This is why nobody is ever going to put me in charge of anything.

26 08 2013

Imagine two companies. The first treats and pays its employees well in the hopes of developing their full potential and making them as productive as possible. The second treats its employees badly, paying them poorly and riding them as hard as possible in the hopes of maximizing production before they quit, at which time those employees can be replaced by other more desperate people. Both these strategies are economically rational. What determines which direction a particular company will take is its culture.

Leaving aside the fact that most universities aren’t companies, which strategy does the current culture of academia suggest? I’d argue (hopefully uncontroversially) that academia has gradually gone from Strategy A to Strategy B over the last few decades. [Hello? Adjuncts?] While Walmart has time clocks and scanners that tell management every item being scanned at every moment,* universities drive their full-time, tenure-track employees with useless bureaucracies created by people with bullshit jobs primarily designed to justify their own wildly-inflated salaries.

What can you do to fight this kind of treatment? “Just say no,” argues Michael DeCesare in a must-read blog post for professors everywhere:

More and more is being demanded of professors. We are told that we must standardize our syllabi and textbook selections; that we must satisfy those aspects of teaching on which the institution was “dinged” by the accrediting body; that we must earn approval from the local institutional review board for any and all research projects, even those that do not involve human subjects; that we must assess virtually everything that we and our students do; and that we must [insert your favorite personal example here]. In short, we must do whatever administrators want us to do.

All of these administrative “musts” come on top of the traditional, truly important job requirements in the areas of instruction, scholarship, and service; namely, teach effectively, present and publish important research, and serve our institution, discipline, and profession. The list of additional “musts,” which seems to be generated annually by administrators, cuts deeply across all three of the traditional areas of faculty responsibility. What eludes most faculty members is that administrators’ requests are often only that—requests. They are rarely “musts.”

It’s not like anything he has to say in that essay is even remotely revolutionary. Indeed, this is the way that industrial relations is supposed to work. Employment, especially academic employment, doesn’t mean you have to kiss your autonomy goodbye.

I actually had the privilege of hearing Michael deliver the paper on which that blog post is based at the last AAUP convention a few months ago. Therefore, I can tell you with certainty that he’s not recommending anarchy. For example, if your administration replaces your department’s 3-page annual review form that takes an hour with a 30-page annual review form that takes a day and a half, just do the old form. The sun will not go dark. The planets will remain in their orbits. Faculty should certainly be accountable for their actions to some degree, but there are limits, and when that limit is surpassed you have to stand up for yourself or you’ll only just encourage them.

You also have to stand up for the interests of your students. “What does this have to do with students?,” you ask. It’s a resource thing, as Chris Newfield explains with respect to the Obama higher ed plan:

Autonomy is cheaper than administration, because you don’t have to pay for a compliance bureaucracy. This is a big deal at universities, whose every interaction with the federal government involves complex reporting on everything from the sports programs to research grants and financial aid. Universities have to pay for this, and they charge students to do it. The Obama plan will only increase these costs, and add to the administrative bloat that is a major source of the cost growth that everyone dislikes.

More bureaucratic costs, of course, mean less resources for actual education.

Since professors are the ones on the front lines of education, we’ll be the ones held to account for our universities’ bureaucratic failures despite our opposition to their creation in the first place. Since we’re in a lose/lose situation anyways, we might as well get used to resisting now. This way, even if we can’t get rid of the entire bureaucracy, we’ll at least have a fighting chance of driving our employers back towards Strategy A before we’re all swept away by a new hurricane of pointless busy work.

* You knew that Walmart is a Big Data pioneer, right?


This is what happens when you put people who care nothing about higher education in charge of higher education.

6 02 2012

I was actually enjoying this article about free, giant online classes until I got here:

The shift from “clock hours” or “seat time” to competency-based learning is just around the corner and much more fundamental to higher education than the explosion of online delivery itself. Awarding credits and degrees based on assessed competencies will significantly reduce time to completion and therefore increase completion rates and return on investment. More important, it ensures that students actually have mastered the set of competencies represented by the degree they have earned. Though not without significant challenges, this approach has the potential to revolutionize degree programs and all of higher education from within.

Competencies again. Who’s going to argue with less pain, same gain? People who actually care about education for education’s sake, that’s who.

After reading this deliberate slight against the very notion of a well-rounded, liberal arts education, I noticed that the author of this article works for a venture capital fund. How, pray tell, Mr. Venture Capitalist, am I supposed to measure competency in history? Are you expecting people to know all of it before they ever arrive in my classroom when I’m still learning new facts myself every day? Of course not, you’re expecting to reduce education down to the lowest common denominator so that you can make money from dismembering my job.

Unfortunately, Mr. Venture Capitalist has many allies in high places. I’ve avoided any comment on the Obama administration’s higher education initiatives until now because I haven’t seen the right opportunity, but this piece (via Zunguzungu) nicely explains what will happen if Arne Duncan and company actually introduce their “race to the top” approach into higher ed:

The carrot/stick approach to college graduation rates won’t work. That is to say, it may superficially work in increasing the raw percentage of degree-holding graduates, but there are myriad ways colleges can game that system:

* Poor and students deemed at risk of dropping out will simply be denied admission in the first place.
* Curricula will be dumbed down on orders from the administration, along with applying even more pressure on professors to not fail students. (I could easily see departments given “graduation quotas” to meet, by hook or by crook.)
* “At-risk” students will be diverted into poor quality Associate’s Degree programs.
* Harsher financial penalties for those who drop out or transfer, to make up for the loss of Federal dollars (e.g. scholarships contingent upon successful degree completion, so if you have to drop out or take a leave of absence your third year, you’re all of a sudden on the hook for the full price of tuition for the last three years).
* We’ll see outright fraud, misreporting, and other “creative accounting” techniques to either give students worthless degrees just to push them across the stage at graduation, or just lie about how many dropped out.

[Emphasis in original]

This kind of policy is the inevitable result of MBA thinking. Tenured Radical was, of course, on this a week ago:

Free market “lite” policies are still free market policies, Mr. President. The cost of higher education, and access to higher education, will not be addressed until the federal government and the states come to terms with what used to be common knowledge in both political parties: education is an investment. It is not a for-profit enterprise. It does not necessarily show measurable returns on that investment. It is something on which a nation agrees to lose money so that it has functioning, productive citizens down the road.

What’s so galling about treating higher education as if it’s just another commodity is that it plays the faculty off against students. We support actual learning while they cater to the “do the minimum necessary in order to get a degree” mentality that makes our job hard enough already. You can’t get excellence without money, and your college education is too expensive not to demand quality. If the “top” in higher education is the cheapest education possible, then the race to the top is the road to ruin. And I don’t mean just for faculty, but for students too.

“Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”

14 11 2011

Yesterday, Historiann explained the “crisis” in higher education with sixteen links. I haven’t made it through all of them yet (though I will), but I think I can explain that crisis just as well with just two.

1. Via Sociological Images, here are the real earnings of recent male college grads over time:

Here are the real earnings of recent female college grads over time:

2. Now consider that alongside this (via Education Week):

President Barack Obama’s goal of once again leading the world in percentage of college graduates by 2020 is impossible without increased implementation of technology in education, said U.S. Deputy Director Steve Midgley today at the Virtual School Symposium in Indianapolis…

Midgley said hitting the president’s 2020 goal will take not only a drastic increase in graduation rates for children currently in the nation’s public schools, but also outreach to people who have already left the school system and do not have a college or even high school diploma. Increasingly, online coursework is viewed as a way to reach those students.

“The only way to hit that goal is to bring people back to the system and provide credentials,” Midgley said. “The only way we’re going to do that is with technology.”

I don’t normally have anything nice to say about economists, but I think they have a point with that whole supply and demand thing. When supply increases, price tends to go down. That means that the more college-educated people you have around, the less likely they are to pull in the big bucks. This is particularly true when economic restructuring limits the number of available jobs in the first place. That fact is not the fault of higher education. It is the fault of the economy at large.

Sending people to college online just because you don’t have the guts to take on the 1% of the population that benefits from mass unemployment isn’t doing anyone any favors, except perhaps for the owners of companies who want to join the 1% through spearheading this transition. In fact, steering the economically desperate towards an expensive inferior product strikes me as nothing but wanton cruelty.

You would think that as the number of available jobs decreased, what you actually learn in college would matter more, not less. Increased knowledge and a track record of success would be the best way to distinguish yourself from the pack. As Historiann explained in her contribution to her own linkfest, students who do better in college should tend to do better on the job market assuming college signifies anything.

Turn college into an entirely online experience, and it will signify nothing. If online classes were just as good as face-to-face classes, nobody would try to hide the fact that they went to online college. They do. If online colleges were just as good as face-to-face classes, they wouldn’t be the higher education of last resort in this country. They are. But the struggle to preserve college from creeping electronic mediocrity is not over!

Higher education should be open to everyone willing to do the work. However, there’s “college,” and then there’s college. There are only so many compromises that professors can make before we dilute the brand “college” beyond all recognition. Otherwise we might as well all wear shirts like Bluto’s because all colleges and universities will be equally useless.

Most Progressives were actually interested in governing.

24 09 2009

Via Firedoglake, I notice that David Broder seems to agree with a lot of right-wing crazies that the (historical) Progressive Movement was somehow wrong-headed. To do this, he quotes and paraphrases someone from the right-wing Hudson Institute in his Washington Post column:

[William Schambra] traces the roots of this approach to the progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when rapid social and economic change created a politics dominated by interest-group struggles. The progressives believed that the cure lay in applying the new wisdom of the social sciences to the art of government, an approach in which facts would heal the clash of ideologies and narrow constituencies.

Really? What about the Prohibitionists? The white slave fear mongers? Heck, I don’t think Jane Addams even fits that description. More:

“In one policy area after another,” Schambra writes, “from transportation to science, urban policy to auto policy, Obama’s formulation is virtually identical: Selfishness or ideological rigidity has led us to look at the problem in isolated pieces . . . we must put aside parochialism to take the long systemic view; and when we finally formulate a uniform national policy supported by empirical and objective data rather than shallow, insular opinion, we will arrive at solutions that are not only more effective but less costly as well. This is the mantra of the policy presidency.”

Historically, that approach has not worked. The progressives failed to gain more than brief ascendancy, and the Carter and Clinton presidencies were marked by striking policy failures.

Thinking ahead is Un-American? Boy are we in trouble then. Besides, look at the history here: seven years of TR and eight years Wilson makes 15 years. That’s an awful lot of time to control the presidency and that figuring doesn’t count the influence of Progressives on the state level. And on what planet can Carter or Clinton ever be considered progressive?

It’s Broder’s criteria for success, however, that I think is most telling. If a movement isn’t ascendant, he thinks it’s somehow failed. Progressivism wasn’t about gaining control; it was about actually making government work for people. What does David Broder have against the Pure Food and Drug Act? The Clayton Antitrust Act? The direct election of senators? The income tax? [I’m sure the Hudson Institute would love to kill that last one, but responsible people would have to come up with an alternative way to make up the revenue and there is none.]

Unsuccessful in their efforts to roll back the New Deal into nothing, the right wing crazies have decided to start attacking the Progressive Movement in order to undermine the case that government can do anything right. Progressives were interested in legislative achievement, not power. They’re being demonized now because they are the original regulators, and when they were around America needed regulation badly. Turn that around and an awful lot of people are going to suffer needlessly.

But just you wait, the more Obama tries to change things for the better, the further back they’ll go trying to undercut the reputation of past reforms. I look forward to the day when Glenn Beck discovers the Articles of the Confederation.

Oh no!!! The pointy-headed intellectuals are running the country!!!

23 09 2009

If America is really being run like a university, then the working class must be the adjuncts. At least President Obama wants to give them health care.

PS to Victor David Hanson: the only people working at most universities who can afford to take three months off every year are the administrators whose jobs won’t allow it.

Barack Obama vs. Disaster Capitalism.

13 07 2009

I seem to have the same argument over and over again these days. Someone of the conservative or libertarian ilk tells me that government intervention in free markets is wrong and that we should have just let all those banks fail. In response, I say something like, “While I wish the takeover was done better, the economic carnage created by such an event would be simply unacceptable.” They come back and say something like, “The market sorts everything out.” I say, “That’s fundamentally undemocratic.”

Only recently did I realize that I was channeling Naomi Klein. This may be the most important part of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism on p. 140:

“It was in 1982 that Milton Friedman wrote the highly influential passage that best summarizes the shock doctrine: “Only a crisis-actual or perceived-produces real change. When the crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend upon the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”…

The kind of crisis Friedman had in mind was not military but economic. What he understood was that in normal circumstances, economic decisions are made based on the push and pull of competing interests-workers want jobs and raises, owners want low taxes and relaxed regulation, and politicians have to strike a balance between these competing forces. However, if an economic crisis hits and is severe enough-a currency meltdown, a market crash, a major recession-it blows everything else out of the water, and leaders are liberated to do whatever is necessary (or said to be necessary) in the name of responding to a national emergency. Crises are, in a way, democracy-free zones-gaps in politics as usual when the need for consent and consensus do not seem to apply.”

Thank goodness the crisis hit before the last election and not after it. Since the Republican Party still needed votes, George W. Bush had to work to keep the system afloat otherwise the newly unemployed would have turned this country into a one-party political system. When Obama became President, he chose not to reach for Friedman’s failed ideas but for Roosevelt’s and for Keynes’ ideas – the ones that actually worked in the Thirties. These ideas not only had a better track record than market-oriented conservatism, they have offered the first opportunity in decades to prove that government can work as long as the people running it actually want it to be effective.

Perhaps this is why the people I find myself arguing with hate Obama so much. Here was a golden opportunity to privatize everything, and he decided to make government work again instead. While we can’t know what would have happened had John McCain and Sarah Palin been elected, imagine what would happen if the Republican Party then continues to rally against Obama’s policies even if they solve (or perhaps even just alleviate) this economic crisis. In that case, this country would have to be nuts to elect any Republican to any office ever again.

Jeb Bush really ought to come up with better insults.

9 07 2009

The good news is that Jeb Bush is distancing himself from using the word “socialist” to describe President Obama. The bad news (via CNN) is that he’s come up with something even more stupid:

Is Obama a socialist?
I don’t know. Define socialism for me. It’s a word… I believe he’s a collectivist. He believes that through collective action, through government, you can solve more problems.

Socialism is pejorative in America, so people stop listening. People are tired of it. That word won’t stick. It’s a turnoff. It doesn’t help.

Collectivist? That’s the ticket! The President is going to round us all up so that we can go work on communal farms.

The funny thing is that earlier in the same interview Bush said:

We haven’t upgraded our message. We haven’t updated it. If you close your eyes and listen to most Republicans, most conservatives, the same speech could have been given in 1990. And you can’t discount that. It’s a pretty important point. If people think our message is outdated, our message is not relevant to the world we live in, and I think a growing number of people may feel that, you lose your relevance.

He believes in his own advice so much that he picked a new insult straight out of the Stalin Era. And honestly, who besides crazy libertarians disagrees with the notion that “through government, you can solve more problems.” Effective government is popular. Destroying government is not.

That’s why the Republican Party is going to be in the wilderness for a long, long time.

Democratic Socialist Party?

23 04 2009

This is a proposed Republican National Committee resolution as excerpted at Think Progress:

RESOLVED, that we the members of the Republican National Committee call on the Democratic Party to be truthful and honest with the American people by acknowledging that they have evolved from a party of tax and spend to a party of tax and nationalize and, therefore, should agree to rename themselves the Democrat Socialist Party.

I officially resolve that the Republican Party rename itself the Know-Things.  For one thing, when exactly has Obama nationalized anything? I think we’d be a lot better off if he would, but I don’t exactly represent most Democrats.

If you have to do assessment, this seems like a pretty good way to do it.

26 03 2009

My department has been deep in the throes of discussing assessment at regularly-scheduled department for some weeks now. As a historian, I used to contend that assessment is evil. As this recent post from RYS puts it so well:

After we developed the learning outcomes, we were told that our grades did not measure whether or not the students had achieved the outcomes. So then we all had to go to special training to learn how to evaluate our students’ outcome-based learning on a grid that lists each student, each learning outcome, and the activity we used to determine whether the student met the outcome. We not-so-jokingly called this The Matrix training.

We were told that we had to do all this because otherwise we would lose our accreditation. We redid every single syllabus in our college in less than a month and then created The Matrix in a couple of weeks. The result is a steaming pile of busy work at the end of each semester to satisfy those who believe that more paperwork somehow equates with quality.

I still think there’s something to this, but if somebody is going to make you assess whether your students are learning anything you might as well try to do it in the least evil way possible. I think David Scobey of Bates College, writing at Inside Higher Ed (via AHA Today) may have something here:

What, then, would a robust assessment practice look like? It would embody the qualities that typify humanities learning itself. It would be iterative: gathering and evaluating portfolios of material from the whole arc of the student’s career. It would be exploratory and integrative: asking students to include in those portfolios materials in which they are not only learning about the humanities in their course of study, but also using it in their civic, ethical, vocational, and personal development.

It would be autobiographical: requiring students to narrate and thematize that development, to frame their portfolios with their own, small versions of Obama’s memoir. And it would be reflective: calling on them at threshold-moments to plan and take stock, to evaluate their successes and failures, and (equally important) to make explicit what they count as success and failure in their education. This last point is crucial: humanities assessment (like humanities learning) is intrinsically dialogical and open-ended. Indeed the sine qua non of a successful humanities education may be precisely that it equips students to discuss and contest the question, “Has my education been a success?” with their teachers and their peers.

While the whole autobiographical Obama thing seems pretty goofy, I think what he means is simply that students should be able to describe the process by which they reached they’re conclusions. Who can be against that?

Granted, you may think that only someone teaching at a college as small as Bates could come up with such a scheme, but Scobey mentions online versions of this already up and running at bigger schools like Portland State. The whole discussion reminds me of the last set of articles I read on re-writing the history curriculum to emphasize skills rather than facts. Stick with factual knowledge as a student learning outcome and there’s no way you can avoid those stupid multiple-choice tests.

As Scobey recognizes, this is not the kind of assessment that makes edu-crats happy:

I am mindful that the model I am sketching is bound to give the assessment reformers heartburn. Portfolios framed (like the pages of the Talmud) by autobiographies, reflection statements, and contestatory dialogue; student work assembled in narratives of meaning-making, rather than being measured as evidence of mastery — this is surely not what the Spellings Commission meant when it called on academics to take assessment seriously. For the reformers want an efficient, transparent, portable metric of effective teaching and learning: a tool that can quantify the value-added of a college education, of skills learned and knowledge deployed, in comparative rankings.

So if someone is going to make you do assessment anyway you might as well do it in a way that suits you and your discipline. At least with this way you’ll have a leg to stand on when you can’t avoid it any longer.

Calvin Coolidge was no Barack Obama.

7 12 2008

The person who put this on YouTube thinks this came out in 1924. Since they didn’t have sound film then, I’m guessing this is Silent Cal’s farewell address in 1928 or 1929. Let’s just say now I understand why he was generally silent:

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