11/28/12

Administrators and Professors

This piece in Bloomberg is disappointingly short. Money quote:

At universities nationwide, employment of administrators jumped 60 percent from 1993 to 2009, 10 times the growth rate for tenured faculty. “Administrative bloat is clearly contributing to the overall cost of higher education,” says Jay Greene, an education professor at the University of Arkansas. In a 2010 study, Greene found that from 1993 to 2007, spending on administration rose almost twice as fast as funding for research and teaching at 198 leading U.S. universities.

Again, the piece overall is a bit short. Would be nice to see some serious thinking about the causes of this shift (other than the aortic one).

11/28/12

The Historian and the Etymologist: An Experimental Twitter Essay

In the spirit of experimenting with media, I’m going to write an academic essay on Twitter. Because why not? Let’s play a little with form.
I’m not going to write it ahead of time and just post it after-the-fact in 140ish-character chunks: that seems contrary to the spirit of the medium, which is about immediacy and simultaneity of writing/reading and nowness and against significant editing.
I’m not sure how long it will be, but I’ll indicate when it’s done. Ideally, this will be something that will be meaningful if read forwards (from the bottom of the Twitter screen up) and backwards (from the top down). We’ll see how it goes.
The hashtag for this is going to be #etym1
I’m on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/CarlaNappi
Starting…now.

11/27/12

More on MOOCs

Siva Vaidhyanathan on MOOCs, just to keep the discussion going.

If we support the MOOC experiment it would be foolish to do so without confronting the serious incentive problems MOOCs present to teachers, students, and institutions of higher education. These are not reasons to quit MOOCs. They are reasons to take them seriously and strive to maximize the rewards of MOOCs while curbing the perverse incentives.

We should offer MOOCs that aim for many levels of expertise and in many languages. We should not reward universities or faculty based on initial, inflated enrollment. We should question the “O” as in “open” because a flood of trolls is about to show up in MOOC discussions, threatening to ruin everyone’s best efforts. We should ask why universities are not hosting and launching their own homegrown MOOCs when the software is simple and the talent is all in-house. Why engage with private companies that have completely different missions and demands than universities do?

The piece as a whole reminds me of how difficult it is to have a conversation about teaching (or education more generally) that doesn’t immediately suck in all sorts of related problems (technological fundamentalism, corporatization, the adjunct problem, administrative bloat) that make universities today so complicated.

11/27/12

Attention is a resource

This piece at Marginal Revolution draws our attention once again to the ways in which being rich benefits the rich twice–once in terms of a direct access to wealth, and once in terms of how it allows the wealthy to preserve cognitive resources that allow them to make decisions that benefit their long-term self-interest.

Thus, SMS [the researchers] show that poverty (over)-stimulates attention to urgent problems which results in less attention given to important problems–thus, reduce some day to day urgencies and people may become more open to devoting attention to important problems like deworming or hygiene or paying the rent which would in the not-so-long-run result in greater benefits.

Crucially, notice that SMS’s experiments are about the effect of poverty not about the poor. In other words, at least some of our discussion of the poor may suffer from the fundamental attribution error.

That bit about fundamental attribution error seems crucial. And this sort of research, which we have seen more and more of in the last decade, seems to me to offer–via rationality and science–the best non-ethical, non-moral arguments for things like affirmative action that I can imagine being put forward. No idea if they’ll change anyone’s mind but it’s good to know, as always, that social science will help “prove” things that I have known all along were “true.”

11/20/12

Clay Shirky on Higher Education and the MOOCs

Clay Shirky has a long and deeply thought-out post on Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs) and the future of higher education over at his blog. As this is one of my issue-obsessions right now, it was a personal must-read and I thought I would drop a pointer to it here. His chief point is that the MOOCs, within the context of higher education, serve as the best analogue to the music industry’s MP3s, the newspapers’ Craigslist / Google, or the movie industry’s BitTorrent – the internet’s disruptive agent of choice for this particular industry.

The people in the music industry weren’t stupid, of course. They had access to the same internet the rest of us did. They just couldn’t imagine—and I mean this in the most ordinarily descriptive way possible—could not imagine that the old way of doing things might fail.

I agree with this fundamental point and, more than that, with most of his associated arguments and corollaries. In particular, I appreciated that he does not fall prey to the “same approach to teaching today as 1000 years ago in medieval Europe” trope, and takes the time to address the components of traditional higher education that are not likely to be obsoleted by the internet. All the same, he argues that – just as with MP3s, Craigslist, Wikipedia, and BitTorrent – the new internet substitute for higher education does not have to offer better quality to be highly disruptive. Indeed!

In Shirky’s vision, the chief near-term feature of the higher education landscape will be the breathtakingly rapid expansion and improvement of MOOC offerings from Udacity, Stanford, Harvard/MIT, and others, which will suck the oxygen out of the business model at the “low end” of the market first and proceed up-market from there. As an interesting aside (which I also appreciated), he points out that the true bottom-feeders of higher education are not the lowest-priced institutions but quite the reverse: they are the for-profit conglomerates, which offer much higher cost (debt) per value delivered than any public institution. Moreover, he points out, we are not talking about a product that threatens the business model of the Ivy League or, really, the top 100 schools in a fundamental way. (However, he does see deep trouble ahead for median institutions; as he puts it, “Bridgerland Applied Technology College? Maybe not fine. University of Arkansas at Little Rock? Maybe not fine.”)

At Penn State we are active participants in our own disintermediation these days, with a “World Campus” that happily offers online course credits for money – and good money at that. It has been hard to witness the expansion in these offerings, and the increasing contribution they make to the annual budgets of many Departments (including mine), without mixed feelings. On the one hand, this is a tremendous business success for the institution. On the other hand, we seem to be in the process of online-educating ourselves out of a job. And yet on the third hand – the point of Shirky’s piece, really – what choice do we have? We can either suffer disruption by others or disrupt ourselves.

In the academy, we lecture other people every day about learning from history. Now its our turn, and the risk is that we’ll be the last to know that the world has changed, because we can’t imagine—really cannot imagine—that story we tell ourselves about ourselves could start to fail. Even when it’s true. Especially when it’s true.

Finally, in a last twist of the rhetorical knife, I imagine I’ll be thinking a lot about these issues come January, when I begin teaching our Department’s World Campus version of “Life in the Universe” for the first time. We’ll see how it goes.

 

11/11/12

The disappointments of fiction

If you have time this Sunday please read Walter Kirn’s review of Samson Graham-Muñoz’s new novel, The String Theory Quartet. 

The following quotations are from the novel:

“The weather today was the weather of yesterday and tomorrow it would be the weather again: mummifyingly dry and hot and whipped by cyclones of toxic pink particulates that settled on the brown fields like vile confetti. Buddy Dean was up early, roaming about the house in a pair of patched digital overalls and a pre-diaspora Chicago Cubs cap. ‘Don’t be downhearted,’ came the leader’s voice over the old RCA tube radio. ‘The soil may be dust and the rains a memory, but courage is the crop that never fails.’ Buddy listened, too weak even to nod. Out the window a pair of skinny crows pecked for quarks and bosons in the yard.”

… and from a very different section, stylistically (Kirn compares it to Hemingway):

“He picked up his instrument. He drew the bow. He drew it across the strings. Some sounds came out. The leader was moved. His voice boomed through the envelope. An old voice, like music. But not music. A voice. ‘Keep playing, my boy,’ it commanded. And so he played. While amethyst planets burned coolly in the dusk and children who’d never seen whales or dreamed of unicorns imagined they had. Seen whales. Dreamed unicorns.”

And from an interview with the author:

“When I used to cut hair in my father’s Miami barbershop I learned something true about scissors: they have two blades. One for stretching the strand until it’s taut, the other for lopping it off. Two blades, one purpose. That’s how I write fiction. With my scissors-mind.

Good lord, I wish this guy existed. I spent 5 minutes searching for Graham-Muñoz and The String Theory Quartet on Amazon before realizing that the whole thing is a mirage. Well done, Walter Kirn!

11/11/12

The miracles of human creativity

One of the most amazing things about the digital age’s redistribution of the means of aesthetic production and distribution is that it reveals how much love and ambition remain connected to the work of making. Here you have, for free, a remaking of Star Wars entirely in ASCII. The hours it must have taken to do this are astonishing.

I dream of a world in which copyright, which has become a way for corporations to develop a stranglehold on innovation (and functions, as with Disney, in the manner of primitive accumulation), disappears in the wake of content freely produced for others out of this form of love, and the beauties that attend to it.

For that to happen we must, however, have leisure.

11/9/12

The Dog Ate My Homework

Justifications for the Republicans’ failure this week have been coming thick and fast, but I think I like this one best of all: their computers weren’t working. Their candidate, ideology, policies, and strategy would all have been fine if it hadn’t been for those darn computers messing things up.

(Of course, as some of the linked commenters have pointed out, the results of an IT project based on the management style of Bain Capital may have been foreseeable.)

11/9/12

But Seriously

expect, in the coming years, more attacks on intellectuals and the media (especially PBS). The sore losers are going to take it out on anything they can reach. Stanley Kurtz, quoted by my esteemed colleague R. Meeks below, is an old hand at this kind of stuff, having been point man for the attempt to defund foreign language and area studies a few years ago. Clearly, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing for America.

11/9/12

“You People

suppressed our good vote with your more numerous bad votes!” seems to be the current Republican analysis of the election results. How about it, Romneyites? Care to take up the issue of “Electoral College: Axis of Stability or Insult to Democracy” again?

11/8/12

Oh, so that’s why

Stanley Kurtz explains Obama’s reelection:

Just before the election, Jay Nordlinger reported that the proportion of Princeton University faculty or staff donating to the presidential candidates was 155 to 2. Only a visiting engineering lecturer and a janitor gave to Romney. It’s an almost entertainingly extreme example of academic bias, but when you think about it, also a deadly-serious explanation for Obama’s victory. The college educated professionals at the heart of Obama’s coalition are products of an academic culture that not only leans far-left, but is dedicated to producing precisely the national political outcome that Obama represents. Obama himself was both a product and a member of the elite leftist university faculty.

In contrast to Reagan’s appointees Bill Bennett and Lynne Cheney, the Bush administration avoided public battles with the academy. Republicans nowadays tend to write off academia as silly and irrelevant. Meanwhile, our colleges and universities have been quietly churning out left-leaning voters for some time. Not all graduates go along, of course, but many do.

Higher education is also connected to the demographic roots of Obama’s victory. Prior to World War II, college was still the path less traveled. By the sixties, it had become common. Now years of post-graduate professional education for a large percentage of Americans have pushed back the age of marriage, increasing the numbers of single women so crucial to Obama’s coalition. The phenomenon of extended singlehood is at the root of the new social liberalism as well, not to mention the demographic bust driving our entitlement crisis.

Yes, it was all those liberal university elites at those places thought silly and irrelevant by current conservatives.