Introducing ‘Sounding Board’

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

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Sounding Board

It’s time.

Over the years, I’ve commented occasionally on specific cases of what I call ethics failure, and others might call scandals. Mostly, I’ve done it when asked by this or another media outlet—and it has sometimes surprised me when something I thought was problematic went unnoticed, or at least unnoticed as an ethical issue. But now it feels to me as if there is a need for extended, visible conversation about ethics and institutional integrity in higher education — in the colleges and universities that make up this opaque industry, and in the larger society that supports and relies on it.  Like 9/11, like the financial collapse, Penn State changed everything.

I think we all feel that in some way. After the news broke of the alleged, now confirmed, child rape at Penn State and the myriad individual and organizational failures that followed, I wrote a commentary for this publication, and then did not send it in. As an observer of institutional behavior, I wanted to see what the reaction was from those involved, both closely and by association. When the verdicts came, I wrote another, and for the same reason did not send it in. I was, I am surprised to say, still waiting. Beyond this, withholding those articles was the beginning of thinking that it was not enough to comment after-the-fact; it feels too much like trying to treat a preventable disease at an advanced stage, like trying to get the proverbial horse back in the barn. I began to feel that, like ethical behavior itself, something more active—and proactive—was needed.  We needed an anticipatory ethics.

Hence this blog. Sounding Board is a forum for readers to ask questions and seek advice or a third-party perspective on any topic, issue, or problem of ethics, whether one that involves you personally, such as an ethical dilemma or challenge to your personal ethics; one that you confront as an institutional manager or supervisor; observe as an organizational or institutional member; or one that you are just curious about as a participant or interested party in the larger field of higher education. The primary purpose of the blog is to facilitate a conversation around reader questions and reader-raised requests for commentary or perspective, in the process revealing the sometimes unexpected ethical content and complexity of seemingly day-to-day decisions. However, as it seems appropriate, I will comment independently on current events and write posts on particular aspects of ethical reasoning and behavior that I have come to think matter.

Do you have a question or comment that you wish to make anonymously?

Type it here and click Submit.

So here is my formal invitation, to everyone from students and administrators at all levels to policy makers and the public: ask me anything that you are thinking about, perhaps struggling with, related to ethics and integrity in higher education. The reality is that every domain in which decisions and choices are made has ethical content. I personally am very interested in ethical issues related to the conduct and dissemination of research — what I call the ethics of innovation — and in the relationship between integrity and institutional leadership and organizational design; these have been a primary focus of my academic training and teaching, and the latter a focus of my prior professional life in management.  But there are important ethical issues that underlie every aspect of the operations of higher education: tuition and financial aid, teaching and curriculum, fundraising, study abroad, admissions, student life administration, technology and facilities, and, of course, sports. As both a higher education generalist and institutional analyst by training, experience, and inclination, I know that when we start to understand that each of these contributes to the integrity of the whole, we are getting somewhere.

Penn State struck such a chord with me because it was, in the end, about leadership, culture, and decision making at all (including the highest) institutional levels—the very heart and soul of integrity. The leadership vacuum — the deafening silence and inaction in general in the aftermath of this crisis from the institution, the organizations of which Penn State is a member and does business, and from its peers and policy partners — has been strange indeed. Whether from fear, numbness, or uncertainty, from lack of courage or absence of imagination, or from some paralyzing combination, it should be cause for concern to everyone who cares about the soul and future of higher education, about the idea of a university.

Raise a voice. Because taking a public stand is an important skill in ethical problem solving, all comments to this blog should be submitted under your full name; anonymous comments will not be published. However, questions and concerns that you would like to raise as possible topics for the blog may be submitted anonymously and in confidence using the form at the right. I do recognize—have indeed witnessed — that some people have good reason to feel vulnerable if they comment or even question publicly. I will similarly accept anonymous comments via this form and try to incorporate them into a future post.

I look forward to the discussion.

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Imaginative Insights in Considering About Technique

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

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Earlier this year I had the opportunity to travel to Lithuania to work with the ISM University of Management and Economics on thinking through strategy and how they compete in the global market for management education.  I could do an entire post about the beauty of Vilnius, how gracious everyone there was, or how cool it was that they’re housed in an old monastery and built their newest building on top of the old city walls -; but I won’t.  Rather, I’ll tell you about what impressed me most -; the way they creatively approached developing strategy. 

The school itself focuses on developing innovative managers and they modeled what they expect their students to become throughout the two-day meeting.  The session was structured so that on the first day, participants all viewed, reviewed and discussed a common set of information and the second day they discussed options, debated alternatives, and created a rough outline for how they would move forward.  They followed a lot of best practices throughout the session:

  • Include a diverse set of opinions: Participants included ISM’s president, top management team, a handful of faculty, and me. 
  • Inject fresh insights: They started by asking me to present overall trends in management education and then facilitate a discussion around what’s happening in the sector not only in the Baltic region, but in Europe, the US and Asia to get a sense of how what they’re experiencing is unique to ISM or common across regions.  Lots of slides, lots of discussion and it took a full day. 
  • Listen and discuss:  In this case, many of the more senior people hung back and waited for others to present ideas and data -; and they really listened to what others said.  And no one in the room appeared to be nervous about questioning others’ ideas or disagreeing with their conclusions.  It was done in a spirit of cooperation and good will, and people could disagree without being disagreeable.
  • Understand that there is no “;right” answer.  On the second day discussion turned toward “;what’s next” for ISM and what it would take to get there.  The team envisioned, discussed and debated ambitions, future states, and positioning.  It became clear that there were a lot of alternatives and tradeoffs, but no single right answer.  Some ideas and options, however, were better than others.
  • Understand the tradeoffs and implications of various strategies.  After the above debate, the group coalesced around one desired future state and voted on the four main areas/priorities for achieving this state.  Four emerged quite naturally and they broke into four smaller teams to discuss initiatives, resources, tradeoffs, etc., and then came back to present and discuss ideas. 
  • Keep in mind that progress is not always linear.  It wasn’t.  

So far this sounds like many strategy sessions I’ve been a part of, but what the teams came back with was anything but.  What emerged was some very creative thinking -; one team, for example, summarized their discussion using an equation with variables and consonants to describe their research agenda and desired results.  Another utilized a theatre analogy to describe how to create the motivated team they needed to get closer to their desired future state.  This one, in particular, was impressive -; and you could tell by the knowing smiles that came from easily understanding the analogy and how it would be applied in their situation.

For a school focused on innovation, they certainly demonstrated it in the way they approached this strategy session -; using a facilitated process and making the outcome their own.  Of course the hard work began after the two-day session, and it’s well underway. That’s not the point.  The point is they used a solid process and set of practices to discuss options, debate alternatives, and consider the best path forward. 

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Choosing Up the Twenty

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Confessions of a Community College Dean

Economists aren’t known for being funny on purpose, but this one isn’t bad.. An economist and his grad student are walking across the quad when they spy what looks like a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk. The grad student looks at the professor for cues, and notices that the professor is still walking.  The grad student asks “;aren’t you going to pick it up?”  The professor responds “;if it were really a twenty, someone would have picked it up by now.”

In California, there’s a big, fat twenty on the sidewalk, and it’s been there for some time.  I’m not surprised that someone’s picking it up.

With California’s community college system putting literally hundreds of thousands of prospective students on waiting lists, an ambitious for-profit is swooping in to offer an alternative.  UniversityNow, which this piece describes as a “;social venture,” has partnered with Patten University to offer 19 credits’ worth of general education courses at the same per-credit cost the community colleges would have charged. The courses start in early November and run into December, so the “;hook” is that students could get the credits they would have earned anyway, and can get back on track for the spring semester.  Patten is accredited, so the credits are likely to transfer.

I don’t really understand the relationship between UniversityNow and Patten, so I’ll bracket that. Either way, there’s no way Patten is making money on this, in the very short term.  And yes, it’s entirely possible that some students will transfer back to the community colleges in the spring, assuming the community colleges have room for them.  (In light of the tax referendum coming up this November in California, that’s not a given.)  

But I recognize a loss leader when I see one. That’s what this is, and from Patten’s perspective, it’s a pretty good one.  

In retail, a loss leader is an item on which a store takes a loss on purpose. It uses the loss leader to get people in the door, on the theory that once they’re there, they’ll buy more and make up the loss, and more, with other purchases. (The classic example is the convenience store with cheap milk.)  Patten is offering the opening mini-semester at what has to be a loss, in order to get students in the door. Once those students are in, it’s easier to sell them more semesters.

A few thoughts.

First, this would not be even vaguely possible if not for the staggering and chronic imbalance in the academic labor market. The fact that a for-profit can swoop in opportunistically and assemble an entire cohort of classes on short notice is possible only because they can find the faculty to staff those classes. I don’t say that to cast aspersions on Patten’s faculty — as longtime readers know, I started out at a for-profit — but just to face a basic fact.  

Second, the fact that Patten is focusing on the easily transferable gen eds — the evergreens — actually makes the staffing that much easier. Faculty for certain specialized technical programs may be hard to find, but faculty for first-year composition and Intro to Psych aren’t.  

Third, the market space that Patten is looking to fill is entirely an artifact of a perverse funding system in California.  When you charge less than the marginal cost of production, and you don’t even get to keep the money you charge, then the only way to stay within your appropriation is through enrollment caps.  The California community colleges can’t grow their way out of the problem.  For the for-profits, though, growth more than pays for itself.  When one sector experiences growth as a cost, and the other as a benefit, it’s easy to predict where the growth will be.

Traditional academics often like to talk trash about for-profits, and there’s certainly no shortage of trash to talk.  But at a really basic level, the for-profits are on the scene that the publics have abandoned. From the perspective of a frustrated would-be student who just wants to get on with life, the choice isn’t between Patten and the local community college. It’s between Patten and no college at all.  In that situation, I wouldn’t blame any student who took the best actually-available option.  In his shoes, I would.

Whether the polity is willing to admit it or not, there remains a need and an expressed demand for mass higher education.  That is just a fact.  If the public sector doesn’t provide it, others will.  

I don’t know if Patten, in particular, will succeed. But if it doesn’t, another one will. Sooner or later, someone will pick up that twenty on the sidewalk.

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Competing with “Free,” Component Two

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

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Confessions of a Community College Dean

If non-elite colleges and universities want to avoid the fate of travel agencies and film companies, what should they do in the age of free MOOCs?

I’d suggest focusing more clearly on what they can offer that MOOCs can’t.  That means having people around to help students get through the perplexing parts of courses; having advisors who can help students knit together disparate courses into coherent programs; organized tutoring; in-person collaboration and projects; ‘flipped’ classrooms; and specialized facilities.  It absolutely does NOT mean large lecture halls.

In fact, the flipped classroom -; in which the lecture is delivered online, and class time is devoted to doing the work, with a professor available as a resource -; could work beautifully with a MOOC.   Freed from the burden of having to explicate the basics over and over again, on-site faculty could use class time to shore up weak points, pursue deeper understandings of the material, and even have students apply it.  The professor could provide context.

Of course, some pushback is likely.  Faculty who were trained as t.a.’s in grad school might recoil at being put back into that role, with the sage on the stage replaced by the sage on the screen.   Some of that is to be expected, but if the job of the professor is to help the student succeed, then the results will settle the issue.  And to the extent they don’t, the marketplace of tuitions will.

If I’m anywhere close to right, then the role of the non-elite institution will be to level  the educational playing field.  Strong, well-prepared students will do just fine without much help, but most students coming out of the k-12 systems that actually exist don’t fit that mold.  They need structure, and support, and a fair amount of customized, human interaction to be successful.  I know humanists hate this phrase, but that would be the ‘’value-add” of colleges.

Community colleges are actually in a good position to get in front of this shift, if they’re willing.  They already focus on teaching, and they usually have smallish classes anyway.  (At Flagship State, where I got my doctorate, the undergrad Intro to My Discipline had 300 students.  Here it has 30.)  If community colleges are willing to accept the reality of change -; a major ‘if,’ but still -; they could recast themselves to take full advantage of the new, free resources.  Institutions that rely on 300 student lectures may have a harder time.

Colleges will also have to remember the non-academic side.  My brother recently forwarded me a wonderful description of it, from Cracked.com, of all places:

If even half of what you learn is in the classroom, you're not doing things right. College is also the ultimate self-discovery school, a Brownian personality-builder that bashes you off other people to help you all stop sucking. The most important part of education is learning who you are because no, shut up, you really don't know. Not a clue. And that's awesome! Imagine how terrible the world would be if every 17-year-old was actually right about what's important.

It’s funny because it’s true.  Some of the most important elements of college, for me, happened outside of class.  It’s hard to replicate that in a commuter college, obviously, but all the more important to try.  To the extent that college is reduced to the content of classes, something important is lost.  

Focusing on the student experience may require rethinking some of the more indefensible habits into which some places have fallen.  (Flagship State had 60-minute parking meters outside a building with 75-minute classes.  And yes, the students noticed.)  That’s probably for the best.  

The alternative, I think, is to fall into the well-worn habit of denying the validity of any external change at all, until a succession of Republican governors takes hatchets to higher ed funding, arguing, correctly, that people can get the content of higher education for free.  At which point, the folks who already have the economic and cultural capital to succeed will be fine, and everyone else will fall even farther behind than they already have.  If we take seriously the responsibility to educate people who don’t come from money, we have to take the appeal of MOOCs seriously.  If we don’t drive this train, it’ll run us over.

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A Column Not to Be Dictated to by Reality Checkers

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

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The Education of Oronte Churm

Some recent events have managed to lodge in my neural driftnet, collecting together in a way that makes me think they’re related. When this happens, I can get preachy, so be forewarned.

In freshman writing this week, we were discussing the nature of the “;academic conversation,” and at one point I (mostly, but probably not entirely accurately from memory) said, “;In the end, the goal of the academic conversation is an exchange of ideas and viewpoints in order to arrive at the truth.”

Here I paused, looking at the students. For some reason I felt compelled to add: “;That might sound quaint, or naïve, or silly, but it really is the goal.”

I wanted to kick myself in the ass right after I said this last part. It was like I felt compelled to apologize for believing not only that truth mattered, but that it could be achieved through conversation and collaboration. I felt as though I was telling them the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy liked to ride on the Loch Ness Monster’s back while waving at a herd of unicorns on the shore.

Even as the discussion marched on, part of my brain was wondering why I did this.

You’re thinking I’m about to talk about Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention, but no, first I want to talk about Jonah Lehrer.

Lehrer is the mostly disgraced former New Yorker staff writer, who was first dinged for “;self-plagiarism,” a venial journalistic sin, before dipping into the harder stuff of fabrication, inventing Bob Dylan quotes for his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, and even engaging in a brief attempt at cover-up before caving and admitting the falsehoods.

In the wake of these revelations, Wired magazine, Lehrer’s original patron, commissioned a neutral third party review of Lehrer’s work for them, focusing on 18 of the 100’s of blog posts that Lehrer produced.

In his investigation, Charles Seife, a journalism professor and science writer, found issues in 17 out of 18 pieces. Following his investigation and an off-the-record conversation with Lehrer, Seife concludes “;that Lehrer's journalistic moral compass is badly broken.”

He goes on to say:

I am convinced that Lehrer has a cavalier attitude about truth and falsehood. This shows not only in his attitude toward quotations but in some of the other details of his writing. And a journalist who repeatedly fails to correct errors when they're pointed out is, in my opinion, exhibiting reckless disregard for the truth.

Seife calls Lehrer’s transgressions “;inexcusable,” but also says, “;the industry he (and I) work for share a some of the blame for his failure.”

Seife describes how the system has changed between his time and Lehrer’s. (Seife, like me, is 10 years Lehrer’s senior.) When Seife was coming up, his work was “;scrutinized by layers upon layers of editors, top editors, copy editors, fact checkers and even (heaven help us!) subeditors before a single word got published.”

Lehrer, on the other hand, was operating “;without a safety net.”

“Nobody noticed that something was amiss until it was too late to save him.”

Okay, I’m definitely going to discuss Paul Ryan’s claim that he ran a sub three-hour marathon, a claim since admitted by Ryan (following an intense Internet crowdsourced investigation) as not being true (“walked back” in euphemistic politese) and that his one recorded marathon was much closer to four, rather than three hours.

No I’m not, I’m going to talk about the “;Harvard Cheating Scandal” where 125 students are accused of sharing answers on a take-home exam. This is “;nearly half” of the course’s total enrollment.

That barely audible sound you heard was the nation’s college instructors yawning with non-surprise at this news.

According to a Boston Globe report, in addition to the investigation and punishment of the guilty, “;The university also plans to bolster its anti-cheating efforts by better educating students about academic ethics.”

Heh. Heh.

The accused students are pushing back, claiming that a course previously viewed as one of the easiest on campus became suddenly difficult. They say the tests were confusing and unfair, unevenly graded by the 10 teaching assistants assigned to the course.

The core of their defense, as summarized by The New York Times: “;The students said they do not doubt that some people in the class did things that were obviously prohibited, like working together in writing test answers. But they said that some of the conduct now being condemned was taken for granted in the course, on previous tests and in previous years.”

Just a brief mention here about the Romney campaign ad that claims the Obama administration “;gutted” welfare reform. The ad is so misleading that even in a “;post-truth” campaign the normal false equivalence practices of our major media is breaking down and calling lies lies, rather than falling back on tortured euphemisms like politicians being “;on the edge of truth.”

Not long ago Lance Armstrong gave up his fight against allegations of systematic doping without admitting guilt. It’s true, Armstrong never failed a drug test, but numerous former teammates have testified to the pervasive use of performance enhancers during the era. In the words of sportswriter Bonnie Ford, summarizing the soon-to-be published account of former Armstrong lieutenant Tyler Hamilton, “;Cheating occurred on such a massive scale, in such mundane packaging, that it receded into the landscape and became almost invisible.”

Again, according to Ford, “;Hamilton — likely joined by most of the top riders of his time — viewed Armstrong's morality as no different than that of other riders. In Hamilton's telling, Armstrong just executed better, on the bike, in the pharmaceutical realm, and in securing protected status from the governing body of his sport: He trained hard, stayed on the leading edge of the curve of doping expertise, succeeded in having a positive test covered up. He profited hugely where others went broke.”

If Armstrong wasn’t doping, he was the only top flight cyclist not doing so, and somehow also beat everyone else who was doping at the same time.

The New York Times recently reported on a man named Todd Rutherford who saw a marketplace opportunity in providing five star customer reviews for books he hadn’t read. According to the Times, “;Before he knew it, he was taking in $ 28,000 a month.”

In the words of the article’s author, David Streitfeld, “;Consumer reviews are powerful because, unlike old-style advertising and marketing, they offer the illusion of truth.”

The article quotes an email from a self-published author named Roland Hughes, who “;spent about $ 20,000 on review services.”

His goal: To go from, " 'being an author' to ‘being a recognized author.’ “;

If I were trying to lure you in with a hook, I would call this epidemic of dishonesty a crisis, except it’s the longest lasting, slowest developing crisis in the history of crises.

It’s only a crisis if human nature is a crisis. The temptation towards shortcuts to success dates back to a certain guy who had an interesting encounter with an apple and a serpent.

While much hay will probably be made of Paul Ryan’s imaginary marathon prowess, he’s guilty of something all of us have done in an effort to impress an audience. He was bragging. His audience just happens to be bigger and paying much closer attention.

Far more troublesome is the laundry list of lies contained in his convention speech, lies so egregious and obvious that they speak to something beyond the ways we fall short of truth, in that they suggest that the truth doesn’t really matter. The moral compass is not faulty, it is non-existent.

It was postmodern theorists who posited there was no such thing as truth, certainly not of the objective variety. We seem to be putting this notion to the test by daring to speak falsehoods that everyone knows are lies, even as they’re being spoken. Most of Ryan’s lies in his speech had already been discussed and debunked and yet he spoke them anyway.

Politicians seem immune from punishment for lying because lying is what politicians do. After Ryan’s speech, Wolf Blitzer of CNN said to his co-host Erin Burnett: “;He (Ryan) delivered a powerful speech. Erin, a powerful speech. Although I marked at least seven or eight points I’m sure the fact checkers will have some opportunities to dispute if they want to go forward, I’m sure they will. As far as Mitt Romney’s campaign is concerned, Paul Ryan on this night delivered.”

Is Wolf Blitzer, a journalist at a national news network he wasn’t qualified to report on the truth?

His co-anchor, Burnett replied: “;That’s right. Certainly so. We were jotting down points. There will be issues with some of the facts. But it motivated people. He’s a man who says I care deeply about every single word. I want to do a good job. And he delivered on that. Precise, clear, and passionate.”

Can we really be that mad at Jonah Lehrer?

What further interests me are the causes and justifications for these acts. The obvious rationale for lying about your political opponent is that the stakes are so high, everything must be done in pursuit of victory.

For Lance Armstrong, it appears to be a literal case of “;everyone else is doing it.” He just managed to do it a little better, besting the competition on all fronts.

I imagine something similar is at work in the Harvard scandal. The fear of being disadvantaged on the exam would become so great, that even the normally moral would succumb to the temptations of the dark side. Sure, they say, we probably stepped over a line or two, but they were lines everyone knew we were stepping over, so what’s the big deal?

The fledgling authors look at a landscape where it seems nearly impossible to draw attention to one’s work. Why not a shortcut? It’s just another form of marketing. The “;illusion of truth.”

Jonah Lehrer either never knew or didn’t care if there was a line. If he was operating without a safety net, it’s because he didn’t think he needed one, and he didn’t until he realized what was heading towards him was a snare, not a net.

I’m pleased to see that Jonah Lehrer has been caught and discredited, that his own magazine believed in the truth enough to investigate further, even as I'm certain he will return to prominence as a journalist in the not-too-distant future.

Likewise for Lance Armstrong. I don’t know that it’s pleasure I feel at these revelations, but it feels like justice. We can look at his career with clearer eyes, and still marvel at the accomplishments, but also know more fully where they are rooted.

If Harvard thinks that educating students about academic ethics is going to impact cheating at their university, they are kidding themselves. They’re also nuts to think they can give a take-home exam to hundreds of students. As with fact checkers at magazines who save sloppy or dishonest journalists from themselves, it’s silly to design a course in a way that encourages and incentivizes cheating. Did they think it wouldn’t happen because they’re Harvard?

I think it’s more likely to happen because they’re Harvard. If Harvard is it all like any other university, I can guarantee that where cheating is made possible, cheating is done, and there is very little guilt over it.

At the heart of all of these things, I think, is good, old-fashioned greed.

Maybe if we start naming things for what they are, we can get back to a place where truth is valued and recognizable and believed in.

These are all stories of greed: for attention, or grades, or money, or power, or some combination of all of them. Even as economic security becomes tougher to achieve for more and more people, we find ourselves in a kind of “;wealth worship,” where being a good journalist isn’t good enough if you can be a famous one, where we decide that we can run three-hour marathons instead of four, where we feel we deserve our A’s, or our good reviews or the Presidency of the United States.

I sometimes read about how the current generation has been ruined by the self-esteem movement, but they can hardly be blamed with their role models, champions who cheat, politicians who lie, journalists who don't believe there is such a thing as truth.

Or a teacher who is worried about looking like a square when he says he believes in truth. All of us are signaling that there’s nothing much worthy of belief aside from our own “;success,” our image, and how we’re perceived on some imaginary scoreboard.

These are all forms of cowardice, a lack of trust in ourselves and others, that we will not be judged of value unless we are perfect, if we are anything short of outstanding.

Twitter is neither better nor worse than any other medium for conveying truths: @biblioracle

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Math Geek Mom: Fall Orientation

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

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Mama PhD

In some of our classes that fulfill the math requirement for the core curriculum, we occasionally teach sections involving logic, asking questions such as, “;if we say ‘if A, then B’, does that mean that ‘if B, then A’?” I found myself thinking of these questions as I was delighted at the signs that sprung up on campus this week directing new students to various events on campus.

This is the week of fall orientation on our campus, and the folks running the programming came up with a great theme for this year. They noted that “;Ursuline Fall Orientation” could be abbreviated as “;U.F.O.”, and this led to the arrival of a large number of signs across campus with cute drawings of flying saucers with adorable Martian-like creatures in them. I laughed at them, and then found myself back to the problem of asking if something that is identified as a UFO is still able to be classified as “;unidentified.” I suppose it does not matter, as long as students follow the signs to get to the next meeting or lecture they need to find. In the mean time, those of us on the faculty are scrambling to finish the preparation for classes that started when the summer seemed to end incredibly abruptly, leaving us teaching classes in lecture rooms that were still uncomfortably hot.

But it is not just Ursuline’s school that seemed to start very early this year. My daughter’s school started early, too, leading to a dilemma as I needed to figure out how to handle attending orientation for her school and teach my already running classes. Her school scheduled her orientation day on a day when I teach all day, bringing me back to the paradox of teaching in a college.

May people who are not professors view us as having very flexible schedules, which we do, to a degree. While our schedules are very flexible in some ways, as we can take work home and do it on the weekends, they are incredible inflexible in other ways, as we cannot take a “;day off” once classes have started, as those in many in jobs outside of academia can do. Indeed, if we absolutely cannot make it to class one day, we need to find a substitute for that class. As you can guess, for those of us teaching subjects like Calculus and Statistics, or worse yet, the major-level mathematical theory classes, finding a substitute at the last minute is often impossible, and so we need to find other options.

As it worked out this year, my daughter’s fall orientation left me in the position of having a Calculus class to teach at a time when there was no one who could substitute for me that day. As my husband was not available at that time to handle orientation, I had to do some creative work in trying to be in two places at one time.

I created a worksheet for my students to do during the start of the class, and had a proctor come in to give it to them during that time. I planned to make it to class as quickly as possible, as soon as I met my daughter’s teachers and helped my daughter set up her locker. It worked out fine, but it once again left me with the question of how one juggles the demands of a job in the marketplace in the midst of society’s common expectations that such demands do not exist, or at least not for both parents.  Such expectations are common in this part of the country, where it is common for one of the parents to parent full time.

Of course, I realize that such a commitment to my daughter’s education could have been just as difficult even if I did not work in the marketplace, as it could have been possible that I had duties to care for another child or a parent during that time. However, as I do work as a professor (a fact that I am thankful for each day), I would like thoughts from my readers about how to handle matters when our jobs conflict with our duties as a parent. And I am also curious as to how, when necessary, to talk to her school about perhaps revising their expectations of when I am available.

I hope to figure this out soon, but for now, I stumble along. Someday, I realized, will look back on this struggle with nostalgia. For, I realized, as I helped my daughter find places for everything in her locker, that the days are numbered when she will even want me involved in such aspects of her life.

Wishing everyone a wonderful and productive new school year!

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A “Social,” Totally free and Openly-Licensed Intro to Sociology Textbook

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

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Hack (Higher) Education

I underline and highlight as I read and scribble copious notes in the margins of books (or sometimes, particularly in a book that I used for teaching, on a color-coded series of sticky notes that serve a dual purpose of bookmarking particular passages). But as I found myself reading more and more digital texts in recent years, I’ve struggled to adjust my note-taking habits to the new format. Sometimes it just wasn’t that easy technologically to take notes (I had to ditch my old-school Kindle for this very reason); sometimes it wasn’t that easy to find the notes I’d digitally jotted down; I worried that, much like ownership of digital texts is in question, my notes might just disappear if a platform owner decided to yank them (See: Amazon’s infamous 1984 incident).

But while The New York Times and others have worried that e-books spell the doom for marginalia, I’ve long felt like they offer an interesting opportunity, too. What if we can more easily share our notes? What if we could see the authors’ commentaries on their own works? What if we could easily read experts’ highlights? What if a class could work together on the pages of an assigned reading -; asking and answering questions, and in turn giving the professor a sense of what’s being read and what’s being understood?

Many of these things are problems that the education startup Highlighter has been tackling, initially offering a JavaScript plug-in enabling “;comments in the margins” on blogs and websites. (I chose Highlighter as one of my favorite startups of 2011). Since then, the startup has shifted its focus slightly to become an education publishing platform that lets textbooks be published for the Web (as well as in PDF, Word, PowerPoint, Excel and ePUB) -; all with built-in social marginalia features.

highlighter socialnotes

Today Highlighter announced that it’s partnering with the 20 Million Minds Foundation, a non-profit committed to finding ways to lower the cost of textbooks, to product a book for the upcoming Fall term -; Introduction to Sociology. The textbook, created by OpenStax College and Rice University is free and openly licensed.

Highlighter and 20MM describe it as “;the first student-faculty interactive textbook” insofar as it will offer these social highlighting, annotating, commenting and sharing features. The Highligher version of the textbook will also let professors place students into smaller study groups for easier social interaction and enables them to track students’ reading and note-taking progress within a topic or chapter.

highlighter comments

The app is built in HTML5, meaning it’s accessible across devices and platforms and via modern browsers.

Highlighter has also landed contracts with a handful of universities that will utilize the startup’s publishing platform for course material.

I recently wrote that the latest round of textbook-related news was banal at best. But the social components, along with the OER materials and the flexibility therein, do offer something a lot more interesting here, I think.

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U



Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

University of Venus

I’m at the American Sociological Association’s Annual Meeting in Denver through Monday and I’ll be writing up short dispatches and posting them here at UVenus.

Liminality  -I am in a funky space located somewhere between a sociologist and a member of the press. I’ve been attending/presenting at ASA since the late 90’s and this time, I am representing UVenus and Inside Higher Ed. It’s a strange feeling, a space of watching and observing rather than participating. I’ll write more on this as the weekend progresses.

I received my Ph.D. in 2004 and, after a short stint as a faculty member, took a dean position and dove into administration.  At ASA2010 in Atlanta, I presented two papers -; one in Sociology of Culture (based on my dissertation research) and one in Sociology of Education (based on my administrative work). That was also a time of straddling two worlds: academic and administrator.  I was very much aware of watching faculty members at work, watching the boundaries of a discipline being actively maintained, watching graduate students being indoctrinated into the discipline through the mechanizations of a professional society.  As an administrator, I was aware of how this helps faculty become known entities in their worlds and increases their status. I was also aware of how this takes them away from their institutions, departments, students. It is not a bad tension but it is a place of push and pull.

Writing for UVenus, I can’t help but think of our writers and readers as I attend sessions, read the Twitter feeds, and watch the interactions. The Twitter feed is dominated by the voices of PhD students and early-career faculty -; resisting the indoctrination and professionalization while realizing that “;success” requires some sort of acquiescence.  I’d like to hear more from you in the comments on the good and bad of attending conferences.

I attended a fantastic panel on Inequalities in College Access and Completion yesterday afternoon and I’ve asked a couple of the presenters for their papers.  I’m hoping to write a more substantive post on this topic later this weekend. One important issue that came up at the end of the series of presentations was around the obligation of an academic to the people she studies. Do we prioritize the “;purity” of our research over the lives of those we study or vice versa? For me, this comes back to one of my favorite topics -; the role of academics with regards to public engagement.

Stay tuned for more and follow the Twitter chat at #ASA2012. 

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U


Following the Lead of McGraw-Hill’s Brian Kibby

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

Technology and Learning

We can debate Brian Kibby's vision that higher ed should go completely digital in 36 months. Many of us have already commented on his essay "Digital Deadline", and I'm sure that you will have some strong opinions as well when you go back and read his piece and the subsequent discussion.

What stands out for me is not so much KIbby's arguments, although I do think they are interesting even if I don't share all his beliefs, but that Brian Kibby is the president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Kibby's essay is the opposite of the bland corporate speak that we often get from employees of for-profits in the educational technology and publishing sector. I love the Kibby is willing to passionately lay out a vision for change in higher ed, one that many people will strongly disagree with.   

It is certainly true that Kibby is writing about his own industry in his essay, and that McGraw-Hill does have a stake in the digital transformation, but I do not believe that Kibby's article was at all a piece of marketing. One would hope that a leader in the educational publishing field would have strong opinions about the future of his own industry and the role that publishers can play in transforming higher ed.  

Perhaps "Prbanks" said it best in his comment to Kibby's article when he wrote:

"One should not be so quick to judge Mr. Kibby's motives simply based on where he works or what he may or may not stand to gain for taking such a bold position. Reading the article carefully reveals (at least to me), that his position is far more of a challenge than a prediction. Perhaps if we viewed the world more directly through the eyes of today's students – the ones that can type circles around most of us (including me) on a mobile device – Mr. Kibby's enthusiasm and passion wouldn't seem self-serving to so many folks on here. Just because he's involved in a for-profit endeavor doesn't mean he's out for pure personal gain".

I've always wondered why more employees of for-profit educational and publishing companies don't follow Kibby's example and publicly engage with our IHE community. When I speak to the professionals who work for ed tech, for-profit education, and publishing organizations I find them to be passionate, knowledgeable and article advocates for change. Unfortunately, the opinions of people who work in the for-profit sector are underrepresented both in the article and blog comments, and in the Views section. 

Why don't we see more participation from people in the for-profit edtech, education, and publishing sectors in our IHE community? My sense is that for-profit companies have not done enough to incentivize, train, and support their employees to participate in online communities such as IHE. Employees are concerned about expressing views that may run counter to corporate messaging. The idea that public communication is something that the public relations people do is deeply entrenched, and it takes an active and concerted effort from company leadership to empower professionals throughout the organization to engage in a public dialogue.

I also think that employees may be worried that whatever they write will appear "self-serving." That even if one's boss supports public participation within web communities such as IHE that the community itself will de-value any contributions. I think all of us who work in the non-profit education sector need to do a better job of inviting our for-profit, edtech, and publishing colleagues to all the communities in which we interact.   

Finally, we should recognize that thoughtful participation and contributions to our IHE community, contributions that I think Brian Kibby models, involve the investment of time and energy. The people I know who work in the for-profit sector are staggeringly busy.  They would like to write, blog, and comment more – they just don't have the time. This is an issue for the leadership of these companies, as they need to find build in the proper incentives and rewards for this sort of engagement.   

I don't know Brian Kibby, but after reading his essay I'm much more likely to want to speak with him and learn more about what McGraw-Hill is up to in the digital education space. Business in higher ed is built on relationships, and getting your company's people into the discussion is the very best form of outreach.

Does your company encourage you to follow Brian Kibby's lead?

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U


Or, I could blame “lower ed” . . .

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

Getting to Green

It's probably a little bit (but only a little bit) unfair of me to lay blame for the cultural immaturity that is consumerism at the door of American higher education.  After all, most of the behaviors and expectations that prevent children (consumers) from becoming adults (citizens) are established well before entry to college or university.

Some of it, of course, comes directly from advertising.  One of the lessons I taught my kids early on was that commercials are lies.  All of them.  Some are big lies, some are smaller lies, but none of them tell the truth.  A bit later, I taught them the corollary that advertising is proof that most grown-ups will lie for money, and that even more grown-ups are willing to be lied to if money is involved.  All my kids grew up to be skeptics, and each of them has a well-developed capacity for cynicism.  (I have no idea why.)

With the amount of TV most American kids watch before they even enter pre-school, the groundwork for consumerism has clearly been laid.  With the proliferation of cable channels targeted specifically at kids — all the way down to toddlers — it can be laid more efficiently and effectively than ever before.  Nothing like advertising to unformed minds in images and simple terms/concepts that they can relate to.  Heck, if you can get the concept of "McDonalds" or Cocoa Puffs firmly rooted before the more general concept of "food" is fully established . . .

But the truth of the matter is that most early schooling — heck, most schooling at any level — reinforces submission to authority (including the spurious authority which is the mainstream media) rather than teaching resistance to it.  The earliest task of public schooling is to socialize students.  Public teachers at all levels who succeed are ones who master classroom management (read: discipline and the constant inducement of submission).  Typical pedagogy reinforces subservience to textbooks, to testing protocols, and to the premise that what's being taught is what it's important to know.  The authority of the information, the validity of the tests, the importance or even relevance of the specific material covered — no teacher who regularly undercut any of these implicit messages would likely remain employed.

Additionally, typical pedagogy teaches individualism.  Group projects are the exception, not the rule, in most classrooms.  Solidarity among students would be many teachers' (and even a higher percentage of principals') worst nightmare.  Pour the knowledge into the individual, test what knowledge is retained by the individual, reinforce the separate identity of each student.  "Divide and conquer" is a common tactic in schoolrooms.  Unfortunately, it means that high schools graduate students who think of themselves as divided and expect to be conquered.  What more could a market campaign designer hope for?  (This is one area in which home-schooled kids may have a leg up on the typical public-school product.  Of course, many of them have even more so been divided/set apart and conquered in other areas of their cultural lives.  Sigh . . .)

So is it fair to expect higher ed to, even partially, reverse or offset the implicit cultural messages with which are incoming students have been deeply imbued?  Perhaps not fair, but necessary.  After all, if not us . . . who?  The transition from high school to college/university at least offers a juncture at which significant change in attitude and awareness might be introduced.  One expectation of incoming first-year students is that college will be different and, in some ways, it is.  But the inherent authority of the textbook and the emphasis on the individual (now seen as a consumer of education) persists.  Questioning of the system, or of the societal norms it reproduces, is hardly encouraged in most undergrad curricula.  Indeed, it's relatively rarely encouraged even in grad schools.

Of course, if teachers and principals would be threatened by consciousness and solidarity in public school students — most of whom still live at home and thereby are at least minimally subject to parental influence — just think how much more professors and deans of students would be threatened by the same in a population that has (commonly) just moved out of the parental home and might well be toying with rebellion.  Moreover, as part of institutional attempts to promote successful transition and increase student (particularly first-year) retention rates, a lot of effort goes into making sure that the college/university experience isn't too different from what the kids are used to.

But . . . if we keep doing what we're currently doing, we're going to keep getting what we're currently getting.  The graduates we turn out are well-conditioned to their role as consumers.  And consumerism has aspects that are very unhealthy for the economy, the environment, and democracy.  The net effect of all our little tactics, seen at a macro-level, seems to be more destructive of a healthy society that reproductive of it.

Maybe institutions of higher ed can influence the pedagogy and practices of universal public education — after all, that's precisely what happened a century ago.  The standard mix of high school subjects became standardized based on expressed requirements for admission to college or university.  If we (particularly the most prestigious of us) shift what we're looking for in applicants, high schools will (over time) shift what they emphasize in their graduates.  Inquisitiveness can be fostered but, at present, it's not seen as a priority.

Sad, that.  But maybe it goes a way to explaining how a nation which idealizes the decisive independent individual more and more consists of self-declared individuals whose main experience of 'personal freedom' seems to be reflexively making exactly the same (market-constrained, marketing-instilled) choices as everyone around them.

Society is not — all of us collectively are not — benefiting from the collective impact of those choices.  We need to learn to choose better. 

Anybody know a teacher?


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