Wednesday, April 30, 2008

And not a bad reason for higher education, all in all

Steven Levy interviews Paul Otellini, CEO of Intel, in Newsweek, 4/14/08:

Q: As a young man, you worked summers in a slaughterhouse. What did you learn from that?

A. To go to college.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Math and writing: I see a pattern here

The New York Times recently had an article about some research done on the way math is taught. It turns out that learning abstract concepts like equations can actually help rather than hinder learning.

The students who learned the math abstractly did well with figuring out the rules of the game. Those who had learned through examples using measuring cups or tennis balls performed little better than might be expected if they were simply guessing. Students who were presented the abstract symbols after the concrete examples did better than those who learned only through cups or balls, but not as well as those who learned only the abstract symbols.

It reminded me of the recent article in the Chronicle about Berkinstein and Graff's book.

Both rely on formulas, in a way, but--and here's the important part--they don't begin and end with formulas. The abstractions allow students to apply the concepts but NOT, as detractors fear, to stop at applying principle A to material B in a bad, evil, wicked, formulaic, five-paragraph essay kind of way to make students march in lockstep as prescribed by Satan's minions who want to stifle creativity. Instead, they allow students to conceptualize ideas in new and different ways.

It's like riding a bicycle. If you had to think about how to ride a bicycle every time you rode one, or reconceptualize it every time lest you not have the "true and authentic" experience of discovery, you'd be exhausted and you'd never get anywhere. You'd be so busy learning to ride that you'd never find the pleasure in riding.

Isn't there room for both discovery and actually learning--all right, even memorizing--a few concepts? I honestly don't see the problem with this.

Monday, April 28, 2008


Professor Zero's post about an exasperating conversation and the comments on the post linked to an essay by Rebecca Solnit, "Men Who Explain Things." In it, as an aside to a larger point, Solnit tells of a man who was so eager to pontificate about her book on Eadward Muybridge, River of Shadows, that he didn't register that she had written it.
Men explain things to me, and to other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I mean. It's the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men's unsupported overconfidence.

I've had this happen to me; haven't we all? It happened today, in fact, when I wrote a message to someone who not only missed the point by a country mile but, after assuring me that he took my concerns very seriously, used the occasion to boast about his experiences and lecture me about the Great Importance of his Field. What else can you do, but say, with the cutting irony of a Miss Manners, "Thank you for setting me straight"?

I have to say, however, that the particular combination of stupidity and arrogance that drives some individuals to patronize others under the guise of instruction isn't exclusively a guy thing. Although I have been instructed in this way by some males, including a male relative who said he would send me his first-year paper on author X (a person I've written about) so I could "learn from it," such a drive to instruct is an equal-opportunity curse.

  • Librarians have explained to me that the Dewey Decimal system was "really quite different" from the Library of Congress system and that typing a search term in the keyword box at the library site could yield some results.

  • A preschool teacher suggested parenting tips for my toddler as her own child sat in the next room, sucking her thumb . . . at the age of 6. In fact, various parents used to raise their voices above their own children who were screaming like banshees and trying to hit each other with cardboard bricks to suggest parenting tips for me to try out.

    So it's not just stupid and arrogant men who explain things. Stupid and arrogant women explain things, too. You can argue with them, but they won't get it. Your best defense is to get away from them. In the meantime, practice this response:

    "Thank you for setting me straight."

    [Edited to add: Unlike the Mr. Arrogance who lectured Solnit, I've read her book, and it is very good.]
  • End-of-semester certainties

    It's said that there's nothing certain in life but death and taxes. I disagree. If you teach, here are a few things you can count on:

    1. The university's server will slow to a crawl and grind to a complete halt periodically as students try to access materials that they've cheerfully ignored all semester.

    2. Students you haven't seen for a few weeks and whom you've assumed have dropped the class will write back to say this: "Hi! I was just really busy with the paper for another class, so I haven't been to your class for a while . I thought I'd drop by your office during finals week so we could discuss what I could do for extra credit to make up for the absences."

    3. A flurry of awards ceremonies, receptions, and parties, although welcome and necessary, will cut into your grading time

    4. You will find your affection for your students competing with your ethical sense of grading standards and will be reluctant to assign grades. Alternately, you will assign grades and then berate yourself for being (1) too lenient or (2) too harsh. You will vow to be better (more rigorous/less exacting) in the fall.

    Any others?

    Sunday, April 27, 2008

    OT: Nonacademic needs and wants

    What I needed to do this weekend was to grade final projects.

    What I wanted to do, now that it has finally stopped snowing, is to get the garden ready for planting and go for a run.

    Guess which won?

    Friday, April 25, 2008

    Are quill pens next?

    There's something strangely retro about these news items:

    From the Pew Charitable Trust's report "Writing, Technology, and Teens"(.pdf file):
    Nearly three-quarters of teens (72%) who write for personal reasons say they usually write longhand, similar to the 65% of teens who usually write by hand for school. However, teens are much more likely to write only by hand when doing non-school writing. Nearly one third of teens (32%) never use a computer at all when writing for their own personal enjoyment; by contrast, just 9% do their school writing by hand only (19).

    This is fascinating. For years now, we've been told by the pundits and educrats that the "digital natives" wouldn't know a pen if it bit them and that writing by hand was so 1970s. And yet the pen hasn't lost its charms, it seems, for writing that you really want or need to do--writing song lyrics, maybe, or recording a breakup in language that's too personal for MySpace.

    And then there's this:

    Some teens noted the benefits of learning a quick shorthand for taking notes in school...
    I think [instant and text messaging abbreviating] helps sometimes because like when we’re taking notes we have to hurry up and take them and knowing the text language it helps to abbreviate. ... faster. – 9/10th Grade Girl, Midwestern City (46).

    I have an inexplicable interest in shorthand, maybe because of its associations with journalism (do journalists still learn shorthand?) and Victorian authors, so of course this stood out for me. If you look at old magazines, you'll see ads for a word-based rather than symbol-based shorthand that read something like this: "F u cn rd ths u hv a futr n jrnlsm." What is this but an early form of text-message language, an abbreviation system like the one that 9/10th Grade Girl is using? As long as it's not used for writing-to-be-turned-in, isn't it possible that this may help with taking notes?

    And finally, the laptop-in-class argument erupted again in the comments to an Inside Higher Ed column called "Hey, You! Pay Attention." In what could be seen as another retro step, the University of Chicago has apparently blocked Internet access in its law school, and the commenters rounded up the usual arguments:
    1. Pro: Students from this-here new multitasking generation learn better if they multitask.
    2. Pro: How is surfing the web different from doodling?
    3. Pro: If I want to waste time on the web instead of listening to the professor, it's his fault for being boring.
    4. Con: It's disrespectful and distracting when everyone is paying attention to screens instead of participating in class.

    The thing about the web is that it's always going to be too enticing if you have access to it in a class. You know how they say that people tend to eat more when they're in an office where people keep jars of candy or boxes of cookies out on the desks? The internet is a jar of candy, and nobody's going to pass out from the lack of it for an hour or two when learning is supposed to be going on. There are times when it's useful in a class, but as a regular thing it's sure to promote cookie-eating (no pun intended) when abstaining would be better for everyone.

    Monday, April 21, 2008

    Still here, and a slave to Microsoft

    It's nearly the end of the semester, which means this:
  • Grading and more grading.
  • Correcting proofs for an essay that'll be coming out soon. Yes, it is worth reading those twice and carefully: I missed some things the first time around.
  • Thinking about the summer class.

    And did I say a slave to Microsoft? Picture this scenario:

    Students are giving an end-of-year presentation. They are a little nervous. They're using my computer to project things on the screen.

    The screen goes dark, and they look alarmed: "What did we do?"

    Nothing, apparently, but you know how Windows usually gives you a choice about when it's going to shut down to do some of its incessant updates, nagging you every 5 minutes until you shut it down? Not this time.

    The computer shuts itself down, warning that it needs to install the updates and that that'll take a while. The poor students have to finish without showing the things that they'd planned to show. I tell them it doesn't matter, and it doesn't, of course; that wasn't their fault.

    But wouldn't you think the Dark Lords of Redmond would contrive to do the updates at some time that isn't the middle of a work day?
  • Monday, April 14, 2008

    The hook

    Pilgrim/Heretic recently posted about conference etiquette from the conference organizer's point of view. I'd like to ask readers what you do when you're the panel chair and you have to give someone the hook when he or she is rambling on far past the 15-20 minutes that are allotted for the presentation and far, far past the audience's patience.

    In vaudeville days (or so I understand) or at talent competitions, there used to be an actual hook that would emerge from the sidelines and drag people off the stage, to hoots and jeers from the audience. I've only seen this happen in old movies, so I don't know if it really happened or if that was just a plot device.

    But at conferences, sometimes you're the chair and you have to get the presenter to shut up so that someone else might have some time. What do you do?

    Here's what I've seen:

  • Panel chair sits in the audience, moves to the edge of her chair, and beams at the offender with a bright and determined smile, trying to catch his eye so that he knows that time is up.
  • Panel chair sits at the end of the table and tries pointlessly to catch the eye of the presenter, who is now gesticulating wildly at the podium as other presenters cross big chunks of text out of their papers.
  • Panel chair sits next to the presenter, who's standing at the podium. Chair tugs at the presenter's coat, since it's obviously not possible to catch his or her eye.
  • Panel chair passes a note. Sometimes, if the chair is sitting at the end of the table, you can see all the stages of this: chair looks at watch, writes something in large letters on a piece of paper, passes it along the row of panelists (each of whom looks at it with something like relief), and finally sees it in the hands of the startled presenter, who says, "Oh! I will just have to skip to my last three points and my conclusion, then."
  • Well-prepared panel chair has the sign already made up and passes it along to the presenter.
  • A year or so ago, the MLA tried installing lights (green, yellow, and red) that panel chairs and presenters were supposed to use, but I didn't see any of them go off. In the sessions I saw, most of the lights were unplugged and left up at the podium. So much for the technological hook.

    Is there any really graceful way around this dilemma? Have you seen any panel chairs that were really good hook-wielders? Inquiring minds want to know.
  • Friday, April 04, 2008

    The value of formulas

    At the Chronicle, Cathy Birkenstein and Gerald Graff have an opinion piece that is right in so many ways that you should just go read it.

    Their point, although they make it much more elegantly, is one I've made before: a formula, even a 5-paragraph essay, can be liberating and not restrictive. Instructors were so busy not hampering my creativity, for example, that I was in graduate school before I ever heard of a thesis statement or the five-paragraph essay. Of course, my general cluelessness and inattention was probably a big part of it, but--here's a thought--aren't students just maybe as clueless and inattentive as I was?

    Here's some of what they say. I can immediately see how this would translate into some good class conversation during writing days:
    A far more engaged writing formula can be found in the work of the composition theorist David Bartholomae, who recalls a professor of his suggesting that, when stuck in his writing, he use the following "machine":

    While most readers of ____ have said ____, a close and careful reading shows that ____.

    Similarly, the composition specialist Irene Clark, drawing on the work of John Swales, Joseph Williams, Gregory Colomb, and others, asks graduate thesis and dissertation writers to fill in these blanks:

    My thesis will address the following question: ____.

    It will fill the following gap in the literature: ____.

    Formulas like those help students make arguments without abstracting themselves from the conversations that surround them. As a result, they have all of the benefits of the five-paragraph theme without its liabilities.

    Building on Bartholomae and Clark, we teach our own students that persuasive writing rests on a single ur-formula, which we call "they say/I say," in which you summarize someone else's argument (they say) in order to set up your own (I say). Some versions of this include:

    Although it is often said that _____, I claim ____.

    I agree with X that ____, and would add ____.

    Group X argues ____, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, . On the other hand, ____.

    I used to think ____. Now, however, after ____, I have come to see ____.

    Debates over ____ tend to dominate discussions of ____. But these debates obscure the far more important issue of ____.

    At this point you will probably object that ____. While it's true that ____, I still maintain ____.

    Far from turning students into mindless automatons, formulas like those can help them generate thoughts that might not otherwise occur to them. And such formulas aren't set in stone. Students can and should be encouraged to modify them to suit particular arguments and audiences.

    Many students fail to pick up those moves on their own, however, either because they don't read widely, or they don't read with an imitative eye. That is why representing the moves in explicit formulas is often necessary. Teachers who think they are being progressive and student-centered by rejecting such prescriptive methods are passing up a chance to demystify intellectual practices that many students find profoundly puzzling.(emphasis added)

    This might not be for all writing assignments or all students--but if it helps a student get unstuck, wouldn't the dangers of prescriptiveness be worth it?

    Thursday, April 03, 2008

    Quick thoughts on pseudonymity

    At the Chronicle, Peter Plagens has a column opposing anonymity for "First Person" columnists, and the three people he calls out for it respond by saying why they'd prefer to be anonymous. Plagens's points are more or less these:
  • Don't be such a chicken about getting tenure. Heck, if you're denied tenure, you can always sue the university. [Yeah, that's a great option.] You didn't want that job anyway; just go find yourself a new one. That shouldn't be too hard, not in the job market these days.
  • Don't hide behind academic freedom. You were worthless toadies before getting tenure, and getting tenure isn't going to improve your Uriah Heep-like qualities.
  • And your personas are boring, too!
  • What you're writing is pretty dull and general stuff anyway, not like the column of a certain P. P.

    Dr. Crazy and Profgrrrl have responded beautifully and at length (and with much less snark) on their blogs, Dr. Crazy addressing the pseudonymity versus anonymity issue and Profgrrrl explaining patiently why someone might not want to have blog posts be the first thing you see when you Google someone's name.

    I admire the people who post under their own names, like Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Miriam Burstein, Claire Potter, Amardeep Singh, and Michael Berube, but I don't want to do it--and, to judge from the far more articulate blogposts about this, others don't, either. Why?

  • Blogspace is really more like the old Lingua Franca; remember that magazine? It went under in the early 1990s, I think. It was irreverent, and although it published good pieces, it didn't have to be deadly serious about everything all the time. It wasn't obliged to be the Newspaper of Record for academia, so it could take some chances. IHE and CHE are very nice, but blogs also have a part to play in talking about academics.
  • In his discussion about tenure deliberations the other day, Dean Dad said something interesting: he said you could either have transparency or tell the truth, but you couldn't do both. Some of his commenters disputed the idea that this applies to tenure deliberations, but it does apply to blogs. I'm not saying that those courageous people with named blogs aren't telling the truth, but I do think that the kinds of things they can say might be different.

  • The biggest difference might be this: if everyone posted under a real name, would bloggers feel equally free to be, well, silly? funny? tired? stuck in the process of writing something? Some might say that these aren't feelings that ought to be shared, that the people who write this would be mere "bloggers" and not true "academic bloggers."

    In short, your blogging identity, as opposed to your scholarly identity, is more or less in your control. In real life, whether something is published or not, what people think of your scholarship, and so on are all outside your control. In blogworld, your identity depends on how you present yourself: honest, irreverent, angry (like the Angry Professor), or whatever else you choose to be. Plagens might say that this is inherently dishonest, because you're not using your real name, but then, does blogworld have to answer to the demands of the real world, or just to report its absurdities? I'd say the latter.
  • Wednesday, April 02, 2008

    On the lighter side

    If you would like 84 seconds of make-you-smile cat humor, here it is. As seen at Planned Obsolescence:

    Tuesday, April 01, 2008

    English Department of the Future

    The time: some decades hence.
    The place: The University of South Jetsonville, a large state university.

    The Grand Administrator is speaking to one of his minions about what used to be called the English Department. Although there are four faculty members who still comprise the "English Department," most of the department, and its chair, have been "restructured" and have disappeared in the name of increasing efficiency. Curiously enough, the number of administrators has only increased. We enter in the midst of the conversation.

    The Grand Administrator: "What can you tell me about how we're achieving excellence in the English Department?"

    Minion: "Well, our single section of English 101 is a success. The accrediting agency is happy that we have moved to weekly Scantron grammar quizzes instead of actual writing, since it's impossible to be accredited without measurable outcomes. There's nothing more measurable than a quiz."

    GA: "What about Instructor X? How is he doing?"
    Minion: "We asked the students about that last week. 1,495 of the students in our section of English 101 thought he was doing a good job, but 5 of them thought his grading scheme was too hard."

    GA: "Hmm. That's not good. Those 5 deserve better for their tuition money; we have to keep the customers happy, you know. It's a good thing we don't have to rehire him in the spring. Do we still have the instructor bids from the fall?"

    Minion: "Yes. Of the 350 applications we got, at least five or six of them offered to teach the class for very close to what Instructor X is teaching it for, although none of them offered to pay for all their own photocopying, as he did. I think we can get someone for around $2,000 to teach this course.

    GA: "No benefits, of course?"

    Minion: (Laughs) "Of course not!"

    GA: "What about business and professional writing? Is that going well?"

    Minion: "Yes, although the business school and the science departments have demanded that we teach actual writing in those, so we have to pay the instructor a little more for that section. We live to serve those schools; they bring in the money, you know."

    GA: "What about our section of Shakespeare? Remind me again about why we kept a literature class. It seems so useless and out of touch with the modern world."

    Minion: "Well, the trustees and regents seem to like it. It reminds them of when they went to the University of South Jetsonville and tells them that we are Keeping Up Standards by Teaching the Classics. The president likes it, too, since he can talk to alumni about Achieving Excellence through the Humanities. Granted, alumni don't shell out for Shakespeare the way they do for football or basketball, but a few misty-eyed English grads will always give a little if we keep the Shakespeare course."

    GA: "Professor Y, who teaches it, is getting pretty old. Shouldn't we be putting Dr. Kervorkian on speed dial for him pretty soon?"

    Minion: "No, studies have shown that students rate male authority-figures in lecture-driven classes the highest of all when they fill out course evaluations."

    GA: "What about Professor Grant Superstar? Tell me--what does she teach again?"

    Minion: "She doesn't. We have her on board to add class to the place, what with her NEH grants and all."

    This was inspired by all the talk about a tenureless university. I'm kidding, of course; at least I hope I'm kidding.

    Want to add some dialogue of your own?