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February 25, 2009 [feather]
Read their lips

Last night, Nancy Pelosi spent large parts of Obama's speech looking as if she were approaching some sort of ecstatic legislative state. The look on her face was worshipful, and at times a bit simpering, a half-smile bordering on rapture. Joe Biden, by contrast, looked complacent and complete, even sleepy, during the short rests between the sixty-five ovations that punctuated Obama's address.

But there was the odd moment of affective uncertainty when Obama went off road on certain issues. Above, he's talking about education. He's praising charter schools and merit pay. And that sort of entirely reasonable talk can be very unsettling.

Edspresso favors us with thoughts on what Biden and Pelosi might have said to one another if they had been able to whisper in one another's ears:

Nancy: Joe, did Barack just endorse charter schools as an example of what's working in public education?

Joe: I think he did.

Nancy: Everyone looks like they are about to applaud. What should we do?

Joe: Do you think the cameras are on us right now?

Nancy: I don't know. Maybe they're taking a shot of Landrieu. She's all over charters down there in Louisiana.

Joe: My state has given charters a real rough time lately, and I don't think my constituents donors would appreciate my showing any support.

Nancy: Mine neither. What should we do?

Joe: Let's just scowl. It always worked for Cheney. I don't know if he ever smiled at these things.

I wish he would get behind vouchers as well as charter schools. But this is a start.

Erin O'Connor, 10:48 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Harvard's election year

Harvard's alumni are electing new trustees (or "overseers" in the university's strangely resonant parlance). And as usual, there are some dark horse candidates--Harvard alums who petition other alums for the right to run, as opposed to insider candidates nominated by the alumni association. This time around, the petition candidates are an exceptionally interesting pair.

Here's why, according to a Boston Globe column endorsing them:

ONE OF THE elections I'm fascinated with this year is for . . . Harvard's Board of Overseers.

Why, you say, should we non-Harvard types care about an election for the lesser of Harvard's two governing boards? Because two outspoken candidates are trying to storm the gates, arguing that the storied university needs to embrace free speech unambiguously, reform its disciplinary procedures, and focus more on its students.

And because what happens at Harvard doesn't stay at Harvard, but rather reverberates throughout the academic world.

As co-founder of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Cambridge lawyer and writer Harvey Silverglate, a 1967 graduate of Harvard Law School, is a leading watchdog for free speech on college campuses. Well-respected Philadelphia attorney Robert Freedman, a 1962 graduate of Harvard College, sees himself as an ombudsman for the students, saying Harvard needs to do better by them - even if that means requiring more of the faculty.

Running as petition candidates for slots usually won by aspirants nominated by the alumni association, they say that the low-profile board needs to grow a spine, find a voice, and develop some investigatory zeal.

"Harvard needs a free-thinking, pro-active board of overseers, but the successful and talented people who become overseers seem to lose their independent judgment and spirit of inquiry upon election," says Freedman.

"We are talking about changing the culture of the way the university is governed," says Silverglate.

Long an opponent of nebulous anti-harassment or civility codes that essentially let students be punished for comments if someone else takes offense, Silverglate is particularly concerned with reestablishing a robust climate of free speech and academic freedom at Harvard.

"They have redefined harassment to include any speech that somebody doesn't want to hear," he says, adding that the overseers should declare unacceptable any restrictions that limit academic freedom or curtail speech that would be protected off campus.

Having represented numerous students who have run afoul of Harvard's Administrative (read: disciplinary) Board, he's scathing about the process.

"It has become totally irrational, unfair, uninterested in seeking facts, and not geared to finding out the truth," he says, noting that the board has no student representatives and doesn't allow the accused to call witnesses. "And yet, you just never hear a word from the overseers about this utter outrage."

Any discussion of the intellectual climate at Harvard inevitably comes back to former president Lawrence Summers and the faculty backlash - and no-confidence vote - touched off by his 2005 suggestion that innate differences between the sexes could help explain why men have been more successful in science and math careers. That controversy was the beginning of the end for Summers, who resigned in February of 2006.

Both men think the faculty's intolerance for an uncongenial idea was a troubling episode for a great university.

"In the academic world you're supposed to have the opportunity and the ability and the situation where you can talk about things, discuss them, bring up new ideas, bring up controversial ideas," says Freedman.

"What it showed was that the faculty had become very rigid and narrow-minded and was basically looking for the head of the president because he said something controversial that bothered them," says Silverglate.

Concerned that Harvard students be broadly educated, Freedman thinks the faculty has indulged its interest in the arcane at the expense of students' educational needs. "They want to teach more and more about less and less," he says. "There are literally thousands of courses, but they are getting narrower and narrower. There are very few broad survey courses."

Both men think Harvard should allow the Reserve Officers Training Corps back on campus on the grounds of student choice. Harvard has banned ROTC from campus since 1969.

These two are energetic and provocative - and committed to asking the kind of questions Harvard needs to confront. Ballots go out in April to Harvard alums. Should Freedman and Silverglate win seats on the board, it would do Harvard, and the larger academic universe, a world of good.

Find out more about the process and the candidates here and here.

Erin O'Connor, 8:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

February 20, 2009 [feather]
Kudos for Colgate

The debate about ROTC on campus has taken on an annoying chicken-and-egg quality. When challenged about why ROTC is not on campus, private colleges and universities often dissemble, sidestepping the ideological morass of DADT (which they can no longer cite, in the wake of Rumsfeld v. FAIR), and claiming something along the lines of: "It's not feasible to have ROTC on campus. There just isn't student interest. If there were, we'd explore establishing an on-campus corps." But the problem with that is that ROTC can be an "out of sight, out of mind" prospect for college students--if it's not a presence on campus, it's not as likely to be something students consider, or even know they can do. And if they do consider it, they bump up against some pretty serious obstacles: the inconvenience of commuting to a different campus several times each week, very early in the morning, to train; and the understanding that what this commute means is that their own campus is not exactly supportive of students who want to do ROTC. Motivation can flag under those conditions, and there is a lot of attrition among ROTC students who have to travel to another school to train. That attrition, in turn, appears to justify schools' claims that their students just aren't interested in doing ROTC--and that therefore they don't have any obligation to look into making that an on-campus option for students.

But perhaps, just perhaps, students' psychology is not exactly what administrators claim it is. Would it be so surprising to learn that, in this case, as in so many others, what works best for students is not perfectly aligned with what admins and faculty want?

Take the case of Colgate. ROTC has just returned to Colgate this semester, after an absence that has lasted since the program disintegrated during the Vietnam War.

A corner of the fourth floor of Lathrop Hall, which was partially vacated after the opening of the Robert H.N. Ho Science Center, now looks like a U.S. Army recruiting office. Posters and pamphlets advertise the training and financial incentives of the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program. Colgate, like many other colleges and universities, disbanded its ROTC program during the Vietnam War era. Until this semester, Colgate students who wished to participate in ROTC had to commute to Syracuse University twice a week to participate in their Army ROTC program.

Three Colgate students, junior Stephen Kendrex, first-year Alan He and sophomore David Ko, currently participate in Army ROTC. Last semester, Major Eric Schaertl came to Colgate to meet with the cadets once a week to relieve their commuting time.

"We met everywhere," He said. "Mostly Huntington gym, the track outside when it was warm out and Sanford Field House. Major Schaertl even came to the Coop to meet a couple times."

Major Schaertl joined with members of the Colgate faculty and administration to help meet the students' need for a space on campus. The administration gave ROTC the space in Lathrop Hall for classes and meetings. Army First Sergeant Ken Alcorn, who has been with ROTC for six years, was tapped to lead the program. He has been in the Army for 24 years, serving tours in Germany and Korea, a combat tour in Desert Storm and a stint as a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson. Alcorn was chosen for his expertise in building ROTC programs on college campuses; the program he started three years ago at Utica College has flourished under his leadership.

"The motivation and will to try and make this program happen between Colgate and the Army caught fire over Christmas break," Alcorn said. Alcorn will spend Thursdays at Colgate, Tuesdays at Syracuse University and the rest of the week at Utica College. In the future, depending on the success of the program, Alcorn envisions spending two days a week at Colgate. Two other cadets, one from SUNY Morrisville and one female cadet from Hamilton College, will participate in Colgate's program.

"What we're looking at to do here is take baby steps and grow," Alcorn said. Four additional Colgate students have already expressed interest in the program since it has had increased its visibility on campus. Kendrex set up a booth at last week's activities fair. Lieutenant Colonel Susan Hardwick, who leads the Syracuse Army ROTC program, is going to meet with President of the University and Professor of Philosophy and Religion Rebecca Chopp at some point to figure out the details of Colgate's relationship with ROTC. Sergeant Alcorn and the cadets are planning to have an open house for the Colgate community sometime in mid-March.

"To grow an ROTC program in my opinion is not done by the cadre or the people who are running it; it's done by the students," Alcorn said. "If the program is good, they enjoy it and talk about it and then other people want to do it. The best recruiters are the college students."


"If we do everything perfectly and the school is happy to have us here, Alan will be the start of Colgate's own program, and Kendrex will only have to go to Syracuse a few times," Alcorn said. "The goal is to stop the commuting. The goal with me coming here is to make it easier for them. The program is for the cadets. We're trying to bring ROTC to the students."


Alcorn said the program's goals for this semester are to "get a presence on campus, get accepted on campus and gage the reaction of the campus." Alcorn hopes to grow to a squad size, with ten to fifteen cadets, as a short-term goal.


Right now, Colgate's ROTC program is taking "baby steps," says Alcorn. ROTC's presence on campus emerged as a solution for a student need. In the next few years, they hope to "grow based on needs and interests of students here at Colgate."

Baby steps is the right way to go. They are still huge by any measure--and they are the sort of steps that a great many campuses can and should be taking.

Erin O'Connor, 8:42 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

February 19, 2009 [feather]
Documenting entitlement

It's not just you, and it's not just anecdotal. Students today really do think that good grades should be theirs in exchange for fulfilling (or seeming to fulfill) minimal expectations:

A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that a third of students surveyed said that they expected B's just for attending lectures, and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the required reading.

"I noticed an increased sense of entitlement in my students and wanted to discover what was causing it," said Ellen Greenberger, the lead author of the study, called "Self-Entitled College Students: Contributions of Personality, Parenting, and Motivational Factors," which appeared last year in The Journal of Youth and Adolescence.


James Hogge, associate dean of the Peabody School of Education at Vanderbilt University, said: "Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality in students that 'if I work hard, I deserve a high grade.'"

In line with Dean Hogge's observation are Professor Greenberger's test results. Nearly two-thirds of the students surveyed said that if they explained to a professor that they were trying hard, that should be taken into account in their grade.

Jason Greenwood, a senior kinesiology major at the University of Maryland echoed that view.

"I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade," Mr. Greenwood said. "What else is there really than the effort that you put in?"

"If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?" he added. "If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher's mind, then something is wrong."

Sarah Kinn, a junior English major at the University of Vermont, agreed, saying, "I feel that if I do all of the readings and attend class regularly that I should be able to achieve a grade of at least a B."

Explanations offered in the article range from "increased parental pressure, competition among peers and family members and a heightened sense of achievement anxiety" to K-12 experiences that emphasize "hyper-efficiency" in test preparation--and so encourage students to believe that there is a "magic formula to get high scores."

I think the self-esteem movement might also deserve mention.

When I was in grade school (public, Indianapolis, 1970s), report cards were such a big deal. You'd get them every six weeks or so--these intimidating folded documents on stiff colored paper. The teacher would have hand-written your grades for everything from spelling to reading to math to science on them. There would also be handwritten comments directed to your parents on the back, and a place where your parents had to sign to say they'd seen the report card. We had to take the cards home to our parents in manila envelopes, and then bring them back to school the next day with the signatures on them. It was a big deal, all that kid-style accountability.

I can't remember exactly when it happened--but I would guess it was along about third grade. The format of the report cards changed, and suddenly we didn't just get a single grade for each subject. We got two: one for achievement, and one for effort. You might get an A for handwriting--but you'd perhaps get a B for effort. Or you might get a B in math, but an A for effort. It could go both ways--and it was a genuine way for the teacher to register both effort that was not translating into a good grade, and a good grade that was gotten without trying.

But I think that subtlety has been flattened out over the years; somewhere along the line, introducing grades for effort has translated into the assumption that effort matters more than achievement, or even that effort is the achievement. Along the way, "effort" has also been diminished; no longer necessarily synonymous with really giving your all, it's become something students can gesture at, or approximate, by just going through the motions of showing up, more or less doing the reading, more or less completing the work.

By the way--ACTA just released a report on how to fight grade inflation. Read it online here.

Erin O'Connor, 8:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack (0)

February 18, 2009 [feather]
Fun with syntax

Here's a sentence from Princeton philosophy professor's Kwame Anthony Appiah's new article in Slate: "We can encourage religious engagement in the public square but insist on freedom from religious imposition and the widest workable range of religious expression."

Quick game: What's gone wrong here? And how would you fix it?

Erin O'Connor, 8:22 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

February 17, 2009 [feather]
"Ask God what your grade is"

Maybe you've read about this one already--but maybe not. While academic bloggers were all over the Denis Rancourt case--and all over Stanley Fish for suggesting that it was somehow indicative of a lack of self-policing among faculty members--they are strangely silent about this one.

Yes, Fish went a bit far in his lust for professorial exhibits. But that doesn't mean there aren't faculty out there who go badly astray when it comes to bringing their politics into the classroom. And surely, for consistency's sake, the folks who rounded on Fish (and opportunistically used his post to argue that self-governance is just fine, thank you very much, and that professors who abuse their classroom prerogatives are taken care of swiftly and decisively by their colleagues) should be talking about this case, and should be doing some of that self-policing stuff.

This case has everything in it: a professor verbally abusing a student for expressing his beliefs, written documentation of a professor withholding a grade to make a point about his contempt for the student's beliefs, threats, and a lawsuit--which rather suggests that the faculty did not take care of things internally, and which also means that the administrators failed in that regard, too.

Here's the summary from the Alliance Defense Fund, which is representing the student:

Jonathan Lopez is working toward an associate of arts degree at Los Angeles City College in California. One of his required classes: Public Speaking. The additional lesson in his free speech rights was not something he anticipated.

In that class, Lopez delivered one of his assignments--an informative speech. Lopez chose the topic of faith and marriage. Mid-way through, his speech professor John Matteson interrupted, calling Lopez a "fascist bastard" in front of the class for speaking about his faith, which included reading the dictionary definition of marriage and reciting two Bible verses. Instead of allowing Lopez to finish, Matteson told the other students they could leave if they were offended. When no one left, Matteson dismissed the class. Refusing to grade the assigned speech, Matteson wrote on Lopez's evaluation, "Ask God what your grade is."

"Christian students shouldn't be penalized or discriminated against for speaking about their beliefs," said ADF Senior Counsel David French. "Public institutions of higher learning cannot selectively censor Christian speech. This student was speaking well within the confines of his professor's assignment when he was censored."


But the harassment did not stop in class. One week later, after seeing Lopez talking to the college's dean of academic affairs, Matteson told Lopez that he would make sure he'd be expelled from school.

Further, Matteson's treatment of Lopez during his speech follows an earlier incident in which the speech professor told his entire class after the November election, "If you voted yes on Proposition 8, you are a fascist bastard."

"Professor Matteson clearly violated Mr. Lopez's free speech rights by engaging in viewpoint discrimination and retaliation because he disagreed with the student's religious beliefs," said French. "When students are given open-ended assignments in a public speaking class, the First Amendment protects their ability to express their views. Moreover, the district has a speech code that has created a culture of censorship on campus. America's public universities and colleges are supposed to be a 'marketplace of ideas,' not a hotbed of intolerance."

Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund Center for Academic Freedom have filed a lawsuit against officials of the Los Angeles Community College District in regard to this situation. You can read the complaint filed with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in the lawsuit Lopez v. Candaele by clicking here.

So where are all the principled academic bloggers, do you think? What's the problem? They were so righteous and principled last week when defending their honor against the insinuations of Stanley Fish. But, you know, shooting down Fish last week was a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Now, they are nowhere to be seen. Is Jonathan Lopez beneath their notice? Is behavior like Matteson's fine with them?

Forgive my speculations. But I have to wonder what the problem is. And there are other, more toxic possibilities. I have noted in my years writing this blog that, more than once, I have been characterized as a religious zealot by critics who see me defending religious students. Now, that amuses me very much, since I wasn't raised within a religion and don't have one now. But I got the point. In academia, to stick up for the rights of religious students is to be cast as a Bible thumper yourself. Horrors!!

And so I wonder: Could it be that there is no outcry about this case because one would have to defend an evangelical student in order to stand up for the principles of fairness, free inquiry, and responsible teaching? I hope not.

Michael Berube made a great point on his blog a few weeks ago. He said that if critics of academe wish to be taken seriously, they have to take particular care to differentiate themselves from frivolous and inflammatory commentary that masquerades as serious critique. He's right. But that knife cuts both ways. If academics want the public to respect them and their professional ways--if they want to preserve academic freedom and the independence and autonomy it confers--they have to self-police with consistency and with thoroughness. That means that the commentators--the ones who write columns and blogs that touch on The State of Academe, the ones who are positioning themselves as public intellectuals and, on some level, as representatives of their profession--have a job to do in moments like this one. Just like I have one to do when Family Security Matters puts out its sorry lists of dangerous courses.

One last note: hamfisted pedagogy (if you can even call it pedagogy) is not the only kind of incompetence plaguing Professor Matteson. This is what he wrote at the bottom of Lopez' evaluation: "Prostheletyzing is innappropriate in public school." Maybe LA City College should be giving spelling tests to prospective teachers?

Erin O'Connor, 8:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack (0)

February 16, 2009 [feather]
New frontiers

When we talk about defending individual rights on campus, we tend to think about free speech, free association, and the right to be free from discrimination. Usually that's enough to get us all too confused to go any deeper (witness the recent California ruling saying that religious student groups may not discriminate when deciding who can be a member--and the manner in which that ruling bumps up against strong legal precedent that yes, indeed, they may do just that).

But as thorny as that one may be (I don't personally think it's thorny at all--and neither does FIRE), it doesn't even begin to approach what is fast becoming a new frontier in the struggle to ensure that public campuses respect individual rights: guns.

We've had enough vigilante shootings on campus in recent years to give this one a real resonance. And here's the latest example of how it's shaping up in the news:

Many colleges bar people from bringing guns onto campus, but that position continues to be attacked by politicians.

In Utah, the University of Utah in 2007 lost a lengthy legal fight to ban guns from its campus. Now the issue is getting attention in Oregon, following the suspension of a student from Western Oregon University. The student admits to carrying a gun, but notes that he has a concealed weapon permit from the state. The university maintains that state law also gives the public higher education system the right to ban guns from its campuses--regardless of whether gun owners have a permit. With backing from Republican state legislators, the student says that the permit laws should trump the university's view of the issue.

The student--Jeffrey L. Maxwell--could not be reached. But he told the Albany Democrat-Herald that the suspension followed an incident in which campus police were looking for a suspicious person on campus. Before determining that Maxwell, a Marine Corps veteran, was not that person, they asked him if he had any weapons and he answered truthfully that he was carrying a loaded pistol. While the university has declined to discuss the specifics of his punishment, Maxwell has told local reporters that he was suspended until the fall and ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation and to write a paper on obeying the law and the impact of guns on campus.

Oregon's administrative statutes specifically state that guns are barred from public colleges (as well as elementary and secondary schools) unless specifically authorized by institutional officials. A spokeswoman for the Oregon University System said that officials there couldn't comment on Maxwell, but that the system has viewed its gun ban as based directly on Oregon law.

The case become a rallying cry of sorts for gun supporters in Oregon. The Democrat-Herald has invoked Virginia Tech to back Maxwell. "At Virginia Tech and elsewhere, rules like the ones enforced by the university system have not prevented gun violence but left people on campus more vulnerable to mass murderers," said an editorial in the paper.

A letter from Bruce Hanna, Republican leader of the Oregon House of Representatives, to the university system called its policies "out of line" and said that the state's public universities are ignoring the rights of holders of concealed weapons permits.

While much of the publicity in the state has come from critics of the university policies, others defend them.

Shawn Alford, president of Ceasefire Oregon, a group that favors gun control, said that universities "have a right and obligation to keep students and faculty safe." Alford noted that there is a long-standing tradition of heightened regulation of guns in certain places, even if states permit gun possession generally.

For example, in last year's Supreme Court decision striking down a District of Columbia gun control law as violating the Second Amendment, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote: "[N]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."

That was how Inside Higher Ed reported the story. But what's really interesting about this article is the first comment, which points out a major error in IHE's reporting:

The problem:

"Oregon's administrative statutes specifically state that guns are barred from public colleges (as well as elementary and secondary schools) unless specifically authorized by institutional officials."

Is not true. ORS 166.370 and ORS 166.70 are what is relevant in this case. First, he broke no Oregon statute:

"166.370 Possession of firearm or dangerous weapon in public building or court facility; exceptions; discharging firearm at school. (1) Any person who intentionally possesses a loaded or unloaded firearm or any other instrument used as a dangerous weapon, while in or on a public building, shall upon conviction be guilty of a Class C felony. (2) (a) Except as otherwise provided in paragraph (b) of this subsection, a person who intentionally possesses: ... (3) Subsection (1) of this section does not apply to: ... (d) A person who is licensed under ORS 166.291 and 166.292 to carry a concealed handgun."

Second, WOU's "policy" is in violation of state law:

"166.170 State preemption. (1) Except as expressly authorized by state statute, the authority to regulate in any matter whatsoever the sale, acquisition, transfer, ownership, possession, storage, transportation or use of firearms or any element relating to firearms and components thereof, including ammunition, is vested solely in the Legislative Assembly."

In the simplest of terms, WOU had no right to arrest Maxwell as he was violating no law and as a public institution, they had no right to create a policy that violates Oregon law.

Please, read Oregon gun laws a little bit before you make such statements. There *is* a reason the DA did not press charges against the student.

Here's what interests me about this. We've taken a good ten years to get academia to begin to accept the premise that speech codes are not a good thing. There are still speech codes on many, many campuses. But it's now a matter of nonpartisan basic logic to acknowledge that these things are dumb and destructive any way you look at them, even and perhaps especially when they come packaged as anti-harassment policies.

We have FIRE to thank for that awareness. What I wonder is -- will FIRE be taking up Second Amendment issues with the same libertarian fervor that it defends the First Amendment? If they won't, will anyone?

Someone needs to. This one is by definition a lot tougher than fighting speech codes. It's not as amenable to arguments about the purpose of the university--the value of free inquiry, the importance of dissent and debate, and so on. These are all killer arguments for repealing speech codes. They appeal not only to the law, but also to the principles of the educational enterprise. That makes them very powerful indeed.

Self-defense is a different sort of thing entirely. There is no academic argument for letting people carry guns on campus; there is only a legal argument about how far, from one state to the next, the right to carry may or may not be restricted. I am very much not a lawyer (obviously) -- so would welcome those who are to elaborate and clarify on this in the comments.

I do think the issue of guns on campus is heating up, though, and I do think we need to have this discussion from as many informed angles as possible. I am alive to the concerns people have about students and faculty members packing on campus. But I am also alive to the basic issue of individual rights. And while gun laws vary by state, it may still be possible to draw an analogy, at least provisionally, between kinds of illegitimate campus exceptionalism.

We accept now, as a truism, that students and faculty do not have the right not to be offended--no matter what a speech code might say to the contrary. Can we also say that students and faculty do not have the right not to be in the presence of a person exercising his right to carry a concealed weapon?

Here's the thing. Depending on where you live, you may well be in the presence of concealed weapons all the time. You just don't know it. In Oregon, for example, people drive with them in their cars, they carry them on walks in the woods, they have them on their persons when shopping, running errands. They are exercising their rights--and they don't have to tell you one word about it. If that creeps you out, that's probably a register of your own lack of familiarity with gun laws, gun use, and the enormously careful and responsible culture that exists in areas of the country where private citizens carry as a matter of course.

Do I carry? No. But I recognize that I should. I live in an impoverished rural area with minimal emergency support. You can't count on instant response if you dial 911. There's a lot of meth around, not to mention cougars and so on, and things happen.

There is a strong culture of personal responsibility in the area--many people carry, and you get used to not knowing who is and who isn't. You also get used to how that translates into a real communal respect for guns. People don't screw around with them. They take their licenses seriously, and they maintain their skills. They do it so that they will never have a moment when they or a loved one is in imminent danger--and they are powerless to do anything about it. It's proactive and preventive, and part of being accountable to yourself and your family. They all know that the last thing they ever want to have to do is shoot; the training they go through stresses just how high the bar is for getting a legal pass if they do shoot someone. They carry because the alternative is to be a sitting duck.

I know how alien that mentality is in urban areas, and in places like New York and California. But it's important for the people who reflexively oppose guns while knowing nothing about them to think a little bit harder about what they mean, about what role they play in the lives of those who do carry responsibly, and about regional variation in culture and in levels of police coverage and responsiveness. All of that should be part of the discussion I hope we will soon begin to have about guns on campus.

I mentioned that I don't carry. But I have shot a few times. It's jarring and unsettling at first, no question about it. But once that passes, it does sink in that knowing how to handle a gun is one of the basic responsibilities of adult life. You can hope like hell that you never have to use that knowledge. But if you don't have at least basic familiarity with guns, you are potentially gambling your own life, not to mention those of your family members.

UPDATE 2/18: Maxwell is suing.

Erin O'Connor, 8:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

February 13, 2009 [feather]
What we talk about when we talk about love

Since it's almost Valentine's Day, I thought I'd just do a quick post on some of the more compelling love stories I've read recently. Of course, when I started thinking about it, everything seemed to be a love story of one sort or another (just like everything, when you think about it, is a bildungsroman of some kind or another). Does that mean the category is meaningless? Or that it is all the more resonant and interesting? I don't know, and I don't suppose it matters. Far more important is the reading list itself.

--Bernhard Schlink's The Reader. Not in theaters in my remote rural location--so when friends raved about the film, I had to do the old-fashioned thing and read the book. There is so much in this book about how unrealized even the most intimate relationships ultimately are--and how even the most sustaining ties can be the source of great loneliness and isolation. Also, very spare and compressed writing, which gives it a fairy tale quality. A vital aspect of the plot is telegraphed a bit too obviously, but Schlink's compact control is such that you wind up thinking he meant to do that.

--L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between. This obscure and forgotten novel of the English 1950s is a primary source text for Ian McEwan's Atonement. All the destructive-adolescent-meddling-in-romantic-cross-class-assignations-at-old-country-house stuff that McEwan does so well is actually heavily indebted, and self-consciously so, to Hartley. This is a novel about pre-adolescent crushes -- but, more importantly, it's about how immensely a child of a certain age (old enough to begin to grasp what adults do, not old enough to fathom why they do it) can be creeped out when they bump up against other people's sexuality.

--Claire Keegan's "Night of the Quicken Trees," a story from her collection Walk the Blue Fields. Keegan is an Irish writer who gets compared to people like William Trevor and John McGahern. This story is just so rich with the special mythical tone, at once achingly beautiful and hilariously funny, that one associates with a certain strain of Irish storytelling. There is magic mixed into the remote rural Irish everyday--and this makes for marvels and for mischief. If you liked The Secret of the Roan Inish you will like this; if you also enjoy the more outrageous Irish folktales (like the one about the bewitched pudding), you'll love it.

--Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter. I don't know how many times I have read this novel. The first time was as a sophomore in high school, and I didn't understand a word of it. The writing was too murky and obscure and tense. It's still that way to me, but I think I'm finally starting to get it. Hawthorne was pretty murky and obscure and tense himself, a cynic and an idealist at once with a perennial feeling that the past had him in a stranglehold he couldn't escape. His writing is as tightly coiled as he was--or as I imagine he was. Every time I return to this novel, I have different reasons and I am looking for different things. This time, I'm not reading it as a love story--I am far more interested in how the novel thinks about shame and guilt and the weird way that ostracism can be purifying (not for the community, necessarily, but for the one ostracized). Also very interested in the opening, largely autobiographical section about working in the Salem Custom House. Still, as I read, it strikes me that this is also a very sad and touching love story.

Erin O'Connor, 8:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

February 12, 2009 [feather]
The way we were

One of the sticking points in debates about higher ed reform centers on the way we think about the past. Sketching broadly, in one iteration of the argument, there are the folks who argue that we need change because educational standards are declining, and then there are the folks who dismiss that argument by claiming that the reformers are invoking an uninformed and nostalgic image of a better-schooled past that never happened. They have a good derisive laugh at the people who would like to see constructive change, and they carry on, secure in the knowledge of their superior historicity and complacently comfortable with a status quo that serves them better than the students whose futures are in their hands.

This dead-ending is one of my pet peeves, and I often think that the folks who would like to see reform should just stop talking about the past in order to avoid this kind of reaction from the academics who need to be convinced to take responsibility for educating today's students--and for making the changes that would require. No need to invoke the past, after all. Just talk about the now. Instead of saying we aren't educating as well as we used to, just argue that we aren't educating as well as we need to. That's demonstrably true, and it focusses us on the present and the future it will create in important ways.

Still, it's interesting all the same to encounter the rare college professor who has been around long enough to be able to make some strong qualitative--and eminently quantifiable--claims about how the students of today compare to those of yesteryear.

Here's J. Edward Ketz, a Penn State accounting professor who has been teaching college for 35 years, and has some interesting things to say about what students used to know--and what they no longer do:

Compared with the students in the 1970s, today's students are uneducated and unfit for a college education.

Before proceeding, let me enunciate two premises. First, I do not think there is any significant difference between the two groups in terms of native, raw intelligence. Instead, the distinction between yesterday's and today's students when they first set foot on college campuses rests in their educational backgrounds, analytical thinking, quantitative skills, reading abilities, willingness to work, and their attitudes concerning the educational process. In short, they differ in terms of their readiness for college. Second, I am focusing on the average student who majors in accounting. Both groups arise from a distribution of students. The lower tail of yesteryear's population had some weak students, and the upper tail of the present-day population has some very strong students; however, when one focuses on the means of these two distributions, he or she finds a huge gap.

To begin, today's average accounting major cannot perform what used to be Algebra I and II in high school. Students cannot solve simultaneous equations. Students have difficulty with present value computations, not to mention formula derivations. Students even have difficulty employing the high-low method to derive a cost function, something that merely requires one to estimate a straight line from two points.

I would like to discuss in class the partial derivative of a present value formula to ascertain the impact of changes in interest rates, but that has become a fruitless enterprise. Even if students had a course in calculus, the exams probably had multiple choice questions so students guessed their way through the course, they don’t remember what they learned, and whatever they learned was mechanical and superficial.

Thirty years ago I required my Intermediate Accounting students to derive the future and present value formulas, including the present value of a perpetuity, which requires a knowledge of limits. I gave up on that endeavor over a decade ago when I observed that the average student had no idea what I was talking about.

Worse, they didn't care.

Today's students cannot read at what used to be a tenth-grade level. I learned this dramatically when I wrote a couple of textbooks in the 1990s. Editors at both publishing houses insisted that I rewrite my materials so today's student could read it. I was forbidden to employ large or "fancy" words and had to simplify the grammar. For example, both editors told me never to compose a sentence with a subordinate clause because it was too complex for students to understand.

Today's students cannot read critically. For example, I can assign an SEC litigation release for class, but students cannot read it for detail, nor can they discern the key points of the document. If I really want them to perceive anything, I have to tell them. Of course, that doesn't work in the long run because I won't be there in the future to help them read SEC essays.

Ketz goes on to speculate about the why of it all, citing the usual suspects--failure of K-12 education, the self-esteem movement's hijacking of of our culture, breakdown of family, failure of universities to insist on qualified students and uninflated grades. You won't find anything in that part of the article that you haven't seen before. But the "why" is perhaps, at this point, less important than simply establishing the "what." There is so much denial about that--and until we can get people to agree on the nature of the problem, explanations and solutions are really beside the point.

Link via Joanne Jacobs.

Erin O'Connor, 8:44 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

February 11, 2009 [feather]
Forgotten Lincoln?

When I was little, I read obsessively child-level biographies of two people: Helen Keller and Abraham Lincoln. Sometimes there was a bit of genealogical branching out (a biography of Annie Sullivan, Keller's teacher; a biography of Mary Todd Lincoln). But mainly, I wanted to absorb over and over the stories of two people who struck the eight-year-old me as immensely inspiring and interesting. I couldn't get enough of Helen finally understanding that Annie was signing the word "water" into her hand--and so acquiring access to language, culture, the world. I also loved reading about the young Abe, who walked miles to borrow books and read them late at night, after the day's farming was done, by the light of the fire. It was a big plus for me that he grew up in Indiana. Being a bookworm myself, I thought I could identify with him; that identification in turn made me feel that I had a personal stake in the work Lincoln did as president. Learning about the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Lincoln's assassination didn't feel to me at all like learning dry and dusty history. It felt like learning something about how a person brings his principles to bear on his daily life in courageous and lasting ways. I could not have said that at the time, of course. I settled for naming my pet gerbils Abraham and Mary.

Anyhow, those memories came back to me this morning reading this press release from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni:


WASHINGTON, DC (February 11, 2009) -- As the nation prepares to celebrate the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth tomorrow, many college students may wonder what all the fuss is about. Sure, they will have heard of the sixteenth president -- who is, after all, on every penny minted since 1909 -- but studies show they will be hard pressed to understand his significance.

In its survey of college seniors at the nation's best universities Losing America's Memory, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reported some of the lowest scores on Lincoln questions: Only 22 percent could link the phrase "government of the people, by the people, for the people" to the Gettysburg Address, and only 26 percent knew what the Emancipation Proclamation actually proclaimed.

"As Lincoln taught us, a house divided against itself cannot stand -- and neither can one with a weak foundation," said ACTA president Anne D. Neal. "That's what today's colleges are giving their graduates by not making sure they know the basics of American history and government."

In its report The Hollow Core, ACTA had found that only seven of the fifty leading universities surveyed had an American history or government requirement. ACTA has now surveyed 100 major institutions and the proportion is essentially unchanged.

Notably, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Indiana University-Bloomington, and the University of Kentucky-Lexington -- the flagship public universities in the states most closely associated with Lincoln -- do not require American history or government.

"'We cannot escape history,' Lincoln warned Americans more than a century ago," said Neal. "But it's clear that unless things change, college graduates will, in fact, escape history and be blissfully ignorant of their ignorance."

As a fifth grader at John Strange Elementary School in Indianapolis, I was required, along with all my classmates, to memorize the Gettysburg Address. The test: upon arriving at school on the appointed morning, in the middle of nasty freezing snowy Indiana winter, we encountered our teacher guarding the entrance to the classroom. You had to recite the address correctly, from memory, before she would let you go in, take off your many layers of down-filled outerwear, and get warm. If you messed up, you started again. If you didn't know the whole thing, she coached you until you did. Class started a bit late that day -- but by the time it did, everyone had said the Gettysburg Address from memory.

Erin O'Connor, 9:04 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

February 9, 2009 [feather]
Sounds like a plan

It's so great to see the cause of restoring ROTC to private university campuses going mainstream. Here's an op-ed from this morning's New York Times, with special emphasis on getting Yale to take ROTC back:

Since the Vietnam War, R.O.T.C. programs have been banned from operating on campus at elite universities like Yale and Harvard. These institutions have also long hindered the military's efforts to recruit their students. But in March 2006, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the military must be allowed back on all campuses. The door is open. More important, the students themselves are ready.

I recently taught a course on the obligations of citizenship at Yale, where I also spent three years as a law student. If my university holds some prejudice against military service, its students, in my experience, don't seem to.

The student-run Yale Political Union recently approved a resolution to invite R.O.T.C. back on campus. Several pro-military organizations have sprung up, including the Semper Fi Society, which helps undergraduates become Marine Corps officers.

While it is true that few of the students I taught will ever serve in uniform, part of the reason is that no one has bothered to ask them to. To change that, our new commander in chief should order the military to activate new R.O.T.C. units. Then President Obama should direct it to step up in-person recruiting efforts on these campuses.

TV commercials showing marines scaling mountains will not work on Yale students. But programs like Teach for America have great success recruiting from Ivy League colleges, because their recruiters are given time at the end of large lectures to deliver their pitch.

If the military demands similar access, students will respond. Imagine asking a 21-year-old: "How would you like to go somewhere where you are the only person who is capable of helping?" My students were desperate to serve their country in some way. We owe it to them to offer the armed forces as a realistic option.

But rebuilding a connection between America's military and its most selective colleges is about more than providing exceptional opportunities to exceptional young people. It is, ultimately, about our military's relationship to its civilian leaders.

At Yale, which has supplied more than its share of senators and presidents, almost none of my former classmates or students ever noticed the absence of uniforms on campus. In a nation at war, this is a disgrace. But it also shows how dangerously out of touch the elites who shape our national policy have become with the men and women they send to war.

Whenever I encounter animus toward the military at Yale, it is almost always born of ignorance. Students often cite the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military as a justification for the ban on R.O.T.C. They are far more sympathetic when I explain that such policies are enacted by Congress, and that the military has no choice but to comply.

Toward the end of the semester, I took my class to West Point. None of my students had ever seen a military base, and only one had a friend his age in uniform. But every one of them was deeply respectful of what they saw. My students understood that many of the cadets they met would soon be at war. And without my saying it, they also knew that the decisions leading to war are made by elite civilians like themselves.

As a candidate, Barack Obama called top colleges' rejection of the military a "mistake." As president, he can begin to correct that mistake by ordering the military to invest in new R.O.T.C. units and redouble campus recruiting efforts.

The door is finally open, but it is up to our commander in chief to lead us through.

The emphasis on leadership here seems vital. Obama has a role to play--he needs to follow up on the statements he made last fall when asked if ROTC should be restored at Columbia. And higher ed administrators have a role to play, too. Up to now, they've tended to take a passive-aggressive approach, letting an outdated and inappropriately politicized status quo rest, and failing to step in on those occasions when students call for the return of ROTC, and then encounter faculty resistance (see Columbia, Harvard, Yale). Administrators, presidents, and trustees appease hostile activist faculties this way--and one suspects that this is really their priority, because it's the path of least resistance. While students come and go, faculties are forever. And while students tend not to have long institutional memories (cycling onward and outward in four years), the institutional memories of faculties--and the grudges that come with them--can last for decades. ROTC is a classic case in point.

Obama has been hammering on the twin concepts of sacrifice and service for a long, long time. We need to change our culture to embrace both, he says. And we need to overcome petty partisan differences along the way. When it comes to seeing whether elite universities are willing to walk that walk, ROTC is going to be a really interesting proving ground.

Erin O'Connor, 7:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

February 5, 2009 [feather]
Do as I say, not as I spell

The London Telegraph reports on England's schools minister--whose blog is a striking record of his own inattention to spelling and editing:

The Labour MP's website was also found to contain typing errors and grammatical oversights.

The mispellings of Mr Knight, who was educated at Cambridge University, include "maintainence", "convicned", "curently", "similiar", "foce", "pernsioners", "reccess" and "archeaological".

Mr Knight, who is responsible for raising education standards, also clearly has problems with the "i before e, except after c" spelling rule taught to primary school pupils.

He spelled "achieving" and "received" incorrectly.

Mr Knight, 43, gives his opinions on local and national issues regularly on his website, which reveals he attended the fee-paying Eltham College, in Mottingham, south east London.

He went on to study geography, and social and political sciences at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, from 1984 to 1987.

Mr Knight, MP for Dorset South, said: "When I was at school the teachers told me to always check my work. While my spelling is generally pretty good, I need to focus more on checking."

Rob Wilson, the Conservative education spokesman, said: "He will be disappointed with his efforts in class but I'm sure he'll make every effort to improve now teacher has noticed he's falling behind."

Words the education minister got wrong:

maintainence (maintenance)
convicned (convinced)
curently (currently)
similiar (similar)
foce (force)
pernsioners (pensioners)
reccess (recess)
archeaological (archeological)
acheiving (achieving)
receieved (received)

The BBC makes additional note of Knight's iffy grammar and syntax:

In one entry, Mr Knight talks of his pride at steering through Parliament the legislation raising the education or training age to 18.
He says: "This is something that Winston Churchill first proposed 100 years when he put forward the idea of raising the age to 17, then another attempt to raise the leaving age after the First and Second World Wars."

Later he writes: "While there has been a lot going on with respect to problems regarding the Educational Maintainence Allowance and tidying up after the problems with the SATs, there is also a lot of positive things going on in our schools."

"The new diplomas are being taught very successful ...".


The heading of Mr Knight's blog includes the verb "to feedback".

Corrections were being made to old blog entries on the website on Thursday morning.

Oh, the pain.

There's not being able to spell, punctuate, edit -- and there's not caring whether your spelling, grammar, and typing are correct. They are two things, but they overlap quite a bit, not least because if you are a crap speller (or a crap punctuator, or a crap crafter of syntax), you won't be able to see your own mistakes, and you won't necessarily appreciate the difference between what you write and what's correct.

It's hard to get people who don't take language seriously to start doing it. And it doesn't help that students aren't reliably held to account by their teachers. There is one thing that I found works quite well, though, to help students grasp the nature of the embarrassment and judgment they can unwittingly incur if they don't attend to those details. They pretty much get it if you say that not being able to tell if you are producing correct prose is the linguistic equivalent of walking around with your fly down--and not having the capacity to identify or correct the problem.

Aside: at the boarding school where I spent the 2004-05 year, the head of school was quite blunt about why they did nothing to try to improve students' grammar and spelling, arguing (erroneously) that such things just turn kids off reading and school. He was surprised--and I think perhaps a bit offended--when my colleague and I introduced grammar lessons into our English and writing courses. The students loved it, and asked for more. Then we introduced SAT verbal prep classes on Wednesday nights--which also included plenty of grammar study, along with vocabulary lessons. The kids brought snacks, they filled the room, they learned a lot, and we all had a blast, especially when it came to the vocabulary flash cards. I kid you not. Kids are fun. And so is learning. So ... good times were had by all.

Via University Diaries.

Erin O'Connor, 8:28 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

February 3, 2009 [feather]
Speaking truth to campus conservatives

From David French, former president of FIRE, current director of the Alliance Defense Fund's Center for Academic Freedom, and perennially wise commentator on campus speech:

Over at NRO's "other blog," Michael Rubin links to a Yale Daily News story about the plight of conservatives on campus. Intrigued, I clicked over and read the whole thing...now I want that 20 minutes of my life back.

When I speak on campus, one of the most frustrating experiences is hearing conservatives--and many faithful Christians--describe themselves as "silenced" or "afraid" to speak when there is no formal, legal barrier to their speech. I hear it all:

"I'm afraid to speak up or I get attacked in class."

"Professors ridicule me."

"I don't really like the conservative group that is on campus, so I don't know where to go."

"I'm concerned about my grades or recommendations, what do I do?"

I hear these complaints, and don't doubt their sincerity, but here is what these folks are really saying: "There are many things that I value far more than my conservative (or, sadly, Christian) principles, including the regard of all my peers, the ease of my academic career, and feeling welcome and accepted during the Thursday-Sunday party circuit. Please change the university so that I can speak my mind without any cost or consequence."

I have two words for these people: Cowboy up. If you are not actively being censored (and Yale is a "yellow light" school according to FIRE, so there is no policy that clearly limits student speech), speak up! If you don't like the current stable of conservative groups, create a new one or speak on your own. If you are afraid professors won't grade you fairly, put them to the test and respond appropriately if their bias manifests itself (you'll be surprised how well you might do). If you don't think people will like you, grow a thicker skin and see what happens. I still have dear lefty friends from my law school days, and I never pulled any punches in my conversations with them (and still don't). But, above all. Stop whining. Please.

As for the Christians who live in silent fear of peer pressure or the scorn of professors, well there is scripture that applies quite clearly.

The situation changes when there is actual censorship (i.e. a coercive effort to silence speech), but until then . . . fear not. And remember, these rights did not just spring spontaneously into being. Good men died (and are dying still) to create and preserve those rights. Don't dishonor their memory or scorn their sacrifice by valuing your peers' opinions over your own ability to speak the truth.

One of the things that bugs me about the academic culture wars is the persistent accusation that what people on the "right" side of that war want is affirmative action for conservatives, along with a host of similar special dispensations. That's wrong. The leaders of that movement (and here you might think of everyone from French to FIRE to ACTA to Mark Bauerlein to David Horowitz to Evan Maloney of Indoctrinate U fame) all agree that this is not what they seek--and French lays out the reasons why right here.

Sure, as French notes, there is a misguided and confused strain of thought among campus conservatives. These are the folks who want to be protected from views that differ from theirs (and so seem to endorse speech codes), who don't want to have to read books that challenge their beliefs (and so file lawsuits when the freshman reading project offends them), who indulge in whiny rhetoric about feeling unsafe when in the presence of opposing views (see above), and who may even think it would be a good idea to adopt a hiring agenda centered on bringing in more conservative faculty. In short--these are the folks who don't get it. They have adopted the tools of the campus left--an affect and an agenda oriented around speech codes, groupthink, and disregard for meritocracy. And, as French notes, that makes for mewling, cowardly stuff--no matter who's peddling it.

No one has the right not to be offended. And part of being a functional, engaged citizen is having convictions--and having the courage to stand by them.

Erin O'Connor, 8:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Mandatory money management?

Last week, Maurice Black and I published an essay on what colleges and universities should be doing to make sure students graduate knowing how to manage their money -- and knowing the nuts and bolts of economics.

We are not alone in thinking that higher ed has some major work to do on this front. In an address yesterday before the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, former Comptroller General David Walker urged college officials to take seriously their responsibilities on this front:

Colleges have a role in helping to fix the problem, he said. Americans, frequently criticized for weakness in mathematics and science, have glaring problems with personal financial literacy. "People don't know the basics," Mr. Walker said. "If they don't have [financial skills] by college, they need to get it in college, and it needs to be mandatory."

Citizens also need an education in "what their responsibilities are if their democracy is going to work," Mr. Walker said, and then directed a question to the college officials in the room. "I would ask you, What are you doing about that?"

He's right, he's right, he's right. Walker, by the way, gave up his post as Comptroller General to become a tireless advocate for fiscal responsibility in this country. He's now president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which recently released IOUSA, a terrifying documentary about our towering national debt that also doubles as a crash course in basic economics. Walker now tours the nation as part of his Foundation's "fiscal wake up tour," spreading a message we all need to hear.

You can see a 30-minute version of the film--and see Walker in action--here.

UPDATE 2/4/09: More at ACTA Online and IPE Journal.

Erin O'Connor, 8:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

February 2, 2009 [feather]
Quote for the day

From Rachel Toor, writing at the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The Internet has brought us so many good things that it's impossible to think of life without it. (Can you imagine dating without Google?) But one aspect of the Web I could easily forgo is anonymous online reviews or blog posts. They are the refuge of cowardly, craven, dastardly, lily-livered, faint-hearted, gutless wimps who are unwilling to stick their necks out like those whose work they so readily, facilely, easily, and often nastily critique. (There: I bet that's going to get me a slew of anonymous trashing.)

Amazon.com has given voices to those who have been bashed and battered by the traditional means of access. Now, instead of working hard to get published, you can spend your time and energy dumping on those who have. Blogs and Internet chat groups allow everyone a chance to be heard. But if you write a review you're proud of, why wouldn't you want to sign your name?

Wanting to write anonymously about the personal or professional details of your own life is one thing. I understand the reasons for that. But carping about other people from behind the curtain? That's the sign of a very bad wizard. It saddens and depresses me to see the tone and nature of so many of the anonymous responses to articles in The Chronicle. As academics, we are paid to have thoughts, to hold opinions. But Internet forums, great venues for the exchange of ideas, often turn into mudslinging of the most petty and mean-spirited kind.

I'm OK having mud slung at me. Maybe sometimes I deserve it. But I like to see who's pitching it, to know the background and qualifications of the person who is expending energy to take me down. Is that too much to ask? When I do a review, either for publication or as an anonymous peer reviewer, I ask myself if I would I be able to speak what I've written directly to the author. Were we to meet, would I feel bad or guilty? Would I try to avoid her at a cocktail party? If so, I know I need to revise. It is possible to be critical without being nasty, funny without being mean. If you must be negative, have the nerve to stand by what you think and sign your name to it. Live with the consequences. The rest of us have to.

Of course there are many reasons why people might want to blog anonymously, or might not want to sign their names to the comments they leave on blogs. But those reasons do have to be tempered by an awareness of the ethics involved in trashing others publicly while wearing a mask. Blogging anonymously and commenting anonymously can be done in a wide range of tones--too often, though, as Toor points out, the pseudonymous handle translates into a nasty lack of restraint.

Toor touches briefly on the academic convention of anonymous peer review -- but does not consider whether that convention might prime scholars to behave in certain ways online. Similar questions could be raised about the academic tradition of keeping tenure and promotion reviews so swathed in secrecy that abuses are easy to commit -- and accountability is nearly impossible to impose.

And one might wonder, too, whether academics' tolerance for online nastiness in their own electronic circles (one thinks of the comment threads at CHE, IHE, and at certain academic blogs) might in turn render both peer review and the tenure process that much more subject to the kinds of vigilante nastiness that are so common in electronic fora -- even when the subject is education, and the participants are themselves scholars and teachers.

Erin O'Connor, 7:44 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)