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April 30, 2010 [feather]
Fun Friday fact

How much did you study in college? How much do people study now?

From the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

A working paper by two economists found that the amount of time college students spend on academic work has declined sharply in the last few decades.

Here's what they found: In 1961, the average full-time college student spent 40 hours per week on academic work (that's time in class and studying). In 2003, it was 27 hours. The authors figure that 21st-century students spend an average of 10 hours fewer every week studying than their 1961 counterparts. Over the course of a four-year college career, that would add up to something like 1,500 fewer hours spent hitting the books.

Now, the economists looked only at students who were graduating in four years, so the difference isn't caused by more people stretching out their college experience. Also, according to the authors, the difference can't be explained by the fact that more students have jobs or by the fact that the makeup of the student body has changed since the sixties. From the paper: "The large decline in academic time investment is an important pattern its own right, and one that motivates future research into underlying causes."

In other words, we don't know why.

Those 27 hours, it should be emphasized, includes time spent in class. So if you are carrying a standard 15 hour course load, you are only devoting twelve hours each week, or around an hour and a half a day, to preparing for class, studying for tests, writing papers, and so on.

I'm guessing the reasons come down to a combination of: lower standards (easier A's, less reading, fewer consequences for lack of preparation, more gut majors and gut courses) combined with more technological distractions (social networking, web surfing, video gaming, watching TV and films, talking on the phone, texting, etc.). Studies show that teens and young adults spend something like 35 non-academic hours each week in front of various screens. I also think party culture has gotten way out of hand on lots of campuses -- weekend begins Thursday afternoon, time spent socializing rivals and even exceeds time spent studying.

So sad. I love studying. I discovered that in college, where it was all so much better and so much more engaging than high school, which I had trudged through dutifully but not enjoyed very much at all. I was in college more than half my life ago, and I still get so excited about learning new things, reading new books, exploring new ideas. So much is being lost when kids don't ever discover how incredible and rewarding it can be to actually apply yourself to learning.

Erin O'Connor, 1:11 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

April 28, 2010 [feather]
Quote for the day

"Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth -- more than ruin -- more even than death ... Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man."

--Bertrand Russell

Erin O'Connor, 8:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

April 27, 2010 [feather]
Strike one against hecklers' vetoes

Once upon a time earlier this spring, Weatherman-cum-professor Bill Ayers was slated to speak at the University of Wyoming. Then word got out, and there was a political uproar. Then the University disinvited Ayers, stating that having him speak would have "adversely affected" the school's "reputation." There was more uproar, but of a different kind. It adversely affected the school's reputation.

Then students sought to rent an on-campus venue to bring Ayers in to speak on their own. The university said no--citing concerns that Ayers' provocative presence might lead to violence. Then there was a lawsuit. And yesterday, there was a decision: the threat of violence does not in itself justify preventing someone from speaking on campus.

That's a big one--because lately, lots of schools have been falling back on that excuse. It has offered them a way to pretend to be for free inquiry while stomping all over it. "Sorry guys," they say, throwing up their hands; "We would love to have Incendiary Person X come to campus to speak--but we can't, because it's just too dangerous." Then they laugh into their sleeve and slink back to their bureaucratic burrows and make plans to keep using that ruse to keep their campuses quiet, controlled, and decidedly inhospitable to free inquiry and the raucousness it tends to produce.

This ruling is a nice big step in the right direction.

Erin O'Connor, 7:26 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

April 25, 2010 [feather]
What he said
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
South Park Death Threats
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party
Erin O'Connor, 8:13 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Ed school theory meets charter school reality

In 2001, Stanford's education professors launched a charter school in Palo Alto for low-income black and Hispanic kids. Last month, the school earned the distinction of being among California's worst-performing schools (performance level is at 5th percentile). The school board has responded by denying the school--which now covers K-12--a new charter. In other words, the school is going to close.

In theory, with leadership of this sort, this school ought to have been a slamdunk success. What went wrong?

Joanne Jacobs has some ideas:

Stanford New Schools, run by the university's school of education, seems to stress social and emotional support over academics.

Stanford New Schools hires well-trained teachers who use state-of-the-art progressive teaching methods; Stanford's student teachers provide extra help. With an extra $3,000 per student raised privately, students enjoy small classes, mentoring, counseling and tutoring, technology access, field trips, summer enrichment, health van visits, community college classes on campus, and community service opportunities. The goal is to send graduates to college as critical thinkers, lifelong learners, and 'global citizens.'

The school provides students a web of support, reports the New York Times:

High school students have one teacher/adviser who checks that homework is done, and when it is not, the teacher calls home. Teachers know students' families and help with issues as varied as buying a bagel before an exam to helping an evicted family find a home. Teachers stay late and work weekends, and tend to burn out quickly -- causing a high rate of turnover.

EPA Academy enrolls very disadvantaged students: Most are the children of poor and poorly educated Spanish-speaking immigrant families; the rest are black or Pacific Islanders. Their English skills are poor. Those who come in ninth grade are years behind in reading and math.

In comments on the news stories that have run, I see a common refrain: It's impossible to teach these kids. Not even Stanford can do it.

But other schools with demographically identical students are doing much better. The top-scoring school in the district is East Palo Alto Charter School (EPAC), a K-8 run by Aspire Public Schools, Stanford's original partner. An all-minority school, EPAC outperforms the state average.

Rather than send EPAC graduates to Stanford's high school, Aspire started its own high school, Phoenix, which outperforms the state average for all high schools. All students in the first 12th grade class have applied to four-year colleges.

Aspire co-founded East Palo Alto Academy High with Stanford, but bowed out five years ago. There was a culture clash, Aspire's founder, Don Shalvey told the New York Times. Aspire focused 'primarily and almost exclusively on academics,' while Stanford focused on academics and students' emotional and social lives, he said.

Deborah Stipek, Stanford's dean of education, says the elementary school is too new -- in its fourth year, but with only two years of scores -- to be judged. Stanford considers the high school a success.

In an email to Alexander Russo, Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who helped create the high school, defended the high school's 'strong, highly personalized college-going program.' The graduation rate of 86 percent exceeds the state average. 'In addition, 96 percent of graduates are admitted to college (including 53 percent to four-year colleges) -- twice the rate of African American and Latino students in the state as a whole.' Half the students enroll in Early College classes on campus.

Given the horrendous drop-out rate for Ravenswood students who go to large public high schools -- it's estimated only one out of three receives a diploma -- EPA Academy is helping students stay in school.

But its graduates are not prepared for college.

The 96 percent college admission rate is meaningless, since it includes community colleges, which take anyone, and California State University campuses, which admit students with a B average or better, regardless of test scores.

EPA Academy students are graded on a five-dimensional rubric, based on (1) Personal Responsibility; (2) Social Responsibility; (3) Communication Skills; (4) Application of Knowledge; and (5) Critical and Creative Thinking.

Only 20 percent of the grade is based on knowledge, notes Michele Kerr, who taught an ACT prep course for disadvantaged students at a nonprofit from 2007-09. Compared to district high school students, East Palo Academy tutees had 'the lowest skills and the highest grades,' Kerr recalls. Students with high A averages turned out to have very poor reading and math skills, though their writing was relatively strong.

EPA Academy students got into CSU on their grades, while much stronger students with lower grades were shut out, says Kerr, now a Stanford-trained high school teacher.

Jacobs goes on to describe her experience studying San Jose's Downtown College Prep charter school, the highly successful, achievement-oriented subject of her book, Our School. DCP began very much as East Palo Alto Academy did--"with a progressive philosophy and very high ideals." But crucially, Jacobs notes, when that didn't work (and "that" doesn't tend to work, though it can be made to seem to work), DCP adjusted.

"When things didn't go as they'd hoped -- which happened a lot -- they tried something else," Jacobs writes. "No time or energy was wasted blaming the students' poverty or the tests. The unofficial motto was: We're not good now but we can get better. And they did."

There is strength--and opportunity--in admitting mistakes and earnestly trying to address them. In denial and rationalizing, there is only bitter failure. It's a shame when kids get caught up in adults' rationalizing processes--particularly so when those processes are institutionalized at the level of the school.

"Will Stanford education professors learn from their mistakes?" Jacobs asks. "I fear they'll write off the elementary, claiming the program didnt get enough time, and continue to claim the high school as a success. That would be a waste of a 'teachable moment.'"

It would indeed.

Erin O'Connor, 7:47 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

April 24, 2010 [feather]
Community Colleges Spotlight

Joanne Jacobs, one of my favorite education bloggers, has launched a new blog on community colleges. "Nearly half of college-goers go to a community college," Joanne writes. "And when people talk about educating our way to prosperity, that will happen at community colleges -- or not at all."

Check out Community Colleges Spotlight, which is sponsored by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit national education news source based at Columbia University's Teacher's College.

Erin O'Connor, 8:57 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

April 23, 2010 [feather]
How do you take your tea?

Would we still have a tea party in this country if Americans knew more history? The authors of an article in this morning's Inside Higher Ed seem to think we would not:

It is important to realize that ignorance about history allows falsehoods and distortions to be presented as facts, but it is also significant that Tea Partiers look to history to legitimize their endeavors. In other words, history is still seen as authoritative; the problem is that the authority is being abused. Such abuse can succeed only when the public's collective historical memory has been allowed to atrophy.

In addition to a vague (at best) recollection of the pertinent facts, Tea Partier warnings of cataclysm are taken seriously because the skill of thinking historically has not been emphasized in high school and college curriculums. Teaching students to understand that things change over time because of particular actions taken or not taken and that context matters, also referred to as "critical thinking," gives them some perspective and helps them to take the long view that can illuminate the emptiness of sky-is-falling scare tactics. The politics of our moment, focused solely on what's happening this minute and what it means for the next election (no matter how far off), cry out for a skeptical appreciation by an electorate that unfortunately does not know how to think historically.

In recent years, conservative groups like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have been the loudest critics of the low status of history in colleges in the United States. They are especially upset with the lack of American history requirements at elite universities. But this should not be solely a conservative issue, nor can it be one that professional historians ignore. As the Tea Party movement is demonstrating, there are direct political consequences if the public is unable to perceive when history is used to mislead and confuse people.

Unfortunately, as budgets are being slashed at colleges and universities nationwide, history is seen by many as impractical and unimportant. Courses that focus on "career-building" and "real-world skills" are prioritized while history departments are unable to replace retiring faculty. One reason for this is that the case for history has not been made effectively. As ACTA has reported, none of the top 50 universities requires its students to take U.S. history – and 10 require no history course at all. Some students may take a history course that fulfills a broader core requirement, but many do not. And too often these core courses are deficient in teaching historical practice. Historians, whether just entering the field or preparing to retire, have an obligation as people with special knowledge of history's significance to make the case for a greater commitment to the discipline – to students, campus administrators, legislators, and the public. Indeed, anyone concerned about education who does not want to see our contemporary political discourse sink lower should be actively interested in promoting history education

I agree that the American electorate doesn't know much history, and doesn't know how to think historically--I write about that here all the time, and I cite the studies these guys cite. I also agree that the felt urgency of teaching history should not just be a conservative issue--though I note, too, that the authors' use of the term "conservative" here is, ironically, historically inaccurate. ACTA was founded by Lynne Cheney and Joe Lieberman; it is and has been a nonpartisan organization dedicated to academic excellence, takes no political position, and defends principles, not movements--which is why, for example, ACTA stands up for Bill Ayers when he gets disinvited from speaking engagements.

But I don't agree with the authors that more and better historical knowledge will cause the tea party to evaporate in a cloud of newfound intellectual enlightenment. And I question whether historians--who have collectively abandoned vital areas of inquiry such as political, constitutional, diplomatic, and military history--are the ones to lead the way. See KC Johnson's remarkable recent takedown of his discipline.

It's just possible, after all, that greater historical understanding would actually bolster the movement--which the MSM is finally acknowledging is held together more by peaceful, middle-of-the-road folks whose only consistent common goal is to reign in out-of-control government spending. Better knowledge of history might, for example, empower the tea party to develop powerful historical analyses of what's wrong with government in the present moment, how our moment evolved historically, and what we can and should do to amend the situation. After all, there are some pretty fine--if pretty marginalized--academic historians who are doing just that.

It's also possible that broader, deeper historical understanding might, in this hypothetical America we're positing right now, generate more support for the (new, intellectually improved) tea party movement. After all, there is a funny little gap in the IHE article--in the authors' eyes, historical ignorance seems only to affect those who are protesting the present big government status quo. They do not even attempt to discuss rabid lefty opinion-makers, leaders, and movements, which are just as intellectually dishonest as rabid right-wing ones (for the record, I'm not calling the tea party a rabidly right-wing movement).

Nor do the authors provide for the certainty that most of those who are just fine with where we are now are also woefully ignorant -- and might, if they became more knowledgeable, become more active citizens in ways they won't necessarily like. They might vote Republican--they really might. They might even decide to join a movement for fiscal responsibility. They might realize how corrupt our tax code has become (over time, in history)--and demand a flat tax or a fair tax. Oh, the horror.

And let's not just talk about history. Let's also talk about economics. As ACTA has shown, econ is not even a category in most college and university course requirements. But it should be--and schools should be working, too, to ensure that their students are financially as well as economically literate. A little over a year ago, Maurice Black and I published an article about how very little Americans know about economics or even basic financial matters such as how compound interest works or how to balance their budget. Originally published at Minding the Campus, it was picked up by Newsday--and it grows more relevant every day. Our national debate--and our national strife--is squarely centered on economic and financial matters right now. But most of us--and I would include a great many people in Washington--don't have a clue how to think carefully and well about such issues.

So here's the Friday question: If Americans could suddenly become more economically and historically literate, how would that affect our political landscape right now? How would it change what Congress is doing--and how people respond? How would it affect what the mainstream media reports and how it reports it? (I assume here--perhaps naively--that we have a media that would like to do actual reporting rather than partisan hackery, though I know that may be an unreasonable assumption.) Would we still have a tea party? If so, what would it look like? And if not, what would we have instead?

Erin O'Connor, 8:06 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

April 19, 2010 [feather]
Shopping for grad schools

Thomas Hart Benton has done yeoman's service in recent years when it comes to the subject of whether or not to go to grad school, particularly when it comes to the humanities. Jobs are scarce, these fields are notoriously exploitative when it comes to making sure the tenured have a nice ride on the backs of underpaid adjuncts, and some argue that the professional viability of academic work in the humanities is basically a thing of the past.

Benton's columns are lightning rods--people react strongly to them, some in anger and denial (this group consists mostly of people who are so deeply invested in the system that they cannot really face its flaws), some in relief and gratitude (this group consists of people who have long thought the things that Benton openly argues, but feel outnumbered and alone), some in confusion (these are usually students who aren't sure how to integrate Benton's harsh realism into their own career training).

I belong to the second group--and ever since Benton began writing about these issues several years ago, I have insisted that students who want to go to grad school in the humanities and want a letter of rec from me read what he has to say first. I don't know that this has dissuaded anyone--except, in a couple of instances, from continuing to pursue me as a recommender--but it was never my mission to dissuade. If I'm going to write a glowing letter about how Student X is the second humanities coming and should be admitted immediately to every grad program s/he applies to (which is pretty much what you must do these days to get the attention of admissions committees), I want to be certain that Student X has had a reality check first. I don't want to control X's choices--but I want those choices to be informed, and I don't want to be part of the lie. (Believe it or not, I still get recommendation requests every year, even though I left academe in 2008.)

Anyway. Today Benton tackles the problems of the confused cohort of prospective grad students. And he's got some good solid advice for them about how to choose a grad program:

The problem is that most applicants to graduate programs lack the most crucial information, and so do the people they trust and turn to for advice.

If we accept the free-market rhetoric that presents graduate education as a legitimate "choice," then we should also accept the need for openness. A lot of relevant information could be compiled, year by year, into comprehensive resources, a kind of departmental dashboard that's up to date, comparable, and easy to interpret and that could provide undergraduates and their advisers with the information they need to make informed decisions:

Admissions: How many applications does your program receive each year? How many students are accepted? How many enroll?

Student aid: What kind of financial support can a student expect to receive during the entire course of the program? In each year? What is the cost of living in the area? How much educational debt have students accumulated, on average, by the time they graduate?

Teaching: How many discussion sections and courses are graduate students required to teach in order to receive a stipend in each year of the program? What is the average teaching load in each year of the program?

Attrition: What percentage of students enrolled in the program eventually earn doctorates? How many leave with master's degrees? At what point do most drop out? What are the reasons given, if any (i.e., money, concerns about job market, seeking other opportunities, family responsibilities, etc.)?

Time to degree: How many years does it take to graduate on average (not ideally, but in reality)?

Placement: How long are graduates on the academic job market? Where, exactly, is every graduate employed in academe (and in what kinds of positions: tenure track, visiting, adjunct, etc.)? Who was their dissertation adviser? What were their subfields? Where are graduates working, if not in academe? Does the program also lead to appealing career paths outside of academe?

On many department Web sites, you will find information about successful recent placements, but the methods are not comparable or verifiable, and leave out far more than they include. Only when you see all of the categories of program assessment together, compiled over many years (five, at least), do you begin to be able to discern which programs are healthy--maybe even nurturing the "life of the mind"--and which ones are somewhere along the spectrum toward dysfunctional and even exploitative.

The value of such information for advising undergraduates would be enormous, and it could place positive pressures on universities to accelerate time to degree, reduce debt, curtail attrition, and, perhaps, encourage institutions to reduce their reliance on contingent labor. As I've said before, many programs would resist providing the information because it might paint them in an ugly light and rightly discourage applicants. On the other hand, it would surely be in the interest of some programs to brag about their success relative to universities that are supposedly more distinguished. Maybe a virtuous cycle could begin to counteract the seemingly unstoppable transformation of higher education in the humanities into a part-time, low-wage, transient occupation?

There may also be some external ways to encourage participation. Professional organizations like the American Association of University Professors, the Modern Language Association, and the American Historical Association could publicize the most effective programs, recognize the most improved, and censure the worst or the ones that refuse to participate.

Perhaps a more aggressive approach would be to use the issue of the taxpayer-subsidized student loans that underwrite many graduate programs in the humanities. Isn't loaning money to students in their 20s getting an M.F.A. at $35,000 a year rather like financing a new BMW with no money down for someone with no job and limited prospects? Why should taxpayers subsidize the deferral of loan payments for students in obviously exploitative programs? Why not make the data that I have described above an essential part of borrowing money to support education? Not all educational debt is "good debt," despite the generalized claims of some financial planners.

All great advice. But worth noting--as things stand today, applicants can ask these questions all they want, but cannot compel answers. Lots of programs don't track the kinds of information that they should; of those that do, plenty cook it, and plenty keep it to themselves.

I'd love to see the kinds of transparency recommended above be part of standard practice for grad programs across the board. This is the kind of thing trustees and disciplinary societies can and should insist on.

Erin O'Connor, 7:45 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Education conservatism

So much of the debate about higher ed curricular reform has been hijacked by vocabulary--and associated ideological positions--that are just incapable of capturing the real issues. These issues do not map cleanly onto a partisan political grid, with clearly marked and coherent positions for liberals and conservatives--but they tend to be treated as though they do.

Today, in a post at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Emory English professor tries to cut through all that:

What's an "education conservative"?

Education conservatives believe that liberal education should be centered on a core body of knowledge. In the humanities and "softer" social-science fields, all students should study a set of books, ideas, artworks, theories, events, and personages more or less stable over time. Those items are chosen on a variety of grounds: aesthetic excellence, historical impact, intellectual brilliance, ethical positions, etc. They may contradict one another and represent vastly different people and places and outlooks. The important thing is that the learning of them produces a thoughtful, informed, and responsible intelligence. Yes, additions and subtractions take place in the materials, but in a gradualist process. Education conservatives don't accept new things or drop old things without a fair degree of circumspection. They reject criteria of "relevance" and political correctness; they regret the hasty adoption of contemporary offerings and the loss of longstanding ones (e.g., the disappearance of Dryden is, to me, a painful development).

They also limit the choices students have in their coursework. Too many electives and too few core classes, they believe, not only grant too much discretion to 18-year-olds who haven't the wisdom to make the right choices. They also disperse the learning outcomes, creating a cohort of young adults without a common intellectual formation. To education conservatives, a fragmented curriculum leads to a fragmented society.

Opponents have obvious objections. Multiculturalists ask, "Who's to say what should make up the core? We can't stick with WASP-y stuff." Progressivist educators say, "Look, we don't teach knowledge—we teach children" (that's a direct quotation from one meeting I attended). Fair enough on both, and if only those debates did in fact proceed we might find conversations in education circles a lot more enlivening than they really are. Most of the time, from what I've seen, people have given up debating what should be the core and instead have developed standards and policies that either ignore it or leave it up to individual school districts and teachers.

Education conservatives run into trouble not only with folks on the left, but with many on the right as well. Education conservatism squares nicely with cultural and traditionalist conservatisms, but not with libertarian conservatism and social conservatism. Libertarian conservatives consider a core curriculum—or at least the premises behind it—too prescriptive. They prefer a more open marketplace of past and present materials. Social conservatives don't like the core because too many of its items run against social conservative ideology. Education conservatives might very well insist on assigning portions of The German Ideology, Howl, and John Dewey.

One ideology does jibe nicely with education conservatism, however: political liberalism. In his recent book The Making of Americans, E. D. Hirsch explains why:

"I am a political liberal, but once I recognized the relative inertness and stability of the shared background knowledge students need to master reading and writing, I was forced to become an education conservative. The tacit, intergenerational knowledge required to understand the language of newspapers, lectures, the Internet, and books in the library is inherently traditional and slow to change. Logic compelled the conclusion that achieving the democratic goal of high universal literacy would require schools to practice a large measure of educational traditionalism."

To Hirsch, educational conservatism is the best curriculum for ensuring the kind of social mobility and access essential to liberty and equality. One way to keep low-income and disadvantaged youths in that downward place through adulthood is precisely to deny them the knowledge that would allow them to enter and remain in college, and to join middle- and high-income spheres that do, indeed, demand a certain level of cultural literacy.

That sounds about right. Thanks, Mark.

Erin O'Connor, 7:35 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

April 16, 2010 [feather]
Come see The Cartel!

The L.A. Times calls it "a brisk, incisive and mind-boggling - no other phrase will work - expose".

The New York Post says that "Few documentaries have covered such an important matter so convincingly and with such clarity."

The Village Voice says that "Bowdon's strength as a documentarist is ... evident in the patience and logic with which he makes an argument for a state and a system in desperate need of reform."

The Cartel opens today in New York and LA. There will be panel discussions and Q&A tonight after the premieres in both cities. Get times and locations at TheCartelMovie.com.

Erin O'Connor, 7:59 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

April 15, 2010 [feather]
Quote for the day

From a 2010 interview with Lorrie Moore, author of the amazing A Gate at the Stairs:

BLVR: I recently came across the part of Walden where Thoreau says, "What is called resignation is confirmed desperation." To me, in your work, resignation also implies a complicated sort of relief--a dark levity, perhaps? Can you talk a little bit more about resignation and the relationship between comedy and melancholy?

LM: Well, they both involve the release of energy, I suppose. And yet they are also a kind of team, feeding each other and enlivening each other and becoming each other--one of those kinds of marriages. They compete for the discourse, then collapse on the sofa. They are both true. That is what I'm realizing more and more: that in most dichotomies each part is true.

BLVR: The other day someone told me that our current president said he was a big fan of Thoreau--specifically, that he loved On Walden Pond. This probably wasn't intentional humor, unfortunately, but I thought of your character Zoe in "You're Ugly, Too." She's writing about humor and the American presidency. How would you describe the relationship of fiction writing and politics, and where does your own work weigh in?

LM: I hadn't heard that On Walden Pond remark. This is funny--but funny and sad, no? One laughs but then sighs. As for the relationship of my writing to politics--in the broadest sense, of course, everything is political, and I am interested in power and powerlessness as it relates to people in various ways. I'm also interested in the way that the workings of governments and elected officials intrude upon the lives and minds of people who feel generally safe from the immediate effects of such workings. All the political things we discuss with our friends are things my characters consider, too. Or almost all. Of course, in short fiction, things are put forward in abbreviated ways.

I loved Moore's newest book so much I almost read it twice. I settled for reading her first short story collection, Self-Help, instead. It's more studied and stylized and a bit fussy--but the roots and seeds are all there. She has a wonderful way of writing humorously about excruciating things--and having her tone underscore the seriousness rather than detract from it.

From there I went on to The Sound and the Fury, which I (embarrassingly) had never managed to get through before. What a depressing book to be reading on Easter, but that's what I did while I roasted my lamb. I did not love it. I have been spoiled by the stream of consciousness efforts of Woolf (who makes it into poetry) and Joyce (who embeds jokes and allusions and makes you reach for a smart, surprising reward) and Hurston (who also makes pure poetry). Faulkner makes you work--but the reward here is just that of elemental detective work (piecing together who did what to whom in what order), and what is uncovered is just a sordid family story, with the usual array of ugly secrets. Or so it felt to me. I say this as someone who quite admires Faulkner and appreciates his influence. I know this makes me a heretic. Oh well.

Recovering with John Irving's latest, Last Night in Twisted River.

In the stack: William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart, and John Banville/Benjamin Black's The Silver Swan.

As Miss Bates says, "Oh here it comes! Everything so good!"

Erin O'Connor, 6:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Check out An Inconvenient Tax

An Inconvenient Tax - Trailer from Life Is My Movie Entertainment on Vimeo.

If you have some time tonight, try to see An Inconvenient Tax, which will screen in over 40 locations across the country this evening. You know our tax code is badly broken--and if you are among the tax-paying members of our society, you are feeling the pain today. This movie is a watchable and motivating look at how we got where we are, and what we can do to simplify and reform our tax code along fairer lines. The movie is very balanced--featuring the opinions of such figures as Noam Chomsky, Steve Forbes, Joseph Thorndike, Mike Huckabee, Charles Rossotti, Dave M. Walker, Neal Boortz, Michael Graetz, Daniel Shaviro, and Leonard Burman.

Visit AnInconvenientTax.com to find out where you can see the movie--which will play theaters in Georgia, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin, and on campuses such as Harvard, M.I.T, University of Florida, New York University, Gonzaga University, Syracuse University, University of Michigan, University of Georgia, Chapman University, Arizona State University, Berkeley, University of Baltimore, University of Miami, Temple University, and more.

And don't miss Stossel tonight. He's devoting the whole episode to the issue of tax reform--and will feature the makers of An Inconvenient Tax. Stossel airs at 8 pm and midnight EST on the Fox Business Channel.

(Full disclosure: The Moving Picture Institute, where I am director of programs and development, is marketing and promoting this film. But even if that were not so, I'd tell you to see the film. It's very very good.)

Erin O'Connor, 8:39 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

April 14, 2010 [feather]
The power of literary allusion

Doctors going Galt. Like I've said, Rand was prescient about many things.

Erin O'Connor, 1:57 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

April 12, 2010 [feather]
Bee blogging

On Saturday, I went to Bee School, a day-long clinic on beekeeping run by local apiary. It was very cool--and it reminded me very much of "The Bee Meeting," one of Sylvia Plath's bee poems:

Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the villagers--
The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees.
In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection,
And they are all gloved and covered, why did nobody tell me?
They are smiling and taking out veils tacked to ancient hats.

I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?
Yes, here is the secretary of bees with her white shop smock,
Buttoning the cuffs at my wrists and the slit from my neck to my knees.
Now I am milkweed silk, the bees will not notice.
They will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear.

Which is the rector now, is it that man in black?
Which is the midwife, is that her blue coat?
Everybody is nodding a square black head, they are knights in visors,
Breastplates of cheesecloth knotted under the armpits.
Their smiles and their voces are changing. I am led through a beanfield.

Strips of tinfoil winking like people,
Feather dusters fanning their hands in a sea of bean flowers,
Creamy bean flowers with black eyes and leaves like bored hearts.
Is it blood clots the tendrils are dragging up that string?
No, no, it is scarlet flowers that will one day be edible.

Now they are giving me a fashionable white straw Italian hat
And a black veil that molds to my face, they are making me one of them.
They are leading me to the shorn grove, the circle of hives.
Is it the hawthorn that smells so sick?
The barren body of hawthorn, etherizing its children.

Is it some operation that is taking place?
It is the surgeon my neighbors are waiting for,
This apparition in a green helmet,
Shining gloves and white suit.
Is it the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know?

I cannot run, I am rooted, and the gorse hurts me
With its yellow purses, its spiky armory.
I could not run without having to run forever.
The white hive is snug as a virgin,
Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming.

Smoke rolls and scarves in the grove.
The mind of the hive thinks this is the end of everything.
Here they come, the outriders, on their hysterical elastics.
If I stand very still, they will think I am cow-parsley,
A gullible head untouched by their animosity,

Not even nodding, a personage in a hedgerow.
The villagers open the chambers, they are hunting the queen.
Is she hiding, is she eating honey? She is very clever.
She is old, old, old, she must live another year, and she knows it.
While in their fingerjoint cells the new virgins

Dream of a duel they will win inevitably,
A curtain of wax dividing them from the bride flight,
The upflight of the murderess into a heaven that loves her.
The villagers are moving the virgins, there will be no killing.
The old queen does not show herself, is she so ungrateful?

I am exhausted, I am exhausted --
Pillar of white in a blackout of knives.
I am the magician's girl who does not flinch.
The villagers are untying their disguises, they are shaking hands.
Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold.

Beekeepers will tell you that what they love about it is that it is so life-affirming--the bees are gentle and resourceful and hard-working, and their life cycle is so incredibly fine-tuned to the rhythms of nature. Plus, there's the honey at the end of it all. Not for Plath. She wrote a series of poems about beekeeping during a week in October, 1962, as her marriage was collapsing. She committed suicide in February 1963. It's hard not to connect the way she wrote about bees to the choice she made about her own life shortly afterward.

Erin O'Connor, 8:39 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

April 7, 2010 [feather]
False advertising

One of the arguments against universities' growing reliance on part-time, non-tenure-track faculty is that it amounts to a form of false advertising: students enroll at Prestigious University X, and expect to receive an education from the world-class faculty employed there. Instead, they get taught by a cadre of grad students and adjunct faculty who work cheap, who are not the reason for the school's top reputation, and who are, arguably, functioning as part of a shell game played with students' tuition dollars. Today, according to the AAUP, 48 percent of faculty are not on the tenure track, and 68 percent of new hires are taking place off the tenure track.

Underwriting this criticism is the assumption that a proper college education can only be reliably and responsibly delivered by the standing faculty--who have the expertise, the experience, and the devotion required to teach memorably, effectively, and well. But often, when you get down to specifics, you see little cracks in that argument. Consider grading: in larger courses, it's common to see a squad of grad students brought in to do the grading and to run discussion sessions. The professor lectures, and presumably manages the squad: but the heavy lifting is not done by the professor. There are courses where that works out pretty well--and there are courses where the sheer size of enrollment requires this sort of arrangement.

But: underlying all this is a pretty pernicious set of assumptions about what parts of teaching are real and essential and what parts are expendable and out-sourceable. And that assumption trickles down through the system in the form of an attitude that grading is grunt work best done, whenever possible, by others--or, failing that, best done at top speed. That's not a problem if we're talking about multiple choice tests. It's a big problem, though, if we're talking about things like research papers, analytical essays, and so on.

Grading papers is difficult, personal, detailed, time-consuming work if you do it right (I've never understood the people who claim to be able to grade 5 or 6 or more in an hour--that's drive-by marking, not actual grading.) Grading the written work of students is a huge, vital part of teaching them--it's part of a dialogue between teacher and student, and really can't be appropriately done by anyone who is not also doing the classroom teaching. It involves everything from line editing for grammar and syntax to guidance on structure and transitions to evaluation of the actual substance and quality of the paper's content. If you are a committed teacher, it's *unimaginable* that you would farm this work out to anyone else--it just can't be separated from the work you are doing in the classroom, and from your responsibilities for each student enrolled in your course. But that's not a universally shared attitude -- and budget constraints, which lead to ever larger courses, are making it hard even for faculty who do care about this side of teaching to do their jobs.

As a result, we are starting to see some remarkable perversions of what is considered to be acceptable pedagogical practice. An example: the new trend toward outsourcing the grading of papers to private companies. The linked article talks about how the University of Houston--which costs out-of-staters about $22,000 a year--is outsourcing the grading of papers in a business law and ethics class to a Virginia company that employs virtual TAs located mainly in India, Singapore, and Malaysia.

I was so saddened to see this. And, to get back to my original point, even if you think such services may do an okay job, there remains the question of what you are paying for when you enroll at school whose idea of educating you is to cut so many corners that most of your teachers aren't actually on the faculty--and even the faculty are farming out your evaluation, either to underprepared local novices or to anonymous others half way around the world. Such patterns turn the university into an educational middleman --one that is posing as a primary knowledge source. The word scam comes to mind.

Erin O'Connor, 8:08 AM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

April 5, 2010 [feather]
Crunching the humanities numbers

I've been complaining about the academic humanities' use and abuse of grad students (for whom there are no tenure-track jobs) and contingent faculty (who, along with the grad students, do the heavy pedagogical lifting and are to the tenure-track faculty as the servant class once was to the well off). Today, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, University of Pennsylvania English professor Peter Conn takes up the subject. In a long, thoughtful essay, he explains why the problem is so much worse now than it ever was, debunks the reasons tenured faculty often trot out for doing nothing about it, and lays out some steps toward a solution.

The whole thing is worth reading, but I want to excerpt just a few sections in particular. The first is on what the end of mandatory retirement has meant for new PhDs' prospects:

The slowing of retirement since the end of mandatory retirement under federal law, in 1994, has added another growing problem to the job-market mix. At the University of Pennsylvania--the only place for which I can get more or less exact and timely data--we have gone from having no faculty members over 70 in the School of Arts and Sciences, 15 years ago, to 28, or 7.3 percent of the 383 tenured faculty members, in 2010. And the median age of tenured faculty members has risen to 55.

Seven-plus percent is a substantial proportion, especially since each of those senior citizens is arguably blocking at least two assistant-professor slots. Penn could probably add upward of 40 new assistant professors in the School of Arts and Sciences, without significantly increasing its instructional budget, if everyone over 70 retired. (Whether Penn's administrators would actually do that much hiring is, of course, an entirely different matter.)

Penn is a flawed benchmark, since every study of retirement demonstrates that faculty members in research-intensive universities retire less frequently than do those in other sorts of institutions. ... So the national figure, while hard to ferret out, is probably more like 3 to 4 percent: still a disheartening number. (The provost of a distinguished private university reports confidentially that his post-70 colleagues make up 8.7 percent of the tenured faculty, higher than Penn's figure.)

Furthermore, academic economists suggest that in a time of recession, professors are even less inclined to retire. Many faculty members are also concerned about anticipated reductions in university-financed health care for retirees; at least some of them will decide to keep working in order to protect their health-insurance arrangements. A number of university administrators are studying the presumptively negative impact of slowed retirement on efforts to diversify faculties.

The end of mandatory retirement, by the way, is one concrete and probably permanent example of the difference between our current situation and earlier downturns in the job market (at least those before the mid-1990s).

How have humanities faculty members and their administrators responded to this cluster of threats? They haven't. In 1987, the first year for which tallies of humanities doctorates were computed according to the preferred CIP (Classification of Instructional Programs) methodology, humanities departments graduated 2,991 doctoral students. In 2007, the most recent year for which CIP data are available, that number had risen to 4,366, an increase of 1,375, or 46 percent, over 20 years in a flat or declining job market.

To cite only the most recent data, the latest jobs report from the Modern Language Association indicates that the number of positions on offer in English has dropped 44 percent in just the past two years, from 1,800 to 1,000--the lowest number in 35 years.

I don't see this trend reversing anytime soon. Humanities professors, like everyone else, saw their retirement savings get exploded a year and a half ago. They won't retire if they can't afford to.

Backed up by numbers, Conn's language grows increasingly colorful as the essay proceeds. "Attrition in humanities Ph.D. programs [which hovers around 45 percent] amounts to academic carnage," he observes. The job market is "dysfunctional" -- but this "dismal situation" (which makes me think of Dickens' Dismal Jemmy, but that's probably just my idiosyncratic Monday morning leap) "has come to seem normal." Most of the reasons faculty offer for wishing not to curtail enrollments--their desire to teach grad students, their need for research and teaching assistants, their belief that they must allocate excessively disproportionate resources to the recruitment and retention of faculty "stars"-- are not "defensible" and are "morally dubious at best."

Conn goes on to argue that grad programs ought to be operating in far greater transparency than they now do. They should track the professional progress of former students and publish their job placement paths. They should also "destigmatize" (a telling, apt word) the idea that it is legitimate for a PhD to go on to work as something other than a professor--and provide opportunities for grad students to discover and pursue other options.

Conn never comes right out and says it, but it's clear he diagnoses the academic humanities as suffering from a severe case of having shot itself in the foot. I agree with that--and am really happy to see an analysis of the situation that focusses on matters of ethical responsibility, practical rethinking, and innovative problem solving--rather than the caricature of problem-solving one often sees concluding such analyses: a shrill, pointy-fingered set of accusations aimed at evil trustees and administrators and accompanied by recommendations to unionize in order to more powerfully make demands.

Conn's final point is thus a very important one:

Collectively, those of us who profess the humanities must make a sustained effort to explain to our various constituencies--students, parents, legislators, journalists, even our own university trustees (I speak from personal experience of that latter group)--that these disciplines, and the traditions they represent, are not merely ornamental and dispensable. They lie near the heart of mankind's restless efforts to make sense of the world. Debates over war and peace, justice and equity: From the uses of scientific knowledge to the formulation of social policy, the humanities provide a necessary dimension of insight and meaning.

Despite the trends in enrollment and financial support that I have described, I am confident that the humanities can find the recognition they deserve. But it is our obligation to articulate our contribution if we hope to find increasing levels of support for the work we do. This is no simple assignment, as I can attest from having served on two of the dozens (scores?) of panels, committees, and task forces that have attempted this task in recent decades. Simple or not, we have no choice.

I would much prefer to define our current job-market difficulties as a problem in underdemand rather than oversupply. The facts, however, cannot be denied. After a generation of dithering, we need to act decisively to minimize the damage that our practices are inflicting on thousands of talented young women and men whose aspirations and idealism are jeopardized by our institutional inertia as well as by our laissez-faire, wishful thinking that the job market will simply take care of itself. If we should have learned one lesson from the current financial crisis, it is that all markets need vigilant oversight.


Erin O'Connor, 7:47 AM | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

April 3, 2010 [feather]
School choice at the movies

This month The Cartel will open in theaters in eleven cities, where it will play for a week.

--April 16: New York City, the Quad Cinema (Q&A afterward with director Bob Bowdon on opening night)

--April 16: Los Angeles, Laemmle Summit 5

--April 23: Houston, Angelika Theater (Q&A afterward with director Bob Bowdon on opening night)

April 30: Chicago, Century Centre Cinema (Q&A afterward with director Bob Bowdon on opening night)

April 30: Boston, Kendall Square Cinema

April 30: Denver, Chez Artiste Theater

April 30: Minneapolis, Lagoon Cinema

April 30: Philadelphia, Ritz at the Bourse

April 30: San Francisco, Opera Plaza Cinema

April 30: St. Louis, Plaza, Frontenac Cinema

April 30: Washington, DC, E Street Cinema

The film will also be returning to New Jersey theaters (where it opened for a limited run last fall) on a series of evenings late this month. Get show times and tickets here.

Save the date, post to your Facebook page, tweet, and tell your friends. This film has won numerous awards, is already an audience favorite, and is a remarkable look at why our public schools are failing and how school choice can help poor urban kids get the chance they need to learn, and to control their destinies.

(As ever, full disclosure: the film is a production of the Moving Picture Institute, where I serve as director of programs and development; I'm actively involved in its marketing and promotion.)

Erin O'Connor, 8:23 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

April 2, 2010 [feather]
Atlas has left the building

Last weekend I finally finished Atlas Shrugged. It was way too long and too repetitive, and the plot jumped the shark in outrageous ways hundreds of pages before the ending (and that's granting a suspension of disbelief for the Happy Industrialist Valley behind the atmospheric hologrammatic forcefield). But I am nonetheless very glad I read it, and highly recommend it. Rand thought this novel was a profound synthetic follow-up to The Fountainhead, with all its unrealistic loose ends. But I have to say I much prefer The Fountainhead--not for its portraits of superpeople like Roark and Dominique, but for its portraits of the people smart enough to grasp the greatness of what someone like Roark does, but not smart or courageous enough to do that sort of work themselves. Peter Keating and Ellsworth Toohey are, of all Rand's characters, in all four novels, my favorites. I think Rand is at her best not when she is depicting genius (which is awfully static in her hands) but when she is depicting people reacting to genius. And she's only really good at it in The Fountainhead -- in Atlas Shrugged, she reverts to caricature (think Lillian Rearden and James Taggart), and the novel suffers accordingly.

Anyway. All that Rand created a strong need for readerly respite, and I took breaks along the way to read other things: C. P. Snow's The Masters and The Affair, for a February conference (good on the petty politics of academia, but because of that necessarily airless and narrow and rather depressing); Daphne du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel (nothing can compare to the magical Rebecca, which is itself am amazing reworking of Jane Eyre, but it was a gripping, nicely gothic exploration of manipulation and the ways we will consent to it); The Bricklayer (a very tidy readable thriller by a former FBI agent named Noah Boyd, graciously offered as a free review copy by HarperCollins; remarkably, it felt very Randian to me -- if John Galt and Dagny Taggart were FBI agents, this is what their story would look like).

And now, as my palate cleanser, Lorrie Moore's newest novel, A Gate at the Stairs. Beautiful, funny, smart, evocative, the style is as much or more a joy than the story itself. The narrator is a twenty-year-old humanities major attending a huge state university in the upper midwest. The town is most closely modeled on Madison, where Moore teaches -- but it could as easily be Ann Arbor, and the descriptions of student life in small, overheated apartments carved from old rambling frame homes, of ungodly unending winter weather that you, as an impoverished carless student, get to walk miles in each day, of the bookish aloneness of those long, swaddled, dark winters, all take me powerfully back to my years in grad school. There are things that are far from perfect in this novel--with some of her characters, Moore is reaching for an effect she doesn't quite get--but that's made up for by the narrative voice itself, which is at once knowing and naive, lonely and laugh-out-loud funny, in a way that feels very true to the blind-spotted, over-thinking uncertainty of being a studious, articulate, shame-prone, inexperienced barely-adult. Lovely.

Erin O'Connor, 8:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack (0)