Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for the ‘education’ Category

8 Out of 10 Americans Still Crazy

Posted by metaphorical on 30 January 2011

First the good news: The number of Americans who believe that humans evolved over millions of years without God’s active intervention is greater than ever. The bad news: it’s still less than one-sixth the population.

Two and a half times as many—40 percent—hold a strict creationist view that God created humans sometime in the last 10,000 years. The rest hold a hybrid belief that acknowledges evolution while still asserting that “God guided the process.”

Gallup has apparently been asking people since 1982 to choose between

Human beings have developed over millions of year from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process

(1982: 38%; 2010: 38%)

Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part of this process

(1982: 9%; 2010: 16%)

God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so

(1982: 44%; 2010: 40%)

I’m characterizing that squishy middle ground as not believing in the theory of evolution, because the theory of evolution makes no reference to God and describes a mechanism that weighs out the future without a divine finger on the scale. But Americans themselves aren’t so clear on what constitutes a belief in evolution. In 2009, Gallup asked this:

Do you, personally, believe in the theory of evolution, do you not believe in the theory of evolution, or don’t you have an opinion either way?

The result:

On the eve of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, a new Gallup Poll shows that only 39% of Americans say they “believe in the theory of evolution,” while a quarter say they do not believe in the theory, and another 36% don’t have an opinion either way.

Anyway, the split in the more exacting three-way question runs pretty strongly along party lines. A majority of Republicans reject evolution entirely, while only a third of Democrats do; only 8% of Republicans believe in the theory of evolution, while 20% of Democrats do.

Maybe the most shocking stats of all: 22% of all those with postgraduate degrees are strict creationists, 37% of all college grads are. While those numbers are lower than among those without college degrees, given the strong self-selection that probably takes place, it would seem that college changes few minds about creationism. So much for the powerful liberal hegemony in academia.

Posted in education, language, politics, pop culture, religion | 4 Comments »

Let’s take a moment to remember Warren Harding: publisher, senator, rock climber, president

Posted by metaphorical on 4 July 2008

Fifty years ago, President Warren Harding set out to climb El Capitan. It took him 47 days of repeated assaults, but he finally made it.

I think I need a new blog tag, something like “How Stupid Can You Be?” This time the hapless news network is NPR. (Thanks, Rachel, for the link.) Is there really anyone at that venerable organization who thinks that Warren G Harding, the 29th President, who died in office in 1923 at age 57, climbed El Cap? Fifty years ago? 35 years after the hapless Calvin Coolidge succeeded Harding in the Oval Office, because, you know, Harding had, um, died? In 1923?

Let’s try to imagine the process here as some NPR intern somewhere on the East Coast gets a San Francisco Chronicle report that the speed record for climbing El Cap has been broken. (We’ll leave aside why breaking the old record by a mere 2 minutes, or about a 1.2% improvement, is worth reporting at all.)

The Sfgate story lists all the de rigeur stats for a story like this: how many on El Cap, how many have died climbing the particular route that the record-breaking climbers chose, and, with no other distinguishing description, the name of El Cap’s first ascentionist, which happens to be Warren Harding. Warren J. Harding, the sports-car-driving, rotgut-wine-drinking, rock-climbing, one-time land surveyor, not Warren G. Harding, the the former newspaper publisher, Republican Senator from Ohio, and President of the United States.

How little history do you have to be acquainted with to possibly confuse the two Hardings? If the first ascent of El Cap was 50 years ago, it took place in 1958. Let’s make this really simple. If you know nothing else about Warren G Harding’s presidency, could you at least, dear intern, locate it in the first half of the century? You know, the other one, the one that 1958 isn’t in?

I don’t mean, dear intern, you should be able to definitively rule out the idea of President Harding as the man who spent 47 days over the course of two years climbing an impressive but obscure rock face in central California. No, of course not. I’m just wishing your shaky grip on American history could have at least been firm enough to at have gone to Wikipedia and check, oh, say, when President Harding died.

Oh, here’s another request, dear intern. When you sneak back into the HTML and update your story to delete the word “President,” put a little note on bottom saying that the story was corrected. Someone, after all, might have been industrious enough to take a screen shot of your blinding stupidity.

NPR gets it wrong

NPR gets it wrong

Posted in education, journalism, Orwell, politics, pop culture | 3 Comments »

And this is why we need to teach ethical theory in schools

Posted by metaphorical on 22 June 2008

GLASS OF MILK

One day, a poor boy who was selling goods from door to door to pay his way through school, found he had only one thin dime left, and he was hungry.

He decided he would ask for a meal at the next house. However, he lost his nerve when a lovely young woman opened the door.

Instead of a meal he asked for a drink of water! She thought he looked hungry so brought him a large glass of milk. He drank it so slowly, and then asked, ‘How much do I owe you?’

‘You don’t owe me anything,’ she replied. ‘Mother has taught us never to accept pay for a kindness.’

He said, ‘Then I thank you from my heart.’

As Howard Kelly left that house, he not only felt stronger physically, but his faith in God and man was strong also. He had been ready to give up and quit.

Many years later, that same young woman became critically ill. The local doctors were baffled. They finally sent her to the big city, where they called in specialists to study her rare disease.

Dr. Howard Kelly was called in for the consultation. When he heard the name of the town she came from, a strange light filled his eyes.

Immediately he rose and went down the hall of the hospital to her room.

Dressed in his doctor’s gow n he went in to see her. He recognized her at once.

He went back to the consultation room determined to do his best to save her life. From that day he gave special attention to her case.

After a long struggle, the battle was won.

Dr. Kelly requested the business office to pass the final bill to him for approval. He looked at it, then wrote something on the edge and the bill was sent to her room. She feared to open it, for she was sure it would take the rest of her life to pay for it all. Finally she looked, and something caught her att ention on the side of the bill. She read these words ..

‘Paid in full with one glass of milk’

(Signed) Dr. Howard Kelly.

Tears of joy flooded her eyes as her happy heart prayed: ‘Thank You, God, that Your love has spread broad through human hearts and hands.’

There’s a saying which goes something like this: Bread cast on the waters comes back to you. The good deed you do today may benefit you or someone you love at the least expected time. If you never see the deed again at least you will have made the world a better place – And, after all, isn’t that what life is all about?

Now you have two choices.
1. You can send this page on and spread a positive message.

2. Or ignore it and pretend it never touched your heart.

If you don’t get “inspirational” spam like this at least once in a while, you lead a truly blessed life. Meanwhile, I’m sick, not so much of the spam, as the stupidity, bordering on turpitude, of the specific message.

Are we being exhorted to emulate the young milkmaiden’s example because it is virtuous and right, or because we will be repaid just when we need it the most? Is there moral reasoning that goes beyond the pragmatism of simple self-interest?

Christians labor under a similar confusion — Christ’s own messages give mixed signals at best. Should do good things for their own sake, or in order to ascend to Heaven? The argument for our very belief in God’s existence wallows in the same mudbath of unclear thinking. Leaving aside its circularity, we’re told to believe in God else we suffer the eternal fires of damnation. Pragmatism, nothing more.

Dr. Howard Kelly, as far as we can tell, had no inclination to alter his patient’s bill except for her being the person who was generous to him when he was in need. Indeed, that’s essential to the story, because if he routinely wrote down large bills, then the actions of this story become unremarkable, or at least, the story would be entirely about Kelly’s saintly nature, and not the unnamed patient.

How much better a story it would be if Kelly didn’t recognize the name of the town, and had written a hundred times in the past on bills, “Paid in full with one glass of milk,” and this one time — unbeknownst to him — it was read by the woman who gave him the milk.

As it stands, either the story has no point, or Kelly’s actions don’t provide an example we ought to emulate, or—and this seems to be the real message—we ought to take a slightly longer-term view of our own selfish best interests.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s the lesson my erstwhile spammer meant to teach. But his blatant moral confusion shows that he needs a lesson of a different sort anyway—day 1 of Ethics 100, wherein we learn the difference between things that are inherently good and those which are merely good as a means.

Posted in education, language, Orwell, religion | Tagged: , , | 55 Comments »

A Brief History of History

Posted by metaphorical on 3 March 2008

Are students abysmally ignorant? Of course they are. Are they more abysmally ignorant than ever? That’s not so clear. The NY Times is far from the only publication taking a new survey at face value, but it does such an exemplary job of it, let’s start with them.

History Survey Stumps U.S. Teens

By SAM DILLON

Published: February 26, 2008

Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic questions about history and literature during a recent telephone survey knew when the Civil War was fought, and one-quarter thought that Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World sometime after 1750, not in 1492.

The results of the survey, released Tuesday, demonstrate that a significant proportion of American teenagers live in “stunning ignorance” of history and literature, according to the group that commissioned it. Known as Common Core, the organization describes itself as a new, nonpartisan research and advocacy organization that will press for more teaching of the liberal arts in American public schools.

We get the usual litany of teen ignorance: one-fourth failed to identify Adolf Hitler, only 4 out of ten 10
could pick the name of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” from a list of titles, and “only about half knew that in the Bible, Job is known for his patience in suffering.”

It seems to me that in a nation where half of all adults reject the truth of evolution in favor of the six-day theory of creation, the fewer teens who know their Bible the better. But let’s leave that aside.

Arguably the two most serious educators in the new group are its co-chairs, Antonia Cortese, of the American Federation of Teachers, and Diane Ravitch, who now teaches in at the Steinhardt School of Education of New York University but was assistant secretary of education in the elder Bush’s administration. According to the Times, they’re leading the charge against NCLB.

The group argues that President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law has impoverished America’s public school curriculum by holding schools accountable for student scores on annual tests in reading and math but in no other subjects.

But over on the History News Network, Ravitch wrote

I cannot now speak for the board, as the organization is just getting underway and board members have yet to articulate their areas of agreement and disagreement.

The Times later says:

In a joint introduction to their report, Ms. Cortese and Dr. Ravitch did not directly blame the No Child law for the dismal survey results, but argued that the law has led schools to focus too narrowly on reading and math, thereby crowding time out of the school day for history, literature and other subjects.

“The nation’s education system has become obsessed with testing and basic skills because of the requirements of federal law, and that is not healthy,” Ms. Cortese and Dr. Ravitch said.

Yes, certainly Ravitch, and probably the rest of Common Core, take issue with the way NCLB tests knowledge.

However, it is increasingly clear that the law’s relentless focus on raising scores in the basic skills of reading and math has the effect of reducing time for all other studies.

But she also says,

The board of CC is not opposed to testing. We view it as a necessary but not sufficient part of education.

I would prefer to see development and implementation of more thoughtful kinds of testing than those that are now in general use; in particular, I would hope for new tests that call on students to describe, analyze, explain, and demonstrate what they know and can do, not just asking them to pick a bubble.

That’s a lot more nuanced a view than the Times represents. But let’s cut to the chase.

Are things getting worse? And is NCLB to blame? Prof. Ravitch doesn’t seem to entirely think so. She wrote,

it appears to me that the telephone sample of 2007 were somewhat better informed than their parents’ generation of 1986. In 1986, only 32% knew that the American Civil War occurred in the half-century between 1850-1900 (this was NOT a trick question!); now, 43% do. In 1986, 64% could identify the main holding of the Brown v. Board of Education decision; now, 71% can. On most questions of a factual nature, the proportion who answered correctly was either higher or the same, seldom lower. So perhaps the pressure to improve history education over the past 20 years was making some headway.

NCLB is not uniquely responsible for causing loss of knowledge of history. The 1986 survey demonstrates that the problems of “I don’t know” existed long before NCLB.

The Times couldn’t be bothered to compare the 2007 survey with the 1986 results, even though it knew enough of the earlier study to say, of the newer one, “The questions were drawn from a test administered by the federal government in 1986.”

The point of history, the Times, sadly, needs to be told, is to learn from it.

The Times even acknowledged, though it didn’t know what to make of it, that in the 2007 study, “Ninety-seven percent of teenagers correctly picked Martin Luther King Jr.” as the man who said, “I have a dream,” and an astonishing four-fifths of all teens knew the plot of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The lesson seems clear: students learn what we teach them. But the newspaper of record would rather take a swipe at No Child Left Behind in the course of an article that, starting with its headline of “History Survey Stumps U.S. Teens,” mainly consists of blaming the victim.

Posted in education, journalism, pop culture, religion, the arts, Times-watch | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

How low can high schools go?

Posted by metaphorical on 2 February 2008

Have you seen “Dumbing Us Down, The American Tragedy”? It’s a YouTube video that seems to be just going around now, even though it goes back to at least November 2006, when it was posted. It seems to have hit Digg just a couple of days ago.

There are a lot of links to it, but not much information. It was made by Brandon Telg, Jarred McKinney, Austin Woodall, three Gainesville (Fla.) high school students, at least at the time.

Their film takes a quick look at the declining state of education in the U.S. They call it a documentary, but at 13 minutes, its more of an outline of one. Still, they have a very nice mix of anecdote and statistic, and the video is pretty well made, a few easily excused typos and other glitches aside.

Their impetus seems to be a conversation with a history teacher who noticed, by accident at first, that almost none of his students — two of 32, in fact — knew who Gerald Ford was. The teacher later learned that only two of his students knew the name Mahatma Gandhi.

That led Telg, et al., to wonder how extensive the ignorance of their fellow students was. So they asked around to see what people knew of Gandhi. The depressing but predictable answer was, not much. Many didn’t know the name at all, while others misplaced it, such as the kid who thought Gandhi was a Mongol conqueror.

So the three videographers drew up two lists, one of famous names from history — Thomas Edison, Calvin Coolidge, Dick Cheney — the other pop culture stars — Eminem, Paris Hilton, Jack Black, and so on.

It’s hard to fathom the depths of student ignorance on display in the video. Edison was variously thought to be a former president and located in the 18th century by one student who mumbled, “kite, electricity, light bulb” — as if the light bulb were invented in the 18th century. Even Cheney was not universally known, though Eminem was.

They descry standardized testing mandated by No Child Left Behind. They invoke John Dewey, Horace Mann, and Cotton Mathers, and find, in their words, “This generation is witnessing first-hand the disintegration of the original intent of the American public education system.”

As I said, there’s not much information about the video and it’s more cited than discussed in the blogverse. But 24-year-old Daniel H. had some comments I found interesting.

For example, all I knew about Calvin Coolidge was that he was a president… that was pretty much it. I did know about Gandhi and Edison, but only a couple sentences’ worth. Now, I consider myself an intelligent person, but that doesn’t really help much for what would be considered “book learning”. You see, with the current state of our education system, students are learning less and less. I think it started around the time I was coming up through elementary school, and I’m only 24 years old.

In elementary school, I was given a calculator from day 1 and was told to use it when multiplying and dividing. Did we learn our “times tables” ? Yeah.. but we only went over it for a few days before we had a calculator stuffed in our hand. Talking to people even just a few years older than me makes me realize what all I never had in school.

Previous generations had to memory their multiplication table backwards and forwards- I never really did. They learned the presidents in order with facts about each- we barely went over the list once, and certainly didn’t have to memorize it. We never had to learn where all 50 states are in the US and the capital of each (I had friends in high school who thought Alaska was down by Mexico because of concatenated maps)… there are plenty more instances like that.

Daniel certainly overestimates the older generation. I went to some pretty good schools growing up, including the top high school in New York and maybe the country. While we were required to know our times tables up to 12, we never memorized state capitals or presidents. I have a self-selected group of very smart friends online, but of the people I know day-to-day in ordinary life, I might be the only one who can locate all 50 states geographically, another thing I wasn’t required to know growing up.

Anyway, it’s hard for me not to connect the video up with another youth-culture documentarian who this week floated through one of the mailing lists I’m on: Virgil, creator of Booksthatmakeyoudumb.

Basically, this guy looked at college students’ favorite-book lists on Facebook, then correlated them with the average SATs of the schools’ student bodies, to rank the most popular books in terms of the scores. Hence, Books That Make You Dumb. (“Yes, I’m aware correlation ≠ causation. The results are hilarity incarnate regardless of causality. You can stop sending me email about this distinction. Thanks.”)

Here’s the methodology in a little more detail.

Ever read a book (required or otherwise) and upon finishing it thought to yourself, “Wow. That was terrible. I totally feel dumber after reading that.”? I know I have. Well, like any good scientist, I decided to see how well my personal experience matches reality. How might one do this?

Well, here’s one idea.

1. Get a friend of yours to download, using Facebook, the ten most frequent “favorite books” at every college (manually — as not to violate Facebook’s ToS). These ten books are indicative of the overall intellectual milieu of that college.

2. Download the average SAT/ACT score for students attending every college.

3. Presto! We have a correlation between books and dumbitude (smartitude too)!

    Books ~ Colleges ~ Average SAT Scores

4. Plot the average SAT of each book, discarding books with too few samples to have a reliable average.

5. Post the results on your website, pondering what the Internet will think of it.

He takes at face value Facebook’s book names (“The Bible” and “The Holy Bible” are different, for example), and he categorizes the books by simply taking what shows up most for them on LibraryThing. And the methodology itself is probably specious, but the list is pretty interesting. The data itself is fascinating. While I think it’s mostly in accord with expectations, it’s good to see in living color.

It’s pleasing to see how popular 1984, To Kill A Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, and The Great Gatsby are, and that East of Eden, Lolita, Running With Scissors, and 100 Years of Solitude show up at all — heck, I’m even glad that Atlas Shrugged and Anthem show up; as bad as Rand is, you can’t read them mindlessly. (It’s disappointing that The Republic isn’t at least as popular, though.)

As crazy as this project is, it’s worth a look. And given that the Facebook crowd is probably just a few years older than that of Gainesville High School, maybe there’s some cause for hope. At least a few college students have favorite books, and some pretty damned good ones at that.

Posted in education, language, pop culture, the arts, writing | 3 Comments »

Update: Antioch faculty sue

Posted by metaphorical on 15 August 2007

Antioch faculty members sue to stop school’s closing

Wednesday, August 15, 2007
YELLOW SPRINGS — — Faculty at Antioch College filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the Antioch University Board of Trustees, seeking to prevent it from closing the college in July 2008.

The lawsuit alleges the board violated several contractual obligations to the faculty in its June 9 decision to temporarily close the college, including shutting it out of institutional decision making.

Antioch officials first announced the closing of the Yellow Springs, Ohio, college two months ago. (Links, details, and a little bit of history are in my “Farewell Antioch” post at the time. There are also a number of truly first-rate comments there.) The announcement of the lawsuit was made in a faculty news release that doesn’t seem to be online.

A story by WTOL-TV, in Toledo, says specifically that:

Faculty members say trustees violated their contract by shutting professors out of institutional decision making.

You might wonder what chance there is of a good outcome. But it seems there are enough people who care, especially among the faculty and alumni, to provide the human and financial power needed to right the capsized Antioch ship. A court could also pry money out of the other Antioch institutions, reversing the flow that created them in the first place. On a scale of 1-10, I would rank the chances as “hopeful.”

What would be the best outcome? Antioch stays open, governed by people who care about it enough to ensure that it stays open, educates its students in a way consistent with its 150-year-old history and values, and continues to win victories for humanity.

Posted in education | 1 Comment »

Farewell Antioch

Posted by metaphorical on 14 June 2007


“Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” Horace Mann, Antioch College’s first president

As graduating classes go, consider 1860 one of Antioch’s finest. That year, out of a class of 28, Antioch produced among others four ministers, four teachers, four business owners, three lawyers, two college professors, two physicians, a banker, a newspaper editor, and a railroad official. By far its most interesting member was Olympia Brown, a Universalist preacher and a key figure in the women’s suffrage movement.

Olympia Brown was born in Michigan in 1835. Her parents took an active interest in her education, and she had a powerful example in her mother, Lephia Brown, a highly independent woman with a strong belief in the equality of the sexes. At fifteen Olympia began teaching school in her hometown of Prairie Ronde. She wished to attend the University of Michigan, but that institution did not yet admit women. She then enrolled at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, but found its strict orthodoxy in conflict with her already progressive ideas. She subsequently came to Antioch in 1855 and her family moved to Yellow Springs with her.

Olympia developed strong moral, religious, and political beliefs at Antioch. She became an ardent abolitionist, took in the anti-slavery atmosphere prevalent on the campus, and coupled it to her familiarity with the Underground Railroad station her aunt operated in Michigan. Her experience at Antioch tempered an earlier evangelistic fervor she had felt at Mt. Holyoke, and influenced her to become a minister. She came to not believe in the doctrines of endless punishment and predestination that she felt kept so many congregations in thrall. She chose instead to lift up the spirits of Christians by rejoicing in their God.

After graduation she spent three years searching for a seminary that ordained women. Many rejection letters later, she entered the Theological School of St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. In 1863 she received her ordination at a meeting of the Northern Universalist Association in Malone, New York. At twenty-eight she became the Reverend Olympia Brown, the first woman in America to be ordained by a regularly constituted ecclesiastical body.

In 1885 Wisconsin passed a half-hearted suffrage law that provided in part that every woman over twenty-one had the right to vote in any election pertaining to school matters. Olympia reasoned that in a sense all elections pertain to school matters and this interpretation thrust her into the national spotlight in one of Wisconsin’s most celebrated court cases. In a spring 1887 election she and about twenty other women showed up at the polls intending to vote for officers in no way connected with educational matters. Their votes refused, Olympia and the WWSA filed suit against the election inspectors, and won. This landmark decision essentially enfranchised Wisconsin women, but the State Supreme Court overturned the ruling just two months later. Olympia refused to share her colleagues’ bitterness about the defeat, turning her energies to a monthly suffragist paper she started, The Wisconsin Citizen.

J. H. Willis died in 1893, and by that time owned part of the Times Publishing Company in Racine. Olympia bought his partners out, and for the next seven years managed the Racine Times-Call. In 1914 she moved to Baltimore to live with her daughter Gwendolyn Willis, a teacher at Bryn Mawr preparatory school. Six years later the Nineteenth Amendment finally passed, and Olympia Brown, at 85 one of the last survivors of the suffragist leadership, cast her first vote.

Antioch College is closing, the school announced on Tuesday. Inside Higher Ed reported:

Antioch University announced Tuesday that it would suspend operations of its main undergraduate college — which has played a historic role in American higher education — at the end of the next academic year. All of the approximately 40 faculty members teaching at the college will lose their jobs. Antioch’s other campuses, which focus on graduate programs and nontraditional students, will continue.

Antioch was founded in 1852, with Horace Mann serving as its first president. The college played a role in the abolitionist movement and was an early institution to admit students who were women or black. In the 20th century, Antioch was among the pioneers in “co-op education” in which students alternated positions of work all over the country with their education at the Yellow Springs, Ohio, campus. Antioch was particularly notable in that the education was focused on the liberal arts, and the college was known for turning out graduates who went on to play major roles in intellectual life and social activism, people like Clifford Geertz and Stephen Jay Gould and Coretta Scott King.

As it turns out, there’s lots of Antiochs to Antioch University. The school’s About page lists them:

Antioch College, founded in 1852, is part of Antioch University, which includes the Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, New Hampshire; Antioch University Seattle in Washington; Antioch University Southern California in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara; and Antioch University McGregor in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

U.S. News puts the school’s size at 464 but Inside Higher Ed says,

Low enrollment and a small endowment were blamed for the decision. For the coming fall semester, 125 new students had been expected, which would have brought total enrollment to just over 300.

More recently, however, Antioch’s history has been more troubled and sometimes controversial. The campus — designed for 2,700 students — has seen fewer and fewer students. The college’s long association of liberal politics attracted more students in the ’60s than the ’90s, when a policy requiring explicit verbal consent before any sexual act made the college a favorite target of pundits seeking to mock political correctness.

While the university has created campuses from California to New England — boosting total Antioch enrollment to around 5,000 — that development has worried many supporters of the undergraduate liberal arts college. These supporters felt that the attention of the board shifted too far away from the undergraduate institution that once was Antioch.

Essentially, the school invested in all those other campuses instead of increasing its endowment, which is a miniscule $30 million. U.S. News puts the school in its third tier and says tuition is $27,212.

Eli Nettles, assistant professor of mathematics and associate dean of of the faculty, was among the 15 or so faculty members who were on campus Tuesday (during a between term period) and who were told in person that the college was being shut down and that they would lose their jobs.

Even as she faces unemployment, Nettles said that she does not blame the current leadership of the college or university. “We didn’t use our money well 30 or 40 years ago,” she said, and so the college never saw its endowment or fund raising base grow as it needed, leaving the current leaders without any good options. “You cannot be a small liberal arts school that is this tuition-driven,” she said.

Chad Johnston graduated in 2001 and is among the alumni who have been worrying about the college closing and monitoring the situation through a group called Save Antioch.

During his time at the college, Johnston said, he saw the student role in governance diminished, and more authority shifted from the college to the university — changes he said paved the way for Tuesday’s news. “It’s been a downward spiral of college autonomy,” as the university focused more on its far flung campuses, which he acknowledged brought in money. He said it angered him to see the university focus on these regional campuses for financial reasons, while still using the Horace Mann legacy, prominently using a Mann quote — “be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity” — on those campuses’ Web sites, while letting Mann’s legacy in Yellow Springs disappear.

Antioch is about social justice, he said, not making money, so the college should have stayed the institution’s top priority. “Of course it’s a struggle” for the college to manage financially, he said. “But it’s always a struggle to be a liberal arts college and to do some radical things for education.”

Perhaps we no longer need Antioch itself. There are plenty of other small colleges in beautiful, wooded rural areas in America. There are schools that do co-op programs, and ones that let students define their own major. We have, perhaps, enough other places for the next Stephen Jay Gould or Coretta Scott King or Olympia Brown. But if schools like Antioch lose their way, where will all our Chad Johnstons come from?

Posted in education, politics | 10 Comments »

Crossing out words to better see them

Posted by digglahhh on 9 June 2007

What a bunch of melodramatic, self-entitled, historically ignorant whiners white males the conservative punditry are. For example, Often you’ll hear them ask why there is no “White History Month.” The assumption of neutrality causes people to falsely conclude that now Black History Months outnumber White History Months 1 to 0, when in reality, White History Months dominate 11 to 1.

They refuse to recognize themselves as the all-time greatest beneficiaries of policies that have been and still are, essentially, affirmative action. Yet, they have no problem lambasting those who refuse to recognize white people as a “minority.” Yes, there are arenas in which white people happen to make up less than half of some specifically limited segment of the American population. That doesn’t make them members of an oppressed minority.

The specific acts of whining and semantic manipulation I have in mind are their uses of words like “indoctrination” and “objectivity.” Even as they descry the limiting of terms like “oppression” or “victimization” to non-white minority groups, the conservative right is only willing to apply terms like “indoctrination” or “brainwashing” to the teaching or discussion of values that contradict their hegemonic counterparts.

Consider, for example, the way you frequently hear the right accusing professors of indoctrinating students into Marxism or other radical ideologies. Yet when you look at the circumstances of the accusation, almost always, anything beyond the barest of introductions to the subject is considered an indoctrination. We’re left to assume that teachers are obliged to uphold whatever norms happen to exist, as if a student’s social and educational experiences up until that point have been characterized by a non-indoctrinating objectivity. Such a notion is patently false, and either naïve, inane, or disingenuous, depending on the motives of the accuser. Conservative instructors are quick to remind their students that their assignments should give an objective summary based on the facts. The simple fact is, a college professor simply doesn’t have the contact time with a student to indoctrinate to anything but the smallest degree, in comparison to the synergistic messaging of a conumer based, mass media driven culture. I guess teaching people who that bereted silhouette that adorns hipsters’ T-shirts is, and explaining to how he might feel about his image being printed on sweatshop products and worn as an (unintentionally ironic) fashion trend classifies as indoctrination.

It is not the accusation of bias that is bothersome, as it is sometimes true. It is the false dichotomy implied between the subjectivity of university classes, specialized and clearly labeled, by comparison, and the objectivity of a high school class in American History –or Saturday morning cartoons for that matter– that is manipulative. Any perspective that doesn’t contradict, or even one that reinforces the dominant value structure or accepted histories of events are assumed to be objective. But, being subversive is not an essential criterion to the process of indoctrination and objectivity is not something that is relative to an interpretable status quo.

Not every disagreement marks an absence of objectivity. Many disagreements are defined by clashes of subjective interpretations that both hold historical merit.

The ultimate goal of a marketer is for his/her individual model or brand to becoming synonymous to the general product itself. All adhesive bandages are referred to as Band-Aids. Similarly, we have Kleenex, Gatorade, Rollerblade, and White-Out (list as many as you can on a long car trip, it’s fun). To most of our population, “history as written and interpreted by white Christian capitalist men” has simply become, “history.” .

Contrawise, a Marxist interpretation of history it is not any more subjective than the version consumed by the masses; it is just more explicitly labeled. It is always the “other” that is labeled. The non-otherness of the unlabeled is implied. Hence, the Negro Leagues, the colored fountain, working women, diet soda, etc.

Classification experts from Aristotle to Linnaeus to Orwell would tell you these are social and political choices, not scientific ones. A cup that contains nothing but coffee isn’t a cup of coffee, it’s “black coffee,” while one that has been adulterated with milk and sugar is a “regular coffee.” A cousin of mine has coined the term “retronym” for terms like caffinated coffee, unflavored ginger ale, triple-tax-free bonds, etc.

What we should be arguing for in terms of dissemination of ideologies and information through the media and educational system is simple and clear labeling and general transparency. As a member of a free society, I have no objections to the marketplace of ideas or to giving people several different interpretations of world events. But, disallowing false advertising is a precondition of a fair marketplace. When you turn on the nightly news you are getting, predominantly, a white, Christian, capitalist, and male interpretation of world events. That’s fine. What is not fine is that none of those biases are advertised.

Basically, the manipulative use of words like “indoctrination” and “objectivity” run the gamut of Orwellian sin. In his “Politics and the English Language,” he specifically cites “objective” as an example of pretentious diction, which , is “used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.”

When discussing meaningless words, he said,

“Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”

And about the modern political writing of his day, he wrote,

“The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism… The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms…”

Jean Michel Basquiat, who I referenced in last week’s post, famously stated, “I cross out words so you will see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.” Perhaps he was on to something, as most of those who make the type of complaints I’ve been deconstructing read February as “Black History Month,” when in reality it is a lot closer to White History Month.

Posted in digglahhh, education, language, Orwell, politics | 3 Comments »

Clueless

Posted by metaphorical on 8 June 2007

When a clueless Internet user meets a computer hopelessly infected with porn-oriented spyware the result won’t be pretty, but it will be a private few hours of pop-up ridden frustration, annoyance, and disgust. Unless the setting is a middle school classroom. Then it will be a hour of public embarrassment. Unless it’s brought to court by an equally clueless, but aggressive prosecutor. With an equally clueless judge, who disallows the defense expert to present all his evidence. Then, anything can happen, including jailtime. Many hours and days of jailtime. Up to 10 years of it, in fact.

Such was the fate of Julie Amero, a Connecticut substitute teacher, who was convicted in January on four counts of “risk of injury to a minor.” This week the wheels of injustice may have started to grind to a halt. Amero was granted a new trial by an appeals court because the lower court case relied on expert testimony that “may” have included “erroneous” facts.

Back in October 2004, Amero was teaching a seventh-grade class. According to a January 2007 article by Brian Krebs in the Washington Post,

After stepping out into the hall for a moment, Amero returned to find two students hovering over the computer at the teacher’s desk. As supported by an analysis of her computer during the court proceedings, the site the children were looking at was a seemingly innocuous hairstyling site called “new-hair-styles.com.” Amero said that shortly thereafter, she noticed a series of new Web browser windows opening up displaying pornographic images, and that no matter how quickly she closed each one out, another would pop up in its place.

Anyone who has visited a porn site, accidentally or on purpose, using Internet Explorer has had the same experience. Even on a Mac, once the pop-ups start, they can keep going. Kill one, and at least one, often more than one, appears in its place. If you’re adept at closing windows, you can quiet the storm, eventually.

“I went back to computer and found a bunch of pop-ups,” Amero said. “They wouldn’t go away. I mean, some of the sites stayed on there no matter how many times I clicked the red X, and others would just pop back up.”

Amero was anything but an adept computer user. Krebs wrote,

Amero described herself as the kind of person who can hardly find the power button on a computer, saying she often relies on written instructions from her husband explaining how to access e-mail, sign into instant messaging accounts and other relatively simple tasks.

Substitute teachers don’t have many rights, and so it’s not surprising, and merely unfair, that after some students told their parents about the incident, “school administrators told Amero she was not welcome back.” A few days later, however, she was arrested. Writing in late January 2007, Krebs reported:

The case came to trial this month, and computer expert W. Herbert Horner testified for the defense that the images were the result of incessant pop-up ads served by spyware on the classroom computer. The prosecution’s expert, a local police officer, said time-stamped logs on the machine showing adult-themed images and Web pages accessed by the Web browser at the time she was in the classroom proved that someone had intentionally visited the sites by clicking on a link or typing the address into the browser address bar.

the judge in the case barred Horner from presenting technical evidence to back up his claims. Horner on Monday published a summary of the facts he would have presented were he allowed to at trial.

The link has all the sordid details. Krebs also reported that the school’s firewall was out of date and so was the computer’s anti-virus software. “In short, the Windows 98 computer was completely exposed to the Internet without any kind of protection.” The defense had found “two adware programs and at least one Trojan horse program,” which logs showed took up residence on the computer weeks before the classroom pop-up incident.

Amero was apparently to be sentenced this week. Instead, Superior Court Judge Hillary B. Strackbein overturned Amero’s January conviction. As the Norwich (Ct.) Bulletin reported this week,

Strackbein acknowledged further forensic investigation into Amero’s computer at the state police crime laboratory and by the defense team had turned up the possibility of “erroneous” facts presented to jurors by the prosecution’s expert computer witness.

“The jury may have relied, at least in part, on that false information,” Strackbein said. “(Amero) is entitled to a new trial in the interest of justice.”

Assistant State’s Attorney David Smith, who prosecuted the case, did not oppose the motion for a new trial, acknowledging “erroneous evidence,” presented to jurors. He gave no indication if the state planned to move forward with another trial.

That’s great news, of course, but it’s much too close a call. It’s time for software vendors to protect clueless computer users, it’s time for prosecutors and the police to understand how computers work, and it’s time for a wiser court system than we have to slap them silly when they don’t.

It’s also time for teachers and other adults to learn how computers work. If we’re going to put computers in the classroom, a teaching strategy of mixed utility and, so far, mixed—at best—results, then we need for schools to stop just tossing them onto teachers’ desks, expecting them to operate themselves and teach our students. Not even Macs do that.

Posted in education, technology | 2 Comments »

We just don’t give a buck

Posted by digglahhh on 2 June 2007

“Working class people are so intimidated by the museum experience anyway, they don’t feel they can just give a quarter. It’s really unfair.”

That is a quote from a July 2006 NYT article, given by artist and teacher, Jane Kaplowitz regarding to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decision to (stealthily) raise the suggested admission fee for adults from fifteen to twenty dollars.

Last week my girlfriend and I went to the Guggenheim. While we waited on the subway platform, I asked her what the admission was. After saying what it was—an absurd $18—she admitted to purposely avoiding telling me prior to our being on our way there.

Poor and working class people are being priced out of culturally and intellectually valuable experiences, while the chic art world is becoming increasingly intimidating to them. The Met is nominally an exception—its admission fee is a voluntary “suggested” contribution. If you can overcome the intimidation factor of its vaulted ceilings, hushed tones, and moneyed patrons, the only thing between you and fifty centuries of art is the momentary scorn of a ticket clerk as you fork over a buck or two and stand tall, waiting for an entry button that, once inside, looks the same as everyone else’s. Revealingly, the plaques that list the museum’s admission fees used to say “Pay What You Wish but You Must Pay Something,” but they no longer do.

The Museum of Natural History is $10.50 for a student, not including the Planetarium (or the substances needed to get the most out of the experience). The Guggenheim is $18 for adults, but a more reasonable $5 for students, and free for children under 12 (actually it is less than that right now because parts of it are closed for renovation and so the price is discounted.) MOMA is $20 for an adult and $12 for “full-time” students. It is free to children, with a nicely high cut-off age of 16 – but the free rate doesn’t apply to “children in groups.”

This is an utter travesty. The cost of living in New York City is an astonishing 212% of the national average already. The rest of the country clucks its tongue and says, “Well, at least there’s Broadway, restaurants, and all those museums.” For years, the first two have been priced out of the reach of the median New Yorker, but at least museums were easy to get into.

If you claim to value the intellectual and social development of a population, especially children, culture must be made accessible. Defenders of museum admission prices often note they are in line with the cost of a movie or baseball game—which, by the way, they no longer are, especially for children—but wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if a teenager chose to go to MOMA instead of a movie because it was cheaper? In a world of global competition we can’t afford to continually sour our youth on entire fields of human endeavor. The single most important step towards not alienating urban kids from art is to make it an economically sensible alternative to “low culture.” We can’t continue to blame poor people for making unhealthy decisions if they aren’t offered economically viable, culturally healthy alternatives.

Parents have to take initiative too. I often hear parents talk about how their children would rather play video games or watch television than go to a museum or go to the park to learn how to play basketball. Frankly, that is a bunch of bullshit.

Children are not born with these preferences. They are, however, inundated with advertisements from companies seeking their business (directly or vicariously through their parents). Little Johnny is not born preferring a Playstation controller to finger-paints, but he will soon develop that preference if you don’t attempt to influence him otherwise. Those who tell you to let the child dictate his/her own interests do so because they know what those interests will be if the parent takes a hands off approach.

Going back to the original quote, I think it is true that working class people are made to feel out of place in an art gallery. I’ve had friends tell me such. I try to tell them that many of the artists themselves have more similarities to you and me than with the gallery curators. Shit, Jean-Michel Basquiat isn’t mysterious and offbeat to me; his creative expressions were pretty much what would be expected of an artistically inclined, intelligent person who came of age in the 1970s. Alright, maybe he was a little offbeat.

Much of the greatest art produced comes from struggle; the stereotype of the starving artist is based on a reality. Art is a poor man’s medium that has been co-opted by the wealthy in an attempt to own the culture. Look at what is happening with the graffiti art movement. Over the course of 40 years, by its own admission Time magazine has gone from cursing it as “public defacement” to commissioning it for its own promotional purposes.

Many artists feel just as uncomfortable in the chic culture of the art world as prospective working class visitors would.

Elsewhere, museums are often free. Our national museums, most of them in Washington D.C., are free (though increasingly charging for “special exhibitions”). Around the world, museums are mostly free. There’s nothing more liberating than sauntering into the Tate Museum in London for 15 minutes of a lunch hour just to look at a single painting. Even in this country, more and more museums are offering that experience, as the NY Times reported last year. New York is, unfortunately, completely out of step even though, at 212%, it needs more than any other U.S. city.

Infusing the lives of our children with art is a two-way street. The art world must embrace working class visitors and accommodate them socially and financially. The working class must take the initiative to reclaim their relevance within the art world. Creativity is not the exclusive province of the moneyed and suggested donations are not mandatory. Art has been taken away from the common man because he is too shy and self-conscious to ask for it back.

Posted in digglahhh, education, the arts | 5 Comments »

Parenthood, playgrounds, and the age of unreason

Posted by metaphorical on 24 May 2007

How many children are reported missing each year?

According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

The U.S. Department of Justice reports

* 797,500 children (younger than 18) were reported missing in a one-year period of time studied resulting in an average of 2,185 children being reported missing each day.

* 203,900 children were the victims of family abductions.

* 58,200 children were the victims of non-family abductions.

* 115 children were the victims of “stereotypical” kidnapping. (These crimes involve someone the child does not know or someone of slight acquaintance, who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently.)

The use of the term “stereotypical” is fair, accurate, and ironic. We have this picture in our head of a standard kidnapping (consider the word itself!), it’s what we as parents fear, and it happens almost never — 1 out of every 7000 missing kids, or 0.014% of the time. (And the prototypical horror story of “Children are spirited away from amusement parks and shopping centers by kidnappers who alter the appearance of their victims before smuggling them out the exits” is a complete urban legend.)

And yet, we fear it so greatly that we keep tabs on our kids obsessively, we need to drive them everywhere, we won’t let them play by themselves without adult supervision. When I was growing up, in the summer I headed out on my bicycle after breakfast and came home for dinner at night. A parent who let their kid do that today would probably be arrested for wanton neglect. If you think I’m exaggerating, last month a mother of four reported in Newsweek that letting her daughters walk home from school alone required administration approval.

She also mentioned

Australian study that shows that playground injuries have not abated one bit since we began installing these boring, idiotic injury-proof jungle-gyms. It seems that kids take far more risks in pursuit of fun because the playground equipment is so boring when used as intended.

Which, if you remember childhood, is just what you’d expect. While I can’t find the actual study, Newsweek’s mention of it inspired plenty of chatter in the blogverse. One blogger mentioned it favorably, recalled his own risk-laden childhood “before helmets, pads, and hand sanitizer,” and noted he managed to survive. Though he was only adding his own anecdotal note to what was, presumably, a scientific finding, he nonetheless got this comment from someone named paula:

Ed, just because you managed to exit childhood relatively unharmed is not evidence that childhood is basically safe. You just got lucky.

Here’s a final how-many stat from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

How many children have been recovered through AMBER ALERTS?

Since 1997, the AMBER Alert program has been credited with the safe recovery of 308 children. To date there is a network of 116 AMBER Plans across the country.

If you’ve never been around when an AMBER Alert hits, all I can say is, watch out. Every police resource available is instantly redeployed. Television stations flash the alert endlessly, and stay-at-home parents suddenly become a weird posse comitatus for childhood safety. You could probably rob a bank without a bandana if you carefully synchronize your heist with an AMBER Alert.

In that light, let’s look at the stats again. 800,000 missing kids a year, to use last year’s number, and in the last 10 years, 308 kids recovered. That’s a success rate of no better than 1 in 2500 and probably more like 1 in 25,000, or 0.004%. In other words, the program is a complete waste of public resources and a failure of public policy.

We show our disrespect for rationality every day when we overprotect our children; we’re raising a generation of Paulas who can look data in the face and still talk of luck.

Tomorrow marks the 25th National Missing Children’s Day (a thank you to Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute for the idea and the link). Newspapers, television and radio stations, and websites are going to mark the occasion with renewed hand-wringing over one of the country’s big problems. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead we renewed (or at least started) a commitment to accurate risk-assessment and rational behavior?

Posted in education, politics, pop culture | Leave a Comment »

Graduation

Posted by metaphorical on 10 May 2007

[This is an open-letter to the person who asked.]

If you listen carefully, you can hear faint cries from Manhattan, every so often, from 2 May at 4:45 pm, when I turned in my MFA thesis, until 2:30 pm on the 18th, which is Commencement. The cries are pleasure or pain, like a baby’s, or the bouncing ones from the couple in the motel room next door getting it on. They’re pleasure and pain both, the bittersweet realization that school is over. I loved each and every class, and my classmates, and being with them, and I’m going to miss it all.

The literature seminars were terrific, though in an regular university way. A writing workshop class is something else again. There’s the ownership we have in our words, the risks we take in writing them, the way even fiction and poetry are about ourselves, one way or another, and the way the risks are all doubled and tripled when we show others work that still in progress…. It all makes for something that’s part encounter group, part martial arts.

Bittersweet as well was the thesis reading last week. For three days, Thurs/Fri/Sat, we each read 350 words from our theses; 30+ per night, almost 100 in the program in total. Two hours a night, snack food, beer, wine, an intermission, it was very pleasant. Last year apparently they had a longer time limit, and crammed it into two nights that were marathons of 5 and 4 hours.

350 words is not enough by half when you’re choosing them, but it turned out to give a real taste of what people did in their thesis and to let you know which ones you really wanted to go to the library and read (one copy of the thesis will be in the New School library forever). They were funny and fun and sad and revealing and sometimes the words soared high above and exploded like fireworks, and sometimes they hit you as if you had tried to catch a football with your ribcage.

I was put next-to-last on Friday night and couldn’t decide between two choices. My advisor wanted me to read one the end of Chapter 1, which is about a day of ice climbing. The other choice was the beginning of Chapter 3, about my climbing partner Crazy Mike.

The Crazy Mike selection would be easier for people to understand and it had a killer image in the first paragraph, the kind that blinds you like a camera-flash and lingers, making it hard to hear what’s next. It also ended with a great list, and writers love lists (because readers love them). It had a character who was a real character. Basically, it showed a lot of what I learned in the program and it was well liked in workshop.

The ice climbing passage had some drama, emotions, some nice images, and was about climbing, which was a huge plus. In addition, it went, as my advisor, the writer Susan Cheever, put it, from the particular to the general, which she said always worked. It didn’t workshop nearly as well.

Even at the intermission I, I was undecided. I asked Susan again, and again she said the ice climbing piece. I was still unsure. Finally, I said to myself that she knows what she’s talking about. She’s written book after book, she’s given hundreds of readings, she just finished a book tour where she had to decide what to read. She knows what works, and why the hell was I asking her if I didn’t think she knew best.

I brought both versions to the podium, looked up, said my name, adjusted the microphone, and decided to trust Susan. As I was reading, I knew it was going well. I was slow, I was clear, I was quietly animated, I was standing just the right distance from the microphone. I could barely look up at the 200 or so people sitting there—I hadn’t practiced the ice climbing piece, so I had to really look at it. The one time I remember raising my eyes I saw, in the front row, three faces listening intently—the head of the program; my final-semester workshop teacher; and the head of the fiction program.

I sat down to applause, shaking. (The next night I would talk to the person who I think had the absolutely best reading, a poet named Liesel, who described how much she shook after reading.) I looked over at Robert, the head of the program. He was waiting to make eye contact with me and smiled and nodded. I smiled back and looked to his right. My workshop teacher smiled and nodded. Then the head of the fiction program, who didn’t know me even by sight, did the same. The next night she would stop me as our paths crossed during the intermission, clasp my arm lightly, and tell me how much she liked my piece.

Thanks Susan. What I didn’t realize until afterwards is that it was the right choice because it was the risky choice; it was the believe-in-yourself choice.

A lot of people aren’t going to the recognition ceremony our part of the school is holding next week, nor the university-wide Commencement, the day after, so there was a strong sense on everyone’s part that this was our real graduation. In a sense, we were done last Wednesday when we turned in the thesis, or when we read from our thesis, or not until Commencement, but I know that, when Robert said, at the end of the thesis readings on Saturday night, “Congratulations,” that’s when it was really over for me.

I was graduated (sweet!) and we would never be together again (bitter), not for classes, or readings, or the bar after; we would see each other, but not in groups, not as fellow students, not with our writing raw and our selves turned inside-out, exposed to one another as if an experiment in collective open heart surgery. I miss it already.

Posted in education, language, writing | 2 Comments »

Happy birthday, Thomas Huxley. You won your debate, just not here, not yet

Posted by metaphorical on 4 May 2007

I would rather be the offspring of two apes than be a man and afraid to face the truth.
— Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)

Today is Thomas Huxley’s birthday and I’m sure he’s been spinning in his grave from the moment last night when three hands went up in what passed for a debate among 10 Republican candidates for president.

The YouTube link is here. Even though seeing’s believing, here’s the NY Times transcript of this new low in American politics.

MR. VANDEHEI: Senator McCain, this comes from a Politico.com reader and was among the top vote-getters in our early rounds. They want a yes or no. Do you believe in evolution?

SEN. MCCAIN: Yes.

MR. VANDEHEI: I’m curious, is there anybody on the stage that does not agree — believe in evolution?

(Senator Brownback, Mr. Huckabee, Representative Tancredo raise their hands.)

SEN. MCCAIN: May I — may I just add to that?

MR. VANDEHEI: Sure.

SEN. MCCAIN: I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also.

By the way, an interesting thing seems to have happened at the NY Times, when it comes to the three names.

As best I can reconstruct after the fact, Katharine Q. Seelye at the Times blogged the event while it was happening.

In her original version, the three weren’t named, though they’re there now. And so at 9:13 a commenter asked, “who were the idiots to raise their hands for not believing in evolution?” At 9:19 came the question, “Who are the ones that raised their hands they don’t believe in evolution? There were several.” And at 9:26 another said, “I hope the NYT or someone puts up a list of who exactly put up their hands to indicate they didn’t believe in evolution.”

The names, as I say, are in the text now, in square brackets, and appear as a note in the transcript, as above. They also appear in the Times’s main article on the debate, which got an opening-page photo, but the text begins on page 20 (it also has a different name in print and on the Web): ” ’08 Republicans Differ on Defining Party’s Future.”

Thomas Huxley, you’re remember, was Charles Darwin’s stand-in and pit-bull during the debate with Archbishop Samuel Wilberforce that, for England at least, settled the issue of evolution almost 150 years ago. (Samuel is the son of the abolitionist William Wilberforce, subject of the play Amazing Grace, currently on Broadway. Huxley was the grandfather of Aldous of Brave New World fame.) That it could still be alive today is shameful.

After reading The Origin of the Species, Huxley wrote to Darwin:

And as to the curs which will bark and yelp — you must recollect that some of your friends at any rate are endowed with an amount of combativeness which (though you have often & justly rebuked it) may stand you in good stead — I am sharpening up my claws and beak in readiness.

In their debate, Wilberforce famously “ridiculed evolution and asked Huxley whether he was descended from an ape on his grandmother’s side or his grandfather’s.” Huxley’s answer is recorded by posterity in the quote above, but, as a very nice Huxley biography notes, “Huxley’s own retelling of the tale was a little different, and quite a bit less dramatic:”

If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence & yet who employs these faculties & that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.

Where was Huxley on the stage last night as three simians posing as candidates raised their paws? Where was the outrage from seven other candidates as a mockery was being made of 2000 years of scientific progress? What was wrong with them that they are afraid to face the truth, afraid to face lunacy and call it what it is.

Some say the three candidates have rendered themselves ineligible to lead the nation; I say all 10 have. I can see where the phrase “presidential timber” comes from—the lot of them are all dumb as wood.

Posted in education, Orwell, politics, religion, technology, Times-watch | 7 Comments »

Write on, right on

Posted by metaphorical on 1 May 2007

I’ve just downloaded Near the Lewis & Clark Trail, a master’s thesis “Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of the Requirements for the degree of Master of Fine Arts in The Department of English by Chad Husted” back in December 2001.

Here’s another one, God Knows What’s in These Weeds a collection of poems by Kristin Lynn Abraham, who was graduated by West Virginia University in the spring of 2006.

As I sit and write this, two copies of my master’s thesis sit on my desk at work, having been velo-bound at a local Kinko’s. One copy is destined for the school library, the other stays with the Creative Writing department. Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll leave work early, drop it off at the department office, then go over to an apartment on Charles Street, where one of my fellow students is having an open house to celebrate.

Most of us there, fiction writers, non-fiction writers like myself, poets, and the handful of people in the writing-for-children program, will then start submitting chapters from our theses, or variations of them, to literary and commercial magazines. For almost all of us, the thesis represents the bulk of what we’ve produced for the past two years, and for many of us, these will be the first short stories, personal essays, poems, and books that we will get published.

That’s how it will go for those of us at New School University, but for Chad and Kristin and many other students in creative writing programs around the country, it didn’t, and won’t, go that way. Their schools have what’s called an ETD (electronic thesis and dissertation) requirement.

At schools with ETD policies, each and every dissertation and thesis goes up on the Web, rendering them unsubmittable for further publication. As Beth Kaufka and Jennifer Bryan write in “The Case Against Electronic Theses,” published in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers,

When a writer’s work is made available in electronic form to the public, it is considered published.

(Poets & Writers doesn’t put up its articles on its website; here’s a link to the abstract.)

Opponents of the ETD policy believe it renders creative writing in a thesis relatively useless for publication by forcing authors to relinquish first electronic rights, which most commercial and literary publishers demand.

Kaufka and Bryan are MFA students in fiction at Bowling Green State University, which publishes the prestigious literary journal, Mid-American Review. (The New School publishes a literary journal too, LIT. It’s less prestigious, but it did have a bit part in the recent movie, “Words & Music.”) Like me, they’ll be graduating later this month.

The two authors and their classmates dodged a bullet when the Bowling Green students, and eventually the writing department faculty, convinced the school’s Faculty Senate that the ETD policy should exclude MFA theses. A 5-year delay exists now, and it may be made 10 years.

Other schools have in-between policies. Some do ETD by default but let students opt out. Some, such as the University of Central Florida, wait one year and then put theses and dissertations on-line.

Kaufka and Bryan argue that that’s not enough. In fact, they argue that Bowling Green’s 10-year delay isn’t enough.

According to records of students who graduated from BGSU in the past thirty-eight years, 64 percent of graduates published their first book after more than five years, while 43 percent took more than ten years. If the ETD policy remained, the majority of graduates would miss out on such book contracts.

Kaufka and Bryan acknowledge the benefits of ETD, especially in the sciences, and even the existence of some benefits for creative writing students, but think the differences outweigh any similarities.

Other disciplines work toward the dissemination of knowledge and greater research possibilities, writers produce artwork.

They quote Jeanne Leiby, a professor at the University of Central Florida and editor of its Florida Review literary magazine, as saying,

The university doesn’t take the canvases of their painters upon graduation. Why would they take the “canvases” of its creative writers?

For my part, over the next month, I’ll be sending out two chapters to literary magazines. I’m glad the New School hasn’t gone the ETD route, and wish the best of luck to my fellow MFA students in their fight against a rule that seems to have been implemented with no regard for its unintended consequences.

Posted in education, writing | 8 Comments »

Political correctness and Virginia Tech

Posted by metaphorical on 24 April 2007

The other day, Digglahhh closed a comment by saying

I’d like to thank our junior high English teachers in advance for reacting to this story without sufficient expertise and ensuring that we will not produce another Edgar Allen Poe or even Charles Bukowski.

Now comes news, via Inside Higher Ed, of such an overreaction. As it happens, Digglahhh couldn’t have been more wrong in the details: it was a college, not a junior high school; it was the administration that overreacted, not a teacher; a teacher was the victim of the overreaction, not a student. Yet Digglahhh’s point is made, though it has to be said that many of the facts of the case are somewhat murky.

First let me point out that at least one regular visitor found Digglahhh’s point confusing, not without justification, so let me first say what I understand it to be saying. It’s that the first impuse for many junior high school English teachers is going to be to report to the authorities or otherwise quash any student whose writing was at all weird or different. In this way, a future Poe or Bukowski would have his or her wings clipped, one way or another, say with Prozac, public humiliation, or expulsion.

With that understanding, let’s take a look at what happened at Emmanuel College last week.

Emmanuel College last week urged all professors to talk to students about the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech. One adjunct who did so for about 10 minutes — but not in the way Emmanuel envisioned — was promptly fired and barred from the campus.

The teacher was Nicholas Winset and it was an accounting class, of all things.

Winset’s course was in financial accounting and he brought up Virginia Tech Wednesday because the Boston-based college was urging instructors to discuss the situation to reassure students. Winset, who is in a transition from a business career to one in academe, said that he tells students on the first day of class that he’s not the most formal of professors and may swear in class from time to time, and that if they aren’t comfortable with that, other sections of the course may be better. On Wednesday, he said that he started class by saying that there would be an exercise related to Virginia Tech.

Here’s the rest of Winset’s version of his story.

During a period of about 10 minutes of discussion about Virginia Tech, Winset said he picked up a marker and made a “bang bang bang” noise, and that a student made a “bang bang” noise back at him. During the discussion, Winset said he told students that “his heart goes out” to the victims’ families, but that he didn’t agree with the idea that this is a national crisis for students.

He said that students do not face a real danger of being killed by a mass murderer any more than they are in danger of being hit by lightning. He said his students were scared by the Virginia Tech killings, and that’s because people who run places like Emmanuel and the national press like to focus on tragedies like the one last week, rather than talking about issues like rape or AIDS, which pose real dangers to many college students but don’t tend to make CNN much. Further, he said that he suggested that press accounts of the victims have focused on those viewed as most photogenic and tragic (which he said has a strong correlation with being white in American society). He told his students, he said, that if all of the victims had been poor, minority individuals, press interest would have been lessened.

The risks of a Virginia Tech event probably is an appropriate topic for an accounting class, though maybe not financial accounting. It sounded a bit crazy to me, until I remembered my own days of college teaching. It’s hard not to discuss, at least briefly, the events of the day, if they’re big enough news. I remember talking about the Iranian hostage crisis in a introductory ethics class in 1980. Of course, you can discuss almost anything in an ethics class.

Anyway, here’s the important thing.

Winset said that the college never asked him what had happened in class, but that he suspects that the reports the college received about it came from a student who is failing. (A college spokeswoman said that Emmanuel tried to call him on Thursday and Winset, who was away from his home number on Thursday, said that when he arrived Friday, he had messages from late Thursday afternoon and his dismissal notice.)

The college, for its part, has this to say.

Emmanuel first released a statement saying that it responded to “an inappropriate incident” in which “an adjunct faculty member made statements regarding the shootings at Virginia Tech University which prompted students and parents to contact the administration with complaints.”

It’s astonishing that a school would dismiss a professor without any kind of hearing, or due process, or at least getting the professor’s version of the facts. I can remember serving in the Student Senate of my undergraduate school; the rules of the school, which heavily favored the faculty and the administration in administrative matters, still required a hearing before a student was expelled. Can it really be a member of the faculty —even if merely an adjunct member of the faculty—does not receive the same right, or at least courtesy?

There was more to this statement, but I want to get to two other things first. The school issued a second statement:

This statement said that Winset “was dismissed because he was reported by several witnesses to have violated the standards of conduct and civility we require of all members of the college community. According to students in his class, Mr. Winset staged a dramatization during a financial accounting class, mimicking the shootings at Virginia Tech and disparaging the victims as rich white kids combined with an obscene epithet. He did not do this as part of an open debate with his students. His insensitivity toward the students who were murdered at Virginia Tech expressed during class time, but far afield from the subject matter of his course, and his use of obscene and discriminatory language which is not tolerated from students, faculty or staff at this institution, led to his dismissal from his adjunct position.”

The school has turned the spin machine to its highest setting, if it were a blender the dial would be pointed to “Puree.” Of course there’s another side to it:

Winset’s students are angry — not about his lecture, but about his removal. Peter Muto, a sophomore business management major, said he wasn’t at all offended by the discussion, and wonders why more students weren’t asked for their views on what happened that day. “I have numerous friends in the class, and none of them took offense to this, nor were any of them scared or freaked out,” he said.

Who’s right, the administration or Muto? Who knows?—and that’s precisely the point: in a classroom situation with ambiguity—and most classrooms are rife with ambiguity, both good and bad—each side can put its best face on when describing what happened. That’s why we have quasi-judicial processes.

Emmanuel also released a statement from the head of the Faculty Senate, who, sad to say, is in the department of philosophy.

“This is not an issue of academic freedom. In my 38 years at Emmanuel College there has never been a case in which academic freedom has been violated. In fact, Emmanuel has a broader sense of academic freedom than many institutions since we encourage the discussion of controversial issues in all of our disciplines — as long as the discussion is carried out in a fair and civil manner. This was decidedly not the case in Mr. Winset’s class. Creating fear and anger in his students with outrageous and disrespectful behavior and language is clearly about power. In no work place would such behavior be tolerated.”

Winset “objected to the language in Wall’s quote,” saying

Wall’s reference to Emmanuel as a work place was telling. “They think it’s a business and if you offend the clients, you’ve done something wrong,” Winset said. “Well it’s not just a work place. It’s a university, and universities are different.”

Let’s turn back, finally, to the continuation of the very first statement by the college.

The statement went on as follows: “Emmanuel College has clear standards of classroom and campus conduct, and does not in any way condone the use of discriminatory or obscene language by any member of the college community. Emmanuel College, like other colleges in the country, cannot tolerate any behavior or action which makes light of or mimics the terrible tragedy at Virginia Tech. At Emmanuel College, the well-being of our student body is a primary concern, and the action taken, which was to dismiss the adjunct faculty member, reflects this belief.”

It’s a pretty revealing thing to say, and the heart of it is the idea that Emmanuel College, cannot tolerate any behavior or action which makes light of what happened at Virginia Tech.

If that’s true, it’s arguably a position that the school is entitled to take. But it’s also a position that others are entitled to judge the school on, making it a place that Winset is likely to never want to teaching at again. (According to the article, he’s already taken an adjunct position at another college.) It also makes it a place that students ought to think twice about attending. Students already there might be best off staying there. But high school students considering Emmanuel ought to take this into account; if they’re comfortable with this kind of—it really seems to be the right term for it—political correctness, so be it. Many, hopefully, will not be.

Posted in education, language, Orwell, philosophy, politics | 6 Comments »

Vote for a girl like me

Posted by metaphorical on 8 April 2007

Back in January I mentioned the movie short “A Girl Like Me.” The filmmaker, Kiri Davis, is one of three finalists for a $10,000 scholarship sponsored by CosmoGirl.

If you haven’t watched the movie, you can see it on YouTube, here, or you can view it before voting on the Cosmo site, here.

Thanks to Susan at ReadingWritingLiving for blogging about the vote, and I’m pretty sure her wonderful site is where I first heard about the film. As Susan writes, “It’s a sad, powerful and moving piece of work.” It’ll break your heart, in fact, and then mend it again when you realize that we live in an age when an extraordinary 16-year-old girl could make a movie like this, and that we can help her keep making them for a long time to come.

Posted in education, politics, screenwriting | 1 Comment »

Does that noose come in a size 4?

Posted by metaphorical on 1 April 2007

By now almost everyone in the blogverse probably knows the Kathy Sierra story. It’s raised all kinds of important questions of misogyny and computer-based social interactions. The deeper questions, though, of male-dominated culture, feminism, and even what some people call “the rape culture” are largely still unexplored. It was hard for me not to think of them today when I saw a front-page story in the NY Times, “For Girls, It’s Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too.” The connection between them is a stretch, but I think it exists.

Kathy Sierra is prominent journalist and blogger who writes about marketing and how computer and network technologies are changing the relationship between products and users. It’s not normally the stuff that inspires talk of rape and death threats but in her case it seems to have, enough so that she canceled a conference appearance and blogged about why she did so.

The issue has jumped from the blogverse to the likes of Wired and Salon, and then even to CNN, which will feature it sometime Monday morning.

Before it jumped the shark the Sierra imbroglio had, for many people, raised important questions about misogyny in general and the extra umph it’s given by the anonymity or pseudonymity that is almost the default setting on the Internet. (For CNN, it has apparently raised little more than a personality showdown between Sierra and one of the site-owners of the hate-messages, Chris Locke, who, helpfully for CNN, goes by the nickname RageBoy and briefly maintained a blog at meankids.org. Locke’s response is here.)

The Salon analysis, by Joan Walsh, is an especially interesting contribution. As a journalist and a woman who blogs on tech matters herself, Walsh is of two minds, well respresenting the thoughtful middle ground of the debate.

Is there really any doubt that women writing on the Web are subject to more abuse than men, simply because they’re women? Really? I’ve been following the Kathy Sierra blog storm, thinking I had nothing new to say, but the continued insistence that Sierra, and those who defend her, are somehow overreacting, or charging sexism where none exists, makes it hard for a mouthy woman to stay silent.

I say this as a mouthy woman who has tried for a long time to pretend otherwise: that Web misogyny isn’t especially rampant — but even if it is, it has no effect on me, or any other strong, sane woman doing her job. But I wasn’t being honest. My own reactions and those of others to the Sierra mess served to wrestle the truth out of me, and it wasn’t what I hoped.

I avoided writing about the mess for a day or two because I had mixed feelings about it. Ever since Salon automated its letters, it’s been hard to ignore that the criticisms of women writers are much more brutal and vicious than those about men — sometimes nakedly sexist, sometimes less obviously so; sometimes sexually and/or personally degrading. But I’ve never admitted the toll our letters can sometimes take on women writers at Salon, myself included, because admitting it would be giving misogynist losers — and these are the posters I’m talking about — power. Still, I’ve come to think that denying it gives them another kind of power, and I’m trying to sort that out by thinking about the Kathy Sierra mess in all its complexity.

The NY Times article is about what it calls “amazing girls,” the high-school versions and, presumably, precursors of the supermom model so popular in recent decades.

Esther and Colby are two of the amazing girls at Newton North High School here in this affluent suburb just outside Boston. “Amazing girls” translation: Girls by the dozen who are high achieving, ambitious and confident (if not immune to the usual adolescent insecurities and meltdowns). Girls who do everything: Varsity sports. Student government. Theater. Community service. Girls who have grown up learning they can do anything a boy can do, which is anything they want to do.

But being an amazing girl often doesn’t feel like enough these days when you’re competing with all the other amazing girls around the country who are applying to the same elite colleges that you have been encouraged to aspire to practically all your life.

An athlete, after all, is one of the few things Esther isn’t. A few of the things she is: a standout in Advanced Placement Latin and honors philosophy/literature who can expound on the beauty of the subjunctive mood in Catullus and on Kierkegaard’s existential choices. A writer whose junior thesis for Advanced Placement history won Newton North’s top prize. An actress. President of her church youth group.

And, for all their accomplishments and ambitions, the amazing girls, as their teachers and classmates call them, are not immune to the third message: While it is now cool to be smart, it is not enough to be smart.

You still have to be pretty, thin and, as one of Esther’s classmates, Kat Jiang, a go-to stage manager for student theater who has a perfect 2400 score on her SATs, wrote in an e-mail message, “It’s out of style to admit it, but it is more important to be hot than smart.”

“Effortlessly hot,” Kat added.

Let me start with my own admission that more than once I’ve looked at a woman, say, speaking at a tech conference, and thought “Wow, she’s cute,” in a way that I’ve never thought about a male presenter. Now, women can have those thoughts about men, and certainly the distance between those thoughts and “fuck off you boring slut … i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob” is measured in lightyears, not meters. But they are endpoints of a single continuum.

Certainly not everyone is smart, and it’s important that high-schoolers feel good about themselves in lots of different ways. But being hot conflicts with being smart, for women, in an important way. Men are surprised, all to often, when an expert is an attractive woman. And for all too many, all too often, even when not fatally distracted by a bit of cleavage, the meaning and import of a woman’s words is diminished by the mere fact that she is an attractive woman. And that’s only where it starts.

Out at the other end of the continuum, there’s a picture of a noose and the blog comment, “the only thing Kathy has to offer me is that noose in her neck size.” Somewhere along the way to that point, being hot becomes more important than being smart; somewhere down frm that, distraction becomes, apparently, a feeling of being threatened. And eventually it becomes unacceptable that an attractive woman also be smart.

The death threat that crystallizes in a some man’s mind first formed itself around thoughts we think of as perfectly innocent, or nearly so. It starts with thoughts and words we call “juvenile” and “sophomoric.” It starts, all too often, in high school.

Posted in education, language, politics, technology | 16 Comments »

Colleges: one size fits some

Posted by metaphorical on 31 March 2007

Back in July, the president of Trinity University wrote an article, “For Graduation Rates, Time to Carve a New Yardstick” that argued that the using graduation rates to assess a college might work for some, but doesn’t for all.

In debates about accountability in higher education, few data points are as frequently misused as graduation rates. Graduation rates measure attendance time, not outcomes, predicated upon a narrow cohort of “traditional” students (fewer than 25 percent of today’s undergraduates) who start as full-time, first-time freshmen and graduate within six years at the same institution. Aside from traditional transfer students who are unfairly characterized as “dropouts”(even if they complete degrees on the same timetable elsewhere), this statistical blind spot is also biased against older, part-time students and many female and minority students, who are more likely to have the personal and financial challenges that accompany extended time to graduation. Millions of such students do complete their degrees, albeit on a “non-traditional” timetable and following a more circuitous collegiate pathway.

And as a one-size-fits-all criterion of quality, it’s unfair and counterproductive.

Unfortunately, graduation rates have become surrogates for institutional quality, factoring significantly in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. While graduation rates are agnostic about learning, they reveal much about the homogeneity of a given group of students. As Robert Zemsky points out in Remaking The American University: Market-Smart and Mission-Centered, economically wealthier families with higher parental educational rates will seek out institutions with high graduation rates, assuming that those rates mean academic quality. The continuing critical mass of high-achieving, high-income students keeps the graduation rate high.

Trinity is a women’s college in Washington D.C., a city with a majority minority population, so to speak. It’s a largely poor and black city, that is, with the D.C. area looking like an extreme version of white-flight: the white and well-to-do live in suburban counties of Maryland and Virginia like Loudoun, Fairfax, Howard, three of the richest counties in America.

Most of Trinity’s undergraduates are “nontraditional” — even those who are between 18 and 22 years old. Largely self-supporting, they work substantial hours, often caring for children and elder parents. Sixty-five percent are Black, 15 percent are Latina. About 95 percent receive significant amounts of financial aid. For those who returned to school in their 30s and 40s, the choice to resume their studies arose from an overwhelming desire to succeed intellectually and professionally. These women are not “dropouts.” 

If these students do not graduate in four, five or six years, it’s not because they are deficient, or because Trinity has failed them. Rather, life happens — spouses get ill or leave, babies come along, parents need help, jobs change. I think of Gwen, who raised seven children during the 13 years she took to earn a Trinity baccalaureate. This past spring, she proudly walked across the stage with her master’s degree. Gwen is a great success story, but like Verna and millions of others, she is invisible to the policy makers who want students to go through college the way they did.

Why does this matter? Because among the many ways in which the Bush administration has been gutting this country’s institutions like a fish is an obscure attempt to undermine the college accreditation process.

Inside Higher Ed does a good job of trying to make clear what the administration is doing, though the accreditation process is a thoroughly convoluted as well as obscure one. There’s also a bit of an inside-baseball aspect to the way the story is told that speaking for myself, limited my understanding of it.

The gist of the story is clear though. Margaret Spellings, the U.S. Secretary of Education, convened a Commission on the Future of Higher Education. In September 2005 it reported out its findings. There seems to be a consensus in academia that there were some good things in the report, and quite a few bad things. Critics have charged that the report calls for a much greater federalization of the U.S. university system than has ever existed.

One of the key mechanisms maintaining the loosely-organized national system we have today is the accreditation process, whereby accredited colleges and universities are understood to all live up to some minimum level of quality and to, within limits, allow transfers of students and course credit from one accredited institution to another.

The Department of Education this week conducted a three-day meeting to negotiate “possible new regulations on higher education accreditation.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in education, politics | 2 Comments »

Show me the money

Posted by metaphorical on 29 March 2007

If we want better educated young people, a generation who can read well and write well and and find Iowa and Iraq on a map, we may have to—I know this will come as a shock, so brace yourself—pay for it.

There’s been a big trend toward teaching writing skills in colleges, both in separate writing courses and labs, and while teaching the subject matter of individual disciplines, a phenomenon known by various names such as “Writing Across the Curriculum.”

Lord knows it’s needed. I remember grading test papers 30 years ago and seeing students who could fill a bluebook with things that started with capital letters and ended with periods, but didn’t contain grammatically well-formed sentences in between—sometimes not a single one in an entire exam. According to my nephews, things have not greatly improved in the intevening time.

Yet teaching writing, both in its own right and across the curriculum, takes instructors and other resources. In other words, it takes money.

Inside Higher Education reports that the average workload of the instructors on the front lines of the fight for a literate generation coming out of school— community college composition instructors— is 50 percent above what it should be. And for almost 30 percent of all such instructors, it’s double what it should be. Here are the numbers.

Results of a national survey – released at a session during last week’s annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication—found that those who teach writing at community colleges have a mean of 94 students a semester. The conference – a division of the National Council of Teachers of English—has guidelines that state that no faculty member should be teaching more than 60 writing students a semester – and fewer if the students have remedial or other special needs.

Not only has the norm started to greatly exceed desirable levels, but significant numbers of instructors are teaching well above the mean. The survey found that more than 20 percent of writing instructors at community colleges teach between 111 and 130 students each semester. And 9 percent report teaching 131 to 150 students a semester.

I assume that these instructors have a workload of 4 classes, since that would mean that the recommended level is 15 students per class. That seems reasonable when teaching undergraduates. My experience in an MFA writing program is that 8 students is ideal, 10 is fine, and 12 is pushing it. That’s at the graduate level, where papers are much longer and arguably you need more time for nuanced consideration of what makes for the difference between good and great.

So leaving the idyll of grad school and dividing by 4, we get a real-world average of 23 or 24 students. Two out of ten classrooms have 28-32 students, and 9 percent are even more crowded than that. You can’t really teach much good writing even at the lowest of those numbers. I’m not even sure you could teach a good class in social psychology or cost accounting with that many students. Let’s remember what a writing class involves: lots of writing by the students, which means lots of feedback—reading and editing and commenting and office hours discussions.

Composition professors say such limits are essential because good writing instruction – especially at colleges where many students may not have received adequate instruction in high school – is intensive, involving constant assignments that need to be graded promptly so students can learn from mistakes and advance.

As the article suggests, the pressure on colleges, especially community colleges, would be less if students came out of high school with more—more in the way of writing skills, that is. As the NY Times reported this week, it turns out high schools are working on it. But it takes—you guessed it—money.

States and school districts nationwide are moving to lengthen the day at struggling schools, spurred by grim test results suggesting that more than 10,000 schools are likely to be declared failing under federal law next year.

In many districts across the country, the trend has taken hold. In Miami, 39 schools that are farthest behind have added an extra hour to the school day, as well as five days to the school year. In California, the small West Fresno district, with some of the lowest test scores in Fresno County, added an hour more of school a day for students in the fourth to eighth grades.

The reference to “grim test results” should be a red flag that what’s at issue is No Child Left Behind. Sure enough,

The surge of interest has been spurred largely by the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires annual testing of students, with increasingly dire consequences for schools that fall short each year, including possible closing.

Pressed by the demands of the law, school officials who support longer days say that much of the regular day must concentrate on test preparation. With extra hours, they say, they can devote more time to test readiness, if needed, and teach subjects that have increasingly been dropped from the curriculum, like history, art, drama.

Let’s just linger for a moment and notice the Orwellian terminology. Regular instruction is now “test preparation.” Test preparation has taken time away from what we used to call high school instruction, which is now thought of as “test readiness.” If every moment of every school day is geared toward tests, it’s not hard to see why Johnny can’t read Dickens or even Salinger well, and, obviously, students who can’t read well won’t write well.

But let’s move on, because the point is moot. We aren’t even giving schools the money to do “test readiness” well.

Money also has proved a big obstacle. Murfreesboro, Tenn., experimented with a longer day, but abandoned the plan when the financing ran out, said An-Me Chung, a program officer at the C. S. Mott Foundation, which does education research. Typically, she said, lengthening the school day can add about 30 percent to a state’s per-pupil spending on education.

Karen Kay Harvey, an assistant secretary of education for New Mexico, said that the state could not afford to do more. Adding the equivalent of one extra day of school a year for all students could run from $3 million to $5 million, she said.

I wish the Times had looked into these numbers a little, instead of taking them at face value. For example, are any schools extending the day with study periods in which students do homework assignments and special projects. They could be staffed with, say, the better college students who could provide tutoring and other help and might enjoy making work-study wages mentoring instead of stacking dishes in the cafeteria? And wouldn’t that be less expensive than extending classes themselves by a few minutes?

Such a system would relieve the burden on single parents and double-income parents who get home at dinnertime and spend much of the evening overseeing homework. It seems at least worth trying.

Even that, of course, would take money. And apparently we’re going to have to find it somewhere, because one way or another, expanding the school day is the direction things are going.

“In 15 years, I’d be very surprised if the old school calendar still dominates in urban settings,” said Mark Roosevelt, superintendent of schools in Pittsburgh, which has added 45 minutes a day at eight of its lowest-performing schools and 10 more days to their academic year.

Posted in education, Orwell, the arts, writing | 29 Comments »

Lies, damn lies, and college rankings

Posted by metaphorical on 13 March 2007

“In other words, in the absence of real data, they will make up a number.”

We know there’s lies, damn lies, and statistics. Sarah Lawrence College is tired of the lies, and they’re not going to participate any more. Naturally, they’re going to be punished. It just stands to reason.

In this scenario, the lying statistics are the SAT scores used by the U.S. News & World Report college rankings. It seems that more and more colleges aren’t using SAT scores in their determinations of which applicants to accept. But in order to not upset their U.S. News ranking, they are making SATs “optional.”

The result is a statistical advantage of the “damn lies” sort. As Inside Higher Ed puts it,

When applicants learn that a college is SAT-optional, it doesn’t take an 800 math score to figure out the statistically wise strategy. If your scores are at or above reported averages, submit them. Otherwise, don’t. Not surprisingly then, many colleges that go SAT-optional experience both a surge in applications and an increase in their SAT averages … and their U.S. News rankings go up.

Sarah Lawrence decided it didn’t want any part of that. In an op-ed piece in Sunday’s Washington Post, the school’s president, Michele Tolela Myers, explained:

Two years ago, we at Sarah Lawrence College decided to stop using SAT scores in our admission process. We didn’t make them optional, as some schools do. We simply told our prospective students not to bother sending them. We determined that the best predictors of success at Sarah Lawrence are high school grades in rigorous college-prep courses, teachers’ recommendations and extensive writing samples. We are a writing-intensive school, and the information produced by SAT scores added little to our ability to predict how a student would do at our college; it did, however, do much to bias admission in favor of those who could afford expensive coaching sessions.

The school is doing just as well as it ever did; incoming students measure up just fine against earlier ones. “Their average high school grades, high school ranks and grades in Advanced Placement courses have not changed,” Myers wrote.

But this principled decision has put us in jeopardy. I was recently informed by the director of data research at U.S. News, the person at the magazine who has a lot to say about how the rankings are computed, that absent students’ SAT scores, the magazine will calculate the college’s ranking by assuming an arbitrary average SAT score of one standard deviation (roughly 200 points) below the average score of our peer group.

In other words, in the absence of real data, they will make up a number. He made clear to me that he believes that schools that do not use SAT scores in their admission process are admitting less capable students and therefore should lose points on their selectivity index. Our experience, of course, tells us otherwise.

One option is to just stop playing the U.S. News game entirely. Sarah Lawrence has considered that. But there’s a stiff price to be paid. Myers says,

several faculty members and deans suggested that perhaps it was time to stop playing ranking roulette and opt out of the survey. A few colleges explore this option each year, but most don’t follow through (Reed College is one of the few exceptions I know of), because, like unilateral disarmament, unilateral withdrawal from the U.S. News ranking system is dangerous.

I don’t know if you’ve seen USN&WR lately. It’s as skinny, compared to its heyday, as the abbreviation is compared to spelling out its whole name. The college ranking gig is one of the few things it has going for itself. According to a Folio article back in 1993, in 1992, “the ad-page battle of the newsweeklies, an annual contest between Time and Newsweek, has yielded a surprise winner – U.S. News & World Report.” By 2004, it was “the struggling bottom player among the big traditional news weeklies.”

I should mention that my alma mater, SUNY’s College at Geneseo, is a winner at the U.S. News game of statistical roulette. Over the course of the 1980s, Geneseo steadily rose so that now it consistently ranks among the top mid-sized colleges, private or public. It happens to have done it the hard way, by creating a tough, humanities and science based core curriculum that was a a magnet that attracted serious, smart students and repelled those who are not.

But no matter how well U.S. News has done by Geneseo, you have to admire Sarah Lawrence for preferring no stats to lying stats. Naturally, no honest deed goes unpunished. Hopefully, though, U.S. News will get theirs, as word spreads that its numbers are thin as its ad pages.

Posted in education, journalism | 13 Comments »

 
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