Friday, March 30, 2012

Is it education or is it training?

Dean Dad has a post up about an article at CHE about New Charter University, which offers courses on a new model. The model is sort of like an all-you-can-eat buffet crossed with a concierge service for doctors: all the courses you want to take for the low, low introductory price of $199 a month--or free, actually:
Anyone can create an account and start working through its self-paced online courses free of charge. Their progress gets recorded. If they decide to pay up and enroll, they get access to an adviser (who helps navigate the university) and course specialists (who can discuss the material). They also get to take proctored online tests for course credit.
As a business model for a business, this is pretty familiar to us all. Would it work for education?

My take is that it would work for training, which is what this really seems to be. To take one example of how this could work: say you want to work at a restaurant. Okay, you need to pass the state health test for food servers. You go online, read the manual about washing your hands and keeping hot foods hot, take the test, and then you are certified. You have been trained, but have you been educated?

This model offers the possibility of "course specialists who can discuss the material," but is that like a classroom discussion in which multiple viewpoints are brought out and examined, with teachers helping to guide the discussion? Or is it more like a student help tutorial, as in "I can't figure out problem #5; can you help me with that"?

I have only limited experience with any sort of model like this: A very long time ago, I was asked to grade an exam in my subject area for a student who had studied on her own but wanted to receive credit, which this exam would give. I don't remember the particulars, but it was a pass/fail essay exam arrangement and she would then be able to go on to later courses in a sequence, or something like that. I said "sure" (which you say a lot as an adjunct) and read the exams.

While they showed factual familiarity with the subject matter, enough familiarity that she would pass, there was not one idea in there that showed original thought or engagement with what she had studied. She was certainly smart enough, but what was lacking is what I'd call "leavening"--the kind of working through or chemical reaction needed to make flour rise, or the kind of nuanced thought that she could have learned by participating in class discussions under a live teacher. She got what she wanted, as did the administration, but I felt a little as though she'd been cheated out of an experience that could have done so much more for her--an experience that she didn't even know she had missed.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Reading WaPo: pull up a chair and have yourself a slice of outrageous misrepresentation

The article in the Washington Post: where to begin?

My first thought was "Is this WaPo or the Wall Street Journal, which regularly hates on higher education?"

Yes, the author has a lot of fancy pants titles and a big investment portfolio, but anybody who makes as many incorrect assertions and factual errors as he does deserves the title of being--well, let's say "misinformed."
  • Those salaries? Not at my university, at least not in the humanities. Not even close.
  • What is with the fallacious argument that professors "only" work when they are standing in front of a class? Has this person ever been a faculty member? As I've argued here before, that's like saying that a farmer only works for two weeks a year during harvest and has a cushy job the rest of the time.
  • What's with the bait and switch about rising university costs being solely attributable to faculty salaries and rising compensation? WHAT rising compensation? We haven't had raises in years, and a lot of states have made faculty take furloughs.
  • What about the part that athletics, administration, fancy new gyms, and the rest have played in rising costs, or the gutting of public universities, some of which are down some 60% in the amount of funding they get from the state?
  • What about the rising prices for the various journal databases that we have to use to produce the research that will get us tenured, promoted, and possibly a raise, if there are ever raises again?
  • This wouldn't have anything to do with deflecting attention from any company that the Washington Post owns, would it?
I have the feeling that the red flag of higher education bashing is once again being waved to deflect attention from the real issues: defunding of universities, rampant adjunctification and exploitation of the same, and the motives of extremely well-paid corporate types with academic connections who make fallacious arguments when they ought to know better.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Writing maxims and morals examined

If you are tired of posts about writing: click away, nothing to see here.

Some of these are maxims that I've tried to follow, but recently I had to throw them overboard because I wasn't getting any writing done.

1. Maxim: Write every day and get the words down. You can always edit them later.

Did it work? Sort of. I tried the Seinfeld chain, Pomodoro, and everything else that could make me write. I did write, and occasionally my brain even engaged. But I've found that there was no depth to the writing and that I had to rewrite every word, sometimes many times, before the sense of thing would emerge. I was trying for quantity, when what I needed was quality.

Moral: Write in haste and edit at leisure.

2. Maxim: Try writing on a bare screen (like, notes in Evernote, etc.) and you'll have more ideas without the distractions of the other text.

Did it work? For some things, yes. But I wound up with a lot of disconnected passages that I had to rewrite, and I lost the sense of the manuscript as a whole. I was writing generalizations, not arguments.

Moral: That manuscript is not going away. Sooner or later you're going to have to look at it, so you might as well face it.

3. Maxim: Stop for the day when you know what you'll write the next day (the Hemingway technique). In this way you'll always have something to start with the next morning.

Did it work? Of all these techniques, this is the one that went the most disastrously wrong. Several days ago I stayed up writing and wrote down all the things I needed to do next, convinced I would get up and get at it the next morning. Need I tell you that I did not do this and that I couldn't face the writing for five days after that? And that the ideas that were once so fresh are now something I need to go back and reconstruct?

Moral: If you feel like writing, keep doing it. You can always sleep, but you can't always write.

4. Writing is a job, just like grading papers and prepping for class. Give yourself a couple of hours (or 20 minutes, or half an hour) each day and then quit.

Did it work? I said this to myself this morning in my best Boice/Silva vein, and I just didn't want to stop. My students aren't getting their papers back tomorrow, either.

Moral: Writing is exciting. It's discovery. If you're feeling that way about writing, the other stuff will get done in its own time.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Udemy and MOOCs: is this the future?

Margaret Soltan at University Diaries has been posting a lot lately about her participation in The Faculty Project, which seems to be part of, an online space for MOOCs (massive open online courses). I've been intrigued by this, since in addition to hating plagiarism, corruption in sports, online for-profit education, and Big Pharma, she's been as scathing about the use of technology in the classroom as she is about poor writing.

A lot of the courses at Udemy are how-to and technical courses that teach students how to program in Python, create games for the iPad, and so on. Soltan's course is on interpreting poetry, and since she analyzes a lot of poetry at University Diaries, this is a natural extension.

I keep seeing that the MOOC is the future of the university, if there IS a future for the university.
The New York Times tells me so, and who am I to argue with the New York Times?

Still, I'm curious:
  • If you hate the idea of PowerPoint or technology in the classroom and also hate online courses, why would you participate in this?
  • Is Udemy and its system of MOOCs something Soltan sees as a way to counter for-profit online education?
  • Do the "best Professors from the world's leading Universities" (tm) get paid for participating in these, and do they have any responsibilities beyond recording lectures?
  • Assessment right now is by computer-graded tests, and discussions are held in forums; the idea, according to the New York Times, is to get everyone to an "A+" level. How might this work in the humanities?
  • When might Udemy decide that Udemy graduates or badgeholders who've taken a MOOC course would be "the best Professors from the world's leading Universities" and worthy to record courses, since the MOOC courses will not bear the name or logo of the university from which the current "best Professors" hail?
  • Or are we in a beehive situation, where a select few prerecord wisdom for the MOOC worker bees and the bees can't hope to move from wisdom-ingesting to wisdom-dispensing?
Updated to add: Margaret Soltan graciously answers all these questions and more over at Inside Higher Ed:

Monday, March 12, 2012

More on creativity

A little Monday morning inspiration: The Wall Street Journal has a long article by Jonah Lehrer about creativity this week. A few snippets:
  • Flashes of insight are real flashes: "Research led by Mark Beeman and John Kounios has identified where that flash probably came from. In the seconds before the insight appears, a brain area called the superior anterior temporal gyrus (aSTG) exhibits a sharp spike in activity. This region, located on the surface of the right hemisphere, excels at drawing together distantly related information, which is precisely what's needed when working on a hard creative problem."
  • What helps? Surprisingly, comedy and alcohol: "And this is why relaxation helps: It isn't until we're soothed in the shower or distracted by the stand-up comic that we're able to turn the spotlight of attention inward, eavesdropping on all those random associations unfolding in the far reaches of the brain's right hemisphere. When we need an insight, those associations are often the source of the answer."
  • Unfortunately, you need to do the slogging kind of work before that kind of creativity can descend: "There is nothing fun about this kind of creativity, which consists mostly of sweat and failure. It's the red pen on the page and the discarded sketch, the trashed prototype and the failed first draft. Nietzsche referred to this as the 'rejecting process,' noting that while creators like to brag about their big epiphanies, their everyday reality was much less romantic. 'All great artists and thinkers are great workers,' he wrote."
  • When should we work and when should we take a shower or go for a walk? "The good news is that the human mind has a surprising natural ability to assess the kind of creativity we need. Researchers call these intuitions "feelings of knowing," and they occur when we suspect that we can find the answer, if only we keep on thinking. Numerous studies have demonstrated that, when it comes to problems that don't require insights, the mind is remarkably adept at assessing the likelihood that a problem can be solved—knowing whether we're getting "warmer" or not, without knowing the solution."
  • Get more information. "Another kind of creative problem, though, is when you don't have the right kind of raw material kicking around in your head. If you're trying to be more creative, one of the most important things you can do is increase the volume and diversity of the information to which you are exposed."
Update: This letter ("Persist"), via Notorious PhD, exactly describes the two kinds of creativity.
Update: If you haven't checked Dame Eleanor's writing inspiration posts yet, you should!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find out what it means to me

An open letter to the interwebs, not to individuals. For the record, nobody said what's exactly in quotation marks, but it's an impression I've been getting.

Let me start with a premise: one of the fundamental principles of the humanities is that we can agree to disagree or even argue, but that we do so with a respect for the other person's expertise or body of knowledge. If we don't think the other person has much knowledge, we still try to understand his or her perspective and see it as an individual issue, not an indictment of the disciplinary specialty as a whole. That's one way that humanistic discourse differs from the mud-slinging invective that passes for political discourse in this country.


If you tell me that you don't think it's important that students read, or that some of us teach, what might loosely be translated as "old s@#$% by a bunch of dead people" and that students ought to be held accountable only for what they can find and interrogate and theorize on YouTube and Facebook, I might have a problem with that.

If you tell me that exploring and learning about books from the 20th-century and back into the past is basically stick-a-fork-in-it done, and that learning about history and culture is passe, I might have a problem with that. I suspect that classics, medievalist, and early modernist scholars would have an even bigger problem with it.

Why can't we do both?

The thing is, there's space for all kinds of work in this discipline--YouTube and "old S@#$%," a.k.a. literature--so why would you say or imply that one has to replace the other? I respect what you do enough to know that there are many things about it that I don't know. We all have to assume this, or we could never have a functional discipline, let alone functional departments within a discipline. So can't you believe that there is some value in the "old S@#$%"--that is, show it some respect?

Dear interwebs, I may have misunderstood the import of what you were saying, and if so, I apologize. But do think about what I've said.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Placeholder post

Not a real post; just stopping by to say the tasks that shall not be named are eating me (or my time) alive right now but that I will post something soon.