives lest they reinforce heteronormative assumptions. I asked, "Okay, so that means you can't have a picture of your spouse or children on your desk?" "Of course not!" was the reply. That took my breath away, and I was thinking of asking whether we should just give up this parental childrearing idea entirely and have state-run creches. But I thought better of my time and his and just shook my head and walked away.

That type of foolishness has its parallel in higher education with the biennial arguments about Bumper Stickers and Buttons. Along with the foolishness this week in Illinois whereby faculty and staff were told they could not have political bumper stickers on cars they parked on campus (All faculty must leave their classes right now and scrape the "Harry Potter for President" stickers off their cars, or so I imagined), I received an e-mail from a colleague asking about candidate buttons worn on campus. I explained the usual distinction between public and private resources—you can't use public property to support candidates, but I assume faculty buy their own clothes, so they're festooning personal property—and the distinction between sense and propriety. Not everything that is unwise is unprofessional: you're not going to impress your students if you wear a huge McCain or Obama button, but telling a faculty member not to wear campaign buttons is a violation of a faculty member's rights. Yes, faculty and students have rights to do foolish things as well as brilliant things.

And, yes, I included both faculty and students in that statement. When he was on campus Tuesday, Michael Bérubé said that students do not have academic freedom and that he agrees with Stanley Fish's argument that academic freedom is a guild concept. Because I agree with Bérubé on a great deal in terms of academic politics, in some ways it is a relief to find something on which we disagree; otherwise, I'd worry that I was a figment of his imagination. (Please don't explain in comments that he could surely imagine someone with whom he disagrees and thus I am still a figment of his imagination. I know that argument, it ignores the ineffability of English professors, and I'm just holding onto this thin reed of intellectual autonomy as is, so will you stop with the Jesuitical reasoning already?)

More seriously, Fish's argument is an understandable but narrow view of academic freedom, and despite what he thinks, it is weak ground on which to make the case for academic freedom.

Fish asks, Is academic freedom a philosophical concept tied to larger concepts of individual dignity and autonomy, or is it a guild concept developed in an effort to insulate the enterprise from the threat of a hostile takeover? That's a great start, a combination of a false dichotomy and straw-man argument. Apart from the fact that there are arguments in favor of academic freedom that are not rooted in either a priori concepts of intellectual freedom or guild protections, though, using the term guild is not very specific. This is fairly typical of Fish's ex cathedra pronouncements of Academic Truth, full of elisions that make me want to tear my hair out.

Fortunately for my sanity, if nothing else, Michael Bérubé put flesh on Fish's frisson in his talk Tuesday. He argued that Fish's guild concept was rooted in the academic's search for truth, whose path is unpredictable. Because of that unpredictability, faculty could not be restricted in the direction their inquiries took. Faculty are confirmed in their expertise, so they get this freedom. Students are not, so they don't have academic freedom.

This sounds like a clean distinction until you poke below the surface. Do I have academic freedom because I engage in research but my colleagues who are just instructors do not have academic freedom because they don't publish? Wait: maybe we let teachers have academic freedom because you never know where class may go in a field like mine. So do instructors have academic freedom in the humanities but not in calculus, because intro calc is well defined? Or suppose you tie it to the stability of the job because you don't want some full-time faculty to be excluded or have there be arguments about which field has academic freedom. Then you have the question of whether full-time faculty have academic freedom but adjuncts don't. What about graduate students, who are learning but also teach and engage in research? Ah, but they're not yet confirmed experts. But in some fields doctoral students commonly publish before their dissertation, while in other departments new assistant professors sometimes are hired as ABDs without publications. So does the ABD and unpublished assistant professor have academic freedom at a university where the published advanced doctoral student doesn't? Or suppose you have a doctoral student at a university who also teaches and has tenure at a nearby community college. Does she have academic freedom or not? According to the guild concept, she might have it when at work at the community college (where she has tenure), but not at the university, even though her work at a university may contribute more to the body of knowledge in her field. If your brain is about to explode from these problems, follow my advice: don't root academic freedom in a guild concept.

The other problem with the guild notion of academic freedom is its political viability: today, not only is it dangerous to imply that faculty should have academic freedom while you don't because we're special, it fails a basic reality check. A high enough proportion of the general population has a college education that we just aren't that special. Maybe only one percent of the American population has a Ph.D., but we've done a pretty darn good job of educating our neighbors so that they can think for themselves. That's a good thing, on the whole. Maybe you're not a trained scientist, but some of you participate in the annual Christmas bird count, or you're an amateur astronomer, or you know Lilium columbianum when you see it. For me to claim that only I have the academic freedom to be protected when I talk about those things while you don't is guilding the lily (the Tiger lily, if you're curious, though I can't guarantee I could spot it in a field). When defenders of academic freedom use arguments that are as fallacious as they are pretentious, they are not helping defend the professoriate from political interference.

A far better route is to take part of Bérubé's commentary on Fish—that academic freedom is rooted in the job we do—and expand the way we look at the job of faculty and universities. Maybe Stanley Fish thinks the academic is interested in an abstract, decontextualized search for truth (see Steven Kellman's Chronicle column for a nice response to that claim), but many of the historical academic freedom controversies are rooted firmly in politics. I suspect that for those whose academic freedom was violated thanks to the economics of the dairy economy or the politics of the Cold War, Fish's defense of them as only in search of the (defenestrated, lifeless) truth would be cold comfort. We may academicize the world because that's the modus operandi of analysis, but we can be motivated by the same passions as our neighbors.

The search for truth isn't as ascetic as Fish would hope. It is emotional, personal, and often a matter of sensitive politics. As higher education has evolved in the U.S. and elsewhere, college and university faculty look for truth and are general social critics. The rhetoric and reality of academic freedom is a political construct, tied to our institutional role as social whistleblower. Sometimes that's "social" in an ascetic-truth sense, and sometimes it's social in a very political sense. To divorce faculty from the development of political rights in American history is to ignore the real history of academic freedom controversies and the growing recognition of general free-speech rights. Of course, Stanley Fish doesn't believe in free speech, either. But I do, I bet you do, and that means that we can and should talk about academic freedom in a political context.

To make that case means that we have to acknowledge that students have academic freedom in an institutional context (i.e., when they're at a public university). If we tell students that they have no academic freedom, we're inviting them to care less about the academic freedom of faculty once they leave us. If we invite them into the sphere of protection we'd like enlarged, they'll be far more likely to support academic freedom as older adults. So for all sorts of selfish and historical reasons, I hereby proclaim that college students have academic freedom, and it's a good thing, too.

September 23, 2008

Michael Bérubé Tuesday

I'm too exhausted right now to think too much about Bérubé's visit today. I know that his synapses work at least three times as quickly as mine do, he and I disagree about the definition of cultural studies (and at and on this point I think he's right), and we also disagree about the underlying rationale for academic freedom (and I think I'm right about that). But all of that is for another day, I think (or rather that I will think on another day). You can listen to his interview on the student radio station, at least until I have my brain back in working order.

Until then, I will just leave you all pondering the fact that I held up a sign at the airport while waiting for him that had "DANGER" written on it, and no TSA officer ever came up to me to ask what the heck was going on. Well, you don't have to ponder it at all, if you don't want to. It's not Bérubé's fault, if you're wondering.

Critical thinking and cultural work

I have another hour or so of work to do before bed, out of a combination of weekend-long computer woes, an uncooperative body, scheduling near-misses, and a delayed plane. But as a result of Michael Bérubé's visit this week, I've been thinking about What's Liberal about the Liberal Arts? and his discussion of his classes. I know that his explicit intention is to show how a liberal professor can teach (and usually does teach) literature without using it as an excuse to propagandize, because the other issues swamp anything that might stem from a professor-as-policy-liberal as opposed to a professor-as-procedural-and-intellectual-liberal.

But there are a bunch of other things in there, and one of them is how classroom discussion is cultural work. A seminar discussion about The Rise of Silas Lapham involves a great deal of give and take between students and faculty and among students. I get the sense from reading Bérubé that he works very hard to engage students and push them to think, about the book and related ideas about literature and humanity.  And students work hard as well. I suppose somebody might say that they're engaged in critical thinking, but that's wrong on several levels. At one level, it's wrong from the perspective of cognitive psychologists who have tried but failed to identify the modules that are connected to this mysterious entity. That doesn't mean that there is no such thing as critical thinking but that it may not be what we think it is, or we have to look at it differently. 

So, back to the students who are struggling to grasp what a Penn State English professor is saying. He's pushing them to examine the implications of Silas's ethical choices, force them (the students, readers) to decide what's right and wrong, to make connections. And they begin to (or so MB describes, and I have no reason to doubt his account). It's not a brilliant eureka moment that stems from cognitive growth, or at least not in any coherent sense that my friends the cognitivists can point to. But there is something going on, in the classroom space that has discussion, open questions, leading questions, pushy questions, pushback, and occasionally silence. Hundreds of thousands of students go through that process each semester; they may not go through it with Silas, and their epiphanies may not be original except to them and their classmates, but in the type of classroom that I hope all of us experience at least once, they do a type of work that can only happen in or with groups: cultural work.

Yeah, yeah, Peter McLaren wrote that a few decades ago, I know: the classroom is a performance space. But I mean something a bit deeper and more problematic: some of the best opportunities for cultural work is in a functional, engaging classroom. For a whole variety of reasons I won't go into detail about, beyond cognitive psychology, I am very skeptical of broad generalized claims about critical thinking when posed as a cognitive-psychology question. Usually, that turns the college curriculum into a sort of faculty-psychology jungle gym, much as the 1824 Yale Report claimed in its defense of a curriculum. But there is stuff going on in a good liberal-arts classroom, and that's inherently hard to capture because cultural work can simultaneously be local and universal, even at the mundane level of the individual, personalized classroom discussions that are going on about Moby Dick this fall, not at one university but at hundreds. To put it in a concrete sense, there are probably hundreds of students in different high schools, colleges, and universities who are talking this week about the fact that "The Cassock" (chapter 95, I think) is about the disposal/use of the whale's penis and foreskin, either giggling or being taken aback at it. Widepsread, but very personal and local. 

I think this cultural work is what distinguishes a liberal-arts college from lots of other educational experiences. I think it is why the Amethyst Initiative signatories are disproportionately from liberal-arts colleges: Despite the research suggesting how the 21 age threshold for alcohol saves lives, and in addition to the legal/political liability issues, liberal-arts college presidents are less devoted to a certain definition of "cognitive thinking" than to a common sense that college is for discursive, social learning. 

I have still been unable to find a work by an anthropologist of education who studies the type of cultural work that happens in college seminars. So maybe instead of hoping that an anthropologist of education takes this up, I'll issue a challenge instead to cognitive psychologists: surely you can do better than my social-science history-ish writing in capturing the cultural work that happens inside seminar classes, of finding more specific and narrow stuff rather than the global claims of "critical thinking" might suggest.

July 29, 2008

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education jumps the shark

Twice this month I've agreed with National Association of Scholars head Peter Wood, but when NAS organizes what looks like a Horowitzian ideological witchhunt, they've lost my sympathy. I'm also at a loss to understand why the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's blog applauded NAS. There's a pretty large gulf between FIRE's support of and education around individual rights, on the one hand, and NAS's engaging in an ideologically one-sided hunt for people to complain about college campuses, on the other. (Hat tip.)

July 21, 2008

The higher-ed split among conservatives

One could probably have predicted today's Inside Higher Ed article describing how several conservative academics criticized the current push for quantitative assessment of higher ed. I didn't, but if you did, give yourself a pat on the back.

The article describes a panel on Friday sponsored by the American Academy of Distance Learning (more about that later) where the former head of Margaret Spellings's Office of Postsecondary Education and the executive director of the National Association of Scholars ripped Spellings and her allies for pushing standardized tests in higher ed to the detriment of liberal arts. According to the article, Diane Auer Jones was more diplomatic than Peter Wood, but both complained that the push for accountability was turning reductionist. In this regard, I think Wood's reported comments are on the money: today, the policy rhetoric on higher education is vocational, and that threatens to make the defense of a liberal-arts education more difficult. He ties it to the push for accountability in higher education, and I've had similar concerns about calls for standardized testing as the primary accountability mechanism for colleges.

The predictability comes in the split among conservatives, one that Wood ties back to a "practical"/"classical" distinction in the late 18th century. The Spellings Commission report ignored fundamental tensions in American higher education, and one interesting feature of the report is the invisibility of the curriculum. The report's rhetoric was tied closely to economics, and I suspect that Jones's resignation in May on a matter of principle was the result of a long-simmering frustration among some conservative academics, not an isolated event. No party or political coalition is monolithic, and I've heard several current and former Capitol Hill staffers from Democratic offices who were far closer to Spellings on higher-ed accountability than either Jones or Wood. And I'm closer to Jones and Wood at least on this issue, though I'm a Democrat.

And now the coda: The building frustration among some conservatives that I'm inferring here may explain why Jones and Wood were willing to use the sponsorship of a proprietary university's president's shadow accreditation office: I've tried to look for the "American Academy of Distance Learning," which seemed to be an odd outfit to sponsor a talk about standardized testing and the liberal arts. I found an American Academy of Distance Learning (or at least a reference to its tax-exempt status) headquartered in Denver, but Dick Bishirjian runs the proprietary Yorktown University, which is in Denver... at the same address as AADL, down to the same suite number. But the media advisory for the panel lists AADL with a Norfolk post office box. Bishirjian also appears to be the president of the American Academy of Privatization, a proponent of "privatization training for public officials." I'm not sure what that means, precisely, but the P.O. box for it is the same as that given in the media advisory for AADL. In other words, it looks like Bishirjian has a mail drop in Norfolk and office space in Denver. That's an amazingly slim infrastructure to run a university and two other organizations... or at least to claim so. A July 10 Denver Post article gives a little more information about Yorktown, at least in relationship to Republican Senate candidate Bob Schaffer, who served on Yorktown's board of trustees for several years. Yorktown apparently has a single graduate program and only a few dozen students. Given the plaudits for Bishirjian by Paul Weyrich earlier this month on David Horowitz's website, it looks like Bishirjian had enormous difficulties gaining accreditation. So... is his sponsorship of the forum for Jones and Wood something that's tied to his proprietary institution's interests? I don't know if either Jones or Wood is aware of Bishirjian's background or the disconnect between his proprietary institution's curriculum and their arguments, but this is definitely one of the odder set of bedfellows I've seen in higher education.

July 8, 2008

Mike Rose kicks ----

Tired of Professor X's dissing students who "don't belong" in college? Read Mike Rose's post about Teaching Remedial Writing, and then you'll understand a tiny piece of why I find his writing engaging and exciting. And this is the pedestrian version of Rose's writing, the relatively uncooked blog entry that even uses utilize. To see his polished prose, try his website.

July 1, 2008

No doubts

I don't think there is any reasonable doubt among the relevant historians that the killing of Armenians in 1915 was genocide. And now, it looks remarkably like a defunding threat from the government of Turkey pushed Donald Quataert out of the position of board chair at the Institute of Turkish Studies.

June 24, 2008

I don't need this excitement, honestly

2:37 Apparently, a man with a rifle was spotted near a USF Tampa campus building several hundred yards from here. We were warned to stay away from that building, and while there's been no all-clear sign, someone in our building with a line of sight to that space says that the law-enforcement cordons and personnel are gone.

2:42 It turned out to be a false alarm. Here is the text of what is currently on the university's website:

June 24, 2008

Attention Tampa Campus: Just after 2:00p.m., it was reported to University Police that a man was seen carrying what looked like a rifle, walking outside the area on the east side of Cooper Hall.

University Police and AlliedBarton security are checking the outside area and inside nearby buildings. Please avoid the area if possible. If you are in the immediate vicinity, calmly leave the area until further notice. If you see anything suspicious, call 911.

Update as of 2:39pm:

Attention Tampa Campus: The emergency alert is cancelled. The "man carrying a rifle" turned out to be an ROTC student, carrying a non-functional practice rifle. He has been located and interviewed, and it has been determined that no dangerous situation actually existed.

University Police, AlliedBarton Security, and USF Parking Enforcement quickly responded to the area, set up a safety perimeter, and thoroughly checked outside and inside areas. The Hillsborough Co. Sheriff's Department also sent several deputies to check for the suspect and assist with the safety of the campus. The citizen who reported the possible problem deserves out [sic] thanks for being alert and quickly contacting the police.

Thankfully this turned out to be a false alarm, but the USF people and systems responded very professionally.

June 19, 2008

The missing points on the Milton Friedman Institute

Maybe there's something wrong with me, but I think the collective faculty letter criticizing the creation of the University of Chicago's Milton Friedman Institute is both correct and beside the point. The faculty point out that the investment of $200 million in this new entity will privilege a certain view of markets associated with Friedman, a point that seems to be without too much controversy. But they talk about it in terms of "the interests of equity and balance" and ask the university "to provide roughly equivalent resources for critical scholarly work that seeks out alternatives to recent economic, social, and political developments."

The point could be sharpened by talking about the academic losses involved in the massive investment in a single perspective: Isn't behavioral economics one of the most exciting fields in economics and one that will be entirely ignored by the Milton Friedman Institute? To put the issue in standard neoclassical language, the opportunity cost of building the Milton Friedman Institute is the investment not going into building up the university's economics research in other areas, including behavioral economics, public economics, and so forth. To me, it seems like a deliberate institutional risk to put so much of one's resources into a single academic approach to any field.

June 8, 2008

Nailing down accreditation

Kevin Carey has an interesting short essay this weekend on college accreditation, essentially arguing that the federal government should use its regulatory authority over regional accreditation agencies to exert indirect pressures on colleges. There's a thumbnail history of government support of higher ed in the postwar era* and an argument that it was kosher for the Bush administration to use federal oversight of the accreditation process to create additional responsibilities for accreditors.

The current accreditation system works well in some ways. Accredited colleges are very unlikely to steal your money and take it to the track or hand you a worthless diploma from KevU. Accreditation brings certain standards in terms of faculty credentials, financial integrity, etc.... But the peer-based nature of accreditation also limits its utility.

I agree: accreditation is useful for some purposes and not for everything. According to Carey, it serves the "don't let federal dollars go to fly-by-night institutions" purpose well.

The critical question is whether accreditation can or should serve more than that purpose as far as the federal government is concerned. Carey describes the backlash against the Bush regulatory attempts as an explicit desire to escape accountability. I suspect it's far closer to a feeling among accreditors that the federal government is pulling a bait-and-switch tactic. Having created an apparatus to do precisely what Carey says (making sure that accredited institutions are not frauds), Spellings wanted them to look much more like Big Brother in higher education. I don't think accreditors have the capacity to do what Margaret Spellings and Kevin Carey would like them to do, I don't think they'd have the legal or political authority to do it as the Bush administration packs its bags, and I think if forced to do it, they'd do a lousy job. I'm afraid this is a case of seeing accreditation agencies as a hammer, with accountability looking mightily (and incorrectly) like a nail.

* Not so minor pickiness: Carey's propagation of the Myth of Research Fetishes:

So we made universities care about one thing—research—even as we needed them to be good at another thing—teaching. This fundamental and on some level irreconcilable tension is the source of much of what's wrong with higher education today.

There's much we can debate about a Weberian analysis of higher education, but that claim about emphasis is simply not true: not only are most students and faculty still in institutions largely devoted to teaching, but Carey knows (or should know) that the vast majority of undergraduate students are in public institutions (not many of which are Research I), and more than a third of undergraduate students attend 2-year institutions far removed from research. Far more to the point is his previous argument that legislators often give some institutions preferential treatment come budget time. He assumes it's always the flagship university. I'm not so sure; in some states, community colleges have enormous political sway. And in plenty of states, legislators don't seem to care about higher education as anything more than an opportunity for patronage and corruption (ask faculty in Alabama).

June 1, 2008

No golf for faculty, either

Last month, Dean Dad wrote an entry discussing the generational culture differences among higher-ed administrators. There's an important point here that's hidden in the piece, something about work habits as well as culture and leisure change by generation. Anyone who goes into grad school expecting a leisurely life of the mind should know that Margaret Soltan's assumption of plentiful sabbaticals is more myth than reality for faculty across the country. While I know of no study about the prevalence or use of sabbaticals, I would guess that a graduate student in liberal arts would be more likely to end up as a freeway flyer adjuncting at several campuses than to be at a liberal arts college or major research university with guaranteed sabbaticals every seven years.

More generally, I find relatively few new faculty who have much time to be lazy during the year. There are faculty who have better control over their time than others, and there are also many faculty who find 50-60 hour weeks less hectic than their previous lives, or more enjoyable. (I don't have a point of comparison, having gone straight from college to grad school to various roles in academe.) But I don't know many unoccupied faculty who have come to USF recently and stayed in the job for long. Whether they're great managers of their time or spinning their wheels, they're working hard. (I'm somewhere between those two extremes.) This is also true of faculty who are caring for young children or older relatives. There are plenty of faculty members who have written books in the odd minutes and hours around children's naps, parental care, and so forth.

Probably the largest question of faculty time for new scholars is who takes the summer off. Note that I did not say that the difference is between who is paid and who is unpaid during the summer. At my institution, there are both 9-month and 12-month faculty, and many 9-month faculty also depend on summer appointments to pay the bills. (A curtailed schedule this summer has effectively cut the pay of many faculty.) But there are plenty of faculty who are not paid and yet still work during the summer to meet tenure requirements, to complete research requirements, to catch up with reading that was left undone in the summer, and so forth.

There is probably a reason why I'm writing this entry today: I came into the office today to work on something I'm not paid for this summer (editing Education Policy Analysis Archives). I am teaching a course starting this month, and I'm tied to a bunch of union commitments, but that's not all. Like many of my colleagues, I am socialized too well to just sit around during the summer. (Yes, a colleague came to his office today, a few doors down from mine.) In today's case, that's partly because my May is always hectic, and I never get enough done in May. (Case in point: I started this entry a few evenings ago... but didn't finish it until now.) So June 1, I must start catching up. But my experience is also a reflection of the reality of faculty lives. I'm sure there are a few clever layabouts who can start a tenure-track job today and get through with a minimum of effort. I just haven't met any.

May 29, 2008

A boycott call by another name smells as daft...

British academics are at it again, and Chris Goff is right: the call for faculty "to consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions" is a back-door way to call for a boycott without calling for a boycott. The University and College Union has never asked its faculty to "consider the moral" anything with regard to its other comments on international affairs.

As with previous shenanigans of this order, the reliable commentary comes from Engage Online.

May 27, 2008

Sweet crude prices, exchange rates, and higher ed

Gas prices are rising above $4/gallon in the U.S., prices of crude are over $130/barrel, so what does this have to do with higher ed? First, in the U.S., it will affect the effective operating costs of universities, as they face higher heating/cooling bills and higher costs of living for faculty and staff (so either salaries have to rise accordingly or real wages fall for faculty and staff).

Second, it will affect commuting students, who will want schedules consolidated to reduce gas prices as well as job schedules, and who will put more pressure on costs they think should be more flexible (primarily textbooks).

Third... and here I am going to take a flying leap... it will dramatically change the calculations of students who might travel between countries for their education. Part of the rise in oil prices in the U.S. is because of the dropping value of the U.S. dollar against major currencies such as the euro. Exchange rates are an important determinant of the effective price of higher education when you cross borders. Looking just at exchange rates between the U.S. dollar and other currencies since the beginning of the year, I can group countries roughly by whether the value of their currency is rising, falling, or remaining about the same against the US$.

Rising against the dollar: euro, Australian dollar, Brazilian real, Chinese yuan, Danish krone, Japanese yen, Malaysian ringgit, Mexican peso, Norwegian kroner, Singapore dollar, Swedish krona, Swiss franc, Taiwan dollar,

Stagnant: British pound, Canadian dollar, Hong Kong dollar, New Zealand dollar, Sri Lankan rupee

Falling against the dollar: Indian rupee, South African rand, South Korean won, Thai baht
When prospective students think about going to college or grad school in a different country, expected cost has to figure into it in several regards -- in the cost to families who are paying privately, or in the cost to governments (and the number of slots available) when the public purse is paying. In either case, I wonder what the swing in exchange rates will do to international enrollments. As the euro rises against the dollar, will American universities out-compete German universities? Will Chinese student enrollment in other countries rise and Indian enrollment fall with the difference in relative currency value for their countries?

It's already happening, at least in graduate school admissions. An April 14 IHE article on the slowdown in international applications to U.S. graduate programs notes the decline of applications from India and South Korea and continued growth (if moderated) from China without asking whether there is a link between these trends and the parallel trends in the relative value of each currency against the dollar. (There was also no mention of exchange rates in a November 2007 IHE article, though one comment writer mentions them.) The only other mention I could find in a quick search was the effect of exchange rates on U.S. students who want to study abroad, not students from other countries interested in the U.S.

Plenty of factors shape international movement in higher education enrollment, but I wonder if any institution will seize on exchange rates to reshape recruitment efforts in countries with rising currency values against the dollar.

May 20, 2008

What to do with scoundrels

Since Mike Petrilli's May 12 blog post, arguing that AERA should not allow Bill Ayers to sit on its executive committee, there has been a host of responses, criticisms of Petrilli from Eduwonkette and Marc Dean Millot, and then rebuttals by Petrilli, Diane Ravitch, and Jeff Kuhner. And don't forget the last Gadfly podcast, when Petrilli and Rick Hess debated the issue.

There are several side issues mixed up in this, from the partisan attempts to use Ayers against Barack Obama (how Ayers became a news item) to the terminology and legal issues (which Millot addressed) and the questions of private association rights (what Rick Hess argued), but let me focus on what Petrilli is arguing at the core: Ayers is a scoundrel making his living in academe. Strip away questions about whether we can apply the label terrorism to Ayers, and the charge essentially is that academics (and education researchers specifically) are letting Ayers live without the consequences of being in the Weathermen.

Couched in that form, we can put the debate over Ayers in a broader context. There is a long tradition in American political culture of resuscitating scoundrels and wondering what to do after their lives are back on track and their past laundered through some patina of establishmentarian approval. While Petrilli is focusing on someone associated with the left side of the political spectrum, I can name a number on the right who are in equal or far better positions than Bill Ayers: John Yoo is now a tenured faculty member at Berkeley's Boalt Law School, G. Gordon Liddy is now a major talk-show host, and Oliver North hosts a Fox News show.

I know that legally, all of these individuals have rights, and you don't have be Mother Theresa to have those rights respected. Socially, I know what Miss Manners would say. On the other hand, neither of those answers the question that Petrilli asks, which is about public, professional recognition. My thoughts on the subject are usually along the lines of, "Okay, what do I do if I meet Scoundrel X in Situation Y, where I know of some pretty disreputable private or professional behavior, but where there is some work to do in that situation?" And my general answer is that if Yitzhak Rabin could shake hands with Yassir Arafat, I should be able to hold my nose and work with a lot people. (Don't tell me about the results of that handshake. I'm talking about ethics, not a strict parallel on consequences.)

But saying that I will work with almost anyone to accomplish some good end doesn't really address Petrilli's question. I will confess that I have no good answers to the question of what we should do publicly with scoundrels. But I'm not sure Petrilli is willing to follow his own advice, either, because what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Will Petrilli read the riot act to scoundrels on the right, publicly denounce them, and distance himself and the Fordham Foundation from them? And if so, what happens if he decides later that he needs to work with one of these individuals?

May 19, 2008

On not beating around the bush in the classroom

Is there anyone else who winced at the following sentences from the Atlantic Professor X column, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower?
A few weeks into the semester, the students must start actually writing papers, and I must start grading them....

I knew that Ms. L.'s paper would fail. I knew it that first night in the library. But I couldn't tell her that she wasn't ready for an introductory English class.

Is there anyone else who thinks that English comp classes need to require writing from the very first week, and that faculty need to be proactive in taking students aside early where appropriate and telling them forthrightly that unless you do X and Y, you will probably fail the class? Beating around the bush talking about "skills deficits" (in the case of Ms. L., "computer-skills deficits") does not explain "the seriousness of the situation, the student's jaw-dropping lack of ability, without being judgmental." It's just beating around the bush.

And for the larger argument of the article, I will just advise that everyone read Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary, which addresses many of the same issues in much more depth and with far more compassion.

May 2, 2008

Sins die

Sine die* is one of the few Latin expressions known or used in the Florida statehouse, and it marks the end of a session (technically adjourning indefinitely). 6pm EDT was the scheduled close, and when the traditional handkerchief dropped a few minutes afterwards, the legislature had wreaked havoc on the state budget, blown apart the merit-evaluation process for $85 million in start-up funds for large research centers, ... but failed to act on two foolish educational ideas, one the misnamed "academic freedom" bill that would undercut the science standards and the other a constitutional proposal that would strip the state's Board of Governors of all authority to manage the state's universities except what the legislature deigned to give it.

In both cases, there was a broad array of opponents, though the bill to undermine science standards was far closer to passage. In the case of university governance, the state's university faculty were joined by the editorial boards of major daily newspapers, the state's Chamber of Commerce, a business development group called the Council of 100, and a former private-university president who is now a state-house representative. Everyone who opposed the proposal deserves credit for killing it.

* The pronunciation is commonly "sigh-nee die," though purists would probably prefer "sin-ay dee-ay." I still like "sins die," but maybe that's because I'm now completing my 12th year in Florida.

April 27, 2008

"We can never have too many resources"??

In the Times article on Rockefeller's $100 Million donation to Harvard, Harvard President Drew Faust said,

To outsiders, our bucket may seem full, but at Harvard, we so often see aspirations we hope to fulfill that we can never have too many resources.
That's chutzpah. The question is not whether Harvard can have too many resources but whether other colleges and universities have too few. (For the record, I like the proposal others have made, that such wealth should flow to small underfunded private institutions.)

April 21, 2008

College graduation

The new Ed Sector report by Kevin Carey, Graduation Rate Watch, summarizes some of the material available from the IPEDS 6-year graduation measures for four-year colleges and universities. The main point is that there are vast differences within different higher-ed sectors not only in 6-year graduation stats but also Black-White differences in graduation. He correctly points out that some institutions such as Florida State have programs that appear at first glance to provide substantial support to first-generation college students, support that increases the likelihood of graduating.

Kudos: the interesting slice of IPEDS rates, with the appropriate hedges/caveats; the nod to Vincent Tinto's work; the acknowledgment of Cliff Adelman's suggestion for improving the IPEDS measures; the observation that U.S. News & World Report rankings largely diss graduation rates as ways to distinguish institutions; the recommendation that financial aid be shifted away from its merit-based emphasis today and back towards means-testing; the observation that funding enrollment does not provide a strong incentive for retention programs.

Kumquats: the continued push for a national unit records database. I think that's the only DOA suggestion in a compact, complex report. I may disagree with some other ideas, but the report on the whole is thoughtful and presents issues in a clear way. I might want a bit more use of the current college-retention literature, but I can't point to specifics because that's outside my area of expertise.

Some broader issues that complicate efforts to increase undergraduate graduation:

  • A large proportion of college students are in community colleges, and programs that focus on first-time-in-college students at universities are great... and limited to that sector of higher education.
  • Part-time students are a serious puzzle in terms of retention and even measurement. In many states, part-time students have a much harder time getting aid (in part because they are often older, and in part because of minimal-credit requirements). They also have competing obligations, are on campus less frequently, etc. I love older students in my classes for very selfish reasons (they are more mature, they help teach their classmates simply by being there and talking about their lives), but I'm not sure who has cracked the practical challenges that part-time students present for themselves and for their colleges.
  • Health crises can turn a student with marginal success into a student who has dropped out, and young adults are among the least likely Americans to have adequate health insurance.
  • Institutional pecking orders are hard to pinpoint, and they can shift rapidly: witness Florida, where reduced funding is pushing most of the state's public universities into being far more selective. My guess is that graduation rates will rise in 4-5 years, but while some institutions (including mine) are figuring out how some concrete steps to increase student success, some part of that will be a selection effect. So making comparisons with "peer institutions" may be a difficult enterprise.
  • Measures focused on undergraduates make it somewhat more difficult for graduate-focused institutions in any incentive system. States need to be flexible and negotiate the systems with institutions, or they are likely to provide odd advantages to some institutions over others, advantages that will only be discovered after the fact.
And those are the issues that are apparent to me without knowing the higher-ed attrition/retention/graduation literature. There is one faculty colleague at USF who focuses on higher-ed attrition, and there are IR gurus for whom this is an occupational focus, so I do have local resources... now I really need that Time-Turner. But for now, it's 11:30 pm, and I still need to provide feedback on a student thesis...

April 18, 2008

Think, then blog

I'm occasionally embarrassed when a typo appears in a blog entry, and I'm frequently learning from comments here, but I'm surprised at Mike Petrilli's simplistic argument that "bad ideas flow from academia into our K-12 system ... (... moral relativism, the decline of the core curriulum, dubious pedagogical approaches)" and that "one of public education's worst features" is "its hyper-unionized workforce." I'm not sure when I've seen Petrilli this shrill.

Taking the claims one by one...

  • The arguments about moral relativism and the decline of civilization appeared ... let's see: "Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book." That's Cicero. Today, everyone's writing blogs (PDF), including Petrilli. In any case, I don't think Cicero could blame either TV or higher education.
  • If one wants to blame higher ed for the decline of the core curriculum, when should we pinpoint it? Harvard with its elective system in the late 19th century, or when institutions stopped requiring Latin and Greek for Ph.D.'s? Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses.
  • To claim that higher education is at fault for standard pedagogy, one would have to accumulate evidence that it was substantially better at some point. And that evidence is...?
  • Public education's worst features... unionization? So Mississippi and Alabama schools are perfect, because they don't provide collective bargaining rights for public employees?
Incidentally, is there any evidence that graduate-student unions are horrors visited upon public universities that have them?

April 16, 2008

Open-source textbooks

This morning, Inside Higher Ed has a good article on faculty who write open-source texts. In the end, it'll be faculty decisions that determine whether this is a viable alternative to expensive texts.

In memoriam

It's been one year after the shootings at Virginia Tech. No great thoughts here, just thoughts.

April 15, 2008

The difference between being wrong and being fired

Aaron Barlow has it on the nose when he discusses Academic Freedom and Yoo. Fundamentally, once UC Berkeley's law school hired John Yoo as a tenured faculty member, it owed him due process in any disciplinary proceeding, both substantive and procedural due process. The fact that his actions as a government lawyer are obnoxious and antidemocratic does not change that obligation.

One of the arguments against torture is that the United States needs to operate even a war on higher moral grounds, and torturing prisoners injures that national interest. So how would violating John Yoo's academic due process be gaining the higher moral ground by those of us who think he was wrong?

April 14, 2008

Funding in higher ed

Kevin Carey's column on unequal funding of higher education makes the obvious but important point that states' public higher education systems are often skewed in favor of spending more in institutions with better-prepared students. Carey uses per-student (FTE) instructional expenses calculated using the Governmental Accounting Standards Board numbers (i.e., numbers that institutions reported using GASB definitions), and because I don't know the details on the relevant definitions, I can't comment on the methods in terms of his back-of-the-spreadsheet estimates that California institutions spend more than $10K per student when students' entering SAT scores are higher. I suspect somewhat different measures would come up with different numbers.

But the larger point is still true: community colleges spend less on instruction per student, in large part because they receive less per FTE than universities and because their tuition is lower. In turn, they pay full-time faculty less than in universities, and they rely far more on contingent faculty. At the same time, community college students are far more likely to be told to take developmental (remedial) courses.

The historian in me wants to know how this inequality in spending (however calculated) has changed over the past three decades, as states have disinvested in higher education. And also what the relationship is between general higher-ed revenue structures in a state and the inequality within the state. The easiest way to equalize spending in higher ed is to cut revenues back for every public institution, and that inevitably reduces the range in instructional spending. We're trying that here in Florida, but I don't think anyone is going to like the outcome.

(A note to Carey and to the editors of Inside Higher Ed: the word is methods, not methodology. Methodology is the study of methods. A little later: That word probably caught my eye because I'm in the midst of journal-editing stuff today, and I regularly have to change "methodology" to "methods" in that role.)

March 26, 2008

Turnitin.com, students' intellectual property, and fair use

Eric Goldman has the latest news and commentary on the high school students' lawsuit (and the suit's dismissal) against having to submit papers to Turnitin.com (hat tip). It's a fascinating and complicated issue, and Goldman's discussion explains at least some of the tangles involved (though I wouldn't be surprised if there were more).

March 20, 2008

Who ever expected Florida legislators to be enmeshed in ...

Following a few weeks after revelations that a small university up the road from me hired a state legislator as a lecturer for close to six figures, there's a story in IHE with the title A State Senator's Sweet Deal, about one of the universities in our state capitol.

This type of news item appears occasionally in almost any state, but my concern is that if a proposal to gut the powers of our state governing board goes forward, we'll see a lot more of it.

March 17, 2008

Complex object creation tools: review needed

With the recent release of new versions for both Omeka and Sophie, I'd love to see some comparative review from both institutional users (e.g., the perspective of someone in charge of a project team) and also individual users (e.g., teachers trying to create content for specific courses or modules).

I'm not saying I'm going to (no time!), but I'd love to see the reviews from both perspectives.  Oh, yes, and while we're at it, how about a review of Inform 7?

March 11, 2008

Defending Effective Accountability and Assessment Practices

Saturday, March 29, 2008
Hilton Washington

Defending Effective Accountability and Assessment Practices is the title of the session I'm a participant in at the NEA/AFT Higher Education Joint Conference.

From what I understand, the tentatively-slated participants include staff members of two institutional associations as well as us faculty. As soon as I have permission to post those names, I'll do that.

March 10, 2008

Essayist as Puck?

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
-Puck, A Midsummer Night's Dream, V, i

In trying to explain Why I Write These Columns, Stanley Fish argues that his goal as an essayist is to probe the logic of an issue, and that he can remain agnostic on the larger issue while probing that logic. Thus, he says he could be atheist while criticizing Richard Dawkins et al., against identity politics while grasping one possible rationale, against the Iraq war while seeing advantages for John McCain in a McCain-Obama matchup, etc.:

[W]ere I to address myself to those matters, I would be entering the realm of moral and political (as opposed to analytical) judgment.

Fish has a point here: One can talk about aspects of an issue without taking a position on other aspects. On the other hand, I am surprised with how he did so. Fish's tone came across as whiny, or that's how I read it. The indirection of the first few sentences nailed it for me, with my comments in brackets:

Every once in a while [honestly, Fish, I don't care how often you do this] I feel that [glad to know you have feelings, but could you get to the point?]it might be helpful to readers if I explained [does anyone else think this phrase talks down to the reader?] what it is I am trying to do in these columns [Ah: we finally get to the point, which is that you're going to tell, not show]. It is easier to state the negative [you know that you should be stating the positive instead]: For the most part, it is not my purpose in this space to urge positions, or come down on one side or the other of a controversial question ["I'm not going to carry any reader's water"].

This is the worst argument for academicizing a subject I've ever read from Stanley Fish. Instead of pointing out how removing oneself from the instant issue can give one a broader perspective, he's being remarkably self-indulgent, focusing on how people have responded to prior columns. Who cares that comments on his prior columns misunderstood his point? Or, rather who cares about those specific misunderstandings?

I'd be slaughtered on end-of-semester surveys if I tried this approach with students: You're misunderstanding everything I say. That may be true, but maybe it's my fault, or maybe I could try explaining it in a different way. Implying that your immediate audience is stupid isn't endearing, even in the Gray Lady's blogs.

March 9, 2008

Eating okra at the carnivore's table

I'm in Tallahassee this evening, giving up a day and a half to convince legislators that a proposal for a diminished university Board of Governors would be a bad idea. This evening, I asked the hotel clerk for a restaurant. The one she directed me to had one car in the parking lot: not a sign of confidence for me in the restaurant's popularity in town. Instead, I went to a good ol' Southern restaurant, full of ham and other meats. A buffet, so I figured I could get something, though I'm a vegetarian. This is the South, so even vegetables like green beans have ham in them. One has to be careful.

Fried okra. That was the solution. When we moved to Nashville in 1993, I discovered that I loved okra. I figured out how to make baked and breaded okra (with cayenne pepper!), and while most of my okra in Florida is now in soups, I still like the crispy kind. I didn't ask what else went into the fry bin, but I figure that's not my ethical problem. Everyone around me was eating meat, while I was eating okra. We got along. We each got what we needed. I suspect my fellow diners were as sated as I was when each of us left.

So I'm going to try to eat some okra tomorrow, of the conversational sort. Legislators have their interests, and I'm fine with that as long as my interests are met. We talk, we see where our common interests lie, and we try to eat at the same table.

March 8, 2008

Embarrassments and education politics

Does anyone else think that Florida state senators waited to criticize the university system's chancellor's bonus until they wanted to decapitate the Board of Governors? I am no fan of huge bonuses for academic administrators, but surely the legislators knew of this for several years, as they've known about large bonuses for university presidents (which they are not criticizing). For what it's worth, Mark Rosenberg is head and shoulders above every other SUS chancellor we've had in Florida. That doesn't mean bonuses of this size are a good idea, but his salary is still less than the salary of several major-sports coaches in Florida, and on principle academic administrators should be paid more than football coaches.

This is the second time this week when senators I normally think of as temperate have clearly lashed out at Rosenberg in personal ways.

February 28, 2008

Is the blind spot on higher-ed accountability that big?

In all the kerfluffle over the senior theses of Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, I hope I am not the only person asking the other question that I think is obvious and to the point: What do the theses tell us about the state of undergraduate education for Princeton and Wellesley students at the time?

Similarly, all those who huff and puff about higher-ed accountability are ignoring a huge source of information on the quality of graduate education: dissertations. Want to know what the expectations of students are really like? Go read what students create, when they know it's going in the library, going to be microfilmed, or going to be available electronically to the world.

February 25, 2008

Wrong incentive structure for community colleges/technical training

George R. Boggs and Marlene B. Seltzer describe Washington State's incentive structure designed to encourage community colleges to push completion:

Washington's community and technical colleges will receive extra money for students who earn their first 15 and first 30 college credits, earn their first 5 credits of college-level math, pass a pre-college writing or math course, make significant gains in certain basic skills tests, earn a degree or complete a certificate. Colleges also will be rewarded for students who earn a GED through their programs.

On the one hand, focusing on proximate measures on the way to degrees makes enormous sense, at least if we trust Cliff Adelman's work. On the other hand, I worry that such an incentives structure will affect standards in institutions with weak faculty governance and protection of academic freedom: "We need these students to pass these credits, or we lose money."

Better incentive structure: if public funding plus current tuition is sufficient for an institution's operating expenses (a rather big if, as I'm aware in Florida), keep the hands off the potentially perverse incentives inside the curriculum and give students an incentive to do well by keeping tuition stable for students as long as they make steady progress towards degrees. In other words, tuition stability (or a cap on rising tuition) is guaranteed if students are doing well.

The institutional incentives then can be geared towards summary graduation measures, to some extent. Florida's universities are having their first bite of outcome incentives this year, but the budget cut is swamping the effects of it. (Here's the motivational undermining: You don't starve people and then tell them they can earn a little bit of pin money if they work harder. At this point, at least for the universities, it's a matter of looking to the future and probably a system negotiation about formulae.)

There's a lot more to be said about higher-ed accountability, including Gerald Graff's commentary on assessment and Erin O'Connor's response, but I have to chair a proposal defense in 10 minutes...

Update (2/27): Kevin Carey responds:

I'd like to propose that people be more judicious and precise in their use of the term "perverse incentives" by not applying it to any incentive that could theoretically cause someone to act in bad faith.

I'm not going to split hairs by pointing out the adverb potentially up in the original entry (okay, originally potential and then changed to potentially); if I understand it correctly, Carey's argument is that we should not say something is a perverse incentive unless we can really point to the evidence of strong corrupting influences. In this case, my argument is about the pressures on instructors, not students (something different from what Carey inferred). Are colleges susceptible to such corruption when institutional stakes are tied to individual course grades? The scandals each year tied to athletics (e.g, FSU and tutors who helped athletes cheat) tell me the answer is yes.

Did Stanley Fish really have to bring the truth into it?


The truth is that there are no perfectly straightforward senior administrative searches. They are all a bit cooked, and often they serve more as window dressing than as genuinely deliberative processes.

The larger point he made in the column makes sense: institutional leaders are as important for reaching out as for directing what happens within. And the point he made at the end is also true: maybe institutions could be led by people with solid academic credentials, management acumen, and political skills. The fact that I love reading books, researching, writing, and teaching shouldn't excuse mismanagement.

February 23, 2008

Stocks for the plagiarist?

Margaret Soltan argues for public punishment of plagiarists, most recently in the case of Madonna Constantine of Teachers College (Columbia University):

UD sees no reason to keep the nature of the sanction private, and many good reasons to make sanctions public. These people should serve as examples to other professors tempted to plagiarize.

I'm not sure Constantine is avoiding public scrutiny, especially with the New York Times article yesterday on the case. Nor do I think her public comments are doing anything other than undermining whatever case could be made. I suppose one could say that anyone disciplined on any job for serious misconduct should have the details spread on the table like a crime blotter, but there's a reason why we term one a criminal arrest and the other a civil matter.

There are a few problems in making all disciplinary matters public. First, doing so would raise the stakes tremendously inside an institution and eliminate all incentive for faculty who have screwed up from either owning up to mistakes or going away without a fight. Second, making all sanctions public would penalize the first institution that does so by making all their faculty misdeeds an open book; who would go first? Third, it would reinforce the double standard that already exists with K-12 teachers, who are often assumed to be more moral than the general population instead of held to a reasonable standard of competence and decent behavior.

Besides, didn't we do away with putting criminals in stocks a long time ago? So why we should do it with plagiarists and not convicted criminals seems an odd proposition to me.

Bright Futures: an out-of-control entitlement program that conservative Republicans created

For probably the first time in my life, I had perfect timing: My column on Florida's lottery-funded scholarship program (Bright Futures) appeared in the Jacksonville Times-Union newspaper today, the same day the St. Petersburg Times reported on a poll about university tuition, a day after the Tampa Tribune reported on problems with the Bright Futures program and two days after a Palm Beach Post editorial on the subject and the state's Board of Governors discussed the isssue.

It's a tough argument to make, especially with students creating Facebook groups to defend the current structure of Bright Futures, but it's an important point: when Florida tied a merit-based scholarship program to lottery funding in the last decade and promised full funding of college in the program, without any caps to the students involved, ... and then has failed to fund all of the students universities have admitted in the past ten years ... something had to give. The lottery hasn't paid for all of the program costs, and so the legislature has had a huge incentive to cap tuition and to fight the Board of Governors when the Board wants to set tuition. The result is that universities cannot admit all the students they would like to. In essence, Bright Futures is no promise if not all students eligible can be admitted to universities, and if it pits the interests of students in getting the cheapest possible degree against the interests of universities in running institutions that are solvent.

In addition, Bright Futures is the vast majority of financial-aid funding in the state, and it goes disproportionately to families who can afford the rock-bottom tuition we have in Florida. The students who really need the help with tuition have a much smaller pool of funds available to them because of Bright Futures. The irony (noted in the title): here's an entitlement program created by a Republican former governor (Jeb Bush) and conservative leaders of the state legislature, when most of them have probably criticized other entitlement programs. There's nothing wrong with Republicans (my oldest sister is a Republican officeholder in California), but here's a case where the political dynamics have led to a clear philosophical inconsistency.

The chancellor of Florida's university system has the right idea: cap current costs, don't affect the students who are currently in the universities on Bright Futures, but in future raise eligibility requirements and shift spending over to needs-based financial aid. I don't know if that'll fly this year, but something has to bend, or the university system's integrity will break.

February 17, 2008

On eprints at Harvard and Full Monty open-access

I'm still trying to figure out the consequences of Harvard's Arts and Science faculty voting last week to push open-access publication of faculty work. This is fundamentally different from the occasional individual boycott of subscription-based journals. Harvard's faculty move is closer to Congress's push for a mandate that all grant-funded articles etc. be accessible to the public within a year of original publication. It is from these institutional moves that the publishing world will change. There is a simple, digestible explanation for the open-access moves related to grants (the public pays, so the public should be able to read) and the Harvard A&S faculty (we're established enough not to have to worry about the reputational economy of subscription journals). What flows from that is not necessarily clear, but we can reasonably assume that something will flow.

Reputational economies and the refereeing process

There are two broader issues here that need to be untangled. One is the reputational economy of academe, which is partly tied to the referee process and partly to post-publication reputational measures, such as citations. As physics has shown with arXiv, a discipline can survive quite nicely with a much fuzzier boundary between working paper and publication. But maybe that's because of the established reputation of physics. Similarly, I think history, classics, math, and other disciplines that have relatively high intellectual status (if not in resources) have nothing to fear from loosening up the refereeing process.

But what about other disciplines, including education? Education research already has a number of unrefereed publications that receive a lot of attention, largely because of differential access to publicity. Unlike medicine, where the top-reputed journals have publicists that distribute press releases (and you will see those regularly reported in the press), education has a different distribution of publicity. If you look at the indispensable Fritzwire, you'll see oodles of announcements for think-tank-based research symposia, and the ability to hire publicity folks does have an impact on what gets reported. As one colleague in another institution explained, when I asked why his work received far less attention in his area than the think-tank-based work of X and Y, which I thought was of lower quality, "Sociology departments don't usually hire publicists."

This is not to say that all think-tank-funded research is of poor quality, or that articles in refereed journals is of high quality: you don't know until you read the stuff. Nor am I suggesting that think tanks fire their publicists or stop doing the legwork to get attention. My point is rather that given the existing visibility of nonrefereed work in education, in addition to the status issues in education already, I suspect that faculty in education will be far more reluctant to let go of a peer-refereed model. Even though the notion of peer refereeing is historically and geographically bounded (see Einstein versus the Physical Review for one example), it is wrapped up in status issues. For Harvard's A&S faculty to vote for an open-access preference is one thing. For even Harvard's education faculty to go the same route? We'll see.

Economic models for open access

Since EPAA is described by John Willinsky as a "zero-budget journal," I'm living the tensions involved in open-access.  We don't charge either readers or authors for anything, though I have no compunction about asking authors to review other manuscripts as part of a reviewing ecology, and I've shifted the submission checkoff to alert authors that very long manuscripts or manuscripts with a number of tables may involve some paid preparation of an article post-acceptance. (I haven't yet asked authors to pay for such preparation, but it's a recent move.) Apart from the administrative issues involved, I am not philosophically inclined towards allowing advertising on EPAA. Maybe I should, but I and many editorial board members would be uncomfortable with that. But as a result, the burden of making the journal work is largely on volunteer labor, or labor borrowed from other tasks. Even if I were to accept advertising into EPAA, I suspect that we would not receive much revenue from it, and it may not be worth the headaches involved.

The most visible open-access journal system, the Public Library of Science, relies on publication fees charged to authors, starting right now at $1250. Here is the PLoS explanation of publication fees:

It costs money to produce a peer-reviewed, edited, and formatted article that is ready for online publication, and to host it on a server that is accessible around the clock. Prior to that, a public or private funding agency has already paid a great deal more money for the research to be undertaken in the interest of the public. This real cost of "producing" a paper can be calculated by dividing your laboratory's annual budget by the number of papers published. We ask that-as a small part of the cost of doing the research-the author, institution, or funding agency pays a fee, to help cover the actual cost of the essential final step, the publication. (As it stands, authors now often pay for publication in the form of page or color charges.) Many funding agencies now support this view.

For largely grant-funded disciplines, that's doable. For others? Not possible, either because an institution will not pay publication fees or because an author may be an independent scholar.

Here's the bottom-line concern: For journals in non-grant fields that are currently subscription-based and where there is paid staff who work on the journal, the transition to subscription-free work is fraught with risk, and I suspect that forcing all currently-operating journals to go subscription-free would result in the closure of hundreds of journals. I don't think anyone wants that to happen, but there is no secure economic model for open-access journals right now. We'll see the development of hybrids for some time (such as the Teachers College Record in education research), and that will work to some extent. And my guess is that a number of journals would have no problem with open-access for a substantial number of country-specific domains, to help scholars in countries that do not generally have institutional subscriptions to expensive journals. But that's different from the "Full Monty" open-access journal.

Where to go from here

Of the two issues, my guess is that the reputational-economy question is easier to answer. I suspect citation harvesting will be the basis of future reputation economies in academic publication. Google Scholar is incomplete and inaccurate, but so is ISI's Web of Science, and as long as academics don't treat bibliometrics as carved in stone, things should work out (or at least the problems are of a much lower magnitude than other problems we face). Unlike David Rothman, I do not see online comment forums and rating algorithms working, in part because few researchers can afford the time to invest in such forums or devices. For institutions that care about research, they will still use external reviews at promotion gates, and that will supplement other information.

The economic model of "full Monty open-access" is going to be harder to achieve. Maybe I should state what I would love, as an editor: for someone to figure out how to provide me great copyediting and compositing. Make it so I don't have the headaches of economic administration and post-acceptance detail work, and I'll probably swing towards accepting advertising or a sliding-scale manuscript-processing fee. That's going to be a bit of a challenge, since I have very particular ideas about how an article should look. But a clearinghouse that manages advertising, moderate manuscript-processing and publication fees, copyeditors and compositors, and has a quality-control mechanism for the copyeditors and compositors would do me a huge favor. And if this finicky editor will accept it, and if you can make it work economically, you just might make open-access work on a sustainable basis.

February 15, 2008

Just awful

7 Killed in Northern Illinois Shooting (IHE coverage).

I have no pithy comments today.

February 14, 2008

AP participation and passing data

For a good summary of the College Board data just released on the AP program, with some journalistic follow-up, see Scott Jaschik's story at Inside Higher Ed. Odd factoid alert: highly skewed AP subjects by gender include computer science (not a surprise) and French literature (more of a surprise).

February 13, 2008

How to ask questions of faculty

Once again Cal Newport has solid advice for college students:

Don't be afraid to ask questions when confused in class. Use the following format: <this is my interpretation> + <this is what confused me> + <this is what I want to be clarified>

Yes, yes, yes: don't ask a vague question such as Can you tell me again <topic>? Instead, explain your best understanding, which will help me or my colleagues figure out if you've nailed it, if you're in the ballpark but need some guidance, or if you're out of the ballpark.

February 12, 2008

A warning to college teachers


I'd like to thank you all for doing away with the education of the past that encouraged thinking, and for signing on to a new style that's more formulated for today. My future boss will really appreciate the robot qualities you have instilled in me. After all, it's a cubicle world, and we're going to need lots of cubicle boys and girls to fill it.

Hat tip.

February 8, 2008

Notes on a college visit, day 2

My teenaged daughter and I visited a College of Potential Choice yesterday, and it was fascinating watching the process from another angle (as parent, not faculty member and not student). There were four families at the basic orientation, two from the college's region and two from outside the region. One of the families left a few minutes before the campus tour, and I think my daughter was the only one who visited a class in the afternoon. The basic orientation was by an admissions officer who had just graduated, and the tour by a senior. I kept having thoroughly faculty-ish thoughts, while trying to stay at least a little in the background.

  • With this student-centered description of the academic program, what does that require of faculty? (a few calculations in the head) So that's the likely tradeoff here...
  • Yes, that's a very parent-like question,... and there's the grand-slam response. And that's the inevitable follow-up... with the solo home run. The other parents are sold, or at least they've decided not to call the bullpen.
  • The tone of her answer to my question was in the style of, "Oh, I forgot to say that. Thanks for asking!" The admissions officer's casual style hides a lot of preparation/rehearsal.That next question stumped her, not that I was trying to, in part because it was a request for personal perspective on how she answered the first question. She regularly talks about some parts of her academic experience, but not about this. Maybe it's not as central as she suggests, or maybe prospectives or their parents don't regularly ask.
  • Ah, so the senior is not a math or science person, but we're headed to the part of campus with labs because of the weather and because it's a great show-and-tell.
  • With that poster, they must have a large plotter somewhere in the building.
  • With that description of the equipment and with the flyer on the lab door to my left indicating the multi-hundred-thousand-dollar grant, my guess is this place has its share of NSF REU  (research experience for undergraduates) awards. The student tour guide is probably not aware that REU grants would be more impressive than access to the equipment she described. My daughter or I can probably search on the NSF website to check, if it seems important.
  • And as we pass through this exit door, here's a campus police department flyer on a recent sexual assault (both an alert and a request for assistance). Later in the tour, another parent asked about campus security, and the student describes the regular security walk-throughs at night on each floor of each dorm. I don't remember if the incident reported on the alert happened on campus or near campus; not everyone lives where security walks through the dorms.
  • My gosh, this studio is cold! I know you have to alert parents that a college might have drawings of nudes in a drawing class, but that's not the question I have. Why is every drawing studio in a temperate climate under-heated: do they want the students to learn how to draw goose-pimples, or is freezing student models the secret plan to fight weight gain?
  • This lecture room is definitely built for a wired generation. I suspect I'd like it as a faculty member; much more theater-in-the-round style than the rooms I usually get, and that fits with how I like to run class.
  • I suspect that equipment is available on a lot of campuses. But you don't have the comparative experience to know, and it's clear you love your college. That's probably more important to know.
  • That didn't surprise me, but it feels like an afterthought, as if you have the answer prepared for students who ask, but few ask. Most who come for campus tours probably expect the answer and don't even think about asking.
  • Ah... that answers the question I had when walking on campus. It makes sense, but it sure defines the character of the place in a unique way, far more than the "stop the war" posters I see in a handful of office windows.
  • Why are frosh all housed in concrete? I think that's universal, and I'm sure anthropologists would have a field day with it.
  • Well, I'm very surprised you didn't mention that without the question. It strikes me as something that would be a selling point. As a senior, you've probably been socialized so thoroughly into the culture that you forgot how the structure supports it.
  • No walk-through in the dining hall? Ah, the food may be better, but the environment isn't the restaurant-like atmosphere of some large-university dining halls. I'm surprised the tour doesn't show that off explicitly as a reflection of the college's values; you'd be surprised how many parents and students would be relieved.
  • Not even a quick peek into the bookstore? I wonder why.
  • Not a research library, but since so much is available electronically or via interlibrary loan, that's not too much of a handicap.
  • This computer center isn't very crowded. I bet today it's more popular for printing than for using computers... ah, and apparently that's true enough, according to the tour guide's experience. I wonder how many of those experiences were last-minute printouts right before class.
When my daughter was in a class visit, I went back to the dining hall, to sample the food, and as expected, it was better than in most college dining halls, if with ugly 70s-ish decor. (It's probably really early 90s-ish decor, but the point is that decor is less important than decent food, and that's a priority I appreciate.) I then headed to the bookstore to browse the shelves for classes. One of the faculty members wrote stuff that my colleagues or I have assigned over the years, and I found a class the faculty member is teaching this term; the books are pretty much what I expected, or in one case a book I want to read. (No, I didn't e-mail the faculty member in advance to meet. The college visit is for my daughter, not me.)

Browsing through the texts section of a bookstore is telling; what's the typical number of books a student would be expected to purchase per semester, and what proportion are textbooks, monographs, or classic books? While the reading load here is a bit lighter than places like Swarthmore or Wellesley, the books are still intellectually weighty: the majority are from the accessible end of monographs or interesting syntheses, not $200 textbooks. I'm quite surprised that the tour doesn't end right in the classes section of the bookstore, leaving parents and students to browse through a slice of the assigned readings. It's reasonably impressive, by itself.

February 7, 2008

Notes on a college visit, day 1

Signs on a trip to a place 1000+ miles from home with teenaged offspring:

  • Teen offspring says she loves the weather
  • Wearing a long-sleeved turtleneck and a sweater (if an L.L. Bean sweater), teen offspring doesn't appear to be cold in the weather you need a parka for
  • Teen offspring repeatedly thanks you for the trip
  • Teen offspring explains why the city is much better than the city where you currently live
  • Teen offspring lauds the architecture of Huge University She Won't Consider, saying "I want the buildings, but not the university."
  • Teen offspring says at least a few times, "My friends will kill me when I get back" with a huge grin.
We arrived last night. This morning, we woke up, walked around downtown, took a bus to Huge University She Won't Consider so I could have lunch with a friend, and then tootled around a bit on our way to nearby small-town where we'll visit College of Potential Choice tomorrow.

February 4, 2008

The college visit gig

This week, I'm going to be on the other side of the fence, as the parent of a high school student visiting a college. Wednesday, my daughter tags along with me as I have lunch with a colleague on a campus she's not interested in, but when we're at the college she is interested in, it is most definitely Not My Show.

As happened when my daughter entered elementary school, this will probably make me a better observer and critic of higher education. Or so I'd like to believe.

February 1, 2008

Evaluating college teaching

Since my energy is now sapped, I'll address Eduwonkette's four questions from yesterday:

1) How should learning be evaluated in college?

There are two separate questions (what did individual students learn? and what did groups of students learn?), though I think Eduwonkette is asking more about personnel evaluation. The first two can be evaluated using similar questions and data (including student work!), as long as you acknowledge that classroom dynamics can change things quite a bit. Usually, the first question is tied to students' individual grades, and the second is water-cooler (or coffee-urn) talk among colleagues: how was your class in HVN 101 this semester: better than HLL 666 last semester? Faculty rarely get to ask the second question in more systematic ways.

2) Are course evaluations a fair and comprehensive measure of college teaching?

Eduwonkette is either asking a trick question or conflating the end-of-course surveys that students take with either course evaluation or personnel evaluation. Students are evaluating their own experiences throughout a term, so the survey is more a chance for them to express the conclusions they have already reached, in some fashion, at least if the survey items are at least tangentially related to their concerns. Evaluating a course should involve student feedback but also something about what students learned, not just what they felt or expressed. And evaluating faculty as employees involves additional layers involving their contributions to a course, other information and context often unknown to students, let alone research or service assignments.

3) What should universities do with student course evaluations?

See above on my desire to ban evaluation as the term used for student surveys. But to answer the substantive question: they should be written with input from faculty, include an item on how much effort the student expended on the course (for a few reasons), be available to students (except for graduate students, who are students as well as employees and thus should have some privacy protections), and be part of program and personnel evaluations.

4) What are the potential risks/benefits to students and profs of making them public?

When I was a student, I found the comments far more telling than the numbers. But I suspect that this doesn't have to be theoretical or based on anecdote: there have to be institutions where the survey responses are public, and where one could study the consequences. See above on the graduate-student privacy concerns I have.

January 31, 2008

Higher education and the wrong battle

At Education Sector, Kevin Carey (a 4 out of 5 in my book) has an institutionalist lens that is sometimes incisive (4.5 out of 5) , sometimes frustrating (2 of 5), and occasionally both. Such as his complaint yesterday about the "Higher Ed Lobby" (my quotation marks, which are probably 1 out of 5 on style). Here's the gist in his complaint about accreditation agency politics:

But accreditation does a terrible job of creating or providing any kind of public, comparable information about institution-level academic quality.

I'd rate that comment as a 3 out of 5, and the post in general a 2.5 (in comparison with Eduwonkette, whose posts are averaging about 4.87 in the last few months). There are multiple arguments layered into that one statement, but let me focus on two:

  • Lax accreditation has played a significant role in letting the quality of (undergraduate) instruction be lower than it could be.
  • What we need to improve undergraduate instruction is predigested comparisons of quality between institutions.

Thus, yesterday's statement of principles by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation is unlikely to satisfy Carey's concerns because it resists the notion that creating quantitative comparisons of student outcomes is a necessary part of the accreditation process. Delving into the broader issue at length requires more energy and time than I have this morning, but I'll put out a few counterclaims:

  • As long as millions of parents and students perceive that they are buying a degree from a college, there will be an inevitable tension between credentialism and the "use value" of a college education. In this environment, accreditation has to answer the face-value "does this college provide an opportunity to learn, and is the degree legitimate?" question.
  • The most savvy students and parents want more than U.S. News rankings, but they're not going to give a hoot about what irks Carey and me about the rankings. Instead, savvy students and parents want to know what happens in the classroom, the lab, the studio, and the field. A case in point: last year, one teen acquaintance of mine was looking for colleges with performing arts programs. In the end, she was accepted to two schools with outstanding reputations, one with local connections that are unbeatable in this subfield, and the other that's in another region, perfectly reputable, but without those networking opportunities. She had the opportunity for one last visit to each place, and what made the difference was watching students rehearse and perform. There was no faux objectivity. My young friend watched students work and decided that the less-networked place had the better education because there was a pop to the work in one place that just didn't exist in the other.

My friend and her parents (whom I've known for years) cared about comparisons, but not predigested ones. They made their own ranking. Kevin Carey, Charles Miller, and others may want to see predigested measures, but they'll be swimming upstream against credentialism, against the needs of students and families who really do want information about educational quality, and against the professional judgment of faculty. Framing the issue as one of the White Hats against the Higher Ed Lobby does everyone a disservice.

One more thing: Last week I tried an experiment and allowed readers to rate my posts on a 1-5 scale. I tried priming the pump by rating a few of them (no, not all 5's), but no one else participated, and I pulled that option. I guess maybe some people are interested in ratings, but not my blog's readers.

January 29, 2008

Bad signs in Kenya

According to the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Kenyan Universities Remain Closed as Fighting Worsens. Universities had already delayed the opening of the current term, and when schools are closed in civil conflict, lots of other things are inevitably shut down as well. Coverage by PRI's The World provides more information about the conflict in Kenya generally, and on that site, there's an interesting story about cell-phone credit and the current conflict.

January 17, 2008

Florida budget environment degrades significantly

This story today from the Tallahassee Democrat makes clear how dire the Florida budget situation is, and the consequences for higher education in the state.

I have to head to a meeting in a few minutes, but I'll say the obvious very briefly: This is horrendous, both for people currently at universities (faculty, staff, and students) and also for the future of the state.

Ranking creates perverse incentives; ranking of lunchtime and liberal-arts colleges, doubly so

Inside Higher Ed has a  great article today, Potemkin Rankings, on how Washington and Jefferson College did everything you'd normally think is right to improve how they look to outsiders and still sank in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. The short story: W&J recruited like crazy to increase the applicant pool and managed to increase selectivity while starting to increase enrollment, hold down the full-price tuition, and still maintain a good faculty-student ratio. Because other liberal-arts colleges increased their endowments and tuition faster, W&J sank in the resources area and thus in the U.S. News ranking.

The problem here is not just with U.S. News. You can find that with almost any system that reduces a complex set of data to a simple ranking. Because the quality of any complex service is never going to be monotonic, there will be inconsistencies in any reductive ranking depending on the relative importance of different factors in the final (reduced) rating. This year, Education Week's Quality Counts report includes a weight your own factor feature, where you can re-rate an individual state based on your own idea of how important you find different elements in the Ed Week database. Well, not really: it looks like the mix within an individual subscale remains the same in the summary number, even if you can come up with different subscale scores. And there's no way to see how the rankings might change based on different weights. (I guess the Ed Week editors didn't really want people to look too closely at the rankings, or at how robust/fragile they might be.)

January 14, 2008

Teaching about what humans do

I've been tagged by Craig Smith, who asks, Why Do You Teach and Why Does It Matter? after reading Dr. Crazy's explanation of why she teaches literature. This comes on the heels of Stanley Fish's boldly hedonistic Epistle to Philistines and the expansion on this, last night's Epistle to Dumb-Ass Colleagues. (Okay, the posts were properly called The Uses of the Humanities, parts 1 and 2, but I agree with Margaret Soltan's reading of Fish Epistles I.) Fish's essays are in his typical eliding style, with just enough of substance to frustrate me when he misses the obvious.

And here is one part of the obvious: an academic education requires the study of a variety of disciplines, including science, math, and also what humans do. Understanding "what humans do" requires behavioral sciences, social sciences, and humanities. While the configuration of disciplines is not carved in stone, a student will get a pretty good education in the culture that humans produce within the humanities. One way to think about the value of any discipline or area is to think about the institutions that leave out the area.

Here is the other part of the obvious: you don't learn how to think in the abstract but in bumping up against ideas in specific contexts. That "bumping up against" phrase is important to me, because you don't learn anything if you are not challenged. Some subjects appear easier to you or me than others, but that perception is about subjects that are under a threshold of difficulty, not the absence of new ideas and challenges. Teachers can make learning easier, but that fact doesn't eliminate the need for challenge. And the specific context matters. As my favorite high school English teacher told us at the beginning of AP English, she taught writing, and she did it in the context of teaching about literature. She also taught us an enormous amount about literature in the course of that year. Even philosophers talk about topics. Care for a casual game of penny-ante Ontology?

In my case, I teach social-science and humanities perspectives on education, with a focus on history and sociology. The majority of my students come to me to fulfill exit requirements or in the midst of pre-professional training that reinforces psychological assumptions, and I have most of them for only one semester. I provide students with an additional set of views, humanities and social-science perspectives to examine schooling. When students leave my classroom, they should be able to explain how people fight over the purposes of schooling and the different models of how schools function as organizations (or don't).

In many ways, I am lucky to be in a field where I get paid for navel-gazing. My neighbors and fellow citizens should want me to teach students who want to teach that the world may not agree with their reasons for teaching or their view of the purpose of schooling; that the world's range of schools includes places that provide a very different education from their own experiences as they grew up; and that the job of teaching involves more than going into a room, shutting the door, and letting the gorgeous lesson plans unfold without interruption or difficulty. That's a fairly practical purpose. There is also the specific example of the argument above: Formal schooling is what humans do today, and studying the social context of formal schooling is a reasonable way to study what humans do.

In addition, when students are in my course, they have to write extensively and coherently about schooling. Over my career, I have taught over 2,000 students. I have taught most of those students at USF, where I have never written a multiple-choice final exam and where I have always required that students write papers. Before my colleagues and I agreed to craft a single paper assignment across all of the undergraduate social-foundations sections, I assigned a "perspectives" paper where I collected sources on two or three recent "hot topics" in education and told my students, "This is not a research paper. I've collected all of the background you should need. Your job is to apply the concepts you have learned in the course to these hot topics." (I gave students the ability to propose a topic of their own choosing, as long as I approved it in the first month of the course. Almost no students took me up on the offer, and as a result, I stopped having students propose topics that focused more on psychology than the topics in my course.) In most cases, the common readings for the course never directly addressed the hot topics, so they couldn't just regurgitate ideas. I was mean! (See the bit about challenges above.)

Some of these assignments were more successful than others. I am still aghast that a few years ago, the majority of students who wrote about the "intelligent-design" controversy in Dover supported teaching it alongside evolution in a science class. I graded them on the merits of the assignment (which is not synonymous with the question of what should be in the curriculum), and then explained my point of view in comments separate from the grading. But I challenge students' beliefs about education, no matter what they carried into the classroom, and I push students to  justify their conclusions with plausible arguments.

And to continue this meme, I tag...

January 12, 2008

Timothy Burke beats me to the punch on interesting learning objects

In his blogging on a conference this week sponsored by the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (or NITLE), Timothy Burke has raised the right questions to ask about electronic learning objects that are interactive, information-intense, and based on scholarship and the interests of great teachers:

  • How could they be crafted to change teaching? [W]e're also not pedagogically literate about how to use this kind of material and we don't often create them to be used as the center piece of a small liberal arts class. Suppose I had students look at the Palenque learning object. It's great for giving the students a vivid visual and experiential feel for the place. But ok: it's thus just a supplement to something else that's being used to create discussion-based learning for that session. That's part of the problem with some of these objects: they're supplemental, optional, not just because faculty don't work to enhance their teaching but because that's how they cast themselves. At least some of these objects have to have the character of scholarship, e.g., to have an argument, to enter into the conversation about a particular area of knowledge forcefully, to be knowledge rather than a supplement to knowledge.
  • How do we create/grant professional credit for this? [I]f you build this stuff, you're really building it for external use, as a gift to the world, and usually a gift specifically to institutions and users who are asymmetrically related to the faculty and institutions involved in building digital resources. E.g., to K-12 students, to community colleges, to universities in the developing world, to underresourced colleges. And no matter how much some of my colleagues in history and anthropology may talk the talk of social justice and digital divide, when it gets down to being involved in giving a digital gift, they ask: what's the incentive? Why should I, if that means I won't publish my next monograph in a timely fashion? Who will notice or care if I give a gift of this kind?
  • How do we build sustainable institutional support? Wesleyan has started creating a chargeable model for the activities of the Academic Media Studio, but as Burke notes from the presentation (or rather, as the presenters noted), Scholarly collaboration is not free.

I'm sure I'd be able to figure out at least a few possible answers to these problems, but I'm still struggling with the pedagogical questions, I'm not sure how I'd get credit for it in annual evaluations, and I'd need to write grants to support the time I'd need and the technical folks to implement the solutions.

That last sentence is a joke, dear readers. I'm fairly sure my colleagues would be supportive, and I do have a few ideas for support, but Burke has explained the key barriers.

January 11, 2008

One more for the distorted reading of course titles and descriptions

In 2006, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni wrote a screed, How Many Ward Churchills?, based entirely on superficial catalog analysis and ripped to shreds in many places, including Timothy Burke's blog.

It looks like the let's try to suss what happens in a course from hundreds of miles away "method" is live and well in the hands of Jay Greene and Catherine Shock. See the straightforward explanation of why this is wrong in the blog entry of Eduwonkette's friend skoolboy.

Isn't this what Matt Drudge does for a living?

January 7, 2008

Public service academy debate

Wednesday, the American Enterprise Institute is holding a debate/roundtable about the need for a public service academy. If you live in DC and want an entertaining discussion, go register today.

December 31, 2007

An open-access academic's shot across the bow of publishers

Nick Montfort, MIT Assistant Professor of Digital Media, has publicly announced that he is refusing to participate in peer-review processes for non-open-access journals (hat tip):

With regard to your request, I cannot agree to review for your journal right now. If [it] becomes an open access journal, I will be very glad to review articles for the journal.

Wow. Montfort is wrong elsewhere in the entry when he describes subscription journals as anti-publication (an easy way to turn John Willinsky's spectrum of access into a hostile dichotomy), and I think this is a poor strategic choice to move more academic publications into the open-access world. But this may be an indication of a cultural divide among academics around access issues, and if so, Montfort is definitely on the radical side of the divide.

December 1, 2007

Brandeis faculty defend academic freedom and common sense

Kudos to the Brandeis University Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities, whose report on allegations of discrimination by Donald Hindley essentially ripped the administration from head to toe on procedural and substantive violations of academic freedom (hat tip). To wit:

  • Brandeis's investigation failed to engage in a bona fide investigation of how more than the complaining student responded to the alleged comments of Professor Hindley.
  • Brandeis's investigation failed the sniff test when it came to giving Professor Hindley a chance to respond to alelgations: Hindley was the last person interviewed in month-long process, he was not provided an opportunity to have a colleague present, and the report was submitted one day after his interview.
  • Brandeis's investigation failed to respect the 2003 guiding letter of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, a document that stipulates that discriminatory environment "must include something beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive."

I think I'm going to repeat this until I retire and afterwards: Ad hoc investigations of teaching are inevitably flawed. Congratulations to the Brandeis faculty on standing up to the provost on this.

November 28, 2007

Preparing for the Job Register

In honor of the American Historical Association blog's entry on the AHA annual meeting job register, a list of activities that graduate students can use to prepare for the cavernous hall of intimate cabaret-style opportunities to spend a few minutes chatting with search committee members who haven't told you that they have a raging headache from the environment, even after taking two naproxen tablets. (They took the naproxen. They'd offer to share with you, but then they'd have to offer one to each interviewee in fairness, and it wasn't on the search plan or in the dean's search budget. But if you mention it, they'll probably put it in the budget next year as a requirement for chairing another search.)

Note: Likely fictional items are marked with an asterisk.

  1. Go to the store and spend a good part of your monthly T.A. stipend on the following: a bottle each of pinot noir and white zinfandel, two pounds of dark-chocolate M&Ms, a pint each of Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia, a small corkboard, and a bag of hors d'oeuvres skewers.
  2. Apply to 64.7 positions, most of which are in your field and will each attract approximately 423 applicants, except for the position in Fairbanks, Alaska, which will only attract 279. (That position in Hawaii-Manoa has 1493 applicants, including one whose advisor raves about his sterling dissertation on the use of farm-machine imagery in Charlotte Forten Grimké's journals(*).)
  3. Drink half of the white zinfandel.
  4. Beg your advisor and other recommenders to write individualized letters for each position.
  5. Each half of one of the pound bags of M&Ms.
  6. Give up and just ask them to send form letters to your university's career center.
  7. Drink half of the pinot noir.
  8. Realize that the career center caters to undergraduates and slip a $20 bill to the work-study student so that she'll get your letters out that day, two weeks after your request.
  9. Eat half of the Cherry Garcia.
  10. Get told to read Ph.D. in History by a fellow grad student (the one who's been a Russian specialist for 10 years, though you suspect he's really a specialist in staying in grad school) and insist on a bottle of Sam Adams before reading the entry.
  11. Read the entry.
  12. Drink the Sam Adams.
  13. Pay the $65 annual-meeting registration fee instead of buying a few books that you really should read for the fifth chapter of your dissertation.
  14. Read Matt Groening's School is Hell and then the latest Ph.D. Comics.
  15. Eat that half a bar of halvah that you've been saving for a grading frenzy(*). (In truth, you need to go out and buy the halvah, because you finished it off after your college's board of trustees announced that the president's salary is over half a million a year, the football coach's salary is $4.5 million, and your stipend is... your stipend.)
  16. Purchase an airline ticket, because you're not in the region AHA is meeting in and you need the advantage of purchasing early. You don't know if you'll have interviews at the meeting, nor when the days might be, so you have to make reservations to allow you to be there for the entire convention.
  17. Find three other graduate students to share the $200 room for quads, because you don't have friends or family in the area to crash with. You'll all be staying for four nights because you don't know when any interviews might be, so it's as expensive as a solo room for one night.
  18. Buy earplugs because you know one of your meeting roommates snores.
  19. Discover plagiarism in student paper.
  20. Finish off that first pound of M&Ms.
  21. One of your promised roommates gets depressed about the job market and cancels.
  22. Make an "I hate the job register" dartboard with the corkboard, with hors d'oeuvres skewers as darts. The first skewer goes in the bullseye.
  23. Hey! Your apartment roommate ate the Chunky Monkey. Damn.
  24. Bullseye!
  25. Finish off the pinot noir.
  26. Go to the store to get another Chunky Monkey, a gallon of plain vanilla ice cream (for roommate, who will be going to the MLA), and a bottle of merlot. Some food goes with that, too, but you're focused on the job register requirements.
  27. Get a phone call from a search committee member. Score! Who cares if it's on a directional public university campus in the Northern plains with an average high in January of -20 (Celsius) and where the teaching load would be 3/4. It's a job possibility!
  28. Realize that it would be cheaper if you and the search committee who called you would just drive a day and a half towards each other and meet in a diner, than if you both flew out to the AHA annual meeting.
  29. Drink half the merlot bottle.
  30. Your sister calls and asks if you're free on the weekend of the AHA meeting. It's your niece's first communion.
  31. Bullseye!
  32. Go to your department's interview practice session. Get asked questions by your grad-school colleagues about Hayden White. Get asked questions by the faculty about your dissertation. Realize no one asked about teaching, though you're likely to be asked that at the job register.(*) (Oh, you will be asked about teaching at the job register. But if you're helping out at practice interviews, you'll ask questions on teaching as well, right?)
  33. Drink the rest of the white zinfandel.
  34. Check the price of airport transportation, which you forgot to do a few months ago. There go another few books or meals.
  35. Bullseye!
  36. Finish off the Cherry Garcia.
  37. Get calls from three other search committees, but the Perfect Job search committee never called. But hey! Four interviews are better than none.
  38. Your interviews are scheduled on Saturday. No, it's not possible for you to change airline reservations without spending an extra $350.
  39. Go to campus colloquium, "Fractal Nantotechnology in 19th century French Guiana Portraiture"(*). You are there for the most part because you need to eat some cheese cubes and drink nondescript white wine.
  40. Your mom asks if you could visit for the weekend, because your stepfather's not feeling well and she could use the company.
  41. Bullseye!
  42. Go read Invisible Adjunct's blog archive.
  43. Bullseye!
  44. Read Decline of the Tenure Track article in the N.Y. Times.
  45. Bullseye!
  46. Read Joyce Appleby and Nikki Keddie's plea for people to reduce the carbon footprint of academe. Realize you're spending close to a thousand dollars you don't have to pollute the environment and attend a conference you don't like to meet for a little over an hour altogether with people who don't want to be there for the possibility of taking a job that's not really like the job you're preparing for in grad school.
  47. Eat the Chunky Monkey and the other pound of M&Ms, and finish off the merlot.

November 26, 2007

Palm Beach Community College Trustees Prefer Pets

Absolutely astounding: Palm Beach Community College recently voted against extending benefits to domestic partners but are allowing a discount program for ... pet health care.

November 19, 2007

Richard Vedder's manifesto

Richard Vedder's "report" Over Invested and Under Priced will probably get some play in the press over the next few days (though the short Thanksgiving week will probably swallow most education stories this week), and in my view it is probably best to see it as Vedder's manifesto: what's wrong with higher education and what he thinks should be different. Some of his concerns are correct but not analyzed cleanly (e.g., with the non-instructional staff: how many are related to research or graduate education, and how much are related to areas such as student affairs or athletics?). And some are just wild: his citation of Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve as if it was self-evidently true, or his use of the Griggs v. Duke Power case, where the Supreme Court said that employers could only use bona fide tests of competence, not poor proxies such as IQ tests.

But if you're interested in higher ed politics, read the piece. It's Vedder in a nutshell.

November 11, 2007

Who will defend faculty on a non-ideological basis?

Erin O'Connor  has rightly criticized the assignment of an associate provost to watch a class in a blog entry titled How to destroy a teacher. She frames it as "a caricature of how the campus thought police destroy the learning environment for both students and teachers."

In a comment I left on the entry, I had asked her whether she would similarly criticize an administrative observer if the case had been a faculty accused by teachers of political indoctrination. She hasn't made my comment public, nor has she responded to the issue. Let me be clear: it's her blog, and she can follow a screening/moderating policy if she wishes. I just think it's a fair and relevant question: are we going to criticize administrative interventions based on the political issues of the day, or are we going to have some basic principles that we follow regardless of the issues du jour?

Update: In a comment, O'Connor notes that software sometimes eats comments. True enough, and I'll try posting the comment again.

November 9, 2007

Janie's mother endorses cliff-diving

"You're too young for make-up, Sweetie. Wait 'til you're sixteen."
"I'm not Janie's mother. I don't do this to be mean."
"If those clothes fit any tighter, you would bust out every seam!"
When did my mother slip inside of me?
--- Brenda Sutton, Mama's Hands

For those of you who truly wanted a test of the famous parental Socratic question--"and if Janie jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too?"--we now have a natural experiment. The University of Wisconsin system has committed to the Voluntary System of Accountability, including standardized testing of learning outcomes (hat tip: Zach Blattner).

The Voluntary System of Accountability is a joint effort by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges to respond to pressures for accountability in higher education. Much of it makes sense except for a rather premature (even nuttily premature) inclusion of standardized testing as a proxy for learning outcomes. Only one of the VSA "learning outcomes" tests has been reviewed by the Buros Mental Measurements Yearbook, and the one that was reviewed (Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency) had a fair assessment ($$) from the standpoint of the VSA:

The validity section of the technical manual is quite brief, and the data provided are not particularly encouraging. There is no information with regard to content validity except the suggestion that each institution should conduct its own content validity assessment.... A major concern regarding content validity of the CAAP relates to the coverage of the CAAP to what is taught in college.... There are skills measures that are certainly important to the social sciences, but the work and tools of the social scientist (hypothesis generation and testing, interpretation of statistical data, the search for alternative explanations of findings, etc.) are fundamentally absent from the assessment.

Less than a few weeks after Miami Dade College's internally-developed portfolio system received positive attention from Margaret Spellings, Wisconsin is essentially drinking the Kool-Aid of poorly-constructed standardized testing as a proxy for accountability. When a young friend of mine had to choose between two schools where she was interested in a performing-arts major, she visited the schools, sat in classes, talked with students, and watched performances. Despite Kevin Carey's desire that she and her family use someone else's ranking to make decisions on college, she used the criterion that made sense: see what students are doing in the field she intends to study. AASCU and NASULGC have made a poor choice that risks the waste of millions of dollars poured into the companies that produce those tests and do little to bring serious accountability to higher education.

Assistant provost, or ad hoc class observer

When I wrote a few weeks ago about the dangers of ad hoc investigations of student complaints, I didn't know that I would have a specific case from Brandeis to illustrate my concerns. Accordingto the IHE article, an assistant provost is sitting in on Donald Hindley's political science class (or maybe classes) after students complained that he had used the term wetback in a pejorative sense (rather than in the sense of describing historical racism, which is his claim). Hindley made the investigations and observations public, the faculty senate expressed its concern about procedures, and the department chair was clearly on the defensive when called by the reporter.

The lesson I take from this: folks, you have to talk about what to do before allegations surface, or you will be forced to invent investigation procedures that are inherently flawed because they are ad hoc.

November 4, 2007

A twofer on Delaware student program and social justice, or "Let's not confuse institutional prerogatives with students' propensity to make mistakes"

I normally don't waste bytes just to point to someone else's blog and say, "What (s)he said!" In this case, though, Timothy Burke's engagingly garrulous entry on the University of Delaware student orientation controversy serves double-duty to describe the obvious about the University of Delaware program and also help explain my discomfort with official statements by colleges of education that they want students to foster social justice:

... with the Delaware residential life program, there's nothing wrong per se with asking straights when they first realized their orientation or when they came out as straights. That is, nothing wrong if that's a sly or mischievious aside in a personal conversation about sexuality, or a subversive question directed at a public figure who is intensely anti-gay, or as a way in an intellectual discussion about the history of sexuality to illustrate what the ten-dollar word 'heteronormativity' actually means. Turning the question into a set part of a pseudo-mandatory workshop (there's some confusion at Delaware about how strongly students are encouraged to attend) takes everything valuable out of it. It turns something sly into dogma.

Burke is putting this observation in the context of a nuanced discussion of the institutional context of resident student activists and the role of college as a place where young adults learn by being bold and frequently making mistakes. What makes sense for student activists or activists engaged in civic life often becomes self-parody when oversolemnified in an institutional context.

Such oversolemnification is all too typical in the debate over dispositions and social justice in teacher education. In several contexts, I have heard colleagues in social foundations or my institution upset at the attack on the demand that students display a disposition towards social justice... a term now closely associated with the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). Because NCATE referred to social justice in a glossary item that mentioned it as a potential disposition that colleges might assess students on, and because some colleges did some patently stupid things when students expressed dissenting political views, that term became a magnet for critics of college policies that appeared to infringe on students' rights to political expression. Respondents in education have sometimes interpreted that attack as a neoconservative attack on teacher education more broadly.

The truth is that the attack on social justice and dispositions is both a floor wax and a dessert topping. Some of those who have attacked teacher education's and NCATE's move towards dispositions have been social conservatives upset with the nature of teacher education. At a June 2006 hearing in front of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, critics of NCATE included the National Association of Scholars and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. But that's not the entire picture. Critics also have included the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (see FIRE's statement on NCATE and dispositions). FIRE's staff and supporters have included conservatives, but they have also included people from across the political spectrum, a group of those who are reasonably described as academic libertarians.

Academic libertarians focus on campuses as a site of debate, where the job of a university is to encourage a discourse of disputation. In this environment, assessing the alignment of one's thoughts with any template with ideological overtones strikes academic libertarians as obnoxious, an affront to students' freedom of thought. While many defenders of assessing dispositions point to the evaluation of behavior rather than thought and the interplay of that behavior with professional expectations, critics are skeptical, especially when some places (such as LeMoyne College) have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar... or the brains of their students.

The vulnerability of teacher education to such criticism is not just the visibility of a few outrageous idiocies by specific teacher education programs. To some extent, the coalition between social conservatives and academic libertarians has focused criticism in a way that often dissipates when the criticism comes from just one quarter. But the internet is also partly responsible, because that copper or fiber-optic cable is a double-edged sword, bringing visibility in both good and bad measure. In addition, teacher education is more vulnerable because of the historical disrespect for teachers in general and for teacher education within colleges and universities.

But there are a few other issues to consider, issues that schools and colleges of education control. One issue under the control of teacher education programs is the way faculty and administrators address the inherent tensions of trying to stuff a professional preparation program into a relatively short period, at most three or four years in an undergraduate program. We'd like teachers to leave college with a fantastically well-rounded liberal-arts education, professional information about educational psychology, historical and social-science perspectives on education, professional ethics, assessment, teaching the methods of their field, content expertise in their field, something about the practical matters of running a classroom, field experiences while learning everything else, and a capstone experience with a final internship and structured feedback and reflection.

To put the problem bluntly, if you can do all that for all students in undergraduate teacher education, I also want a pony. The telling choice is what you give up in professional programs, more than in almost any other type of education. That's not even considering the newer demands in areas such as special education, where "highly qualified teachers" now have to demonstrate content expertise in every curriculum area. So the curriculum discussions in teacher education inevitably revolve around the desire to somehow stuff more into less. If someone could extract the essence of half of our curriculum and put it in a pill, I know a bunch of education deans who would be very happy.

In the midst of this perennial stretch, teacher education stakeholders and institutions talk about accountability as outcomes. Outcomes? Sure. We'll be responsible for what happens with our teachers. So what does that mean, in an era when tracking graduates is a bit tough? Well, we'll certainly be responsible for the passing rates for graduates on state exams, and their meeting our state standards, and ... hmmn... something else. Someone must have suggested dispositions (the history of that would be a great dissertation topic!), and the idea met multiple needs. Stakeholders in the NCATE orbit were reasonably satisfied that teacher education programs were at least addressing accountability. Within teacher education, dispositions met several needs, and it could be used both to justify keeping some things in and removing others out of the curriculum, depending on how one phrased one's goals and preferred dispositions.

Dispositions have also neatly coincided with a psychological approach to education. Kurt Danziger has explained how the history of psychology is intertwined with the bureaucratization of public schooling in the early 20th century U.S. That psychologization continues, far beyond the knowledge of educational psychology that is the bread and butter of my department colleagues. (As my fellow historian Erwin V. Johanningmeier has noted, there is some considerable irony in the fact that one of the most well-known educational psychologists, David Berliner, has written more about the social conditions of schools in the last 15 years than educational psychology.) I am not sure if any professional field outside education or social services would ever frame their competencies as anything close to dispositions -- do business, legal, medical, engineering, or architecture programs have anything similar? Part of the difference is the much shorter formal apprenticeships that teacher education has, but some is due to the role of psychology within education.

Both the University of Delaware residency program and the existence of dispositions border on a therapeutic approach to education, implying that part of the job of college is the reconstruction of behavior and personality. I am not one to believe in the fairy tale that education only touches the intellect; college is a life-changing experience, no matter the outcome. Yet there are reasons to be very cautious about how we engage in the deliberate process of social engineering that is inherent in education.

To some extent, I am sympathetic with part of the idea of dispositions: it is extraordinarily hard to assess the fit of a student with professional expectations, and at some level one has to find proxies for professional competence while people are still in the program. The notion of assessing dispositions is an attempt to find some proxy for that fit apart from course grades. And given the relative flexibility of dispositions, some colleges of education do a much better job of treating them reasonably than other teacher education programs. But there is a foundation of psychological assumptions behind them, and the same flexibility that allows reasonableness also allows LeMoyne and its ilk.

Given that set of psychological (and almost therapeutic) assumptions, a set of dispositions geared to social justice is an oxymoron. Any definition of social justice I have seen talks about the social context, the broader structures of society. To imagine that one can accomplish social justice by changing the personalities of teachers ignores the theoretical arguments involved in social justice. To change the broader structures of society, you have to change the broader structures of society, and teacher goodwill doesn't really enter into it (though teachers' acting ethically towards their students does matter, just in a different sense). Mandating that students demonstrate a disposition towards social justice is likely to be a sloppy description of an institutional mission at best and an effective generator of cynicism at worst.

There is some other stuff that needs to be said here, about how an ethic of teachers' being at the heart of social justice is a potential form of exploitation. (Brief form: those who think KIPP schools are the solution for education and those who want teacher education programs to revolve around social justice have the same assumption about the broader role of teachers.) But this entry is far too long as it is, and I should just finish with this: I desperately want the world to have more justice, and I work towards that end, but I am a better teacher if I model those beliefs than if I try to get my students to parrot them.

October 31, 2007

The curse of system transitions

In several cases I'm aware of, an academic library's transition to a new website has forgotten to include a link to an acquisition-request form, or the location of the form was incredibly obscure. This is true at USF in the last transition and in a few other cases.

I'm sure that the omission/usability flub is accidental (why would a library hide its acquisition-suggestion form?), so the frequency says something important about the site redesign process and the fact that any technological transition will have problems. Every one.

October 30, 2007

Let's draw low-income students to college

University of Texas system chancellor Mark Yudof argues that we should give low-income families some clue about their financial aid status before their children's senior year in high school. As he explains, the details are very tough to manage, but it's a smart idea.

October 26, 2007

Horowitz at Emory

Inside Higher Ed's blurb about the heckling at David Horowitz's Emory University speech has a link to the Emory Wheel article. Thus far, that looks to be the best reporting on the event.

October 25, 2007

Response to Dean Dad on the Brett Favre chemistry lecture series

Dean Dad responds to my recent post about teaching with a discussion about what to do with tenured faculty who are poor teachers and resistant to improving what they do. I think that's somewhat separate from the issue I discussed (what happens when students complain about teaching in the middle of a semester), but he raised an interesting challenge:

Rather than making this post #480 in my ongoing series on the evils of tenure, I'll ask for solutions within a tenure-based system. How would you handle the tenured professor who would rather discuss Brett Favre than his course's subject matter?

He specifically pointed to my advocacy of strong peer evaluations of teaching and asked, "What incentive would a peer have to take on somebody disagreeable?" I'll freely admit that faculty find productive confrontations a very difficult challenge. So do administrators. So do people in a variety of work situations, which is why there are shelves of various books on what to do in dysfunctional work environments and with dysfunctional colleagues (e.g., Bob Sutton's work or the Harvard Negotiations Project).

Because I blog under my name, it would be unprofessional for me to describe any specific situation at USF where faculty have taken on peers, but I know of a few locally and elsewhere. Admittedly, these are at either liberal-arts or research institutions where peer reviews are fairly important to promotion and merit pay (and unlike Dean Dad's institution, my university has had merit pay in the majority of years I've been here--far too little money has been available for productive negotiations over what should be across-the-board, merit, compression/inversion compensation, or adminsitrative discretion, but we do have merit money regularly in at least token amounts).

But I'm digressing. To Dean Dad's challenge: someone has to confront the tenured professor who consistently likes to talk about secondary coverage instead of covalent bonds. That's best done when there is a consensus of both peers and chair/administrators that someone's work is consistently inappropriate. It can be from a peer who has the guts or a chair who has no choice. But both have to be speaking with some considerable backup (in documentation or collegial support, and preferably both) to get beyond the prickliness Dean Dad anticipates/has experienced. As in all such confrontations, it has to be with some sense of humanity and sympathy.

I think this is necessary regardless of whether there are any tangible reward structures tied to evaluations. Even if there are career consequences to peer evaluations, I think leaving it up to a dry sheet every year announcing evaluation ratings is a particularly dysfunctional and academic form of passive aggression (see my academic lightbulb joke from last year for a tongue-in-check example, a truth that Dean Dad recognized). For junior faculty, any exercise in annual evaluation sadism is proof that a department is not mentoring an assistant professor. (Good heavens, folks, nominate someone to talk with your colleague.) For senior faculty, it is a sign that everyone needs to start talking with another again (or for a first time).

Even in aggressive unionized environments with written policies that go far beyond AAUP minimums, after you have talked with the recalcitrant Brett Favre fan, offered support, demonstrated that the person's behavior is considered unacceptable by peers, administrators, and students, and given the tenured faculty an opportunity to change, there are steps to take that fall under the general scope of discipline: letters of counsel, formal discipline that does not affect pay, formal discipline that does affect pay, and termination. As one of my local's vice presidents, I can explain that a union has a duty of fair representation when a faculty member is disciplined for just cause, to make sure that there has been due process (and I hope Dean Dad has memorized the tests of just cause). But that is a protection of due process, not a defense of poor behavior or incompetent teaching. If a faculty member has been dealt with fairly (which includes the judgment of peers), discipline up to and including firing can be an appropriate response to stubborn incompetence.

October 23, 2007

Poor teaching != indoctrination

The response to the AAUP's statement Freedom in the Classroom (released September 11) has been fascinating, from Peter Wood and Stephen Balch's tendentious attempt to fisk the report (thereby burying the legitimate criticisms) to Erin O'Connor's more focused criticism to Stanley Fish's column this Sunday, where he takes the statement (rightly) to task for an inane example. First, let me quote Fish's distinction between teaching with controversial subjects and indoctrination:

Any subject -- pornography, pedophilia, genocide, scatology -- can be introduced into an academic discussion so long as the perspective from which it is analyzed is academic and not political.

This is Fish's "academicizing" (see the end of an August 2006 article about Kevin Barrett), and apart from the suggestion that properly teaching a subject requires anaesthetizing the student, it is one reasonable slice at the definition of indoctrination.

The AAUP subcommittee made its largest mistake in choosing a horrible example of teaching that should be protected from political scrutiny:

Might not a teacher of nineteenth-century American literature, taking up Moby Dick, a subject having nothing to do with the presidency, ask the class to consider whether any parallel between President George W. Bush and Captain Ahab could be pursued for insight into Melville's novel?

In contrast with Fish, I think that this choice of examples should be protected from claims of indoctrination, because faculty should be allowed and even encouraged to insert passion into the classroom, even when an attempt fails. But a teacher using such an example should not be protected from claims that this is simply an awful instructional choice. One of my college teachers claimed that Dostoevsky's portraits of psychological imbalance predicted Hitler's rise and the Holocaust. I suspect that he was trying to enliven the class, not indoctrinate us (and what would he have been indoctrinating us into, the Cult of Heterodox Dostoevsky Social Criticism?). We stared at him, mouths agape, wondering what he had been smoking. Great books, mediocre class.

So, like Timothy Burke (both in talking about ACTA's "How Many Ward Churchills?" screed and in discussing teaching in general), I am more concerned with inept teaching than indoctrination, in part because I strongly suspect that most students read crass political didacticism as incompetence as well as or rather than indoctrination.

The practical question is what no one (including the AAUP) has addressed. Suppose that a student complains about the Ahab/Bush comparison. What do we do? I agree with Stanley Fish that the comparison is not professional. Does that mean we toss the professor out on his or her ear? The AAUP statement refers vaguely to academic due process:

When that [allegation of improper conduct] happens, sound professional standards of proper classroom conduct should be enforced in ways that are compatible with academic due process. Over the last century the profession has developed an understanding of the nature of these standards. It has also developed methods for enforcing these standards that allow for students to file complaints and that afford accused faculty members the right fully to be heard by a body of their peers.

That's all fine and pretty but while the statement seems to imply that universities have developed ways of addressing improper instruction, such a conclusion is simply unwarranted. We know how to handle allegations of research misconduct (or at least we think we do until politicians get involved), there are reasonable guidelines from the AAUP on extramural utterances and behavior, and I suspect most universities have formal academic grievance procedures (where a student can appeal an academic decision), but we professors don't have a clue how to handle allegations of teaching misconduct except where there are bright-line standards such as showing up to class and not hitting (on) students.

I don't mean that faculty always stand idly by when they observe or discover a peer's teaching behavior that they find troubling in a variety of ways. But in terms of formal investigations -- what warrants special attention apart from annual reviews and how to gather and evaluate evidence -- I suspect most institutions have absolutely no procedural guidelines. And therein lies the problem: without procedures set down somewhere, administrators under pressure will resort to ad-hoc decisions and processes, which will inevitably violate academic freedom and erode institutional integrity.

The first line of defense against ad-hoc-ism is some proactive evaluation of teaching, the type of thoughtful peer observation and probing that Timothy Burke advocates. Yes, that requires some time and resources. Many good things do, and in many places (such as my institution right now, under enormous budget pressures), that ideal is unlikely to evolve quickly. Most institutions have some annual evaluation, which has an indirect evaluation of teaching through student surveys and materials submitted by the faculty member. This is better than nothing from a variety of perspectives and much worse than the ideal.

The second line of defense is a procedure for screening and evaluating allegations of serious teaching misconduct and incompetence. Here is where most institutions are susceptible to pressures. While most institutions have established procedures when students gripe about a grade, no one has thought through all the other grievances and griping. Even the vaunted-by-ACTA University of Missouri-Columbia Ombudsman program has "Under Development" as the entire content for the Grievance Procedures of Academic Units page. The world will have to see if and how such procedures develop or if they remain largely ad-hoc.

The third line of defense is a system to coach students on reasonable assertiveness, how to raise issues in a course that expand discussion and educational opportunity. This coaching is necessary both for the shy and the brash student. I try to give students opportunities every semester to give me early feedback on a course in an anonymous way, and while I provide that structure and generally try not to bite students' heads off, some students will not tell me their concerns until long after they become worried about an issue (whether it is instruction or assignments or grades or something else). Other students are simply brusque, either with me or other students, and while (I hope) I'm fairly easygoing about criticism, some faculty are thin-skinned or may misinterpret student expressions of concern. There are right and wrong ways to point out that a class omitted an important perspective, and we do students a disservice in assuming that they come to college knowing the right way to criticize class.

This need for education starts with the usual front-line "ears" in a university: chairs and the secretarial staff of university presidents. My chairs have always tried to redirect the student back to me and also let me know when a student raised a concern with them. Presidents' secretaries don't often have the professional experience to tell students to go back to the professor, and when the presidential staff sends a "here's a heads-up" message down the line through a provost, dean, and chair back to the faculty member, sometimes carelessness with the wording and inevitable gaps in communication turn an intended "here's a heads-up" message into an assumption that the message is really "you better deal with this or else."

The fourth line of defense is a bright-line standard for when administrators should even be thinking about intervening in the middle of a term, in contrast to gathering evidence about an allegation at the end of a term. Starting an investigation in the middle of a class is a serious step that can interfere with the learning environment as much as many of the practices that students might complain about; think about what would happen if the Proper Instruction Police interview students in a class regularly, asking what they thought of the politics of the instructor and the assignment du jour. I don't think any administrator would ever imagine that could happen, but starting an investigation about classes in the middle of a class always carries the risk of educational iatrogenesis. Here are my suggested standards:

  • Investigate when the allegation is of behavior that is dangerous to students.
  • Investigate when a prudent and yet reasonably thick-skinned person would agree that a student's right to education is jeopardized by the alleged behavior (e.g., screaming at students, racial discrimination, etc.), if allegations come from several sources that are credible. Thus, if the majority of a class complains that the instructor is swearing a blue streak and failing to teach physiology when the course is a required part of the nursing sequence, someone needs to look into those allegations, but one student's complaint should not trigger a full-blown set of interviews with all students in a course.
  • Gather evidence passively during a term if the allegations are serious but the claims come from isolated sources. By passive data collection, I mean planning how to gather evidence at the end of the semester and waiting to see if there are other complaints from other credible sources.
  • Refuse to use evidence that is gathered illegally or without provenance. For example, Florida law prohibits audio recordings of people who have a reasonable expectation of privacy without the permission of recorded students--thus, I have been told that surreptitious video on Youtube of Florida classrooms would almost always be illegal unless the faculty member agreed to such guerrilla recording and the student used a shotgun microphone so no fellow student's voice was picked up.
  • In all cases, the faculty member must be told promptly of student concerns and, where the administrator has decided no immediate intervention is required, that should be specified (i.e., in the vast majority of cases).

Comments are most welcome on this sketch.

Sloppy reporting on college tuition

Michael Kirst's blog is fairly typical in misreporting tuition trends:

The College Board just reported that the average price for a college education once again rose faster than the inflation rate this year, particularly at public four-year institutions

The cost of attending college is rising, as is student debt, but there are two ways in which Kirst's description is inaccurate. First, the College Board report is about the average published tuition. Millions of college students pay less than the published tuition because of financial aid of various sorts. A second report documents that student aid is rising more slowly than published tuition, but this casual sloppiness is something I would not have expected from Kirst.

The second way in which Kirst's description is inaccurate is the conflation of student costs with institutional costs. Outside for-profit institutions, students generally do not pay the full cost of their own education; both public funding and donations play a role in paying for the costs of college. To describe rising tuition as "the price of college" obscures the way that state legislatures have shifted costs from taxpayers to students and their families.

The costs that families pay for college is a serious problem, and this picture includes more than tuition. But we need to look at the picture systematically rather than in the fractured way that happens when we focus just on tuition.

October 12, 2007

Just plain offal

University Diarist was on the nose: SIU President Poshard's plagiarism been excused, according to a cover-up panel:

These instances resulted in "inadvertent plagiarism." ... [After Poshard corrects his dissertation,] the committee recommends that no further action, such as a formal hearing, be taken.

So now "everyone else was doing it" and "I didn't mean to" are excuses for academic misconduct in dissertations?

To be clear for any wit who wishes to misconstrue this entry's title, the offal is Poshard's plagiarism and SIU's whitewashing.

September 30, 2007

Duct tape and sand

From Stanley Fish's blog today, disapproval for Lee Bollinger's comments last week at the Ahmadinejad speech: 

The obligation of a senior administrator is to conduct himself or herself in such a way as always to bring honor and credit to the institution he or she serves. Just what this general imperative requires will vary with the particular situations an administrator encounters, but at the very least we could say that an administrator who brings attention of an unwelcome kind to a university is probably not focusing on the job.... as a general rule what an administrator should do when a controversial speaker comes to campus is lower the stakes and minimize the importance of the occasion. Not minimize the importance of the issues, but minimize the role of the university, which is not a player on the world stage but (at most) a location where questions of international significance can be raised in an academic manner.

Duct tape and sand: this is the essence of Stanley Fish's vision for a university administrator, to go around afraid to speak for fear of giving offense and to establish the university as the equivalent of a generic public facility, no greater or worse environment for a public speech than a beach (except that university lecture halls have better sound reinforcement and considerably worse views). If followed faithfully, Fish's principles would reinforce the unfortunate tendency for administrators to fear standing up for principle. If administrators and faculty are better off silent than making mistakes, then what use is a faculty? If the best environment for a controversial speaker is an anaesthetized audience, what use is a university as a forum for public speech?

Fortunately for the Duke University English Department and Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Fish had no such external restrictions on his own actions as an administrator, frequently speaking about public discourse either in his debates with Dinesh D'Souza or in his columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Fish's outspokenness was an advantage for both institutions, even when he was being outlandish and even where many of us disagreed with him. He had a right to speak wrongly, and he still does!

A far healthier description of the key issues with administrators and academic freedom is in last Wednesday's blog entry from Dean Dad.

September 26, 2007

Academic freedom and administrators

Dean Dad has an important dissent from the oft-expressed views that administrators ain't got no academic freedom, as Stanley Fish might claim. DD points out the legitimate restrictions on what administrators can say:

  • Confidentiality: What the rumor mill paints as “the administration knows about this, but is covering it up” is often really “the administration knows this rumor is crap, but can't reveal why it's crap without violating confidentiality” (the best sentence of the post).
  • Institutional discretion: ...the 'ambassador' or 'public face' function of administrators...To the extent that there's an argument in there, I think, it's that it can be difficult to separate, say, a dean's personal views from the views of the college for which he works..
Of those limits, the first is far clearer than the second. If something doesn't fall within the bounds of confidentiality imposed by one's role, an administrator should be free from that type of institutional restraint. The second question is trickier. I have a first slice at it, but not having been an administrator, this may not be realistic: if the issue concerns the welfare of the institution in a specific context, and if someone higher in the bureaucratic food chain has the authority to speak for the institution, then there is some obligation to refrain from speaking for the institution about an issue... and an implied obligation not to contradict the institution's position.

That first slice implies that institutional discretion requires a few components:

  • The question of a specific institutional interest: So while deans and chairs are bound not to contradict an institution's president when speaking publicly about things like state budget allocations for universities, someone is perfectly free to talk about all sorts of general issues with state budgeting.
  • The question of what constitutes "speaking for the institution." I suspect there are different methods to finesse a way out of saying, "I think my university president was bonkers to take this position," generally consisting of acknowledging internal debate and also ways of confirming the right of an institution's leadership to make decisions.

So what about whistleblowing? Regardless of legal issues (which vary by state and which I'm not competent to discuss), the following is my gut sense about institutions with even a modicum of shared governance: the administrator who resigns on a matter of deep principle will eventually return to administration, because institutions need people with conscience and because a critical mass of faculty will usually respect administrators who stand on principle even if individual decisions are matters of disagreement.


September 23, 2007

Hoover and Rumsfeld

According to a New York Times story, the recent Hoover Institute appointment of Donald Rumsfeld has brought a petition:

We, the undersigned members of the Stanford community, strongly object to the appointment of Donald Rumsfeld as a "distinguished visiting fellow" at Stanford's Hoover Institution. We view the appointment as fundamentally incompatible with the ethical values of truthfulness, tolerance, disinterested enquiry, respect for national and international laws, and care for the opinions, property and lives of others to which Stanford is inalienably committed.

Right now, there are a handful more than 3,000 signatures. I understand the disgust with which Stanford faculty view the idea that Rumsfeld would be accorded any respect, but I think they've dealt inappropriately with the Hoover-Stanford relationship, which has always been tenuous, in addition to the fact that the idea of un-hiring someone post hoc is inappropriate in most cases. In protesting the appointment as if it really were a Stanford matter, they are giving more recognition to the Hoover-Stanford tie than they should.  If I were at Stanford, I'd have written it differently:

When we heard of Donald Rumsfeld's appointment as a "distinguished visiting fellow" at the Hoover Institution, we immediately recognized the appointment as fundamentally incompatible with the ethical values of truthfulness, tolerance, disinterested enquiry, respect for national and international laws, and care for the opinions, property and lives of others to which Stanford is inalienably committed. On the other hand, as members of Stanford faculty, we prize due process and would generally disapprove of other groups who call for someone's un-hiring from such an appointment.

Moreover, there may be some value in inviting the arrogant architect of the Iraq war to a campus organization that is only tenuously tied to our teaching mission. We salute the Hoover Institute's director for transparency in making an appointment that mirrors his values, if not Stanford's.

Icons and beacons

Eric Rauchway has the best short commentary on two recent University of California idiocies:

In the Chemerinsky case, UC threatened Chemerinsky's academic freedom; in the Summers case, UC threatened mine--and that of everyone else who teaches here.

Nice bon mot, but I wish Rauchway had explained it more clearly: UCI Chancellor Michael Drake was violating Chemerinsky's individual rights as the primary consequence of his attempt to un-hire Chemerinsky as the new law school's founding dean. There were certainly other consequences (chilling speech and doing inestimable damage to the reputation of the new law school), but the primary academic-freedom consequence was individual.

When the UC regents uninvited Larry Summers, they damaged the environment of the UC system as a forum for all sorts of ideas. By pressuring the regents to withdraw the invitation through a petition protesting the speaking engagement, some UC Davis faculty were violating the principle that a university welcomes a broad variety of voices. While you could argue that the regents damaged Summers's reputation in some way by the disinvitation, and they certainly damaged their own reputation, the greater violation is to the university environment writ large.

I am guessing that some commentators will jump on the actions over the last week as evidence of an institutional double standard. They are seeing Summers as some icon of academic rectitude from his battles at Harvard. I'm not sure it says anything other than the weak-willed nature of the UC regents as a body, something made evident by their inability to oversee the extravagance of two UC presidents. While they're not as incompetent and corrupt as Auburn's trustees, they're not exactly watching the store, and the UC system suffers in the meantime

September 22, 2007

Andrew Meyer, disruptions, and free speech

The news has been flying on the tasering of Andrew Meyer at a University of Florida speech of Senator John Kerry. The best serious commentary is from former Florida Alligator editor Ron Sachs:

Stephen Colbert has his own take on events:


September 21, 2007

"Beyond the Pale"

If you truly love or hate something, you spoof it. Thus the great mockumentaries This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind. Now we have a mockumentary on academe: Beyond the Pale.

It'll be shown next month at the Austin Film Festival. It will also be shown free next Thursday (September 27) 7 pm at the Natural Science Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

(Hat tip: Mark Bernstein, one of the actors in the film.)

September 15, 2007

Department of Something

I've wanted to respond to an early August post of Timothy Burke's for a few months, but I've been swamped with a number of other tasks, and it took an early Saturday morning of some other mundanities to justify my splurging on this reply.

This really started with Mark Bauerlein, so you can complain to him about having to read this. Back in July, Mark Bauerlein wrote An Anti-Progressive Syllabus as an IHE column, suggesting a rather eclectic set of conservative readings he wanted included in literary theory anthologies/courses (such as the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism). That column prompted a long discussion in The Valve, to which Bauerlein responded (in part):

Luther [Blisset] raises a significant point that goes deeper to the heart of what is and is not relevant in a Theory course. He says that this course should teach students the ideas and approaches that have prevailed in the discipline for the last 30 years or so. But what if the problem lies in precisely what the discipline has considered important? That's the real issue. For me, literary/cultural theory has traveled so far into itself, so far into advanced humanistic study, that it has lost touch with both the basic undergraduate classroom and with cultural policy decision-making in the public sphere.

Later in the thread, Adam Kotsko suggested that the problem with the items list was that they had not been used in literary theory:

English professors aren't using "conservative" figures as sources for literary theory. The syllabus of the Theory course is not the place to make this change--rather, [Bauerlein] should be arguing for the deployment of [Francis] Fukayama (or whoever) in literary scholarship. "Hitler Studies After the End of History: A Fukayaman Reading of White Noise." In fact, MB should be out there doing Fukayaman ... scholarship himself.

To which Tim Burke added in his blog,

So don't tell people they ought to make their students read Hayek or Horowitz. Explain what a hermeneutics that riffs off of Hayek actually looks like. Illustrate it. Do it.

Burke then riffs off of a comment in the original The Valve post about English morphing into a department of Everything Studies (an idea that also appears in Bauerlein's comment quoted above, albeit in the context of teaching and cultural policy decision-making in the public sphere, a term that's just a tad obscure), to argue that, in fact, there should be such a department:

I want to collapse all departments concerned with the interpretation and practice of expressive culture into a single large departmental unit. I'd call it Cultural Studies, but I don't want it to be Cultural Studies as that term is now understood in the American academy. Call it Department of the Humanities, or of Interpretation, or something more elegant and self-explanatory if you can think of it. I want English, Modern Languages, Dance, Theater, Art History, Music, the hermeneutical portions of philosophy, cultural and media studies, some strands of anthropology, history and sociology, and even a smattering of cognitive science all under one roof. I want what John [Holbo] is calling Everything Studies, except that I want its domain limited to expressive culture.

Burke is making an argument for something beyond interdisciplinarity; I've heard a colleague describe it as transdisciplinary. The nub of this argument is how Burke acknowledgmes that he has a limited set of skills, "But the limits on our research and interpretation of expressive media are provisional and personal. There's no reason to turn them into prescriptive claims about the nature of interpretative work for everybody else." Burke is arguing that disciplinary boundaries are constructed.

Well, that's not quite it. Burke is frustrated with disciplinary parochialism:

What I'm sick of is people who want a "conservative tradition" picking only the neo-Arnoldian parts of this list and then thumbing their nose at the rest as if it is self-evident that no self-respecting critic would want to talk about the cognitive, historical, economic, ideological questions that surround expressive culture, that all that crap is some social scientist's dreary business and get it the fuck out of my English Department. Just as I'm sick of a historicist refusing to take hermeneutics seriously, or some Franksteinian Frankfurter regarding the practical questions involved in actually doing cultural production as some sort of low-class consorting with the hegemonic beast.

I've written about academic parochialism and my own frustrations with it. I doubt whether that parochialism justifies the destruction of departmental boundaries, but let me focus on Burke's stronger argument, that we should be aware of how our disciplinary boundaries are institutionalized for practical or political reasons, not issues of fundamental divisions in knowledge:

The problem of course is to have world enough and time. We cannot write everything, read everything, teach everything. Scholars and publishers have to make decisions about what they value: which graduate student should advance or be rewarded, which work should be published, who makes the cut in a syllabus, which courses do we offer and not offer? Canons and disciplines are a pragmatic shorthand that keep us from having to rehearse our wanderings through Everything every time we set out to teach and research Everything. But that's all they are. They're not complete ontologies, not totalizing politics, not comprehensive philosophies.

I've heard arguments before in favor of some version of transdisciplinarity before, from vapid progressive educational philosophies to conversations with my campus colleagues. Burke's is the most thoughtful argument on this point that I've read or heard, and I don't think anyone who's aware of a smattering of sociology of knowledge would disagree with his basic point: disciplines are malleable entities, in theory and in practice. If playing along disciplinary boundaries is useful--what we call interdisciplinary work--then maybe destroying the boundaries would be even better.

Burke is wrong on several grounds, and I state my disagreement as someone whose academic work is necessarily interdisciplinary as a teacher (of an interdisciplinary field), as a researcher, as a member of several interdisciplinary communities (education policy, social-science history), and as a university employee (an historian in a college of education).  In my own career, I don't think I've behaved as a parochial academic.

Yet Burke is wrong from three perspectives. First, in colleges and universities, departments are essential to organizing the professional life of academics. Every so often, institutions attempt to abolish departments, and these are usually unhappy experiments (such as in Peabody College for Teachers in the 1970s, before its absorption into Vanderbilt University). There is a certain amount of support that faculty need in the practical life of running an institution, and beyond a certain size, large collections of faculty are unwieldy to support or administer. In a more practical sense, however, the peer relationships among colleagues that are part of evaluation, tenure, and promotion decisions require enough common understandings that decisions avoid the capricious quality inherent when you just don't understand someone else's work. As an historian in a department with a majority of psychologists, I've seen the hard work that such interdisciplinary structures require. My colleagues and I all putatively focus on education, but that doesn't eliminate the frictions that occasionally need to be smoothed about our research traditions, the different types of questions we raise, and the ways we answer those questions. I've worked in a Department of Everything Studies (Education Division), and Burke is glossing over the hard work required in such an arrangement.

Even if we could ignore the institutional needs for departmental structures, we should not ignore the importance of providing depth of experience in research education. What would a Ph.D. produced by a Department of Everything Studies look like? Even if disciplinary traditions are constructed, and even if disciplinary boundaries are movable, they are sufficiently coherent to provide a foundation for advanced research education. Graduate students need to focus on something, both in terms of interests and also in terms of scholarly tools.

I suspect that Burke would want people with different sets of skills and interests in his Department of Everything Studies, but they'd have to have graduate education in something, and I suspect that couldn't happen in a Department of Everything Studies, or a Ph.D. produced by such a department would carry enormous risks of having eaten a thin intellectual gruel rather than consuming something of substance. I often worry about that risk in colleges of education. (In our college, a formulaic program structure is the institutional answer to such concerns, with required courses in ed psych, social foundations, statistics, and research design, as well as a certain number of courses in one's specialization and in a cognate field. Of course that doesn't guarantee a coherent, sensible program; advisors still need to provide considerable guidance.)

Finally, if we could wish away the institutional need for departmental structures and a graduate student's need to study something, there is the question of whether undergraduate students should study something instead of everything. At least in one context, we can wish away those departmental needs: In a small liberal-arts college, where the problems of scale and graduate education recede, one could experiment with an undergraduate Department of Everything. Those who worry about students' ability to think critically and develop other generalizable intellectual skills might approve of such a department, and I suppose it would fit into the views of others who want some sort of universal assessment of what students learn from college (such as those who like the Collegiate Learning Assessment).

But I do not think that we learn anything as general as critical thinking or even subdivisions of that (such as essay-writing) absent studying something specific. Yes, our intellectual skills are generalizable, but we don't develop them absent topics. Each topic then invites its own set of approaches, including ways of categorizing the subject, raising important questions, and answering those questions. One of the reasons why Kotsko and Burke could call Bauerlein on the carpet for failing to show what a Fukuyamaesque literary analysis would be like is because there exists a mental model of what good scholarly tools for literary analysis should look like, and they have a sense that tossing off names doesn't fit the bill. Where did that mental model come from?

Maybe my point about needing to study something would be useful with a contrast. What makes history different from biology is a set of limits to the topic, the questions that historians and biologists raise, and the ways that they answer them. And while there are interesting overlaps between the two (such as how humans have shaped the environment, and vice versa), even in the overlap environmental historians such as William Cronon and Michael L. Lewis are going to ask questions different from the questions their biology colleagues ask and have different ways of answering them. Part of what we learn from interdisciplinary work is how to ask questions differently, something that can change our own disciplines, but that can only happen when there are differences in approaches.

Well, responds Timothy Burke from the Devil's counsel table, wouldn't an interdisciplinary area such as environmental studies then develop its own somewhat coherent set of topic boundaries, categorizations, questions, and tools, akin to the canonical disciplines? Yes, of course. Point granted. It could, and it does. Apart from the campus politics of interdisciplinary areas and new departments (such as the history of SUNY Buffalo's women's studies program/$JSTOR), there is nothing in what I've said that dictates what configuration of disciplines would be necessary. Disciplinary boundaries evolve, and there are plenty of undergraduate and graduate programs that live in the boundaries of two or more disciplines... or have evolved out of that interdisciplinary state into their own entities. My own program area and department are examples of such evolutions and noncanonical configurations.

But the fact of intellectual change and the constructed nature of disciplines doesn't mean that disciplinarity doesn't exist, isn't healthy, and isn't necessary for undergraduate curricula, graduate education, or academic institutions. Thus, my bottom line is not the current constellation of disciplines but some configuration, not a Collegium of What Exists Now but a Collegium of Somethings. In higher education, everyone needs a Department of Something.

September 7, 2007

Crist's budget recommendations would violate Florida law

Governor Charlie Crist's budget-cut recommendations would cut $188 million from the state university system, the majority of that from existing programs; $45.3 million from direct community college support; and additional funds from specific programs in higher ed that aren't categorized in higher ed. While he would cut $120 million from recurring funds in the state's aid program to elementary and secondary schools (Florida Education Finance Program), he'd replace every dollar with nonrecurring general-revenue funds.

If enacted, this disproportionate slicing of higher ed (more than 35% of general-revenue cuts coming from higher education) would violate Florida Statutes 215.16(2):

If the state appropriations from the General Revenue Fund for the benefit of the uniform system of public free schools, state institutions of higher learning, and community colleges cannot be paid in full during any given year, they shall be diminished only in the same proportion that appropriations for all other purposes from the General Revenue Fund are diminished during such year. Additionally, any funding reductions to public free schools, state institutions of higher learning, and community colleges shall be diminished in proportions identical to one another. For the purpose of implementing this section, general revenue funds exclude the administrative budgets of the Board of Governors and the Department of Education.

If the legislature goes along with the governor's plans, it's very hard to see how it avoids violating Florida law.

This restriction on budget cutting didn't hit any of the stories thus far on Crist's plan. According to a St. Petersburg Times article this morning, SUS Chancellor Mark Rosenberg said, "It seems we have a governor who wants to protect K-12, but is willing to throw higher education under the bus." According to the Jacksonville Times-Union, Rep. Stephen Wise said, "What the governor wants would have a disastrous effect on community colleges, which are one of the engines that runs the state's workforce." And while other stories noted the cuts to higher education, reporters didn't dig to see if the cuts would be legal.

August 23, 2007

Truth in administration

Dean Dad's response to the USNWR rankings strikes me as honest:

Ranking schemes like this invariably lead to a two-track response; I know they're flawed, but I want to do well on them, anyway.

Whew! I'm glad someone acknowledged that. Hate the flaws in the competition; need to engage in it.

(I've been tacit blogging-wise this week because classes start next week and thanks to a change in K-12 calendars in Florida, I only have one week between when my wonderful children started school and when I start teaching. There have been enough urgent matters that they encroach on my usual dither-brained time for blogging.)

August 17, 2007

Research project on former methamphetamine users in college (women only)

I normally do not pass on requests for research participation, but this is a sensitive topic where participation will require more than the usual outreach, and because it addresses the conditions for former substance users in attending college, it certainly fits this blog. This announcement is for those who live in the central Florida area:

Jodi Nettleton is conducting a study on women who have, at one time, regularly used methamphetamine and who have stopped and later have attended college.  This is a study that will evaluate the reasons women start using, how they stopped, and what made them choose to attend college.

The research requires volunteers to participate in this study.  Involvement will only require a couple meetings, of about 2 hours each, to sit and talk. Interviewee names and any and all identifying characteristics will be held at the highest confidentiality, and this study is being conducted under the University of South Florida IRB protocol # 105806.  Publication of the findings will include a composite of many interviews and will not provide any names or clues which could provide participant identities.

Please contact Jodi Nettleton (jnettlet@cas.usf.edu) directly with any questions or interests in this study.

August 14, 2007

ACTA'n up

It took four days for ACTA's blog to respond to the Center for Responsive Politics' report on political giving within higher education. And, true to form, the entry attempted to link contributions to classrooms:

Intellectual diversity is not, of course, reducible to party affiliation, and the professoriate's campaign contributions do not themselves tell us what happens inside college classrooms. Still, the numbers are suggestive, and they do indicate cause for concern.

I'm glad there was at least some caveat about the implications, but my prediction that someone would overgeneralize came true: there was no acknowledgment that the data is unrepresentative of faculty as a whole. When you do that, it's simply cherry-picking data to suit your preconceptions.

August 12, 2007

Textbook prices

University of Texas-Austin accounting Professor Michael Granof has a fascinating proposal for textbook licensing arrangements that is a sensible response to some of the nuttier proposals to address the real textbook-price problem.We had an impractical suggestion come out of the legislature in Florida this spring, but it fortunately died at the end of the session.

Granof proposed that colleges license the content of textbooks from publishers, and students could then have their choice of electronic versions or hard-copy prices that would be much lower. Granof's proposal is a mirror of the software world, where everyone recognizes that the stuff (the program) is more important than the CD it came on.

The beauty of Granof's proposal is that it would address the problem of the most expensive course readings (textbooks), provide a market incentive for publishers to focus on the quality of texts and not the new-edition nonsense that has been their primary response to the used-text market, still allow the flowering of public-domain and open-source electronic texts, and avoid interfering with instructional decisions.


August 10, 2007

Political involvement, proxies of

new report on political giving by higher-education employees is sure to provoke more fallacious arguments about politics and academe. Some things to keep in mind:

  • The report includes data on all higher-ed employees, and is about all giving. Without more information (which the Center on Responsive Politics wouldn't have), we don't know how much of the giving was by faculty, how much by administrators who used to be faculty, and how much by adminsitrators who never were faculty. My guess (but it could easily be wrong) is that a slight majority of the giving was by current faculty but that administrators were more likely to give larger amounts.
  • Employees in the top 10 giving institutions account for about 20% of all giving. That's 10 out of hundreds... or 19, if you include the fact that the U.C. system has 10 campuses. Wow. The disproportionate giving suggests that at most colleges and institutions, a much lower proportion of employees contribute to political campaigns at all. (I.e., this data is not representative of most faculty across the country.) If you just count Harvard, U. of California, William and Mary, and Columbia, that's 11% of the total giving. More than 10% of all political contributions this cycle are coming from just 13 institutions. It's still an amazing statistic, and it's even more amazing that the other three individual places outdo the U.C. system.
  • The top 10 giving institutions are also disproportionately favoring Democrats, 87%-13%. The rest is closer to 73%-27%, which still favors Democrats, but there's a clear difference in patterns.
  • What political contributions say about teaching and research is ... very little. But watch for the giant gaps in reasoning that make such assumptions.

Update: And the first fallacy award goes to ... David French. As John Wilson notes, the key question on the size of contributions by industry is the contribution per employee.

August 6, 2007

Steve Spurrier's tantrum

University of South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier wants the University of South Carolina to lower its admissions standards for football players to whatever the minimum is for NCAA athletes. Steve, we might be more sympathetic to this ploy if South Carolina's freshman graduation rate for African-American football players entering in 1999-2000 were higher than 38% (compared with 58% for all African-American students at South Carolina entering in 1999-2000). Do you really want to bring students into USC to be educated or to be fodder for your glory?

(Margaret Soltan has more.)

August 1, 2007

The celebrity-faculty fallacy

As noted in The Gradebook, Stanley Fish has now waded into ($) the Florida higher-ed funding battle.  Like many of our fellow Florida faculty, Fish says we can't simultaneously have great, universal, and really cheap higher education. Yet Kevin Carey has a point: Fish's proposed solution is a search for celebrity faculty:

Five straight years of steadily increased funding, tuition raises and high-profile faculty hires would send a message that something really serious is happening. Ten more years of the same, and it might actually happen.

Fish followed the same formula when Arts and Sciences Dean at UIC. A large part of his modus operandi was symbolic and cultural, but a substantial chunk was trying to snag Big Fish. Fish's fishing spent resources that could have been used to hire and reward wonderful and less-famous faculty.

Florida has tried the Famous Faculty Fishing expedition before, among other things with FSU hiring Nobel Prize winner John Robert Schrieffer, who later killed people while driving. His shenanigans are proof that neither universities nor famous faculty are idiot-proof. There is a point in recruiting famous people, so long as the resources devoted to such efforts do not drain the ability of an institution to reward and retain the vast majority of faculty who neither win Nobel prizes nor write best-sellers.

Florida loses 15% of its faculty every year, essentially serving as a farm league for other regions. Hiring a few famous faculty will not stop that attrition, and if it absorbs too much of the university system's resources, such a concentration of resources will prevent us from holding onto the hundreds of darned good faculty we already have.

July 28, 2007

Mundane faculty sadism

I'm going to borrow a term from pop marital therapy author David Schnarch, compare it to sibling experiences and literary analysis, and then see if the principle applies to professional relationships in higher ed. To Schnarch, couples' relationships are a pressure-cooker within which the individuals (should) develop. To Schnarch, this pressure-cooker environment is an inevitable by-product of rubbing shoulders with someone over the years.

Schnarch's perspective is neither surprising nor that new to those who grew up with siblings. Despite the common Freudian psychodynamic view of sibling relationships, my own memory of sibling issues had less to do with rivalries for love and far more a matter of simple daily friction. Knuckle-cracking and whistling get on siblings' nerves not because one siblings fears that Mother or Father lives her or him less but because, well, after about three months of hearing knuckle-cracking a dozen times a day, you go bonkers the next time you hear the same sound. (The same irritation commonly develops among college or apartment roommates, and I've never heard a Freudian theory of Roommate Rivalry.)

Schnarch's perspective is also not surprising to anyone who has read almost any analysis of character as the response to pressures.

Yet Schnarch contributes a fascinating term that I think applies to professional as well as personal relationships: ordinary (marital) sadism, or the ways in which people who rub up against each other over years learn (how) to push each other's buttons. The mundane cruelty of small digging remarks, tones of voice, and looks is an everyday feature of many siblings' lives. I disagree with Schnarch on what he calls the inevitability of such communicative sadism. Maybe that's a consequence of my irritation with monolithic psychodynamic explanations of life (as if we're all X), and maybe it's a consequence of my own experiences: My wife and I do our best to avoid pushing each other's buttons, and I'd like to think we succeed.

But the term strikes me as an effective description of one type of dysfunctional faculty behavior, the ordinary cruelties that we sometimes engage in towards colleagues, staff, and students, or that some of us engage in regularly. We all have bad days, but the ambiguous role of social networking in academe magnifies the consequences of thoughtless remarks and deeds in ways that are relatively unique. In many work environments, you can identify real *******s or *****(e)s by observing how people treat those reporting to them. At most colleges and universities, though, the power relationships are not as clear-cut, in part because of social networking and in part because of the ethic of academic freedom and free speech. I think those reasons are why I have witnessed assistant and associate professors unleashing unproductive, cutting remarks at senior administrators. Even if mundane faculty sadism is more commonly aimed at students, staff, and colleagues, sometimes the barbs head upwards.

In some ways, some might claim that such mundane faculty sadism is the inevitable byproduct of healthy debate, and to some extent I agree. Prickliness is no excuse for ignoring academic freedom. In addition, ethical administrators will do their best to address legitimate complaints separate from the rhetorical cruelties. Yet mundane faculty sadism can erode the environment in which academic freedom should flourish, by ruining class experiences for students when prevalent in a course, by destroying the morale of the staff who perform daily miracles for faculty, or by making peers reluctant to engage in healthy debate in fear of the verbal barb, rolling eyes, and passive-aggressive colleagues. When multiple factions of a department or college feel free to engage in such sadism, you get undeclared war.

The solution to mundane faculty sadism is not the vague "collegiality" criterion some institutions have tried as a filter for *******s or *****(e)s at tenure time. Such efforts strike me as passive-aggressive responses to the problem of mundane faculty sadism: "We'll ignore your daily cruelties for 5-6 years and then fire you." Those cruelties require a faster response from colleagues. Ultimately, faculty need to develop skills at confronting peers in a respectful but firm manner. I will gladly admit that I don't have the skills I would like to have. And I don't think many of my colleagues have them, either.

I didn't learn those skills in graduate school (along with a whole host of other skills I didn't learn). Instead, I became inured to a discourse that emphasized hard-hitting comments and ignored personal relationships inside that discourse. I suspect that a part of the dynamic is the argumentative nature of academic discussions, debating and peacocking that receives more attention than the subtle guidance of others. I used to think that older faculty were more likely to engage in mundane collegial sadism, but I've seen enough counter-examples to rethink those views.

So, dear readers, do you think this concept holds any water, and do you have any suggestions for addressing it?

July 25, 2007

Ward, not redux

So Colorado's Regents have fired Ward Churchill. I've written about this at other times, but let me summarize things briefly:

  • The beginning of the investigation was political.
  • There were legitimate challenges to Churchill's research record, some identified before and some sent to Colorado after the political furor began.
  • The charges tied to Churchill's speech rights were thrown out and were not part of the formal investigation of Churchill's research.
  • Faculty who looked at Churchill's record said he had engaged in a systematic pattern of research misconduct.
  • Churchill has neither acknowledged nor expressed regret for the serious problems the faculty panels identified.
  • Faculty panels have been fragmented on the appropriate response to Churchill's research misconduct. Some recommended suspension for various periods, some recommended dismissal.

I'm not a lawyer, but given the procedural due process, I'm guessing the only leg Churchill has to stand on is the question of whether dismissal is an appropriate sanction. That is, while several faculty committees have decided that he committed research misconduct, Churchill's lawyer might argue that dismissal was disproportionate punishment and was clearly motivated by politics, even if the factual findings weren't. (Let me be clear: Churchill's lawyer is sure to argue that the findings are wrong, too, but I don't think that claim has a chance of a snowball in West Palm Beach.)

The first question is whether there is a record of sanctions in previous cases in Colorado where there has been a finding of research misconduct. Local precedents can be powerful, and that will depend on the evidentiary record. If you're gazing from the peanut gallery, you might look for findings of research misconduct reported by the Department of Health and Human Services. I've found one, about Wei Jin from Colorado State University (2007), but Jin was a doctoral student, so that case does not provide a precedent. There may be others, but I'm not sure they would be available online. (That would be part of the discovery process for a lawsuit.) If there are multiple cases where tenured faculty members found guilty of serious research misconduct have been given multi-year sanctions but not fired, Churchill's lawyer will have a field day, arguing that firing Churchill is disproportionate to the factual record within the university or the state's public institutions.

If there is no such record, Churchill's lawyer could look at the national record of cases. Where there is evidence of multiple problems, in what proportion of cases is the result termination, resignation, or a lesser sanction? And is there any way to gauge what determines the sanction from the record?

The last resort of Churchill's lawyer would be to claim that Hank Brown and the Regents had specific intent to punish Churchill disproportionately. If someone can dig up a smoking-gun statement of intent, that might be persuasive, but if the claim in court is that circumstantial evidence points to an ideological intent, you'll know that Churchill's lawyer either is incompetent or couldn't find favorable evidence in the record of research-misconduct sanctions.

Update: Read the legal filing by Churchill's lawyers. Greg Lukianoff has more on Churchill's legal prospects.

July 24, 2007

There go the plans for campus security

Not much is left untouched by impending budget cuts in Florida. First to go were plans for better security on college campuses, as a South Florida Sun-Sentinel article describes. 

July 23, 2007

Wrong questions on Ward Churchill

Yesterday, Aaron Barlow asked the political questions about l'affaire Churchill at Free Exchange on Campus. To Barlow, the central issue is the public perception of higher education. In responding to "those on all sides who try to make Churchill and his presumed guilt or innocence an emblem for their greater argument about academia," So he cites ACTA's "How many Ward Churchills" screed and the ACLU letter released over the weekend. But Barlow then repeats the error:

If nothing else, the Churchill case points out the fact that we need to seriously consider the question of whether we academics are doing enough to police ourselves. The next time those attacking academia come up with a particular person to attack, will we be confident that our defense of that person will not open us up to further accusations of protecting the unqualified or dishonest?

Barlow is right that the symbolic politics are important in some ways. But the critical question in each individual case is academic due process, not public perception. Should we warp academic due process to match what we think should happen, or what those outside academe think should happen? I haven't seen that in the actions of faculty at Colorado, but Barlow appears more concerned with perception than due process. And that is worrisome.

July 12, 2007

Objectivists objected to?

FIRE's Tara Sweeney succinctly describes the problems with Ashland University's denial of tenure to classicist John Lewis.

Ashland University was perfectly happy to take a $100K gift from the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship. When institutional leaders are willing to take the money and run, claims that special institutional missions trump lay notions of academic freedom ring hollow. (This was only one of the problems with the tenure denial.)

Lewis eventually received tenure, contingent on the perverse condition that he resign. He's at Bowling Green State University for a fellowship next year.

How to reduce remediation costs

An article in Inside Higher Ed this morning on the Education Commission of the States meeting in Philadelphia focuses on two topics. One is unit records, of which I've written before, and there is no real surprise, which is that state leaders feel that they have their own unit records databases (which they do, for public institutions), though they have fewer concerns about the now-dead proposal for federal database than many others.

The second topic is remedial education, which has a long history, back to the 17th-century years of Harvard College when it was discovered that the boys/men who were enrolled weren't up to snuff. (For the life of me, this morning I can't remember and couldn't find the name of the book/report a few years ago providing a fairly salutary perspective on the realities of remedial education.) In the IHE article, Tennessee Associate Vice Chancellor Houston D. Davis talked about reducing the costs of remedial education by "modularizing" remedial courses to focus on specific deficits.

Okay,Folks in Charge of Remediation: If you're going to compartmentalize tiny bits of remedial education and probably put things online in depersonalized bits, you're going to ignore everything Mike Rose has written about inducting adults into an intellectual culture. But I suppose you have a right to do the best with the resources you have.

But in turn, I have the right to strip the veneer from what is essentially a defensive move ("if we can't provide term-long personal instruction, we'll chop remediation into bits and retain a budget"). That's so ... parochial. If we're going to have some part of remediation done online, let's do it properly: produced by a substantial grant, and free to all participants. Let the federal government fund a group of fabulous teachers and programmers to create online modules for learning arithmetic, algebra, and maybe a few parts of writing. Anyone in the world could go online to take advantage of it, as long as they agree to participate in an ongoing evaluation. Fund continuing development work at a slightly lower level. Then, anyone identified as needing additional skills in college or anyone wanting to brush up on skills can go online and get the best automatic, auto-didactic, self-driven, unsupervised, unguided learning available.

Then they'll still need to find a teacher.

The truth is that someone who is truly self-driven can find a lot of material online in various subjects, and college counselors can probably find some fabulous free online modules on subjects that are typically the focus of remedial courses. And they can point students to those resources. My guess is that some even do, but that's probably not in the routine of most.

How much remediation is a matter of addressing skills of individual students and how much is remediation a part of institutional routines that serve other purposes and needs? I'm not up on the sociological literature focusing on community colleges, but I suspect addressing skills is only a fraction of the role that remedial courses serve. (To the sociologists reading this: is cooling-out still a current term in the community-college literature?)

While probably well-intentioned, the proposal to "modularize" courses says a great deal about the structure of Tennessee's system. A student diverted into the modules will rightly see the difference between the fragmented structure of the modules and "real" college courses.  Modularization removes remedial programs even further from the regular program.

July 8, 2007

The penultimate-policy fallacy (the reverse of "fighting the last war")

Florida's universities are facing an interesting mix of budget pressures in the short term, with some possibility for substantial improvement in about 2-3 years but also a serious Sword of Damocles in a property-tax referendum in January and short-term misery if a state-level budget-reduction exercise is handled poorly (or illegally: by law, higher ed shouldn't bear a disproportionate burden of any budget reductions after the governor signs the state appropriations bill). That's on top of the legislature and governor each taking whacks at state university funding this year. Locally, a command by the governor to engage in a budget-reduction exercise and parallel requests by the state chancellor for each university has caused some panic. The faculty union at USF tried to address that panic in a resolution and e-mail on Friday, but in the past week I have several times heard the following phrases (or variants of it):

  • At my last job, ...
  • The last time this happened, ...

I understand this attempt to leverage thumbnail-history wisdom. Carl Becker certainly would, and there is nothing wrong and much right with bringing one's personal perspective to an issue. But when you're talking about the effective redistribution of millions of dollars, personal recollection is neither a well-documented history nor a broad perspective. Unfortunately, in institutional circumstances people often bring to the table only the last experience they had, asserting its appropriateness. I call this the penultimate-policy fallacy, the false belief that whatever happened last is the best choice. Sometimes it's institutional leaders who apply identical solutions in different circumstances; sometimes it's mid-level administrators or individual faculty who have penultimate-policy myopia.

This fallacy is the reverse of wanting to fight the last war, but it's rooted in the same poor habit of thought: assuming an exact parallel in the last vaguely-similar event and wishing away the importance of context. This is dangerous whether you're talking about Florida's university finances... or a war in the Mideast.

June 25, 2007

Ward Churchill and the politicization of research misconduct

The procedural conflict in l'affair Churchill is between the need for any institution to investigate serious charges of research misconduct and the need for colleges and universities to be buffered from political pressures that interfere with academic freedom. In most cases, outside political pressures raise issues that are easily dismissed (at least by serious faculty) as inappropriate reasons to discipline or fire anyone. But in the case of Churchill, the internal processes stripped away the political charges and focused on serious, substantive charges of research misconduct. That fact doesn't completely satisfy the discomfort that many on and off the Boulder campus felt about the investigation, something that the investigating committee noted in its May 2006 report:

[T]he Committee is troubled by the origins of, and skeptical concerning the motives for, the current investigation. The Committee's disquiet regarding the timing of these allegations is exacerbated by the fact that the formal complainant in the charges before us is the Interim Chancellor of the University, despite the express provision in the Laws of the Board of Regents of the University of Colorado that faculty members' "efforts should not be subjected to direct or indirect pressures or interference from within the university, and the university will resist to the utmost such pressures or interference when exerted from without." Nevertheless, serious claims of academic misconduct have been lodged and they require full investigation and responsible and fair treatment. (p. 4)

The committee then chose a horrible analogy, a sloppy comparison that I hope its members now regret:

The Committee has attempted to provide that investigation, keeping the background and origins of this particular dispute out of our consideration of the particular allegations. To use an analogy, a motorist who is stopped and ticketed for speeding because the police officer was offended by the contents of her bumper sticker, and who otherwise would have been sent away with a warning, is still guilty of speeding, even if the officer's motive for punishing the speeder was the offense taken to the speeder's exercise of her right to free speech. No court would consider the improper motive of the police officer to constitute a defense to speeding, however protected by legal free speech guarantees the contents of the bumper sticker might be. (p. 4, immediately following the above excerpt)

This analogy has been repeated and discussed ad nauseam, from the University of Colorado Silver and Gold to The Rhetoric Garage blog and beyond. As Eugene Volokh noted at the time, the committee had the law wrong and the situation wrong. But I'm not going to attempt to correct the metaphor, since I agree with Howard Becker that metaphors are inherently dangerous in social science writing and other nonfiction. The committee made this mistake in an effort to cleanse its own work of the polluting allegation it knew would come with publication, claims that the investigation was only proceeding because of the political pressure from the outside.

The analogy failed to convince skeptics because it couldn't, even if it had been correct in the interpretation of the law. A university research-misconduct investigation is not a court proceeding, and even the most careful, scrupulously-clean procedure is still vulnerable to political interference. That is one of Ellen Schrecker's points in No Ivory Tower: The fact that universities often paid meticulous attention to procedural niceties when investigating allegations in the McCarthy era did not absolve them from having responded to outside pressure and having dismissed faculty for political reasons. Given our history, who could expect faculty to pass over the political context of the Churchill investigation?

At virtually every step, the faculty involved in Colorado have taken pains to acknowledge that context and say they did their best to address the substantive charges fairly. After racking my brains to find some way that the University of Colorado could have addressed the substantive charges without the political shadow over an investigation, I have failed; there is no way around the political context, no way to purify the process.

Having said that, I find the investigating committee's report persuasive in its argument that Churchill engaged in a long-term, unrepetant pattern of unprofessional research misconduct. Are the delay between the political pressures and the investigation, the faculty-centered fact-finding, and the processes enough to make the recommendation for firing Churchill reasonable? Unless someone can suggest another way, my answer is yes, or at least, this is the best that can be done.

That entirely ad-hoc answer doesn't mean that I am happy with the way that politics was deeply involved with setting the investigation in motion. It does mean that the university had the obligation to respond to the substantive charges, and unless Churchill's remaining defenders can suggest an alternative procedure that would have been better (and I haven't yet seen such a suggestion), the faculty-driven fact-finding process used was reasonable.

Having made that judgment, I am well aware that there could be politically-motivated allegations of research misconduct lodged regularly against faculty. Of course that's a possibility, but a few facts should put this concern in perspective. First, external, politically-motivated allegations against faculty are rarely about research integrity. Historically, they have been about extramural statements or activities (or teaching, more recently). Second, I would guess that there are politically-motivated allegations of research misconduct every year, but I would also hazard a claim that they are generally filed by other academics. Third, some argue that universities do not pay enough serious attention to legitimate allegations of research misconduct. None of these are salutary, but the larger point is that all investigations require attention to both procedural and substantive due process and the facts of a case. There is no magic formula for guaranteeing either integrity or academic freedom.

Update: Sometimes, I should look up what I've written before. In this case, it's useful to compare my entry today with one written May 18, 2006. I was more concise last spring. But no one has answered the question I raised then, as well as today: If the University of Colorado's process here was inappropriate, what would have been better?

May 30, 2007

Under scrutiny

In this morning's IHE article on Ward Churchill, we read one of the two serious arguments put forward by Churchill's defenders:

James Craven, a professor of economics at Clark College, in Washington State, said that Churchill was subjected to a level of scrutiny that few professors have ever faced or could withstand. "How many scholars could have their own work vetted as his was?" said Craven.

Without addressing motives and the horrible traffic-stop analogy that has been floating around the blogosphere in the last day or two, we can look at this as a separate issue, or rather two: as an empirical question of whether all scholars' work is as flawed as Churchill's and as a more general question of what type of scrutiny is appropriate when questions arise about any scholar's work.

First, to the empirical question: Could my work or that of most of my peers withstand the type of scrutiny that Churchill's had? I think the answer is easily. The problems that the peer reviews found at the University of Colorado were not matters of the occasional citation flub or typographical error, the missing acknowledgment of a peer or the "why don't you look at X's work?" question that is common in article manuscript reviews and in book reviews (if conjugated in the latter with the regretful past indicative instead of the suggestive imperative interrogatory). Churchill's errors were crucial to his intepretation, repeated, deliberate, and uncorrected.

Above all else, the last quality is what separates you and me and the birds from Mr. Churchill. If someone points out a mistake to me, or if I see it myself, I've tried to find some way to acknowledge and correct the error. If someone is truly after my hide, I will trust that my various attempts at errata will protect me from allegations of misdeeds if not criticism. And that's the difference between a legitimate investigation and a witch-hunt: a witch-hunt doesn't care about the evidence.

More generally, I'm not sure we can say what level of scrutiny is appropriate when conducting investigations, except to say that such an investigation is necessarily going to be broad-ranging and, er, um, usually will rely on published sources, material that we academics have written and sent out there to be read. Yes, boys and girls and grad students, the published work of academics is public. Despite some lingering doubts in the occasional subspecialty with 2-3 experts in the entire world, we generally write stuff that we want people to read, perhaps even understand. Under most circumstances, we would be highly flattered if someone read every one of our writings carefully.

The consequence of this small but important fact of academic life is that we have no complaints when our stuff is read closely. Apart from the occasional typographical error introduced by typesetting, the flaws in my writing are my fault, and I have no one to blame if someone actually reads it.

May 29, 2007

Ward, redux(ionist)

University of Colorado President has drafted a letter that would recommend that the university regents fire Ward Churchill. I'll admit that the comment on IHE's story by "Frizbane Manley" is hilarious, far better than any of Churchill's writings. I hereby recommend that Manley get tenure as a IHE commentator.

Oh, wait. You probably were expecting me to comment on the situation, right? Churchill fabricated, falsified, and plagiarized. Firing him wouldn't be awful, nor would a 5-year suspension without pay or a 2-year suspension without pay combined with stripping him of tenure and returning him to assistant professor status where he'd have to earn tenure just like he did origi— Oh, wait.  Right. End that last sentence after he'd have to earn tenure.

May 22, 2007

More on Haleh Esfandiari

The Iranian government's actions are getting far uglier in the case of Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian-American scholar who was detained after visiting her elderly mother. See more by Manan Ahmed and Engage, as well as the Free Haleh site (sponsored by the American Islamic Congress).

May 15, 2007

Iran arrests Haleh Esfandiari

Human Rights Watch is reporting the detention of the head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars's Middle East program. She went to Iran to visit her mother and had her passports robbed shortly before she was to return, subjected to questioning when she asked for replacement travel documents, and then arrested a week ago.

As Jeff Weintraub notes, Esfandiari's arrest fits into a larger pattern of Iran's arresting intellectuals with dual citizenship in the West.

May 14, 2007

Mis-Remembering Title IX

The debate over the 2005 reinterpretation of college athletic applications of Title IX tends to avoid acknowledging the truth: the higher-ed athletic application of Title IX is only one part of what Title IX's prohibition on gender discrimination touched, and it's probably the least important large chunk of Title IX's effects. In the decade before Title IX's passage as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, ...

  • Schools could slot students into program by sex and could make programs differentially available by sex (classically, home economics for girls and shop for boys, or higher math and science just for boys)
  • High schools expelled pregnant students and students who had given birth (I know: it still happens today, but it's clearly illegal)
  • Administrators were not held responsible for looking the other way when teachers discriminated based on sex
  • A small fraction of administrators were female
  • Many K-12 schools had no athletic programs for girls

Unless I explain these facts to students, many assume that Title IX only affects athletics and the debate over single-sex education. But in the broad sweep, Title IX has been remarkably successful in the core areas of academics and providing professional opportunities. So I'm torn over the current debate. Yes, athletic opportunities matter, but not as much as academic opportunities.

May 8, 2007

Who steals the joy from reading?

My favorite lines from Timothy Burke's latest blog are at the end:

You can't get back to loving reading by cheerless attacks on whatever academic fashion annoys you. Love and pleasure require generosity. No miser will ever know them as they can be known.

On the other hand, while I suspect that's a sidelong swipe at a recent ACTA report, and even though that report deserves such swipes, I think Burke is subtly wrong. Yes, we sometimes fetishize exegesis and various forms of textual criticism. But I'm not sure that's a matter of what we teach (ACTA's focus) so much as how we teach.

There's also a difference between the environment in which Burke teaches (Swarthmore, one of the premier liberal-arts colleges) and where most faculty teach. When I took a sociology of education course from David Karens at Bryn Mawr (I was a student at Haverford), he assigned us six books plus a handful of articles for an undergraduate course. There, a full load was four courses. Where I teach, at a regional state university campus, the "full load" is five courses, and many students work far longer hours than my classmates 20+ years ago. If I tried to assign about six books' worth of material to undergraduates... well, let's just say I assign approximately three books' worth of reading material.

Ah, but Burke points out that it's quality that counts, not quantity? I suspect there's a minimum critical mass for the material to stick and start growing in interaction with student minds (quick quiz: who knows where the term apperceptive mass started from?).

No, I don't have solutions, just concerns and unresolved tensions.  Life between terms, I suppose.

May 2, 2007

Robert M. Franklin at Morehouse

Robert M. Franklin is the new president for Morehouse College, something that is of more importance to people than one might think for the presidency of a private liberal-arts college.  Morehouse is an all-male college that is one of the elite historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Franklin's view of the presidency as a moral leader is a provocative argument, less for its substance (his idea of holding monthly chapel discussions fits with his theology background) than for the time management involved. Most private-college presidents spend the bulk of their time fundraising, especially so with HBCUs.

Complicating the picture is the fact that two of the nation's HBCUs (Dillard University and Florida A&M) are facing severe funding problems, Dillard because of Katrina and Florida A&M because of a problem with internal fiscal controls that appears to keep rolling along. Dillard needs the federal government to step in and fill the gap, especially with repairing student dormitories. I hope Florida A&M's fortunes will turn around with the coming of its new president, who had to deal with fiscal problems at North Carolina Central University. But apart from existing funding networks with loyalties to specific institutions, any leader of the other HBCUs (Morehouse, Spelman, Fisk, Bethune-Cookman, etc.) will be competing with the obvious issues at Dillard and Florida A&M.

So here is my best wishes to Franklin and Morehouse: may there be enough time for those monthly discussions! s

May 1, 2007

On Marilee Jones, resume-padding, and credentialism

Kevin Carey, meet Margaret Soltan. I'll buy the coffees if you'll have an entertaining discussion, okay?

(I should've included the following in the entry originally...)

Carey and Soltan have very different, very interesting slices on the Marilee Jones firing (for her lying about her education to get the MIT Admissions Dean's job many years ago). Carey sees it as evidence of the problems with credentialism. Soltan see such an excuse (though she was criticizing Barbara Ehrenreich's essay, not Carey) as muddy thinking about the purpose of higher education.

To me, the issue in the firing of Jones is fundamentally about trustworthiness. If someone lies to get a job, regardless of past performance, how can one put critical tasks in her or his hand in the future? Kevin Carey would like to believe that Jones's performance wipes out that error. I suspect Carey would not go to a "doctor" who was recently exposed as a fraud, though thousands of patients were happy with her or him. (This type of case occasionally appears.) 

Update: In a new twist, the Boston Globe revealed that Marilee Jones did have a degree, just not from any of the places she mentioned to MIT: an undergraduate degree from the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York.

April 29, 2007

Corporate donors and universities

From the cutting-room floor: Adam Emerson and I talked for about half an hour last weekend while he was preparing today's article, Corporate U, and I think he did a nice job of putting the corporate sponsorship of one university program into a broader national contemporary perspective. I shouldn't be surprised that the historical perspective was left out (he quotes me far down in the story), but I thought I gave him the best statement on the history: "If you look just at the names of major universities like Leland Stanford University or Carnegie Mellon University, you'll understand that wealthy philanthropic influence on universities have a long history." I don't know if I said exactly those words, but it was close.

The other gripe is also minor: he quoted me on a general concern about the influence on the curriculum but not on the two questions I have in general:

  • Did a donor have substantive influence on the shape of the curriculum, or did the faculty sponsors determine the shape?
  • Did a program go through a university approval process controlled by faculty?

In talking with him, I said that there was no problem with professional programs having close relationships with the field, and many faculty have an obligation to keep close ties to practitioners, but that there was a difference between consulting with practitioners and turning your curriculum over to them. In this particular program, faculty seemed genuinely enthusiastic when they came to USF's undergraduate council, and I suspect they would have told Emerson that while they value Jordan Zimmerman's enthusiasm and support, they determine the curriculum. From what I understand, the program had existed for a number of years; this was a revision, not the creation of an entirely new entity.

Given that in the USF case, the program in question is advertising, I'm not surprised that the donor wants to claim far more influence than I suspect faculty would say he had.  After all, he wants to make a case for his own influence.

Where's Waldo... uh, Shakespeare?

Why I love reading Miriam Burstein (aka the Little Professor): detail and perspective in response to ACTA's flawed Vanishing Shakespeare paper. The comments are thought-provoking, too.

April 24, 2007

Nicholas Winset

An emerging academic freedom case at Emmanuel College is about a somewhat iconoclastic accounting adjunct who followed the college's advice to talk about Virginia Tech last week and then was fired for what happened in the classroom. At first glance, I wouldn't want to be an Emmanuel official defending their decision.

April 20, 2007

Still processing what happened at Virginia Tech

For some reason, I wasn't really hit by the murders at Virginia Tech until Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Students, faculty, staff, administrators, and parents around the country are realizing that we don't have walls around most campuses, and we tend to trust the people who are walking around campus. In the middle of rural Virginia, everyone at Virginia Tech must have felt safer than those at most campuses. The first response in Florida and elsewhere is to identify the obvious holes in security: not enough police officers on campus, not enough counselors, insufficient communications for emergencies. The other issues will take longer.

I have no great wisdom to offer, and I think it'll take a while to figure this out.

April 17, 2007

Liviu Librescu

Margaret Soltan pointed out that several of those killed at Virginia Tech were faculty, including mechanical engineering professor Liviu Librescu. In this day of Facebook and university webpages, those cut down at Virginia Tech have an instant memorial. A survivor of the Holocaust and with more honors than most faculty can hope for, Librescu was still teaching at 76 and blocked the doorway to save his students.


April 16, 2007

When is suspending a faculty member appropriate?

This morning's IHE story about Michael D'Andrea's paid suspension from the University of Hawaii Manoa (UHM) and ban from contacting colleagues raises tricky questions about the definition of discipline at a university and the appropriate treatment of faculty under investigation. From the apparent context of the case, it's clear that UHM is in the middle of attempting to document just cause to fire D'Andrea and that the administration faced what they considered a hard choice during the investigation. But the existence of hard choices does not justify any decision, and I'll explain below why this smells strongly of lawyering HR defensiveness more than an academic decision.

Technically, the UHM administration did not suspend D'Andrea but reassigned him to work from home. On the other hand, he was removed from classes; not given a substitute assignment; prohibited from coming to campus except to the university laboratory school for his child; prohibited from using his e-mail; asked to return his parking pass, office keys, all student work; and told not to contact anyone in his college except his significant other. All of this was apparently done without a hearing, though the IHE article is silent on whether there was an investigation that would satisfy the tests of just cause (University of Iowa HR version or the University of Missouri Labor Education version), in particular whether it gave D'Andrea a chance to respond to allegations.

The first concern I would have is the implications of the prohibition on using e-mail or access to the library for a faculty member's professional life. Access to library facilities and e-mail is critical to many faculty members' research. It's how we conduct research and communicate with our colleagues. There is no evidence of whether UHM is forwarding D'Andrea's e-mail to a private address or whether alternative arrangements are being made for his access to support that faculty normally have. Since he's in counselor education, a logical question is whether this "reassignment" is preventing his access to research participants on campus. For other disciplines, other questions would be relevant. It is this step that clearly interrupts one's career activities that makes me suspect the letter was drafted and directed by a lawyer with no clue to academic life.

The second concern is the pretense that this "reassignment" is not discipline. Without more information, I have to place this in a gray area in terms of what I can see in the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly collective bargaining agreement language, which has elaborate procedures for suspensions and firings and has a vague catch-all section for other discipline actions. The common-sense interpretation of UHM's actions is that it is discipline, given the stigmatizing effect of barring someone from campus and removing her or him from teaching until some clearly-ongoing investigation is concluded. (At least theoretically, D'Andrea could have taught from home using distance-learning techniques, so there was a clear choice not to keep his teaching assignment intact instead of that interruption flowing automatically from his ban from campus.)

So what is an administration to do if there appears to be a bona fide disruption/safety issue with a faculty member? It depends on the circumstances, but there are option that UHM didn't choose:

  • If there is a documented expectation of some violence, UHM could and should go to court to get a restraining order. Period. That would require the presentation of evidence and contain due process procedures (if not under the control of the administration). I have occasionally heard administrators hold out the criminalization of bad faculty behavior as something no one should want. But if there is a well-founded basis for expecting criminal behavior, you don't handle it administratively; you go through the courts, which comprise the proper channel.
  • If the issue is a violation of collegiality so severe that it becomes a discipline issue, the administration always has the choice of bringing in a faculty member, explaining the allegations that have been raised, promising a fair investigation, and explaining very clearly the consequences if the faculty member takes any action that could be interpreted as retalitation or intimidation. Having a union on campus is a help to the administration in this regard, not a hindrance. If I were in this position, I'd make sure a union rep is sitting in the room, listening to the entire spiel, because it's the union rep who's in the best position later to explain to the faculty member why intimidation or retaliation would be stupid. If UHM was banning D'Andrea from campus from a concern that he would immediately start a manipulative campaign against whoever his accusers are, they're engaging in a type of prior restraint, a "we're not going to let you talk to peers in fears of what you might say" decision. (To be honest, if the expected behavior is a manipulative campaign, then couldn't UHM essentially invite him to seal his own fate in that way?)
  • If the concern is about a faculty member's mental state (e.g., a psychotic episode or hypomania), then the appropriate step would depend on the person and circumstances and requires some knowledge of mental illness, but apart from true safety emergencies, a leave of absence seems far more appropriate than UHM's actions. (See Mark Grimsley's column on working in academe with bipolar disorder for examples of sensitive, appropriate collegial responses to troubling behavior.)

There is a provision in our own collective bargaining agreement at USF which allows a paid suspension of a faculty member during an investigation. That provision is silent as to the faculty member's access to university facilities during the suspension or appropriate accommodation to satisfy the reasonable interests of all parties. What is not appropriate is to interrupt the professional life of a faculty member, fail to accommodate legitimate interests in the middle of an investigation, and then pretend that the constellation of choices was not disciplinary in effect.

April 1, 2007

E-mail early April 1, 2007


The following is a draft agenda for the April 6 chapter meeting. Please let me know if there are things that need to be added and deleted. Please also remember that this is my initials agenda, and as the saying goes, "Any president really is like falling off open lake systems."


  1. Approval of agenda
  2. Bargaining update
  3. Getting some union thugs for Sherman
  4. Next year's chapter priorities
  5. Completely irresponsible statements go here
  6. Other reports
    1. Grievances
    2. Gripes
    3. Communications
    4. Miscommunications
    5. Excommunications
    6. Treasurer
    7. Waste
    8. Membership
    9. Committee for the Reform of the Task Force to Restructure Committees
  7. Other business
  8. Funny business
  9. For the good of the order

A new education union blog!

At the risk of spreading myself too thin, I'll now be contributing to the new Faculty Voices at USF blog. I'll have to twist a few colleagues' arms to write for it, but there are a number of reasons why the blog now exists for the chapter.

March 23, 2007

The yoke's on me

My fellow faculty union members elected me chapter president for the next year. So why do the by-laws stipulate that I take office on April Fool's Day? 

I've already received congratulations and condolences from several colleagues, and I hope my judgment over the next year justifies the selection.

Jeb Bush denied honorary diploma

The Gainesville Sun is reporting that the University of Florida faculty senate has denied a request that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush receive an honorary degree. According to the story, several people who either nominated Bush or fear retribution are steamed. We'll see if the fears of political retribution are validated.

This also provides an interesting dilemma for new Governor Charlie Crist, who has committed himself to a much more conciliatory style than Bush had but has also said that he opposes any tuition or fee increases (including the Gators administration's request for $1000/yr extra for the state's flagship university). Does he intercede to buffer the university from political retribution, or does he look the other way and say that he didn't intercede because he was opposed to the university administration's proposal before, and he's focusing on the issues?

March 20, 2007

More on higher-ed student databases

John Lombardi follows Cliff Adelman to the discussion of unit records and such. At the moment, my ideas on anonymous diploma registration are being left in the dust or on the shelf by the bigwigs. (That's how things go...)

November 14, 2005

Al-Arian and academic freedom, redux

Greg McColm and my article, A University’s Dilemma in the Age of National Security (PDF), is now out in the National Education Association Thought and Action Fall 2005 issue (pp. 163-77). We've been working on this for over two years or, rather, Greg has done the vast bulk of the work and I've been putting in chip shots, academically speaking. He deserves any credit for clever turns of phrase as well as persistence that many other academics don't have. It's a little different from what we submitted but that's life with editing. Among other things that I've learned in working on this article is that some disciplines don't have standard citation styles because the rival proprietary journals have different ones, so the standard is to use the citation style of the source that material came from. But I'm sure that's not why you're going to read the full entry, which is about the criminal trial that's entering its concluding stage this week. Note: the article itself is unrelated to the trial, since it was written well before the trial started. Its appearance at the close of the trial is just coincidence.

This week, the prosecution will rebut the case raised by the lawyers for the four defendants. Al-Arian's team rested without presenting witnesses, but the others presented a few witnesses each before the summations. Journalists have described the summaries in essence as a battle over circumstantial evidence. Are the disparate pieces suggesting funding links between the defendants and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad enough to show that they raised money for PIJ with the intent to support the specific organizational mechanics of terrorism (and not just ancillary activities of PIJ)? There are bound to be appeals upon any convictions (and the several hundred pages of jury instructions, along with the dozens of decisions Judge Moody made in the course of the trial, will be fodder for them), but this seems to be the central question of the conspiracy and terrorism charges. (The other charges, about fraudulent immigration applications, is a whole other kettle of fish, and journalists haven't touched those at all, at least as far as I can tell.)

I haven't been sitting in the jury box, so I don't know the full evidence and won't comment on the key question. I'm sure that if there is a conviction, many will claim that the conviction is proof that the administration of USF did the right thing by trying to fire Al-Arian before indictment and by firing him right afterwards. That is essentially an argument that the end result of a criminal trial justifies the employment actions of a university. In some cases, where the basic facts are known before trial, that might well be the case. But I'm not so sure it holds here, with Al-Arian—not because he's anything like an angel. Far from it. But there are a few points that remain, specific to the trial:

  1. The firing of Al-Arian after the indictment was a purely symbolic and political act. There was no payroll difference for the university between an unpaid leave of absence during a trial, at the end of which a conviction ends the job, and firing a professor after indictment. In both cases, the defendant is unpaid.
  2. Many of the factual assumptions of Al-Arian's critics turned out to be in error, especially if you agree with the prosecution's case. In the early 1990s, Al-Arian wasn't adding to PIJ coffers, from all reports of the prosecution case that I've read. Instead, he was desperately seeking to raid PIJ accounts to support the think-tank he had co-founded. This prosecution claim doesn't necessarily obviate their central point, but it is related to the criticism of Al-Arian that he was using his employment at USF as a cover to legitimate the funding of terrorism. He may well have used his employment at USF as a mechanism to start a think-tank with delusions of Palestinian intelligentsia gravitas, eventually willing to propose various financial mechanisms to keep it afloat. (This is detail from the prosecution's case, detail that Al-Arian's lawyers may or may not dispute.)
  3. The immigration-fraud charges are a safety-valve for the federal government. If Al-Arian and the other defendants are acquitted on the more serious charges but are convicted on the fraud charges (which I am guessing have a lower threshold to prove), those convictions will be powerful tools at deportation hearings, which (I am also guessing) would proceed on a track parallel to the appeals of any criminal convictions. A fraud charge may not carry lengthy prison time beyond what the defendants have already served before trial, but such convictions could be used in deportation hearings. The end result might well be an even more complicated legal mess than some of my friends and colleagues are predicting.
  4. If there is no conviction or deportation order left standing at the end of the day, there is still Al-Arian's grievance against his firing. The USF administration's decision to fire Al-Arian on his indictment hinges on the legitimacy of that indictment, whose counts changed before trial, and (if it comes back to an employment case) would necessarily be a matter of not being proven in a court of law, at least as far as the law is concerned. The machinations to fire Al-Arian before indictment might well be used by Al-Arian's civil lawyer(s) as evidence that the termination decision was pretextual. And Al-Arian's civil lawyer in 2003 filed a pro-forma grievance under administrative rules passed by our Board of Trustees under the assumption that the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the faculty union was void, an assumption that Florida's courts have now made invalid. One more mess to consider.
  5. If there is no standing conviction or deportation order at the end of all this, and there is a university grievance process that results in upholding Al-Arian's dismissal, the AAUP investigation of USF will probably become active again. In the summer of 2003, staff and members of Committee A reported to the annual meeting that under AAUP procedures, universities were given more due process than they usually give faculty: a university's hearing process had to be concluded (or none started) for AAUP to officially censure the administration. Because USF's administration and Al-Arian's lawyer agreed to suspend the process for a post-termination grievance pending the outcome of a criminal trial, AAUP's staff and Committee A leadership concluded that the annual meeting could not fairly consider the censuring of USF's administration. But if Al-Arian is freed and the grievance proceeds, then that stoppage on AAUP action is lifted (at least as I read the AAUP process). That doesn't guarantee censure, but it does make some discussion within AAUP highly likely, at least in the annual meeting.
  6. For those who long argued for Al-Arian's termination, before an indictment, I wonder if they considered the likely results (at least until an indictment): a man as a cause celebre, with loads of time on his hands to raise funds for Palestinian causes. If those causes included terrorism,...
  7. For those who long argued for Al-Arian's termination, and who are delighted that Al-Arian is on trial, I wonder if they thought that federal agents were better or worse at investigation than university administrators, or if in retrospect they preferred that the administration hire private investigators, who could possibly have interfered with or discovered the clandestine wiretaps of the feds.

Since Al-Arian's lawyer filed his post-termination grievance in 2003 using non-union procedures, the United Faculty of Florida (my faculty union) is out of the loop officially regardless of the results of the trial, any deportation hearings, or the grievance process. Of course, I'm not ruling anything out given the twists and turns of all this. My longstanding concern here has been with the long-term consequences of administration actions on faculty morale and the university environment, and while there are many things that are operating significantly better today than almost four years ago, this episode is another patch of tarnish on USF's history. The administrators and trustees who served in late 2001-early 2003 may not have been responsible for all of the things coming at them, but they made enough errors to contribute to problems. Until someone convinces me otherwise, I think the university would have been better off waiting until an indictment and putting Al-Arian on unpaid leave until the end of the trial (and subsequence proceedings) or waiting for evidence that would clearly justify discipline or termination on its face. The guy is no model of university citizenship, but that's not the entire question here.

Correction (7:30 a.m., Tuesday): It looks like the jury instructions only took three hours for the judge to read. Deliberations start today.

May 21, 2005

Al-Arian and symbolism

Now that Judge James Moody has identified a jury for the trial of Sami Al-Arian and three codefendants, it's time for a little reflection on the choices made by USF administrators over the past decade and a little perspective on the meaning of the trial for academic freedom, if there is any. The book I'm writing, Scholar-Citizen, will discuss the case at USF (what do you think started the idea of writing a book in the first place?), but that's one of many incidents in the book. I'll put some broader thoughts together about the case here and over the course of the trial.

A few disclaimers first: I will not take a position on Al-Arian's guilt or innocence. In the next week, I'll explain the relevance of any verdict for the university, but this is about the case on the campus. In addition, my colleague Greg McColm has a much stronger grasp than I on the details of Al-Arian's time at USF (or maybe I should say the details of and allegations about his employment), and is still keeping up a huge repository of information at the on-campus faculty union web site. He'll be the primary author of an article on Al-Arian, USF, due process, and faculty governance that will be appearing in a journal sometime in the next year.

So, to the issue today: Why did some faculty and many Tampa residents want USF to fire Al-Arian long before his indictment on charges that he helped finance the Palestinian Islamic Jihad? In 1994 and 1995, a PBS video and newspaper articles in the Tampa Tribune alleged that Al-Arian had helped finance terrorism, and that USF's formal relationship with the World Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE) (that Al-Arian had co-founded a few years before) legitimized a slew of activities that were mixed up with the direct and indirect financing of terrorism. USF cut off that relationship in June 1995 and suspended Al-Arian for pay in 1996 during a formal investigation, and then reinstated him to teaching in 1998 after the investigation stated that there was insufficient cause to fire Al-Arian (as part of a broader report into the relationship with WISE). While the controversy over Al-Arian heated up again in 2001 when Al-Arian appeared on the FoxNews "O'Reilly Factor," in reality the local controversy had begun several years before. (See Greg's chronology for a summary timeline of related events.)

I do not think that my neighbors and the minority of my colleagues who wanted Al-Arian fired before 2001 really thought that doing so would end his activities. They're smart enough to know that he would have become a cause celebré, with plenty of time on his hands to raise more money if that's what he did with his free time. Nor do I think that anyone really thought that USF was better equipped to investigate criminal activity than the FBI. Nor, for that matter, was anyone willing to say that anything goes in trying to stop Al-Arian's non-work activities, or at least no one behaved as if they believed it. As far as I'm aware, no one tried to assassinate him (which would be the logical step to take if you really thought Al-Arian financed terrorism and if you really believed that someone other than the justice system should take direct responsibility for action). And, in the end, after all the pretexts put forward in 2001 and 2002, USF fired Al-Arian after he was imprisoned.

So no one could have thoughtfully proposed that USF fire Sami Al-Arian as one step to fight terrorism. Instead, the pressure to fire Al-Arian was largely symbolic: To many who live in Tampa, the presence of Al-Arian shamed USF in some way, and paying him a salary was a violation of USF's moral obligations. There are two pieces of this claim, both the argument that a publicly-funded institution has additional obligations not to hire shady characters as faculty, simply because they are publicly funded, and also the argument about a university's moral obligations.

The first argument is about public funding and has been used repeatedly as a justification to fire unpopular faculty at state universities, from William Schaper at the University of Minnesota in 1917 to Al-Arian to Ward Churchill in 2005. (See Carol Gruber's Mars and Minerva for Schaper's case.) But there are both legal and ethical reasons why this purse-strings argument is untrue. Legally, governments are under First Amendment restrictions in its hiring and firing practices. A private university has far more legal leeway to fire a faculty member for the faculty member's public statements and off-campus activities than a public university (even where doing so would violate principles of academic freedom).

More fundamentally, however, he who pays the piper does not call the tune in professional relationships. When we bought our home, we had a buyer's agent. The buyer's agent was paid 2.5 or 3 percent of the purchase price, and that money came from the seller. Even though the seller was paying our agent, our agent had no obligation to maximize the purchase price. In fact, her fiduciary obligation was ethically and legally to us—to give us the best advice on buying a good house at the lowest cost. In many areas of business, fiduciary obligations are guided by a professional-client relationship, not by who pays the professional.

Even if we were to accept that professors should pay heed to whoever pays the bills, it is unclear how we should decide matters where there might be a conflict. The legislature gives operating money to the university, but my students also pay fees. What should I do when a student performs poorly in a course? The student might say, "I paid tuition. I should get the course credit." But most of my fellow taxpayers would probably say the opposite. Both are paying for my salary. If I followed the money, I would have no clear guidance.

So the identity of whoever pays my check is generally irrelevant to my professional obligations as a faculty member and irrelevant to the central institutional obligations of a college or university. (I am not arguing that there are not accountability issues with public funding in terms of tracking the funding, following state laws, following the state and federal constitutions, etc. Nor am I saying that administrators should ignore state legislators. This matter is about the core principles of any college or university.)

After disposing of the claims that USF could have fought terrorism by firing Al-Arian or that it was obliged by its publicly-funded status to fire Al-Arian, we are left with the argument that a university has a moral obligation to maintain clean hands in its hiring practices and to be willing to fire faculty against whom there are serious allegations of immoral actions off campus. The difference between me and my colleagues and neighbors who believe this argument is that we have different ideas about a university's basic obligations. It is not about fighting terrorism, and it is not about public funding. At its core, a university's core principles is what the argument about Al-Arian and USF is all about.

February 3, 2005

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.