About Critical Mass [dot] Writing [dot] Reviews [dot] Contact
October 30, 2009 [feather]
Gaming the system

Faculty at Berkeley have done some detective work in the wake of massive system-wide budget cuts that include pay reductions for faculty and reduced academic services--and have discovered a surprising fact. The athletics program--felt there, as at many schools, to be a self-sustaining entity that encourages alumni donations and brings in money and support for the school--is actually a major drain on the university's resources. While the football program is profitable, most other sports are not--and to maintain them, the university subsidizes the athletics department to the tune of millions a year. At various points in recent history, even the subsidies have not been enough, and Cal's athletics program has run up millions in debt. Needless to say, that debt does not get paid.

Berkeley faculty are publicizing the economics of Cal's NCAA Division I programs--and demanding, at the very least, that the athletics arm of the university be compelled to be self-sustaining. At a time when tempers are running high about what kinds of cuts get made (UC faculty walked out a few weeks ago to protest the administration's decision to tithe them while still maintaining absurd executive payrolls and other vast expenses), this is a compelling argument on its face.

But there are some issues. For example, I wonder what will happen when we factor Title IX into this mix. You can't have the profitable men's sports without having comparable numbers of women athletes, whose sports are not profitable. So the situation quickly becomes sticky. Do you nix football? Or squeeze football so you can use its profits to pay for women's soccer and softball? Does football keep its own profits--but only as long as other sports can raise their own funds? And what would that involve? Hiring sport-specific development officers? Selling cookies door to door? How, also, do you account for the fact that it's the minor sports, the ones that don't make any money, that tend to be filled with the scholar-athletes that were the original impetus for college sports in the first place? These kids study hard, do their sport, and graduate. Their sport enriches their lives and those of the comparably few fans it brings out. Unlike college football players, who often seem to me to be barely literate pseudo-students for whom the undergrad years are a semi-pro training ground designed to prepare them for the NFL, cross country runners, rowers, and the like may well be more "pure" exemplars of the ideal of intercollegiate sport.

Add to this: scholarships for these sports can be the chance disadvantaged kids need to get a college education. If that logic is a joke in football, it's very real in other sports. When I was growing up, for example, I played fastpitch softball. My summer traveling team brought together girls from all over the city, some from seriously broken homes or impoverished backgrounds. Many of these girls went on to college because of the grounding--and economic support--that the sport gave them. They studied hard, played their hearts out, graduated, and had opportunities their parents never did. So, there is an academic role to be played by college sports programs, if they are handled right.

It's fascinating to me to see the question of college sports financing coming to a head at Berkeley. Once upon a time, I myself was a Cal Bear--in the fall of 1986, I actually went to Berkeley on a full athletic scholarship for fastpitch softball. It was a dream come true, it financed my fantasy of attending college out of my home state, and it was no joke, athletically or academically. Our academic work was taken just as seriously as our athletic work, and while, even in the off season, we spent 17 hours per week on the field, not including running and weightlifting, we were also required to attend study hall every night. The coach kept track of our grades, and if anyone needed tutoring, or to be excused from practice to attend a lab, or similar, those things were the top priority. Everyone graduated, and many went on to get higher degrees in law and other fields. The year before I arrived, Cal had placed third in the national championships. So this was a team that had found a balance between academics and athletics; excellence in both were required.

As it happened, my own dream of being a scholar-athlete didn't pan out. By the end of the first semester, I had a 4.0--and a whopping case of training-induced anemia. Between that and my growing realization that I was not likely ever to be able to compete at this level (no amount of training put on the muscle I needed, or made me fast enough, or made me learn quickly enough), I left the team and devoted myself to just being any old college student. It was the right choice for me, and I treasure my memories of studying at Berkeley--but for other girls, that team was the experience of a lifetime, and a means of getting an education they might not otherwise have gotten.

So I have mixed feelings about college sports, as, I imagine, many people do. Is the ultimate solution just to decouple schooling and sports entirely--at every level of our educational system? I've wondered about that--certainly, growing up, the best teams my brother and I played on were not those sponsored by our schools.

All of this is to say that I am delighted Berkeley professors have launched a debate. I am glad that debate is emanating from concerns about costs, debt, and sustainability--it's content neutral, unimpeachable, and can serve as a starting ground for sorting out the murkier issues of corruption, exploitation, and excess that surround big time college sports, and tarnish the reputations of the small time ones.

Erin O'Connor, 7:53 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

October 28, 2009 [feather]
Putting the genie back in the bottle

Tenure has been disappearing for decades--just about as fast as adjuncts can be hired. Much ink and many pixels have been devoted to analyzing, deploring, and even, at times, celebrating the fact that today, by some counts, upwards of 70 percent of college courses are taught by non-tenure track faculty. Now the AAUP wants to put the genie back in the bottle.

The AAUP is arguing that in order to preserve academic freedom, adjunct faculty positions ought to be converted into tenured ones. It has issued a draft statement laying out the hows and the whys, and inviting comment. Debate is already raging, within the AAUP and beyond, about how such conversion should be handled, and how it might grapple with certain realities--such as the fact that adjuncts at research universities don't tend to have the publishing records required for tenure at such places.

The realities in turn raise messy ethical issues. As KC Johnson observes at Inside Higher Ed,

The AAUP statement is deeply troubling ... Adjuncts are not hired through competitive, national searches, nor (with very, very rare exceptions) does an adjunct position contain any expectation of scholarly production. Converting them en masse to tenure-track faculty status would send a message to graduate students entering the field -- much less to state legislators, donors, and alumni -- that institutions no longer have any interest in ensuring that tenure-track positions result in the hire of the best candidate, drawn from a national pool to include consideration of the candidate's scholarly publications.

It's a sad irony. The argument against adjunct labor is often a quality control argument--adjuncts, the logic goes, tend not to have the time or resources to teach with as much dedication as they should; they don't have academic freedom, so can neither teach nor research fearlessly; they don't have time to publish. But the argument against converting adjunct positions into tenured ones is also shaping up to be an argument of quality control, for the very same reasons. You can't have it both ways, though the folks who really just want to dial back the clock and return to the halcyon days of tenure want to believe you can.

I'm getting tired and I haven't even mentioned the financial obstacles. Or the fact that the AAUP, once again, is behaving more like a union than a principled professional organization. The draft statement argues that "Tenure was conceived as a right rather than a privilege." But academic freedom, as the AAUP itself used to emphasize, is not just a "right." It is a system of major responsibilities and contingent rights that add up to an ideal of ethical, peer-reviewed professionalism. You don't get the rights if you don't fulfill the responsibilities. Those responsibilities include self-policing, meaningful peer review at hiring and promotion, serious post-tenure review, and so on. It's no secret that in the aggregate, academics aren't holding up their end of the bargain.

I'm thinking this is a genie that won't go back into the bottle.

Erin O'Connor, 12:33 PM | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

October 23, 2009 [feather]
Get your Trollope on

Recently re-read The Eustace Diamonds, Trollope's 1871 novel about the finer points of property law, inheritance, deception, and, most interesting of all, self-deception. My father always says that the real person to look out for is the person who believes their own lies. That's what this novel is about.

Every year or so, I get a hankering to read a Trollope novel. There are so many of them, I figure that at this rate, I will never run out. Unlike Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, and George Eliot, Trollope is like the cookie jar that never gets empty. He struggled for prominence with company like this. While his writing career spanned four decades, that only meant he was outshined by two successive generations of stars--first it was Dickens and Thackeray, then it was Eliot and James. Trollope was felt to be more prosaic, more materialistic, and more stodgy in his choice of subject and theme--his marriage plots are never far from almost mercenary considerations of money, and he loved to devote hundreds of pages at a stretch to things like internecine church politics or the ways and means of Parliamentary life. But there is something wonderful about him. He's funny, and very smart, and intensely curious, truthful, and also just rock solid. (I know that sounds like I'm describing a person rather than a writing style, but I find it hard to separate those things, and the more I think about it, the more I don't see that as a problem.)

Trollope got going as a novelist when working for the post office in Ireland, where he decided to go when it became clear to him that if he stayed in London working as a low-level civil servant he'd never advance, never make any money, never be able to afford to marry, never have a life. Ireland was the end of the world to aspiring middle-class sorts then, but Trollope preferred banishment with opportunity to London with none. And it worked out wonderfully. He spent long hours traveling from one remote rural location to another for work; the hours allowed him to work out plots and stories, while the people and places gave him material for his first several novels. While in Ireland, he advanced professionally and he became an artist. He also fell in love and got married.

By the time he wrote Eustace Diamonds, Trollope was an established lion of the English literary scene. Ireland was well in the past, and he wrote with a comfort, authority, and humor that enabled him to devise some of the best opening lines in the history of the novel.

Here is paragraph one:

It was admitted by all her friends, and also by her enemies,--who were in truth the more numerous and active body of the two,--that Lizzie Greystock had done very well with herself. We will tell the story of Lizzie Greystock from the beginning, but we will not dwell over it at great length, as we might do if we loved her. She was the only child of old Admiral Greystock, who in the latter years of his life was much perplexed by the possession of a daughter. The admiral was a man who liked whist, wine,--and wickedness in general we may perhaps say, and whose ambition it was to live every day of his life up to the end of it. People say that he succeeded, and that the whist, wine, and wickedness were there, at the side even of his dying bed. He had no particular fortune, and yet his daughter, when she was little more than a child, went about everywhere with jewels on her fingers, and red gems hanging round her neck, and yellow gems pendent from her ears, and white gems shining in her black hair. She was hardly nineteen when her father died and she was taken home by that dreadful old termagant, her aunt, Lady Linlithgow. Lizzie would have sooner gone to any other friend or relative, had there been any other friend or relative to take her possessed of a house in town. Her uncle, Dean Greystock, of Bobsborough, would have had her, and a more good-natured old soul than the dean's wife did not exist,--and there were three pleasant, good-tempered girls in the deanery, who had made various little efforts at friendship with their cousin Lizzie; but Lizzie had higher ideas for herself than life in the deanery at Bobsborough. She hated Lady Linlithgow. During her father's lifetime, when she hoped to be able to settle herself before his death, she was not in the habit of concealing her hatred for Lady Linlithgow. Lady Linlithgow was not indeed amiable or easily managed. But when the admiral died, Lizzie did not hesitate for a moment in going to the old "vulturess," as she was in the habit of calling the countess in her occasional correspondence with the girls at Bobsborough.

This is such stark, rude, wonderful prose. The whole novel is like this. If all the more tasteful and refined novels of Trollope's contemporaries got together, got naked, and then went streaking through a polite tea party, this is what you'd get.

Erin O'Connor, 7:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

October 22, 2009 [feather]
Ed school accountability

Our ed schools are terrible. Even the folks who run them can and do admit that, when pressed. And to its credit, the Obama administration is calling them out. Arne Duncan is speaking at Columbia Teachers College today--and Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews says his talk "goes further than any other I can remember from an education secretary in ripping into the failure of education schools to ready teachers for the challenges of the day, particularly the demand for academic growth in all students."


"[B]y almost any standard, many if not most of the nation's 1,450 schools, colleges, and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st-century classroom."

"For decades, schools of education have been renowned for being cash cows for universities. The large enrollment in education schools and their relatively low overhead have made them profit-centers. But many universities have diverted those profits to more prestigious but under-enrolled graduate departments like physics--while doing little to invest in rigorous educational research and well-run clinical training."

"Now the fact is that states, districts, and the federal government are also culpable for the persistence of weak teacher preparation programs. Most states routinely approve teacher education programs, and licensing exams typically measure basic skills and subject matter knowledge with paper-and-pencil tests without any real-world assessment of classroom readiness. Local mentoring programs for new teachers are poorly funded and often poorly organized at the district level."

"Our best programs are coherent, up-to-date, research-based, and provide students with subject mastery. They have a strong and substantial field-based program in local public schools that drives much of the course work in classroom management and student learning and prepares students to teach diverse pupils in high-needs settings. And these programs have a shared vision of what constitutes good teaching and best practices--including a single--minded focus on improving student learning and using data to inform instruction."

It's a good start. Something else I'd like to see--ed schools losing some of their gatekeeping monopoly for who can teach in public schools. There are lots of people out there who could bring an awful lot to a K-12 classroom, but aren't about to sink a couple of years and thousands of dollars into a credentialing process that is in many ways a waste of time for them--retired people come to mind, as do ex-academics, who have PhDs and lots of teaching experience but no teaching credential. The credentialing process, it should also be noted, has abused its prerogatives very badly in recent years--just read the horror stories surrounding how "dispositions" evaluation led the accreditor NCATE and a number of schools to impose unconstitutional ideological litmus tests on prospective teachers.

Erin O'Connor, 7:43 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

October 20, 2009 [feather]
Achievement gap at home

English teacher Patrick Welsh, writing in the Washington Post:

"Why don't you guys study like the kids from Africa?"

In a moment of exasperation last spring, I asked that question to a virtually all-black class of 12th-graders who had done horribly on a test I had just given. A kid who seldom came to class -- and was constantly distracting other students when he did -- shot back: "It's because they have fathers who kick their butts and make them study."

Another student angrily challenged me: "You ask the class, just ask how many of us have our fathers living with us." When I did, not one hand went up.


My students knew intuitively that the reason they were lagging academically had nothing to do with race, which is the too-handy explanation for the achievement gap in Alexandria. And it wasn't because the school system had failed them. They knew that excuses about a lack of resources and access just didn't wash at the new, state-of-the-art, $100 million T.C. Williams, where every student is given a laptop and where there is open enrollment in Advanced Placement and honors courses. Rather, it was because their parents just weren't there for them -- at least not in the same way that parents of kids who were doing well tended to be.

In an example of how bad the fixation on race here has become, last year Morton Sherman, the new superintendent, ordered principals throughout the city to post huge charts in their hallways so everyone -- including 10-year-old kids -- could see differences in test scores between white, black and Hispanic students. One mother told me that a black fifth-grader at Cora Kelly Magnet School said that "whoever sees that sign will think I am stupid." A fourth-grade African American girl there looked at the sign and said to a friend: "That's not me." When black and white parents protested that impressionable young children don't need such information, administrators accused them of not facing up to the problem. Only when the local NAACP complained did Sherman have the charts removed.

Achievement gaps don't break down neatly along racial lines. Take Yasir Hussein, a student of mine last year whose parents emigrated from Sudan in the early 1990s, and who entered the engineering program at Virginia Tech this fall. "My parents were big on our family living the American dream," he said. "One quarter when I got a 3.5 grade-point average, the guys I hung around with were congratulating me, but my parents had the opposite reaction. They took my PlayStation and TV out of my bedroom and told me I could do better."

Yasir said it wasn't just fear that made him study: "Knowing how hard my parents worked simply to give me the opportunity to get an education in America, it was hard for me not to care about getting good grades."

But Yasir's experience isn't what community activists and school administrators at T.C. Williams or around the country focus on. They cast the difference between kids who are succeeding in school and those who are not in terms of race and seem obsessed with what they call "the gap" between the test scores of white and black students.


But focusing on a "racial achievement gap" is too simple; it's a gap in familial support and involvement, too. Administrators focused solely on race are stigmatizing black students. At the same time, they are encouraging the easy excuse that the kids who are not excelling are victims, as well as the idea that once schools stop being racist and raise expectations, these low achievers will suddenly blossom.

All true--and there is much more if you click over and read the whole article. More: if you take his argument seriously, which you should, you also arrive at strong arguments against affirmative action and the diversity industry, both of which have, in their current configurations, broad, toxic racist streaks running right down their middles. Like so much real and meaningful change, you can't engineer it from above; even more to the point, you are not likely to increase someone's sense of their own worth, not to mention their own humanity, by reducing them to a demographic data point and herding them around accordingly. What's happening at home matters. And it matters too, that your teacher and your principal see you as a person--not as a symbol of cultural damage.

Erin O'Connor, 8:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

October 14, 2009 [feather]
Bad day at the office

Accreditation is one of the murkier and less sensational zones of academic politics. But it's also one of the most important ones. To be eligible to receive federal student aid, a college or university must be accredited. No accreditation, no aid. For many schools, to lose accreditation is, thus, not only to face a radical reorganization of the student body--but to face institutional failure. To the extent that a school depends on federal student aid dollars to stay afloat, that school is terrifically vulnerable to capricious accreditors. Small colleges are particularly vulnerable. And when accreditors get capricious, it's a recipe for disaster.

That's what's happening at St. Andrews Presbyterian College, a tiny 800-student school in North Carolina whose accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), revoked its accreditation for not well-specified concerns about the school's financial stability. Alleging lack of due process, St. Andrews has been embroiled in a lawsuit against SACS since 2007 as a result -- and is not faring well in the courts, which are showing exceptional deference to SACS' power to make or break the college economically (irony of the day: note accreditor's power to produce self-fulfilling prophecies).

David French says what needs to be said:

By conditioning virtually any meaningful federal or state educational benefit on accreditation and then by explicitly recognizing specific accreditors, the government has imbued them with an astonishing level of power over colleges and universities. Is it too much to expect powerful entities to promulgate precise standards? While it seems easy for a court to wash its hands of a case when a debt-burdened college challenges a financial-stability finding, excessive deference could prove dangerous. After all, how does one measure a commitment to "diversity" or "social justice" or any of the other ideological "metrics" that are creeping into the accreditation process? Can a federal court really wash its hands of accreditation decisions when the accreditor derives its power from the government?

A commenter at Inside Higher Ed adds a tragic epilogue: "In the past three years, the school has raised over $36 million dollars from donors and alumni. To put this in perspective, St. Andrews only has a total of 2,400+ graduates. The majority of these individuals serve in modestly paying fields such as K-12 education, church services and administration, social work and higher education. This multi-million dollar financial committment to the school from these graduates speaks volumes. ... The school went into debt and is coming out of it, like many people in this entire country. With widespread fraud and financial scandals at so many public institutions, I find it amazing that SACS has focused on St. Andrews for debt that is being retired."

ACTA has argued--quite convincingly and interestingly--that our accreditation system is badly broken, and has laid out a plan for repairing it. Among the recommendations: break the link between accreditation and federal financial aid. See ACTA's 2007 report, Why Accreditation Doesn't Work and What Policymakers Can Do About it.

Erin O'Connor, 2:58 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

The dying Obama brand

Indoctrinate U director Evan Coyne Maloney has released a short film on the rise and fall of the Obama brand. Check it out.

Erin O'Connor, 2:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

October 9, 2009 [feather]

Barack Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Within minutes, the Chronicle of Higher Education posts the news on its site. Shortly thereafter, the comments begin to roll in. There are nine so far. Two are congratulatory. Excerpts from the remaining seven:

"Maybe this is a little premature? He is still fighting two wars and has not had much luck with Israel, Iran, or North Korea so far. I hope and expect he will have tremendous success throughout his presidency both at home and abroad. But lets recognize that success when he actually achieves it."

"While I respect and support our president, the awarding of a peace prize after less than a year in office is premature. He's trying to take diplomacy into new and potentially more fruitful directions. But trying and succeeding are too different things. He's less than 1 year into a first term and his accomplishments are not yet settled enough to be judged. By making the prize contingent on intention rather than accomplishment, the prize loses respect. It becomes a symbol of the ability to talk rather than play a good game."

"Now, the Pope must amend the cannonization laws that will permit awarding sainthood to living persons, and declare Obama as the first living saint. Hail Saint Obama!"

"More PR excess at this point as the Rock Star image continues. Still mostly talk with no visible results. And considering the other Peace Laureates in recent years, the committee in Sweden generally has been making narrow political statements without much substance. Can we stand another Jimmy Carter type?"

"I can't help wondering what on earth President Obama has ever done to the Nobel Prize Committee to deserve this embarrassment. How completely inappropriate, unseemly, and grotesque this is. If I were in his position, which God forbid, I'll have the committee killed in a way that made it look like the work of Al Qaeda or Vladimir Putin or some other truly offensive entity. Well, no, I suppose I really wouldn't. But I'd certainly think about it. Then I'd do the dignified thing and decline the award. Is it possible that the Nobel people are so politically tone-deaf, so completely obtuse, so utterly blinded by their own parochial world-view, that they think they're doing President Obama a favor? With friends like this ..."

"Another sign of the apocalypse. I think the Mayans predicted this."

"I think Obama is a wonderful man, but I agree, it's way too soon. And I'm inclined to agree with dank48, too; this may impede his effectiveness in international diplomacy, and certainly won't help him gain consensus and cooperation in domestic matters."

I found out about the prize while reading my email this morning. At first I thought it was an Onion-style spoof. Woops.

I'll be interested to see how the comments at CHE and other academic sites develop over the day. On the one hand, academics voted overwhelmingly for Obama last fall. On the other, they are are teachers whose day-to-day pedagogical life involves separating hype from substance, students' self-assessment from their own professional assessment, ability from achievement, effort from accomplishment, intentions from results. So far, the reaction suggests that academics think the Nobel Committee has awarded an absurdly preferential "easy A."

I suspect there are few teachers out there who have not done that themselves at one time or another. It's a mistake you are liable to make when you are just starting out, when you may not be entirely confident of your own abilities, and you encounter a student who clearly has great ability, charisma, talent -- but whose written work somehow does not seem to quite measure up to it. Over time, with experience, you get quite used to this and you don't lose a beat when you give the grade that is deserved. But in the beginning, when you are a grad student or even young assistant professor, and you may not even be more than a year or two older than the student in question, you might just hand over the inflated grade, as a sort of "benefit-of-the-doubt" kind of thing. It's a novice kind of mistake, and if you are paying attention, you see quickly that you haven't served anyone well with it. Besides being unfair to other students, it doesn't play out well with the student who supposedly benefited. They don't suddenly begin working up to their potential once they've been awarded for simply having potential. Often, they do quite the opposite, and the performance declines from there--the student rests on the laurels. Worse, the decision, meant as generous and encouraging, boxes you in as a teacher. Since you have already established a precedent of awarding undeserved grades for shabby work, you are in a bind when the student turns in something even less accomplished the next time around. In grad school, we spent hours and hours and hours helping one another work through these kinds of things and devising the clarity that would allow us to give real grades--and then back them up with equanimity if an unhappy recipient complained. I sense that sort of history, and that sort of ingrained evaluative thinking, in the comments at CHE.

Erin O'Connor, 8:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack (0)

October 6, 2009 [feather]
Crossing the line in the classroom

American University communications professor Gemma Puglisi devotes a Chronicle of Higher Ed column to how she turned her freshman comp class into an activist workshop:

I never thought that preparing a simple writing course would change my life and that of my students.

In the summer of 2007, as I geared up to teach "Public Communication" in the fall, I was going through the ritual of scouring newspapers for ideas and topics when I ran across a disturbing article. It described the legal difficulties of Troy Davis, a man on death row in Georgia who was awaiting execution the following day. The article said Davis had always maintained his innocence. As I continued reading I was troubled to hear that he had been on death row for nearly 18 years, found guilty of killing a police officer. The article said that, while Davis was convicted on the testimony of nine witnesses, seven of the them had since recanted and one was believed to be the murderer. There was no DNA evidence in the case, and many people were supporting Davis and pleading for his life, including Pope Benedict XVI, Desmond Tutu, and Sister Helen Prejean.

I barely slept that night. The next day, I was relieved to discover that, within hours of being executed, Davis had been granted a stay. That's when I knew my students would have an important project to work on that fall semester.

As soon as I got to school, I began making calls. One call to Amnesty International led to other calls to Davis's supporters. Amnesty also suggested I contact Davis's sister, Martina Correia. Before I could, she called me. Her passion and love for her brother moved me deeply. Speaking out about her brother's case has been her focus, despite her own battle with breast cancer.

After several conversations, I asked Martina if my writing students could help in some way. One thing led to another, and the course began to take shape. Our first activity was to designate a particular class session as "Troy Davis day." Students signed petitions to support a new trial and created birthday cards and posters for the 39-year-old. One student put together YouTube birthday messages that were later read over the phone to him by Martina on his birthday.

More important, the students wrote letters on Davis's behalf to the Supreme Court of Georgia and to Georgia lawmakers. They also wrote to Hillary Rodham Clinton, then a U.S. senator and presidential candidate, regarding the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act signed by President Clinton. The act limited Davis's ability to appeal his conviction. Basically, prosecutors were using the act to argue that it was "too late to present the recantations as evidence."

But my students' work did not end there. They wrote pitches to the news media seeking coverage of the story, and essays that they sent out to newspapers throughout the country. They started a blog, called "14 Grads" (there were 14 students in my course), to express their feelings about class work and Troy. Students also corresponded with the death-row inmate and learned about his struggles and his life behind bars.

Their passion led me to attend a march in Savannah supporting Davis. But it all came together when I actually had the opportunity to meet him. My two hours with Troy prompted me to write my own opinion column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the day of a Georgia Supreme Court hearing on his case.

Troy was overwhelmed by the students' efforts and felt they made enormous contributions to his case. He didn't expect people outside his own family to care about his situation. He thought young people were more interested in "partying and going to clubs." At our meeting, he told me, "It shows me that there is humanity left in this world."

Perhaps the most moving day for the students was the last day of class. As we were putting together a book of all the work we had done over the course of the semester, Martina walked into the classroom to surprise the students. She had flown in from Savannah to be with us. Troy had asked that she personally thank the students for everything they had done. As she made her way around the room, hugging each student, she expressed the impact each of them had had on Troy's life. Yes, it was simply a class, but they took a risk by helping someone they knew only through the media.

Martina also told the students about a lawmaker who had initially refused to talk with her about her brother's plight. Since the students' efforts, however, that same lawmaker had pulled her aside at a function and said she was "receiving a lot of letters in Washington about Troy." Now the lawmaker wanted to talk about the case.

I don't know anything about Troy Davis. I'm willing to accept, for the sake of argument, Puglisi's description of him as wronged. Regardless, she had no business turning a course that was supposed to center on writing into a group advocacy campaign where the conclusions and the agenda are predetermined, and connected to the grade. Puglisi's column glows with sentimental pride in a pedagogy that turned a writing course into a political endeavor and that converted her students to change agents.

"The entire experience has made me re-examine my own teaching," she writes. "What role do we as professors have in our classrooms? Is it appropriate for us to use politics as a pedagogical tool? Do we have the right to use our classrooms for activism?"

Her answer is yes.

"I'm a firm believer that students learn best when applying everything they know to real life--especially in the communications field," she continues. "I took a risk in making Troy's case part of my course. But I taught the course as a professor and practitioner of communications. It was not a law course. It was a writing course, and that is how I approached it."

There is much to be said for fighting to ensure due process and to defend those we believe have been falsely accused. But Puglisi should have done it on her own time. The fact that she might have been on the side of the angels on this one doesn't justify her abuse of pedagogical privilege.

Here's what the AAUP had to say on this subject, all the way back in 1915, in its founding document:

The university teacher, in giving instruction upon controversial matters, while he is under no obligation to hide his own opinion under a mountain of equivocal verbiage, should, if he is fit for his position, be a person of a fair and judicial mind; he should, in dealing with such subjects, set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators; he should cause his students to become familiar with the best published expressions of the great historic types of doctrine upon the questions at issue; and he should, above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently.

Troy Davis would have made a great subject of study for her course. But her students did not study him--they acted as agents of her agenda on his behalf.

Erin O'Connor, 8:24 AM | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack (0)

October 3, 2009 [feather]
Don't miss this

The Cartel exposes the corruption and incompetence in our public school system--and makes a compelling argument for school choice. It opens in theaters across New Jersey on October 9--and will hopefully be in theaters across the country shortly after that. Find out about show times, see clips, and sign up to bring the film to a theater near you at www.TheCartelMovie.com.

(Full disclosure: this is a Moving Picture Institute film; I work at the Moving Picture Institute. I also have a credit in the film. That's not why I'm plugging it, though. I think it's a breakthrough movie, and that it can do wonders for urgently needed education reform.)

Erin O'Connor, 7:22 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

October 2, 2009 [feather]

I spend a lot of the work week just craving time to read. My vision of the ideal weekend always involved hours and hours spent doing nothing but reading and reading and reading. It rarely turns out that way, as life has a way of intruding, but it's still a dream--one based on a memory of childhood bookwormness.

Was recently asked by a friend for recommendations for thrillers and/or murder mysteries, the kind you can't put down and that make you want to stay up all night reading. He mentioned a preference for Donna Tartt, Conan Doyle, and P.D. James -- all of which will do that.

A partial list of what I recommended:

--Anything by Wilkie Collins, creator of what the Victorians nervously called "sensation fiction" and to my mind our first and best thriller writer (sorry to fans of eighteenth-century gothic fiction or Poe--Collins is It to me). Particularly recommended are the novels he wrote during the 1860s, when he was coming out from under Dickens' suffocating mentorship and before the opium addiction had addled him overmuch: The Woman in White, The Moonstone (considered by critics to be the first full-blown mystery novel), and No Name. That last one never gets much credit; the other two are the ones you always hear about. But for nail-biting page-turning screw-work-and family-and-sleep reading experiences, it doesn't get better.

--Anything by Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. I could never get into the American analogues--the hard-boiled stuff. But I love the way Christie and Sayers read like a Forster novel run amok. They are mannered and observant and enervated in that genteel, post-Victorian way, while still being most murderous and most rigorous re: detection.

--More Donna Tartt. She's slow, and so far there's only The Little Friend, which is sort of like Harriet the Spy meets Carson McCullers with whiffs of Flannery O'Connor floating about. Tartt's first novel, A Secret History, is set in a thinly veiled version of Bennington College, where Tartt began the book as an undergrad, and where she pays much homage to the sociopathically privileged, drugged out and casually violent literary world of Bret Easton Ellis, who also began his career as a student at Bennington, and to whom, if I am not mistaken, Tartt dedicated The Secret History. Her second novel feels a bit closer to home--Tartt is a Southern writer before she's a campus novelist, and it's fun to see her framing her relationship to her predecessors by way of a novel about a girl who winds up getting way in over her head with the secrets and crimes of adults.

--Speaking of Southern writers, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which invented the "true crime" genre at the same time as it invented literary nonfiction (or the "nonfiction novel" if you prefer). A wonderful read, and more so when you do your homework and sort out how he gathered his information, where he took his liberties, and how very much help he had from his dear lifelong friend Nelle, who we now know as Harper Lee. I'm a bit of a Capote freak, so I will also recommend The Grass Harp, the Gerald Clarke biography, and the two films, Capote (Oscar-winner with Philip Seymour Hoffman) and, less well known but also very good, Infamous, with Sandra Bullock.

--I forgot to mention Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas, so I will mention it now. This is a lesser-known Victorian novel by an Anglo-Irish ghost story writer with tremendous capacities for generating suspense and dread. It began as a short story parable about Irish landlord-tenant violence of the 1830s, and then evolved into a more accessible, saleable novel, scrubbed of its brooding allusions to provincial Irish violence and pitched to a mainstream English audience. Still accessible today--and to my mind, far more interesting when you excavate the history of the text, and the history the text evokes. But then, I'm a sucker for nineteenth-century Irish history.

--Also mentioned: Dickens' Bleak House, Charles Palliser's The Quincunx, and Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost.

More recommendations welcome.

Erin O'Connor, 8:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)

Money matters

Last winter, Maurice Black and I published an article about financial illiteracy among young Americans--and argued that colleges should be incorporating training in both economics and money management into their curricula. Good news: things now seem to be changing a bit on campus

Erin O'Connor, 7:22 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

October 1, 2009 [feather]
Much ado

"Can you any longer read Henry James or George Eliot? Do you have the patience?" asks Tufts professor Maryanne Wolf, who is also the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. The context is a New York Times story on how publishers are tweaking books video components to make "vooks" that they say are more audience-friendly than regular books.

My answer to Wolf's question: Yes indeed. More to the point, I need long, engaging, well-written novels to feel fully human, to feel settled, to feel like I have perspective on life, and to feel in touch with the issues and the rhythms that matter most to me. And I know I'm not historically unique or chemically aberrant in feeling that way.

Video is not the same. I love it--but it does not require the same kinds of close attentiveness and prolonged engagement, and it does not as a consequence have the almost meditative quality that reading Eliot, James, and others does.

James, for what it's worth, had a sort of love-hate worship-at-a-distance thing for George Eliot. He was a generation younger--and while he admired her fiction tremendously, he also believed he could vastly improve on it. Very early in his career, before he had written any novels, he was invited to one of Eliot's famed at-home salons. Afterward, he wrote, "She is magnificently ugly--deliciously hideous...in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her."

From the preface to Portrait of a Lady (1880-81), written long after the novel's publication:

By what process of logical accretion was this slight "personality," the mere slim shade of an intelligent but presumptuous girl, to find itself endowed with the high attributes of a Subject?--and indeed by what thinness, at the best, would such a subject not be vitiated? Millions of presumptuous girls, intelligent or not intelligent, daily affront their destiny, and what is it open to their destiny to be, at the most, that we should make an ado about it? The novel is of its very nature an "ado," an ado about something, and the larger the form it takes the greater of course the ado. Therefore, consciously, that was what one was in for--for positively organising an ado about Isabel Archer.

One looked it well in the face, I seem to remember, this extravagance; and with the effect precisely of recognising the charm of the problem. Challenge any such problem with any intelligence, and you immediately see how full it is of substance; the wonder being, all the while, as we look at the world, how absolutely, how inordinately, the Isabel Archers, and even much smaller female fry, insist on mattering. George Eliot has admirably noted it--"In these frail vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affection." In "Romeo and Juliet" Juliet has to be important, just as, in "Adam Bede" and "The Mill on the Floss" and "Middlemarch" and "Daniel Deronda," Hetty Sorrel and Maggie Tulliver and Rosamond Vincy and Gwendolen Harleth have to be; with that much of firm ground, that much of bracing air, at the disposal all the while of their feet and their lungs. They are typical, none the less, of a class difficult, in the individual case, to make a centre of interest; so difficult in fact that many an expert painter, as for instance Dickens and Walter Scott, as for instance even, in the main, so subtle a hand as that of R. L. Stevenson, has preferred to leave the task unattempted. There are in fact writers as to whom we make out that their refuge from this is to assume it to be not worth their attempting; by which pusillanimity in truth their honour is scantly saved. It is never an attestation of a value, or even of our imperfect sense of one, it is never a tribute to any truth at all, that we shall represent that value badly. It never makes up, artistically, for an artist's dim feeling about a thing that he shall "do" the thing as ill as possible. There are better ways than that, the best of all of which is to begin with less stupidity.

Books are becoming the sort of "small fry" James mentions--but, as with slight feminine subjects, that just makes it all the more important to insist on their mattering.

Erin O'Connor, 7:26 AM | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)