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Tag: "academia"

A Solution in Search of Some Data…

[ 87 ] January 31, 2013 |

This is an odd idea:

Should Colleges Ban Double Majors?

Tucked in a list of suggested reforms issued last week for how U.S. colleges could increase graduation rates is a recommendation that schools “narrow student choice” in order to promote completion. It’s an interesting idea — one that seems to go against the notion of college as a place to explore options and experiment with courses in divergent fields — that is all the more curious since it is included in an open letter from the nation’s six leading higher-education organizations.

“Sometimes we create a culture of dancing for more years than you have to, rather than getting out the door,” said Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University and chairman of the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, which issued the Jan. 24 letter. ”I think institutions have a responsibility to reset that balance.”

Do double majors improve a student’s marketability?

Whether a second major actually makes a student more attractive to an employer is unclear — little data exists on the subject.

Do double majors slow degree progress, or prevent graduation?

At the same time, however, Tepper says his research does not suggest that students who double-major are more likely to drop out of college. He also found that having an additional major increases the time it takes to earn a degree only slightly, if at all.

And so…

So why, then, are prominent figures in the higher-education community promoting the idea of narrowing student choice?

“I’m not sure that the word ‘narrow’ is quite the right word, it’s clarity that we’re really trying to achieve,” said Gee after embarking on a media tour to promote the letter. “I believe very strongly in the liberal arts education. We don’t want to take away those options. We want to provide clarity to students for how they can get through the system much faster — that would be the way that I would put it.”

Well, that clears things up. Without data to indicate that double majors actually slow progress, seems to me a touch premature to suggest that they ought to be banned. Also seems that “banned” here effectively means just that a student cannot be granted a credential for taking a sufficient number of courses in a second major. I don’t understand why denying a student a credential (even if it doesn’t seem to add much to job market/grad school attractiveness), should be an institutional priority.

If I had to guess, I’d say one problem is that double majors create messy statistical and accounting issues that administrators find unpleasant.  I’d also guess that administrators are desperate for any means of pushing students through faster, as graduation rate affects ranking, and that they’re willing to try just about any kooky scheme for making that happen.  Student intellectual curiosity is an inconvenience.

Is a Duke Degree Worth the Paper It’s Printed On?

[ 81 ] September 21, 2012 |

It’s hardly surprising that a school full of the douchiest basketball fans in the world like Duke would also lead the nation in grade inflation. I mean, when you have worse grade inflation than Harvard, you are really saying something. Do Duke students just get an 4.0 when they write their tuition checks?

The Conservative War on the Liberal Arts

[ 78 ] September 15, 2012 |

Katie Billotte rightfully exposes the decline of the liberal arts in higher education as an important facet of the conservative war on anything institution in this country that might create free-thinking people.

Education is a political act. For over half a century, the conservative movement has waged a political war on liberal arts education. They have waged this war because they know that without the skills we are provided by a liberal arts education citizens must abdicate our power. They know, like the Greeks and Romans did, that only those with the ars liberalis can do the job of citizens. That is why we must not allow the liberal arts to be further attacked, economically or ethically. A democracy without citizens will not long survive and citizens are only those who have mastered the ars liberalis.

Indeed.

“You Sir Have the Boorish Manners of a Yalie”

[ 146 ] August 31, 2012 |

These days I usually leave the indignant to Loomis, but seriously?

Harvard University will consider instituting an honor code as it investigates whether at least 125 undergraduates cheated by working together on a take-home exam in the spring. Officials said they intend to start broad conversations about academic honesty, including why it is vital to intellectual inquiry, in the wake of what is believed to be the largest such episode in recent school history.

“We really think we need to work harder,” said Jay M. Harris, dean of undergraduate education. “We do think it’s an opportunity to really put out before the community how much we value integrity.”

School officials said Thursday they discovered roughly half of the students in a class of at least 250 people may have shared answers or plagiarized on a final. They declined to release the name of the class or the students’ names.

125 students from the most privileged backgrounds in America couldn’t be bothered to do the work in (what I understand to have been) an introductory government course. It’s not as if Harvard undergrads need to cheat their way to a 4.0 in order to have any job prospects; simply by graduating they have much better prospects than the unwashed masses of undergraduates laboring in public schools around the country, not to mention those who aren’t fortunate enough to be able to attend college.

And it’s not precisely that I’m surprised at this garbage, either; the elite crust that has produced the undergraduate cohort that currently attends Ivy League institutions obviously hasn’t made overmuch effort to establish or reinforce standards of honor, integrity, and fair play. Nevertheless, I can’t help but to be extraordinarily irritated by this particular instance of academic dishonesty, and to hope that Harvard takes harsh disciplinary measures. Gotta nip this kinda thing in the bud; don’t want these kids to grow up to be Doris Kearns Goodwin or Fareed Zakaria, after all.

The Downfall of Higher Education

[ 90 ] August 27, 2012 |

Bruce Bawer, an old white male and writer of anti-Islamic screeds, seems to think that the downfall of higher education is in the “studies.” You know, black studies, women’s studies, gender studies, etc. Classes dedicated to non-white males, which Bawer believes constitutes the opposite of a proper education. Oh poor old “liberal” white males. Things were so much better in the 60s, when white men sat in college classrooms reading sensible white males like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Anyway, Andrew Delbanco is having none of it
, writing a devastating review of Bawer’s new book. Delbanco recognizes the real problems in higher education:

This deliberately intemperate book is a useful reminder that liberal education always faces threats from one kind of intolerance or another. It is ultimately a footnote to Allan Bloom’s 1987 best seller, “The Closing of the American Mind,” to which Bawer pays homage in his subtitle. He’s right to lament the continued decline of the kind of education that Bloom defined as helping “students to pose the question . . . ‘What is man?’ in relation to his highest aspirations” by guiding them to and through “the alternative answers” to be found in great works of art and thought. But in updating that argument, Bawer overlooks the greatest threat to today’s universities. Today, corporate-minded university presidents spout platitudes about “outcome metric” and “game-changing” technologies, while faculty members struggle to piece together a living with multiple part-time jobs, and students search for marketable skills that, they hope, will help them pay off their education debt.

In his foreword to Bloom’s book, Saul Bellow described his friend and University of Chicago colleague as “a front-line fighter in the mental wars of our times.” Taking up arms on behalf of Bloom’s cause 25 years later, Bruce Bawer is fighting a rear-guard action against an enemy who has largely ceded the field to a new philistine army that has no interest in the culture wars. The humanities and “soft” social science departments that Bawer mocks are sinking into insignificance — partly, to be sure, because they have purveyed the kind of buffoonery he decries. Meanwhile, a more formidable enemy has arrived in the form of resolute utilitarians who discourage students from seeking what Bawer wants for them: the chance, through arduous reading and reflection under the guidance of dedicated teachers, to discover themselves.

I will only disagree to the extent that I don’t think there’s a lot of “buffoonery” in the studies departments. Sometimes some of those courses could be more rigorous, but then you could say that about any traditional major in the liberal arts.

Of course, another huge problem is the gigantic con being played against our college students, wherein capitalists and their purchased politician friends push them into online degrees that employers don’t value and do them very little good.

Economists

[ 55 ] August 22, 2012 |

I guess I always assumed that most economists were political hacks hiding behind academic credentials. I don’t have a problem with academics looking to influence public policy. But it is a fine line between supporting a political candidate and sacrificing professional credibility in service of that end. That’s true whether we are talking about economists going whole hog for Romney and falsely accusing Obama of destroying the economy or whether we are talking about Sean Wilentz embarrassing himself in service of his desire to be the Clintons’ Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Of course, one person’s hack is another’s principled academic.

Social Facts

[ 131 ] August 16, 2012 |

Greenwald, in the midst of an angry screed:

In a book critiquing the “terrorism expert” field, Jackson argued that “most of what is accepted as well-founded ’knowledge’ in terrorism studies is, in fact, highly debatable and unstable.“ He therefore scorns almost four decades of so-called Terrorism scholarship as ”based on a series of ‘virulent myths’, ’half-truths’ and contested claims” that are plainly “biased towards Western state priorities.” To Jackson, terrorism is “a social fact rather than a brute fact” and “does not exist outside of the definitions and practices which seek to enclose it, including those of the terrorism studies field.” In sum, it means whatever the wielder of the term wants it to mean: something that cannot be the subject of legitimate “expertise.”

I’ll let you decide whether Glenn is fairly characterizing the book Contemporary Debates on Terrorism.”Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda,” (my error). Here’s a brief summary of John Searle on social facts:

Searle maintains that brute facts are objective, and that social facts may be both subjective and objective. Brute facts are objective, in that they do not depend on our attitude about them. For example, mountains and valleys are physical facts, no matter what attitude we take toward them. On the other hand, social facts depend on the attitudes which we take toward them. For example, the value of a five-dollar bill is a social fact which depends on our agreement that a five-dollar bill is worth something.

However, social facts may be objective when they are commonly accepted, and when they are not a matter of individual preference or opinion. For example, the duty of a policeman to enforce the law may be classified as an objective social fact. According to Searle, social facts may be epistemically objective (in that they are not a matter of individual preference or opinion) but may be ontologically subjective (in that they depend for their existence on being agreed upon as facts).

And so no, “social fact” does not mean either a) something that cannot be the subject of legitimate expertise, or b) something that means whatever the wielder wants it to mean. Beyond “terrorism” here is a list of social facts:

Imperialism
Latin America
Taiwan
Generation X
International Law
College Football
The Great Plains
Racism
Suicide

Indeed, the notion that social facts were beyond the realm of legitimate study (even “expertise,” itself a socially constructed term), and that they mean whatever the wielder wants them to mean would be extremely surprising to Emile Durkheim.

None of this is to say that the field of terrorism studies has been particularly productive, or that specialists have done enough to separate themselves from amateurs, or that profound ideological biases affect even the best work etc. etc.  Focusing the critique on those points would be helpful and productive; willfully misunderstanding the basic building blocks of human social inquiry in order to pursue a half-baked, nonsensical vendetta is neither.

I Guess All Graduate Students Come From the Elite Classes. I Hereby Renounce My Ph.D. For Lacking Proper Skills in Snobbery

[ 190 ] August 1, 2012 |

So Inside Higher Ed ran basically the worst article ever written about how to be a good graduate student, by Katy Meyers, Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology at Michigan State University:

Knowing wine used to be a skill that you were raised to possess. Wine was an ever-present entity on family dinner tables and at social gatherings. However, with the increasing standardization of wine, that has led to juicy high alcohol wines that all taste the same, there isn’t a need for this knowledge. Think about Barefoot or Yellow Tail- I’m not saying these are bad wines, but the taste they have is due to mass production techniques rather than being innate to the grape itself. Its similar to the production of light beers which has caused the loss of knowledge about actual beer styles.

Tasting wine is my favorite non-academic pursuit. If I gave up pursuing my PhD, I would probably go work on a winery. I grew up in the Finger Lakes Wine region, have taken numerous tasting tours in France, California and New York, and was on the 2010 Championship Blind Wine Tasting Team for University of Edinburgh. I’ve found that knowing wine is a surprisingly valuable skill for grad school. At those dinners with professors, I’ve used my wine knowledge to purchase the alcohol for the table, making sure to pick something that will pair with our meals. It is also nice to be able to engage in wine conversations with the ‘adults’.

So…….

“Knowing wine used to be a skill that you were raised to possess.” Is that so? All graduate students come from the elite classes! It’s a must! I know that when I was a kid, my parents, pulling in their solid $25,000 a year in the 80s, wouldn’t be watching TV after a hard day’s work. And they wouldn’t be just wanting to relax either. Nope. They’d put me and my brother in the car(74 Dodge Brougham if I recall correctly, at least for a time. When we were really well off, the 81 Plymouth Reliant K-Car, although ours had wood paneling on the side. Dad, if I’m wrong, tell me so.) and we’d head into the Willamette Valley wine fields. The Oregon wine industry was just starting in the early 80s, but my parents knew the only way I’d succeed in life is if I was raised to know wine. Chardonnay, Cabernet, whatever. My parents forced me to know wine. Really, if it wasn’t for their incredible sacrifice to teach me wine culture, where would I be right now? Cooking meth in a trailer on the edge of the Willamette National Forest, that’s where. After our wine excursions, despite the fact that my Dad was still covered in plywood glue, his arms full of wood slivers, and completely exhausted, we’d head home joyful with my new knowledge of wine culture. And really, was it even a sacrifice, since EVERYONE was taught wine culture in those days!

In all seriousness, the alcohol-related skill I was raised to possess was to get my Dad a Hamms after his 10 hour day in the plywood mill.

If I had a graduate student who pulled this snotty attitude when I was around, we’d be having a talk. First, the talk would be to quit sucking up. The second subject of the talk would be look around at colleges in the country and figure out what type of people you think you are going to be teaching, because it probably ain’t wine snobs who grew up in the Finger Lakes region and have participated in wine taste tests. The third subject of the talk would be my 10 minute rant about how not to think that just because you are a graduate student that you think you are better than regular people.

And really, what’s with the “adults” bit? I don’t know about the anthropology department at Michigan State, but this kind of thing would not go over AT ALL with most of the academics I know. When I meet a graduate student, the last thing I want to see is some put-on false sophistication. I can tolerate quite a bit from people, but not that. I want to see intellectual interest, hopefully the ability to communicate with regular people (these are graduate students and future academics so it’s hardly a given), and general camaraderie, engagement, and curiosity.

What I don’t want to see is pretension. I ain’t no damn “adult.” I’m just a dude who cares an awful lot about the past and the present and the future and making people’s lives better. If I can shape a few graduate students a tiny bit, that’s cool. But I ain’t more than that. I have some skills and do what I can with them, just like an auto worker, a plumber, or a public school teacher.

And if any graduate student tries to order wine for me (and really, if everyone knows this skill, shouldn’t the “adults” be doing it not only for themselves but for the “children,” i.e. graduate students), not only am I going to order 8 Coors Lights in a row, but I am going to proceed to talk VERY LOUDLY AND FOR A VERY LONG TIME about the snobbery of wine culture and how it is a betrayal of working-class America to think you drink better than other people.

God knows I have developed my own tastes in alcohol. Less in wine than beer and whiskey, but still. Quality wine is a great thing. But so is cheap wine and it doesn’t make you any less of a person to say, Hey! I have $3 and I want a bottle of wine and I am going to Trader Joe’s and getting a bottle of Three Buck Chuck. Or for that matter to get a 6-pack of Bud Light tall boys. And it damn well doesn’t make you a better person to put on airs about what wine goes with the fish when you are dining with your exam committee.

Most of all, thinking that being smart about wine or any other “adult” topic is going to help your graduate career is absurd. How about writing a good dissertation instead? The people I respect are those that do good work, regardless of economic background, social class, or taste in alcohol.

UPDATE: As a friend of mine said about this on Twitter, “It’s as though Charles Murray paid someone to write a piece making academics look like the elitists he thinks they are.” Boom!

We Are All the University of Virginia

[ 133 ] June 21, 2012 |

Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, on the ouster of the school’s president and the behavior of the plutocrats behind the plan. A few tidbits, but you should read the whole thing.

Dear Ms. Dragas & Mr. Kington:

I’m writing to let you know your grade for the Digital Learning Project, as part of your larger grade as Rector and Vice Rector. I wish I brought better news.

On the bright side, let me complement you on your font choice and the formatting of your emails. Further, they feature some unusual words, and a spirit of verve throughout.

But I’m afraid these bright spots pale in comparison to the problems: an immature analysis brought on by terribly shallow research.

I’m not surprised you drew this conclusion, given the sources you cite. Wall Street Journal editorials and New York Times op-eds are not considered primary sources in this context, Ms. Dragas and Mr. Kington. These are non-experts pulling together the opinions of experts as best they can. That’s what you are supposed to do, rather than parrot the opinions of others, however highly regarded they may be.

Now, I can just hear your protests: “You can’t judge my views on this matter from a few emails! And they were not based solely on a few New York Times columns!”

In other words, the project submitted does not reflect your best thinking on the subject.

I hear that a lot from students.

But I can only grade you on what you submitted, not based on my best guess as to what you were thinking. And maybe that’s part of the problem. If you had let me know what you were thinking, I might have been able to help make this project better. I’m not entirely ignorant on the subject of learning myself.

You have earned a grade of F for this project.

From the Code of Virginia, language on courses the University of Virginia must offer:

The following branches of learning shall be taught at the University: the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Anglo-Saxon languages; the different branches of mathematics, pure and physical; natural philosophy, chemistry, mineralogy, including geology; the principles of agriculture; botany, anatomy, surgery, and medicine; zoology, history, ideology, general grammar, ethics, rhetoric, and belles lettres; civil government, political economy, the law of nature and of nations and municipal law.

I don’t see anything here about “strategic management,” “proactive proactivity” or “leveraging strategic proactive proactivity management.” Which must suggest that neither Thomas Jefferson nor anyone else in the first 150 years of the University of Virginia knew what was important in higher education: maximizing profit in the pockets of the 1%.

Of course, such a vaguely worded statute is easy for modern corporate lawyers to get around–”We’ll offer 1 course of German and 1 course on Greek literature. But do we actually have to pay someone to teach it? They should pay us! It’s valuable experience for a Ph.D!”

Still, it’s worth keeping in mind.

Lest we think that UVA is an isolated case, here’s a couple reminders that the corportaization of both public K-12 and public universities is taking place at an increasingly rapid rate, with few questioning why capitalists should have any say at all over schools. North Carolina Republicans are pushing a plan funded by the heirs of Wal-Mart and Amway to send taxpayer money into private K-12 schools.

Meanwhile, the University of Missouri, which recently hired Tim Wolfe, a software executive with no experience in higher education as its president, has shut down its university press because it was costing the school $400,000 a year while at the same time paying its football coach $2.7 million a year. Wolfe may not have a Ph.D., but he is rich. For that matter, he doesn’t have a master’s degree either. Or a law degree. But he does have a B.A. in something called “personnel management” from the University of Missouri! And he’s rich! I can’t think of a better candidate to leverage some corporate strategizing in order to maximize potentialities! Starting with eliminating the university press.

Meanwhile, Wolfe’s starting salary is $450,000 a year
.

We are all the University of Virginia

The University of Virginia, Brought to You by David Brooks

[ 109 ] June 20, 2012 |

Oh for the love of god:

Both took time to comment on a major donor’s e-mail in which he suggested that university leaders study the way Stanford and Harvard Universities, among others, were having success online. The donor wondered in his e-mail if these developments are “a signal that the on-line [sic] learning world has now reached the top of the line universities and they need to have strategies or will be left behind.” Dragas replied: “Your timing is impeccable — the BOV is squarely focused on UVa’s developing such a strategy and keenly aware of the rapidly accelerating pace of change.”

Another article — this one forwarded from Kington to Dragas — was the “The Campus Tsunami,” by the New York Times columnist David Brooks, predicting massive change from the MOOCs, and also predicting that the new model will involve much more learning from professors who are not at the college or university a student attends.

Various theories have been traded among UVa-watchers in the last 10 days about the source of conflict between Sullivan and the board, and the e-mail records suggest that online education may have been among them. In her statement on the day the board announced Sullivan’s departure, Dragas used language similar to some of the columns that were being shared among board members, saying “We also believe that higher education is on the brink of a transformation now that online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions.”

The next time you see me, I’ll be at the bottom the cliff I just jumped off.

Texas: The Anti-Constitution State

[ 27 ] May 29, 2012 |

Connecticut need not worry about Texas trying to steal its nickname. Because the Lone Star state does not care about the Constitution except for its grotesquely expansive view of the 2nd Amendment.

In the fall, Sissy Bradford took a public stand — unpopular with many in San Antonio — about separation of church and state. She was briefly in the news and her view prevailed. Since then, she has received e-mail threats because of her stance. This month, she told the story of those threats to the alt-weekly in San Antonio, which ran an article about them. And the day the article came out, Texas A&M University at San Antonio told her that she would not be teaching in the fall, despite her having previously been assigned four courses.

As the debate played out over church-state issues, Bradford started to receive threatening e-mails. One of the e-mails reflects the tone. It started with: “As a professor, do you have the right to live?” And it described Bradford ending up in a coffin, concluding “After that you will reign with your father Satan.” That e-mail message and a series of others were turned over to the university police department, Bradford said.

Bradford believes that the university did not take the threats seriously. She shared her frustrations with The Current, a San Antonio publication, which ran an article in which she discussed the threats, as did some students who backed her. The university police department confirmed for The Current that an investigation into the threats had been opened, and closed, and declined to discuss details.

The day the article appeared, Bradford received an e-mail from William S. Bush, interim head of the School of Arts and Sciences at Texas A&M-San Antonio, that said in its entirety: “I’m writing to inform you that the School of Arts and Sciences will not be able to offer you any classes in the fall semester. If you wish to discuss this matter further, please submit a written request to Dr. Brent Snow, provost and VP for academic affairs. Please note that he will be traveling abroad until Tuesday, May 29.”

There are other issues at play here too, particularly the lack of labor protection for the majority of academic labor. But of course a university in Texas would not support a faculty member noting something clearly laid out in the Constitution. Because in Texas, the Constitution only matters if it advances the agenda of right-wing conservatives. Otherwise, it is a document to eviscerate.

The Humanities Ph.D.

[ 75 ] May 17, 2012 |

Kaustuv Basu discusses an effort at Stanford to reduce the time it takes students to receive a Ph.D. in German Studies to 4 years. Spearheaded by former MLA President Russell Berman, a member of the department, the initiative seeks to shorten the time it takes for students to complete a humanities Ph.D. Essentially arguing that decade-long Ph.D. adventures are no longer competitive or realistic in the modern university marketplace, these ideas would move students onto one of two tracks–prepare for an academic or a non-academic job.

How would this be accomplished? First, departments would fund students throughout the year, including in the summer, when research often is impossible for lack of money. Second, it would demand professors work more closely with their Ph.D. students to keep them on track and not let people drift for years, as happens to so many Ph.D. students (including myself for awhile). Many other changes to the structure of graduate programs would be needed as well.

A few specifics:

“In anthropological terms, academia is more of a shame culture than a guilt culture: you may feel some private guilt at letting a chapter go unread for two or three months, but a much stronger force would be the public shame you’d feel at coming unprepared to a meeting with two of your colleagues,” he said. “It’s also ultimately a labor-saving device for the faculty as well as the student, as the dissertation can proceed sooner to completion and with less wasted effort for all concerned….” With frequent meetings, the students doesn’t lose time on “unproductive lines of inquiry” or “tangential suggestions tossed out by a single adviser,” Damrosch said.

A two-hour oral exam, meetings each semester with “dissertation-stage” students and their committee members, and clearer feedback for students are part of the graduate program in the comparative literature department now. “We also introduced a monthly forum for students to share and discuss their own work; and an ambitious series of professional development talks, on everything from article submission to dissertation planning to alternative careers,” Damrosch said.

The University of Colorado, University of Minnesota, and Harvard are also considering changes, with Colorado already beginning to implement a short Ph.D. in German.

I find all of these ideas interesting, thought I can see good arguments both for and against. I do like the idea of Ph.D. programs shepherding their students more effectively, reducing unnecessary obstacles, and thinking harder about careers. On the other hand, as Rob Townsend of the American Historical Association notes in the article, can fully formed dissertations be completed this quickly? That’s a good question; in history at least, I do feel the overall quality of dissertations would suffer, largely because students would have to commit too quickly to a specific track rather than explore the sources and literature and see where they lead you. Others in various tweets and Facebook posts noted that this might only increase the already high number of humanities PhDs since a 4 year commitment will appeal to a lot more people. Also, would splitting students into multiple tracks create a second-class PhD? Plus, it’s not like most departments are very savvy on non-academic careers for their students to begin with; after all, everyone in those departments succeeded in achieving an academic job. How well will they steer students into employment?

Obviously there’s a lot of questions that need answering. But it’s hard not to welcome the rethinking of the humanities PhD. I’d certainly be interested to see what people have to say in comments here, given backgrounds, experience, etc.

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