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Tag: "academia"

I Always Suspected That Peter Mandelson Was a Wanker

[ 0 ] December 23, 2009 |

I’ll have more to say about this later, but I’m out the door for a Christmas dinner with my partner’s family. Merry Christmas, Lord P.

Of course, the British university system never really recovered from the Thatcher slash and burn approach, only just recently recovering a modicum of respectability. Nobody really believed Tony Blair’s desire to see 50% of British “school leavers” in university was possible (or even desirable), but this is the same government, right, that now claims this:

Lord Mandelson made his position clear in the Secretary of State’s annual letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England. He said: “My predecessor repeatedly made clear the risks of student over-recruitment putting unmanageable pressures on our student support budgets.”

And people wonder why most people no longer believe a word that the Labour government has to say about, well, much of anything.

Enjoy her! She’s a perk.

[ 0 ] September 25, 2009 |

I’ve been wanting to write about the differences in culture between American and British higher education, but largely due to my dissatisfaction with my present employer, I’ve demurred, as I do like my job security. Thanks to the Vice Chancellor at Buckingham University, I have an opening.

This is, of course, bollocks. But it does speak to a difference in the culture. We don’t have tenure in the UK any longer, which was one of Maggie’s many reforms. I can’t speak for the entire island, but at my institution, at least, having relations with one’s students is, while not encouraged, also not frowned upon. It’s treated as a natural outcome, and dealt with.

Through paperwork. A lot of paperwork.
We have these end of year meetings: panels and boards. At the panel, which is held at department level, the first item on the agenda is always “does anybody have a declaration of interest?” My first experience with this concept was back in the 03-04 academic year. So, being literally foreign to the concept of the panel meeting itself, let alone its nuances, I raise my hand at this question.
All of my colleagues stared at me from around the table, the look on their faces was “you’ve been here five minutes, and you have a declaration of interest?” When I had the floor, I naively asked, “what is a declaration of interest?”
The response was, basically, “You’re shagging one of your students?”
Holy crap. In the American university culture, there’s only a few ways you can lose your job once tenured, including disagreeing with the Bush administration, or shagging one of your students. Being trained and professionalized in that culture, I look out on my sea of students professionally: I’m paid by the state to teach them, and that’s that.
Not here. I’ve had a couple colleagues who had to fill out the paperwork (one male and one female). I do wonder, however, if the British approach is more pragmatic as opposed to American morality. Even though I personally can’t entertain the notion, it does happen.
Thanks to my friend Jenaya Dawe-Stotz for bringing this to my attention.

Torture and shaming

[ 0 ] May 12, 2009 |

One possible response.

Revolution!

[ 0 ] April 12, 2009 |

As I blame Strunk and White for adding a year to my dissertation (and thus taking a year of my life), I’m deeply sympathetic with this argument.

Fish on Churchill

[ 0 ] April 6, 2009 |

This seems like a very sensible take. As far as I can tell the charges of academic misconduct against Churchill are very, very thin gruel — as Fish says, mostly run-of-the-mill academic debates about whether the evidence is sufficiently strong rather than more serious or unequivocal charges — and it’s inconceivable that he would have been fired had he not written his stupid 9/11 essay. And however offensive the essay was, if academic freedom means anything it’s not a firing offense.

Why I Study What I Study…

[ 0 ] March 24, 2009 |

Mr. Trend has a thoughtful post about why he studies military dictatorships in Latin America:

But studying dictatorships has a particular oppression looming over it. Environmental destruction, strike-breaking, and war all have really ugly components. Yet, at least to my way of thinking (and I think a lot of people’s more generally), dealing with issues like methodical torture, disappearances, and murders in lop-sided “battles” is really, really hard to deal with. I’m pretty sure every Latin Americanist who studies dictatorships (not just Southern Cone) passes through a phase somewhere in their professional path where they seriously worry, “is there something WRONG with me for wanting to study this?” At least for me, it wasn’t just some passing question I waived off – it ended up involving some pretty heavy moral and philosophical reflection in my second year of my Master’s. And I’ve known many people who started off wanting to study dictatorships, but once they really got into how awful those governments could be, they opted out, choosing to focus on some other issue either topically or temporally (or both).

Trend’s musings spurred a couple of thoughts. First, I’m quite interested in how academics come to study what they study; my recollection from graduate school is that student’s dissertation topics rarely matched up very tightly with what they had intended to study when they arrived. Figuring out how academics ended up specializing in particular topics and subfields is sort of interesting in and of itself.

This inevitably leads to the second question, which is “how did I end up specializing in security and military doctrine.” This has a relatively straightforward answer; I never really outgrew an adolescent fascination with weapons of war. The fascination slept for a while during undergrad, but awoke when I reached graduate school. Consequently, I focused on security studies, and eventually found enough space in the literature to write about how military organizations interact with one another. I credit Group Captain Lionel Mandrake for providing the proximate inspiration for my dissertation.

Anyone have an interesting story about how you came to study what you study?

A Teaching Moment…

[ 0 ] February 24, 2009 |

I normally have a post each semester about what I’m teaching. This semester I’ve let events get away from me a bit, but no time like the present. The courses I’m teaching this semester are Diplomacy 750: Defense Statecraft, and Diplomacy 600: History of Strategic Thought (DIP 600 is a catch all for courses that don’t have their own number).

This is the fourth time I’ve taught Defense Statecraft, and the course has changed a bit each time. I think I revised the list a bit more this last time than previously, in part because I shifted some readings to other courses, and in part just because I wanted to update. For example, I moved Clausewitz from Defense Statecraft to History of Strategic Thought, mainly because I didn’t think the students (about 10 are taking both courses) needed to read Clausewitz twice in the same semester. This has gone okay so far; I’ve noticed several times now that I find references to Clausewitz as I revise and prepare DIP 750 lectures. I exchanged Stephen Biddle’s treatment of the Afghan War for his treatment of the 2006 Lebanon War, which worked out pretty well; both are outstanding, and both make essentially the same point, but the latter is more up to date. I’m using three new texts for the airpower week (including one by Charles Dunlap), and I added a separate week for chemical and biological warfare. I kept the structure of the last five weeks (all of which concern the bureaucratic and industrial components of the defense complex) the same, but changed out most of the readings, in part because I got bored of them and in part because they had become outdated. We’re in week 6 right now, and I haven’t really had the opportunity to regret any of those decisions thus far. We’ll see how the absence of Clausewitz works out for the rest of the course.

History of Strategic Thought is a new course, developed from the concept of an old “Great Books” course that hadn’t been taught at Patterson for many years. This course is reading heavy and lecture light, and I’ve been conducting it as a graduate seminar, which is unusual at Patterson. Thus far, things have worked out pretty well; Thucydides and Sun Tzu were big hits, although Delbruck didn’t work out quite so well. While much of the course focuses on original source material, not all of it does; in a couple of cases I relied on contemporary works (Trachtenberg’s History and Strategy, for example) that did a good job of summarizing a particular body of thought. History of Strategic Thought is a very nice change of pace from Defense Statecraft, and I’ve generally been pleased with the course of the course thus far.

Effort and Merit

[ 0 ] February 19, 2009 |

Aye.

…the key is that these two statements are very different:

Jason Greenwood, a senior kinesiology major at the University of Maryland echoed that view.

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”

Sarah Kinn, a junior English major at the University of Vermont, agreed, saying, “I feel that if I do all of the readings and attend class regularly that I should be able to achieve a grade of at least a B.”

“Putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade” is different than saying “I feel that if I do all the readings and attend class regularly that I should be able to achieve a grade of at least a B.” The latter isn’t really “entitlement”; it’s a description of reality at any major college campus. Most students, in most courses, will get Bs if they attend class, and do all the work. This is as it should be; it’s not as if a campus-wide B average is somehow vile and unnatural.

The Greenwood quote is different. Mere effort never merits a high grade; while I appreciate hard work, it has to result in actual achievement. Even if effort did merit high marks, grading “effort” is, in practice, impossible; how am I to know how hard student X worked on his or her paper? College isn’t third grade, where direct monitoring of student process is at least conceptually possible. I do appreciate the frustration of students who do a lot of work and receive a bad grade, but it’s not a problem for which there’s a satisfactory solution.

Oh Glorious Day!

[ 0 ] January 21, 2009 |

Just found a couple weeks worth of research that I believed I had lost. This means, in effect, that I have accomplished two weeks worth of work before 11am. With that under my belt, time for a beer!

"As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado"

[ 0 ] January 14, 2009 |

I have little to add to what Rob, Dana, or Erik have offered on the subject, but I’d like to grit my teeth audibly for a moment and urge Ezra Klein and others to stop conflating “academics” with “the relatively small number of professors employed at one of the 946 doctorate- and master’s-granting universities in the United States.”

Kids whose parents work at community colleges also “grew up around academics,” as did kids whose parents work at four-year institutions where scholarship is regarded by administrators as a quaint hobby — like collecting equine figurines or roaming the beach with a metal detector — that professors indulge in because they’re never quite abandoned the habits they acquired in graduate school. Dana’s certainly right that for professors employed at schools formerly known as Research-I institutions, teaching likely “won’t matter a hill of beans when it comes time for tenure evaluations.” Applied to the profession as a whole, though, that statement makes little sense. At most schools, teaching and university/community service provide the sole basis for tenure and promotion decisions.

All that aside, the gimmick at Texas A&M — offering $10G as a reward for good evaluations — is a terribly misguided allocation of resources. In immediate terms, it’s little more than an invitations for professors to debase themselves in front of their students. If the administration at A&M were serious about improving classroom performance, they’d invest quite a bit more money in pedagogical training for their graduate students; hiring more professors and reducing class sizes; offering release-time for professors to design new courses; and so on and so forth. But since they’re clearly not serious, this is what they’re offering instead.

To that degree, Klein has the problem entirely backwards. To substitute one sloppy generalization for another, it would nevertheless be more correct to say that it’s not “academics” who hate teaching, but administrators. By their works ye shall know them.

Ezra Klein: Wrong About the Academy, Wrong for America

[ 0 ] January 14, 2009 |

Ezra:

I grew up among academics. And I have never since met a class of people so contemptuous of teaching. You’d think they were being asked to chew mud.

When in the course of making blanket statements based on what amount to personal anecdotes, Ezra should probably pause to consider whether he knows any academics who value teaching. Like, say, me, or Scott. It’s true that some academics are contemptuous of teaching, and that undergraduate education isn’t well supported institutionally in either the production or employment of most academics. However, many (in fact, most) others enjoy teaching, and make every effort to do it well; it’s shocking that people actually try to do well at aspects of their jobs that don’t lead directly to promotion. Moreover, the academics that Ezra grew up among may not have been representative of the profession as a whole; many academics have to worry quite a lot about their evaluations, because they work at institutions that value teaching over research, or because they’ve been forced into a succession of teaching oriented adjunct positions.

As for the substance of the proposal (paying $10000 to some lucky professor on the strength of evaluations), I can say that evaluations (and I get fantastic evaluations) have almost nothing to do with teaching skill or effectiveness. They’re a useful metric for evaluating student satisfaction, but this isn’t the same thing as teaching. Off the top of my head I can think of half a dozen ways to pump evaluations, none of which have a positive impact on student learning. As an academic, I’d be happy to have $10000 floating around the system (maybe the winner would feel generous enough to buy me a beer), but it’s absurd to expect anything useful in terms of teaching outcomes to result from such a prize. Given his wide experience with the academy, I’m rather surprised that Ezra would believe that such a stunt could actually improve outcomes. Measures to improve the training of academics in graduate school would help, as would stronger institutional support for innovative undergraduate education. Indeed, if I had $10000 and was tasked with improving professorial teaching effectiveness, I’m not sure I could come up with a less helpful way of spending it than instituting such a prize.

Also see Erik.

Cross-posted to Tapped.

Ezra responds:

Nor does Rob Farley, who notes that he gets “fantastic” student evaluations, but believes they “have almost nothing to do with teaching skill or effectiveness.” He goes on to say that he “can think of half a dozen ways to pump evaluations, none of which have a positive impact on student learning.”

I’m sure he could also think of a half dozen ways to pump evaluations such that students would enjoy going to class more, and would learn more. A clear class outline put on the projector, for instance, so students could follow the verbal presentation and understand the structure of the argument. An animated lecture style. If these incentives compel some efforts that make teaching better and some that simply make class more enjoyable, I’d consider that a policy success.

Ezra continues to miss the point, on a couple of levels. Sure, better teaching can lead to better evals, but it doesn’t necessarily do so. In fact, (and as several commenters have noted), objectively bad teaching can produce good evals. Most importantly, gaming the eval system is easier than teaching well, which is why an prize based incentive is quite like to produce the former, rather than the latter.

Second, Ezra notes correctly that physical characteristics and personal mannerisms have a large impact on evals. This is quite clearly true; reams have been written on how women have more difficulty getting high evaluations that men, for example. Any construction under which high evaluations receive a prize will inevitably be out of reach for teachers who don’t have these specific characteristics. I may or may not be a fine teacher, but I am 6’1″ and have a beard, which means that I have what amounts to a high evaluation floor. If I were 5’3″, the story would be much different.

Unfortunately, Ezra doesn’t really engage with the critique that student evaluations don’t measure learning outcomes, and as such don’t measure teaching effectiveness. “Give it a try and see what happens” is the last bastion of desperation for the policy wonk who’s been given lots of reasons why giving it a try would be useless at best.

I’m Duly Impressed…

[ 0 ] January 13, 2009 |

The Provost at UK has launched a “War on Attrition”, designed to mobilize faculty around the goal of keeping economically marginal students in school during the recession. In spite of my general skepticism of Wars on X, I think that the goal is a worthy one; a certain attrition rate for public universities is healthy and necessary, but the reasons for that attrition should be related to academics and maturity rather than to economics. Moreover, a recession is precisely when economically marginal students should be in college, because the alternatives aren’t so good. Matt had a good post on the challenges facing college graduates during poor economic times, and I’d assume that the situation is even more dire for non-graduates. And there are, of course, lots of things that faculty can do to help out economically disadvantaged students, such as maintaining non-traditional office hours, being open to alternative assignments, and trying to keep textbook prices down.

Most of all, though, I’m impressed that we’re now naming our campaigns after semi-obscure episodes in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Looking forward to our Suez Crisis…

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