Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

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Monday, December 28, 2015

And behold! On this day, in the twilight days of the year of our Lord 2015, the NYT dared print something truthful about education!

Once per month the NYT dares to print something insightful about education, something that doesn't flatter centrist sensibilities.  This month the NYT dares to notice that producing more high school graduates is not the same thing as producing more college-ready graduates.  One might dare to hope that next month the NYT will notice that simply following "best practices" is insufficient to guarantee that they will succeed in college.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Next Book: Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

My next reading project will be Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville.  Although not specifically a book on educational issues, it probes deep into the heart of the American psyche, and is considered relevant even to this day by a great many commentators from a wide range of ideological commitments.

How the sides get flipped

NYU is facing criticism after their MA in Arts Politics program declined to waive a student's application fees, and said in an email that if he can't pay a $65 application fee he probably can't pay $60k in tuition.  Somehow, this incident has been spun as one in which social justice demands that a student from an apparently disadvantaged background be given a chance to borrow $60k for a graduate program with a questionable economic return.

I don't believe that higher education is or ought to be solely a vocational program.  I do believe, however, that there comes a point where you might be wise to take your BA and go explore the workforce, and that graduate education should only be undertaken after a very sober risk-reward calculation.  Go ahead and include non-economic returns on the reward side of the calculation, but don't ignore economics either.

To the extent that I want to sympathize with the academic left, I wish they'd rediscover economic concerns.  If the social justice crowd won't ask serious questions about whether the disadvantaged should be encouraged to borrow $60k for an MA then I see little hope for any sort of morally respectable or intellectually coherent leftist politics from the academy.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Trump Card

I am usually uninterested in using this blog to discuss the politics of the  non-academic world, but I will make an exception because I had an insight into an analogy between academic politics and national politics.

Everyone who reads this blog (I am generously assuming that I have multiple readers...) knows that I am mystified by academics who respond so well to thoroughly establishment figures when they talk about transformation and radical change.  How will the Director of a government-funded and foundation-funded STEM Education Initiative, a person with countless establishment awards, saying all of the buzzwords that establishment figures cherish, actually shake anything up?

Well, consider the Trump campaign.  Marvel at all of the social conservatives who are flocking to the campaign of a casino owner who is on his third marriage.  Look upon the cultural conservatives who rail against east coast elitists as they cheer for a Manhattan billionaire.  Look at the people who consider this billionaire the voice of the common man.

Now do you get it?

Monday, December 7, 2015

Erika Christakis, the Yale faculty member who attracted massive protests for a very nuanced email on hard questions of speech and offense, has decided to leave the classroom.  Do read her email; it would be hard for any reasonable reader to find anything "unsafe" in what she wrote.  A reasonable person might take issue with some of her conclusions or prescriptions, or even her equivocations, but there is absolutely nothing threatening about what she wrote.  It is deeply ironic that the protesters who claimed to feel so unsafe decided to confront Dr. Christakis' husband (also a Yale faculty member and also a faculty Master in the same residential college as her) instead of her.  They may claim to be modern and progressive and egalitarian, but when a woman spoke out of line they demanded that her husband correct her.

I'm old enough to remember a time when it was the conservatives who were demanding that kids shut up and stop saying offensive things. Well, the kids made one big mistake: They actually listened to their elders. And in the process they became their elders. So now we have the lefty kids running around saying that they feel unsafe when somebody says something about being cautious about going after people for their costumes.

The only good news is that the lefty kids are still offending their conservative elders. Personally, I'd prefer that they did it with rap music and heavy metal and graphic music videos, but I'm to the right of the median academic, so I guess that offending me with this babyish "safe space" talk is half of the point. I do find it strange, though, that the stances that put me to the right of the median academic are also the stances that are most in line with the ACLU. I'm also old enough to remember when "card-carrying member of the ACLU" was a slur used by none other than a member of the Bush dynasty.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Institutionalizing anti-institutional ideology

I'm going to tread somewhat lightly on some of the issues around student protests, not so much to avoid offense as to focus on bigger-picture ideas that I think many people should be able to agree on despite disagreements over some of the particulars.

The recent wave of student protests largely focuses on matters of race and institutional culture.  To the extent that students are demanding that their needs be better served by institutions, I think that the classic institutional response of "We are hiring a new Diversity Coordinator and increasing the staffing of student affairs professionals to serve the needs of under-represented students" is a plausible one.  Obviously a lot hinges on the particulars, but it's at least plausible that hiring people to work with people is a good way forward when the problem was that people's needs weren't being met.

However, to the extent that the protesters' rhetoric critiques institutional racism (a useful conceptual lens for understanding a real thing) and institutional culture, and to the extent that they want accountability from administrators, Freddie deBoer makes the point that hiring an additional diversity administrator just adds one more administrator to a group that will work to protect the institution.  Protecting the institution is hardly a bad thing, but it is not the only thing, and it is certainly not the thing that the students are demanding.  It is, however, something that will probably appease them.

My goal here is certainly not to critique exactly what an administrator ought or ought do, nor is it my goal to suggest that there is something uniquely naive in students being appeased by the appointment of a new institutional figure.  To the contrary, I find a striking parallel between students who are appeased by an institutional response to anti-institutional rhetoric and faculty who sit in workshops and nod excitedly as a person with countless establishment tokens talks about fundamental transformation and reform.  Faculty eat that shit up like pita chips and humus from Trader Joe's.  They'll sit in a hotel conference room whose AC is set to "liquid nitrogen" and get creepy grins on their faces as a Director of a (government-funded) Center for STEM Learning Initiatives talks about how their latest research project resulted in a new app for online quizzes, and how this completely changes the paradigm for education from a sage on a stage to something something.  Ironically, the Director of STEM Learning Initiatives is standing on a stage, persuading his listeners that he has something sagacious to say, and they are, to all appearances, acting out the role of Good Acolyte.  It's creepy.  Do they not realize that just yesterday that same suite was being used for a presentation by the National Association of Vacuum Cleaner Marketers?

Of course, one important theme of this blog is that All Of This Has Happened Before And Will Happen Again.  Hofstadter recounted how Dewey's excited disciples earnestly set about the Sisyphusean task of institutionalizing anti-institutional educational methods.  Today the newspapers tell the tale of institutions hiring new administrators to end institutional racism.  And in the not-too-distant future that hotel suite will be used by defense contractors holding a workshop on exciting new battle drones that implement Conditional Yardsticks for Longitudinal Operational Navigation (C.Y.L.O.N.).

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality

One point I'm coming to realize is that many of the things that drive me crazy in higher ed come, in part, from a type of restlessness.  This restlessness isn't entirely bad--we are supposed to be people seeking new knowledge, which inherently requires a certain restlessness.  Additionally, education involves hard problems, and we have an obligation to try.  Consequently, we sometimes have to act in defiance of some hard realities.  Being defiant and iconoclastic, I'm not a priori averse to defying hard realities.  To the extent that denying reality keeps you pushing forward, I think it's noble.  When it gets you chasing in a circle, it's a problem.  And when denying reality gets you rushing to embrace conventional wisdom, it's time for me to go see my headache specialist.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Shove it up your assessment

I have in my "drafts" folder a long post about why higher ed's ongoing struggle to implement "assessment" and all of the associated language of the managerial classes (e.g. "lists of program objectives", which I think are different from "learning outcomes", and alignment of these things with "mission statements", and other stuff that keeps bureaucrats and kool-aid drinkers happy) is completely useless.  However, I think that I can state the problem much more simply:

None of this is in any way related to what people actually do or how people actually talk about things when they aren't interacting with a very particular class of bureaucrats and consultants!

When a colleague from the private sector is looking for new graduates to hire, they don't ask me if some particular skill or topic is on our list of Program Objectives or whatever.  They just ask me how much experience my students have with that particular skill or topic.  Ditto when a colleague in academia (a world in which we are all under administrative orders to embrace assessment) asks me if I have any good students to recommend for graduate study.  They don't ask me about our program objectives, they just ask me if I have smart, reliable students who have extensive experience with a particular topic or skill.  When I answer their question, I don't consult a list of Student Learning Outcomes.  I know what is covered in the courses, and what students do in various research labs, so I give an informed answer.

Likewise, when a colleague embarks on teaching a course that they haven't taught before, they usually go to colleagues and ask questions like "What do you cover?" or "What book do you use?" or "What level do you cover this at?" or "In your experience, what do the students have difficulty with?"  Nobody uses the language of assessment bureaucrats in these conversations.  My department actually has a few faculty with extensive training in educational research, and while some of that jargon might appear in their publications they do not (in my experience) use that language when interacting with people in face-to-face environments and discussing things that they will actually do.

A tempting rejoinder is that this is all well and good for higher education insiders when interacting with each other, but how could an outsider know what is going on without documents describing what is going on?  That's a fair point, except that in reality outsiders rely on contacts and networks and experience, not documents.  Part of the reason is that reliance on networks and informal contacts is the way that humans have done business for a very, very long time.  Everyone knows that the next village over has some excellent copper smiths, and their apprentices are well-trained.  If you need somebody to work copper, you get one of them.  Silk traders know which of the villages along the Silk Road have particularly reliable guides and bodyguards, so they know where to go to hire help.

Ah, but we aren't in the bronze age anymore!  We're in the 21st century!  Well, yes, but even in the 21st century the various tech industry sectors in Silicon Valley make extensive use of headhunters.  You'd think that if there were just one place that would embrace transparent documentation for identifying human talent it would be Silicon Valley.  However, Silicon Valley makes extensive use of headhunters who know individuals, and also relies on the reputations of schools.  I can assure you that when Silicon Valley firms recruit from Stanford and Carnegie Mellon it isn't because somebody published an impressive list of Program Outcomes.  I can assure you that even my own university, not in the leagues of Stanford and Carnegie Mellon but nonetheless a widely-respected school for engineering, architecture, and agriculture, acquired its reputation via something other than impressive lists of Student Learning Outcomes.

OK, so we're up against a trifling force like human nature, but when has that ever stopped a technocrat?

Well, we're also up against the need for the very sort of innovation and "disruption" that the technocrats claim to love so much.  In the past few years several of us in my department have done a pretty wide range of innovative things in project-based classes.  From the adoption of new simulation software to novel formats for final projects to the incorporation of peer review into laboratory courses to the introduction of "learning assistants"*, we've seen a lot of innovation in my department.  I sincerely think that some of our advanced courses are much better-structured than the analogous courses that I took.  However, none of this would have happened if each innovation were accompanied by submission of paperwork outlining revised Course Objectives, Student Learning Outcomes, etc.  Can you imagine submitting new paperwork to the massive university bureaucracy every time somebody decides to take their lab class to the next level?  It would be the most insane thing ever.  No innovation would ever happen if we stopped to produce extensive paperwork and revise the Strategic Plan or whatever!

I have no easy answer to the question "How should academic programs be evaluated?"  What I can say is that the managerial mindset that they've been trying to push down our throats for more than a decade is completely disconnected from what actually happens when educators interact with each other, with their students, and with those who would like to employ their students.

*Think TAs, except undergrads, and with much more supervision and far narrower scope.  I'm not always sure that the LAs are doing as much for the students as we would like, but at the very least we know that when you teach a subject you learn it far better than you would have otherwise, so we can be certain that the Learning Assistant is learning.

Why so special, education?

Having noted the problem with under-funding of the fundamentals while the special projects get special treatment, I should note that it is not a priori a bad thing to pursue special projects in education.  There should always be some innovative experiments in your portfolio alongside the fundamentals.  The problem comes when the academic system assigns higher prestige (at least in the teaching-focused non-elite state schools) to the special projects rather than the fundamentals.  The system gives incentives for participation in the special project du jour but not for excellence in the fundamentals.

The annoying psychology around special education projects is just the cherry on the sundae.  The kool-aid, the quasi-religious language, the dogmatism, it's all annoying, but it's only a problem when resources preferentially get allocated to that stuff.

At this point, it sometimes feels like the university consists of two worlds operating in parallel:  A world that is responsible for making classes run, conducting some (but not all) of the research done with students, advising most students, etc., and then a world dedicated to adoption of new techniques, running special class sections, supervising research projects with special grants attached, advising students enrolled in special programs, etc.  There are personal perks from participating in the second world (reduced teaching loads, stipends, sometimes supply money for research) and also professional perks (visibility, career advancement opportunities).  Unfortunately, while there are certainly ways in which "special projects" can help improve how we do the fundamentals, they can also divert people and time and other resources, while also leading to cultural rifts.  A department that configures its operations around special projects may not be optimally configured for the fundamentals.

I don't entirely blame people for this.  Certainly the special projects help satisfy a certain kind of restlessness (for lack of a better term).  People are craving something different, and not just because they are flighty and easily distracted by fads.  Education requires us to confront some timeless problems of people, motivation, ability, inequality, and (above all) the high sweat cost of new knowledge.  These are very, very hard problems, and nobody can be blamed for hoping that maybe there's a better solution around the corner.  However, that hope should not divert too many resources away from the fundamentals.  If we spend so much time getting reduced loads to solve the problem of teaching the masses, who will teach the masses in the interim while we wait for the magic solution to arrive?  The answer had better not be "The people with the least security, status, support, and compensation."

Also, I don't entirely blame legislators and others for hoping that there are scalable solutions.  Technology has changed many industries.  Unfortunately, though, shaping metal or growing wheat or moving dry goods turns out to be much easier than shaping character, cultivating scholars, and moving people from ignorance to mastery.

Special Education

The "Education" part of Higher Education really comprises two different sides.  One side is fairly bread-and-butter, and for the masses.  There are classes, mentored research projects, individual advising, advising of student clubs, and so forth.  These are things that have been happening in universities for a very, very long time.  It is important to note that the people who do these things are NOT called "Education People."

"Education People" are mostly involved in a different side of education:  Special projects, initiatives, grant-funded efforts, etc. Money comes down from above, whether from a federal grant, a private foundation, or funds allocated at the discretion of the central administration or higher state-level authorities.  They might be setting up an advising center, or teaching a class in a new format, or using new teaching tools, or experimenting with pairing younger students with upperclassmen as mentors, or something else.  Most of these efforts are perfectly fine ideas, at least on the surface.  Some of them are actually great and workable ideas.  A few of them can take on a life of their own and get incorporated into the normal way of doing our jobs as we teach classes, supervise research projects, advise individuals and clubs, and so forth.  Most of the rest will either keep going with some sort of special stream of funding, or fade away when the money shifts to some other fashion.  Almost inevitably, these projects are expensive, and few of them prove to be successful and sustainable.

On one level, maybe that's fine.  Innovation is risky, what with Thomas Edison trying thousands of filaments before building a working light bulb and all that.  So what if we try a bunch of things and only a few work?  We didn't know until we tried, but that's no reason not to try.  What could I possibly object to?

Well, part of it is obviously the kool-aid-eseque, hyper-fashionable nature of much of it. The people who do this often have very different mindsets than those of us focused on the fundamentals of teaching, research, and mentoring. They like to sling jargon like "Assessment plan" and all that. Any reader of this blog knows how much that rubs me the wrong way.  But that's just me.

A deeper problem is that tons of money gets thrown at these expensive efforts that involve lots of people and time and money for projects with a handful of students, while the fundamentals are under-funded.  Universities put a huge chunk of their freshman courses in the hands of people with the least status, least security, and least support, because it's cheaper that way, while the people with the most status, most security, and greatest access to resources are disproportionately put on "Education Projects" (which are quite distinct from teaching classes, you know).  It's one thing to have some fraction of your resources in pilot projects and innovation--it would be bad if you didn't do that!  It's quite another thing to under-fund the fundamentals while focusing flashy resources on flashy projects.  Freddie DeBoer had an excellent blog post about how a new building in Purdue's "Student Success Corridor" was flashy and shiny...and under-utilized, while the building where a great many actual English classes were actually taught to actual students is in disrepair.  It sends a powerful message to students when their Introductory Composition course (indisputably the single most important course that students take in college!) is taught in a building that is old and in disrepair, and moreover that the course is taught by the lowest-status and lowest-paid people on campus (adjuncts).

I should say up-front that I actually adopt some (but far from all) fruits from Special Education Projects.  Moreover, I actually think that some of these Special Education Projects are rooted in sound principles--lots of individual attention and mentoring is great for students!  What concerns me is when the money only exists to apply sound principles in an intensive manner to students who need it as long as the project is hitting some note that is fashionable with The Right Sort Of People, while most of the actual education will be under-funded and will not only be relegated to the lowest-status people, but will actually be regarded as low-status by (some but definitely not all) Special Education People.  I know an edufad aficionado who will talk the big talk about Best Practices, High Impact Practices, etc. He is very heavily involved in Special Education Projects. This big talker will even cite (of all things) Academically Adrift, a book that bemoaned the decreasing number and length of reading and writing assignments in colleges.  Meanwhile, this miserable excuse for an "educator" has published an article in a peer-reviewed journal (it is only the thinnest pretext of civility that keeps me from linking it and naming his name) in which he boasts that students can pass his GE class without reading the book, and notes that the class is graded primarily on the basis of multiple-choice tests.  I should note that this GE class is offered under a category that is ostensibly supposed to include significant writing assignments and readings of primary sources.

This person is an extreme example, but the bigger point remains:  There's an entire world of Special Education Projects, populated by people who shuffle from one project to the next, and they enjoy status and resources while the fundamentals are under-funded.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Oh, wait, no way, you're kidding, he didn't just say what I think he did, did he?

More dark thoughts from grading:

You know why Eminem got in so much trouble for The Marshall Mathers LP?  It wasn't for his violent lyrics, or for the things he said about women and gays.  As he said in "White America" (first song on The Eminem Show):
So now I'm catchin' the flack from these activists when they raggin'
Actin' like I'm the first rapper to smack a bitch and say "faggot"?
No, I believe that he got in trouble for something far more offensive:
When a dude's gettin' bullied and shoots up his school
And they blame it on Marilyn [Manson] and the heroin
Where were the parents at?
As soon as he said that, he guaranteed himself a Congressional investigation.  Nobody wants to hear that.  We want to blame Marilyn Manson for troubled youths, not parents.  Or, nowadays I guess we want to blame Miley Cyrus for pregnancy and STDs among teenagers, because apparently that was the first time that a starlet ever shook her ass on camera, and apparently teens never had sex before that.  (Or maybe it was Janet Jackson's nipple that started teenagers having sex.  I'm not entirely sure.)

Anyway, I'm going to say right here, right now, that the reason I'm so frustrated with my students is that their parents didn't make them read enough.  They figured it was "too hard" to make their kids do homework.  They were more interested in pushing their kids to excel in sports than they were in making their kids read.  Seriously, it's amazing how invested suburban parents are in sports.  A lot of these kids graduate from high school unable to write a grammatically correct sentence or do algebra, but they can all kick a soccer ball.

Go ahead, hold Congressional hearings about what I just wrote.  I don't care.  As the great poet said:
To all the people I've offended, ya fuck you too
Every time I reminisce, yo I miss my past
But I still don't give a fuck, y'all can kiss my ass

Vanity of vanities, all is vanity

I'm in a dark mood from grading.  If I have to constantly correct errors of subject-verb agreement in papers written by native English speakers from the majority ethnic/racial group, then higher education is pretty much doomed.  I'm emphasizing their ethnic majority status because we can't blame this on some sort of disadvantage.  We can't tell ourselves that "Once we fix [whatever] this will all be better."  We can't tell ourselves that this is just a consequence of disadvantage and we need to be more understanding.  Nope, these kids are from the dominant group.  That means that they ARE the standard.

The dominant group is OK with treating the non-dominant groups as pathological, and compensating for that pathology by giving them the occasional benevolence via "special programs."  The dominant group will periodically allow some sort of largess by which "those people" get their "special program" and if they still don't succeed then the dominant group can write them off with a clear conscience. And if they do succeed, the dominant group can put an asterisk on their success, because they obviously only got there thanks to the "special program" (an asterisk that will make some seethe with resentment while others pat themselves on the back). However, the dominant group will never tolerate their own kids being treated with benevolent condescension.  Good middle-class kids from the dominant group can't possibly be failing, because their kids are (by definition) the measure of success for the mainstream.  Their kids will get degrees.  Period.

We is doomed because schools k-12 failing to teach them writing proper.

Actually, I don't know to what extent I can fault the k-12 system.  What would happen to the suburban high school teacher who failed 80% of the white kids in the class?  What would the next PTA meeting be like if that teacher gave F's to Derek and Ashlee because they didn't learn subject-verb agreement in middle school?  There isn't a teachers' union in the country that could save that foolish teacher.

If you don't make your kids read lots of books, and if you don't demand that they work for high grades (instead of demanding that the teacher give them high grades) then you are directly responsible for my headaches.  Either make your kids study or accept that the public university system will have high health insurance premiums to cover my headache specialist and my inevitable heart surgery.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The interplay of technocratic and quasi-religious language

Last month I made an exception to my general policy of hating NYT articles on higher education.  This month's exception is for Ross Douthat, whose comments on student protests happen to touch on an issue in how people in higher education talk about their work and mission.  It actually starts off rather unpromising, with a first paragraph that tries to summarize more than a century of change in higher education, and paints with a too-broad brush.  However, we'll temporarily set aside that Hofstadter's history of higher education is a fixation of this blog, and move to the next few paragraphs, which build toward something interesting:
At which point the student radicalism of the 1960s entered the picture. The radicals moved quickly to dismantle the vestiges of moral conservatism on campus — the in loco parentis rules that still governed undergraduate life, for instance. But their real mission was actually a kind of remoralization, a renewal of the university as a place of almost-religious purpose, where students would be educated about certain great truths and then sent forth to live them out. 
It was just that these truths were modern instead of ancient: The truths of the antiwar and civil rights movements, and later of feminism and environmentalism and LBGTQ activism and a long list of social justice causes. 
With time, the university ceded just enough ground to co-opt and tame these radicals. It adopted their buzzwords as a kind of post-religious moral vocabulary; it granted them the liberal arts as an ideological fiefdom (but not the sciences or the business school!); it used their vision of sexual liberation as a selling point for applicants looking for a John Belushi-esque good time. 
The result, by the time I arrived at college late in the 1990s, was a campus landscape where left-wing pieties dominated official discourse, but the university’s deeper spirit remained technocratic, careerist and basically amoral. And many students seemed content with that settlement.
(Emphasis added)

As I blogged about yesterday, I would take issue with his statement that radicals were granted the liberal arts as their own fiefdom.  Certainly they do not have unchecked control over the liberal arts.  However, I would agree that the radicals were granted a home within the wider realm of humanities and social sciences.  More interesting, though, is the contrast that Douthat identifies between a moral vocabulary and a deeper technocratic and amoral spirit.  What he describes is the flip side of what I observe in discussions of pedagogical philosophy.  The superficial language is amoral (in the sense of eschewing value judgments) and technocratic, focused entirely on measured learning gains and performance data, something that no scholar ought to dismiss.  Below the surface, though, are implicit value judgments (e.g. why do physics education researchers largely focus on "conceptual" understanding over calculation?) and heavy parcels of cultural baggage (why do people speak so excitedly of being "transformed"?).  People re-enact the Great Awakening in workshops, even while insisting that they are just following the data.

Perhaps the faculty are going through the same turmoil as the students.  The revival of student protests as a feature of campus political life shows a desire by students to grapple with moral questions (whether you, I, Douthat, or any other individual might agree with them is a separate issue for now) rather than give in to the technocratic spirit of institutions where business is often the largest major and STEM is the most-discussed family of majors.  Likewise, the faculty talk their game about "STEM!  STEM!  STEM!  STEM!" and technocratic approaches to learning, but there are clearly deeper moral, cultural, and psychological needs that are being met in pedagogy reform.

My own suspicion is that if we want a healthy, sustainable academy, rather than one where faculty lurch from fad to fad while students lurch back and forth between apathy and ill-informed protest, we need both a technocratic side and an open acknowledgement that Big Questions and cultural considerations matter.  We also need to read our history, lest we keep repeating it again and again.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

We need to strengthen the humanities, not weaken them.

There is much to criticize in the current political mood among (some) campus activists.  Some of the demands being made are, frankly, illiberal, and merely weaken marginalized groups rather than strengthen them.  Many of these demands are made in the language of rather shallow ideologies that make fragility a virtue.  HOWEVER, all too often the criticism of these movements becomes a broad brush against the humanities as a whole. In his latest post, Freddie DeBoer, no shrinking violet when it comes to speaking out against political correctness, reminds us that the state of the humanities is far more varied than the narrative offered by critics.

I would go so far as to say that if you really want to defeat the people demanding that the entire world be a giant "Safe Space", we need to strengthen the humanities departments, not weaken them. I can think of nothing worse than a situation where there are fewer people getting ideas from great books and more people getting ideas from hypersensitive Twitter Warriors. Likewise, I have found that the best remedy for the maddening ideas out forth by (some) edufad purveyors is to read more widely in the social sciences, not to dismiss the social sciences.

The logical extrapolation from this, incidentally, is that the best cure for offensive speech is more speech, not more restricted speech.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Hofstadter, Chapter 5: Recite after me...

Apparently the "recitation" method of instruction involved students memorizing texts and then showing up to class to either recite from memory (worst case) or answer questions (best case).  There was no intellectual excitement in this (obviously), so the introduction of lectures was seen as a way of bringing more excitement and interesting, informed perspectives into the classroom.

I think the most important lesson here is that any educational method that becomes primarily about the promulgation of facts, whether by memorization from books or memorization from lectures, is doomed to fail.  On the other hand, the analysis of important ideas and solution of problems is education at its best.  The hard part is that really chewing on meaty ideas is hard, not everybody rises to the occasion, and so you either have to maintain some meritocratic elitism or dumb things down.  The current zeitgeist in the academy is embarrassed about that, and so the "sage on the stage" is a target of scorn in part because of the elitism inherent in the idea of an expert voice being the center of any part of an instructional session.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1855

Richard Hofstadter, Academic Freedom in the Age of the College, pages 223-224:
The evidence is overwhelming that during the denominational era a great proportion of the schools in the United States that called themselves "colleges" were in fact not colleges at all, but glorified high schools or academies that presumed to offer degrees.  As the president of the University of Georgia told his trustees in 1855, the American people were generally satisfied with the name of a college, and sought for their sons not so much an education as a degree.  Americans and Europeans alike who were familiar with the educational systems of the Continent and England tended to agree that American colleges characteristically (not at their worst) were rather more like the German Gymnasium, the French lycee, or the English public school than like either the university or the college of these countries.
The first sentence is driven home to me every time I have to explain subject-verb agreement or how to correctly compute the slope of a graph.  The second sentence is driven home to me every time the state legislature expresses interest in graduation rates and says nary a word about intellectual rigor.  The last part was driven home when I was in grad school and learned that my international classmates had taken undergraduate courses that were equivalent to our graduate courses, largely because our first 1-2 years of undergraduate study cover things that they learned in high school.

All of this has happened before and will happen again.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Hofstadter, Chapter 5: Two steps forward, one step back

I'm about a dozen pages into chapter 5.  To recap what came before, in the 18th century American colleges became more open to working and studying across denominational lines.  This coincided with the Founding of a secular Republic by men who were inspired by Enlightenment thinkers and were largely Deist in their personal views.

So of course the 19th century ushered in plenty of colleges devoted to upholding sectarian doctrines and preventing their youth from being exposed to the wrong ideas.  This phenomenon occurred in both the new colleges being created along the frontier and also in revivals of denominational identity in established colleges.  Figures.

Also, Hofstadter has (on page 212) a great quote from Philip Lindsley, a Princeton scholar who eventually became President of Cumberland College (later renamed University of Nashville, and now apparently only existant through some heir institutions):
Our people, at first, oppose all distinctions whatever as odious  and aristocratical [sic]; and then, presently, seek with avidity [sic] such as remain accessible.  At first they denounce colleges; and then choose to have a college in every district or county, or for every sect and party--and to boast of a college education, and to sport with high sounding literary titles--as if these imparted sense or wisdom or knowledge.
I think he's summed up America's conflicted views on class and education, and the Underpants Gnomes views that Americans have concerning the value and meaning of a college degree.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Plugging ahead in Hofstadter

I've finished chapters 3 and 4 of Hofstadter's "Academic Freedom in the Age of the College."  A few things leap out at me:

First, US higher education was different from the rest of the world in one key respect from the very beginning:  The colleges were subject to lay boards of governors or visitors (or trustees, or regents, or various other terms that modern institutions use), while European faculties were self-governing.  This accountability to non-academic authorities, many of them "local notables", might explain some of the oddities of US higher ed, not the least of which is that our schools devote enormous resources to athletic teams that don't advance the academic mission, may or may not be net revenue contributors, but certainly entertain the locals.

Second, academic freedom in US colleges paralleled the rise of religious freedom, largely in response to two trends:  The increasing religious diversity of the US and the increasing numbers of students pursuing non-clerical careers. As students moved away from clerical careers (especially in the years right before the Revolution) religious identity became less central to collegiate identity.  Also, if you need tuition dollars in a diverse society you can't afford to limit your enrollment to one sect.  Yes, there are a few religiously strict institutions in the US today, and today we would regard that as an oddity of US higher ed, but overall US higher education got on the religious tolerance bandwagon long before Europe.

(As an aside, today's distinctively denominational colleges should be understood not just as oddities in international terms, but also as oddities by American historical norms.  As a proud product of Catholic grade school, a type of school that is proud of its distinctive religious identity, this gives me something to think about.  I have written before that my academic mindset is influenced in part by the New England roots of American higher ed, yet my personal identity is very deeply influenced by the Catholic grade school that educated me in my youth.  It is rather strange that the strength of American higher ed owes so much to its ecumenical history, yet I consider it a point of pride that I am a product of Catholic education.)

Interestingly, the shift away from solely emphasizing clerical training also led to the first science and math professors on US campuses, and the role of a "professor" was disturbingly similar to the current way we classify academic staff.  Back then, most teaching was handled by low-status "tutors" or "instructors."  The rest was done by the college President and perhaps one or two other Professors.  The difference between the Professors and tutors was that the Professors were high-status experts  who expected to be around for a while (though not with our modern concept  of tenure), while tutors were biding their time until a better job opened up (usually in the clergy).  The ratio of Professors to tutors was probably lower than the ratio of tenure-track faculty to non-tenure-track faculty today, but the trend is definitely in the direction of how things used to be. That doesn't mean we should be nonplussed by a regression to historical norms, but it does reinforce that the best way to understand the consequences of trends in the present is often to compare and contrast with the past. All of this has happened before and will happen again.

Anyway, some amount of math and science teaching was happening in colonial colleges before they had math and science Professors, but it wasn't until the late 1700's that math and science Professors were appointed in significant numbers.  Interestingly, they were the first Professors outside of theology.  Certainly history, literature, etc. were being taught, but nobody was appointed with the title of Professor of History (or whatever) at that time.  What is amazing, both in comparison to Europe back then and America now, is that the math and science professors arrived in American colleges without incident. Oh, I'm sure that somebody or other in the faculty lounge was grumbling that the math professor was getting the office with the nice window, but there was (at least according to Hofstadter) nothing comparable to the Galileo Affair of 17th century Europe or the Scopes Monkey Trial of 20th century Tennessee.  That is remarkable to me.  Indeed, even a century before Professors of science were appointed, Hofstadter notes that Puritans were remarkably unperturbed by people reading the works of Galileo and Copernicus.  Given that Protestants of the 17th century were at least as conservative in their scriptural interpretation as any of the Roman Catholic officials who went after Galileo, this is truly extraordinary.  The American spirit of tolerance apparently has deep roots.

Now I have to dive back into a pile of grading and prep and committee work.  Hopefully by the end of the week I'll have a chance to finish the last chapter of Hofstadter.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

What I've been saying for a while

I've been saying for a while that current educational fashions are at least as much about cultural resonance as they are about studies showing learning gains of X percentage at whatever level of statistical significance.  Well, this op-ed by a history professor says the same thing.

When educational trends are being criticized in an op-ed in the New York Times of all places you know that something very strange is happening.  What's next?  Human sacrifice?  Dogs and cats living together?  Mass hysteria?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The progressive teaching personality

I've said a lot about the cultural roots of progressive pedagogy, and the way it intertwines with views on expert voices.  However, this article makes the interesting point that there are also personality issues that go to extroversion vs. introversion.  There's a certain personality type that just plain likes the idea of group work.  I have seen people who are only truly happy when their students are sitting in lots of small circles talking.  They throw themselves into the midst of this chatter like a pop star crowd-surfing.  You can't tell me that this preference concerning teaching styles is solely about statistical studies showing a significant difference in conceptual learning gains.  Statistically significant learning gains get you more discussion of concepts, but culture and personality get you academics eating this shit up like it's humus and pita chips from Trader Joe's.  And it's definitely true that the warmer, fuzzier stuff has been ascendant in the academy for some time, so I suppose it was inevitable that eventually the science faculty would move towards sitting in groups and smiling and saying "Thank you for sharing that."

(Academic eating tip: Eat your humus with organic baby carrots, not pita chips.  Then you get more vitamins and fewer carbs.  This food tip is subject to change when the fads change.)

However, I will surprise my readers by saying that I don't think this is solely about personality types and massive placebo/Hawthorne effects from doing things that get certain personality types fired up. It is almost certainly true that some people do better than others sitting in groups and doing worksheets. (One needn't subscribe to discredited theories of learning styles to submit that some people might be a bit better at one thing than another.) If there was little/no group work and hippy-dippy conceptual stuff in traditional teaching then introducing some of that will OF COURSE improve results.  Those who were desperately craving some sitting in circles and sharing will finally get some of it, so of course their results will improve.  Meanwhile, those who really do prefer a bit of tradition (you know, heirs to Puritan views of experts and all that) will still get plenty of that from the abundant traditionalists.  In fact, the ones who generally fare better with tradition might benefit from stepping outside their comfort zone a bit.  (There's plenty of research to suggest that stepping outside the comfort zone is probably more beneficial than catering to "learning styles" based on dubious evidence.)  However, once you reach a roughly 50-50 mix, if you continue to move away from tradition (or, perhaps more accurately, get to the point where you are now defining tradition rather than defying tradition) you will reach a point of negative returns:  The ones who would honestly rather just pay attention to an expert will get fed up with this group work nonsense and experience negative marginal returns, while the ones who love to sit in a circle and share will have already gotten enough of it.

At this point it would be easy to say that I'm being silly.  OF COURSE group work is better!  The data shows it!  Well, up to a point.  The Hake study, for instance, covered early adopters and showed gains that have been harder to replicate once "active learning" went beyond early adopters in special, early-adopter-friendly environments and became de rigeur.  I think everyone at this point agrees that a certain amount of active learning is a good component of a class, but the jury is out on mass adoption of more and more and MORE AND MORE group work.

Besides, the article that prompted this post was shared with me by a friend who made an important observation:  In the real world there are indeed meetings, but most meetings are pointless, and most people yearn for nothing more than the meeting ending early so they can get back to the cubicle, put their head down, and actually get some damn work done.  Perhaps there's a lesson in there.  Yes, a bad lecture is bad, but a very carefully-led, well-focused Q&A can be more useful than going through a worksheet with the idiot next to you.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Classical education, character, competition, and privilege

I have run across the argument that the Imperial Chinese practice of selecting officials based on tests of Confucian classics was a factor that limited China's ability to innovate and keep up with the West.  It's a tempting argument, and the more I think about it the more I sympathize, but first we have to explore one significant objection to the argument:  Reading Hofstadter makes it clear that the educational systems of all Western powers in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries emphasized classical studies for their elites.  I don't know that reading Homer and Plato is any better or worse for one's character and judgment than reading Confucius.  I'll grant that the Western canon taught to elites seems to have had greater diversity of sources than the Chinese canon, but I don't think that the choice of texts was the limiting factor.  Rather, I think it may be that (ironically) the Western system may have put less pressure on elites.  Let me explain.

Advanced schooling was not terribly commonplace in Western countries prior to the 20th century.  Anybody who got an advanced education was probably from a pretty privileged background.  The people teaching in the high schools, boarding schools, universities, and whatnot might be stressing mastery of the classical liberal arts, but the kids in those schools knew that they had a good shot at a decent future just based on their backgrounds.  For most of them, academic excellence was not necessary; getting by was enough.  That's not to say that they all drank and partied their way through boarding school--many did, but not all.  There were still sports and clubs and other pursuits befitting a young gentleman of the right background.  A person who did a decent job in class and also earned respect as a leader on the sporting field and in his clubs might be recognized as a young gentleman of the right character and be recruited into some fast track in public service or business.  It might not be like today's career fairs, but if he attracted the right notice it would serve his future well.

The key thing is that he was in an environment where he stood out for going above the minimum, because he and the people around him all felt some baseline of security.  Within the context of their society and upbringing, they already had good reason to feel fairly secure.  Those who excelled did so because of their character, not because it was their only shot.

Contrast that with today's kids seeking admission to elite colleges.  I'd be the first to say that anybody who can seriously even contemplate an elite college will probably be OK if "all" that they get is their "safety school."  However, they don't feel that way!  They feel like they need to push farther and farther.  They aren't on two athletic teams AND in orchestra AND in a community service club AND doing a special science club AND getting A's AND taking AP classes in five different fields because they are well-rounded and simply love all of those things.  OK, a few of them are.  However, the vast majority know that there's a game to play, and so they play it.  Some will become deeply humanitarian as a result of all of that service, and be humbled by all of the privilege that they enjoy.  Some will become arrogant and narcissistic because they feel that their giant resumes prove that they are so great.  Most will wind up somewhere in between and just keep pushing on in life.  But the key thing is that people observing them in that moment can't know who will become a humanitarian and who will become a narcissist!  The competition obscures character.  You never know who is passionate and who is just doing what they need to do.

There's a lot to be said for taking people outside of their comfort zones, but there's also a lot to be said for observing people in their comfort zones.  Anybody who has ever taught pre-meds (or been a college student taking freshman chemistry alongside pre-meds...) knows that pre-meds are all the exact same ultra-competitive little shits (sadly).  Anybody who has been to more than one doctor knows that doctors vary widely in personality, approach, and skill.  Before they get into med school they are all the same because they have to be.  Once they get into med school, they know that their worst case is a low-prestige residency in primary care...which will still yield them a comfortable income!  Some will push hard anyway and qualify for the most competitive residencies in the most competitive specialties.  Some will just keep their nose to the grindstone and do a good job and become good doctors but not shine in the most competitive heights.  And some will be slackers who keep malpractice lawyers employed.  But they all know what their baseline is, they have a certain margin of comfort, so now their internal motivation and character matter.  Really, it's not so different from observing people after tenure.  Some make good use of their security and leverage it to greater accomplishment, some just keep on doing decent work, and a few are as lazy as you'd fear.

The 17th to 19th century Western systems of elite education varied in many ways, but they all took the sons of privilege, put them in an environment that combined classical learning with extracurricular pursuits, and told them that they'll all do OK in life but how far beyond that they go will depend on their character, effort, and accomplishment.  Those sons of privilege then proceeded to distinguish themselves to varying degrees, and could be observed for all manner of traits, to be recruited (or not) for various paths.  It was more like medical school or tenure than the Chinese system of ever-more-competitive exams for ever-higher stakes.

The problem with our elites is not that they got good grades and test scores.  The problem is not even that they enjoy privilege and security. Every society has privileged elites--even (and especially) the ones that undertook an ideological project of being "classless."  Rather, the problem is that the political system is too closely aligned with sectors that give their greatest rewards to people who play the game for top colleges and then play the game for top law and MBA programs and then play the game to be recruited by the biggest law firms, banks, and corporations.  I don't care that elite law firms and banks and big corporations exist and have their games.  I care that we have a political class too focused on those elements of the economy, while the middle is hollowed out.

The real solution has nothing to do with universities and everything to do with economic policy.  But if you absolutely insist on trying to at least partially improve the elite class through college admissions we are stuck with a paradox: The elites show their character when they are most comfortable, not when they are most competitive.  However, there's no morally or socially acceptable to pitch protection or comfort for elites as a solution to inequality.  There are far more people who would like to attend Stanford and Harvard and Yale than there are spots at Stanford and Harvard and Yale. The only morally acceptable response is to make the applicants demonstrate (in some way) that they are worthy (by some measure).  That measure can be grades, character, writing samples, extracurricular accomplishments, service, interviews, whatever.  However, as long as there are way more people who want it than there are spots, and as long as there are huge returns to getting one of those spots, there will be intense competition.  Consequently, you will be observing how people compete on grades, or interviews, or service, or whatever, not what they do when they are relaxed.

I have no easy fixes to offer, but my best guess is that you'll  have to just accept a certain amount of entrenched elitism, let their kids relax and let their guard down instead of doing 10 different extracurriculars alongside sports and AP classes, and then use some class-based and/or race-based affirmative action to add some non-elite kids to the mix.  No competitive formula will fix things.  But I'll take some bright young gentlemen (and ladies) who displayed their character from a position of comfort over the socioeconomic elite version of a pre-med.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Academic Freedom's just another word for nothing to fight about

I've been reading slowly because I spent much of the week on other tasks.  Hofstadter makes a compelling case that the Reformation and Counter-Reformation actually led to a few centuries of decline in academic freedom.  Training the clergy was one of the primary (though not only) tasks of the early European universities, so religious freedom and academic freedom went hand-in-hand.  During the Middle Ages, there were certainly limitations on religious freedom, and certain religious ideas that would not be tolerated in any way.  On the other hand, the (relative) lack of religious fault lines in Western Europe's political and social landscape meant that theological speculation (within the broad confines of a Christian viewpoint) was not particularly dangerous.  So what if a few academics are speculating on religion and philosophy?  It's not like there were economic or political stakes in it.  Let those bookworms speculate (a bit).

But once kings started lining up on opposite sides of religious divides, and once the loyalty of the masses divided along religious lines, suddenly religion was much higher-stakes.  Even worse, kings and princes and dukes suddenly started caring a great deal about the theological affiliations of the scholars in the universities that they were patronizing.  It's one thing to know that you can't explicitly criticize the local authorities.  It's a problem, but it's not as big of a problem as being barred from an entire school of thought within your field.

Interestingly, Hofstadter points out that the Copernican model of astronomy was not originally controversial with the Church in Rome.  The Protestants hated it, because of their commitments to Scriptural text over the interpretations of clergy, but the Church in Rome wasn't particularly first.  Then Giordano Bruno came along and wandered completely off the reservation and well into the realm of heresy.  At that point the Church became much less tolerant in matters of cosmology and astronomy.  Until then, though, an astronomer had more academic freedom in a university with Catholic patrons than a university under Protestant influence.  But once Giordano Bruno wandered completely off the reservation, the religious authorities started taking astronomy seriously, setting the stage for Galileo to get in trouble.

What I take from this is, in many ways, completely commonsensical:  Our academic freedom is most secure when it is least threatening.  This fits with many things we've seen in the past 100 years:  Marxism was relevant to the world's biggest geopolitical divide, and so Marxists were in great danger in the academy.  However, prior to the Cold War, when the American welfare state was birthed during the New Deal, Marxism was somewhat intellectually fashionable.  And as the Cold War approached its end, Marxist analysis became (for good or for ill) more acceptable in the humanities.

Somebody might, at this point, say something about race, America's deepest dividing line for centuries, and note that fairly radical views and critiques of this subject can usually be offered with a fair amount of safety in America's colleges and universities.  However, dig a layer deeper:  Race and gender theory are wrapped up in quite a bit of jargon these days.  Say what you will for or against those theories, and say what  you will in defense of jargon for academic purposes, but there's no denying that this jargon hardly resonates with the masses.  Nobody is terribly afraid of this stuff.  It gets mocked, periodically, but then the noise machine finds some other shiny bauble, and hiring committees go right ahead as before in hiring people who emphasize critical race theory in their literary studies, or whatever.

Yes, Steven Salaita touched hot-button issues of ethnicity and politics, but he got in trouble because of the things that he wrote in plain English, not for any dense journal articles or academic books.  How many of his detractors or defenders can name an academic publication by Salaita?

*crickets chirping*

That's what I thought.

Take economics:  Wealth and power are and always have been inextricably linked, and economic inequality is arguably the most pressing issue of our time.  (More pressing than hot-button social distractors, I would argue...)  However, economists largely write in a dense jargon.  There are good reasons for that, and I would be the first to defend it, but when they write solely in that jargon they are completely unthreatening.  Yes, there are political junkies who can go off on a rant about Paul Krugman or Tyler Cowen, but that's because Krugman and Cowen write in plain English.  Name an economist who writes in jargon and is the target of vitriol by political junkies.

On the other hand,  natural science is completely non-threatening* to America's powerful interests, so natural scientists are constantly encouraged to complement their jargon-laden technical work with public outreach.  We don't do it as often as some would say that we should, but when we do it we are praised rather than panned.  Government agencies and private foundations put money into science outreach.  Nobody's asking economists or critical race scholars to write in plain English, but the natural scientists are constantly asked to do so.

Anyway, the unsurprising lesson of Hofstadter's first chapter is that academic freedom in Medieval and Renaissance Europe was most secure when there was the least religious conflict.  On to chapter 2, which takes up matters in the US.

*Offer not valid for climate science.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The competition to be less competitive

This article on admissions highlights an effort to select students who aren't so focused on competing to be the best and get ahead.  On one level, I do sympathize with that.  Anybody who's ever taught pre-meds knows what it's like to deal with grade-grubbers.  On another level, though, the  competition to be less competitive is a folly.  You can look for students who want to serve humanity rather than themselves, but if you are making high-stakes decisions (e.g. admission to a highly prestigious institution that provides access to valuable networks) then you can count on students with social capital and economic capital to undertake outrageously elaborate volunteer work to demonstrate their commitment to serving others.   You can count on privileged students to find tutors and coaches who will help them write essays to articulate  all of the right values.  This effort has all of the same problems that I highlighted in my critiques of Lani Guinier's Tyranny of the Meritocracy.

I don't know the "right" way to pick 18 year-olds for admission to the most elite schools.  Maybe there is a right way.  Godspeed to those who can identify it.  But I think we're better off focusing on paths to opportunity outside of the top schools, rather than finding better ways to pick a class at the top schools.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Intellectual Freedom in the 1200's

I'm only 25 pages in, but three quick thoughts:
First, Hofstadter rightly distinguished between policing ideas via formal sanctions and policing ideas via peer pressure.  This distinction matters in a great many contexts, and has deep political significance in areas well beyond the campus.  From the smallest workplace to the largest nation-state, it is arguable that social pressure's dominance over formal rules is the only thing that keeps the world from descending into endless lawyering.

Second, I was not entirely surprised to learn that for centuries universities have functioned quite effectively as institutions that can secure the right of their members to question (most) orthodoxies of the outside world but were (and arguably are) ineffective at protecting dissent from the accepted orthodoxies of the campus itself.  (Speaking of dissent from orthodoxy, it is strange that I spend more class time in the computer lab with students learning to use and develop simulations than anyone else in my department, yet I am the most vocal critic of most things offered under the "technology and learning" banner.)

Finally, I was mildly amused to learn that when the European academic world rediscovered Aristotle in the 1200's some of his adherents were treated as heretics by the Church, and a few even found their institutions unable to defend them, but 400 years later Galileo's ruthless critiques of Aristotle's followers earned him the wrath of the Church.  Time is a wheel.

Saturday, October 3, 2015


Between having to brush up on old things and learn new things for teaching, digging through policy documents for committee work, and writing a paper (that's going way too slow) I just don't have it in me to read primary sources on education history right now.  Besides, what I love most about Hofstadter is his writing and commentary, not somebody else's.  So I'm putting down the documentary history and picking up Academic Freedom in the Age of the College.  Expect blogging soon.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Six Sigma Just In Time Buzzword Utilization For Strategic Synergizing

Academe has a nice little piece on buzzwords in the professions, and the utter disconnect between the buzzwords and actually, you know, doing something.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The inclusiveness of the 1700's

The next section of Hofstadter's documentary history of American higher education deals with the movement toward non-denominational institutions.  The pre-Revolutionary portion of the 1700's saw intense debates over whether institutions of higher learning should favor one particular Protestant sect or be open to all sects.  The majority view favored non-denominational institutions, though there were arguments that the best way to protect freedom of conscience was through denominational institutions, to avoid compromises.  The most vocal debates seem to have been over Columbia University (then called King's College), which ultimately settled on a non-denominational approach.  Brown chose to have explicit religious quotas on its board of trustees, so that all of the major Protestant sects would be represented.

It would be easy to look back at these debates over which Protestant white males to favor and see a hopelessly unenlightened society.  If we look only at where the society was at in its evolution then I agree with that criticism.  However, if we look at the pace of the evolution, and the energy devoted to expanding inclusion, protecting conscience, and checking sectarian forces that could fuel conflict, then there is much to praise in the movements of that time. It was a time of great progress and great energy for reform.  If they did not go as far as we have gone it is only because of where they started, and not for lack of attention to inclusion across social and ideological divides and the implications thereof.

On the other hand, while this attention to matters of inclusion bears much resemblance to academic concerns of today, there is one crucial difference:  They were not seeking to achieve a balance of Protestant sects, just to allow a balance of Protestant sects.  They were inclusive in spirit but there was no affirmative action here.  I use the phrase "affirmative action" not in any loaded sense involving trade-offs in admissions criteria, but only in the sense that there was no deliberate action.  They allowed people of many sects but did not express any urgency about seeking out a balance among students of many sects.  They wanted colleges and universities that stayed out of sectarian conflicts, not colleges and universities that sought to redress conflict by enrolling balanced student bodies.  For all of the parallels with the modern dialogue on inclusion and diversity in academia, this is one key difference.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

“Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about about mission statements.”

I've been arguing with some people over whether it's worth spending effort on revising a mission statement.  I maintain that most or all mission statements in higher ed are worthless because they come before the meaningful decisions, not after.  A mission statement has high-minded phrases and pleasant words.  There's nothing wrong with that, except that it can't guide decision-making.  "Academic excellence" is great, but what does it mean?  "Research" is obviously important, but every time a resource decision comes up you have to decide if one person's research program is more worthy of resources than another's, or if in this particular instance research should not get resources at the expense of classroom instruction, or if growth in an area of existing strength is a better use of resources than development of a new area.  And so forth.

Each of the examples that I posed in the previous paragraph involves a trade-off where reasonable people might differ.  The basic problem is that a mission statement doesn't help you resolve the dilemma.

Now, this is not to say that I'm not a fan of having people decide what their priorities are.  I am very much a fan of that.  I am coordinating my department's efforts to convert our curriculum from quarters to semesters.  A year ago I started this process by asking faculty in my department and client departments (i.e. departments whose students take our physics classes) what they wanted most, and pointing out trade-offs that would be encountered. After these conversations, we didn't draft a high-minded statement.  Instead, we looked for areas of agreement and put different values and considerations on the table, and worked through different scenarios for possible requirements.  Over time, a curriculum emerged, and I can point to consistent themes that run through the curriculum that we agreed on. We started with a large series of goals and negotiated something that is not a bunch of clunky and mismatched oddities, nor is it a bland collection of inoffensive second choices, but rather a reflection of common concerns that many people have consistently expressed over the years.

The problem is that this took work.  It took a lot of discussion of real, tangible trade-offs. And the only reason that we were able to focus our minds is that there were real stakes. The curriculum may just be a piece of paper right now, but we know that it will have real consequences because in a few years we will be teaching the classes on that list.  Students will be taking those classes.  Students will be preparing via the prerequisite classes that we agreed on.  There will be concrete action by real people.  At every step of the conversation, it was clear what sorts  of concrete actions we would take if we agreed to an idea that was on the table.

A mission statement is different.  A mission statement starts from the disparate goals and a group of people, and condenses them to a few high-minded sentences.  There's no hard work, and no concrete trade-off.  All of the hard stuff is kicked down the road.  It means nothing.  The idea that you can sort out your priorities via high-minded verbiage rather than decisions with consequences is a false promise sold by consultants and managers whose only interest is padding the resume for the next step, and it's bought by people who are desperate to be better and want to believe that it can be accomplished via secret tricks and correct politics.  It's liars selling to lunatics.  It's the fantasy of an easy path to what can only be won by sweat and blood.

If you absolutely insist on drafting a mission statement, here's my advice:  First work through some hard decisions involving real trade-offs and tangible resources.  After you've done that work, see what sorts of themes ran throughout your decisions.  Only now do you know what your actual priorities are, and if you are absolutely insistent on it you can distill those priorities into some high-minded statements that you paste into documents and display on least until facts on the ground change.  Then you might have to make some more hard decisions rather than just appeal to nice words on plaques.

Tidbits on higher ed in colonial America

I've mostly just skimmed the primary documents in Hofstadter's book so far.  A few observations:

  • In a history of Harvard written in 1702, Cotton Mather extols the accomplishments of Harvard's first President.  One of the key things singled out is fundraising accomplishments..
  • By 1723, Harvard's faculty were at war with the Overseers of the Harvard Corporation (roughly the equivalent of a modern Board of Trustees or Board of Regents), and writing letters and essays on it.  Any observer of modern higher ed would recognize this situation.
  • In the 18th century, Great Awakening preacher George Whitefield was preaching throughout the colonies. In Boston he drew a huge crowd for a sermon that included criticisms of Harvard for falling short in the spiritual preparation of their students and for allowing students to read "bad books."  Whitefield would probably agree with modern efforts to put trigger warnings on syllabi for books with disturbing content.  Also, the faculty of Harvard fired back with just as many essays as modern faculty write in response to perceived threats to academic freedom.

On the other hand, early American university charters make it quite clear that the mission was a combination of inculcating religious virtue, preparing upper-class professionals, and in particular (but far from solely) preparing clergy.  That is very different from the purpose of the modern university.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Next Book: American Higher Education--A Documentary History by Richard Hofstadter

I liked Anti-Intellectualism in American Life so much that I figured I should read some more Hofstadter, so I will. I'm going to plunge into his two-volume American Higher Education--A Documentary History. I have only flipped through the pages so far, but it appears to be a lot of very short, largely self-contained chapters.  This will be interesting.

EDIT:  Oh, I see.  It's an edited collection of primary documents.  So far I'm reading documents from Harvard in the 1600's.  The ideal of higher education promoting virtue is definitely in there. Hofstadter takes pains to point out that the Puritans did want an educated clergy but they didn't only want an educated clergy.  They wanted well-read leaders in society, intellectually-grounded professionals.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Galileo! Galileo! Galileo now no more!

I'm partway through Day 2 (mostly on relative motion) and bored.  Time to read some sci-fi.  Then I'll start blogging serious stuff again.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Galileo, Day 1: OK, now it gets good.

On page 63 things get interesting.  Salviati has spent a few pages talking about sun spots.  The purpose of this was that after dozens of pages discussing the notion of a perfect universe or perfect celestial objects of...whatever it was that Aristotle was smoking, Salviati has introduced sun spots as evidence that the heavens are changeable, asymmetric, and altogether imperfect.  Simplicio counters by suggesting that the sun spots are planets that are really, really close to the sun, and Salviati swats down that theory with observational evidence.

Finally, Salviati and Sagredo back Simplicio into a corner, reminding him of Aristotle's insistence that the evidence of the senses should take precedence over eloquent argument.  I have two thoughts on this:
1) It is quite ironic that Aristotle's teachings were treated as dogma by subsequent generations who tried to suppress or disregard evidence of the senses in favor of Aristotle's eloquent arguments.  This reminds me a bit of Hofstadter's final word on Dewey, whose disciples tried to institutionalize anti-institutional teaching methods.

2) If we told our students to trust their senses over even the most seemingly logical argument, we might persuade them that Newtonian mechanics is wrong (and not in the way that relativity and quantum mechanics disagree with Newtonian mechanics).  A great many physicists, from a great many pedagogical schools, have noted that when you grow up in a world with friction, air resistance, and gravity, and where most physical objects have substantial moments of inertia (i.e. they can't be treated as gravity), the abstractions of Newtonian mechanics make precious little sense.  We don't have point objects.  We don't have frictionless surfaces.  We can't really conceive of motion "in the absence of an applied force" because real objects either slow down while moving on the ground if you don't push them, or fall if you let go of them.

Moreover, the known inadequacies of freshman lab equipment once led the great teacher and author David Griffiths to make this statement:
I can explain the conservation of momentum in 15 minutes, but three hours in the lab would only convince an honest student that the law is false.
If the question is what we should do about this in the classroom, the answer is that we should do Newtonian mechanics experiments on air tables with digital timers and photogates.  However, the bigger point here is that many fallacies are rooted in real observations, and it isn't always obvious how un-systematic those observations are.  Short of a really, really good experimental investigation of Newtonian mechanics, one will almost certainly be solving mechanics problems on the basis of logical argument rather than the observations of one's own senses.  Ironic, no?  And that's not just true of Newtonian mechanics (where, in principle, a university could get some really, really good freshman lab equipment and really take the time to....HA HA HA HA HA, I made a good joke there, didn't I?), it's even more true of other branches of science.  None of us will ever personally observe, let alone conduct, more than a tiny fraction of the experiments needed to establish the foundations of our branches of science.

Galileo on Aristotle

I am a third of the way through the first of the four dialogues.  It consists largely of showing how cumbersome and inconsistent Aristotelian physics is.  It is a hard slog. We owe Galileo a debt for taking down Aristotle, cleaning the slate, and then starting to fill it in with new physics so that Newton could complete mechanics.

There is a little bit of actual physics.  Early in this part of the book (page 26) Salviati uses ideas equivalent to energy conservation on the inclined plane, and Sagredo readily agreed without demanding experimental proof.  Then they segue to other topics.  I think they return to it in a subsequent dialogue.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

I am triggered by people who fear books and speech

Given that my current reading project is a book that was actually banned on the grounds that it offended people's religious beliefs, I should say something about the current discussion of touchy students in higher ed.  I will begin by noting the current mania for "trigger warnings" and whatnot is hardly universal.  Much of it is certainly the work of a few touchy and over-sheltered types.  Moreover, while the current dialogue is largely focused on touchy liberals who try to live up to neo-Victorian stereotypes of being so fragile that they need fainting couches, the conservative side of the culture war has its own share of whiners who are afraid to touch books that offend their beliefs.  And it is almost certainly true that the biggest problem is not students who are too touchy to read, but rather the perennial problem of students who are too lazy to read, or faculty who assign less and less reading not because they are afraid of complaints but because it is easier to run a simple class and give multiple-choice tests.

(Oh, and before you tell me that when I question trigger warnings I'm being insensitive to people with PTSD, I will refer you to an article by a psychiatrist finishing her residency.  The rhetoric from the pro-trigger camp does not match the clinical reality of PTSD.)

That said, the problem is not one of numbers but rather the powers available to a minority of whiners and the ass-covering tendencies of those in power.  For instance, Laura Kipnis:  I disagree with a great many things that Kipnis said in her controversial March essay.  I have no particular desire to defend what she said.  I think she has a blinkered view of what can go wrong in sexual relationships between people on different rungs of the same hierarchy, and I would not want to translate her views into policy in any institution that I would be affiliated with.

So what?  She still has the right to say it, and the mere fact that she is wrong does not make her dangerous to individual health and well-being. There was no reason to drag her though a Title IX investigation for a mere article. It might be dangerous to an institution if her views were turned into policy, but I hear all sorts of dumb ideas in meetings, ideas that would probably be horrible for the institution if translated into policy.  Merely mentioning those ideas is not the sort of danger from which I am entitled to some sort of protection, and we don't drag people in front of an investigator for airing those ideas in meetings.  The only harm that they might do by merely speaking is to elevate my blood pressure, and my institution already provides me with health insurance to cover my stress tests and headache medication. If I wish to defend myself from more than speech, and work against the implementation of those ideas, it is my responsibility to get involved in institutional governance, and so I do.  Given this distinction between speech and action, it is inexcusable that Kipnis was dragged through a Kafkaesque bureaucracy (at great excuse to the institution) just because some whiners complained that her column made them feel unsafe.  Unsafe?  Because of a column in the Chronicle?  I cannot think of a more benign venue in which to publish!  (Indeed, I have published my own bit of heresy there.)  And then the same process was inflicted on an academic Senator who spoke in her defense?  This is not the creation of a supportive environment for victims of assault and harassment.

If it were just one person being dragged before one investigator because of one institution gone a bit silly, well, lots of really bad things happen, but not all of them are trends.  What makes me take this latest wave a bit more seriously is that a vocal minority can effect policy.  For instance, why would the student government at UCSB (the school from which I got my PhD, a school that I dearly love) pass resolutions for trigger warnings?  Are they that fragile?  Now, I can assure you that your average UCSB student is NOT lobbying for trigger warnings.  They're too busy partying and surfing.  However, it appears that among those with political skills and ambitions, the neo-Victorian influence is significant.  I don't fear the average undergrad, but I do fear movements with talented organizers.

For that matter, while I actually think there are some good guidelines in these documents (e.g. don't make assumptions about people's backgrounds), I am disturbed by some of the guidelines that go to expression of personal opinion rather than false assumptions about other people.  In particular, the document urges people to not call America "The land of opportunity."  Now, I agree there are enough injustices in the US to merit a rebuttal to "land of opportunity" statements.  At the same time, I know that there are reasonable and informed people who have nonetheless offered statements like that in the course of their academic duties.  Not too long ago I was in a presentation by a business professor who is a woman of color (i.e. not a person who is unaffected by discrimination) and she said something similar in the context of the climate for entrepreneurship in the US.  Now, perhaps you disagree with her.  Perhaps you even have an evidence-based case for disagreeing with her (e.g. an analysis of data on class mobility).  You should make that case.  You should challenge her.  You should debate with her.  But she should not be judged guilty of some sort of harm to others merely for offering that controversial opinion.

Again, academia is not crawling with people looking to ruin the career of anyone who says "land of opportunity."  We don't have to keep AAUP Committee A on speed-dial in our daily work.  But it is disconcerting that when the touchy types show up they aren't always mere shouters on Twitter.  (Seriously, stay away from Twitter.  140 characters aren't conducive to intellectual discourse.)  Rather, they are often close to levers of power.  That should frighten us.  That should move us to speak passionately and defiantly and under our real names.

What prompted me to write this long post full of ire?  This morning I read an op-ed co-authored by the President of Northwestern University, Morton Schapiro.  He wrote in defense of the millenials calling for greater sensitivity.  I will state up front that I personally respect him.  Although I have never met him, when I was an undergraduate at USC he was the Dean of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, and it was well known that he taught a freshman GE course.  I greatly admired that even then, and as I have gone on in higher ed I have come to appreciate how rare it is for the people on the higher rungs to keep a foot in the classroom, and hence maintain first-hand exposure to what is actually happening.  So I admire him as a person.  I will even go so far as to say that he has good points about millenials pushing for people to be more respectful in their interactions with others.  However, when these respectable impulses for inclusion morph into fear of speech, and even calls for censorship, they go too far.

But why am I singling him out when this matter has been discussed by a great many people?  Because he's the President of Northwestern, the same school that dragged Laura Kipnis through an inexcusable process and then tried to censor a journal issue on bioethics edited by Alice Dreger, a former Northwestern faculty  member who resigned in protest.  It is clear that Northwestern has a beam in its eye on the matter of free speech, and yet it is trying to point to the speck in other people's discourses.  (And, yes, I just quoted another book that people have tried to ban.)  Go ahead and consider the valid points made in that op-ed, but don't forget that it is something of a smoke screen.