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academe – The Salt-Box http://www.jbj.wordherders.net "A man needn't go far to find a subject, if he's ready with his salt-box."--Uncle Pumblechook Thu, 09 May 2013 17:06:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.1 My 7-yr-old understands the economics of higher ed http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2011/01/03/higher-ed-economics/ http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2011/01/03/higher-ed-economics/#respond Mon, 03 Jan 2011 16:03:15 +0000 http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/?p=402 Continue reading ]]> College costs more than your salary

Sorry it’s been a while: It turns out that simultaneously launching ProfHacker and getting elected union president had deleterious effects on my private blogging. But no more!)

On New Year’s Eve, the 7-year-old spent about 45 minutes putting together a board game version of Life. (Yes, that’s a homemade version of an actual board game, which he’s never played. But his grammy tried to sell him on the iOS version, and so he made up his own. Win!)

My favorite* part of the game is his representation of college (pictured), in which a degree costs $200, but the job you ultimately get only pays you $100. (Yes, he misspells “college”–it’s because he was drunk on sparkling cider for the holiday.) In the course of gameplay, it turns out that that $100 really is all college nets you, so it’s basically worth negative-$100 to have a fun drinking educational experience in your 20s. Welcome to the twenty-teens in America: Where the returns on higher education tuition are diminishing rapidly in the face of stagnant wages and morally shocking unemployment.  This picture will only get worse as state & federal disinvestment in higher education leads to higher tuition, a sort of hidden tax on future generations.

*Ok, my secret favorite part of the game is his representation of the legal system, where free speech costs $20 and being robbed gets you $200, but getting married *costs* you money. I’ve always said he’s a smart kid.

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Professor-funny http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/07/18/professor-funny/ http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/07/18/professor-funny/#comments Sun, 19 Jul 2009 00:23:14 +0000 http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/07/18/professor-funny/ Continue reading ]]> In his mailbag yesterday, ESPN’s Bill Simmons offers up a taxonomy of the different ways athletes can be–or, painfully, not be–funny.  For example:

5.0 — Learned Funny
Humorless people who learn how to be adequately sports-funny in the right situations by mimicking the behavior of others, whether it’s by developing an overboard fake laugh, yelling “Daaaaaaammmmmn!” after someone else makes a joke, repeating funny jokes that other people said first, or making virtual videos of ideas that other people wrote. They can fool you on the right day. Example: Kobe Bryant (for every non-Lakers fan).

This reminds me of a distinction I’ve often talked about with various people–the difference between a professor who’s funny, and one who’s professor-funny.  (I know I’ve written about this before, but I can’t find it.) Unfortunately, the former are wildly outnumbered by the latter.

People who are professor-funny are typically only good at two kinds of jokes: wordplay, and mercilessly unpacking the stupidity of others.   Their humor always has the same message: “Look at how smart I am.”  (A subcategory of ‘professor-funny’ is the panderer–the person who trots out broad comedy simply because “that’s what the kids these days understand.”  That’s just the inverse of the professor who mocks the stupidity of others.)  And, look, who doesn’t love a pun?  And sometimes, well, sometimes people really do stupid stuff, and it’s fun to take it apart.  Colleagues who are professor-funny can almost always make laugh.  But I find an exclusive diet of this humor sickening. It’s like Drake’s apple pie.  I love ’em–but, if I had ’em every meal?

I think students recognize this humor for what it is, and generally aren’t particularly fond it.  To put it slightly differently, while they might laugh at a particular joke, it’s always tempered by the possibility that the prof’ll turn on them next.

Professors who are genuinely funny are harder to sum up–after all, many of them also enjoy puns, or occasionally mocking the ignorant.  But the most salient characteristic of this group is a willingness to tolerate self-mockery, or having the class occasionally laugh *at* them, rather than just *with* them.  It signals humanity, because, as Scott Adams once said, “everybody is an idiot.”  I actually believe that at least *some* heirarchy in the classroom is important, but owning your own idiocy shows the truth: that such heirarchy is temporary and local, rather than, like, ontological.  You’re not claiming to be a better person, just to know more about topic X.

Lord knows there’s no need to be funny.  And if you’re not funny, you shouldn’t try. (There are lots of ways to signal humanity.)  And this is, obviously, a touchy subject.  But if humor is part of your pedagogical toolkit, I do think that there’s something to be said for occasionally letting the students have a laugh at you.  Not all the time, and sometimes the rapport with a particular class just isn’t right–but every now and again.

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As goes California . . . http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/07/14/as-goes-california/ http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/07/14/as-goes-california/#comments Tue, 14 Jul 2009 16:21:53 +0000 http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/07/14/as-goes-california/ Continue reading ]]> The California budget crisis, and its impact on the state’s higher ed system, merit close attention, as well as support where possible.

Right now, one of the best resources is Remaking the University (via Barbara Hui on Twitter), which aggregates news and analysis, with smart commentary on the implications of the various proposals.

I’m not confident at all that current models of state funding are sustainable.  I remember faculty members at William & Mary talking about withdrawing from state funding when I was an undergraduate in the late 1980s/early 1990s–and now things are worse.

Update:  Also via Twitter (this time, Bill Wolff): “NJ state college & uni employees will have 7 unpaid furlough days & ’09-’10 3.5% salary increase deferred till ’11.”

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Why we need to think about PhDs & the job pseudo-market http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/07/13/why-we-need-to-think-about-phds-the-job-pseudo-market/ http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/07/13/why-we-need-to-think-about-phds-the-job-pseudo-market/#respond Tue, 14 Jul 2009 00:32:33 +0000 http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/07/13/why-we-need-to-think-about-phds-the-job-pseudo-market/ Continue reading ]]> This article about Fort Hays State University’s decision to outsource gen ed courses is frustrating an harbinger of doom.  According to the reporter, “the school will accept credits from a private company that runs introductory courses in subjects such as economics and English composition — listing them on transcripts under the Fort Hays name.”  I was especially disappointed to see Carol Twigg, of the National Center for Academic Transformation, essentially endorse the model.  I’ve been to an NCAT conference, and know that they propose using a variety of different classroom structures–hybrid, face-to-face, and fully online–as ways of addressing courses with high DFW (drop/fail/withdraw) rates.  But this goes too far.

A few thoughts:

  • First, this can’t possibly be legit from an accreditation perspective.  If the courses really are indistinguishable on the transcript, then I hope that Fort Hays loses its accreditation.
  • The MLA, 4Cs, AAUP, and AFT need to condemn this.
  • That said, this will be awkward to do because the R-1 university system has for so long relied upon graduate and contingent labor to do the heavy lifting in gen ed courses.  This needs to be rethought.
  • Relatedly, perhaps stories like this will get faculty members to pay attention to the “job market” more seriously.  Who is staffing companies like StraighterLine?  If it’s ABDs and unemployable PhDs . . . well, fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.
  • I would also hope that this is an opportunity for faculty to think about two related problems: self-governance, and the role of faculty at the university.  A full-throated defense of academic life as interweaving teaching, service, and research is absolutely necessary–but such a defense is only credible precisely to the extent such interweaving is both demonstrable and demonstrably useful
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Known-new contract FAIL http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/07/13/known-new-contract-fail/ http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/07/13/known-new-contract-fail/#respond Mon, 13 Jul 2009 17:38:54 +0000 http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/07/13/known-new-contract-fail/ Continue reading ]]> From the AAUP’s “Things to Know Before You Go” page for this summer’s institute:

 There is also a public wireless network available in any building on campus for those with laptops. Please remember to bring your cables. [emphasis added]

Either there’s been a breach of the known-new contract here, or someone doesn’t understand the concept of a “wireless” network. (Because when contractors are ripping apart your house, nothing soothes quite like grammatical snark.)

Snark aside, I am looking forward to this institute!  Apparently I will emerge with the collective bargaining agreement tattooed, in its entirety, on my skin–which isn’t bad, conference-swag-wise.

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Working the bureaucracy http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/07/12/working-the-bureaucracy/ http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/07/12/working-the-bureaucracy/#respond Mon, 13 Jul 2009 04:22:22 +0000 http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/07/12/working-the-bureaucracy/ Continue reading ]]> Seth Godin (via BoingBoing) offers some cogent reflections on “the art and skill of working with bureaucrats,” pointing out that the reason you tend to see the same companies in all the airports is that they’ve optimized for tolerating municipal bureaucracies.

The applicability to working at a public university is left as an exercise for the reader.  There’s the Platonic Idea of a university as it exists in your head, and there’s the university where you actually teach.  A gap probably exists between these two models.  You can:

  1. Complain bitterly about about the gap, or
  2. Figure out how to make the real university work for you.  It won’t be perfect, but it will sometimes be pretty cool.

Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t try to reduce the gap, of course.  But a complex thing like a university will never be what *you* want it to be.

If you walk through door #1, congratulations, you remain pure and intellectually awesome.  Of course, your colleagues probably hate you, and at least some opportunities, for yourself, for your students, and for your campus, will be sacrificed on the altar of your purity.

Door #2 requires a bit more tolerance for the fact that things won’t go “right.”  You won’t get what you wanted, exactly.  But you can still do things that are cooler than you might expect, and you can build on those experiences to do still more cool things.

Arguably related: this CNN.com/Oprah.com article on surviving difficult coworkers.

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Graff & curricular mixed messages in English depts http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/04/13/graff-curricular-mixed-messages-in-english-depts/ http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/04/13/graff-curricular-mixed-messages-in-english-depts/#comments Tue, 14 Apr 2009 02:59:28 +0000 http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/04/13/graff-curricular-mixed-messages-in-english-depts/ Continue reading ]]> Mark Bauerlein posted over the weekend about Gerald Graff’s presidential address (some scrolling required) to the MLA.  The argument will be familiar to anyone who’s read Graff’s Clueless in Academe: The default attitude of many professors is a kind of pedagogical libertarianism, whereby we all agree not to look too closely at what goes on in one another’s classrooms.  In part this arises from our differing specializations (esp. if you’re not at a research school, you might well be the only person in your field in your department), and in part it arises from the real difficulties of evaluating teaching.  Here’s Bauerlein summarizing Graff:

 Graff focuses on the end point, that is, how it comes off to students. They get “curricular mixed messages,” he says, “clashing stories . . . from the faculty.” In the episode above, the student received from Graff and the other teacher contrary assignments, and he was confused. One teacher seemed to “undercut” the other, forcing the student into what may have seemed senseless adjustments from morning to afternoon (“relativists at 10 o’clock and universalists after lunch”).

I tend to agree with Graff and Bauerlein that this is a real problem–not because there should be One True Approach to literary/cultural studies, but because conflicts between approaches are too often buried or unacknowledged.

We can probably turn the screw a notch tighter here:  Part of the difficulty is that we often claim to be teaching the same skill, when in fact the methods involved are worlds apart.

For example: It absolutely kills me anytime I hear or read people say things like, “well, no matter what, we all value close reading.”  That’s either untrue, or what is meant by “close reading” is something so general that it can only mean something like “being prepared for class.”  Most of the time this isn’t that big a deal–if you’re sufficiently upfront about how you’re using a term in your assignments, then students will catch on pretty quickly.  (I will say that this is one of the reasons I call one of my regular assignments an “explication paper,” rather than a “response paper.”)  Sometimes, though, it’s more frustrating: I believe at least some graduate students have had their prospectuses held up partly because of differing assumptions about what “close reading” would mean, or about what it means to apply a theoretical model to a literary text.

This isn’t a point about theory/non-theory approaches.    (Remember, although I play a sane person on my blog, I’m secretly a card-carrying [well, button-sporting] Lacanian . . . ! )  I’d say, instead, that it’s simply worth remembering that the fact that “everyone knows” a term or skill doesn’t mean that everyone knows the same thing about it, or deploys it in the same way.  Ask any 5 psychoanalysts about the death drive, say, or about the interpretation of dreams, if you want an example from another field.

In lieu of an ending, a couple of disconnected points:

  • This infra-disciplinary variousness makes assessment . . . let’s say a challenge.  Say, for example, a department wants to assess how its graduates “read closely.”  Good luck with that!
  • This is probably an argument for prolix assignments/prompts.  I don’t think there’s any reason to think that a rising junior or senior, asked for a close reading of a literary text, will know what that means, because it means too many different things.
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On rules http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/04/07/on-rules/ http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/04/07/on-rules/#comments Tue, 07 Apr 2009 12:28:20 +0000 http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/04/07/on-rules/ Continue reading ]]> “Why Rules Matter,” Gary A. Olson’s “First Person” essay in the Chronicle this morning, surveys the comical sense of “rules for thee but none for me” that operates all too often on college campuses.  I’ll never forget standing in the registrar’s office early one spring semester and overhearing a professor who still hadn’t turned in fall grades explain that, 1) anyone who turned in grades by the deadline was guilty of pedagogical fraud, and 2) she’d wanted to have a relaxing holiday with her friends and family.  Pure class.

Here’s Olson:

 It is not that compassion and flexibility are bad; it is that in violating rules and deadlines, other people might be injured or disadvantaged. A veteran provost I know is fond of saying that a good administrator must be a rule monger, otherwise you invite chaos and injustice. She tells stories of faculty senates or administrative officers creating a rule, and then promptly violating it when that proved convenient. “I would constantly have to remind them that they themselves created the rule, and usually for a good purpose, but they couldn’t simply disregard it,” she told me. “It is as if some people believe that ‘academic freedom’ somehow means that they are free from the constraints of rules and deadlines or that rules are for others, not them.”

What I particularly enjoy–and by “enjoy,” mean, “want to drive a spike through my eye when it happens”–is that all too frequently the rule-breaking isn’t just tolerated, but *celebrated* as an example of good service to students, faculty, or staff.  It’s a particularly nice rhetorical maneuver, because if you point out that, not only was the rule enacted for a reason, and not only did the affected person have plenty of time and notice to comply with the rule, but that breaking the rule potentially screws those people who *did* comply with the rule—then all of a sudden *you’re* the jerk who doesn’t care about student success.  Recently someone on my campus singled out for praise an act of routine rule-breaking–or, I guess, exception-granting, even though it  directly contributes to system crashes during registration.

While it’s true that not all academic deadlines are mission-critical, outright contempt for the rules, or the belief that they don’t apply to us, is toxic.

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Learning from our public schools: What matters in evaluations http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/03/29/learning-from-our-public-schools-what-matters-in-evaluations/ http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/03/29/learning-from-our-public-schools-what-matters-in-evaluations/#respond Mon, 30 Mar 2009 03:14:01 +0000 http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/03/29/learning-from-our-public-schools-what-matters-in-evaluations/ Continue reading ]]> So, this weekend we received a document with two forms: the teacher of the year nomination and a parent survey, largely about satisfaction with the school.  We’re pretty happy with the school, and very happy with the teacher, so no worries there.  (Readers with long memories will recall that I think the district . . . makes poor decisions, but we like our kid’s school.)

The parent survey is labeled “Holmes Brand Survey,” and, after a demographic question about grade-level, the first two questions are . . . wait for it . . . these:

Holmes School focuses on

  1. Leadership
  2. Higher Order Thinking Skills
  3. Science and technology
  4. Global Community

Holmes School’s (motto/slogan/tagline) is:

  1. Raising Readers!
  2. A formula for success!
  3. Launching Leaders!
  4. Scholars at Work!

(The answers, for the curious, are “Science and technology” and “A formula for success,” respectively.  And, yes, the fact that the correct answers have lower-case words is reproduced faithfully from the handout, as if it’s a tell.)

After these critical questions come more usual questions about whether the child’s being challenged, etc.

I hear the Connecticut State University system is redesigning and standardizing our student evaluations–I think we should look to the public schools!  Start all student evaluations (sorry, student opinion surveys [!]) by asking them to correctly identify the motto of the system and of their particular university.*  Because that’s what matters in education: maintaining your brand.


*Every single day it amuses me a little that my school’s slogan/motto/tagline (“Start with a dream. Finish with a future.”) is basically indistinguishable from my father’s community college’s (“From here, go anywhere.”).  I’m *very* easily amused.

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Deploying the iPod Touch in a classroom http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/03/26/deploying-the-ipod-touch-in-a-classroom/ http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/03/26/deploying-the-ipod-touch-in-a-classroom/#comments Thu, 26 Mar 2009 18:58:04 +0000 http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/2009/03/26/deploying-the-ipod-touch-in-a-classroom/ Continue reading ]]> Put the case that you were piloting the widespread deployment of iPod Touches in a classroom.  You can assume the following:

  • Two sections of the same class will be taught in a 5-week period.  For the sake of argument–let’s call that course World Lit I, a 200-level course for both majors and nonmajors.
  • Both courses will teach the same syllabus, and, broadly, the same assignments.
  • In one section, every student and the instructor will have an iPod Touch.  In the other, not so much with the iPod Touch.
  • It’s definitely an iPod Touch, not an iPhone.  No cheating!  (Perhaps your governor has banned new cell phone contracts.)
  • You’re at a regional comprehensive public university.  You can assume the professor’s down for whatever, but you *cannot* magically assume s/he can throw significant amounts of resources at this one class.  (E.g., no fair coding an application in 2 months during a semester.)
  • Update: You can also assume that the default class location has good wireless access, and that the college has a Blackboard/Vista license, and so can support the new Blackboard app.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to accomplish two things:

  1. Showcase the tech, but *also*
  2. Meaningfully assess its utility in the classroom

What kinds of things would you like to see in the class?  What kinds of information would be useful to you in persuading colleagues to adopt / not adopt the iPod Touch?  What might you do to make the experiment a helpful one for everyone?

At present, let’s still call this hypothetical, but let’s also call the question a serious one.

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