August 3, 2010

Anthologize: a blog-to-book tool

Thanks to the folks at George Mason U.'s Center for History and New Media, who put on the One Week | One Tool "digital humanities barn raising" last week, and the dozen digital-humanities coders and other scholars who worked hard last week, the world now has Anthologize, a Wordpress 3.0 plug-in that will allow someone to pull together blog entries for a book or book-like project.

This entry will discuss both the tool and the process I watched from afar (at least through the #oneweek Twitter entries).

Anthologize as tool

I've had the URL for Anthologize since this morning, and I've had other tasks today, so I didn't get around to installing Wordpress and Anthologize on a directory of a server until this afternoon. WP took a few tricks to install (and about 10 minutes, the double the advertised time but who's counting?), but Anthologize was activated in one click. It's a simplified tool without too many options at the moment, but here's roughly what you do to turn blog entries into one of several output formats:

  • Create a project entry (title and author)
  • Create parts within the project
  • (Optional:) Provide a URL for another blog's feed to pull in entries from the external blog
  • Slot individual blog entries into the parts of the project
  • (Optional:) Edit individual entries within the parts
  • Tell Anthologize what you'd like for dedication, acknowledgments, etc. for the whole project
  • Tell Anthologize what format you want the project exported into (PDF, ePUB, RTF, or TEI) and what size paper (letter or A4).

That's all: 5-7 steps. I gave it a run with two external blogs, one MovableType and one Wordpress, and it pulls in whatever text is in the feed RSS, a file with the latest N entries in a format that the blog administrator chooses. So if you pull in material from an external blog where the RSS feed is only a teaser of longer entries, you don't get the full text. The blogs I chose didn't have images, so I couldn't test the formatting of images, but the tool handled both blogs reasonably well, given that one RSS feed was only teaser text rather than the full entries.

There is a user group available in Google groups, and I suspect various issues will be picked up within the first week of availability. For example, apparently one of the requirements is that the server have PHP5 (a recent version of one of the underlying tools that Wordpress uses). We'll see what else pops up very quickly, since I suspect some people are going to try this for real work projects. Some of the things this could be useful for:

  • Publishing one's own blog that already exists
  • Remixing a set of other blogs in a theme, such as
  • a "current-event instant book" to capture what people were writing about a current event. Because one of the output formats is the Text Encoding Initiative, which is one tool for analyzing text, I can imagine some research projects being assisted this option.
  • Setting up a book-length project. Example: writing a first draft of a text during a semester, bit by bit, and then sending the output to RTF, which can be edited in a word processor, or to PDF for less formal projects (such as making the compilation available to students for free). Yes, this would work for math and other technical fields, since there is a LaTex plug-in for Wordpress.

I'm a little surprised that the group chose a blog-to-book tool since there are other, similar tools for this task compared with some of the other options they were considering. But the alternative that I've tried (Feedburner) is more difficult to manage and doesn't allow the reformatting/importing/remixing that Anthologize makes available. And it's available to anyone who runs a Wordpress site without too much additional technical knowledge. Another feature I think is specific to Anthologize: TEI as an output format.

One more item: Because of the community of coders that this team is connected to, I suspect that it will become more polished and useful over the next year or so. (My personal request: a checkbox-and-arrow system to allow group selection of entries to move to the book's catalog of items.) That community is available because of the social environment of its creation.

One Week | One Tool as proof of concept

The weeklong work to create Anthologize was possible because of funding from the National Endowment of the Humanities and its Office of Digital Humanities, organized by one of the best-known digital-humanities centers as a summer institute/workshop. In some ways, it was a proof of concept: can a short-term gathering produce a useful tool? The answer is obvious to anyone who knows individuals or small teams who have produced software in a short time. But this was done on a different theory of action, not knowing what might be produced, a get them to come, and they will build IT model. Was it wise for NEH to bankroll a humanities BarCamp with a mission? I think you can consider the concept proved in the Christopher Marlowe sense if not a mathematical-proof sense.

There are a handful of blog entries written by One Week participants, but because they kept the tool under wraps until today, the entries are less detailed than I hope to see in the next week or so. One critical question: how did the group make the decision to create this particular tool? The first day was apparently devoted to brainstorming ideas, which the participants narrowed to six finalists and then the eventual project. I know the other finalists, and I thought three other possibilities were equally viable: a timeline tool (or extension of existing software to create timelines), geotagging for archival databases (such as the Omeka online exhibit package), or a "Ken Burnsish video in 5 minutes" tool, the multimedia equivalent of Anthologize. You'll see outsider/nonparticipant feedback last Tuesday morning on the finalists in the Twitter feed (#oneweek), which appears split between academic and public historians, with the academics more interested in the blog-to-book and timeline possibilities, and the archive/museum world interested more in the others. Maybe my heart is partly in the public-history world, but I thought the group would go for the geotagging or Burns-o-matic options, if only because there were well-known tools for the other tasks. In particular, I was guessing that an Omeka geotagging plug-in would be the choice, or maybe something to add timelines to .kml files. So I'm intensely curious: what was the reasoning of participants to make Anthologize rather than the other finalists?

Another question, which Tom Scheinfeldt has been writing about: how do you manage an impromptu team for an urgent task, and how does the team work? In some ways, this is the micro-question to match the macro-politics of open source (see Steve Weber's 2004 book, The Success of Open Source). Suggestion for the next One Week | One Tool workshop (and, yes, I'm betting that there'll be a second edition): invite an urban anthropologist. (Anyone written an anthropology of a physical barn-raising recently? I vaguely recall there being an article from the late 1950s on Amish barn-raising, but I suspect its authors are no longer available.)

Bottom line: Anthologize is interesting both as a package in itself and as a test of academic short-term projects in the humanities.

July 30, 2010

You're telling me I can't teach everything I know in a semester?

I've been revising my plans for the upcoming fall undergrad history of ed class based on a bunch of things that have been percolating in my head this summer, including the need to recertify it for my university's gen-ed program (or at least apply for recertification), the Utah Tuning project in history and what we expect from undergraduates, some thoughts about formative assessment in history, and other items. As a result, I've tinkered with the major writing assignments and the exam item structures, linked some of the weekly work more tightly to a major writing assignment, changed how I address attendance, bit the bullet on students and laptops, and then realized I have 28 class sessions (T-Th class, so Veteran's Day and Thanksgiving are gone).

Hoo, boy, that's a limit. So I decided how I'd handle some of the longer primary-source documents, tied the shorter ones I wanted everyone to read to a calendar, and looked again. Still "hoo, boy." So I created a table to sketch out each day of class, the immediate upcoming assignments (i.e., how students might look at the near-term future for a class), and the theme of readings. In went the obvious topics I address every semester, at the logical locations. This morning, I did the rest: figure out in more detail than I ever have before what I could do with each class session--the stuff that will take up a whole class, the stuff that won't and what combinations would work where, the topics where simulation/debriefing would make sense, topics for "fishbowl" discussions, topics for certain types of structured activities, and one week where I'm not sure what I'm doing in detail but I know how to set up the intellectual puzzle.

Apart from that week in mid-October where I'm a bit at loose ends, there are still plans I need to make in the ordinary course of things: how to guide students for certain activities I haven't tried before, or haven't tried with a particular topic, how to set days up (with a motivating issue/puzzle, by foreshadowing something earlier in the semester, by tying it into a major course theme, by tying it to a major assignment, etc.), and so forth. Nonetheless, this is fairly detailed. I won't follow this plan to the letter, guaranteed, but this has been a very useful planning activity, in part to guarantee that as many loose ends are tied up as possible by the end of the semester. One of the conclusions I drew from reading the draft and final state social-studies standards a few years ago is that I share the "topic-a-week" symptom of my fellow historians: I'm competent at addressing the topic du jour, and I can tie things together impromptu when it's appropriate and obvious. But taking an intro/survey course and making those connections explicit, so that the intellectual core of a class is clear and the work for students is as easy as possible (and by this I mean easy to accomplish, not easy by lowering the bar)? I needed to carve out a few days and be selfish for that.

The reward for students should be a better course. The immediate reward for me: in addition to generally liking teaching this class, I've also got something very specific to be excited about for every class.

July 26, 2010

The passive-aggressive student

I'm working this year with several thoughtful, independent-minded grad students right now, and this afternoon I realized that I've been quite lucky the last few years in terms of my experiences with grad students (and I hope the converse as well!). Since that hasn't always been the case, I thought I'd put down my thoughts while there wasn't anyone I was advising to whom this applied: how can an advisor explain what's not working for a grad student beyond low grades?

I've been thinking specifically about two former grad students on whose committees I sat (not as advisor). (Some details have been obscured to protect the guilty.) In one case, I had already been a bit concerned because in one of my classes, the student had turned in a paper that didn't meet my standards, and the student struggled to revise in response to quite specific feedback. So we get to comps: the student's comprehensive exam essays were largely unresponsive to the questions, though the questions were worded broadly enough to give the student a chance to show off what she or he knew about the field and how he or she could think either synthetically or critically. We (the committee) gave the student a chance to revise: the revision was nonresponsive to our concerns. A second revision?  We hemmed, hawed, and passed the student (barely). Those of you who know grad school can probably figure out what happened next: the student crapped out in the thesis phase.

The other student was someone who seemed to waver between wanting to dive into reading parts of the field she or he was deeply interested in, on the one hand, and skimming by with only the required readings of other classes/topics, on the other hand. I know of at least a few faculty who said, roughly, "If you want to be a faculty member someday (the person's stated goal), you'll need to be well-read in your field, broadly understood." Time comes for the comprehensive exam and the person's weaknesses shine through: the references are to a very small handful of readings rather than to broad areas of the literature. Because many of our college's comps are closed-book, limited-time (three days of exams, each with one question and a half-day to type an answer), I don't expect students to remember dozens and dozens of names. But maybe I have a reasonable expectation that a doctoral student will know and talk about more than three pieces of the literature per day???!!!

Okay, so these students were over the line in terms of not meeting expectations, but it wasn't entirely clear until comps that they'd screw up so badly. Ultimately, it was their choice to screw up, but I wonder if their choice might have been different with different faculty behavior. And I think part of my role as a faculty member is not only to set expectations but identify problems earlier than we sometimes do. That's NOT good for the student or the program. For a few years I've been thinking about it as a "damnit, listen to the faculty" issue, but that's not fair or appropriate for several reasons. What if a faculty member is totally nuts in advice? And what about conscientious dissent on a matter of intellectual controversy? So there has to be a different way of explaining where a grad student is off the tracks.

Today, I'm thinking of it as a matter of being passive-aggressive: saying "yeah, yeah, I'm listening," and then not changing behavior at all or responding substantively to feedback on papers. There are lots of reasons for grad students to be passive-aggressive, from the power dynamics at a university to our collective experiences with impersonal institutions and supervisors who are unreasonable/unreasoning. But it's generally dysfunctional both for students and for professional environments. I have no problems with students who disagree with me and revise papers to strengthen their arguments. But someone who tinkers here and there and doesn't respond substantively to feedback? That gives me a rending-garments feeling: this isn't what I put time into advising for.

So the next time I face passive-aggressive behavior from a grad student, I'm inclined to say something like the following:

The last time we talked, I gave you some specific advice. In what you sent me recently, I don't see evidence of your response to the advice. That means I don't see evidence either of your changing something to address my advice because you agreed with it or your working to demonstrate I'm wrong if you didn't. I have no problems if you can persuade me through your intellectual work that my advice was wrong, but there was a reason why I gave you advice. I hope I don't have to cite chapter and verse from those who study academics to persuade you that the way a community of scholars works best is by conversation. Being largely nonresponsive to feedback on an intellectual matter is a very effective way of telling me that you don't want to be in that community, if you had wanted to send that message. But if you don't want to send that message, you need to engage in the type of conversation that being a grad student requires.

I haven't wanted to say that for several years, and I hope I never again feel that I'm facing a passive-aggressive grad student. But my opportunities for advising doctoral students is relatively limited, and I may be off my rocker. For those who have advised far more grad students than I, does this make sense?

July 12, 2010

Brief note justifying the lack of productivity this week

I have gotten less done this week in Seattle than I expected. I did the right thing and walked around the city as much as I could when not in the AFT convention's business meetings. Since Seattle has real hills, this is healthy exercise, and I used the Pike Place Market six blocks from the convention center as an excuse to get some exercise every day. But that means that I spent at least an hour or two walking every day instead of reading, blogging, etc. I also spent a few hours last night taking a bus to the Greenwood area to watch a coffeeshop concert some acquaintances were performing in.

My shins and calves are telling me exactly how many hills I've walked up and down, and they've been doing so every night. Again, this is good. It is also absolutely exhausting. So my thoughts on Bill Gates's speech yesterday will not be posted tonight. And I'll be spending some time tomorrow reading a doctoral student's proposal rather than having it read already. And so on and so forth. I have to figure out how to handle the jet lag when I get home, but I did not eat convention-hotel food, nor was I sedentary.

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.

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!

An immodest and hopefully obvious proposal for electronic citations

I had a thought today after reading of Barnes & Noble's new iPad app, which allows customers to loan/borrow purchased books. I haven't heard whether the annotations go along with the lending, but it strikes me that academics needing to cite locations in ebooks and those interested in annotation technology both need a way to refer to locations within electronic documents.

The problem for academics looking for citation conventions is that we're all used to page numbers, which give us a way to identify a location manually by flipping through pages (or by hunting for a letter or other archival document within a file folder). Do we really need that sort of human-navigated location specificity? If we can search for text inside a document, we certainly don't. But the reference format is needed, and I think there would be an easy way to create another convention that would serve both academic purposes and ereader technology:


What's that, you ask?

location/file number (within envelope, 1 if no envelope)/file size/file checksum (using some conventional algorithm)

Given a particular edition (i.e., uncorrupted file in a recognized format with a file size and checksum), this would give a precise location. With a different edition, the approximate location within a file and the first part of the quoted passage should be sufficient for finding the passage quickly. Let's call the three numbers a brief spot location reference and the numbers plus the quotation the spot location reference. What if you're referring to a passage?


I know I'll be torn limb-from-limb by my fellow historians, until I point out the following:

When Patto/d her hat./
This passage shows the protagonist's commitment to blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda./
Sherman Dorn/20100527080312-0500

That's the range reference, the first and last ten characters of the (theoretical) passage, annotation text, annotation author, and timestamp of annotation. And there, ladies and gentlemen, is a format for annotating electronic materials. It does not require changing the EPUB format, just tracking a file of annotations and ereader software that can put the annotation in the right place (the start and end of the passage for disambiguation). They can be shared, accumulated, analyzed, etc.

There may be important reasons why this wouldn't work, but I can't think of them at the moment.

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.

May 18, 2010

Crabby comments from a higher-ed union activist

I'm in a slightly cranky mood from spending most of the last two days' work hours on copyediting. This says little about the material I was copyediting and more about the nature of the task (and why I did not get a job to spend all of my time copyediting). So I'm ending the day in a crabby mood and still want to be productive, but I may not want to contact any people about current issues. So it's time for crabby comments about situations that popped up in the semi-distant past (at least 12 months ago), and I'll refer to them vaguely enough that they could apply to all sorts of situations. If you think any of the following is about you, you're probably wrong.

  • Did you realize that if you hadn't tried the procedural short-cut, you would have won the argument on the merits?
  • You can probably get away with half of the stuff you're loading on your faculty. Which half do you care about? 
  • The union has membership, staff, institutional memory, and access to lawyers. We're plum out of magic wands. 
  • I know you've got a Ph.D. and a winning smile, but other people can remember things, too, and sometimes we check factual claims.
  • Your hallway is not the whole university. 
  • I don't care what Gordon's or Drew's trustees let them do.  
  • You've got several very smart administrators in your office. We've got several hundred members. Maybe you could outthink the lot of us, but your behavior makes me suspect you've never played a role-playing game. 
  • If wishes were fishes and gripes were wet wipes... no, let's not go there.
  • Yes, you've got academic freedom and I'll defend that to the hilt, but it may not be wise for assistant professors to run up a large debt in deviance credits. The interest alone is murder.
  • You didn't take advantage of the opportunity when it was in your lap, and you're now hoping the expired opportunity returns and doubles or triples in size. On your way out, could you please pick up my jaw and hand it back to me?
  • I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate you.  
  • Your strategic vision appears to rely on throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. Pardon my brashness, but not even the most tendentious Soviet/corporate five-year plan has had "al dente" as a bullet point.
  • I see you're trying out the new Elizabeth Taylor fragrance, "Entitlement." I may be overstepping the bounds of friendship by saying this, but I think you've applied a bit too much. 
  • I'll give you 10 out of 10 for venomous intent, but my long-term exposure to teenagers has immunized me.
  • I'm sure I can take this horrible day and turn it into a conference presentation or article.

My thanks to G.K.R. for the model.

March 14, 2010

What the iPad will and will not be

Last time I wrote about electronic readers, it was before the announcement of the Messiah Tablet iPad. Well, it's Pi Day, and whether or not the circle has been squared, for the first time in my life I've given money to a Steve Jobs company for hardware. As I noted in January, I hate reading PDFs on my laptop, I can't read them comfortably on my Sony Reader, and I really need to read PDFs for my job or kill a lot of trees in the process. The iPad costs about the same as other devices that would do the job, and it'll be far more likely to just do its job. And that's the end of the story, at least as far as my purchase is concerned.

But since there is an enormous amount of myth and hype about tablets/larger readers from both technophiles and technophobes, maybe a little realism is in order. After watching the January 27 unveiling video (and tremendously enjoying the Doritos Canada parody--it shows you how far Lorne Michaels has fallen that something like this didn't appear on Saturday Night Live January 30), I've been thinking about what tablet-sized readers could do and what they cannot do.

First, some genres will do well with little additional effort or reworking of production systems. Comics are likely to be successful on at least one tablet/large reader, as is anything that is already produced for a large-ish page size. Some magazines will survive in this way, and I can easily imagine museums producing electronic catalogues. In general, image-intensive texts will benefit. All of this is easily encompassed within any ebook distribution system, but the more visually luscious books and magazines that will benefit from the iPad and other tablets are also resource-intensive to produce, either by artists or the publisher.

With some tinkering (and yelling and screaming), students will get what they repeatedly complain is lacking in ebooks: easy ways to highlight and annotate texts. The lack of annotation capacity in the EPUB ebook standard is a fixable problem, since EPUB uses xml. The ability to share annotations would be even better. I've written about my use of Diigo in teaching, but that's a workaround, and it's awkward every year that passes, with new versions of Diigo and new problems in sharing annotations.

Apart from annotations, it is not clear what interactive systems will work well on a large tablet that doesn't exist already on websites. There are some good tools for interactive exhibits, such as the Omeka package for museums (see its use in the Inventing Europe exhibit) or the WordPress Digress.It plug-in, which allows reader annotation of any paragraph. Omeka is interactive in a navigational sense. Digress.It is interactive with the content, but the paucity of comments on the Digress.It port of Ivan Illich's Deschooling suggests that it is largely theoretical. 

Craig Mod's essay this month on the infinite canvas (a la Scott McCloud) is interesting, but I'm not sure how that might translate into reality. There's an interesting alpha-level website called the infinite canvas that is infinite in the horizontal dimension. Its showcase includes a cute short comic by Neil Gaiman and Jouni Koponen, The Day the Saucers Came, but the interaction consists of clicking on forward/back buttons with simple PowerPoint-style slide transitions.

And then there will be plenty of resource-intensive development efforts that create one-off apps, many of which will be interesting pedagogically and culturally but will be one-time-only projects. If I were interested in managing the creation of an interactive project, I'd probably create it on a website using tools that I know the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad could read -- that is, no Flash and no Java. I know there's an App Gold Rush on, but the non-Flash, non-Java, smartly-designed website is going to be useful no matter what's in people's hands or on their laps or desks.

In other words, the iPad has one very obvious tool that's more than an ebook reader (anything that is visually intense), and there will be an obvious extension for tablets and readers in general (annotations), but the rest is not yet clear.

March 8, 2010

Sour-grapes agreement

Michael Olneck and Peter Sacks turn petty in letters to the editor about Diane Ravitch that the New York Times printed today. Wow. I agree with Ravitch on a number of things and disagree with her on a number of things, some of which is in our area of expertise (history of education) and some of which falls outside the history of education. But I'm not sure why Sacks in particular is turning on the venom spigot. Well, actually, I do have some hypotheses about general hostility to her I've occasionally seen (as opposed to disagreement): she caricatured the field of history of education in a sloppy late-70s publication sponsored by the National Academy of Education, and along with Patricia Graham she was a woman to get high-status national recognition in the 1970s for her work in education policy at the national level, which heretofore had been a male bastion. (Graham was director of NIE from 1977 to 1979.) The first is a seriously flawed work, but that's several decades in the past, and in any case, a particular work should stand or fall on its own merits. I've never seen the second item discussed or even acknowledged. 

There's a related issue here, which is Ravitch's position outside traditional faculty. As far as I'm aware, she's never had a tenure-track or tenured faculty position, and she's one of the few historians who can say that they published their dissertation commercially before receiving the Ph.D. (The Great School Wars was published in 1974; Ravitch received her Ph.D. from Columbia in 1975). For the most part, her books are far more widely read than those of us who have full-time faculty positions, and I think she and Graham are the only historians of education to have held political appointments in the federal government. That's an interesting combination of insider and outsider positions. 

When Meier and Ravitch started their joint blog/conversation three years ago, I briefly referred to this history in writing, "Regardless of various professional views of her scholarship, Ravitch is a recognized voice on education policy. There are plenty of people I correspond with who have fewer claims to expertise, so I can either have a snit-fit about that or deal, and at this point, having a snit-fit is darned close to sexism and uber-testosterone in education policy studies." I'm sorry Olneck and Sacks, and especially Sacks, have made a different choice.

For the record, Sacks is factually wrong when he states, "Dr. Ravitch fashioned herself into the Ayn Rand of educational policy and rose to fame as a result of a free-market ideology that came into fashion in George W. Bush's administration." Ravitch's appointment was during the first Bush administration, and whatever you might think of Ravitch's historical arguments in different books, she's a much better writer than Rand.

March 7, 2010

Historians' automaticity, part 1

Concerns with science and math education are nothing new, and although the rhetoric today focuses on saving the planet and the economy, the argument for urgent intensification of STEM education is remarkably similar in structure to the Cold War era debates in the 1940s through the early 1960s: our country is in crisis, we need science and technology to solve the crisis, and so we must reform education. A 1959 forum about science and math education at Woods Hole was summarized by Jerome Bruner in The Process of Education (1960), which essentially was an argument about education in the disciplines. (Bruner later was instrumental in creating Man: A Course of Study [MACOS], and fellow Woods Hole conference participant Jerrold Zacharias was a key mover in MIT's Physical Science Study Committee, whose materials were used by my high school physics teacher.)

For a number of reasons, MACOS flopped as a curriculum project, but the central question raised at the 1959 Woods Hole conference remains: what's necessary for students to be successful at learning disciplinary thinking? Several of my colleagues at USF (Will Tyson, Kathy Borman, and others) have been involved in NSF-funded work studying recruitment to and success in undergraduate STEM education, including preparatory math and science work in high school. In lower grades, the National Math Advisory Panel made some suggestions about curriculum in primary and intermediate elementary grades that would be prerequisite for success in algebra, including work with fractions. (Speaking of which, check out this very cool Java Spirograph simulation. Yes, it's connected to fractions... or rather the nature of reciprocal relationships between frequency and wavelength.)

And somewhere along here, along with debates about the purposes of various proposed curricula, we generally get debates about which is more important, procedural fluidity or conceptual understanding. My answer: yes. They are. You need both "content" and "process" (and we'll get to the problem with those terms shortly), and I am generally sympathetic to arguments that getting to the point of automaticity with core skills is a part of getting ahead in conceptual understanding and also needs to be matched by teaching of concepts. (See my entry a few years ago on how to explain the more recent and reasonable NCTM curriculum framework materials.)

But there is something about the term automaticity that itches inside my head, because it sort of gets the idea right but is not entirely persuasive... and the places where it is not persuasive are troubling in a subtle but very important way. Let me explain why I can fluidly pull out material from my memory that looks remarkably like the standard definition of automaticity and yet really isn't like that at all. 

First, a digression: with apologies to Douglas Adams, the process of doing history is almost but not quite entirely unlike what Sam Wineburg describes in his research. Wineburg's writing is appealing to historians because it focuses on precisely the discipline-based processes that Bruner discussed 50 years ago in his book, and Wineburg's message is flattering: "academic historians, you have interesting ways of thinking, and here is what I see as a cognitive researcher and why high school history teachers need to pay much closer attention to what you do." And to be honest, there is some part of his work that has all sorts of interesting detail on the level of nuance and sophistication with which people try to commit history (such as the research on how people from different fields read primary sources about Abraham Lincoln and slavery). But Wineburg is enormously popular because his intended audience has a confirmation bias that leads them (us) to agree with someone who comes along and tells us we're special and intellectual. Wineburg weaves a story of historical thinking's exceptionalism... and there's the rub. As an historian, I'm supposed to be wary of anyone talking about American exceptionalism, and here comes this cognitive psychologist trying to seduce me with glorious tales of my discipline's exceptionalism, how difficult it is to be an historian, and so forth.

Pardon me, but I'll take the interesting cognitive questions without the side dish of (probably unintentional) pandering. A good bit of Wineburg's efforts have been to parse out how people read primary sources, and they generally focus on the level of ambiguity people read into primary sources: ambiguity about intent, background, effect, and so forth. And that's all fine and good except for two problems: Wineburg's work in this vein has generally been with adults, and they generally ignore the process participants use to put the primary source in context. The second is the part that troubles me most as a teacher, because the place where students in my undergrad history of education class first fall down is typically in putting a primary source in a broader context. It's not the most difficult task I put before students: usually the most difficult task in the semester is asking students to provide historical perspectives on a contemporary issue. But the difficulty of putting material in a broader context is a fundamental barrier to success in my class.

That sounds remarkably like students who are not yet at the level of history automaticity, whatever that might mean, and one would be tempted to refer to Checker Finn and Diane Ravitch's argument from the late 1980s, that American teenagers don't know enough history. But focusing on factual recall is begging the question: what does it mean to have sufficiently fluid mastery of history to put a primary document in context? Something about factual recall is helpful, but is that enough, and is that what successful students do? 

It might be helpful to explain the type of task that is not hard for students: confronting people whose glib brutality stands out of the page. That characterizes the very first primary source I use in my undergrad history class (printed in Jim Fraser's education history primary-source collection), instructions from the London Virginia Council to the colony's governor in 1636. It reads in part,

And if you find it convenient, we think it reasonable you first remove... [Native American children] from their ... priests by a surprise of them all and detain their prisoners... [and] we pronounce it not cruelty nor breach of charity to deal more sharply with [the priests] and to proceed even to dash with these murderers of souls and sacrificers of gods' images to the devil...

With 17th century texts, the first challenge is simply to understand what the source says, and that's a bit of skill in language, but the students usually figure out this passage soon enough, and their eyes open a bit wider: the official supervisors of the colony sitting in England were telling the colonial governor to kidnap Native American children and beat (or kill) the elders. That type of detail sticks with students, because it engages their emotions and sense of what a society is supposed to be doing (as well as what colonists did). It's not that any student is exactly surprised that English colonists in Virginia were patronizing and occasionally brutal, but there is something that takes them aback in the casual way which which colonists and English elite discussed their goals. 

I wish that all of history was that engaging, but that's just not true, and there is a good bit of background context that students need to pull out to put any primary source in context, and when you get to material whose explicit text is boring but is still important, students cannot rely on the immediately-engaging story to "get it." Instead, most primary sources require a student to identify at least one salient context that is not immediately apparent, and they need to be able to identify a relevant context (or more than one) without a huge amount of effort. If there is an "automaticity" to a professional historian's thinking, it is that: where does this primary source or other detail fit in a large scheme?

That larger scheme can start with "issues of the day," whatever the time and place. To be successful, you need to know what was happening at about the time of the primary source/event. You start with the year, go back and forth a few years, and think about possible connections. So when you look at the last of Horace Mann's annual reports on the state of education in Massachusetts (in 1848) and read the following passage, what pops out as contemporary and possibly relevant?

Now surely nothing but universal education can counterwork this tendency to the domination of capital and the servility of labor. If one class possesses all the wealth and the education, while the residue of society is ignorant and poor, it matters not by what name the relation between them may be called: the latter, in fact and in truth, will be the servile dependents and subjects of the former. But, if education be equally diffused, it will draw property after it by the strongest of all attractions; for such a thing never did happen, and never can happen, as that an intelligent and practical body of men should be permanently poor. Property and labor in different classes are essentially antagonistic; but property and labor in the same class are essentially fraternal.

That's from the middle of the 19th century in the U.S. So when I ask a class about the relevant context, some students look at servility and suggest slavery as an issue, point out that Mann was writing for an audience in the North, or ask whether Mann was anti-slavery. (No one in my classes has mentioned the compromise of 1850, but that would fit with this tentative reach for context.) Few of them would have heard of Eric Foner's book on free-labor ideology, but I can probe a bit: slavery's part of the picture, at least in rhetoric, but there's something else there. What were some of the concepts used in the North to discuss slavery? I wish that probe worked more frequently than it does, so I usually point out the "different classes" phrase and ask what else was happening in the U.S. in the 19th century. At least one student usually mentions industrialization. So what's Mann arguing, I follow up? More faces light up at that point.

Part of the problem here is that Mann's argument is too familiar, a little too close to a human-capital argument for students to realize how new this was. (Maris Vinovkis credits Mann with that early human-capital argument.) Part of it is also that students don't have a visceral sense of the simmering conflicts in Northern cities, even after hearing about the religious conflicts in Boston in 1836 or Philadelphia in 1844 (the latter so-called "Bible riot"). Because all of that was also related to social class, industrialization, and immigration, I can almost feel Mann's sense of urgency here in promoting mass education ("common schools") as a cure-all for social conflict. But most students usually can't. The prose is too prosaic and the context insufficiently emotional to engage students in the same way that happens in response to the "kidnap the kids and eliminate the elders" instructions from the 17th century.

There's an additional layer to this context, because 1848 is a signal year in European history: revolutions galore and the publication of the Communist Manifesto. To a literate, well-connected American, Europe was dissolving in chaos in 1847 and 1848. What could prevent the U.S. from doing the same? There is no evidence I am aware of that Mann was explicitly referring to European events, but it would have been in the air in the same way that natural disasters are "in the air" around the globe today after the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. Even if he was not consciously constructing the passage above to respond to European events, it would have resonated more for someone concerned about social stability in 1848. 

There is nothing special about what I do in class: I take a simple question of context to push students about the importance of something Horace Mann wrote. And there is nothing particularly hard about asking what else was happening at the time. But while it's an easy task for me, this task flummoxes a lot of students. That task of pulling relevant context out of one's memory is the closest thing I can think of for the historian's automaticity, and looking for contemporary events and issues is the most obvious (but not the only) way to cut the issue. One might want to call this type of context affinity in time. I can think of other affinities which I might explore in other entries, but the key thing here is that this task is extraordinarily difficult for students. 

Why this is difficult is an interesting, substantive question beyond the usual "fact-process" dualism. You need a mastery of chronology to pull context out of your head, but to build that mastery you need a way to put the details into your head in a way that's not "one damned thing after another"--i.e., a mental scheme. And while I wish I could look inside my head to see what my internal schemes are, I suspect any attempt at reflection is going to fall far short. I suppose one metaphor might be a "thick" timeline of issues and events and trends inside my head, so that when someone says, "1848," I can think of a bunch of things (as described above). Or if someone tells you that the Little Rock crisis was in fall of 1957, you just might think of Sputnik and ask whether there might be a Cold War context to Eisenhower's decision to nationalize the Arkansas National Guard and send in the 101st Airborne.

In addition, you need to be able to filter out nonsalient issues. What else was going on in 1957? Let's see: the Ford Thunderbird that year was a particularly popular "muscle" car. And the Dodgers were planning to move away from Brooklyn. The Communist party won elections in the Indian state of Kerala. ABC started national broadcast distribution of American Bandstand. On the Road was published. You can find more details at the 1957 Wikipedia page, but going to an almanac-style "here's what happened" listing is an incredibly inefficient way to put something in context. But to be honest, I wish I had the problem of students who found too many potential contexts where I had to suggest filtering. Usually the problem is a lack of candidate hypotheses about context.

Spring break

Classes are not meeting next week, many students are away from campus, and many faculty are as well, so it's time for me to get stuff done. Certainly not as much as I'd like, but this is an opportunity to... well, maybe move from a molasses pace to a sludge pace on some projects. At least, I hope there are fewer fires to put out.

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 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.)

Books are not going to disappear from libraries

Student views of libraries are apparently all over the map when asked by the New York Times whether libraries need books anymore... but I think that's always been the case. Libraries serve multiple constituencies, and if you had phrased the question differently in different eras and for different media -- for example, "do libraries still need to stock cassette books-on-tape?" -- you'd have very different responses. Yes, public libraries still carry and loan audiobooks, though they're no longer on cassette tapes. 

Patrons like what they like, and librarians always have to figure out the right mix. Fundamentally, "books or ebooks" is the wrong question from the standpoint of library administration. It's going to be a mix of books, periodicals, audiobooks, video material, computer access, reference services, public space use, and outreach for public libraries and a different mix (but still a mix) for academic libraries.

From a public standpoint, too, "books or ebooks" is the wrong question. Funding public access to information is one of the best investments in the future I can think of. Yes, I think of libraries as part of the "constellation" of educational institutions (to borrow from Larry Cremin), and no matter how I may cringe when certain ones are used by students, it's better to nourish more sources of information than to be stingy.

February 11, 2010

Shoveling day

Friends and relatives in the mid-Atlantic are spending this week shoveling loads of snow. I've been shoveling, too, if not snow. It's time to deal with projects of various sorts, and I can't complain too much about them: recruiting people for certain tasks; responding to a bureaucratic emergency or three; getting various bills paid; talking with colleagues about potential projects; editing a batch of EPAA titles and abstracts for articles I accepted in late December so they can be translated into Spanish and Portuguese; and so forth. I should get a few more tasks done in the next hour before I head out to Afternoon Drive-Time.

May your shoveling day be productive, no matter what you're shoveling.

January 23, 2010

Ebook readers and markets

At the beginning of the month, one of The Big Things at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was the proliferation of electronic readers (or ebook readers), and as someone who bought a Sony ebook reader a few years ago for work purposes, I have a few thoughts that are different from the standard speculation you can find online.

I bought the Sony (a PRS-505 for the geeks) because I needed a device to hold article MSS for Education Policy Analysis Archives so I could squirrel myself and it away somewhere without distraction. Then I started carting student papers around in it, and then tried downloading articles onto it, as well as a few books for pleasure reading. It certainly served its main purpose for me, with a small but important exception.

The major weakness of the Sony for my purpose was displays of tables and figures, which tend to be important in professional research papers. Since the Sony's size mimics the mass-market paperback size, it cannot display a regular 8.5x11 (or similarly-sized A4) page without reformatting it. Reflowable text is beautiful, but reflowed tables are gibberish. The Sony's handling of PDF allows a sideways-display of half a page, but that still produces fairly tiny text and is disastrous if the midpoint of a page is not the logical breaking point for a display. Even with text-only PDFs, the reformatting to text-only is awkward, and often does not work for two-column pieces. For professionals who have similar needs, the larger-format devices are mandatory for most work purposes.

The other issue that would determine future purchases is annotation. I would like to be able to comment on student papers using a device. With my current device, I can read papers but cannot comment on them. For a variety of reasons, doing so on a computer is workable but awkward (at least for me). And moreso, the point is not annotation but creating annotations that I can share with students when I return papers. I don't know whether the annotation systems available on some devices attach notes to the documents in ways that can be shared, but an annotation system that is private, just for me, is a deal-breaker. I contacted the Entourage Edge folks, and they say that the scribbled notes on PDF documents would be added to the documents (and thus can be given back to students), but not typed notes. That'll do as a minimum.  I haven't heard whether the other large-format ereaders have (or will have) similar capacity. And of course there are the two major question marks in the near-term future, the Apple tablet and the Notion Ink Adam. I mention those two because an Apple tablet that's modeled on the iPhone will have multitouch zooming (extraordinarily helpful for reading figures) and the Adam looks like it will be the first tablet with a PixelQi screen. I've heard that the Edge may have a very good shot at education markets in Asia, but an Apple or a PixelQi tablet with sharable annotation would be very appealing to me. On the other hand, if a tablet has no documentation annotation I can share, it's not practical for me.

I am not typical of e-book reader users in general, but I am typical of some. The discussion I've read thus far too often ignores the likely fragmentation of the potential market for ebook readers and tablets and the way that people might think about and use the devices. Manufacturers and software developers are obviously making bets about which devices and software will capture enough segments to be profitable (and sustainable). Maybe we should think about these market segments as potentially "thick" in some commercial sense (likely to sustain either a type of device or a type of product) or "thin" (not likely to sustain a commercial enterprise).  (Okay, I'm using the "long tail" metaphor here.) Amazon clearly went for profiting on the device rather than a printer-and-cartridge system, and that was evidently a correct judge of the market (especially customers who had become used to heavily-discounted books from Amazon). Jeff Bezos benefited from Sony going first; in technology, sometimes being the second mover is the big advantage. Who knows if the creators of the Skiff reader or various hardware or software alternatives will hit a thick-enough segment? 

Some clearly amateur thoughts on this:

  • Someone aiming for customers who read primarily fiction and nonfiction in the "bestseller" categories need a smoothly-functioning catalog of books but not necessarily a huge title list or a large part of that segment. If you doubt me, guess what proportion of books is sold in airport shops and other non-bookstore retail outlets and then find documentation of whether you were correct. 
  • A multipurpose device (such as what Apple's tablet is likely to be) needs to be easy to use in its central apps. It does not need to have an enormous feature set to be commercially successful, and an open SDK will help the apps develop. This gives Apple a substantial advantage in tablets, though someone working with Android might catch up in terms of a singularly beautiful design.
  • Something that is more aimed at a niche, such as the Entourage Edge or the Skiff reader, needs to be head and shoulders above competition in doing its job well or the niche needs to be larger than expected.
  • Alternative for niche devices: be incredibly inexpensive and incredibly consumer-friendly.

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).

January 20, 2010

Odds and ends from the peanut gallery

It's a few minutes before closing at this Super-Brand coffee store, so it's time for a few thoughts...

  • The successor editorial team at Education Policy Analysis Archives/Archivos Analiticos de Politicas Educativas has unveiled the new website. New submissions should head there. For a few months you'll still see articles I accepted, but otherwise, go Gustavo and company! (My apologies for not having figured out how to get accented characters to show in this version of MovableType.)
  • I'm still feeling fine after the accident on the 11th. My car... well, let's just say that we'll be doing our part for the recovery, thanks to an insurance company and our bank account. 
  • The theme of the month thus far is "nothing happens without hiccups and red tape." I swear that if I die before the end of January, I'll have to fill out several forms before I'm buried or cremated. 
  • Did the Cowboys release Martha Coakley at the end of November? Sure looks like it now. 
  • Paul Krugman says he's "pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama." I like Krugman's public writings a great deal, but didn't Krugman give up on Obama several times in early 2008 (and in a rather nasty way)? Cue the editorial cartoonist and lines from Brokeback Mountain.
  • My daughter and I went on our last joint college visit over the holiday weekend. I wondered aloud if the sparkly bits in the sidewalk were either mica or the remains of Stephanie Meyer vampires. My daughter would have winced except that she barely got through Twilight without the gag reflex taking control.

The friendly mop is now telling me I need to go, though its wielder is saying otherwise. Time to go. 

January 16, 2010

Starting the semester with a bang

As some of you may know, my semester started out with a bang, or a crash, or at least some broken lights. Minor car accident Monday morning; I stopped for a yellow light, but the driver of the van behind me didn't get the clues. There have been some other things going on since the beginning of January, and here's just a smattering:

  • Ratification of a Memorandum of Understanding between my union chapter and the University of South Florida Board of Trustees to authorize a domestic partner health insurance stipend and an early retirement incentive program. I ran or set up four voting times on the Tampa campus, organized materials for the three smaller campuses, drove to collect the ballots from one of those campuses, ran the counting of ballots, answered questions from bargaining-unit employees.
  • Major collective bargaining session yesterday afternoon, which entailed a good bit of preparation.
  • Campus politics, which shall remain unspecified.
  • Did a longer turn than usual this week as Father Chauffeur, because both of my children are in high school, so their schedule was juggled for end-of-semester finals.
  • Ran around a bit more than usual because of the accident.
  • Ran around a bit to help my wife with her executor duties.
  • Ran around just to stay warm.
  • Finished preparing some articles to be published in EPAA later this month. Corresponded with new editor (hi, Gustavo!) on transitional issues.
  • Am more behind than I expected on some things this new semester. At least I won't be bored!
  • Tried to get in a reasonable complement of exercise, despite deciding not to take on martial arts the evening of the accident. (Some of the stuff we're working on this week involves hitting our partner on the collarbone/shoulder. I thought that wouldn't be smart on the same day.)

Tomorrow I head off with my daughter to a colder city than Tampa for one last round of college visiting, unless she wants to revisit a college before making decisions. Because it'll be a quick trip (and the new security procedures thanks to a guy who stuffs explosives in his underwear), I won't bring my work laptop. When I get back, loads of work awaits.  

January 4, 2010

And Bill Brass would run through the streets of Edinburgh shouting "Eureqa!"

If you are a social scientist and haven't checked out Eureqa, you should spend a few hours playing with it in the next few months, because it's entirely different from your prior experiences with statistical software. Featured in a Wired article last month, Download Your Own Robot Scientist, Eureqa is not a scientist but a statistical engine that generates potential formulae to solve a defined problem from data, evaluates the formulae as it goes, and does so using a set of operations defined by the user. The usual (somewhat tedious) method for those of us trained in social sciences is to think very clearly about the problem, define a potential model (or, in reality, the form of a function and the variables that would go in that function), and let software estimate parameters to minimize error defined in some way or maximize the likelihood of having observed the collected data. If the "think very clearly" sounds remarkably Cartesian, so be it. In the best of worlds, that a priori modeling can lead to interesting and useful findings, even if you're also exposed to John Tukey-like practicality (such as his 53h smoothing). There's also the "churn it out" school of automated stepwise regressions that used to be an excuse for researcher laziness, though I have recently accepted a manuscript for Education Policy Analysis Archives with precisely that tool used at one step (and for very justifiable and practical reasons--the authors were not being lazy one whit).

So in this world of "try out one well-justified family of models at a time" rushes Eureqa, threatening to either upset the applecart or lead to some very interesting possibilities. Instead of comparing a set of nested models, where summary models often allow inferential judgments of the utility of additional variables, Eureqa compares some very different models, where the conclusions one can draw in comparing models is restricted to the sample (where many people would argue we're always restricted, but I'll skip the metatheoretical discussion of inferential statistics). So what the heck is the use of Eureqa?

To get a glimpse of the possibility, let me tell you about my experience. Looking at one of the images in the tutorials, I saw a sine curve whose magnitude diminished, and I thought, "Okay, let's see how quickly Eureqa recognizes that," synthesized numbers in a spreadsheet to fit a formula with a magnitude that diminished to 0 asymptotically (i.e., as the independent variable headed to infinity), and plugged it into Eureqa, telling Eureqa that it could add, subtract, multiply, divide, and use sine and cosines in any combination. In a few minutes, Eureqa spat out an optimal formula that was identical to the one I had used.  Okay, so far so good, but I had been easy the first time out.

Next, I added an error term. Eureqa asked me if I wanted to smooth the data first. No, I said, and Eureqa had some problems, so I went back and checked the "smooth" box. Eureqa dutifully chugged away, and one of the candidate formulae was almost the same as the one I had used (minus the error term), but it wasn't the prime candidate after several minutes. Instead, Eureqa proposed a sum of two sine curves that had slightly different periods. I thought about it and realized, oh, yes, of course. One way to have a diminishing-amplitude sine wave was to have diminishing amplitude, but another is to have the sum of two sine waves with almost but not completely identical periods. As time goes on (or x increases), the waves shift from constructive to destructing interference, and the amplitude of the sum decreases. In a real-world environment, we would need to extend the time (or observe at higher x's) to disconfirm one of the two candidates--increasing amplitude after some time would lend evidence to the two-wave interference formula. Eureqa had neatly forced me to think of another way to see the data.

And that is the obvious first-order value of Eureqa, to generate different ways of seeing data. But it isn't the only value. And to make the argument for the second value, to generate reliable models for complex social data, I'll ask for some help from the late Bill Brass, a Scottish medical demographer I encountered in graduate school through the Brass logit relational model of life tables, a 1971 model of transforming a single model life table into life tables of real countries in real time using two parameters (alpha and beta--okay, so he wasn't exactly stellar in the naming-parameters department, but he was a brilliant practical demographer otherwise). The Brass logit model has some problems at extreme age ranges and for countries with unique mortality conditions, but given the complexity of mortality experiences through time and across continents, having any simple model that could take a model set of age-specific measures and transform it into something anywhere close to real experiences is ... well, amazing. And Brass did it without the help of microcomputers.

Since the early 1970s, a number of demographers have tinkered with the Brass logit model, and they have the benefit of microcomputers, but without Eureqa. Before microcomputers and fast computing using individual-level data, demographers had to use a combination of mathematical models and the type of statistical insight that Brass brought to life tables. So could demographers and other social scientists use Eureqa to generate this type of relational model for a range of data? Possibly, and certainly they could use Eureqa to generate candidate models. I'd be curious to see if Eureqa could come up with anything close to the Brass logit model if fed an appropriately-prepared set of data. Demography grad students, here's a great project--see if Eureqa can beat Bill Brass!

In the next month I'm finishing up my EPAA editorial duties (or coming as close to it as I can in preparing approved articles) and delving more intensively into unfinished projects. But there's a small project that's perfect for Eureqa. I have no idea if it'll come up with anything useful, but because Eureqa's proposed solutions are sample-dependent and Eureqa splits the sample into training and validation sets (and uniquely per run), Eureqa gives me a perfect routine for dull tasks: do work, take break to see how Eureqa is running, capture proposed solutions, restart the run with a new training/validation split, go back to dull task, rinse, repeat. It doesn't require the intensity of concentration I'll need for unfinished projects this spring.

January 1, 2010

Wannabe education reformers in the U.S. need to use English

Confession: I do not have a professional editor review these blog entries before they become publicly available. As a result, there is the odd grammatical error that I notice only after publication.

And yet, I do not abuse the English language deliberately. In contrast, one of the least attractive stylistic tendencies of wannabe reformers, reformists, reformistas, or whatever term you wish to use, is the blatant word abuse, and unfortunately we see that in Tom Vander Ark's blog entry December 26, which had impact and leverage (ab)used as transitive verbs. They are not quite as chalkboard-scraping as incent (which I have heard and read from Arne Duncan and Mike Petrilli), because they do exist as nouns (and impact does not hurt my inner ear when used as an intransitive verb). But good grief, friends: do not add business jargon monoxide to the conversation, or you have no ... hmmn... leverage with which to criticize others for the same sin.

December 31, 2009


For me, 2009 was full of transitions, from the private to the international. On the private side (or that affecting me directly), in addition to my mother-in-law's death, I'm wrapping things up (or winding them down) at the end of my five-year term as Education Policy Analysis Archives editor, and my daughter has her driver's license and is in the middle of applying to colleges. Publicly, we've had a Florida House speaker resign, a presidential inauguration, an almost-but-not-quite-complete collapse of the world economy, a (still-too-small) stimulus package or three, the 2008.5 Nobel Prize for Economist-Like Rambling going to Steve Leavitt for Superfragifreakowhatonomics, and landmark health-care legislation that might just get to a bill-signing ceremony next year. And I'm leaving lots of things off the list here for a variety of reasons. For both good and ill, 2009 was absolutely full to the brim. Here's hoping that 2010 gives all of us a little breather.

Oh, one of the list above isn't true. For a better summary of things that didn't happen this year, see Howard Troxler's year-end wrap up, part 1 and part 2.

December 19, 2009

What can graphic novels teach us about verbs in static displays?

I'm in my office this afternoon for a few hours getting some work-related puttering done.

While I'm procrastinating on the puttering for a few minutes, I want to talk aloud (or write publicly) about some thoughts I had in the last few days about how graphic novels convey verbs. Here's the problem: most forms of visualizing information are all about nouns--whether points on a graph or text inside chart boxes. In a few cases (such as with the wonderful, visualizations have implicit verbs (in Gapminder, changes). But for the most part, the existing "grammar" of concept mapping is all about nouns. I realized this in June when attending a digital-humanities unconference and someone who worked on Internet 2 was running a show-and-tell about a number of visualization tools. Great stuff! And then I realized why I was so uncomfortable: where were the verbs? Where do you get to show what the implicit model of the world is?

This issue is important because however useful visual representation of stuff (i.e., nouns) is, it is enormously hard and rare to put verbs in the picture. Minard's famous graph of Frenchmen dying throughout Napoleon's invasion of Russia is the exception, not the rule. But we think about the world with verbs as well as nouns, and those of us with some quantitative skills need to figure out how to (and help others) put verbs in visual representations, else we will be stuck with cryptic, largely useless concept maps as the default, too-often-brainless attempt to visualize ideas.

That challenge has been nagging at me for half a year now, and probably because it's the end of the semester, a few days ago I realized something obvious: what visual medium is able to convey verbs in what is ostensibly a static representation? Oh, duh, yeah: comics. Graphic novels. Whatever you call them, they've got action. Oh, boy, do they have action!

I am not sure exactly where to go with this. I don't have anything clear in mind except a few fragments: something that's the reverse of Edward Tufte's sparklines (reduction of visual information to stick in a line of text), or maybe something like the xkcd stick figures dancing within and on the margins of graphs, talking about what's happening. This is one of those times I wish I had wasted months of my adolescence reading comic books, because if I had, I would know exactly how graphic novels represent verbs.

December 18, 2009

Endings and beginnings

Earlier this week, the dishwasher broke. So we've been doing dishes by hand for a few days. We have a delivery of the new one tomorrow sometime, and the majority of the world doesn't have dishwashers, so what am I complaining about? Not complaining, but just thinking of how doing dishes by hand is a good metaphor for how much of my semester has felt: this should be going faster, easier, and for now, this is just life. If you see me in the next few months, don't ask about what's fallen through the cracks. I know, and I'm working on it.

It's the last day of school before break for the rest of my family, and after I submitted grades earlier this week I've been playing catchup on both work and nonwork chores. There's a boatload of editing tasks I've just started, and that will probably consume the bulk of work time over the next few weeks. There are some union-related tasks, some conversations with individual students about independent study and dissertation work, and some paperwork that I need to do.

In the meantime, there are some good things to savor: problems avoided or solved, friends and relatives with accomplishments or other good news, plans for travel with my college-hunting daughter or to observe Canadian faculty in the wild (i.e., at a conference), some projects of my own in process (and close to fruition), fun ideas that keep popping into my head for a long-term book project, other projects lined up that I am looking forward to working on, books I am looking forward to reading, and anything that brings a smile to my face for completely silly reasons.

Until I get a good bit of the chores done, I'll be on a light blogging schedule. Have a good rest of the month, a wonderful holiday if you celebrate any ongoing or upcoming holidays, and a wonderful start to 2010.

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.

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 25, 2009

My phone number is more accurate than your research

One minor irritation while I've been an editor this past half-decade has been the occasional slight sign that a manuscript author dumped the entire output of SPSS or SAS into a table, complete with 10 digits of specificity. Ten digits! Yes, these folks who compute regression coefficients, p-values, and R2 to the tenth digit based on a sample of 157 individuals are wizards of the inferential algorithm. (My apologies for the sloppiness: 157.0000000 individuals.)

There's only one problem: my phone number is more accurate, having 11 digits.  Here it is in all its glory: 1-813-974-9482. (That's my office number, incidentally, and if you're tempted to call it, you will receive a very nice recording of me pointing out that my e-mail is the better method to reach me, especially the day before Thanksgiving, though I don't mention Thanksgiving in the recording because it would be obsolete for most of the year.) I know that most North American chauvinists would think of my phone number as having only ten digits, but it really has 11. In North America, you can omit it, but that's a printing convention that's local rather than universal. Henceforth I will print my office number in all of my statistically-oriented manuscripts. And since, as we all know, he who can compute social-science numbers to the mostest digits wins, I shall be crowned Social Science Heavyweight at the next World Social Sciency Championship.

You laugh at me? Okay, here's the test: remove the last digit and see if your results stand. I'll bet they do. Then remove the last digit from my number and try to reach my office line. Ha! In my phone number, the last digit matters. Not so in your statistics.

Think about the last time you scanned a table with the results of an inferential statistical procedure. What do the digits of inferential procedural results tell you? The sign and the first nonzero digit tells you the direction of the relationship, the order of magnitude, and a rough scale within that order of magnitude. What does the second nonzero digit tell you? Generally in education research, the first digit is important, the second is close to bullshit, and given the frailties of even well-designed research, the third is far beyond bullshit. I remember some years ago when I submitted a manuscript to a journal edited by Howard Wainer, and if I recall correctly one of his editorial remarks declining the manuscript was his stance that in general no statistic should be printed with more than two nonzero digits. 

That's not quite true with descriptive statistics tables, where the measures may change only in the third or fourth digit. But it is certainly true with a vast array of inferential statistical claims where authors simply don't think before dumping the results, and that extends beyond manuscripts to the printing of various official statistics. There is one purpose I can imagine to printing meaningless digits: to check for fraud. But maybe we can stop at the second or third digit, or just provide all the meaningless digits in a public archive?

Incidentally, as long as the table is formatted as a table (not with tabs, dear author), I can export to Excel and round to an appropriate number of digits. No big deal to me as an editor, which is why it's a minor irritation... just something that makes me a tad more skeptical of newly-submitted manuscripts. But the general use of Too Many Digits (TMD) is a debasement of the public use of statistics (not that it was ever that high to begin with).

November 12, 2009

Race to the Top: review, revise, redux

I am in California this weekend for the Social Science History Association annual meeting, where we get to talk about Maris Vinovskis's book on the last quarter century of school reform, and since one of my copanelists Saturday morning is Jennifer Jennings, I finally get to meet the sociologist-formerly-known-as-Eduwonkette in person, face to face. Because several family members live in Costa Mesa, I also get to enjoy Kean Coffee about 20 miles south of the conference hotel/cruise ship (when the heck did the SSHA officers decide to book the Queen Mary??!).

While the focus of the book panel will be ... well, Maris's book, I'm sure we'll be talking about Obama education policy at some point, including Race to the Top. I was rushing around last night not getting enough done, so I didn't have a chance to do more than casually skim the stuff that's now available on the revised final guidelines. A few initial thoughts:

  • Bottom line? No idea. I traveled west and had coffee (see above), so I don't have a bad case of jet lag, but I've been on planes for 7 hours today. 
  • I very much like the competitive priority on STEM fields. That uses a standard device for focusing grant-writers' minds in USDOE competitions (the bonus points for meeting a competitive priority). (Disclosure: it looks like my state's department of education is following the push a bunch of us have been making about using Race to the Top funds for end of course exams, especially in science.)
  • From the list of changes made, it looks like there have been a lot of political calculations made on what changes had to be made to keep stakeholders in the game and what had to stay the same to satisfy policy goals.
  • Duncan is not anal retentive enough to make the points add up to a "nice round number." I have a suspicion this is deliberate, and if so I think I know the reason why.
  • People who focus on the total potential range of points for each section are missing an important feature of point distributions in scoring systems: it's the actual range and not the potential range that matters on rankings. If the potential range is 58 points from top to bottom on one component but the scoring leaves a real-life range of 10 points, it doesn't matter that the total number of points is 58. It could have been anything from 10 to 58. So what matters is how the reviewing panel looks at everything.

If we have time, I'll try to persuade Jennings to put on her Eduwonkette cape and save the state where I grew up. But I think California's problems are beyond what even a brilliant sociologist can solve. At least I get to see family members, which is worth the jet lag I'll be fighting in the next week.

October 10, 2009

One Blog Schoolhouse: the PDF

Should've been done a few months ago, but if you want to read the entire text of One Blog Schoolhouse, it's now available as a nonprinting PDF. (I recommend that you click the "PDF" link in brackets, since I don't know if scribd will convert a nonprinting PDF.) The entire thing. Absolutely free to read.

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.

October 4, 2009

Power outage

Some things you just have to laugh at. I charged out of the house this morning to get the car's oil changed and head to my office to chug through teaching and other work stuff. In the last five hours, I've spent half of the time waiting for the car (and trying not to grit my teeth at the television blaring in the waiting room) and then I saw the lights dim in my office 20 minutes ago as the power went out. I hear the generator outside my office keeping the HVAC minimally operating, and I can run this laptop on batteries for a few hours, but I think this is a signal (like the fire alarm a few weeks ago) that maybe I should shift to where I can get some work done, if not the work I intended to do (such as record a presentation or three). 

I think I'll prep a few things for another location and then head out.

So what has been the greatest (or funniest) frustration for you this week?

Update (8:45 pm): It was a power outage throughout the Tampa campus, and some side effects knocked out the university's course management system (Blackboard). Ironically, as my colleague Kathleen de la Pena McCook (who cowrites Union Librarian) this morning was the day that Kevin Carey's Washington Monthly prediction of an online higher-ed future appeared in the St. Petersburg Times.

October 2, 2009

Pausing to find my bearings

It's been one heck of a month. As I noted a few weeks ago, I had a death in the family at the beginning of September, but for some reason I did not mention in that entry that my mother-in-law was the family member who had died. Because my wife is Peggy's executor, we've had mourning and also business to take care of. While one of our pets is sitting with me at the computer this morning, I'm taking a few minutes to put some thoughts together.

When my father died five years ago, everyone in my family knew that was coming because he had had Parkinson's for 14 years. I told my students that there would probably be some time in the semester when I'd be out of town for 4-5 days, and after performing vicious triage on my obligations, I recognized I would still be behind for the entire semester and started grading student work at a nearby coffee place so I wouldn't grumble at my family to keep quiet so I could work. I probably kept a number of baristas in their apartments that year.

But while my father's death was hard for my children at the time, I'd done most of my mourning before he died, during the few months he was in full-time nursing care. I had planned to fly out to visit my parents a few days after his health suddenly turned worse in late 2003, and as a result I helped my mother visit a few nursing homes as she realized she could no longer care for my father at home, even with assistance. That was enormously hard for her on several levels, and I had that experience and some anticipation of his death to think about for a few months. When my father died, I spent time writing down some memories, and his funeral was full of wonderful stories told by many people. I've missed him terribly, but there was no surprise, and I had almost 39 years with a fabulous father.

Peggy's death was sudden, and that's more complicated as a result. I am relieved that she was highly competent, and at least on the business side there is nothing more than the inevitable headaches that come with being an executor (or an executor's spouse, for me). But even a highly competent adult leaves loose ends that have to be tied up, and that hangs over things. I've kept in mind that it is an act of love to do for someone what they cannot do for themselves. One of the highly-competent decisions Peggy made was picking a few great professionals to work with, and they've taken a lot of weight off my wife's shoulders. Still, my wife and I have probably lost at least a week of time just in going back and forth to where Peggy lived, a few hours from Tampa. That's just life, but it adds to the juggling act in the last month.

My colleagues have been very supportive and forgiving as I've been late on a number of things this month, and this forgiveness reminds me that the jobs of full-time faculty are not easily amenable to cross-training. We can pick up for someone else when there's an emergency, and anyone is replaceable in one large organizational sense, but it's just not possible for someone else to step in and do precisely what I'd do if I had had more time this month. What happens is not that someone else completely fills in the gap I've left but that people are more forgiving about what's dropped between the cracks. That's inevitable in small organizations, and it should remind us that in many respects large universities are confederations of the types of small organizations that don't adjust easily to personnel turnover.

More importantly, there's the support we've provided for our children, who have lost three grandparents in the last decade. They're teenagers, but they're our children, we worry about how they're doing, and it's a parent's job to worry about that sort of thing. (It's in the small print of our parent's contract: "You shall never stop worrying about your children.") And then there's the act of mourning as an adult. When you're in your 40s, the death of someone in your parents' generation should not shake your basic sense of reality, and you've gone through the death of relatives before. But there's always an effect. Peggy was a good friend and a wonderful grandmother to my children, and while I haven't started dialing her number by reflex (yet), I have had more than the usual share of distracted moments (or half-hours) in the last few weeks. The tsunami news coverage in the last few days has been a bit disorienting as a result, because in addition to thinking about the terrible loss of life I feel stupid for focusing on our family's loss while thousands of people lost their loved ones. Great for the ability to focus, to feel guilty for mourning. It's not a serious problem, but it's one of those moments in life where I wonder what evolutionary quirks led human psychology to be so strange.

I've had enough distracted moments in the last day to realize I needed to sit down this morning and shuffle through things, because I haven't had much of a chance to do that in the last month. So with a small set of errands to run this morning, a to-do list for when I return, and some thoughts written down, I'll head out in a few minutes.

Finally, for the record, a bearded dragon is as soothing to hold as any mammal. At least in our household, he has had a very productive career in beardie therapy.I highly recommend them as pets and think my son (the beardie's primary human) was very wise to suggest one several years ago.

September 12, 2009

Whirlwind notes

Idiosyncratic comments of the week:

  • I found out about a death in the family last week. Fortunately, everyone on that side of the family is sane, so we only have grieving and normal headaches involved. I am going to be even further behind than I had already anticipated. Or I'll just have to put more perspective on things (including spending time remembering and missing the person who's gone).
  • In part because of this, I've already had more driving than even the heavy-driving fall I'd been planning for. My mp3 player is getting a huge workout, and I've already heard the entire unabridged Free by Chris Anderson. I think it's the Chronicle of Higher Ed tech podcasters who quipped that if the unabridged audiobook is free, and you have to pay a small amount to get the shortened audiobook, what'll he charge you for not listening to it at all?! Anderson shows his ignorance of psychology by using the long-debunked Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs towards the end, but there are some very useful bits in the book.
  • Academic bloggers Dr. Crazy and Tenured Radical have written entries recently on colleagues who are parents that look like they think seven wrongs make a right (i.e., see two colleagues in Demographic A who are slacking, start insulting everyone else in Demographic A). Uh, no. Slacking off is wrong. So are insults. I love your blogging, Dr C and TR, and you're wrong here in the generalization.
  • Last night I capped off the shortened week by trying to avoid the Drowned Rat Syndrome when the skies opened up before a high school football game. Son in band is good; going to band performance is good (oh, yeah, there's a football game in there, too, somewhere); cancellation is understandable, but why not before we had to drive back through flooded streets? 
  • This is the second weekend in which I'm handling my online class over the weekend, when it seems a plurality of them are active. Tomorrow: more following of the discussion board, recording of presentation, message to students that there are online presentations that I create for a reason. And see how much I can read of their papers (including the batch last weekend whose planned grading has been blown up by family emergency needs).

Please take care. And in lieu of sending real or virtual flowers, please hug or call your loved ones.

August 7, 2009

Logjams in time... er, timejams?

For the last few years the pace of my life has been such that I've rarely had the chance to look at the ebb and flow of various things at work, largely because there hasn't been such a thing as an ebb. And while I'm not seeing an ebb right now, I see at least the least possible glimmer of hope that the logjam in my head and schedule is at least not getting worse. I have the next two articles for EPAA ready to go, the following two English articles for the journal mostly prepared, a slew of new submissions with their initial readings finished, several revisions read and decided on, and now I'm into decisions with reviews in hand and assignment of reviewers for new submissions. At least for the last year for me, revise-and-resubmit letters have been the hardest to write and taken the longest time, because each one requires explicit advice on what to change as opposed to reasons why the manuscript is not being accepted or minor additions to my standard "your article is wonderful! and here's what to do while preparing a final copy" template.

And, on top of that, I have one manuscript revision promised by the middle of this month, plus assorted other tasks. Oh, yes, and the semester begins on the 24th. But I'm chugging along on backlog and should get through the worst of it by the start of the semester, assuming disasters don't plop themselves in the middle of my life.

In other words, my foreseeable free time is feeling much like the economy: not heading downwards, bobbing along, and possibly looking up in the next three months. And, speaking of which, time to organize the logistics for the weekend. This afternoon and tomorrow: EPAA, maybe some manuscript revision when my editorial batteries run low. Sunday: visit to (quite wonderful) mother-in-law!

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 30, 2009

Beer summits for all!

I'm stuck (or indulging) in a weeks-long catchup mode for giant amoeba-like tasks, and I'm doing my best to avoid looking at e-mail more than once every day or so.

It's mid-summer on campus, and I will admit that part of my e-mail slowdown is fear of what will pop up as much as a desire to get my own work done. The summer is silly season as much in academe as in politics because many faculty are out of town on various expeditions, serious and not, and the downtime is when both serious and absurd ideas float without mooring. (The upside: staff can get a lot accomplished if not interrupted. The destructive potential is that some administrators or staff might try to create a fait accompli in the summer without having to run things by faculty, though I can understand sometimes why that could be tempting.) I've seen at least one absurd farce this summer, as well as a host of serious issues that I suspect would not be popping up in the academic year (which has a different potential for absurdity). But I've had to deal with enough real emergencies in the past year that I am on e-mail hiatus for most of each day in the next few weeks.

And if things go wrong on stuff that isn't a dire emergency, I have the solution: more beer summits! Have a disagreement with me or my union? Let's sit down with a pint each and hash it out. And even if you don't like Bud Light, Red Stripe, or Blue Moon, you can have your pick. That includes gluten-free beer for those with celiac disease, or something other than beer if that's just not your cup of ... beer. You understand, right?

July 25, 2009

Temporizing and teasing on tests and teacher evaluation

I still don't have time to expand at length on combining qualitative and quantitative sources of data for teaching evaluation, but given the hoopla surrounding the draft Race to the Top regulations, I should at least provide an update, or rather a bit of a tease for what's developing into a short paper-to-be. In addition to my fairly general understanding of some technical issues, I'm developing the argument that any point-based system for combining professional judgment and test scores needs to avoid fixed weights for the components of the system.

The explanation is not that technical, and I can sketch it here: the benefit of a truly Bayesian approach to using test scores to evaluate teachers is a reciprocal relationship between the decision-making authority of professional judgment and the power of other data (including test scores). A forceful judgment by professionals reduces the power of test scores in such a system, while tepid judgments increase the power of test scores. That is one possible solution to the thorny question of relative weights: if educators are willing to judge their own, test scores are less important (addressing the concerns of teachers unions and many administrators), but if educators are not willing to judge their own, test scores are more important (addressing the concerned of those criticizing the very low proportion of teachers given poor evaluations). 

In a point-based system with fixed weights (or fixed percentages of the total) assigned to individual components, you don't have a structure with a reciprocal relationship between the exercise of professional judgment and the authority of test-score data. But I think the dynamic benefits of a Bayesian approach can be created in a point system, as long as the weights are not fixed. I need to think through the potential approaches, but it's possible.

There: that's the tease.

July 22, 2009

On the proper state of being bothered

Are you bothered?

Seasonal bother: It's summer in Florida, and if you park a car anywhere outside a meat locker, touching a steering wheel earns you a second-degree burn.

Caffeinated bother: I started the day a little after 7 am at a local coffee shop, grading student papers. My brain fried about 210 minutes later, after a few cups of coffee and my getting to the point where two-thirds of the papers are now read (no, not two-thirds read this morning).

Unreasonable bother 1: I'm at a public library, where a children's program started in one of the library's rooms an hour ago, and one of my fellow (adult) patrons was bothered that there might possibly be a crying child anywhere in the building whom he could hear. (The child was taken out into the hallway reasonably quickly.)

Political/policy bother: Ezra Klein (along with Matthew Yglesias) seems to understand the long-term game of the Obama administration on health care (among other issues). Unfortunately, most reporters still don't get it, about health-care politics or, to pick another random topic except that it's my interest, education politics. It's too much fun to report the latest (wording-dependent) poll results or the latest pronouncements by the diva du jour

Unreasonable bother 2: TMI in the library. You really don't want to know (and neither did I). But in my head and heart, I know that I'd rather be bothered in the public library than not have a public library.

Intellectual bother: The popular philosopher's text by Howson and Urbach on Bayesian reasoning troubles me, less because of its style (which is fine, if dense for us nonphilosophers) or omissions (which I will trust statisticians can correct) than because of the disturbing but sensible point early in the book and that Steven Goodman has described as the p-value fallacy: statistical tests of significance say nothing about the probability of ruling in or out various hypotheses. If I understand Howson and Urbach's analogy between the standard discussion of medical tests and inferential statistics, the conditional probability of any hypothesis (after gathering data) depends not just on the inferential equivalent of false-positive rates (tied to statistical significance and p-values) or the equivalent of false-negative rates (power) but also on the underlying probability of the hypothesis being true. I pondered this last night while cleaning the kitchen, and the small point got under my skin. On what basis would a non-Bayesian (frequentist) respond? If I remember correctly, the easy response is to say, "Ah, a frequentist perspective is close to a Bayesian one with a non-informative prior." Except that the prior for categoricals, even with a non-informative assumption, depends on the number of bins, or hypotheses being tested. I think that the only way out for a frequentist is to either artificially restrict the number of hypotheses or to not care about the number of hypotheses being compared. To answer a question Gene Glass asked me a few years ago, it's just about at this point that my brain begins to dribble out my ears: historians are generally not theoretically minded. 

Unreasonable bother 3: I need to concentrate on an article that's already late, but rewinding to 7 am and having the whole day over again to work on the article as well as grading? Not going to happen.

Why bother: decaf nonfat latte with sugar-free flavoring, no whip.

July 14, 2009

Technical difficulties

We've had some strange technical happenings in my college today, and shortly after my class, my favorite tech wizard in the building appeared at my door: "I've been told to check your laptop for anything that may be causing network problems." Lovely. So I begged for a few minutes to prep some mp3s for class and transfer them and some documents to a flash drive, handed over my regular laptop, and picked up a loaner I am currently working on. I uploaded the mp3s to the appropriate place, started working on the document, and am finding myself all too distractible from a machine that I am not comfortable working on. (Poor ergo on keys, small screen, not customized to my preferences.) So if you see a long post later today or early tomorrow, thank the tech gremlins working at USF today.

June 28, 2009

The purpose of seminars/discussion

I'm at THATcamp this weekend and having a great deal of fun. (Check the Twitter archive for tweets with the #thatcamp tag...) But there is a lot of serious stuff here, and I was hoping that it would confirm or undermine the way I'm currently thinking about the problems of teaching online. The demography of the group doesn't quite give me enough of that reality check, since I'm in the minority as an experienced teacher; the majority of attendees are graduate students, staff members at one of the digital humanities centers in the country, or library/museum staff, but it still was a first shot at this. 

No disconfirmation in the relevant session, but it's honed the way I'm thinking about the purposes of a seminar or discussion. What many great humanities discussions share is the entree into and development of skills in a specific discourse and in "academicizing" more generally (to borrow a term from Stanley Fish). In memorable humanities discussions, teachers model analysis and establish an environment within which students can learn and practice close reading, the identification of key issues in a disciplinary or interdisciplinary context, the articulation of critical perspectives, and engagement in a dicursive community. 

Several characteristics of face-to-face classes contribute to that: the ability of a teacher to take any issue and analyze it extemporaneously, the ability to annotate material for everyone present (if verbally), the probing of assertions with either questions or counterarguments, and the capacity to revise arguments on the spot.

There are online tools for some of this, if without the immediacy. Diigo is a great social annotation tool; while it's not the type of immediacy that happens in close readings in class, I have some anecdotal evidence that it can be powerful for students. Teachers could take issues that pop up in discussion boards and expand upon them by modeling analysis and should probably be careful to construct prompts that set the stage for that. And I've been thinking about requiring weekly recorded fishbowl sessions with small numbers of students in my fall online class, as a way to generate some immediacy in the engagement.

In other words, no great insights, but the honing itself is important. And it required a bunch of people who are very comfortable online getting together face-to-face to bat around some ideas. There was an ironic moment in the session related to that fact: One staff member from the Center for History and New Media left the room just before the session to address some technical issues. I started moderating, and we generated a list of functions for seminars and discussions in general. She returned to the room, and as she started to talk a few minutes later, she said, "I'm sorry if this was mentioned before... I wasn't here at the beginning of the session."

June 23, 2009

One more reason not to use Elsevier

If fake journals created at the whim of pharmaceutical companies weren't bad enough, how about paying people to assign five stars to textbooks in Amazon's review system?

Being paid to sit in a/c

As Notorious Ph.D. wrote at the end of last week, most nine-month faculty do not get a vacation in summer but are just unemployed and often still have to work. Some such folks have plenty of resources to tide them over until the fall, others have a salary that is stretched out over twelve months, and yet others are paid fairly pitifully. I'm in none of those categories, having a salary that's well below the average for rank and discipline but higher than the median U.S. salary and considerably higher than the average wages through human history. I also have a paid teaching gig this summer, one course, and for most of yesterday from about 8 am until 9 pm, I was reading papers or engaged in various class logistics. Last week, any time not in class was spent on union work or a teaching workshop for high-school history teachers on the Spanish Civil War and American involvement in it. The latter is a far cry from a Teaching American History project, but it gives me a taste of what the best of workshops can be like.

This morning is one of those days when I had a substantial incentive to get to campus early: when I woke up, the temperatures were already in the mid-80s (F.). Right now, the weather station at Tampa International is recording 85 F. with 82% relative humidity. I keep telling myself that at least the sauna is free, and the driver of the car parked next to mine this morning added, "In the north, you have to shovel stuff." For the record, 82% humidity in mid-80s temperatures is darned close to shovelworthy, but not yet.

So I'm in my office, and with luck I'll be able to grade some straggler student papers before class. Because of last week's workshop and a whole set of other things, I'm behinder than usual on other matters. And if you think the third-to-last word in the previous sentence is not in fact a word, you may not have been reading a slew of student papers recently, and you might be one of those language mavens who would like to bury the student body, preferably next to Jimmy Hoffa (apologies to Strunk and White).

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 13, 2009

Mostly useless... except for blogging

I don't know if any other bloggers has the experience I occasionally do, of wondering if people ever read my blog to see if I'm skipping work that I owe them. At almost any time, I owe scads of work to others, and I suppose they might all think I'm shirking my work when I blog. I suspect that is now true for Twitter and Facebook as well.  It's probably more of a suspicion with the social-networking sites, in part because there are a lot more people at any time twittering and puttering on Facebook than are writing blog entries.

I may post a few entries tonight, primarily because I can't concentrate on reading this evening. What do you do when distractible to the point when a gripping war memoir starts to put you to sleep? In my case, it'll probably be mopping the kitchen and blogging. And wondering who wonders why I'm blogging instead of working on a Saturday night.

Oh, yeah. Saturday night. That explains it, too.

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.

June 6, 2009

Sifting priorities, micro and macro

I had such good intentions this morning. After dropping off my daughter at the High School o' SATs, I figured I'd sit in the local Starbucks and read student work while she was wearing down No. 2 pencils. So there I was at about 7:45 in the morning, listening to slightly-too-loud Sinatra and reading drafts of one section of the major paper for the class I'm teaching this summer. After about a third of the batch, I bailed on both student reading and the environment of too-loud soft music and too-loud jovial fellow customers. I listened to Scott Simon's interview of Naturally 7 while driving a few blocks to the library branch that just opened up, and I'll sit here for the meantime, trying to figure out what to do for the rest of the weekend. As usual, I have Too Much to do, and I have to do some of it and not the rest. May I make the choices wisely, but more importantly, may I make the choices consciously.

In many ways, education policy and policy debates are about the same types of choices: you can't do everything at once, you can't fix everything at once, and being ambitious requires being selective about where you spend energy. It also requires a big-picture perspective. That's part of why I shook my head at Norm Scott's confectionary history of UFT. There's an important role for internal debates inside unions, and I have respect for UFT activists who are willing to go toe-to-toe with the most powerful teachers union leader in the country, but there are huge leaps of logic in Scott's thumbnail history and a failure to see a crucial big-picture issue.

Scott assumed that there was an overarching "sellout strategy" that Al Shanker consistently used after spring 1968, and that the sellout strategy was based on a circumscribed realpolitik vision of unions:

After the brutal '68 strike Albert Shanker knew the UFT could never again win much more than salary increases for teachers, and at some point only those at the expense of selling out. Thus over the next 15 years was born the "new unionism" where the union no longer is an antagonist but a cooperative partner with management.

The problem with this argument is not that it has no basis in fact but that it gives far too much credit to a single individual for the direction of the UFT (and AFT). Shanker was certainly a forceful unionist, and both the UFT and AFT were shaped by his leadership, but the general dilemmas facing UFT in 1968 were not new or unique, Shanker would never have been able to take the UFT on strike without the agreement of hundreds of UFT leaders, and there is something odd about the obsession of union dissenters with a single leader.

It's the last that's the most surprising to me on both intellectual and political grounds. If I were a member of ICE (a dissenting caucus within UFT), I would not be obsessing about Randi Weingarten. While focusing on individual targets can be useful for energizing one's base, it's useless for public discussion and the nuts and bolts of organizing and campaigning. To put it bluntly, it's following the reasoning template offered by the New York Post, whose editorial board loves to focus on personalities and the imagined virtues and vices of key figures. Imagine for a second that Shanker had died fifteen years earlier than he did, in 1982 rather than 1997. How would the history of the AFT have been different?

Oh, wait. We don't have to speculate. We can look at what's happened to the AFT in the past 12 years, since his death. There have certainly been stylistic differences, and the AFT has a far less closed culture (and is thus healthier) than it was at Shanker's death. But many of the strategic decisions taken in the late 1990s and early part of this decade would probably have been taken if Shanker had been alive, and it wasn't because anyone at AFT held seances to figure out "what Al would think" (despite the jokes made about Richard Kahlenberg's attempt to channel Shanker and probably some debates framed in that way). 

Consider the debates about mayoral control in New York City. I don't pretend to know the inside politics, but anyone looking at the picture three months ago could have predicted a few things:

  • Mayoral control would not be extended precisely as is, but neither would it end, and whatever came out would be a political compromise.
  • There would be test scores released that would be spun by multiple sides, and almost surely inaccurately on multiple sides.
  • Weingarten would have to make choices about where to push for change in mayoral control.
  • Someone would accuse Weingarten of being a sellout no matter what position she took, because she would be presumed to have given her okay for whatever came out.

I can't see either the logic in Scott's understanding of his own local or how Scott thinks teachers unions should behave in public debates such as over mayoral control. He either is using Shanker as a synecdoche for the strategic choices many UFT leaders have made over the decades or truly thinks that the key problem is that the wrong charismatic leader is in charge. Okay: Weingarten will be gone from the active UFT leadership in some months, so who's going to be the next target? I suspect that Scott knows deep down that his fight is with a very large group of fellow unionists who just disagree with his desire for more open conflict. 

One of the dilemmas with collective bargaining is the fact that the act of collective bargaining channels an adversarial conflict into a pattern of routines that then circumscribes relationships between union and management. Sit down and bargain, ratify, enforce agreements, picket and strike, lobby publicly for your members' interests and values: these are the public tools of power for a recognized union. A skilled union leadership knows how to use more than one of the tools at any time and if both wise and lucky will use the right tools more often than the wrong tools. An unskilled union leadership relies on a narrow set of tools in a predictable and increasingly less effective way until its members have essentially lost all the advantages of representation. But as several labor historians have pointed out (and my apologies for forgetting the names right now), there is no way to avoid the fact that if you buy into the legal authority of a union, you then buy into the set of tools that gives you.

Buying into that set of tools is not the only choice, of course; there's the historical example of the Wobblies who disdained contracts and collective discipline. I don't mean to suggest that the alternative is to match the violence by some Wobblies, but suppose for a moment that a union's leadership essentially ignored contracts, contract enforcement, and the like, and instead let the union culture evolve into wildcat direct action much of the time. There are two problems with arguments that unions should look more like the Wobblies (absent violence) than the UFT. First, I don't think it's a very smart political move. Because this country has 70 years of at least putative legal protection/recognition of union organizing and close to 40 years of effective public-employee organizing, most of the general public would conclude that anarchic direct-action participants over the age of 22 are trying to eat their cake and have it, too -- have the benefits of legal recognition without trying to take on any responsibility to follow the consequences of that recognition. In addition, in the internet age, glaring inconsistencies in the explanations of direct-action participants will make a union look like its members are less in touch with reality than George W. Bush, more manipulative than Dick Cheney, or both.

Perhaps more importantly, a lack of collective discipline and strategic choice is a path that is going to lose more often than win. Direct action does work where it's organized and lucky. It does not always work, and as one observer noted about the United Teachers of Los Angeles one-day strike fizzle, if it's intended as a public show without a broader strategy around it, it's nothing but street theater, perhaps entertaining and good enough for the evening news, but not enough to shape policy.

Maybe Weingarten needed to drive a harder bargain (and I think that's a reasonable position to take, that she made her peace too early), but you are making an implicit argument against collective discipline if you pretend that a union doesn't have to make strategic choices, make bargains with adversaries, or decide what is a reasonable settlement.

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 31, 2009

Notes on a Sunday afternoon

About an hour ago, I was fearing that I'd have to drive again to my office because I had left feedback sheets there, in the way that I realized last night I had goofed during the week, failed to print them out and failed to bring home the right cable to transfer student papers from my computer to the ebook reader. One drive to campus early Sunday morning later (with detour to park for walk with spouse), I was back home for the very first transfer of stuff from new university laptop to ebook reader. Works.

I suspect this computer cost the university about 70% of what my old computer did, and like everything else computerwise, it's much faster. Good things: wider screen, same weight, runs cooler, faster, has more flash-card readers, has integrated webcam and mic, universal PC image gives me access to a range of program installation so I don't have to hunt all over the internet tubies to install my essentials, VPN (virtual private network) program that works without clogging the computer. Okay things: twice as much HD space. Since I don't engage in huge amounts of multimedia stuff, that's fine. Weird things: (1) Dell fingerprint reader. Tried it for two days, and now it's off, since I am obviously trying to forge my own identity (or so says the computer). (2) Microsoft Office 2007. I'll deal, but I don't see what the big deal is.

For the 1.2 readers curious about Friday night's odd entry, it came during coming-back-from-cafe-drive pondering time when a few thoughts came together. The motivating issue: what do you do if the relative size of a problem is large enough that targeting makes absolutely no sense? And that wandered into a few ideas about ways to resolve apparently irresolvable problems. There are two ways of looking at the three techniques in that list (fuzzy-logic algorithms, multiple imputation, and limits): each moves away from determinative solutions in some way before returning to one, and each adds degrees of freedom in some way to the analysis. And of the three, I can only figure out why one (multiple imputation) should work, in the larger sense of "yeah, I grok that." There is probably nothing substantive to work with in the list, but I wanted to write it down so I didn't forget it.

As usual, May has been a whirlwind (two birthdays, one anniversary, end-of-K-12-and-academic-year-in-higher-ed stuff, beginning of summer term stuff, ...). This year June will be hectic, but not quite as much.In a few minutes, I will head somewhere with nothing internet-capable, so I can do some reading of student work. I will see how much I can catch up with things this week, before my spouse heads to two weeks of professional-development summer camp/h***. (Not all PD is bad, but her experiences with her district staff has been mediocre at best. But she says it's not h***; it's purgatory, since it'll end.) But time to fit in some peace and quiet. Yes, reading student work out of reach of the internet counts as peace and quiet.

And I'm not sure for whom I'm rooting in the NBA finals. I grew up in L.A., but I live in Florida, and more importantly, I can't help but admire Howard's work ethic and ability to dominate a game. Then again, Bryant isn't exactly porridge. I think I'll just hope for a series anything like the more exciting series thus far in the playoffs.

May 28, 2009

OCD in collaboration

I spent some time this afternoon working with colleagues in a teaching-like context (planning a weeklong summer workshop), and while we had talked about a number of possible ways to run the week, it wasn't until one of us brought in a grid of the week divided into days and hours that we started to flesh it out. We now have most of the week sketched out, including accommodations for when one of us is unavailable because of prior commitments. 

This level of planning is essential because it's hard to think about portioning out 30 hours in a single week in collaboration with others (yeah, yeah--assistant principals and head nurses are ridiculing me as they read). But we're cooperating. Thus far, only one of us at a time is heading off on a tangent, and we are politely taking our turns at being distracted.

At least the project is a blast. It's one of those outside activities with a nominal stipend where I don't really want to figure out my hourly wage for it, but it's one of the most worthwhile extra projects I've done in many years. Yes, you'll all find out about it in due time, since the work products will go public sometime in the next year.

April 28, 2009


My apologies to everyone to whom I owe work and to readers who would like extended blog entries on the future of higher education, today's NAEP trends report, teacher demographics, and so forth: I've been squeezed from too many directions to have much coherent to say, apart from about 60 minutes this weekend where several entries wrote themselves. Each little thing that takes my attention has consequences down the line on tasks, and the effect of the cascade is delayed work. Welcome to higher education in the 21st century, folks, and my apologies for the construction in the hallway. We really didn't plan for the leaky ceiling, but we'll clean up the place as soon as everything is done. Or close to done.

Cascade is also a good metaphor for the consequences of our economic and budget woes. I'm becoming aware of a subtle shift in the attitude of faculty in some departments at my university, something that began when the university gave layoff notices to several dozen staff and now has a consequence for faculty careers (more than lower staff support). I've found my own attitude on some things shifting in parallel ways, and through this I'm discovering the inside of a changing zeitgeist. It's an interesting experience, I have no idea how representative this is, and I wonder how many other historians are having this dualism of having their perspective shift and then think, "Oh, this is how social history works."  For a variety of reasons related to confidentiality and my role as a chapter president, I can't be any more specific, but I can give another example: a friend of mine who once visited Ellen Goodman to complain about a column Goodman had written in the Boston Globe that had been critical of welfare recipients. After complaining, my friend heard Gooman reply something like the following: "That's well and good, but you have to understand that the majority of women now work, they go to work when their children are young, they manage the tensions that involves, and as a result they are less tolerant of other mothers who aren't making the same effort." Zing. That statement doesn't wipe out the points that a number of academics have written about welfare politics, but it captures one of the knock-on effects of growing female labor-force participation.

So while I have some other things to say about Mark Taylor and the future of the universities, I'm still in the midst of things that are more subtle and I think more transformative than Taylor's tendentious critique of higher ed.

April 22, 2009

Margins for error in policy

We're operating without water in my building for today and tomorrow, at least until the lab reports come back after the drop in pressure overnight. Faculty and staff know, so they'll get to know their colleagues in nearby buildings. I feel sorry for students who run to the right (usual) place and then hope to dip into the bathroom right before class without knowing in advance that the bathroom is unavailable; I hope they all give themselves a little extra margin for error in timing.

I wish the same for policymakers, that they give themselves and their desired/favored policies some margin for error. A policy that falls apart without perfection is a doomed policy, and while everyone understands this, it's sometimes hard to put in place. Here's the practical difference between the stimulus package and Geithner's management of financial policy: the stimulus package can do a lot of good even if implementation is imperfect. I may not get my desired high-speed rail line going from Tampa to New York or Chicago, but someone will get jobs, take the money and spend it, and thus help replace the demand we're losing in this downturn. I'm much more concerned about Geithner's management of the financial mess and the resuscitation of credit markets, because I think there is far less margin for error without nasty consequences (either a waste of money or ineffectiveness).

To some extent, the discussion of the difference between assurances and firm enforcement in federal education policy is an issue of margin for error. I'm an historian, so I can go back to the prehistory of the 1960s (for all you young wonkish types) and Gary Orfield's first book, The Reconstruction of Southern Education (1969). As Orfield explains, Southern states resisted and tried to work their way around the requirements of the Civil Rights Act's Title VI (nondiscrimination), and it took some years for the federal government to make a bona fide threat of enforcement before school districts would desegregate in response to demands by the Office of Civil Rights. Someone who expected instant enforcement would have been sorely disappointed. Someone who expected that lawyers and the federal government would have to push and push hard for several years to begin the ball rolling -- and really rolling -- would have been more realistic.

There's isn't very good language for talking about this with education policy other than the vague terms implementation and transition. Some fields do have practical terms, though. For example, in meteorology the term I have heard tossed around with regard to hurricane forecasting is the "path of least regret." That means that if the choice for hurricane forecasters is between alerting people to evacuate when there is a definite chance it's unnecessary or failing to alert people to evacuate when they might really need to, the forecasters see evacuation or other preparations as the path of least regret. That term does not mean that forecasters always pick the path of least regret, but the language allows them to discuss choices in a clear fashion.

I'll be clear: while I agree with some of the mandates in ARRA money, I've already gone on the record as skeptical of unique student-teacher record linkage. But because regulation is a fact of life in both state and federal education policy, I think it's important to step back occasionally and think about the broader issues involved. That's part of why I've come to think that accountability systems need have a positive defense that teachers and schools can use, because it can allow systems and individuals to manage risk in ways that benefit students. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Basic takeaway: all regulatory policies need some margin for error.

April 18, 2009

Research blog started

For those who want to walk into the weeds with me on a new research project, feel free to follow my new research blog hosted at USF. Dorn's dangerously public research blog has the subtitle "conducting research without a net," and I am likely to fail in public view. [Update 4/20/09: the blog server's database had a problem over the weekend, but it's fixed this morning. I swear, my entry did not break the internets.] See today's entry for an an example of a "duh, this is why you don't look at your project at 9:30 pm" story. That's not quite true: looking at the project at 9:30 on Saturday showed me something I didn't pick up the last time I worked on the data at a perfectly sane time. But that's what being a tenured faculty member is supposed to allow and even encourage: taking greater risks either in terms of potential failure or the time required for a project.

For those who are curious about the background for this project, we currently don't have a good way to translate administrative reports of enrollment by grade into a trustworthy measures of graduation. Chris Swanson's work doesn't count without considerable assumptions, but that's not a shame at all, since no one else's does with the exception of measures adjusted for interstate migration (such as Rob Warren's), and that's not feasible except with states and other large population units. Longitudinal measures such as the NGA and federal regulatory graduation statistics will go a long way to fixing this, but there will continue to be an important need to be able to work with administrative data. And it's an interesting intellectual puzzle.

In my spare time in the past few years I've been trying an analytical approach using whatever meager skills I have in formal demography. There are limits to that, and I've decided to try a different approach, simulating a range of conditions of potential high schools and looking at relationships that way. This'll start with the simplest approach, a hypothetical world where the student population at schools never change, each ninth-grade cohort has identical experiences, and no one transfers in or out. If I can look at that artificial world, I might be able to relax those assumptions one at a time.

But I need to be able to generate data for that world that is plausible, as opposed to something I could generate by my imagination. So I'm playing around with data from the National Longitudinal Sample of Youth cohort beginning in 1979 to have a set of nationally-sampled data from real, historical adolescents with a year-by-year longitudinal record of school attendance and high school graduation. From that, I'll generate a set of synthetic (or Monte Carlo/simulated) cohorts with a range of grade retention and graduation. Consider it a pilot, or proof-of-concept, or just playing around.

If your spectator sport of choice is not baseball or opera, follow the new blog. As I've said, I'm as likely to fall flat on my face as not.

April 10, 2009

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 30, 2009

Seattle will be drier

I spent some time this weekend finishing the first complete draft of a talk I'm giving in Seattle on Thursday. I'm going to be heading there while a few thousand historians are leaving Seattle after the end of the Organization of American Historians meeting. I'm either expecting to find a time machine or I am heading there for a different meeting (Council for Exceptional Children). Last time I was in Seattle, it was wetter and colder than what's forecasted for the middle of this week. We had a drenching rain in Tampa this morning, so things will even out in my personal experience this week, even if not for the world.

I hope my neighbors weren't paying close attention while I was timing the draft. I don't read papers word-for-word, but I wanted to get a sense of how far I'm off on time, so I read it aloud while alternating between the laundry room and the kitchen.

Oh, the topic? Accountability and students with disabilities. I think I know how I'm ending the hour, but the cliffhanger before the third set of commercials is the tough part right now, and I haven't yet decided if Jason's going to live. If he does, I'm going to have to tear up the last act and start fresh. I've given a spoiler, haven't I?

More seriously, this talk is giving me the opportunity and prod to think through some connections between areas of education politics that I mentally put on "percolate": the democratic rationale for public education, tensions between public and private purposes of schooling, and what technocratic mechanisms may be useful for (and in what circumstances). When I get back, I have to think about potential outlets and how to get a potential coauthor to give up enough time to participate (and the value involved in that). 

The only serious performance question I have is the extent of corny jokes and how far I can/should push them.

  • An RTI Tier 2 intervention plan and a Writ of Mandamus walk into a bar...
  • Peter Singer dies and finds himself at the Pearly Gates facing St. Peter: "So your most important goal right now is to avoid pain?" St. Peter begins...
  • How many IEP team members does it take to screw in a lightbulb?...
  • A rabbi, a minister, and a psychometrist are in a rowboat in the middle of the lake...

Maybe not those jokes.

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 22, 2009

Needing a break, even for a hardened historian

During spring break, I starting reading some books on the Spanish Civil War, and I'm finding it tough slogging: it's not inherently hard reading, but it's hard to read for long about a story that ends badly, where thousands of people lost their lives and a country turned into a dictatorship that lasted for decades. I'm finding myself putting down a book after about 20 minutes of reading and needing to find something much more upbeat about life.

This is a substantial change from when I was a college student or grad student and read about all sorts of tragedies without its affecting me in the same way. After my first semester of exams, I read The Painted Bird... as a break from studying before my plane flight home. So either I was a hardboiled adolescent/young adult who has softened, or having children has changed how I react (and, yes, I teared up a bit when reading several Patricia Polacco books to my children), or the current economic crisis and the genocides of the past 20 years have been making such tragedies seem much closer. 

That, and maybe those of us who study the history of education have it easy, because even when schools have educated children worse than we'd like, the children have still been alive.

New media and academe

A few somewhat-related ideas floating in my head this afternoon:

The persistent value of blogging. While many others assert a professional value of Twitter and LinkedIn, and I am sure they can be used in that way, I will stick to blogging: it's public, it captures thoughts that require more than 140 characters, and I cannot think of a better way to capture a conversation between academics that is lively and yet substantive, such as the mini-debate evolving today (today!) between Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman about the financial rescue plan to be unveiled tomorrow. DeLong and Krugman are taking the time to explain academic arguments in a way that is accessible to the rest of us. 

Libraries as new-publishing entrepreneurs. Print-on-demand technology may give fresh legs to the long-form academic argument. It has created a new business model for commercial publishers such as Information Age Publishing, it lets traditional academic presses cross-subsidize low-demand work at much less cost, and it has let academic research libraries in the front door of publishing. In my own professional sphere, it's become evident that research libraries contain some incredible entrepreneurial talent, and there are some under-the-radar developments that belong in the best of social entrepreneur literature. Update March 23: this morning's news about the University of Michigan Press should be seen as wholly good news on this front.

The whatever-works model of textbook production. This doesn't exist (yet), but I am hoping that it will. In the competition between standard text publishers and open-source divas, the winner will eventually be college students and whichever group can figure out how to create low-cost texts that still provide royalties to authors. That may involve open-source publishing (in which case the payments wouldn't exactly be "royalties"), or it may involve megacorporation publishers. Or something else like the Kindle or Sony Reader. But the next decade is sure to make this all very interesting.

March 21, 2009

The world is slowing, I'm speeding up, or I have acquired a few afterburner kits

I am now far less behind than I was in early December. The next EPAA article (to be published April 10) is in the can; I have another 5 in various post-acceptance stages, a bunch of decisions to be written up from my scribbles and reviewer comments, a revision ready to read, grad-student manuscripts in my "to read when I am nowhere near online" cache, a few more obligations out the door, more paperwork done, a small book out, several problems ironed out with the USF administration before they became crises, a few proposals inside USF, etc. 

A good part of this progress is thanks to one of the USF graduate students, Judy Castillo, who is editorial assistant for EPAA this year (my first, and of course I get this wonderful support as I'm in the home stretch for my editorial stint, but I'm incredibly grateful for her organization and editorial skill). I also owe thanks to some chunks of time hoarded and my decision to cut out several trips as I was sick twice in the last few months and looked at the obligations. So I am not headed to AERA in San Diego, I did not go to the AFT higher-ed conference in Miami, and I did not go to Tallahassee two times that I would have liked to. I suspect that my spouse will tell me to eliminate at least one or two more trips before the end of the academic year. And for several reasons I will not be traveling in the first half of the week any time next year, unless I have one of my children with me.

Note that I did not say I am ahead. I have three embarrassingly-late academic obligations to clear up, and other things that will continue to pop up or need to be addressed, including the EPAA MSs where I have an e-mail that needs to be written up (these are usually revise-and-resubmit requests because that takes time to condense the advice and figure out what are the highest priorities). But I am far less behind and have many fewer embarrassingly-late obligations at the moment than I did several months ago.

As the economy crumbles, at least my professional life is calmer than it used to be. My thanks to all the afterburner help I've been receiving in recent months.

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 16, 2009

A letter from someone else's Stu Dent

I generally don't write about students I am currently teaching. I will occasionally write about events months or years later, but generally not in the same semester. But I have an e-mail this morning from someone else's Stu Dent:

Hi I am from England, currently studying a [type of] degree in [field]. For my last piece of work, we have a 3000 individual project to complete. My project is trying to answer this hypothesis: [hypothesis in a field far from mine]. I have found some recent statistics which have your name attached: [what follows is a statement I don't recognize]. Unfortunately I found this data a few months ago, and did not reference it properly. I would be extremely grateful if you could send me a link where you got this information from, or send me a link to your document showing this information.... Thank you, Stu Dent

Dear Stu, Looking closely at your e-mail, I will confess that your statement is entirely unfamiliar to me, and I don't think I've ever written those words.

Good luck with your project. It's designed so that YOU do the hard work of research because it's in your best interest as a student. So I'd be undercutting the whole point of the project if I didn't give you the chance to learn from it by doing it entirely by yourself.

This is not nearly as bad as graduate students who spam an e-mail list saying, "Please complete this survey online" or any student who writes, "I'm writing on X [very well-studied] topic; can anyone help me with the literature?" But you think that in an upper-level course in any program, students would still have learned that it's their job to do the research. And if you're going to contact a faculty member at another institution, you think that there might be some value in looking to see if the faculty member is an expert in what you're studying. Sigh.

February 24, 2009

Sick leave and pensions

I'm taking one of my rare sick days today, and while I don't have that much stamina to concentrate for a long time, I'll note just a few thoughts about debates over teacher pensions a la Chad Aldeman's comments. First, the entire debate strikes me as largely unconscious of or compartmentalized from the larger context or debates over retirement in general. First, if pension plans are underfunded, the problem is not that they're overgenerous but at least partially that state legislators aren't willing to set aside the money to put them on a sound actuarial basis. Florida's retirement system used to be underfunded, and one of Lawton Chiles's primary accomplishments as governor in the 1990s was changing that. And I figure that if my dysfunctional state can fix a pension system, so can any state.

Second, Aldeman's point about looking at defined-benefit and defined-contribution systems together rather than in an either/or sense makes sense... and anyone who talks to a financial planner will (or should) hear the basic point they all make about the triad of funding retirement (Social Security, pensions, and personal assets). Michael Katz makes a similar point in The Price of Citizenship about the public-private nature of the modern welfare state that combines different categories of institutional structures. I don't know about you, but when Michael Katz and financial planners agree on a description of retirement, I'm going to believe that.

Third, the debate has this odd "leveling down" tone to it--not in the literature that Alderman is referring to but in political debates I've occasionally seen among state legislators. Because some people don't have decent retirements, then teachers shouldn't, either. (Somehow the higher pension payouts for police and fire aren't brought up in those discussions...)  I don't understand why that is either a practical or a moral claim for public policy, but that may be my unwell state. Maybe if I had a few gazillion fewer viruses in my system, I'd understand the reasoning better.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly: any concerns you or I might have about underfunding of defined-benefit pension plans should be dwarfed by concerns about health-care costs. Social Security's structural problems are a pittance compared to health care. State pension plan underfunding is minor compared to the looming costs of health care. If you're really concerned about the next generation, give some time in the next week to learning about health-care costs. I'd start with Peter Orszag in 2007, last spring (courtesy of Brad DeLong), or yesterday.

So we're back to my being sick again. Or health care, at least. Hope you're feeling better than I am.

February 22, 2009

Forward moment-choo-m

When my mind has strange inclinations, I sometimes anthropomorphize my mental state: "Oh, gee, isn't it interesting that my brain cannot make the connections I usually can, or it's making very strange connections. I wonder why it does that." I don't worry about the recursion there, because the technique is largely a way to stop being worried about my mental state at the moment.

Case in point: head colds. I should head to bed soon (it's a little after 10), and while part of the motivation is to heal a little faster, there's also a role to stop wasting energy on thoughts that are going to look far less clever in the cold light of day (or at least a day when I don't have a cold). It is only during a head cold that a full chorus of an as-yet-unwritten song about research ethics could come into my brain mostly unbidden:

Your momma told you not to be rude to the evidence.
When your brain takes a hard right turn,
Listen to the data and you just might learn (why)
Your momma told you not to be rude to the evidence.
Now that you've made a bold prediction,
Looking at data better be your addiction

(For the record, the tune in my head is far less country than it is '70s upbeat pop. And "hard right turn" is there less as political ideology than as a phrase that rhymes with "might learn." And yes, I'm willing to take suggestions for alternatives!) Yeah -- I know what you bold and persevering epistemologists are going to say. Nonetheless, there is something to be said for this perspective. Or so my brain says tonight; I don't have verses, and I'm probably going to wince at this on Tuesday or Wednesday.

My philosophy on such days is to maintain some forward momentum; concentration is going to be limited, so pick out tasks that require less. (That, and take naps between spurts of work, at least when home.) This is an important sanity-saving maneuver, because I had hoped to use yesterday and today to get a lot of no-internet reading time that I need to catch up on. Instead, I did a portion of the tasks I had hoped to accomplish before my sinuses controlled my fate, and I just kept picking small chunks. If I'm feeling more like myself tomorrow, I'll pick up the pace, having gotten some of them out of the way.

Trip triage

My travel schedule in both the near and far term is becoming abbreviated. In the short term, I am canceling two trips to Orlando I had planned for the next two weeks because I've had a cold this weekend and know my limits (or at least need to start behaving as if I know them). It's either that or shortchange other things that are higher priorities or that were commitments long before I had known of the Orlando events.

And then I am also going to scale back my professional conference travel for the next year or so, at least until I know what travel support is going to look like at my institution. I have a hard and fast commitment for one conference in October, but I may skip one of my favorite meetings because it's on the other side of the country.

I suspect a lot of academics are going to be looking at conference travel with a more jaundiced eye in the next year or two: institutions will either give no or much less travel assistance. In my case, since I'm a full professor, multiple conference presentations every year are less critical to my career, and I don't think it's ethical for me to grab resources in my college that should be there for assistant and associate professors. There are also a few pieces that I should turn from conference papers to article manuscripts to submit to journals.

There are some downstream consequences of this: lower conference attendance (as happened in fall 2001 and the next few quarters), and for huge conferences such as AERA, AHA, CEC, APA, etc., there may be a perverse incentive for the scholarly societies to increase their registration fees to make up for lower attendance... which may reduce attendance further and certainly put these meetings out of the reach of more new scholars.

Will "unconferences" or virtual conferences fill the gap? Probably not for new scholars, since the coin of the realm for scholarly meetings is the refereed (and high-visibility) national and international conference.

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 17, 2009

What can you do in 20 minutes? and don't forget Weighted Student Funding

In lieu of actual content, a brief note: I have about 20 minutes left before I have to run out the door again. Last Thursday, I had 6 meetings. Friday had a morning meeting, a mid-morning meeting, a 75-minute drive to another meeting, and the reverse 75-minute drive to yet another meeting. Yesterday had three meetings, today two meetings and two more 75-minute drives surrounding a guest lecture. All have been meaningful, often productive. I've also produced a prodigious amount of stuff that's been necessary, including the EPAA article that just appeared (the indomitable Bruce Baker explains some quite-relevant problems with Weighted Student Funding arguments), prepping the next EPAA article. Had good conversations otherwise, have an interesting idea on one of my current projects while taking a good walk, exercised other than walking, spent time with my children...

No regrets, other than the desire for one or two days this week to fulfill my promise to myself on non-internet time, and time to write a long blog entry. Among other things, I have a bunch of reader requests for blog entries I'd like to get to. Say, with teacher quality (or some facsimile) as the first one up? Lots of recent stuff on that, and while I cannot promise to read the recent IES paper in the present lifetime, I should at least be able to trout out Ye Olde Historical Perspective on teacher qualifications and the like. (Mandatory reading on the topic: chapter 1 of Edward Eggleston's The Hoosier Schoolmaster.)

One more brief thought: While at the other end of the 75-minute drive, after the guest speaker class, my colleague and I talked in a cafe while watching the president sign the stimulus bill. Again, I'm filled with the sense that the stimulus is about half the size that's necessary, either for macroeconomic purposes or for saving K-12 teachers' jobs. (Sorry, Kevin, but while I wish that this truly represented a doubling of Title I funding, in reality that part of the stimulus is an emergency stopgap to prevent teachers in Florida and elsewhere from being dumped and in turn dragging the economy down even further.)

For my personal motivations (as someone whose job is to safeguard the interests and values of a 1700-person bargaining unit), what's more obviously valuable is the subsidy of 60% of COBRA payments. That's a huge boost for the unemployed. It tells you something about the state of the economy that a boost in COBRA payments is one of the most thrilling parts of the stimulus for me, but that's life.

February 11, 2009

Express gratitude when the roller coaster turns you upside down

Someone I respect has been pushing me and some other friends to think about what's going right in the world (and our lives), instead of focusing on the aggravations, of which there are too many. So in the spirit of exercising gratitude instead of exorcising aggravations...

  • My family is wonderful and is worth every second I spend with them and every bit of (the relatively little) pain I've endured for them.
  • Right now, I am snowed under by too many things, every one of which I have chosen to do of my own free will (or tasks I would choose anyway, such as breathing). If you're connected to a task I'm late on, please be assured that you are NOT low on the list; you're tied for second with 79 other people I owe things to! (My family comes first, no matter how good-looking you may be.)
  • We have a stimulus package. I could quibble and argue with bits and pieces, but we have something that's much, much better than nothing.
  • Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's and Abraham Lincoln's births. One argued that in the long run life is shaped and reshaped by randomness; the other argued that it should not be. We are the better for both of them.
  • The author of the next EPAA article (out VERY SHORTLY) found nothing wrong in the proof PDF "galleys." Nothing. (Yet.)
  • I've found plenty of things wrong in the proof of my own next publication, and I can say that it's all my own fault. Which means I can't and don't have to get angry at anyone else.
  • I've sent off my letter to the president, as I threatened/promised to do a while ago. At the very least, it will give a White House staff member a little more exercise with the letter-opener. No, you don't get to read it yet; it's impolite to distribute a letter to others before the intended recipient even has a chance to receive it.
  • The fact that I am behind on so many tasks just means that I won't be bored tomorrow.

February 1, 2009

Well, that's supremely embarrassing...

I thought I was so clever to have transferred files from my laptop to a mobile device for travel to a symposium (special education, comparative). Travel light, I thought! But my brain had been the only light thing around, evidently, because I transferred everything except the document with the hotel name and address! This is the problem with assuming that you can pack for two trips without needing a list you double-check.

Fortunately, the symposium convener and my son both had my back, the convener on his mobile and my son helping with the laptop. So I know where I'm going, and I'm at a layover wondering if I want airport food. That's a much better dilemma than wondering where I'd sleep tonight. I think I'll go for the food, since I owe the symposium my very best thoughts, fueled with ... errr. Veggie burritos? Not brain food, but obviously my brain needs some help.

Oh, yeah, and I was in the air for the entire Super Bowl, held about 10 minutes from my house. Yes, I drove around the stadium on the way to the airport, the closest I'd been to a Super Bowl since the only one I've attended (Steelers 31, Rams 19; Nolan Cromwell is still regretting that dropped interception, but there were also two beautiful touchdown passes). Apparently the Steelers won another thriller without my witnessing it. Hope the rest of you enjoyed it!

January 27, 2009

The good, the bad, and the supremely weird

The good

  • DeanDad shows that he understands higher-ed history far better than Stanley Fish.
  • Eduwonkette has a new gig (sociology at New York University).
  • Barack Obama has been president for a little less than a week, and he's already fulfilled a bunch of campaign promises. (Well, it's good from my perspective.)
  • Paul Krugman's been tearing up the world with ideas, corrections, and so forth.

The bad

  • The economy is still tanking. 
  • We lose Eduwonkette as an active blogger (though I'm hoping she returns after shoving a dozen articles out the door).
  • The new Treasury Secretary is one of the many Americans who didn't pay taxes correctly. His gig includes... supervising the collection of taxes.

The supremely weird

  • Central Florida school districts seem to be falling over each other (or maybe falling down in domino-fashion) to implement mandatory school-uniform policies. So much for basing policy on evidence... search for "mimetic isomorphism" to understand.
  • Rod Blagojevich defends himself not in the Illinois Senate but on daytime television because nothing says calm, reasoned discourse better than The View.

January 25, 2009

State House Speaker to step down!

From a news report filed at 6 pm today, the House Speaker...

... said in an interview this afternoon that he will resign from the Legislature on Tuesday, saying he is proud of his record and is leaving with his ''head high''...

... has endured public scrutiny because of influence-peddling allegations involving close his friends [sic], was sending a letter to his House colleagues tonight informing them of his decision.

Despite the swirl of ethics controversies, he insisted ... he is leaving with a clear conscience as he steps down ...

... denied that the ethics issues that have tarnished his public image are playing a role in his departure.

Of course, that's about Massachusetts House Speaker Sal DiMasi.

January 6, 2009

New semester resolutions

My spouse fervently hopes that Barack Obama keeps "that new president smell" for the entire year (her words, not mine), and given the deep recession we're in, I agree. (I hear that if your representative or senator is starting to smell moldy, you can buy "new politician" air fresheners at the Capitol Hill Visitors Center.) The same is often true with semesters; faculty hope that we begin and end the semester with enthusiasm and energy, even if a semester doesn't have a smell, a slogan, a logo, or a festive inauguration.

Well, some places try to inaugurate new school years or semesters, but that's often aimed at students, not faculty, and in times of fiscal constraints, opulent events without fiscal restraint will often be seen by faculty and staff as tone-deaf. Maybe cutting that $1,000 spread wouldn't save the jobs we fear will be cut, but couldn't you be a little more frugal when we're not talking about essentials?

The spring semester is also right after the New Year, so here's a New Year's resolution, or maybe a New Semester resolution: at least 2-3 times a week, I will start my workday offline to get at least one significant task done. This might be reading a journal manuscript, or an article/book, or planning something. I hear it's best to read your e-mail once or twice a day and that's it, and the best way to accomplish that goal (for me) is to stay away from machines that receive e-mail. (I've discovered, which allows correspondents to notify you when there's a truly urgent issue.) Over the break, this worked fairly well: I took my reading glasses, a notepad, and something to read out of the house or office and worked for 2-3 hours. 

And, speaking of which, I'll be heading off to find a comfortable chair until about noon...

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 26, 2008

(Effect) size matters

Nathan Yau is not Edward Tufte. Yau is a doctoral student in statistics. Tufte is a Yale professor emeritus. Yau's list of his 5 best data visualization projects of 2008 has a common missing element (from four of the listed projects) that E.T. would pull tufts of hair out over: the images have no quantification. To Tufte, that is a cardinal sin, along with the "chartjunk" that infects so many graphs in USA Today and other newspapers.

I am generally on the side of Tufte on this issue: unless you're a topologist, quantity matters and units matter. A common fallacy in manuscripts (and sometimes published articles and books) is the confusion between statistical significance and practical meaning. But if you are working with a sample size of 50,000 or more (common with a large epidemiological study or census microdata extracts), it is hard for many relationships not to be statistically significant. But whether the relationship is meaningful depends on the size of the relationship.

And here, the units matter! If you know that the multiple-regression coefficient between income and achievement is 1.5, that may or may not be notable. If you're measuring income in thousands of dollars and achievement in scale score points when the range is 0-1000 and the standard deviation is 150, that's a meaningless relationship (going up 15 points, or 0.10 of a standard deviation, when the income increases by $100,000). If you're measuring income by natural log and achievement in standard-deviation units, that's a substantial relationship (essentially moving a standard deviation up or down when the income doubles or is halved). 

In part stemming from the literature on meta-analysis, it is becoming more common for individual studies to identify effect sizes. While I still want to have a sense of concrete relationships, pushing authors to look at quantitifed relationships in perspective is always good. The same should be true for "data visualization." Quantify, folks! 

(For the record, I don't think Tufte is infallible. Far from it.)

December 25, 2008

Comment weirdness

For some reason, the older entries had the comment-permission wiped out with the upgrade. The comments still exist on Haloscan, but they're just not showing up here! I'm sure there's an easy trick to fix that, but it may take a while.

Update: Problem fixed. Kludgy templates...

December 11, 2008

Catching up

I think I'm finally back to full health, or at least 95%, and my union finished the ratification of a contract that was tentatively agreed to just before Thanksgiving, all of which is good news for EPAA readers and authors, who are both owed stuff. It's good news for my students, who have turned in the last of their work for the semester. (The collective bargaining agreement is a net gain for my colleagues, too.)

There's something both weird and relieving when after a few weeks of relative lack of energy, you've got the stamina and clarity of thought to read through manuscripts first thing in the morning (which is when I work best on this stuff). So while I was in San Antonio earlier this week, I spent a chunk of my free time reading and taking notes on manuscripts. The first of several disposition letters (e-mails) went out earlier this afternoon, and after I've several more sets of notes, other e-mails will be heading out. And then I work on the next article. And read student papers.

In the meantime, and in part because of the pace of the semester, blogging has been slow. I have not commented on most of the post-election news, and I hope to pick up the pace after I catch up with other things. I'll write a short note later tonight, but I don't expect to blog much over the next 10 days. One of the few posts in the next week will essentially be a transcript of what I said in San Antonio, but that'll be the longest one.

One comment I have to make, after walking through the Alamo when in San Antonio: The Daughters of the Republic of Texas have taken extraordinary care of the Alamo itself (it's a gorgeous oasis in the middle of downtown San Antonio), but the organization lives in an alternate world where the self-annointed Texians of the 1830s were bold and principled, and where slavery didn't exist (or at least didn't exist to be mentioned in the Alamo). Bold? Yes. But while I had heard of the Alamo as a monument to slavery that never mentioned the word, it's one thing to read it and nod and another thing entirely to visit the place. It's a mind-bending place that is run as if it's still the 1950s. I know I need to catch up, but that's nothing compared to the people who operate the Alamo.

November 9, 2008

Collegial support with a touch of greed

This morning is the last half-day of the History of Education Society meeting in St. Petersburg. Several times this weekend, I found myself encouraging friends and colleagues to finish book manuscripts. I want more reading, even if I don't currently have time to do it!

I just wish it hadn't required quite so much paperwork to get the nice weather moved from next weekend to this.

November 4, 2008

Being an historian is a dirty job, but someone's got to do it

I voted by absentee this year, so I was able to canvass for a little this afternoon before turning into Chauffeur Dad. I'm waiting at a large warehouse-turned-kid-exercise-palace, with a gymnastics place on one side and my son's taekwondo place on the other. I was sitting on the floor when I heard a fellow parent, or maybe a gymnastics coach, pontificating to several poor desk personnel about how we should reinstitute some sort of literacy test for voting. I heard him misstate the positions of one of the candidates for a few minutes, and then I couldn't stand it any longer. I stood up and walked over.

So I heard you wanted to reinstitute literacy tests for voting?

Uh, maybe not anything like a college degree but I think people need to ...

Okay, so I have to ask: what's your favorite Federalist Paper?


What's your favorite Federalist Paper?

Um, well, I'm not sure I mean that, but I think people need to know something--

Okay, fine enough. What's your favorite section of the Florida Constitution?

Look, I'm more of a statutory guy. There's a difference between knowing about platforms and knowing about the constitution.

Right. So then I asked him about some relevant legislative positions of the candidate he was fulminating against. Not that accurately, either. Fair? No. But I wanted him to think that maybe, just maybe, disfranchisement mechanisms affect more than just the targets of your hatred. Occasionally, maybe once every few years on average, I have to use my knowledge in public. I consider it an occupational hazard.

And to answer the obvious question, at the moment my favorites are Federalist No. 10 and Florida's Article I, Section 1.

October 28, 2008

Sick leave

Laura Pohl riffs off the new Center for American Progress report suggesting that districts pay teachers for part of unused sick leave. Many already do, and as the author notes, there isn't much research on the details. I just wish I didn't quite so immediate an interest in this topic. Given the state of my body this afternoon and evening, I'm hoping not to need to use sick leave myself tomorrow.

But enough about me. There's this thumb-sticking-out recommendation as a result of this report: Federal policymakers should amend No Child Left Behind to require information on teacher absence on school report cards. Okay, so we're going to take everything that might be conceivably relevant to performance and ask for a statistical report for each school. Why stop at teacher absences? I suppose with this reasoning, we should ask for data on used textbooks, unusable texts, library resources (don't tell me that they should be called "multimedia centers"!!), roof tiles per scraped student knee, and kleenexes used February 20. For all such proposals of expanded reporting, my advice is to take two budget rescissions and call me in the recovery.

October 27, 2008

Conference post-mortem

Notes made while the caffeine is infusing into the bloodstream:

  • A well-loaded MP3 player can make a 5-hour drive better, but that doesn't mean that my body likes me any more afterwards.
  • Watching your team lose with your son after the second such 5-hour drive in a weekend? I suppose I earned beaucoup parent points, but see item above re: caffeine.
  • Dodgy e-mail spam filter makes for a fun morning, I can see. On behalf of everyone trying to respond to their inbox, I hope you will accept my deepest and most profound regrets for the resulting delay that you are not responsible for.
  • Outside downtown Los Angeles, downtown Miami has to be the least-walkable convention area I've visited.
  • You know you're at an academic conference with social historians when you look out the window, idly comment on the irrationality of all that money going into a waterfront that will be wiped out by a hurricane and is essentially a playground for people with spare income, and then someone opens up his MacAir and shows me and another colleague an aerial photograph with a superimposed map of Miami's downtown, showing where neighborhoods were destroyed to build up the playground.
  • A discussant probably earns service brownie points when a paper author says, "Okay, that set of comments justified my airfare."
  • I'm fairly sure I still don't understand Andy Abbott's presentation on "the thick present," but maybe I'll understand it better after I see it in print and with a vodka in hand, and I have to admit it's a great phrase.
  • On the other hand, maybe it's because most historians are lousy at theory (Andy's a sociologist). But we're good users of theory.
  • I still want a time machine, and you want me to have one, too.

October 24, 2008

1200-baud modems as a metaphor for a hotel

My hotel room is nice, a comfortable place in which to work. I just wish that the internet connection here had any speed but interminable. For the record: if you are waiting for something from me that requires I do something online (journal, database stuff, etc.), you will probably be waiting until early next week. Please accept my apologies, but when I'm online this weekend, my students have to come first.

October 23, 2008

Conference Season: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Last weekend was the Florida Education Association Delegate Assembly. Tomorrow starts the Social Science History Association annual meeting. Two weeks from tomorrow? History of Education Society meeting.

The Good

  • They're all in Florida; FEA DA was downtown Tampa, and HES will be downtown St Pete. (SSHA is in Miami.)
  • I finished the papers for SSHA and HES, and while I am not particularly proud of the timing, the dates I e-mailed them to discussants wasn't this week, either.
  • I've found the GPS device I will need to find the hotel tomorrow in Miami, akin to packing medications, shampoo, and brain.
  • I found Dirty Laundry tonight in time to make it Clean Laundry.
  • I've loaded up the iPod with Stuff to Hear along I-75.
  • I've caught up with grading in my undergraduate class.
  • I will get to watch two of the World Series games (on TV) while in Miami.
  • My hotel is a few blocks away from the conference hotel (which was full), is cheaper, and has no-added-cost wifi.
  • I won one of the World Series games 1-2 lottery slots, and I decided not to buy two tickets to Game 1 (for $100+ per ticket).

The Bad

  • The Rays lost, 3-2.
  • While SSHA is in-state, it's in Miami, 5 hrs away.
  • I still have loads of backlog and another weekend set of meetings.
  • I still need to pack.
  • I'm sure I'm forgetting something.

The Ugly

Just look at the time stamp; my alarm is set for 5:15. A. M.

October 20, 2008

Oh good grief (the personal version)

Stay up late listening to the seventh game of the ALCS. Go to sleep, but not for long enough. Wake up. Shower. Dress. Drive son to school. Arrive on campus. Turn on computer. Realize you left your reading glasses at home. Drive home. Talk with spouse for a few minutes. Drive to campus. Realize you left your reading glasses at home again.

Without glasses, I can read for about 25-30 minutes at a time before I get slightly dizzy and a bit headachy. So I'll be pretty inefficient today, except maybe I'll clean out my office as a result. But having stuff to do without being able to makes me feel like Oliver Hardy in the famous movie The Sierpinski Caper, after he was dragged by Stan Laurel into a class on fractal geometry: "Well, here's another nice math you've gotten me into."

October 19, 2008

How you finish

Congratulations to danah boyd, who passed her dissertation defense and will shortly join the one percent of the American population with a doctorate. For those of you who are still working on it, I hope you also have an advisor who will "protect [you] as long as [you vow] to kick ass and take names." I suspect Dr. Boyd (dr. boyd?) will continue to do that for many years.

October 12, 2008

One more reading on culture and the way we talk about "intelligence"

Once again, I am in debt to Mike Rose, today for a thoughtful discussion of anti-intellectualism in American life and tensions in the campaign rhetoric this year, rhetorical motifs that rely on a narrow reading of intelligence. If like me, you are highly skeptical of monolithic constructions of intelligence but wince when you come anywhere near Howard Gardner, I highly recommend Rose.

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 25, 2008

Epistle to the late night

Dear evening,

I very much enjoy your company at times such as this evening, when I love to unwind at the end of a day and contemplate ideas that I usually do not have time to.

But that's not this evening. You may notice me at 1 am with a stack of student papers, not relaxing, not finishing a glass of wine and a book, and wonder at my behavior. Certainly, if I must rise a little over 4 hours from now, what in the WORLD am I doing now?

It's called reading student work. It's long past the hour at which I think my students would want my reading their work. Nonetheless, if I do not return their papers tomorrow, two disasters will befall the world. First, they will go more than a week without feedback. Second, I will then have two sets of papers to read, since they are turning in another batch tomorrow morning at 8 am sharp. In both cases, I will be both the victim and the perpetrator of the crime. I cannot complain about the quality of papers when I do not give feedback, and I cannot complain at the workload when I assign papers and then fail to read them promptly.

And now, if you will excuse me for my brief rant and then disappearance, I must get back to the papers.

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.

September 21, 2008

Michael Bérubé in Tampa Tuesday!

I'm exhausted and probably should head to bed soon, but Professor of Dangeral Studies Michael Bérubé is the honored guest of the United Faculty of Florida USF Chapter, who is bringing him to the University of South Florida to talk Tuesday, 5:15 pm (CHEM 100), about academic politics. I'm happy. I will also be running completely on adrenaline tomorrow, since my short-term reserves appear to be 100% depleted... but I'm happy.

September 19, 2008

I want to be able to lead a double life

At the end of the week and looking forward (not!) to a rush-hour drive to a hotel for a weekend meeting, I realize that I really want to have the time to lead a double life, because I have double the obligations of what will fit into 24 hours a day. I feel rather productive with the time I've spent this week, and I don't really want a double life (secrecy's just not my thing, my potential superpower is falling asleep at 10 pm, and I don't look nearly as good in spandex as would be necessary), but I just want the time to do stuff, do more stuff, read all the stuff I haven't yet gotten to, spend time with family and friends, and have a little more time to myself.

September 16, 2008

Tuesday bits, September 16

Right now, at about 10:30 in the morning, I have a "this too shall pass" attitude towards anything that isn't working right now. Why?

  • Most of class this morning was spent delving into the grandiose education plans of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, and Noah Webster. The students read closely, compared their notes to their classmates', compared the views of the three, and left with a puzzle I framed for them. I don't know how hard I worked, but I know they did. Yes, I'm a happy teacher right now.
  • I haven't finished grading their papers from last week. I like to get that done over the weekend, because now I have that hanging over my head before the next batch comes flying into my life on Thursday.
  • Siva Vaidhyanathan has it right in a Chronicle column I want to make mandatory reading for the whole world: Talk of a "digital generation" or people who are "born digital" willfully ignores the vast range of skills, knowledge, and experience of many segments of society. It ignores the needs and perspectives of those young people who are not socially or financially privileged. It presumes a level playing field and equal access to time, knowledge, skills, and technologies. The ethnic, national, gender, and class biases of any sort of generation talk are troubling. And they could not be more obvious than when discussing assumptions about digital media.
  • I now have another historical concept I need translated into statistics. (The last one led me into some exploration of permutation tests.)
  • One doctoral student is now involved in several multi-year, multimillion-dollar grants (one of which could serve as a foundation for a dissertation), and the other is doing great work helping with EPAA. I am SO happy with their work and very lucky to have them as students.
  • My son's cast will probably come off this afternoon.
  • Michael Bérubé is coming to USF's campus next week and giving a public lecture Tuesday (5:15, on the Tampa campus, CHEM 100).
  • My next belt test is a week from Friday.
  • My blood is now flowing with caffeine.

September 15, 2008

Monday bits, Sept 15 version

Another potpourri entry for Monday morning.

  • Plane flights that land at 10:40 pm lead to grogginess at 5:30 the next morning. Evidence: I think this is a profound observation right now.
  • The count in my EPAA in-box this morning: Spam 42, Real Authors 1. And that's after the spam filter did its work.
  • Some bar/bat mitzvahs have very difficult Torah portions. My nephew's was Ki Tetze (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19), which begins, translated roughly, "If your army has taken a beautiful woman captive in war, and you want to rape her, you first need to wait a month for her to mourn her dead parents."
  • No meetings today!!!!

September 10, 2008

Mostly bright spots

Miscellaneous thoughts after being on campus for about nine hours:

  • It's wonderful having a graduate assistant help with preparing manuscripts. I am now several weeks ahead on getting the next article to publication for Education Policy Analysis Archives, so I can focus the next few Mondays on review-work catchup.
  • I think I'm recovering from the cold that struck a few days ago. I need to stay away for a few more days from a friend/coworker who Does Not Need An Infectious Disease.
  • Obama's education speech in Ohio has irritated Checker Finn, pleased DFERs and AFT President Randi Weingarten, and will probably be the last substantive thing said on education in the campaign.
  • The online class has begun to slip into a regular routine each week. This is good.
  • I tried using Poll Everywhere in my undergrad class yesterday morning. It worked, reasonably, for the few things I wanted it to do. Don't worry, Margaret: I haven't slipped over COMPLETELY to the dark side. Yet.
  • What did faculty joke about on transitions to administration before Star Wars and "the Dark Side"?
  • New Orleans didn't need Ike, true. That doesn't mean Texas needs it any more.
  • My nephew's bar mitzvah is this Saturday. My daughter may try to visit a college while we're there. I'm not sure my poor brain can handle all that activity on a weekend.
  • I think I can boil down the change-ESEA list that's in my head. Watch out, manifestistas! Or is that manifestoistas? Manifistas? Dang, I need to learn Esperanto to come up with jargon that just trips off the tongue like "misunderestimate."
  • I still like Falstaff as a character.

September 9, 2008

Cold permutations

First, to provide a minor update on this morning's news items:

  • Semi-success on the reserving-time front. I had a lunch meeting and then a 3 pm meeting, and the time in between was too short to do much, so I exchanged one parking sticker for another. Whee. At least my wonderful grad student assisting with the journal did a monster job helping on a long MS, giving my head-cold-affected mind a much easier job going through the next article. I WILL climb on top of this mountain of work. Just not today.
  • It's a semi-full-blown cold now. Proof: I should be asleep, and I'm exhausted, but I can't sleep.

I've been trying to wrap my mind around permutation tests and exchangeability for about a week, and I figure that my typical head-cold mentality may be the best shot I can take at it both in terms of the orthogonal way I think at way-too-late-on-a-head-cold evening and also the fact that once I'm up this late and in this state, no student or MS author wants me to be making decisions right now. (For the record, I'm on antihistamines. I know, I know: Never take Benadryl and grade. No. That's not funny, not even in my state of mind.)

A few weeks ago, I was pondering the NYC achievement gap controversy, a debate over the summer that among other things spawned a Teachers College Record commentary by Jennifer Jennings and me (available just to subscribers for now, but to the world in a few weeks). And while the limits on TCR commentaries and op-eds require a fairly narrow argument, I kept thinking about trends and time series data as I looked at the New York City Department of Education's claims. I kept thinking to myself, There has to be something an historian can contribute to this debate that is specific to the way historians think. I'll probably write something at length when I'm more coherent and have some time, but there was an obvious answer that came to mind: to historians, the order of events matter. An argument about causality depends on contingency which depends on a sequence. (Historians often focus on contingency rather than causality, except when we're playing the counterfactual game. The obvious answer to the question, "What caused Gore's defeat in 2000?" is "everything, or almost everything.") The sequence doesn't prove causality (or contingency), but it's necessary.

That logic is usually not applied in policy. In the case of New York City, as is typical in this type of reform publicity, someone pointed to a time series of data and claim, "Aha! See this trend? Ignore its tentative nature: it's PROOF that we're on the right track." One obvious problem with the NYC data is the reliance on threshold-passing percentages; that's the focus of the TCR commentary. But the NYC Department of Education made claims about the achievement gap more broadly, and the data is a lot messier than the folks in Tweed would state. Below are three permutations of the "z-scores" of achievement gaps (the differences in Black-White means on the 4th-grade state math tests, scaled to the population's standard deviation). One is the real time series that runs between 2002 and 2008. The other two are permutations. Before you look for the data (it's on p. 13 of the PDF file linked above), see if you can tell the differences among them, and which is the observed order:


My professional judgment as an historian is also common sense: if the order of events does not make a discernible difference, even if you ignore measurement error and standard errors, then it's hard to conclude that there's a trend. How to test that is the realm of statistics, and when I explained the issue to my colleagues Jeffrey Kromrey and John Ferron, the answer from them was clear: permutation tests. That's a general family of nonparametric tests of inference that's the formal version of the question I asked: if you jumble up the data in all the possible ways they could be permuted, and if you look at a particular measure of interest (a test statistic), where in the distribution of all permutations does the observed data set fall? In the case of the 4th grade Black-White gap on New York state math tests measured as a z-score, we have 7 points of data, which have 7! = 5040 permutations. If you choose an appropriate test statistic for each permutation and the observed time series is about 125 from either end of the distribution, that excludes the 95% or more permutations in the middle of the distribution.

No, I haven't had the time or inclination to follow up, learn how to calculate one of the possible test statistics and how to get the R statistics program to do a permutation test. There are two problems, as I've learned from my colleagues: choosing the right test statistic is a matter of art as well as science; and there may be a problem with exchangeability. As far as I understand it, exchangeability is a less constricting assumption than the standard "independent, identically-drawn" sample assumption in parametric inferential statistics. From what I understand, the practical definition of exchangeability means roughly that you could theoretically exchange all the data points without screwing up the distribution. Again, if I understand correctly, one situation that violates the assumption of exchangeability is in autocorrelated data—i.e., when one data point influences the next one (or the next few). And if there's anything that's likely to be autocorrelated, it's a time series. That's not a serious problem if you're just looking to see if a trend exists at all; for that, autocorrelation is a form of trend (though an artifactual one). But if you're trying to make causal inferences or anything more complicated when there's autocorrelation (i.e., if achievement data levels or trend slopes are different before and after a policy change), I think you have to throw permutation tests out the window.

And that's such a shame, because the concept is still right when extended beyond the question of a trend: if a policy makes a difference, then it should make a difference on which side of the policy change you're sitting. So if you're a clever person with statistics, please provide some ideas in comments for where to go with this or if, as I suspect, the best we can do with permutation tests is ruling out possible trends/autocorrelation.

September 8, 2008

Monday bits

I didn't have time this weekend to write a lengthy, thoughtful post, or even a lengthy and thoughtless piece, so you get bits this morning.

  • Reserving Mondays: I've shut off my e-mail for now to get some editing tasks done, and I'll see if I can reserve Mondays for selfish purposes for the entire semester. Wish me luck on this one!
  • Honesty: the Palm Beach Post's editorial board approves a draft change in calculating graduation rates in Florida. Kudos to Florida's commissioner of education, Eric Smith, for pushing this. (Disclosure: I've given a few ideas to the state department of ed on options for how to handle graduation in 5, 6 years, etc.)
  • Sunday morning grading: I got out to a coffeehouse early yesterday to read my first batch of undergraduate papers. Several brought smiles to my face with great writing, provocative ideas, or both. That's a good sign for the semester.
  • Fetishized vs. nonfetishized curricula: I wonder how the history of the Core Knowledge Foundation would have been different if E.D. Hirsch had thought to frame the issue not just as accumulating tiny bits of knowledge (how Herbartian of him!) and instead had framed it as a matter of both a knowledge base in different disciplines and the heuristic frameworks of those disciplines.
  • I know I have at least a below-the-radar version of a head cold because I've had moments of earache in the last day, I had less energy over the weekend than I normally do, and I was sure last night that a mashup of Timothy Burke's guide to historical arguments and Atlas Games's Once Upon a Time would make a great introduction to historiography.

August 31, 2008

Maybe Nagin's "900-mile-wide storm" wasn't that much of an exaggeration

I started the day with some menial tasks and will continue that for a little while more before donating blood. We'll see if I'm good for anything tomorrow (often, I'm completely wiped out the day after donating).

In the obvious news, there's nothing like a tropical-storm windfield as large as Louisiana to get your attention on a lazy Sunday. In Tampa, we've had cloud cover for almost a day from the upper-atmosphere outflow cirrus clouds of Gustav (the very northern and northeastern fringes, but still). This is not as large a storm as Katrina was at its most powerful (category 5, sucking up the heat and water in the central Gulf), but good grief. We don't really need another monster to help physics and environmental-science teachers explain how hurricanes redistribute heat around the globe. I just hope everyone in New Orleans started packing and moving before Mayor Nagin's evacuation declarations.

If this storm batters the Big Easy, I suspect we may see the population drop another 30-40%, leaving almost nothing but the French Quarter and the suburbs. Institutions like schools could see another catastrophic loss of built capital if the levees are breached, and I have no idea what's going to happen to the colleges and universities, especially Xavier and Dillard. I hope this is all needless fretting. But if you're in the path of Gustav, get out and stay safe.

August 25, 2008

First day of the semester

One piece of writing today made me want to scream. Another made me want to cry. Others just left me indifferent. While things could go downhill from here, the semester is far more likely to improve.

As soon as my spouse gets home, I'm going in search of better writing.

August 18, 2008

We now return to our regularly-scheduled panic

Last week I was in California helping to surprise my mother for her 75th birthday, and despite fears of her finding out in advance (mothers tend to suss out these things), she swears up and down she had no clue. It's been about 14 years since we all got together in the redwoods and pines of the Sierras. It was wonderful to see almost all of my nephews and nieces, my maternal uncles and aunts, all my siblings, and a bunch of cousins, including one I hadn't seen for several decades (as well as her husband and daughter). Great place, especially as the early-morning temperatures in the 50s beat out Tampa's 76 F. lows. And I was the only relative who thought to buy my mom a brand new car. Sheesh. Unfortunately, the main customers of Matchbox and Hot Wheels are still into gas guzzlers these days, but I did find a Volvo C30 in the midst of 1960s muscle cars, and you know how mothers value safety along with frugality. My children gave her Octavia Butler's Kindred and a Louis Armstrong album.

Along the way, my teens and I took a few side trips. They had their first trip to Yosemite Valley, miraculously getting to Bridleveil Falls early enough so that only a handful of other people were with us. The amount of water mirrored the crowds, but this is late summer in a low-snowfall year. We also trekked into and around San Francisco our last evening, eating dinner at a hole-in-the-wall pizza parlor, browsing at City Lights, and eating desserts at Caffi Puccini. They're at school today (but not tomorrow: thanks, Fay!), and I'm on campus.

For the trip, I took along a bunch of things to read and got some of that done. (I've decided that the Sony Reader is an excellent investment for journal editors). We returned at the end of the week, and I spent a few days polishing syllabi and other course material. I had plans to spend today on the journal, but Tropical Storm (soon Hurricane) Fay is short-circuiting that plan; I am finishing as much of course prep as I could before I leave campus. That way, I can focus on other things if the power is out tomorrow or for several days. I have a few things this week, and they'll get shifted around. The local public schools are closed tomorrow, my university almost inevitably will as well, and we'll see if the same is true Wednesday. Did I mention that the Sony Reader was a good investment? The battery will last through several days of power-free living, if that's necessary.

I have a bunch of work I owe people, from manuscript authors to editors who want me to write to a coauthor and... oh, yeah, other stuff. To paraphrase Berke Breathed, my summer has been an idyllic set of good intentions savaged by a brutal pack of life. On the good side, I'm not going to be bored for the foreseeable future (or the rest of my life). But there are some consequences. I'm back from my blog vacation, but probably not back to regular blogging for another week or two. I have several half-formed ideas for longer entries, and they'll sit on the shelf for a while.

If you're a fellow Floridian, stay safe and dry. If you're not in Florida, go ahead and be smug. We'll have our revenge in the winter.

August 5, 2008

Two brief comments

I promised not to comment on anything during my two-week break, but the NewTalk NCLBfest made me wonder who's missing from this debate. Your observations in the comments are most welcome.

Also, I think I may have alienated my family forever by going against their advice and buying a Sony Reader. Even my technophile son thinks I'm nuts. But the EPAA MS authors will probably appreciate my carrying their stuff with me to various short-reading opportunities.

August 1, 2008

Blogging vacation for the D's

I will follow the lead of Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch, David Hoff, and plenty of others with D as an initial: I will not be blogging for the next two weeks. I have some things to take care of in the break between my summer class and the beginning of fall classes, so you will have to enjoy early August without me. (If you want, you can imagine me shivering in my basement in mortal fear of the theoretical possibilities of hurricanes as we head towards the historical high around Labor Day. Then again, my house doesn't have a basement. But since you're imagining, feel free anyway as long as you add a foosball table, air hockey, and one of those pneumatic-pumping flight simulators.) Enjoy your break from my academic blathering!

July 31, 2008

Waiting for one last paper... and panicking about the end of summer

I'm almost at the end of reading/grading for my summer class. I have one student's paper left to receive, and then I'll be done. In the meantime, I'll upload the rest of the material in a secure part of Blackboard hidden from students for the moment and then work on an article manuscript that should have been published yesterday (mostly my fault) and should be up today or tomorrow, with luck. I have another entry I've been working on late at night or early in the morning that I'll finish soon, but it will have to wait.

In the next week I need to write/submit AERA proposals, turn to a few writing projects I've been promising colleagues, other matters ... yikes. I need a to-do list, and I haven't had a chance to breathe/reflect for a few weeks. I've got a bunch of things starting August 9 as well, including the back-to-school stuff with my children. My brain wants to think about other matters (I think I know where the shopping bug comes from), but I need to return it to logistics.

July 12, 2008

My AFT convention

Being a Florida delegate at the AFT convention is much easier than being a delegate at the NEA convention: NEA delegates must be at the Florida Education Association daily caucus at 7 am (which is still easier than the FEA leadership, who have a 6 am meeting before the state's 7 am caucus). Here in Chicago, I can luxuriate until the caucus breakfast starts at 7:30 am. Too bad for me the breakfast is designed for meat-eaters who have no family history of cholesterol problems. But it's one of the few times in the year when I can talk with people from other locals, and there are plenty of folks from other parts of Florida whom I very much appreciate as people, fellow educators, and fellow activists.

I also won the hotel-room lottery, having arrived at the hotel late Thursday night. When the desk clerk asked me if I preferred two double beds or a queen, I said, "Any bed that I can sleep on is fine with me." She looked at her computer and said, "Well... I have a king bed in a very nice room," and passed over a room key. I went up to the room, let myself in, and had the relatively unusual experience of feeling my jaw drop to the floor. I left my stuff, returned to the front desk, and asked (another) clerk if I had the right room. (I didn't want to pay for this room's rack rate or have my local on the hook, either.) She explained that sometimes when people with low contracted rates arrive late, the desk clerks only have the... er ... very nice rooms left, so the patrons get them at a much lower rate. I'm not complaining, though I suspect I'm just not the type of person who's going to enjoy this room as much as some others. At least I can finish a complete shoulder roll on the floor and shake my head at the state of the world.

In terms of AFT business, I think I learned the essential ropes in terms of resolutions committees and the AFT's internal politics (organized through the decades-old Progressive Caucus, something very different from NEA caucuses). My one concern on the higher-ed resolutions have been addressed, my state affiliate's president will probably still be on the AFT executive council, and I'll be happy to tell members back in Florida what passed at the AFT in terms of higher ed. Others I know are still actively politicking on various matters, but I've done what I set out to do, and the rest is participation for me in the official affairs of AFT, as a voting delegate.

Oh, yes, and I've met or seen several people from other states, some national staff I've come to know over several years, and walked around the neighborhood here in Chicago. I hope to catch up with at least one friend in Chicago, but I wasn't sure of the convention schedule (in terms of non-general session stuff), so I decided to underschedule. So now you know what I do on a Saturday night during a union convention: get away from the crowds, have dinner on my own (Elephant & Castle, where I haven't eaten in more than 20 years), and hide away in an internet cafe to blog. How sad, eh?

Weingarten on eve of the AFT elections

I've now seen Randi Weingarten speak three times in the last 30 hours, to different audiences and for different purposes. I can see how articulate and comfortable she is in different settings, including when challenged by one AFT delegate on an issue close to his heart. My (admittedly incomplete) judgment is that she is whip-smart, energetic, and definitely ready for prime time.

I don't know how the press will portray her election, though reporters have had several months to write the story in advance. (She's unopposed, and one union friend in another state told me his political judgment earlier this year that she essentially had no choice but to lead the AFT.) For some reporters, the lead will be a continuation of UFT dominance in the AFT leadership. For others, it'll be her shrewdness (or contrariness: take your pick) in leading the UFT towards charter school operations and somehow working with a schools chancellor many NYC teachers hate with a passion (and from my vantage point, for some good reasons). For yet others, it'll be her status as the first openly-gay leader of a major national labor union in the U.S. I don't know if reporters will write about retiring AFT President Ed McElroy's career or the speech by Senator Clinton this morning or Senator Obama later in the weekend.

As she takes over the AFT, the national union is in healthy shape, with a number of successful organizing campaigns over the past few years and growing membership. Internal debates seem focused largely on organizational matters (and relationships between state affiliates and the national), not on issues of (public) policy. Those internal debates are an important part of union democracy, but I suspect that the relative emphasis internally leaves Weingarten plenty of room to make AFT a major player in national policy debates.

One bit of trivia that I think has not appeared outside this blog: the NEA and AFT state affiliates in New York merged recently, so the new AFT president will also be an NEA member (and an NEA local leader, since she'll remain UFT president).

July 10, 2008

Off to Chicago

My flight is delayed 40 minutes, so I have a few more seconds of free Tampa airport wireless. I'm a delegate to the AFT national convention this weekend, and I have no idea how much time I'll have online. I've brought some work with me in case I get bored (ha!). I return in the wee hours of Tuesday morning... if the flight is on time.

Have fun this weekend riding the internet tubes without me, okay?

July 5, 2008

Plodding as a survival strategy

There's something about work-related socialization: after being sick earlier this week and the holiday, something in my brain told me I had to spend at least half a day working. I am sure that within 20 or 30 years, a neuropsychologist will be able to tell me why I have this impulse. (And I am equally sure that a psychodynamics-oriented therapist will be able to speculate today on that, entirely absent evidence.) But it's less the impulse than what I do with that impulse that interests me. Today, it was poking away at small things. Clearing away a small packet of tasks; nothing big happened, but I have fewer Things hanging over me at the end of the day. And given my energy level during the week, I'm quite happy with that result.

I am not going to claim that I am the Tortoise in some metaphor for career paths; I can churn projects out when necessary and when the conditions are ripe. But I've been successful thus far combining an occasional frenzy with the long-term poking away at projects. The instinct to get out of bed and do something works.

In other words, I probably could plot my career better than I do now, but I plod along fairly well.

July 4, 2008

Sara Goldrick-Rab keeps things in perspective

So what do you do when your new career as an assistant professor lands you on the front page of the New York Times as an icon of the "moderating" professoriate? If you're Sara Goldrick-Rab, you laugh a bit about the article's oversimplification and then enjoy the attention. And hope for a bit of time this weekend with your family.

That strikes me as just about right.

July 3, 2008

Ambitions derailed...

It's about 6:30 p.m. on July 3. I think I'm over the cold, but I'm still snowed under, right before a holiday weekend. Tomorrow is for citizenship, but I think I'll have to dig myself out from under the backlog over the weekend.

As a result, blogging is likely to be either light over the next week or particularly light-headed as I use the better working hours (for me) for... uh, work. One light post, and then I'm headed out of here for the day.

July 2, 2008

Summer colds

Sign of a head cold: when you get about 20% of what you expected done in the morning. So I took the afternoon off and for the first time in more than a year, took sick leave. That's rare for faculty, since we have flexible schedules. But I figured that if I was going to be useless for work, and given the holiday on Friday, I should legitimately eat the hours. (I'm on 75% FTE this summer, for coursework and union release.)

It was the right decision. I had to miss a teleconference and slept for a good part of the afternoon and early evening. Since I had a dissertation defense the next day (later this morning, technically), I knew which day was more important for me to be conscious and alert.

So for those who are waiting for things from me, please accept my apologies: you didn't want me to work on your stuff this afternoon.

June 29, 2008

Day off

After the fourth all-day Saturday class in June (i.e., yesterday), when I wasn't feeling well, I collapsed at home and decided I'd take today off. And I have. I'll need to gear up tomorrow morning for a day of catch-up, but there are only a few things to fix on tomorrow's EPAA article, and without the pressure of organizing a class for this Saturday, I can get back to a bunch of things that have been on the back burner. Or, at least, one thing at a time.

I've been wondering what to do on Friday, since I don't engage in paid work on holidays. It's the 4th, so I'm inclined to do something as a citizen-historian and finish my review of the draft social-studies standards for the state. We have sparklers, and if it's not pouring (which it often does in Florida on the 4th), we'll be able to use them.

June 25, 2008

A big, hairy erratum

There are a few disadvantages of writing a blog. People who wonder why I haven't gotten around to their work discover what I've been doing instead at certain moments (though I've never had a student who has decided that she or he really wants me grading their paper at 6:09 am). Without someone else to edit my work, I constantly risk grammatical embarrassments. And I risk falling on my face in factual errors.

But as my wonderful children would point out, I am practiced at being wrong. Or, as I prefer to put it, if I'm wrong, then I can go to bed happy that day, knowing I've learned something.

If you haven't guessed, I've discovered I am embarrassingly wrong about something I've posted in the last month. Gloriously and publicly in error. And as a victim reader of this blog, if you are not already aware of the error, you will discover it in the next week, or maybe two. The problem with an error of this magnitude is not the fact of the error; I can admit that and move forward. The problem with an error of this magnitude is that I need to figure out exactly how that changes what I thought I knew. (I've explained before how my interpretation of a primary source changed, and this is a much bigger example of that need.)

So I will leave you all in suspense as to precisely where I've made the error and how I'll have to rethink what I've thought, except perhaps with the satisfaction of knowing that I'm as much in the dark on the second issue.

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 18, 2008

One additional bit of news

The letter from my university's president with the following snippet showed up in my department mailbox sometime in the last few days, but I'm counting it with yesterday's birthday stuff:

Dear Dr. Dorn -- Congratulations on having been promoted to Professor.

I now have to cross out a few hundred copies of "Associate" on the remaining stash of my USF business cards. (If someone decides to spend money this year on fresh business cards for me, I'm going to stare at them until they blink realize the error of their ways.)

I hope your week has started well.

Mental drops in a scattered morning

Some odd thoughts this morning as I catch up on a bunch of things (but probably not enough):

  • The key difference between great colloquial writing and great formal writing is how efficient the formal writing is. There are some vocabulary differences (colloquial writing uses slang, while formal writing generally avoids it), but too many undergraduate and graduate students misunderstand formality as syllable-counting. There is some difference in the complexity of sentences, but too many students misunderstand formality as a greater density of adverbs, commas, and semicolons. Great colloquial writing uses stories and extended metaphors and welcomes tangents. Great formal writing illustrates and uses metaphors to teach, not to distract. Great colloquial writing invites the reader into a conversation. Great formal writing leads the reader by the eyeballs. The greatest writers can shift between colloquial and formal without readers' noticing. The rest of us mortals must be more careful.
  • Reporting on education research is too close to tourism and too far away from analysis. I see too many articles that describe a single study, report, or brief without any context. I wish I had an easy solution to this. Newspapers could refuse to print anything on research unless there is a "here's the context" piece that passes a good reporter's sniff test on reasonableness. The fifteen-minute sniff test that a reporter can try with any press release that claims the research is the "first" or "only" anything: go to Google Scholar. Use a half-dozen search terms. See if that research really is the first of its kind.
  • Birthdays close to Father's Day are good for my sanity, but not great for completing work-related tasks. The world gave me a pretty good birthday this year, ending with an exciting finish to the Cubs-Rays game I took my son to. (Is it just Tropicana Stadium, or are fans in baseball stadiums far more racially homogeneous than when I was a child?) It wasn't as good a day for the world as in 1991, when South Africa repealed its Population Registration Act, but it certainly beat an attack on democracy in 1972 (Watergate break-in) and sheer weirdness in 1994 (the interminable car "chase" of O.J. Simpson leading to his arrest).
  • I need a working time machine to help me with my workload. Unfortunately, my search on eBay didn't turn up much of practical value.
  • The last two paragraphs were examples of (not-great) colloquial writing. So is this.

June 11, 2008

The costs of layoffs

It looks like faculty at USF are "getting off" lightly in terms of layoffs by almost any measure. I have some questions remaining about the choices available to my institution, but the position of faculty here is better than USF staff and better than those who work in other sectors hit hard by the recession. I know of one layoff notice to an instructor and another one to a professional researcher employee, and I expect to receive copies of a few others, mostly to professional employees who are in the bargaining unit. If you'll accept my apologies for the use of academic jargon to describe institutional behavior, this sucks. But it's still better than what Florida university administrators have pondered over the past few months.

Though very few faculty will receive layoff notices, there are real costs to everyone for staff layoffs, and we are starting to see those consequences this week. For the last few weeks, both faculty and staff have been walking around on eggshells, wondering who would receive layoff notices. Now we know: my guess is that more than half of those who will receive layoff notices this summer have been told, though we still may have some trickling in for a week or more. Anyone faculty member who's teaching and drops by the department this week will know which staff members are being laid off.

I know staff who have received notices, and if you aren't concerned about your coworkers' personal welfare, you're pretty low on the scale of human decency. These include people with disabilities, widows, single parents with children, those who have worked at USF for decades and have a solid job record. They have fewer resources than professionals and faculty, and they're being laid off in the worst economy in almost two decades, with gas prices heading sky-high. If you know someone who's laid off in your department and you don't have your productivity hit from several things (helping someone polish a resume, worrying about them, etc.), you need some help with your soul.

Then there are the long-term consequences of laying off staff. There will be longer wait times for equipment repair, more mold in buildings because leaks take longer to be fixed, students who are a little more likely to be alienated because they're less likely to see a human being when coming in for an appointment, stuff that takes longer to get done because there's a growing queue of logistical tasks for fewer people, and a general sense that the university is being dragged backwards.

June 8, 2008

When to stop working for the day...

I've been in my office for most of the past 6 hours, engaged in various editorial tasks. Most of the time, I have been writing disposition e-mails, generally rejections and requests for revisions. I know it's time to head home when I cannot write another rejection note. I'll just have to carve out time later this week for more e-mails.

Feeling lazy at 9:30 am

I must be too-well socialized: I'm reading my daughter's book manuscript this morning, but I'll probably leave the house shortly to get some work done on Education Policy Analysis Archives and then reading and grading papers. Yesterday's class documented two things for me: I had planned enough for an entire day of teaching, and it's been 9 years since I've done that. That is, students grumbled a bit as we went a few minutes overtime (I'll figure out how to make up for that), and I collapsed after I came home. And my spouse had no sympathy for me, since she's taught full days for 13 years of her life, the last 6 in special education.

This morning, I woke up to find that our finches were mad (short, sharp vocalizing instead of singing). My wife and I had no clue why they were mad since they had fresh water and millet, and she had opened "their" sliding-glass door so they could hear the birds outside. That usually sparks some active singing, but it didn't. (The finches also like opera, especially coloratura arias.) Apparently, the younger finch had been mad at us last night. So I said hello and started exercising, which apparently satisfied the older guy, since he started singing. But the younger one was still grumpy (I think from lack of sleep, though I'm sure I anthropomorphize). He cheered up only when I did some shoulder rolls (as in whole-body rolls over a shoulder). Since birds are in very bad shape when lying on the ground, watching human exercises such as crunches or rolls must be the bird equivalent of going to horror movies: "He's on the ground and still alive: it's a giant food-bringer zombie!!!" And the nice thing about rolls is that if you do five or six of them in a row, you get much the same feeling as if you had been on a turn-you-upside-down roller coaster, all without the sunburn or entrance fees of theme parks.

On second thought, maybe the finches are just laughing at us when we exercise, an entertaining break from their efforts at redecorating. For now, I'll finish reading this chapter and then head off to work.

June 5, 2008

Scheduled fragmentation is less stressful

Today is F day, as in fragmentation (so get your mind out of the gutter). It's the first day of summer vacation for my children, but my teaching spouse is in for a final closeout day to finish her paperwork for the year. Or, rather, it's the paid closeout day, since she may have to head in next week to finish the paperwork in truth. (This last year has been her sixth in special education, and she has a relatively high case-load this year, which was also the first year in which she was asked to take her students for individualized state testing, something that set her back several weeks as far as paperwork is concerned. But that's a topic for a separate entry.)

With teenagers, my supervision duties are fairly light, but I don't anticipate long stretches of time for concentration. My daughter has two online tasks today (one that will require a few hours), and I expect I'll have to be Tech Support for her slower computer, or negotiate time on the family office computer. I have one appointment in the early afternoon, and then we have Events later this afternoon and evening. In the meantime, one student just told me that the university's switch of e-mail services has thrown off e-mail forwarding for a large group of students in my summer class, so the stuff I thought would get done today might not be done until tomorrow (when I had hoped to have time to concentrate on other tasks for the class).

At least I knew today would be fragmented. I think I'm going to have to fight fragmentation on at least one day a week this summer, put my foot down, and say no to all meetings for one day a week. Otherwise, I won't get anything done.

June 2, 2008

Academic offspring terminology needed

One of my colleagues at USF gave birth over the weekend, and coming on the heels of a few engagement announcements, it's another bit of welcome news. The world needs that, I think.

One of the great changes in academe over the past half-century is that institutions are becoming more accommodating of family life. Not that much in the U.S., compared to other countries (see yesterday's entry on busy academics), but over the 12 years I've been at USF, department colleagues have had or adopted over a dozen children, a few colleagues have become grandparents, and there have been plenty of graduate students who have had children while in our department. Especially in a college of education, that keeps us honest.

I know my own children are cynical about my academic pursuits, in part because they are teenagers and cynical about a lot of my life and in part because they've heard my spouse and I chat about work and pick up the work politics. So what is the right term for children of faculty? There should be one, to parallel military brat or red-diaper baby. Book brood just doesn't seem right. Suggest terms in the comments!

June 1, 2008

Brain... dripping... out... editor's... ears...

I've done about all I can on editing today. I still have e-mails from last week I need to respond to, reviewers to nag, disposition e-mails to write, ... but I've been in my office for over 8 hours, mostly alone, and if you are waiting for me to send you something, please understand that you don't want me to do that right now. Trust me on that one.

May 30, 2008


I am now accepting all donations of hours, days, and weeks. I'm afraid I can no longer accept donations of minutes because of the declining exchange rate between EDT and Work Completed. All odd minutes are good for is writing short blog entries.

And I would have created a clever "TimePal" icon as a PayPal parody... but I don't have the time.

May 24, 2008

May progress notes

All May birthdays and the anniversary are now done, all but two of the musical events are done, and one of the two belt tests are done. We know roughly how many faculty are being laid off at my university (very few, which is good, but many staff, which is bad). I'm far behind on many things, but given that it's May and a May with budget cut plans, it could have been much worse on many fronts.

Thus far, plans for the June-July course are apace, and I'll soon have a sense of whether the logistical innovation I'm trying will change the dynamics of a graduate class with working professionals. I'm giving students a limited amount of "leave time" they need to accrue before they can use it to skip class time (roughly up to 8-9% of the total semester time). This switches attendance from an orientation I fear will remind them of undergraduate classes (lose too much, and you drop grades) to something they know in a professional context: you get leave time you can use any time you want, but you have to accrue it before you can use it. (I'm using things like taking quizzes early, spotting omissions or errors in the syllabus, and answering classmates' questions as ways to reward students for helping the class run smoothly.) Students still cannot pass the class if they miss half of the time, but they can take time off after earning the leave. There are other things I have planned that I'm excited about, but that's all speculative. From watching things thus far, it looks like accruing leave time is motivating a core group of students already, even though we haven't met.

Note: My thanks to CCPhysicist, whose comment on my last entry about policy (and specifically an interesting extension of Bayesian probability to matching personal judgments to predictions about a population's judgment) gives me some ideas on my own classes. There are apparently a range of techniques that try to match personal judgments to predictions of a population (e.g., the information pump technique) and now a paper called A Truth-Serum for Non-Bayesians. I love discovering and learning about this, but I have things I need to do... ah, intellectual distractions.

May 10, 2008

Summertime freedom ... sort of, and not quite yet

I've spent much of the last week tying up odds and ends, from my part in our department's annual reviews to finalizing a syllabus and looking at some data. Now it's into the summer... sort of. I am relieved that my class this summer is an all-day Saturday affair in June and July, not because I love teaching all-day sessions but because I'm not starting my classes in the crazy month of May, when I have the birthdays of both offspring, Mother's Day, and our anniversary, not to mention the end-of-school concerts and other stuff. Let me just mention the end of the upcoming week: on Thursday is my daughter's chorus concert. Thursday is also my son's harp recital at school. Friday is my son's harp recital for his private harp teacher (but he's also playing oboe there). Friday, I'm also supposed to be in Orlando for the FEA governance board meeting. Those of you with children know the routine: my spouse and I split the Thursday concerts, and I don't head to Orlando until after the recital. Saturday night, I return after the governance board meeting, because Sunday afternoon is the concert for the youth orchestra my daughter's in. I'd also like to go to the Florida Orchestra concert next weekend, but there's no chance of that. Add in other school-related events, private music stuff, the birthdays, anniversary, and Mother's Day, ... and I'm glad I'm committed to a formal exercise program, or I'll go crazy.

For the rest of the summer, it's a more relaxed schedule for my family. As usual, I'm not sure I really get a break. Yes, I'm not teaching until June, and it's one course only, but there's union stuff, journal editing, and my own research. Throughout my university, summer this year is going to involve more free time for USF faculty and students, because USF distributed less money for summer teaching than it did last year. Most tenure-track faculty will use the extra time to do research, and maybe relax a bit. Unlike Margaret Soltan, I don't think most new faculty can look forward to a relaxed life. But that's a complicated subject, it may reflect the different institutions where we teach, and if faculty are busy in the summer when not teaching a full load, it's because of self-imposed discipline.

May 4, 2008


The semester has ended, the graduation I attended is over, the legislative session has finished, and the Crazy May events (multiple birthdays, recitals, concerts, etc.) have not yet begun. I had some bureaucratic stuff to do over the weekend that would have been Very Nice to have done a week earlier, so I celebrated the end of the legislative session by doing morning stuff just for myself (yard work, two exercise classes), and then heading into the office to finish up the Late Bureaucratic Stuff.

I am tempted to comment on a bunch of items in the news, and I may in the next few hours, as relaxation, distraction, and celebration. I also need to work on the next English EPAA article, write a few disposition e-mails, herd a few cats (reviewers), finalize the summer class I'm teaching in June and July, schedule a talk with a coauthor, decide if I'll write the book prospectus I was speaking with a series editor about in the last month, write a note to a research group I'm facilitating, Do Union Stuff,... and have a life.

But today is a bit of an in-between moment, with some shepherding of my children to events and small stuff. Too bad blood donation rooms are closed on Sunday, because I haven't given in a while. (I'm eligible, and I have veins the size of superhighways, relatively speaking.)

April 7, 2008

U.S. News rankings

Like many faculty, I'm of two minds about the U.S. News rankings. On the one hand, it can bring recognition to the work of colleagues. In particular, there are three programs in my department that have had successful grant writers, and they all contribute to the rankings of my own college in the graduate-school issue from a few weeks ago. My dean celebrated that ranking, and properly so. While U.S. News is a limited slice of research life, it's one slice.

Then I look north a few hours, to colleagues in Gainesville, where the University of Florida ranking among colleges of education dropped. That's not due to anything that faculty did (or didn't do) but how the University of Florida has changed its reporting of extramural grants.

And if we look even more broadly, we all know that the limited slice of U.S. News rankings doesn't address the quality of our graduates. Like my fellow blogger Kevin Carey (of Education Sector), I think large swaths of higher ed's mission are ignored by U.S. News. including student accomplishments. Unlike Carey, I am skeptical that quantitative rankings are much good here. Someone scoring dissertations for their conformity with standard psychological report formats (which colleges of education have inherited as the default) would have scored my own dissertation miserably, because I wrote a history dissertation. Someone looking for nuances of archival analysis would probably find many education dissertations lacking, because few are historical.

I hope others would acknowledge that one cannot honestly score dissertations by themselves in any meaningful way. If so, what about undergraduate work? Hmmn...

... and that's where the column in Inside Higher Ed today came from. Welcome to readers who have traipsed over here from the column. Look around, subscribe to the RSS feed, and enjoy yourself!

April 3, 2008

Jim Anderson retrospective, part 2

A few days ago I described the 20th-anniversary Jim Anderson retrospective at AERA. Now it's my turn to address some of the topics raised in that session, in a personal historiography, or my reading of The Education of Blacks in the South, originally published in 1988.

For me, the thesis of the book was not particularly a surprise, for several reasons. First, my undergraduate advisor Paul Jefferson had exposed me to a broad variety of historical arguments from the very first course I took with him, which used Herbert Aptheker's documentary collection, to a seminar course where I wrote an historiographical essay on W.E.B. DuBois's Black Reconstruction. Bryn Mawr College sociologist David Karen had exposed me to both structural-functionalists and radical education critics in a course I took with him when I was a junior (or at least I vaguely recall its being spring 1986). Then in grad school I had Michael Katz as an advisor.

But probably the teacher who lay the groundwork the most for Anderson was Bob Engs, for whom I read C. Vann Woodward's Origins of the New South. Because Engs and Anderson use the same material to arrive at very different interpretations of the role of foundations in Southern education, it says a great deal about Engs as a teacher that he made Anderson make sense for me even while he was telling me that Anderson's book was polemical. I like both men a great deal, so perhaps a broader explanation is in order.

Engs and Anderson were both pioneers as African American historians in elite majority-white universities in the same time (the early 1970s), Engs at Penn and Anderson at Illinois. I wish I could say they were part of a continuous record going back decades, but in an case they've become part of diverse faculties for the past several.

Engs turned his first research project into a book ten years before Anderson's, with Freedom's First Generation about the Hampton, Virginia, community. Anderson took a decade and a half to write his first book (something Vanessa Siddle Walked called "lingering with an idea," but I thought of as "a darned good example of a leader in my field who didn't write 7 articles a year before tenure"). And they are different books: While Anderson writes only of education, Engs writes a local history, focusing on the contingent conditions that allowed Hampton's African American community to thrive after the Civil War and hang on to wealth in the very late 19th century even while the curtain of segregation and disfranchising was closing in from all sides.

Engs saw the Hampton Institute as one of those contingencies, and Samuel Chapman Armstrong (Hampton's first leader) as a friend of the Hampton African American community. Where Anderson saw a conspiracy to undermine equality, Engs saw irony with Armstrong's showing one face to the white community and another to Hampton's African Americans. Where Engs saw opportunity that some grabbed in the midst of oppression, Anderson saw structural limitations that were covered up by a tamed education system. Let me make clear that their views of the Southern political economy and educational structure are similar; the great interpretive differences lie in the role of the foundations.

Despite those deep differences in the interpretation of late 19th century Southern education, Engs laid the groundwork for my "oh, yes, of course" reading of Anderson in several ways. First, he made me and other graduate students read Willie Lee Rose's Rehearsal for Reconstrution and C. Vann Woodward and Jacqueline Jones and Exodusters and several others in a way that raised important questions about the South's history after the Civil War. I was also his teaching assistant one semester for his Southern postwar history class (that's postwar as in post-Civil War), and apart from his tolerance for the awkward naive grad student I was then, I figured out how he could say the most outlandish things in a lecture and get the southern white male students to recommend that all of their friends take his classes. With a light baritone, he stood at the front of class, uttering outrageous interpretations in a quiet, patient manner, as if they wouldn't ruffle anyone's feathers. The students loved him (and I presume students still love him at Penn).

So in many ways, I bought much of Anderson's argument because of Engs. If it's any comfort, Bob, it's because of Anderson's discussion of communities that I bought your argument, too. Ultimately, the best scholarship in each book is about different levels of action. Anderson effectively demonstrates that white philanthropists did conspire to impose a certain type of education on the South. Yet in his work on community efforts, Anderson bolsters Engs's argument that at the local level, there was a lot more going on. I'm not sure we have to establish the moral worth of Samuel Chapman Armstrong to evaluate either book. (Some years ago, Engs wrote a biography of Armstrong, and it's much more sympathetic than I expect Anderson's version would be.)

I have both learned from Anderson's work and also failed to give it credit in one case. It was because of his book that my own dissertation research on graduation in the 20th century involved looking at the extent of high school availability in the 1950s and 1960s. And like John Rury, I am returning to the scope of high school education in the 20th century South. In Schools as Imagined Communities, Deirdre Cobb-Roberts, Barbara Shircliffe, and I could have enriched the introduction by discussing Anderson's work. Mea culpa.

As those at the AERA panel said, Anderson's book helped open up the history of Southern education after the Civil War, giving the subject the gravitas that it deserves and momentum that has served many other historians well. The rest of us in the field can only hope to leave an intellectual legacy as significant as Jim Anderson's.

March 31, 2008

Tacit knowledge and the AERA program hustle

Eduwonkette has commented on the heterogeneous quality of sessions at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting, quoted someone saying it was a tenure hustle, and suggested that the IES-funded Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness is a rival to AERA. (Oh, yes, and her friend skoolboy is right in recommending Topaz Thai.) I've commented on the oversized aspect of the conference, but I waited until after AERA to gripe about one feature of AERA that is fundamentally inequitable:

AERA's reviewing system provides structured advantages to groups of researchers who collaborate on submitted proposals. Researchers from disciplines with solitary traditions face inherent disadvantages in such a system.

Because of its size, AERA has for years rationed session slots to divisions and SIGS by the number of submissions in prior meetings. (I don't know the formula, but I suspect it includes the number of prior submissions, number of prior panels, total membership in the division/SIG, phase of the moon at AERA two years ago, together with a cosine function tied to the inverse proportional pressure wave created by a size-10 shoe dropped from the AERA executive director's office to the street below.) So there is a huge incentive for division leaders to encourage large numbers of submissions, which produces a low acceptance rate.

Theoretically, that should mean a better overall quality of sessions, but it doesn't turn out that way, because with a large number of submissions (which are heterogeneous in quality), you also need a large number of reviewers, and program folks literally go begging for reviewers in the second half of the year, after submissions are in.

If you think the quality of reviewing is significantly more consistent than the quality of submissions, I have a swamp or bridge to sell you. If you're looking for reviewers, you don't have much of a choice. And AERA's reviewing system has a one-size-fits-all quantitative rating scheme (rubric), regardless of the methodological or epistemological traditions of the scholar. "Data Sources" are irrelevant to the philosopher, but it's a required criterion for all reviews. And the quality of feedback varies as well. Here are the (quite positive) reviews my coauthor and I received for the proposal that was accepted:

Choice of Problem/Topic    4 / 5
Theoretical Framework    4 / 5
Methods    4 / 5
Data Sources    4 / 5
Conclusions/Interpretations    4 / 5
Quality of Writing/Organization    5 / 5
Contribution to Field    4 / 5
Membership Appeal    4 / 5
Would You Attend This Session?    4 / 5
Overall Recommendation    5 / 5

Comments to the Author
This is a well-written, clear, and very focused proposal. It offers new perspectives on the oft-talked about teacher shortage problem, providing new evidence from data on re-entry into the profession and analyzing entry and exit by age. The data, methods and conclusions all appear to be solid. However, I do feel that more critical issues related to teacher shortages emerge if we consider the distribution of teacher shortages--for example, shortages of teachers willing to teach in urban areas, and subject-specific teacher shortages in math and science. Nevertheless, this paper makes an important contribution to the overall teacher shortage debate.

Choice of Problem/Topic    5 / 5
Theoretical Framework    4 / 5
Methods    5 / 5
Data Sources    5 / 5
Conclusions/Interpretations    5 / 5
Quality of Writing/Organization    4 / 5
Contribution to Field    4 / 5
Membership Appeal    4 / 5
Would You Attend This Session?    3 / 5
Overall Recommendation    4 / 5

Comments to the Author
A strong, well-designed proposal on a clearly important topic.

I'm not sure if the second reviewer was exhausted from 17 prior reviews (my hats off to her or his service in that case) or just had little to say, but I've had reviews that are all over the map in terms of ratings and amount/quality/relevance of comments. I pity the poor program volunteer who has to sort the reviews and figure out what to do with submissions that receive disparate splits (4s and 5s from one reviewer, 1s and 2s from another, with either or both reviews having either many or no comments). But there's one conclusion I take as a member of AERA who submits proposals:

Whether your AERA proposal is accepted is substantially a game of craps. This conclusion doesn't mean that horrid proposals are accepted but that plenty of very decent proposals are shot down because there is no way to create a consistent system of reviewing, and there is probably no way to predict which good proposals are accepted and which good proposals are rejected. (I wonder if anyone has asked permission to look at a set of proposal ratings to calculate reliability...)

I suppose I could make money by having a side bet system (but I don't live in Vegas or Atlantic City), but there's a more pragmatic consequence that some researchers use to increase their odds of being placed on the program (often a requirement for getting travel funds from your institution): Agree with colleagues or graduate students to collaborate on submissions. The more submissions your name is attached to (either as main presenter or coauthor), the greater your chances of having a proposal accepted and thus being on the program (see the "tenure hustle" comment above).

This consequence is obvious to some but the type of tacit knowledge that isn't told to others as part of their grad-school socialization. Many of us work in relatively solitary fields (philosophy, history, etc.), where being on the margins of someone else's work doesn't seem to deserve the intellectual credit of being a coauthor. So someone coming from that field would probably not be told by her or his advisor that to maximize one's chances of appearing on an AERA program, you need to network and increase the number of submissions your name is attached to. In my subfield, the usual advice is to collaborate with others to propose a coherent panel, which is supposed to have a higher chance of acceptance because of the higher quality and relevance for the complete panel. That works in some conferences where there are advantages to complete panels, but in most divisions at AERA, that is unlikely to be true.

I'm not griping about the system this year, since I did the logical thing and both collaborated with a colleague where we could ethically submit two proposals (one emphasizing my side of the work and another emphasizing his side of the work) and also agreed to be put on as a panelist by a third colleague, and in another role by a fourth person. The proposal where I was the presenter happened to get accepted. Was that because my proposal was the most qualified? Not likely. Just having several proposals with my name on it helped, and the odds worked in my favor. But if you haven't learned this and your single proposal to AERA was rejected, you now know what you need to do: get your name on multiple submissions to the next AERA program. The submission deadline is in the summer, so it's time now to start networking for next year. Don't be unethical: network where you really can be a contributor. But if your tenure depends on AERA appearances, it's (sadly) in your interest to play this game.

Ultimately, I suppose AERA could be overwhelmed if groups of researchers decide they'll band together in 100-person units, each of whom submits 2 paper proposals as a primary presenter and 99 coauthors. That is probably not likely to happen, but the ad absurdum thought experiment should make my point clear: increased numbers of submissions do not inherently improve the quality of accepted panels at AERA, even with lower acceptance rates, and those who work in large research groups have an inherent advantage in a metastasized conference like AERA.

There are some potential fixes I can imagine:

  • Divide single-authored proposals from multiple-authored proposals in the reviewing process, so single-authored proposals are compared only to single-authored proposals, and likewise with multiple-authored proposals.
  • Have some metric of reviewer trust within AERA. No, I have no clue how this could be done feasibly.
  • Subdivide the reviewing process so program volunteers only have a limited number of submissions to work with and can read and filter the reviews without going bonkers.

There are two reasons why AERA should care about this problem. First, it's an issue of equity. AERA's annual meeting is already designed in a way that benefit faculty who work in better-funded institutions who can support travel to and several nights' stay in expensive hotels in New York, San Diego, Chicago, etc., and those are the same faculty who are likely to have research groups (i.e., grad students) that foster a multiple-submission system and increase odds of appearing on the program.

Second, it's also an issue of quality with the program. AERA is the best evidence I know that a high rejection rate does not increase one's program quality. That rejection rate is only meaningful if it reliably includes stronger proposals and filters out weaker proposals. Apart from disciplinary and other differences on what you or I may think are stronger or weaker proposals, I just don't think the system is working at AERA. That doesn't mean I'm going to abandon AERA entirely (I've reviewed dozens of proposals over the years, regardless of my own participation), but I am one of those on the margins of AERA in large part because the current annual-meeting structure is dysfunctional.

March 23, 2008

In Mid-town Manhattan

I'm at the corner of Broadway and 54th right now, with relatively minimal fuss except that in the rush to pack last night, I grabbed my daughter's jacket instead of mine, and I installed a package to my Linux laptop without pinning, so a whole bunch of things disappeared and I had to wipe the entire system clean. As you can see, that didn't turn out to be horribly onerous, and I even figured out how to get a new Firefox add-on to meet and greet my blog back-end.

I'll only be here for two days or so of AERA, but this is going to beat last year, when I was at AERA for only one day, and it turned out to be The Day of Sideways Sleet (aka The Day of Frozen Humiliation and Pain). But it's sunny right now, and well into the 40s, so I'm happy on that end.

Oh, yes, and a colleague and I have a paper to present tomorrow. And colleague to meet.

March 22, 2008

I'm feeling better... I think I'm going to go for a walk

I know it's been a super-busy week, but I was taken aback when one of the searches leading people to this website turned out to be "Dorn of the Dead." Lal Bihari and the Association of Dead People aside (they do great work and won the 2003 Ig Nobel prize for peace), I'm still here, am still recognized as alive by my family and coworkers, am not about to talk anyone to death about eating their brains, and just need to nail down a few things before I head off to New York for the American Educational Research Association annual meeting.

March 19, 2008

Life The tenure process can work out

She may have been doubting it at various points, but many of who have read her blog over the past few years never did: Profgrrrrl got tenure.

March 17, 2008

I did not sign up to be a firefighter

... so why do I feel like I've spent the last 5 hours playing the role?

Oh, yeah: my university is back from spring break; the first department peer review committee meeting (annual evaluations) is tomorrow morning; I'm out of town most of next week.

I want a week to work all by myself, and then I'll take the week I scheduled. Aiiiieeee!

Busy next week

March 24, 2008
Teacher Attrition: Age-Specific Transition Rates (Sherman Dorn and Stephen Provasnik)
In panel Sociological Perspectives on Teachers and Teaching
American Educational Research Association (SIG - Sociology of Education)
New York Marriott Marquis Times Square, Soho Complex, Soho Room, 7th Floor

March 29, 2008
Defending Effective Accountability and Assessment Practices
Joint AFT/NEA Higher Education Conference
Hilton Washington

Ora James Bouey, Health Sciences, Stony Brook University, SUNY
John Hammang, Director, Special Projects, American Association of State Colleges and Universities,
Debra Humphreys, VP Communications and Public Affairs, American Association of Colleges and Universities
Sherman Dorn

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

Why I love reading blogs

Reason #421: when I have a headache and have to work on something tedious, Timothy Burke nails why I dislike Richard Dawkins. To be honest, it's why Burke dislikes Dawkins, but as is often the case, he is more articulate than I would be making a similar argument.

Incidentally, Burke would still be more articulate even if I didn't have a headache.

March 5, 2008


I wish I had time to write something pithy today, but I have a communications bungle in one direction, a crisis in another, several overdue items mating in this corner, and a Sword of Damocles overhead, and to boot I'm mixing all of this up with a swamp metaphor, so Margaret Soltan (aka University Diarist) is going to kill me with an SOS entry.

No, please don't be tempted to shift the river. I have to do all this stuff, still.

February 27, 2008

Sometimes selfish evenings...

Sometimes selfish evenings,
when you serve your own needs.
When you serve your own needs and find some energy...

Yes, that scans to "Some Enchanted Evening." One of the risks of both blogging and being overly committed to various tasks is that those who would like you to address their current requests (many of which are overdue) see you blogging and... well, I can imagine it from their perspective. Why am I spending time blogging and ignoring what I need to do?

On Monday, I wrote what is probably an unprecedented six entries in a single day, or at least it's probably unprecedented for me. I'm not Matthew Yglesias; I don't get paid for blogging. What happened behind the scenes Tuesday was that I had a bunch of small tasks, one meeting, and deadlines, plus evening chaffeur duty. I'm not sure why the morning entries have time stamps that are about an hour off, but I got to the office a bit before 7:30 a.m., worked on various tasks with breaks for short blog entries until I headed to a 9:30 meeting, did some more work in the afternoon, took my daughter to an evening event, took shelter in a local bookstore while a line of storms moved through the area, drove my daughter back home, and then headed to a cafe to get some more work done and wrote a few more entries. Not a bad day's work.

Today was all meetings, and a few longish phone conversations, plus more chaffeuring. I am therefore desperately in need of some time just for myself. I'm going to do some fun work, write another blog entry, and then head to bed. I know there are people who would like some things from me yesterday, but you really want me to recharge and get to it tomorrow. Trust me.

(No, this entry was not prompted by any specific complaint.)

February 25, 2008

In the zone-out facing multiple deadlines

Let me preface the remarks below with a simple fact of working in a huge university: There are hundreds of colleagues who are better read than I am, hundreds who work longer hours, hundreds who are more organized, hundreds who are wiser, hundreds who are more clever, hundreds who have published more, hundreds who have taught more, hundreds who are better cited, and hundreds who have a much better sense of humor.

That doesn't mean that I'm a slouch. Far from it: I work hard, and I don't mind working hard. As I write this sentence, it's about 10:30, and I'll still be going for a while. I don't think one can survive as a tenure-track faculty member hired in the past decade at many universities these days without either working very hard, being very organized, or being damned lucky (and possibly all three). (I was hired in 1996... I'm stretching "the past decade" a bit.)

My point right now is that I'm in the multiple-deadlines-hitting-at-once zone, which is an inevitable coincidence if you have multiple and often competing obligations over time. They're just going to pile up, and once in a blue moon (or the week after a lunar eclipse, right now), everything hits at once. At this point in my career, I just have confidence I can get done what I need to. I think anyone who survives grad school has at least several moments when they read prose with the density of a neutron star and just repeat to themselves, "I can get through this and get the gist." My first moment was the day in high school I was visiting my sister in college, visited her intro to women's studies class, heard the prof mention Paulo Freire, and had the very foolish idea that I could buy Pedagogy of the Oppressed and read it.

A few hours later, I was sitting in a car, halfway through the prefatory material, getting a headache, and exhausting the rest of my faith on the belief that I could understand Freire. You've probably had that type of moment, and I hope you bulldozed your way through it and came out the other end with the type of understanding you needed.

In college, I had several other experiences writing papers between 10 pm and 5 am, this time a little more confident that I'd get through. The first time is an adventure, and the fourth time you have enough confidence (and caffeine) to get through it. And I had a few sour-lemon readings to compete with Freire: Talcott Parsons is what I recall most.

In grad school, I had a few moments that approached the Freire sensawhatthe? feeling, first with Hayden White's Metahistory and then a few others. But Foucault was accessible by then, and a few book-a-week courses inured me to effective reading. And after several semesters of TAing courses, grading was less anxiety provoking. It's a growth process (or maybe a synaptic-death process: take your pick).

One could view the postdoc and tenure-track years in a similar vein, except adding multiple job and personal responsibilities and eventually deciding that it is better to trust that one can get through it in the long term than to juggle multiple deadlines by the panic method. Generally, an hour later everything looks better, or at least you're exhausted enough that you can just get along.

So I've handled multiple oncoming deadlines today, and I'm fairly confident that I can handle the next ones coming up. Or at least, whatever I do will be good enough for Microsoft. No: I can do better, I have, and I will continue to. It is less arrogance than a temperament of confidence in the long-term bet. Friends of mine have nominalized cope as referring to one's capacity to handle the unexpected, the demands of life, the energy drains that are inevitable.  After all these years, I think I have enough cope. It is perhaps too much confidence, but we need that to get through Paulo Freire, Talcott Parsons, Hayden White, a linear algebra proof without the details, mathematical demography, titration in a shaking building or with shaking hands, grant-writing in a program with a 5% hit rate, and the uncertainties of academic politics.

Those of us in higher education trust that we have enough cope for our role in the world, in our students' lives, and in our research community. It is a belief in the future, for ourselves, for our disciplines, and for knowledge. We may not be enough to save the world, but we are necessary. So yes, we believe in our ability to handle multiple deadlines, unreasonable demands, and have enough humor to get through the semester.

It is the audacity of cope.

The Latin Declension Song

You always knew you wanted a Latin I song (hat tip).

February 22, 2008

No excuses

I'm exhausted after a week of only eight meetings, but more than half were important meetings. I wish I had pithy thoughts, but I think the last pithy thought I had was on Tuesday, when I drafted a bunch of items for the union e-mail newsletter.

Adieu, cruel week. No, it wasn't cruel: just there in a way I wish I had been free from, a bit more.

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 16, 2008

Steady work, if you can do it

Woke up at 5:20 this morning (the usual setting for weekdays), went back to bed for 10 minutes, then up to exercise and shower. Out to a cafe something after six, did some logistical editing tasks, write a disposition e-mail, answered a few e-mails, thought about the future, and now it's time to head back home before coming back to meet with a doctoral student here at 11. Then swing back home, pick up my son for a martial-arts session in the early afternoon, and I'll probably come home and do some work afterwards. Given the weekend's schedule, I probably won't get stretches of time to concentrate, but there's plenty of stuff on my plate to do.

Yes, I'll get some leisure time, but my internal sense of things is that I need to poke away at things this weekend. There is nothing magical in this except in trusting that persistence pays off in the long term.

February 14, 2008

Mail inadequacy

  • I should not have left the checkbook at home: I've finished an article manuscript I'm pleased with, but I need to send in a small check for submission processing. So the manuscript copies will sit on my desk until tomorrow morning.
  • Someone wanting to be admitted to USF must have found the faculty union website, confused the union with the university, and wrote my cell phone and the union office # on an envelope.  So this morning I received my very first application to be admitted into the engineering program. I'd like to know more about engineering, but I think I'm not the right recipient. After a bit of thought on my part and on the part of a department staff member, the envelope is now on its way to the graduate studies office.
  • After some grumbling and the persuasion of her advisor in the fall, my daughter took a "practice PSAT" (which stands for practice practice SAT), and she is now receiving envelopes from colleges around the country that want her to apply. This is driven in part by the U.S. News & World Report ranking, partly derived from selectivity; so if you can attract a lot of applicants and reject more, your rankings rise (or fall less). (The same dynamic is true with the American Educational Research Association's divisions and special-interest groups.) She's amused by this, for the most part. Thus far, she has not received any brochure with an awful pun, the way a friend and I did many years ago from the University of Puget Sound, whose brochure title was How Does Puget Sound?

February 11, 2008

Huge conferences are inherently dysfunctional

This is not unique to the American Educational Research Association, but I was part of three sessions or papers submitted to AERA, one of which was accepted (par for the course), and I agreed to serve as chair of another, on condition that I not have to stay in the conference city (NYC) for the whole week.

Well, the schedule is up today, and my submitted (and accepted) paper is scheduled for Monday, while the session I agreed to chair is on Thursday. Aaarrrghghghgh! The program chair for that division is not responsible for the scheduling, and to some extent, when you have a cast of thousands, no one will be happy with scheduling, but this means I had to back out of the session I'm slated to chair.

The fact that we really do not have travel support this year (thank you, budget cuts) doesn't help. Nor does the fact that the conference city is New York.

So if you read this, know me, live in the New York area, haven't committed heinous crimes such as murder, pederasty, or wearing chartreuse, and want to put me up for Sunday and Monday night and get dinners out on me, please e-mail me. (Alternatively, if you're a nonsmoking male headed to AERA and are staying Sunday and Monday nights and want to share a room, send me an e-mail.)

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.

An even more twisted mind under the influence (of a rhinovirus)

Evidently, Michael Bérubé's state of mind can be very interesting, especially after a great Super Bowl.

For the record, I have never been under the influence of anything more serious than Benadryl, though when I was in high school my debate partner and I argued in favor of legalizing marijuana and decided that if we were ever asked in cross-examination if we had ever smoked pot, we'd say, "No, but we like broccoli after dinner," and figure out some way to light up a floret in the room. (This was in the days before no-smoking rules in public buildings.) We never did figure that out, unfortunately.

Oh, wait. One horrid evening in college, the infirmary solved my excruciating earache with acetaminophen-and-codeine. I think that beats Benadryl, though it doesn't beat the Lakers in the late spring of 1985.

Hmmn... either I'm heading out of town early tomorrow morning, or I have a cold. There is the definite possibility of both.

February 3, 2008

Pacing: when adrenaline is not enough

Bad head cold time today, involving sinuses and other stuff you don't need to know about. I'm heading to western Washington state on Tuesday for most of a week, so I have to get some things done before then. Yesterday was shot, so today requires getting stuff done (priority: editor stuff).

I'm sitting here in ChainCafe, having reread referee reports and getting ready to reread the submitted manuscript. It's a revise-and-resubmit decision, so I need to go through this carefully to identify priorities for the author(s) to spend time on. (Rejections are much faster to write in practice, though in theory the need to provide feedback in a sensitive way could require more time.)

The problem is that I have just run out of energy to immerse myself in a manuscript (which is how I operate in friendly-criticism mode). Normally, I can somehow access adrenaline or some other internal chemistry to focus, but I'm wiped out. Time to rest and write an inconsequential blog entry.

Maybe I should have chosen something caffeinated instead of African Red Bush, but for me caffeine affects attention, not energy.

So this is going to be a long day of paced work. The most important and urgent tasks will happen, but nothing else.

February 1, 2008

At least Timothy Leary chose to drop out...

I think I understand Leary's choices, or at least the temptation: It's the end of two very tiring days, when I had a chance to talk for a few hours with one of the folks who tore down Florida's old Pork Chop Gang. Short story: an undergraduate I've been mentoring for a few semesters had an internship with the law firm of this Florida political hero, and after e-mailing back and forth, he needed some questions answered about the background of his senior thesis. So he proposed a joint meeting, first scheduled at the law firm and then moved to my office. I was expecting it to go about 90 minutes. It lasted 150 minutes instead. So we got off on various tangents, since he had the personal experience and I had the history, but the student said it was worth it. I had several meetings today (some planned, some impromptu, some deferred). Lots of things delayed, which is my life these days.

But even if deferred for a few days, the new English-language article of EPAA is out: Avoidable Losses: High-Stakes Accountability and the Dropout Crisis. Its authors combined interview work with following students in Texas as they were left behind in 9th grade and then dropped out. This is very difficult work to do, and the findings are provocative. Two stand out for me: that principals know that they are choosing between education and satisfying the test-score gods, and they reluctantly choose to satisfy the gods; and that to students, there is no distinction between accountability and all the practices that alienate many of them from high school. To the students in this Texas school district in the late 1990s and early 200s, there is a single massive bureaucracy that held them back, denied them opportunities in part to game the system, and never told them that their education was being sacrificed in the name of pressure whose putative goal was to ensure that they were not denied educational opportunities.

Whether you agree with the article's authors or not, I suspect it will be discussed vigorously, which is all to the good. A few years after Jennifer Booher-Jennings' article on triage in Texas, one of the models for NCLB continues to be a focus of criticism and debate.

(No, I've never taken illegal drugs, nor have I ever been tempted to, in reality. But I live on antihistamines when I have a cold...)

January 30, 2008

Need new brain. Or a walk.

I think I got a bunch of stuff done this morning, but my brain really is not working right now. Either I need a brain transplant or I need to get out of my office, walk somewhere for coffee or something else of sustenance, and revive.

I'll try the second, in hopes that I don't really need the first.

January 28, 2008

"Productivity Junta"

I've been an admirer of Cal Newport's Study Hacks blog for a while, and today's advice has a basis in research and a catchy phrase: Form a Productivity Junta.

January 26, 2008

Punching through

This morning, I drove my son to a workshop with a ninth-degree black belt in tae kwondo. While he was learning how to punch more effectively, I was writing some critical paragraphs in the article MS I've returned to. Quite pleased, and I've set up the rest of the argument's structure reasonably well.  I need to add in some more relevant data, revise the last section and abstract to match the revisions, and then I think I can send it out.

And then create a new manuscript based on this technical work. I've never done that before (writing one manuscript that depends on another), but I juggle enough things now, why not add another.

(I originally wrote paragraphs in as paragraph sin. Hmmn...)

January 25, 2008

No rest for the wearying

This morning was definitely the time to get work done early: meeting on the Lakeland campus at noon (an hour's drive from the Tampa campus), followed by two parental chauffeuring duties this afternoon. So after dropping the son off at school early this morning, I drove out to Lakeland and have spent three hours working, mostly polishing the next EPAA article.

This weekend is also busy, with chauffeuring Saturday morning and a union meeting in Orlando Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. And I'm partway through an article-manuscript revision I've started. Aaaarrghghghgh! That and the next few EPAA tasks will be shuttled back and forth across time and parallel universes, I think.

The Florida Board of Governors meeting yesterday was half a watershed: Charles Edwards proposed raising tuition 13% for each of the next 5 years (to bring it up to the 25th percentile in-state tuition, nationally, as of today's distribution of tuition), but the board eventually settled on a single-year's 8% hike. The politics here focus exclusively on tuition as student cost. That's an important marginal cost to students and families, though the main part of the cost of college is the opportunity cost of not working (or all the other things that go into working full-time and also attending college).

(Yes, I spelled the title deliberately...)

January 24, 2008

Time warp

I slept in until 5:50 am and I decided to drive my son in to school before showering. I spent some time on e-mail this morning (which is in its own time warp after our tech problems at my college in the last week), and am listening to the webcast of the Florida Board of Governors meetings while catching up on blog-reading. So I feel incredibly lazy, its being 9 am without my having spent an hour or so on a focused work task.

I happen to be a morning person (or have been pushed to be a morning person by my children's school schedules), but I suspect my own habits reflect a change in the lives of faculty. While there may be pockets of academe where new faculty can survive without being organized, I suspect those pockets are shrinking dramatically. Hundreds of my USF colleagues are more work-focused than I am. That has consequences for the culture of an institution, both good in some ways and also unfortunate in others, in terms of providing time and opportunity to talk and be colleagues.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I need to ... mmm ... get to work. It's another kitchen-table day, I think. I've finally puzzled out why some educational attainment measures are less sensitive to migration than others. It's a fairly simple, obvious explanation, but there are some counterintuitive consequences. For example, almost no matter how you measure it, even a well-constructed graduation rate is going to be more sensitive to misspecification of migration than the proportion of school life spent in 11th and 12th grades. The two measures are clearly related, but one is far more vulnerable to migration measures than the other.

So I have an EPAA article to finish preparing, an old manuscript to rework, and a grant to revise. And if you think that will all be done today amid various other things,... well, at least I have some ambitions.

January 22, 2008

Working in the kitchen

I'm glad I decided to edit an upcoming EPAA article this morning, since my college's e-mail is on the blink again. Ouch. Our poor tech services director, on the job only a few weeks, and she and her staff have had to cope with a major systems collapse over more than a week. So instead of worrying about e-mail, I have spent much of my day thus far getting 80% of the way through line-editing the article. To be honest, I began on Sunday, and I'm now taking a break and will finish the job tomorrow morning. So while my brain would be dribbling out my ears if I had tried to edit all of a 45-page article in one swoop, I can almost think.

On the why does my brain do this? front, I think I may have found a link between my pondering of Green's theorem yesterday and a quarter-century-old synthesis in mathematical demography (see the simplified explanation by Ansley Coale in an August 1985 Asian and Pacific Census Forum newsletter (PDF), pp. 5-8). It may not help me explain what's going on with my research, but at least I'm not completely bonkers.

And now I have to get out of my comfortable kitchen and head closer to where I pick my son up from school in a bit.

January 18, 2008

If it's Friday, I must be in Orlando

Interesting day, almost by definition, with equal dashes of intrigue, frustration, possibility, and sheer chaos. I'm in a cafe right now, waiting for this afternoon's external advisory meeting on the state's assessment/accountability system. We're going to be talking with representatives of the Buros Center on Testing, and their reports for the state provide plenty of interesting material for questions. At the same time, because of continuing problem with my college's e-mail server, I'm cut off from my university e-mail account the morning after the scope of the budget crisis at USF became evident (and on the same day that our governor proposed increased funding; I have no clue what that's about or how legislators are going to respond). And I just sent out an e-mail to the bargaining unit (or the group of e-mails collected on a reasonable computer's expectation that they're members of our bargaining unit - long story on that). So I expect there will be HUGE e-mail loads waiting for me whenever the e-mail goes back online. Those who send e-mail to my USF account are going to be facing huge delays in responses (my colleagues who don't yet have private accounts have been scrambing to do so this week).

Oh, yeah, and our spam filter was taken off line earlier this week in hopes of reducing the server weirdness. Guess how much spam I received in the time the server was operating? So I have things to do and really can't, effectively, and I'm half out of touch. And when I do gain access, I'll be WAY behind. And I have no basis to complain in reality, because I have tenure, and we're facing massive staff layoffs.

The fog of war is nothing compared to the fog of e-mail.

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

The value of structure

I've finished most of the tables in the article I'm working on, so I'll indulge myself with one last blog entry tonight. Primarily, I want to dissent gently from Timothy Burke's concerns about strategic planning in this blog entry (which is not currently available: I receive a WordPress database error, which I hope is remedied quickly!).

I like what they're trying to get to, but I guess this is why strategic planning per se often leaves me cold: it tends to end up with a long description of a process that the planners want to unfold point by point that ultimately has a lot of whistling-past-the-graveyard, e.g., it makes the difficult business of tranformation sound like something methodical and ordinary, and advises changes in generic terms that are ultimately going to have to be adapted to the very specific character of some individuals, departments, long-term patterns of practice, and so on within an institution. Better to go with a broad declaration of principle and then roll up your sleeves and grope your way through the messy business of change. Strategic planning of this kind tries to make an academic community into the kind of "legible object" subject to bureaucratic management that James Scott has written about. And mostly, academic cultures of use and practice just aren't.

"Grop[ing] your way" through change may be possible in an institutional context such as Swarthmore's, but it invites disaster at large institutions that don't have a culture of productive messiness. (That culture has a certain structure, inevitably, though explaining that would require a bit of space.) And moreover, faculty at the larger institutions are highly distrustful of ad-hoc processes, viewing them as an invitation to favoritism and fads.

That fact doesn't mean that deliberately-structured processes have to be straightjackets. In one committee I chaired a few years ago, I was lucky to have a group of thoughtful colleagues. I had a process-oriented structure, but it was pretty simple: figure out the key interests we had to address, brainstorm possible ideas, and then narrow the list down to recommendations. The only intervention I really needed as a chair was saying occasionally in the first meeting, "Okay, so we're not going to agree on a recommendation in this area today. That's fine: we can come back next week and see if we can come to agreement." And the next week, we did agree on everything that was still on the table at the end of the prior (one-hour) meeting. That speed was in part because of a well-defined task (not my responsibility to define), and a great deal because of the easygoing collegiality of the committee members. I added a bit of structure, and the recommendations precipitated out of the solution. (Or maybe the solution precipitated... oh, heck. Can I skip the chemistry metaphors?)

I'm not doing as well this year in running short meetings every two weeks as the USF faculty-union head. Partly that's the result of having too many issues to talk about every time. Part is the need to let people have a certain amount of air time because of the dynamics on USF's campuses right now. And finally, it's because we don't usually have discrete tasks that lend themselves to a (flexible but clearly-defined) structure. But structure is still useful! Yes, I know: some time ago I promised to explain "brute-force brainstorming," and I still haven't gotten around to it. Maybe I'll do it tomorrow while driving up to my mother-in-law's. Or, rather, while my wonderful spouse is driving...

How do I get behind so quickly?

I'm preparing an article for EPAA right now, working on a Saturday night after just a week of the semester. (To answer those who'd like to nitpick: No, I'm not working on that article right now. I'm taking a break between formatting most of the text and inserting and fiddling with tables.) So much for my resolution to keep on top of everything.

In reality, I'm not that behind or haven't lost much ground in just 5 days, but I've had e-mails flying at me from about 50 directions, and there were at least three major things that happened this week that each took at least 3/4s of a day but then needed to be squeezed into half a day. (And this last paragraph was typed after the first bit of fast-editing magic on 4 tables. I'm going to need a stiff drink for the next part, which requires some tedious formatting decisions. By stiff drink I mean a double-caff split-tall decaf grande nowhip mini-short sugar-free cinnamon hot-chile double-shot espresso, skinny with extra whip, two raw-sugar packets, iced, and a spoonful of chocolate-covered grounds.*)

With another table behind me, I know that despite my crumbling patience and withering self-esteem (a joke, folks: no need to call emergency services), the medium-term picture is more important. In reality I had a short week given that my beautiful adolescent children weren't in school until Tuesday. So in four days I did ... lots of e-mail and other short writing tasks. But it's important to keep my eyes on the prize, which is ...

Yeah, what is the prize?

Time to move to the next table, I think.

* - I don't remember the Steve Martin movie where his character satirizes Starbucks ordering, so I had to make up my own impossible drink order. Add your own below!

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.

December 28, 2007

Pacing oneself

I've been spending several hours each day since the 25th on some EPAA editing duties. The end of the semester put me behind on a number of tasks on the journal, and if there is a professional New Year's resolution for 2008, it is to devote enough time regularly to the journal to scramble back from the hole I'm in without spending so much time in a single day that it becomes a chore.

In many ways, the trick of being a middle-aged professional is judicious pacing. I have two adolescent children, a marriage, some interests in the community I live in, and a work environment where I have a wonderful situation in many ways, being overcommitted with free choices I have made. I have had some stretches where I put in serious overtime (60+ hour weeks), and in many ways I have some skills in short-term detail work that are a professional advantage. But you don't really survive an academic career with constant stretches of two-week-turnaround massive projects, or at least I couldn't with my sanity and family intact.

I've done far better in the long term when I poke persistently away at projects, with periodic panic weeks when everything else is tossed aside. (The periods of concentrated effort require a long gestation/fermentation period to be effective.) There are some psychological side-effects of such a habit: I don't feel happy if I go a number of days without working on something. A touch of workaholism, perhaps, but it's a tradeoff for complete nuttiness punctuated with occasional lassitude. Some people can do the utter lassitude for long stretches. Not me, or at least not right now.

So if you're spending this week relaxing, please enjoy. I'll work for you if you'll drink a cocktail for me at noon. Somehow it'll all balance out.

December 18, 2007

Wondering when the ton of bricks falls inside my head, and other occupational hazards of teaching

Because of my grading obligations, I haven't had too much chance to think about Oliver Bernsdorff, a Pinellas County teacher and former USF student who killed his family and then himself Friday morning. That night, I talked with a friend and colleague who also knew him and we went over the obvious questions you'd ask if you were in our position right now. When you're well past your 2000th student, you know that some of them are going to die while you're still working, and a few are going to be public deaths. One of my former students was murdered in the past few years (his killers were found). But good grief, if you didn't think any human around you could produce evil, this family murder-suicide is rather a blunt reminder. Thanks to those who have sent me kind messages in the past few days. It still hasn't hit me fully, so in part I'm waiting for it to. I think I'll be fine, fundamentally, but when something like this happens, there's some sense in spending some time a week later to do an internal reality-check.

Back to thinking about other things: The true cost of being a union activist this semester is that meetings ate up too much of my time last week, so I've spent several late nights and early mornings grading over the weekend and in the last few days. (With a break: my spouse's birthday was Friday, and we went to a local simulcast of the Met Opera's Romeo et Juliette Saturday afternoon. I much prefer my family tragedies fictional, thank you.) I've just submitted grades for the third class. There are some other things I need to do this week, but I'm going to take a brief break this afternoon.

Beyond that? I have some interim projects for the break, but the spring is stretching out in front of me, and as Profgrrrrl says about herself, I have some long-term ambitions for projects. A paper for AERA and another conference, some decisions to make about the summer, some planning for union work. But those are short- and medium-term. Because of some unique circumstances in the spring, there are a variety of opportunities and thus an almost infinite number of things that can absorb my time.

December 14, 2007


Pardon my French, but I knew him when he was a student at USF. I have to finish grading, so there probably won't be any more entries for a few days.

November 23, 2007

Dabbling, and not too well

I'm trying to get a few things done today, here and there, and I think I don't concentrate that well when my family is in the house. Evidence: "historiography literature" in an e-mail I wrote, when historiography is the history literature (when it isn't the study of the history literature). Can I just crawl into a hole and die, now?

But before I do that, maybe I should use that as reason to be patient with things such as the draft Florida science standards you can review, which have attracted thousands of comments thus far because of a single word in the draft (evolution). I'm glad that evolution appears in the standards, but I am concerned that will overshadow some other issues that need discussion. As with the Florida math standards, the draft science standards tries to identify several Big Ideas per grade.  My concern is not only with some of the ways that the draft standards frame the "Big Ideas" but also with a small detail: If these are such big ideas, why is fifth grade stuffed with 12 of them?

November 20, 2007

Far behind and loving it

I'm still in post-travel work-lag, which for me lasts longer than jetlag. Not including personal projects I have student work to read, journal editing to do, union stuff, university governance projects, follow-ups to this weekend's conference, several side projects (one of them suggested by someone who wants me to be more effective at journal editing-thanks for the mixed messages!), and a bunch of writing that I'm looking forward to in the spring (including a new idea for a grant proposal from the weekend).

As I tell colleagues and friends when they seem stressed, every project I'm not doing now just means I won't be bored for the foreseeable future.

November 17, 2007

Chicago and social movements: blogging a conference

This weekend I am at the Social Science History Association, and the current session on Chicago and social-science research is one of the sessions that combine a national academic conference with a local context. After all, we're meeting in Chicago this weekend.

The first paper by Victoria Brown was about Jane Addams and is part of a biographical project beyond this paper. I came late, so I won't summarize it. Laura Westhoff's paper is about Myles Horton's education in Chicago. The idea of Horton being educated in part in the Park School of Sociology is ... fascinating. I am not sure what I think of it, except that we need to rethink both Horton and Park as a result. Is this democratic social knowledge? How much was Horton using his education or mapping it onto preexisting ideas... And how much did Park promote a particular view of a functioning society or educate students who then could go do what they wanted, later? Hmmn...

Disclosure: I've had two cups of coffee, something I don't usually have in the morning. So I've had listening-enhancing drugs.

October 31, 2007

"Man in Black" (Halloween version)

After the series of photoshopped education "costumes" on Eduwonkette, I should confess that I didn't put on any costume, or so I thought when I went into work. An undergrad work-study student showed up as a flower child, and another coworker came in orange and black. I thought for a second, looked down at my black trousers and black shirt, and said, "This is the closest I'll ever come to being Johnny Cash."

What are you dressed up as, today?

October 27, 2007

From confectionary to connected reasoning

Occasionally, I have students or colleagues who provide a stream of oddly (and sometimes randomly) connected chunks of material as if the stream is sufficient to carry an argument or thought. In the past I've had little trouble understanding why such streams are illogical but great trouble understanding why the author of the stream thinks it makes sense. It is not stream-of-consciousness material; the modules of the argument are stuck together with some conscious glue, from what I can tell, not just following in a sequence of associational steps.

I'm slowly coming around the conclusion that under stress, people tend to operate with the type of conjoint causal reasoning that David Hume asserted a few centuries ago: stick things together, and they must be connected. Hume's argument doesn't work with more rigorous reasoning, but it sometimes appears to hold with the panicking or too-quickly-talking person in front of me. There is nothing inherently wrong with sticking things together and seeing if a combination of ideas work: that's the art of speculation or brute-force brainstorming (a term that is not an oxymoron, though the explanation requires its own separate entry).

Perhaps we can borrow a concept from Edward Tufte's Visual Explanations, a book that has a chapter on confections, or visual representations of complex processes through multiple (and varying) uses of images. The premature expression of speculations often appears as a conceptual confection, layers material whose connections are self-evident to the author or speaker, if not to me as listener or audience member.

The sticky part is reducing the confection to a more easily consumed finished piece. In many cases, the original confection and the reduction process are fascinating, comprising a type of mental candy; my favorite blogs often serve up experimental fare that is quite tasty. As a teacher, my job includes helping students with their own confectionary reasoning, encouraging them to boil ideas down to their essences, and discouraging final papers with half-baked ideas.

But since guiding that process is part of my job, I am not sure why I have such distaste for other intellectual confections, mixes that I want to hold at bay so I don't have to smell them too closely, let alone taste them. In those cases, the raw meat and processing of ideas are closer to the production of sausage (or legislation): don't show me all the steps, just the final stuff I can choose to consume (or not). Is the distinction a matter of aesthetics, the random tastes of my intellectual palate, or is there something more substantive in the distinction between the speculations I want to examine more closely and those which I would rather just go away until they're presented on a plate?