June 11, 2010

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.

December 11, 2009

Questions while procrastinating while grading

The Friday-at-the-end-of-finals-week edition...

  • Did President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize speech as a wartime president demonstrate that irony is not dead, or what? 
  • Is the last question rhetorical, or what?
  • Is Hannukah a holiday that celebrates energy efficiency, oil wars, or insurgencies?
  • Why do no schools have a food as a mascot (e.g., the Souffles)? (My tablemate at this 'bucks is finishing up the last class for her associates' degree this very hour and thinking about culinary school. That plus my memories of latkes prompted this Very Serious Research Question.)
  • Why do the three colleges with narrative evaluations that I have visited (UC Santa Cruz, Evergreen State College, and New College of Florida) all have odd mascots (respectively, the banana slug, the geoduck, and the null set [Article 11(a)])?
  • Is the fact that no Starbucks brews decaf in the evening a demonstration that the market works, or that it doesn't?
  • What was the metaphor for faculty moving to administration before the 1977 opening of the first Star Wars movie--i.e., in the b.t.D.S.t. (before the Dark Side trope) days?
  • Has anyone else seen the parallel between Tolkien's One Ring and the General Services Administration General Form 152 (the "Request for Clearance or Cancellation of a Standard or Optional Form")? One form to rule them all,/ one to authorize them./ One to make us fill them out/ and in the night despise them.

Have a good weekend, all! I'll be attending a recital tomorrow, but the rest is all work or chore.

October 30, 2009

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 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.

And now, a break from the normal type of entry on this blog

Wow (backup for citation, since the Nobel's servers are slammed right now). In the perennial struggle to decide whether the Nobel Peace Prize should be a Courage Award or a Behavioral Reinforcement for Moving in the Right Direction, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee used the 2009 award for the latter. I think the prize committee gave the award prematurely, though, even given its tendency to want to reward positive motion. Don't you think they should have waited at least for the third miracle?

I apologize for the attempt to channel Peter Sagal, but since Wait wait! Don't tell me! is recorded on Thursdays for the Saturday broadcast, I either have to wait 8 more days for the Inevitable Best Quip on Obama, hope he puts something interesting into his Twitter feed, or make it up on my own. And I do think that the Nobel choice seems obviously political; the other two presidents who have received one in office (Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson) had at least done some concrete stuff internationally. Never mind that Wilson's grand idea flopped on several levels, but at least he had done something concrete internationally. Obama's primary achievements thus far have been in domestic policy. I gave money to his campaign and worked and voted for him, but this seems, I don't know... a little too early to recognize what is thus far essentially a policy of "We're not John Bolton."

The political fallout from this is entirely unknown, but I can hardly wait for the talk-radio reaction as well as the reaction from those who feel as if they should have gotten it instead. On my drive to work, I heard a big bang that sounded like it was coming from very far away. I'm not sure if I was hearing Glenn Beck's or Bill Clinton's head explode, but someone is surely going apoplectic this morning.

And there is no truth to the rumor that the following was part of the internal correspondence for the Nobel Peace Prize Committee:

Dear Thorby,

I think we need a more honest citation than the second draft you circulated yesterday, something like the following: After giving due consideration to all the nominees who had given their freedom or health for the improvement of their fellows, or who had accomplished amazing acts of diplomacy, we have decided to award the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to someone who is just too cool to ignore, an American President who mesmerizes us with complete sentences and proper grammar in his own language, who remembers books he has read, who understands that international diplomacy requires as much seduction as force, who probably knows that a real ranch has to have cattle and not just a bunch of dead bushes to clear, and whom we really, really hope will play hoops with us when he comes to Oslo in December. We even promise to clear the snow off the court.

Oh, and can we have the Ceremony this year with everyone in Speedos?

I stand corrected on one important item: Obama did have this small achievement in July. But that's not mentioned explicitly in the Nobel citation, probably because they didn't want to let the Guy Who Is Not Putin share the award. And reducing nuclear warheads is not nearly as important as being able to hit net at 25 feet. Er, 8 meters.

September 5, 2009

Alterknit educashun polticks

In the alternate reality where pundits and talk-show hosts live, Barack Obama is not going to say Tuesday that students have a personal responsibility to work hard in school. Somehow this is indoctrination, or maybe unseemly politicking for all the 7-year-olds who will be voting in 2012. Though Richard Whitmire and many others are scratching their heads on this one, putative social conservatives evidently don't want to echo the fundamentally conservative point Obama will make: put yourselves to work and get a stake in society. 

Do I really need to explain why the paranoid style of education politics is supremely nutty?

Rising health-care costs are all my fault

It's true. See what this "friend" wrote me some weeks ago:

Oh, so you're the guy who's driving up everyone's premiums with your insatiable demands for weekly colonoscopies.

Don't worry: the TMI in the full entry is about insurance companies, not what the doctors found.


Thanks to family medical history, my regular doctor and I had decided early this year that a colonoscopy was warranted at the tender age of 44. Not exactly fun, from everything I'd heard, but I'd rather have a day or two of inconvenience than colon cancer. So I [the details of the procedure have been redacted except for this completely accurate depiction by Dave Barry for reasons of national security; trust us on this one, you don't want to know--your neighborhood NSA guys]. No problem--benign! Okay, I'll have to return in a few years.

A few weeks later, I received an explanation-of-benefits sheet from my insurance company saying they had paid $mumbledy to the place where I had my colonoscopy. (By the way, did you know that March is Colonoscopy Awareness Month? I always wondered why that's the first half of the regular Florida legislative session.) Okay, I thought: that's the facility. What about the doctors?

No problem! A few weeks later I received another explanation-of-benefits sheet, with no payment to the GI. None. Zip. "You're too young to know," was the explanation at the bottom. No, it wasn't: they said that they wouldn't cover preventive colon care before I was 50. A few days later, another nonexplanation of nonpayment, this time to the anesthesiologist.

Puzzled, I called my insurer. The explanation: "The diagnosis code does not fit with an allowable expense." I suspect the real explanation was three times as wordy and I have shortened it as a result of the lasting mental trauma I experienced. I explained in response: I've got a family history that justifies a colonoscopy. "The diagnosis code does not fit with an allowable expense, and you've got an ugly nose, too." I explained a little more: not only did I have a family history, but the GI removed a polyp. How could it be unnecessary if they found something? "The diagnosis code does not fit with an allowable expense, you've got an ugly nose, and your sister's one, too." I explained further: not only did I have a family history and the GI removed a polyp, but the insurance company had paid for the facilities charge. "Oh, yeah, and see if your doctor can change the diagnosis code."

Well, that went over like a ton of Rush Limbaugh with the accounting department in the medical group. "So they're asking us to commit fraud?" was the response. We talked for a few minutes, commiserated, and then I sent in an appeal to the insurer. I explained that few people volunteer for colonoscopies, I sent a copy of a report from one of my close relatives that triggered the decision for me and had the handy notation right in the report to the attending physician, "Make sure that all of this patient's close relatives get a lifetime supply of MoviPrep because they'll use it," and to make sure that they ignored my appeal with full knowledge, I triple-checked the right address before mailing it in.

And in a few weeks, regular as clockwork, the post office delivered a new explanation-of-benefits charge with a payment to the GI. Woohoo! Except not so fast! There's this small matter of the anesthesiologist, who for some strange reason had his own accounting department. (I'm beginning to think that this is the result of midlife crises for doctors. "What'd you get, a Porsche?" "No, an accounting department." "With racing trim?")

So I thought a bit and asked some friends: what is the rationale for an insurance company paying for a surgical procedure but not for the anesthesiology? That's like listening to Sean Hannity without earplugs or watching the Miami Heat last year with any knowledge of how one should play the game called "basketball." I called up the insurer (yet once more) and after a bunch of "get them to change the diagnosis code" calls and a few detours, the customer service rep put me on hold for, oh, 40 hours. Okay, about 40 minutes instead. And said that he'd fixed it. I obtained some critical details and then called up the anesthesiologist. I talked with the accounts receivable staff, commiserated, and then passed along every bit of information I could so she could file the second appeal (which she volunteered to do). And now, finally, everything is paid.

... but for a few salient facts, such as the time I spent resolving this, the time two doctors' offices spent, and the fact that I was able to appeal successfully because I know how to work a bureaucracy. And in a just world, you should not have to have a graduate degree and several books that touch on bureaucracies to have it all work out in the end.

Coda (Italian for "tail"): I would have published this entry yesterday except for a family emergency. Two points about that: 1) I am therefore still justified in classifying this as an "out of left field Friday" entry; and 2) a family emergency will often involve much less trouble than getting insurance to pay for a medically-justified procedure.

Finally, please get your own tail to a colonoscopy if you're over 50 and haven't had one yet, or if you have the family medical history to justify one earlier. Colon cancer is preventable, but only if you're willing to get your insides checked out.

August 28, 2009

Greg Mankiw provides the laugh of the day

Economist Greg Mankiw provides the unintentional humor of the day: "Smart parents make more money and pass those good genes on to their offspring."

Smart parents years ago miraculously picked employers who survived the Great Recession without laying them off?

Smart parents are dumb enough to spend money on expensive private schools and expensive private test-prep services when according to Mankiw's claim their kids would do well anyway?

Smart parents who choose public schools are dumb enough to spend far too much for houses in wealthy areas because it's really not necessary for their kids to have a decent education?

Historical perspective: I think that Greg Mankiw is living in the past, a time when wealthy people would accept the argument that they're wealthy because they're smart rather than the argument that they're wealthy because they work their tails off. The second that we became a workaholic society, the arguments of Charles Murray, Greg Mankiw, and the like became dinoideologies. Wealthy people no longer need to argue that their wealth derives from their being smarter than other people in the sense of algorithmic cognition. And it's been years since I've heard any of that crap from actual wealthy people who don't fancy themselves as part of the chattering class. They and their close admirers will talk about their being "whip-smart," sure, but also working very, very hard and having the luck to have good mentors, the right opportunity at the right time, and so forth. 

June 12, 2009

Stopping by the office on a steamy morning

Whose words these are you darned well know.
My house is not on campus, though
I've stumbled in by instinct. Guts
have steered me through the traffic flow.

My teenagers must think me nuts.
I work when they lie on their... beds;
you smile upon their summer ease?
Through morning steam the concrete juts

and swallows cars and spits out keys
and drivers all who scent the breeze
and recognize their own mistake.
It's not relief but just a tease.

I give my workday yoke a shake,
the methyltheobromine take.
They tell us we must be the best.
But if no mug, I'm just a flake.

The summer's lovely, hot and blessed,
but Friday morn finds me all stressed.
No beach for me, not half-undressed;
it's hours to go before I rest.

May 29, 2009

Unhappy with my brain right now

  • Fuzzy logic
  • Responders/nonresponders
  • Donald Rubin and multiple imputation
  • Dichotomous variables
  • Record linkage: whether a linkage allows one to determine outcome
  • Limits
  • Category theory

You have now been infected. That is all (for now).

May 8, 2009

Does 416 have southern or northern exposure??

Yes, folks, it's the time when having been incredibly inefficient/distracted thus far this week, I finally have cleared enough from my plate to focus on organizing my summer class. I have been pondering bits and pieces of critical stuff for a few weeks, and it's time to crack down and finish updating the syllabus. This is an undergraduate class I've taught oodles of times before and we offer semi-oodles sections of it every semester, so it should be a simple update-and-be-done job, but I've switched around several readings, I'm having all sorts of thoughts on redesigning some parts of my section to have enough wasabi for the wasabi-loving students and still have enough sweet cumin for the ... oh, shoot. Forget the badly-constructed metaphors. I'll leave it as "I want to enjoy the class a little more and need to think explicitly about how to do that and help students a little more as well." I've just looked up the room # and have promptly forgotten whether EDU 416 has northern or southern exposure. My building complex (insert bad psychodynamic joke here) has rather random room assignments, so the even room number doesn't tell me anything. This matters, dear readers, though it's a morning class. I am teaching in Tampa in the summer.

I know what I'm ditching, though: the movie-preview-like introduction of class books the first 3 minutes of the first day of class. A sort-of-cute metaphor for the start of classes when I adopted it (when Don LaFontaine was alive), I think I can move on. More importantly, I need to reconstruct the first minutes of the term if I want to reframe how students look at the class. The simulated case/problem has more layers this year than we've had in the past, and the fundamental goal of any subtle redesign for me has to give students a reason to care about the case and connect it with everything else they're learning. I wish I'd had more time to think about this in the last month, but I'll take what I can, and I look forward to meeting the students on Tuesday morning!

March 20, 2009

Brutal rites of passage

The stories about the Dallas school "cage matches" between students is a sign that unprofessional and brutal treatment of children is possible whenever the adults lack a moral compass. This is something that could have happened 50 or 100 years ago, and it happened because some twisted people in charge thought that the best way to handle students is to encourage unbridled violence. Great. Just great.

March 13, 2009

Recession-and-education humor

You know things are weird when late-night comics start channeling socialist intellectuals:

"The president said we can't stick with the school calendar that was created during a time when most Americans were farmers, and he is right. We need a new school calendar for a time when most Americans are unemployed." Jimmy Fallon, March 11, 2009
"The postponement of school leaving to an average age of eighteen has become indispensable for keeping unemployment within reasonable bounds. In the interest of working parents (the two-parent-job-holding family having become ever more common during this period), and in the interest of social stability and the orderly management of an increasingly rootless urban population, the schools have developed into immense teen-sitting organizations, ..." Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974), p. 439

And then there's the pseudonymous community college dean's great quip:

"Surest sign of recession: our Admissions staff reports that it's raining men." Dean Dad, March 5, 2009

In the early 1990s, I collected a number of cartoons tied to my dissertation research (which eventually became Creating the Dropout), and the "what good is education?" theme was behind many of them. I forget who drew the 1993 or 1994 cartoon that had graduates walking across the stage, receiving parchment scrolls, and unrolling the scrolls to discover that each read, "Will work for food." Expect more along these lines in the next year or so.

Back to the serious issue here: The problem with arguing about the value of education is that the human-capital arguments are all at the level of a population. From a population standpoint, more education is a great thing. From a family or individual perspective, it's likely to be a good thing on balance, but you always take risks in individual choices.

As I pointed out in December (revised for One-Blog Schoolhouse), there currently is no mechanism for reducing risk of educational choices, but there are both costs and risks--students who attend or return to college face the opportunity costs of foregone income as well as the possibility/probability of having a lot more debt upon graduation. And we all know quite vividly now how graduation does not guarantee one a job. Recessions encourage people to return to school because the opportunity costs are much lower. Laid off? Hey, then there's no downside to attending community college for a few classes. That pattern also demonstrates why it's dangerous to ignore opportunity costs when discussing student debt, but the larger point is that recessions make it all too clear how educational choices involve calculations of risk and probabilities, not average rates of return.

March 9, 2009

Quips on "learning styles"

After the Dallas ISD blog entry on "learning styles" Friday, a few thoughts came to mind over the weekend (so this is a belated Out of Left Field Friday note):

  • I am so happy that people who claim to be kinesthetic learners don't actually try that out in all situations. "Officer, you shouldn't ticket me. I'm a kinesthetic learner, and I can assure you I understand Newton's laws a lot better now than before the accident!"
  • Someone at ETS must have been under the influence of learning-style beliefs when creating the "arranging baby marshmallows and spaghetti on blue paper to discover different ways to multiply binomials" lesson for the Springboard program used in my county. Isn't the gluing-macaroni-on-paper activity reserved for Mother's Day cards in first grade? (Hint, oh clueless curriculum developers: manipulatives should get students to the central ideas quickly.)

This morning, I'm sure there are hundreds of thousands of students who are claiming to be Standard Time learners unable to learn via Daylight Savings styles... but maybe it's just the lost hour of sleep that's to blame.

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.

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 16, 2009

MLK weekend plans and reflections

Tiny bits for Friday evening:

  • If he were alive, Martin Luther King, Jr., would have turned 80 years old yesterday. He was born in the year that a decade-long agricultural slump turned into the Great Depression. One hundred sixty years ago, or twice his birthday from today, the United States was absorbing the Mexican territories it had won in war, but the compromise of 1850 (and the Fugitive Slave Act) was more than a year away. How far we have come in two (long) lifetimes.
  • My spouse is rousting her Girl Scout troop tomorrow morning to clean up a camp. In return, they get to stay overnight without the usual charge. The temperatures tomorrow night are close to freezing. I bought a copious number of handwarmers. We'll see if they still camp or if they go home at the end of the cleanup. My service? I will put my life on the line this weekend to save my fellow human. Don't worry about me: I'm just donating blood. But if you can, you should, too.
  • I feel like I've been drinking from a firehose the last two weeks: the semester has started, I'm getting demands to deal with a whole host of issues, and the pace is not letting up. Nonetheless, I'm doing a reasonable job of cutting down the number of times a day I check e-mail. The college's e-mail server will be changing Monday afternoon, and the sysadmin promises that the new server will have better options for autoresponders. 
  • Today's hero was no accident: Chesley Sullenberg did not save the lives of his passengers and crew and the residents of the greater New York City area by seat-of-the-pants improvising: he planned and practiced the skills he needed for years, and he's been teaching others to plan for catastrophes.
  • Yo-Yo Ma had me grinning from ear-to-ear in a segment on NPR today. He had recorded himself playing Dona Nobis Pacem and in December had publicly invited listeners to mix themselves in and submit the result to a contest (a sort of "open source" musical collaboration). The winners he picked: a handbell choir and a heavy-metal band. 
  • As promised/threatened earlier this week, I have been writing my own letter to Barack Obama. I will be using an interesting venue to publish it (I hope by the end of the month), but I'll let you read the first sentence now: "Dear President Obama, I am one of the 67 million Americans who hired you for this job...." It's not as original as Jose Vilson's letter, but it's not as predictable as at least one of the NPR-commissioned inaugural poems.
  • I think the coldest morning I ever walked outside was January 20, 1985. It was also Reagan's second inauguration, which is why I remember the exact date. Though my dorm had a dining room, I decided to bundle up and walk through the -30 wind chill to see friends in another dining room. I don't know what I must have been thinking, but I bundled up well enough to survive without serious mishap.

My regards to everyone who is freezing (or at least cursingly cold) right now. Take care, get warm, drink lots of hot tea/coffee/lemonade/cocoa, and I promise you that in six months, we Floridians will envy you. Oh, yes, and try adding a sprinkle of chipotle to the cocoa.

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 2, 2009

Most education advocacy groups unable to borrow "Mission Accomplished" banner

Washington, DC (APOCRYPHAL PRESS)--The fundraising group Democrats for Education Reform has found itself unable to secure the Mission Accomplished banner that President George W. Bush used to declare victory in the Iraq War.

"Apparently, it's been reserved by the National Education Association," said a prominent member of the group when contacted for this story. "They went to the National Archives five minutes before we did. Damn them!"

According to sources at the National Archives, at least fifteen advocacy organizations plus another big-city superintendent tried to reserve the infamous banner for press conferences announcing their pleasure at the designation of Arne Duncan as Barack Obama's Secretary of Education. One confidential memo secured by the Apocryphal Press shows the speech that was to be used by an unidentified advocacy group:

We have successfully invaded the Obama Administration. With Arne Duncan installed in the Secretary position, the forces of educational terrorism are in retreat.

As soon as we can, we will transfer sovereignty for its policies back to the Obama White House.

No group would take responsibility for the statement, though one representative speaking on condition of anonymity said every advocacy group wanted to praise Obama for his choice "because doing otherwise would make anyone look like a jackass or a sore loser."

December 19, 2008

Pets, the White House, and common sense

And for the first time in a while, it's Out of Left Field Friday!

I think my spouse is attracted to animals used in research, but only if she doesn't know about it. When we started dating in college, she had just recently acquired a ferret, long before we discovered that ferrets are used in nausea research. (Ferrets have a physical and visible reaction to nausea.) Then a few years ago, she agreed to take in and foster two zebra finches, and we now discover that because male Zebra finches learn a good bit of their songs from their fathers, they are used in memory research.

So what's next? Our current animals/owners are two Zebra finches and a bearded dragon. The beardie is our son's choice, and if there were a common pet that we need telepathy for, it's bearded dragons. They're very friendly (if you're not a mealworm or cricket), and they're easy to care for (as long as you wash your hands after handling one and if you don't kiss it), but they have no voice, and their behavior is often hard to interpret. Does that look mean "pick me up"? Or does it mean, "Meh, I really don't care for that Bernanke guy"? While I suspect the first is more likely, you just don't know.  Personally, I'd rather trust our investments to our beardie than to Madoff, but that's primarily because I don't have Michael Weinstein's theoretical monkeys. (You'll understand that comment if you were listening to public radio or attended Haverford College in the mid-1980s, but you can probably guess the content.)

Michael Weinstein's theoretical monkeys were never on the possibility list for pets in the next administration, but my wife wants the Obamas to get a bearded dragon. Having heard that one of the girls is allergic to dogs, she noted that bearded dragons do not have dander, and the girls are both old enough to know how not to get salmonella poisoning. A First Dragon (and a first First Dragon) would be a good thing, she reasons. I'm not so sure, from the perspective of bearded dragons, since except for a rescue animal, almost any pet the Obamas get might become instantly popular, leading to overbreeding.

But more generally, I will admit my skepticism about all things Obamaesque on the personal side. Look, I like the guy and probably would enjoy shooting the breeze, but I'm one of the 63 million people who chose him to do a job. Here's my deal: Barack Obama doesn't go off the deep end, and I don't ask about his or his family's personal life. Any other way and we quickly get into silly season. Should the choice of Sidwell Friends be seen as a rejection of DC charter schools? Maybe an acceptance of the DC voucher program? Oh, no, it's one of those historically Quaker schools; the kids are going to be pacifist, and Obama's going to let the Communists take over! Or maybe we should see it as a private family choice.

Same with the pet; while it would probably be good for a shelter dog to be adopted by the Obamas, going beyond that to assume some greater symbolism is ... ugh. It's going to be Malia's and Sasha's dog, not yours, not mine. Unless you're volunteering to paper-train it, get off the topic. Or get ready to hear all about our plans to make sure Malia's a violist, Sasha gets chosen as the lead in her elementary-school musical, and both of them get to be black belts in some martial art. Let's not go there, okay? They're children, not symbols. Get. Over. It.

December 5, 2008

Friday tidbits

  • The Daily Howler notes that the New York Times printed the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education report claiming that there had been 400+% increase in tuition over 25 years... and then claimed that the figure had been adjusted for inflation. Right. Chalk up another great journalistic victory for the Times, which apparently never just reprints press releases... without mangling at least one fact. (Hat tip.)
  • All the talk about a stimulus package including school construction ignores the fact that most of those projects are probably not "shovel-ready." In contrast, there are probably plans to rebuild bridges and highway overpasses. Or, given what would happen if Al-Qaeda dropped critical interstate connections, I hope that there are ready-to-go plans in every state transportation office. The gist is that school construction projects are not going to be the fastest projects off the drawing board.
  • Along with building schools, maybe we should think about stringing better fiber-optic networks within state systems of higher education. State officials who listen to Larry Smarr's presentation (or watch the multimedia) at this year's Educause conference would be smart to think about how such networks could reshape higher education.
  • More generally, kudos to this year's Educause conference organizers; as I've been driving around this month, I've been highly impressed by the podcasts of sessions.
  • A public mea culpa on my error in Wednesday's entry about cognition. Kevin Carey, yes you're right; you did briefly mention the public disinvestment from higher education at the state level. I still think you're wrong on the big picture, but it's part of this blog's job to issue errata.
  • I'm almost... almost, but not quite over the cold. This virus has been with me long enough that I'm going to start charging rent.

October 24, 2008

Why I avoid grading at 11 pm on Friday

Sent to a student a few minutes ago:

One way to think about the conflicting-interpretations question is to think about UNDERLYING issues. You may have covered this in the overview of the case, if you said something like, "In the McCormick v. Smith case, most of the opinions focused on the core issue, which was whether there is a constitutional right to high-quality cinnamon. Justice Lindt's dissent noted that while there is no explicit right to bark-origin spice in the constitution, except for the "equal cuisine under the law" clause of the Twenty-Eighth Amendment. While Lindt's analysis is similar to the majority opinion written by Justice Au Gratin, Lindt argued that the history of state provisions of herbs and spices over decades, and the existence of a Right to Taste in every state constitution, implied a right of social citizenship that encompasses cinnamon. Lindt's argument was very similar to that of Penzey et al., who point out the changing assumptions of Americans about what good food is and their willingness to share vanilla and cocoa as well as a cup of sugar with their neighbors, proving that while justices try to be impartial, they do watch election returns, and they know they'll have to eat their neighbor's cooking at some point in their lives."

Okay: you probably WON'T write that. But keep in mind that the suggested structure is there for a reason, as a helpful prompt. If you address the issue with a different structure, you can do quite well. But do remember it as a prompt!

For the record, I did not go to any panels on the social history of food.

October 3, 2008

The beauty of the fundamental theorem of calculus

Michael Bérubé is back with Arbitrary but Fun Friday, and other bloggers have Friday entries on fish, movies, fun, ... so what the heck am I supposed to do? I got the staid bearded portrait up there in the corner of the blog. It's staring at me right now, daring me to be frivolous. Or giving me guilt trips for spending a few minutes early on Friday evening on frivolity. In honor of Tampa Bay Rays rookie sensation Evan Longoria, who hit two home runs yesterday afternoon into and through and out of left field, I will name this feature Out of Left Field Friday. (Complete tangent: A friend and his son were sitting in the outfield seats right under the first home run and a section away from where the second one landed.) So onto the first Out of Left Field Friday...


I wasn't a math major, and I probably wasn't going to become one, but that decision was solidified my first semester in college when I was taking a linear-algebra course with a visiting faculty member, and the moment one morning when he stopped in the middle of a proof, looked down at his notes, looked up at us, looked down again, smiled nervously, and said, "I seem to have left my notes for the rest of this proof at home." He waved at the board with the half-scrawled lines and said, "You can ... see how it goes." He was so engaging as a teacher that one of our classmates decided to ask questions frequently to keep herself awake. (At the time, several of us thought she was highly annoying, but I became friends with her over the next few years, and she finally explained her strategy.)

But at the end of my junior year, I finally acceded to all of my friends who were math majors and told me I had to take a specific math professor before I graduated. So I signed up for real analysis with Kyewon Park. I am surely one of the few history Ph.D.'s who have taken real analysis, but the point is not me but her and the class. First, my friends were right: Kyewon was a wonderful teacher, especially for a non-major taking what should have been an impossible class for me. More than 20 years later, I even recall what a compact metric space is. I think. That's a testament to her.

The second point is that the class reminded me how beautiful the fundamental theorem of calculus is. In basic calculus (either high school as an AP class or college calculus), you typically speed through the gist of differentiation proofs and the rationalization for integration, and then if you get a day or two free (as my high school teacher made sure of), you get exposed to the proof connecting the two. For me, the key link was the intermediate value theorem, which makes everything else pretty trivial. (My high school calculus teacher was also very good.) Beautiful proof structure, oohs, ahs, Louis Kahn, it's triangular (go there and look at the fireplaces). (I warned you this was Out of Left Field Friday.)

But that day or so is nothing compared with a good real analysis class, which builds up things from the ground up (or from the assumptions up). You start with all of this weird arcane stuff at the beginning that can only come from 19th century central-European mathematicians (hi, Leonhard!). If presented well, it feels like weird arcane stuff that you just trust will add up but seems pretty interesting in an "I'd rather learn this than a new language group" way. At the end of the first semester, I felt as if I had a very firm grasp on the nebulous mist of weird arcane stuff about measures invented out of whole cloth by 19th century central-European mathematicians; if you will, imagine driving a car backwards up a steep mountain road because the person sitting in the passenger seat assures you that there's a fabulous view at the end of the road. Fortunately, very few students die in the middle of a real analysis class.

Around February, I began to get glimpses of where this was all heading. "Oh, this is the firmer analog of X!" Well, "firmer" is true less in an epistemological sense than in the sense that some things were looking more familiar than they had in September and I had been exposed to a good number of theorems about the more abstract versions. March, and we were starting to see the contours of the bigger version of the intermediate value theorem. Okay, that gave us a second wind, and if you just keep the car on the road going backwards, you might find your way to a place where you can finally turn the car around and head to the summit forward for once.

I'm not going to tell you what it felt like to get to the point in the class where I thought I had a real grasp on the fundamental theorem of calculus. That was over two decades ago, and if I took pictures at the summit, they've been lost somewhere. I remember enough about the scenery to describe it in a vague way, and I do vividly remember the terror I felt along the way, the thrill on getting there, and the appreciation I still have for my guide.

Every once in a while, everyone should take a course in real analysis, or whatever your equivalent is. Find something that you know is absolutely gorgeous but currently incomprehensible and work to understand it better. Find a guide. Follow the guide and know that you're still going to be doing most of the work. Keep at it. Know that the thrill of understanding may outlast the understanding itself, and that's okay.