Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The mission and vision thing

Probably the worst-kept non-secret is that the next stage of the institutional evolution of my current employer is to some ill-defined concept of “university status,” which mostly involves the establishment of some to-be-determined master’s degree programs. In the context of the University System of Georgia, it means a small jump from the “state college” prestige tier (a motley collection of schools that largely started out as two-year community colleges and transfer institutions) to the “state university” tier (which is where most of the ex-normal schools hang out these days). What is yet to be determined is how that transition will affect the broader institution that will be the University of Middle Georgia.* People on high are said to be working on these things; in any event, here are my assorted random thoughts on what might be reasonable things to pursue:

  • Marketing and positioning: Unlike the situation facing many of the other USG institutions, the population of the two anchor counties of our core service area (Bibb and Houston) is growing, and Houston County in particular has a statewide reputation for the quality of its public school system. Rather than conceding that the most prepared students from these schools will go to Athens or Atlanta or Valdosta, we should strongly market our institutional advantages over these more “prestigious” institutions, particularly in terms of the student experience in the first two years and the core curriculum: we have no large lecture courses, no teaching assistants, no lengthy bus rides to and from class every day, and the vast majority of the core is taught by full-time faculty with terminal degrees. Not to mention costs to students are much lower, particularly in the case of students who do not qualify for need-based aid. Even if we were to “lose” these students as transfers to the top-tier institutions after 1–4 semesters, we’d still benefit from the tuition and fees they bring in and we would not be penalized in the upcoming state performance funding formula. Dual enrollment in Warner Robins in particular is an opportunity to showcase our institution as a real alternative for better prepared students rather than a safety school.
  • Comprehensive offerings at the bachelor’s level: As a state university, we will need to offer a comprehensive range of options for bachelor’s students to attract and retain students, both traditional and nontraditional. In particular, B.S. degrees in political science and sociology with emphasis in applied empirical skills would meet public and private employer demand for workers who have research skills and the ability to collect, manage, understand, and use data appropriately. There are other gaps in the liberal arts and sciences as well that need to be addressed to become a truly comprehensive state university.
  • Create incentives to boost the residential population: The college currently has a heavy debt burden inherited from the overbuilding of dorms at the Cochran campus. We need to identify ways to encourage students to live in Cochran, which may require public-private partnerships to try to build a “college town” atmosphere in the community near campus. We also need to work with wireless providers like Sprint and T-Mobile to ensure that students from the “big city” can fully use their cell phones and tablets in Cochran and Eastman without roaming fees or changing wireless providers.
  • Tie the institution more closely to the communities we serve: This includes both physical ties and psychological ties. The Macon campus in particular has poor physical links to the city itself for students who might walk or ride bicycles; extending the existing bike/walking trail from Wesleyan to the Macon campus should be a priority, as should pedestrian access and bike facilities along Columbus Road. Access to the Warner Robins campus is somewhat better but still could be improved. More generally, the institution is perceived as an afterthought or alternative of last resort in the community. Improving this situation and perception among community leaders and political figures may require a physical presence in or near downtown Macon, perhaps in partnership with the GCSU Graduate Center.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Forest of the dead

If my Facebook feed is anything to judge by, this interview with political science professor Benjamin Ginsburg on the growth of administrative bloat in American universities has struck a bit of a nerve. Ginsburg advances his thesis in a new book, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, due out soon from Oxford University Press.

Inside Higher Ed reporter Dan Berret summarizes the core of Ginsburg’s argument as follows:

[U]niversities have shifted their resources and attention away from teaching and research in order to feed a cadre of administrators who, he says, do little to advance the central mission of universities and serve chiefly to inflate their own sense of importance by increasing the number of people who report to them. “Armies of staffers pose a threat by their very existence,” he wrote. “They may seem harmless enough at their tiresome meetings but if they fall into the wrong hands, deanlets can become instruments of administrative imperialism and academic destruction.”

On the other hand, anonymous community college administrator Dean Dad coincidentally today attributes much administrative growth to regulation and the expansion of information technology, which is at least partially the case as well.

Both accounts, however, seem to leave out the faculty incentive structures that promote bloat, particularly outside the rarefied R1 air at Johns Hopkins and Cornell that Ginsburg has breathed in his career. Simply put, for most tenured faculty at regional comprehensives and other lower-tier institutions, the only route to a higher salary is to join in the administrative featherbedding. The vast majority of faculty post-tenure don’t have the research record to compete for tenured lines at flagships, even if they had the interest in pursuing such an agenda in the first place, and a move up the status hierarchy into a non-tenured position—effectively starting over—is precluded by norms that emphasize, particularly at top-level institutions, gambling on the potential upside of a newly-minted PhD rather than taking on faculty with demonstrated, but perhaps unspectacular, experience balancing teaching and research.

So, the only way out is administration. For the non-ambitiously-mobile without a research record, an administrative appointment is an easy source for an immediate pay increase by getting a year-round contract (which is not as bad as it may sound, as you still get much of the Christmas holiday off and a paid vacation on top of that, making the “12-month contract” effectively closer to a 10–11 month one), on top of a potential pay increase associated with the position itself, and relief from teaching one or more classes per semester—which, at an institution without TAs, may lead to a net workload decrease even accounting for that associated with the administrative appointment. Recognizing this incentive structure, it can’t be surprising that more than a few tenured faculty spend much of their time dreaming up ways to create new administrative positions—program directorships, assistant chair positions, associate deanships, honors and study abroad coordinating positions—with a view to becoming the first incumbent.

What of the upwardly or elsewherely mobile academic? The same incentives apply to them too. Even if you’re not in it for the long haul, creating your own bailiwick and running it for a few years may just be the line on your vita you need to move to a more desirable position. When a small liberal arts college is looking for a study abroad director, or a regional comprehensive needs to hire an outside chair, the record of a “deadwood associate” just isn’t going to cut it, but if you’ve got a few years under your belt directing a boutique program, you can easily spin the lack of productivity post-tenure in research as a “sacrifice” rather than a personal choice.

Structurally there isn’t much to be done to alleviate this problem, absent a strong will from the top to clearly delineate “administration” (supervisory positions worthy of 12-month appointments) from “extensive faculty service” (positions largely centered on work during the academic year worthy of release time and/or stipends for summer work, but often receiving neither in the current climate) and shift as much of the former to the latter category. But as long as service remains woefully undervalued relative to the time it takes, even non-ambitious faculty will quite sensibly—at least from their own perspective—push back and ally themselves with others with more pecuniary motives.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Silence in the library

Paul Burka at Texas Monthly connects all the dots in Rick Perry’s plan to remold Texas’ two flagship higher education systems. At some level, though, I can’t blame Perry as much as the allegedly-well-meaning liberals down the food chain who spend a lot of time before faculty distancing themselves from Perry’s policies yet implement them (and, worse, hare-brained, half-thought-out extensions of them) with the zeal of a convert. At the flagships at least faculty and campus administrators appear to have grown a pair and recognize the threat Phoenixization/Capellaization of the academy—the ultimate end-point of the Perry agenda—poses; in the relative boonies of the A&M System, not so much.

Update: More here. And today UT’s leadership is at least making the right noises, confirming that at least one university system in Texas isn’t completely tone-deaf.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Another year bites the dust

My sixth year of full-time teaching is now at an end. Overall I think it went well, although I missed my target grade distributions in both of my upper division classes (too tough in Congress & The Presidency; too easy in Political System of the USA). One of these decades I’ll get it right.

I’m now looking forward to a very busy summer, including a conference, AP exam reading, two summer courses to teach, and three or four research projects in various stages from completely unwritten (my APSA paper) to on the verge of journal submission (my Midwest paper with Scott and Adolphus). After all of that, I’ll probably be looking forward to a relatively restful three-course semester with only one totally-new-to-me course, the first semester of graduate research methods.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Once more into the cesspool

P.J. O’Rourke once said that giving money and power to politicians was akin to “giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” But that pales in comparison to the effects of giving an anonymous forum to mentally-teenaged political science graduate students and their hangers-on.

There was a point a few years ago—perhaps even a few months ago—when I believed having a job rumors forum was a necessary corrective to the fundamentally broken hiring process in our discipline. I firmly believe that if we are going to share a discipline of a few thousand people, and if we’re going to work with these people for decades in the future as peers, we ought to treat those starting out on the tenure track with the basic standards of decency we would expect from our own colleagues—and that requires honest, up-front information about the job market and search process as it happens, rather than a few summary statistics a year or two down the road from the hiring season. It is a principle I tried to uphold when we successfully searched for a colleague last year—and given that I still have a job, it was a pretty costless one. Although not one that many of my fellow political scientists have decided to follow, alas.

But whatever the hell is going on over at the rumor site has very little to do with fostering collegiality and openness today. Instead, the site seems to have been captured by an element of jealous, petty individuals who resent the success—or, seemingly more often, revel in the apparent lack thereof—of a small number of graduate students from leading political science programs. Perhaps these students are, to borrow a phrase from a former American president, major-league assholes. Maybe they pick on little kids at playgrounds. I suspect not, but I really don’t know these people (with the exception of Facebook inexplicably offering some of them as suggested friends to me on a regular basis—even though I’ve never met them); it’s rather beside the point regardless.

I freely concede that I am a minnow. I am a threat to no one in the discipline. I get interviews when there’s 13 applicants for a job, not 130. I don’t neatly fit any of the little boxes that define political science as a discipline either—being an “applied methodologist” who studies political behavior seems about as popular as being an H1N1 carrier. On paper, my position is probably just one or two steps above a community college job in the political science hierarchy; in practice, some days it feels like one (albeit without the fun paintball fights). I aspire to jobs that many of these snot-nosed brats wouldn’t even deign to apply for. So maybe I just don’t get why some graduate student’s success at an Ivy would be so personally threatening to anyone else.

I don’t know what the solution is here. Required registration drove down traffic, but it also drove up the level of discourse substantially. Perhaps the only solution is an economic recovery that lessens the perception of the market as being a totally zero-sum game. All I’m certain of is that a website like PSJR as currently constituted that makes me feel the need to shower after every visit isn’t one that’s doing our discipline—or anyone else, for that matter—any good.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

QotD, taking-research-seriously edition

Dr. Crazy on research at regional state universities:

[T]he way in which that often plays out at my institution (and I suspect at many other institutions) is that research is this unspeakable thing which is nevertheless “required.” And since it is unspeakable – i.e., that professors even within the same department don’t really talk about it seriously with their colleagues, that we look at research as a thing we get done in spite of the “real” demands of our jobs – research becomes something that we think of as a distraction or as something that doesn’t demand a high level of achievement. Instead, we see the research “requirement” much in the way that students see “requirements” that aren’t meaningful – and we just do the bare minimum to pass. Further, we pass this way of thinking about research on to our students, who see a research paper as something to be “gotten through” as opposed to something that can be personally and intellectually rewarding. We perpetuate a culture of mediocrity.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Doin' it wrong

A mildly bemusing job ad that came across the wire today:

The Department of Government and Sociology invites applications as Course Redesign Coordinator. This is a non-tenure track, limited term, faculty position with the rank of Lecturer. The term is for a period of two years subject to re-approval and budget in year two. The successful applicant will lead a pilot study to redesign the introductory course in Political Science which is a required course in the university’s core curriculum. The position is responsible for producing an initial design for offering the course to larger sections while remaining consistent with the university’s public liberal arts mission; teaching one large (150 minimum) section of POLS 1150, Politics and Society, each semester; collecting and analyzing comparative data on student satisfaction and performance in larger course settings; supervising a graduate assistant and undergraduate student mentors ; preparing recommendation s for final redesign and implementation; conducting a required Freshman Seminar for departmental majors.

To review: this institution prides itself on its “public liberal arts mission” and excellent classroom instruction. So it is going to hire a non-tenure-eligible faculty member (who may not even have a doctorate) to come in to figure out some way to cram 150 students into an introductory course without any loss of quality. And once they’ve done this favor for the existing faculty, since they aren’t on the tenure track, they will be summarily kicked to the curb.

Somehow I do not expect this experiment to end in a rousing success.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Discussing discussants

Mike Allison and Greg Weeks are discussing the value (or lack thereof) of discussants on panels. Given that one of my major problems with the rising challenge to panels in our discipline, the similarly-poorly-attended poster session, is the lack of discussants, I can’t really concur in whole with Greg’s position that discussants aren’t helpful. I do mostly concur with his advice for discussants, however:

1. Do not try to tie the papers together artificially. There is no point.

2. Keep your comments as brief and focused as possible. No preambles or tangents. The audience did not come to listen to you, unless you are very clearly an expert on the panel’s topic.

3. Don’t whine about how long it took someone to get their paper to you. We’re all busy.

4. If time is short after the last presentation, give it up to the audience Q&A and give the authors your comments privately. Interested audience members very often have better insights.

That said, when I have discussed papers I usually try to see if I can identify common themes and ways the papers speak to each other, in part because I think scholars at the pre-publication stage can often strengthen their papers by looking beyond the literature they’ve embedded themselves in during the drafting process. Sometimes, though, that is futile on “potpourri” panels that often get titles like “New Directions in Research on X.”

Once upon a time (I can’t remember where; possibly at one of the iterations of the job rumors site) I saw a suggestion that took things to the opposite extreme—that panels might be better organized by having the discussant briefly present all of the papers, followed by feedback and discussion from the authors and the audience. It might be an interesting experiment to try, and I think it would certainly be a good test of whether or not the papers communicate their ideas clearly enough to their readers, although I think for it to work effectively you’d need to organize the conference in a way that completed papers would be due much sooner than is the norm in political science—where usually the “deadline” is enforced about as rigidly as most undergraduates would like their assignments’ deadlines to be.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

QotD, deadweight loss of dead trees edition

John Sides on open access in political science:

Every political scientist should have a webpage where ungated copies of their papers and articles are available. Period.

(Alas, mine needs work in this regard, as most of my pubs aren't there in final form, but it will be better soon.)

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Lee Sigelman, RIP

Political scientist Lee Sigelman, probably best known as the past editor of one of the flagship journals of the discipline, passed away last evening. I never met Lee myself (the closest I got was hearing him speak at an SPSA luncheon keynote about a decade ago in Atlanta) but I was well aware of his contributions to our field and to helping to legitimize blogging among political scientists by helping launch The Monkey Cage with several of his GWU colleagues. His contributions to our discipline will surely be missed.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Links that are in no way editorial comments on my employer

These items are presented for your edification without further comment.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

In which I further undermine my tenure case

Prof. Karlson quotes from a Chronicle debate over the question, Are Too Many Students Going to College?, specifically the reaction of W. Norton Grubb of Berkeley:

We do have a moral obligation, emerging from several centuries of concern with equity in a highly inequitable country, to make access to and completion of college more equitable. But rather than proclaiming College for All, we should be stressing High School Completion for All, emphasizing that such completion requires either college readiness or readiness for sustained employment—or for the combination of the two that has become so common.

The whole debate would be valued reading for our political masters, who seem to have a different idea.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Your spring 2010 textbook lists

I don’t have syllabi yet—the plan is to make a few changes to the spring 2009 syllabi but nothing radical—but here’s the list:

For PSCI 2306, Texas government (aka American State Government): Government and Politics in the Lone Star State, 6th ed. We had to pick the same book for all our sections due to Early College High School… and then they put all the kids from ECHS in the same section, defeating the purpose of picking a common book. I was using CQ’s Lone Star Politics before, which I liked and tried to sell my colleagues on using, but the lack of a test bank was the deal-breaker.

For PSCI 3320, Congress and the Presidency: The American Congress, 6th ed.; The American Congress Reader; and The Politics of the Presidency. I’ve been using the CQ Congress books for years but felt like trying something different for Congress, hence the switch to Smith, Roberts, and Vander Wielen’s books. New edition of Pika and Maltese, but otherwise no change on the presidency end, where I only spend a few weeks anyway—really I teach the class more focused on “Congress and Interbranch Relations.”

For PSCI 4320, Political System of the U.S. (which I basically treat as a political behavior class, since we don’t have anything on the books at the undergrad level that covers that stuff): Polling and the Public, 7th ed.; Public Opinion: Democratic Ideals, Democratic Practice; Citizen Politics, 5th ed., and Party Politics in America, 13th ed. I’ve decided to try to cut back on the voting behavior and interest groups material I was including before and focus more on parties and public opinion. This class was the least successful one last time around, in part because I was too ambitious in what I planned to cover. I’m also going to replace the research paper requirement with a couple of shorter papers, which hopefully will work better.

And that’s it; thankfully I’ll be doing my 3-class semester in the spring so I might actually be a bit saner and more prolific here and elsewhere (e.g. OTB) then.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Pedigree bias in academe

Tyler Cowen considers the question of ‘pedigree bias’ in economics and other fields; while he follows up with an article that suggests pedigree bias may not be as pronounced as he initially suspected, nonetheless there is a clear relationship. I would imagine the relationship found in the Klein article would be even stronger if it measured initial hiring decisions, though.

My thoughts on such matter, at least as they pertain to political science, have been blogged previously and repeatedly, so I won’t belabor those points here.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Google search of the day

A literal transcription: “is dr, christopher n. lawrence a good proffesor.”

More surprisingly, Google doesn’t seem to have an answer to that question. So much for its omniscience.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Your well-deserved-Nobel roundup

Congratulations to political scientist Lin Ostrom and economist Oliver Williamson on sharing this year’s Bank of Sweden prize in economics in memory of Alfred Nobel for their work on understanding non-governmental and non-market mechanisms for overcoming collective action problems; Ostrom has garnered the greater attention in my circles, due to her being a political scientist by training (the second to win the Nobel, following Herbert Simon), being one of the pioneering female scholars in the social sciences, and being associated with Indiana University (with which I have what Mark Granovetter might call “weak ties”).

Those with further praise and discussion of Ostrom and her work include Steven Taylor, James Hanley, Mike Munger (who also links a lecture by Ostrom on sustainable development), Ilya Somin, Dan Drezner, Virginia Postrel, Lynne Kiesling, Margaret Soltan, Julian Sanchez, and Alex Tabarrok. Not to neglect the economists, Tabarrok also discusses Williamson’s equally valuable contributions.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

RIP Neal Tate

Via a friend on Facebook comes the sad news of the passing of C. Neal Tate, who was a prominent political scientist at the University of North Texas (rising to Dean of Graduate Studies) before taking on the rather unenviable task of rebuilding Vanderbilt’s political science department in the wake of their bout with receivership earlier in this decade.

I only had the opportunity to meet Neal once, in the context of an APSA meat market interview for a position at Vandy, but in that interaction he was most cordial even though I probably had absolutely no business being interviewed for that position. Even based on that brief interaction, however, I am certain that he will be widely missed by colleagues and former students alike.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

APSA recap

I really don’t have that much to say about my visit to Toronto for APSA; I was a rather bad political scientist when it came to attending panels, so I can’t report on much of the doings at those. Judging from the panels written up at IHE, I can’t say it seems like I missed much anyway. But I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the panel I attended discussing the future of the American National Election Studies was very informative and reassuring, considering that whether or not I get tenure is likely to ride in large part on the quality of the 2008–12 surveys.

Since all three of my official conference activities were, to borrow the colorful phrasing of IHE writer Scott Jaschik, conducted “in the faux privacy of a large room with tables, off limits to journalists,” I suppose I shouldn’t really spill the beans here about them. Suffice it to say I’ve learned enough in the past six years to know that reading the tea leaves of the interview room is virtually impossible—some meetings that have gone “well” in my opinion went nowhere, while some awkward meetings eventually ended with job offers. Hence the vibe that the discussion regarding the position I was most interested went the best is pretty much meaningless.

More likely of interest to readers: here are my photos from the trip on Flickr.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Your day-before-conference APSA links

A brief “I have three classes to teach today” roundup:

I have nothing in particular to add, except to say that most of my conference activities will be off-the-radar in one way or another. But any readers of more-than-passing acquaintance who are interested in coming to a Friday evening “recession-beating reception” may contact me via email for an invite, with the caveat that it’s a BYOB event.

Monday, 17 August 2009

More on office hours

Revisiting a theme from a few weeks ago, Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time ponders the merits of office hours, concluding thusly:

I say that we need to take another look at “office hours.” What do they mean? What are they supposed to achieve? If we are achieving those goals outside of a clearly stated four hours on the syllabus, that doesn’t mean that those efforts should be ignored.

Another serendipitous event—the arrival of a page of boilerplate “policies” to stick in my syllabi, much different from the boilerplate “policies” that I was told to insert last year and modified (apparently) without any input from the faculty—has also helped clarify some of my thinking about office hours.

I strongly believe (and this has been reinforced by discussions with colleagues) that many of said policies, including office hours, exist largely as a punishment for the perceived misbehavior of certain faculty members past and present. Rather than the dean or provost taking said faculty aside and saying “cut it out and behave like a professional adult,” the preferred solution is instead to impose a policy on everyone regardless of their past miscreant behavior, knowing full-well that the miscreants will just misbehave (albeit within the new, arbitrary rules) in the future anyway.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Teaching is a repeated game

John Sides and Inside Higher Ed today discuss a rather, er, innovative approach to grading classroom assessment (gotta go with the Newspeak term)—essentially, rewarding effort, consistent participation, and de minimis competence, and having students be the judge of said de minimis competence.

I have a couple of reactions: first, while this might work with a student body as generally overachieving as Duke’s, I shudder to think what would happen if I handed over control of my gradebook to the median student in my current general education summer classes, who can be best characterized as mildly disinterested in the material at hand. (I can’t say I blame them on this score, either. I hardly was thrilled by gen ed in my undergrad days, even if some of the classes turned out more interesting than I had expected.)

The second problem is located by a professor commenting at IHE who tried something very similar and found it did not survive repeated contact with the student body at my graduate alma mater:

I tried this for several years in the mid-nineties. I found it worked wonderfully—the first time I tried it. The students worked much harder than they ever would have for a grade, and enjoyed the learning experience more, and told me later it was the best class they took in college. But the next semester it worked worse, and it kept working worse and worse for the three or so years I used the system. I kept tweaking it, trying to find a way to restore its original success; but no luck.

I finally realized what was going on: word was out that my class was an “easy A,” and it was attracting all the laziest students. I invariably had one or two motivated students who were there for the novel learning experience, and then a whole slew of slackers who wanted to coast. ...

My project was an overidealistic one, I finally realized (and, gritting my teeth, went back to more traditional grading): I wanted to RELEASE my students’ “natural” love of learning from the bonds in which they had been encased by fourteen or fifteen years of grade-slavery. I love to learn; hence, a love of learning is “natural”; hence, grade-based opportunism is artificial; a conditioned jail; hence, my students need to be liberated from their jails. I realized at some point that my project was actually one of reconditioning my students to be more like me—and that, while it did work in some cases, not only was a semester not a long enough reconditioning period, but the project itself was suspect.

There are some more positive reactions, including one quoted by the author of the IHE piece that… well, you be the judge:

I’ve done something like this with my big undergrad class, ‘Intersections: Race, Gender & Sexuality in US History,’ for years now. They do all the work, at a ‘good faith’ level of quality (earning a check from their TA), show up on time to all classes and participate in discussion sections—they get an A. Grades scale down from there. The greatest thing about it is that many students without previous educational privilege love it and often do extremely well when not being judged in the usual way—reading a book a week, writing response papers every week, and ultimately participating at grad student level. Entitled students who try to skate by on a good prose style do not like it at all.

Once one starts using terms like “students with[] previous educational privilege” to refer to students who complete the required readings, who have bothered to learn the rudiments of writing clear, coherent prose, and who exceed the bare minimum standards one’s TA is enforcing, one may have lost the plot entirely.

Indeed, it is hard not to suspect that the true motivation here lies less in “liberating” students from the yoke of grades (or at least bad grades) than it does in liberating faculty from their own responsibilities to sit in judgment of their students’ work, with all of the potential hard feelings that said responsibility entails. I suppose this is the natural consequence of faculty already abdicating their responsibilities to conduct classes small enough to interact with students—enter the “discussion section,” and your cadre of TAs brought in with little prospect of future employment beyond the fast food industry to keep the students happy while you blog your New Age theories of pedagogy do research. Once you’ve collectively decided you no longer give a damn about teaching, I suppose it’s a very short walk to ceasing to give a shit about assessing student learning either.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Why academics also hate meetings

James Joyner at OTB discusses an article by Paul Graham on why certain classes of people hate meetings; while programmers and writers are cited by name, I also think the complaint applies to academics (many of whom—among the social and hard sciences—are both, compounding the problem). Or, as one of my ex-bosses once put it, work is what we do between meetings.

The article also inadvertently explains why the absolute worst teaching schedule possible for an academic who has a research expectation features 1–2 hour breaks between classes. As currently constituted, my schedule for the fall, with classes at 9:30 (MWF), 12:30 (MW) and 4:30 (MW), seems almost explicitly designed to ensure I will not be productive at all on Mondays or Wednesdays. On the other hand, at least that leaves plenty of time for the other useless academic time-suck—office hours.† (You almost cannot imagine the cheer that went up when we learned that we only have four scheduled office hours per week required next year rather than our current six.)

Update: † For people who haven’t been here before, I hoist the following clarification up from the comments:

What I think is [useless] is the 5 hours and 50 minutes I sit in my office in the average week when there are no students around but—because theoretically a student might appear out of the ether—I could be interrupted at any time, so can’t immerse myself in a project. … [T]here is no reason in this day and age why students can’t simply schedule a meeting with a professor if they really need to meet them one-on-one.

In point of fact, I actually go out of my way to encourage students to visit during office hours or meet with me before or after class if they need to discuss something with me; while I frequently talk to students immediately prior to or after class, the number of unique office visitors I see in a semester is usually countable on one hand. And most of them have already told me they are coming to visit, thus defeating the point of having “drop-in” hours. If anything, I’d prefer it if more students did come to my office hours unannounced, but since virtually none bother it seems like a waste of time for all involved.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Gotta love universities

Margaret Soltan links and excerpts reactions from SDSU and LSU students to their institutions’ abilities to spend ridiculous sums of money on athletics salaries in the midst of budget crises.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Projecting unto others

Timothy Burke revises and extends the argument over PowerPoint in the classroom today (a theme also of previous interest at Signifying Nothing). Echoing Frequent Commenter Scott’s observations in the comments yesterday, Burke writes:

Many of the criticisms directed at information technology in the classroom get hung up on a misattribution issue. Eric Rauchway makes this point very effectively: the problem with bad PowerPoint presentations is often not the software, but the presenter.

The professors who get up and drone their way through slides would get up and drone their way through written notes if you took away the technology. There’s some truth to the point raised by Kid Bitzer in the comments to the Rauchway thread, that PowerPoint exacerbates or aggravates some of the underlying issues that a mediocre or poor lecturer carries into the classroom. Still, dealing with the technology is just a case of treating a symptom, not the disease.

My concerns with this line of argument are twofold: first, while “bad lecturers will be bad lecturers” may be true in relative terms, I think a bad lecturer using PowerPoint will be a worse lecturer—in the sense of perhaps inadvertently getting the students to stumble across the point of the material—than a bad lecturer sans PowerPoint, for the simple reason that PowerPoint’s default passive presentation mode reinforces bad lecture habits. I don’t think I’m a “bad” lecturer*, and I know I am less effective with passive projection than I am without; I almost don’t dare imagine how it would affect some of the more horrific lecturers I’ve had the dubious pleasure of sitting in the room with.

Second, and I think this may partially be explained by differences in student populations served, I think passive presentation tech—and perhaps any presentation technology—reinforces bad student habits by promoting verbatim transcription of slides at the expense of active listening and taking notes of points emphasized by the instructor. I suspect the student population that Burke serves at Swarthmore is far more adept at information consumption than the one I face here and thus able to learn something from a lecture accompanied by a pre-organized screen full of words. I’d imagine the student without that background benefits more taking notes of a slide-free lecture since they have to process the lecture in real-time to separate the wheat from the chaff, rather than what I suspect goes on in PowerPoint world: assuming the “wheat” is what’s on the slide and the “chaff” is what the instructor is saying.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Being passed by the Joneses on their way back down

Lee Sigelman, after a typical lament against PowerPoint, takes note of a new data point in the endless debate:

Case in point: At least at one school (SMU), the dean is trying to talk faculty members out of using PowerPoint and to banish computers from the classroom.

Alas, at the other end of the state the “student-centered learning” fad and the promotion of the overly-teched-up classroom, to better pack the students in and delude them—or at least the accreditors—into thinking they’re getting something vaguely akin to a liberal arts education in a 170-student lecture, continues apace.