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 Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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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"?
Shit!
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.