Monday, July 30, 2012

What need one?

In The New York Times, Andrew Hacker asks "Is Algebra Necessary?" and says it's not. Using pejorative language like "prohibitive," he argues that algebra and pretty much all math is just a major impediment to keep "talented" students from getting a college degree. He supplies worlds of anecdata to support his point: he says he doesn't know any vet techs who need it, for example, although a slew of vet techs reply in the comments to say yes, indeed, they use algebra and other forms of math every. single. day. (For a logical analysis, see Timothy Burke's post.)

Some questions:

1. If math is so inherently limiting and a "barrier," why can other countries succeed at teaching it to students? Is it because they emphasize the work and patience necessary to grasp the concepts and emphasize that some knowledge is acquired rather than innate? Don't successful math classes in this country teach similar concepts of hard work?

2. Hacker cites the tracking system in Germany as an example of one possibility, and indeed it's the system that obtained in this country 50 years ago: "general" industrial preparation in math,  business math, and "college prep" math (algebra, trigonometry, geometry, calculus). That shift would question the gospel that all students should prepare to go to a 4-year college, though, which would be political dynamite. 

3. If we cut out all the challenging math and science classes on the grounds that they're keeping "talented" students away, won't this contribute to the hierarchy where those who go to Caltech and MIT (as he suggests) to be industry leaders have the chance to know all levels of math and the worker bees don't? 

4. In this effort to redefine college by eliminating a challenging subject, I was somehow reminded of this: 

Made you my guardians, my depositaries;
But kept a reservation to be follow'd
With such a number. What, must I come to you
With five and twenty, Regan? said you so?
And speak't again, my lord; no more with me.
Those wicked creatures yet do look well-favour'd,
When others are more wicked: not being the worst
Stands in some rank of praise.
I'll go with thee:
Thy fifty yet doth double five and twenty,
And thou art twice her love.
Hear me, my lord;
What need you five and twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?
What need one?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Slacktastically refreshing

Short version of the last couple of weeks: I cooked for lots of people every day, shopped for groceries, picked up and dropped off people at the airport, did laundry, did lots of dishes, and helped to fix a pump.

Instead of going to the gym, I got some exercise by whipping cream, making biscuits, and other labor-intensive activities.

Also: went kayaking, read books, and talked to family.

What I didn't do: any writing at all.

I'm a slacker, but it was refreshing.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Smooth and balky writing

I've been working on a chapter for quite a while now and blew past my self-imposed deadline for it a couple of weeks ago. The substance of the chapter is there, but some of the rationales have been rewritten many, many times. Everything I write seems either blindingly obvious or too inside baseball for the chapter.

And the writing is balky. I know that only horses or animate things can be balky, but this writing is animate, I swear. The sentences lose themselves in a trail of bad writing practices--long "way in which" clauses and nominalizations and passive voice and compound predicates where a single verb would do.  Sentences like "the ways in which the couch is red are as follows"--stuff that sends the reader running for the exit--are like massive balky gatekeepers preventing the reader from getting to what are the really interesting parts.

I rewrite and prune them back, but there they are again in a different form, growing like that plant from Little Shop of Horrors. Since I've worked on this for so long, I started wondering if maybe I'd lost the ability to write graceful or lively prose. I feel like the father in the Laocoon getting overwhelmed by snakes.

But then I had to complete some minor edits on an accepted piece. The prose in there was much better, and to put to rest my worries, the new sentences I wrote were more smooth and lively. The piece didn't fight me. It didn't balk.

So the good news is that I can still do this kind of writing, if I have to. The bad news is that, even with a balky piece, I have to.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A fresh start and a break from rants

I'm starting to feel as though this poor blog is turning into a soapbox from which I continually yell "hey, kids, get off my lawn and while you're at it, start thinking about what you're doing with that new technology."

How did that happen? I like technology. I teach some classes online and do a good job with them. I don't want to get in the position of holding up a banner for The Way Things Have Always Been Done, including handwriting, because mindlessly preserving tradition is not how I feel, yet that's how these posts are sounding to me. They're pushing me into a false corner and making me sound like someone I don't want to be.

Here's the common theme of those posts: I just want people to pay attention to what they're doing when they adopt something shiny and new and to think about the consequences of it more than 5 minutes down the road.  There, I've said it, and now I'm going to shut up about it for a couple of months.

So for a while, you can come here safe from MOOC musings, alarm about the liberal arts, and ridicule of what our new educrat overlords have in store for us this week. (Well, maybe a little of the last will find its way in.)

I'm off to the Land of No Internets soon, so posting will be light anyway. The real reason, though, is that I want to write about something less stressful for now.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Do we need to know ancient technologies, like handwriting?

Tenured Radical has a good post up about one of my favorite topics, handwriting; she'd like to know (1) the reason behind the poor handwriting of the recent generation of students and (2) whether they want us to excuse them for it when they apologize for poor handwriting. I'm not sure that it has gotten worse recently, although I do hear more apologetic murmurs of "I hope you can read my handwriting" than I did 15 years ago.

TR says that handwriting practice was boring (true) but good discipline for undertaking other boring tasks like checking footnotes (also true). However, boring tasks let your mind run free, else why would so many of us write notes and doodle when we're in a meeting? No one's ever going to ask  for the notes, and are you really so fascinated by the meeting that you want to memorialize it in letters?
There's also a goodly amount of research linking writing by hand to learning.

But is writing by hand really necessary? I said here that some people treat it as a ridiculous thing to learn, like powdering a wig, but Bob Zenhausern goes me one better by stating that teaching handwriting is "an insane practice" . Since "pre-school children would figure out texting on their own," why teach them to write on paper? They should be given a keyboard, not a pencil, he continues. [Question: If they would learn texting on their own, wouldn't that be a good reason to teach them something they don't know, like writing by hand, when they get to school?]

 Zenhausern is a K-12 educator, and I am not, so maybe he knows something I don't about the developmental qualities of using a pencil in eye-hand coordination, learning to recognize letters, muscle control, and, yes, TR's discipline. Maybe those aren't necessary; I can't say.

 But here is the equipment you need to type or text: a functioning phone, ipad, or computer and electricity or a solar charger.  Here is the equipment you need to write by hand: a pencil and paper or your finger and a smooth stretch of sand or mud.

That's not a good argument, though, not really, nor is the "you need to be able to write your signature" argument a strong one. We sign things electronically all the time, including tax forms, without using handwriting, and if we stop learning to write manually, why, we can just revert to ancestral practices and sign with an X.

I think that handwriting is the canary in a very contemporary coal mine. Right now we're in the midst of a great dividing process between what some think of as  "frills" and "no-frills" education, where "frills" are coded as old fashioned and "no-frills" are fabulously modern and the wave of the future.


  • critical thinking (which Texas just voted against)
  • a sense of history
  • the humanities ('nuff said)
  • knowledge of foreign languages and cultures, including ancient languages
  • knowledge of multiple kinds of literacies in addition to digital literacy 
  • knowledge of literature other than current literature and media
  • handwriting
  • the arts
  • multiple forms of writing, including essays as well as contemporary short forms (texting, tweeting) 
  • in-person education with live professors and classes on a human scale with essays or other writing assignments
  • technical knowledge gained for a specific certification or job
  • knowledge of digital literacy and present-day popular culture
  • independent learning with crowdsourced feedback 
  • automated lectures and grading
  • texting, tweeting, and other forms of contemporary writing only (no essays)
  • multiple-choice tests 
Which frills are we willing to go to the mattresses over? Will handwriting be one of them? 

Saturday, July 07, 2012

An economic argument by analogy

Back in the 1960s, after a lot of well-documented studies of abuses in mental health institutions and the warehousing of people within them, there was a push for a more humane system of care. A system of well-funded community health organizations, ample prescription benefits and social services support, and access to trained mental health professionals could allow people to be treated humanely and to lead productive lives.
Long story short: good plan, bad execution. Thinking that if those in need of mental health services had medication, they had no need of support systems (psychiatry, psychology, social workers, and other supports), states took the money, spent it on other things, and gutted the support systems for mental health. The Feds cut back and cut back until now, if I recall correctly, the jail and prison system is the place where a lot of people who could have been helped in other ways now receive care, if at all. Institutions were removed with promises of support, but the support never matched the rosy promises.
Mental health institutions are not universities, and the mentally ill are not students, and there are a lot of other things that don't work as an analogy here. But consider this:
New and equally rosy promises are being made about MOOCs right now. We can all go to Coursera or Khan Academy! Teachers can become tutors--the "guide on the side" to match the "sage on the stage," which has now moved online. Recent articles on getting course credit for these suggest that course equivalency exam mills now springing up and the venerable CLEP exam that's been around since George Washington crossed the Delaware will now give credit.
And so I ask again: how long are state legislatures going to support education--that is, the tutoring and grading that university professors will still be allowed to do in this system-- if students are being "educated" with videos from Famous Professors at Famous Places? How long will they support research? How long before the glorified tutoring goes online, too, and gets outsourced? And, the question no one seems to care about: what happens to a quality liberal arts education in this system?
Dave Barry once said that the cereal ads that tout Froot Loops or whatever as "part of a nutritious breakfast" should really say "adjacent to a nutritious breakfast." If education leaders promoting MOOCs don't want us to see them as "adjacent to a liberal arts education," they need to step up and answer some of those questions.
The only programs that won't be subject to this are the really important, hands-on ones--like football.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

The writing process right now

So what's happening besides noticing that everyone seems to have a little promotional tag on their multi-line email signature line these days ("Author of Forthcoming Fabulous Book"), which inspires an emotion that might be fury but is in fact envy?

Here's a little snippet of the writing process for me right now.

Days 1-6. Work on continuing to write a chapter. Be stuck on how this fits with the rest of the manuscript.
Day 7. Get brilliant, amazing, and exciting idea of what to add to hook reader in and connect the dots.
Days 8-12. Write brilliant and amazing transitional hook.
Day 13. Realize that brilliant and amazing hook doesn't work after all. Put it in junk document.
Day 14. Go back to chapters.
Day 15-17. Try to rescue hook because you find it so enthralling.
Day 18, earlier. While folding laundry, realize that hook really does not fit and throw it back into the junk document.
Day 18, later. Wince as you see the word counts for what you've written for the last three weeks. Get back to work.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Happy Fourth! Let's say it with musicals.

Here's hoping that all those without power and with too much heat on the east coast get more of the former and less of the latter.

For some inexplicable reason and contrary to its usual custom, TCM is not showing the most patriotic (or as TR says "bouncy patriotic schmaltz") movie of all time (Yankee Doodle Dandy) today, choosing instead to run the world's longest musical (1776, which runs for about 16 hours, give or take). You can see a clip of James Cagney at Tenured Radical's place. 

In lieu of that, I offer you a different clip of Fourth of July dancing,  "Say it with Firecrackers" from Holiday Inn:

And to think about the two sides of patriotism, this short list of WWII-inspired musical numbers:

1. Yankee Doodle Dandy, as above. They started shooting this movie, which had long been planned, on December 8, 1941, and according to Cagney and the rest, this spurred them on to make this movie good. Do you think that when Cagney as George M. Cohan yells "Everybody sing!" into the camera during the "Over There" number that 1942 audiences complied? How many of the songs in the "You're a Grand Old Flag" (originally, btw, "You're a Grand Old Rag") number would your students recognize and be able to sing along with? Discuss. ("Over There:

2. The scene in Casablanca where Major Strasser's troops sing "Die Wacht am Rhein" and are drowned out by "La Marseillaise." Do you tear up every time you see this scene? If not, are you made of stone? Discuss. Fun fact: "Die Wacht am Rhein" was banned in Nazi Germany.

3. The terrifying side of patriotism: in Cabaret, the young boy singing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," all about the future and youth and nature and whatnot.  Then the camera pans past his arm and you see the swastika. Is there a better example of the power of crowds and emotions to inspire people to evil, outside of The Triumph of the Will? It's chilling.

Monday, July 02, 2012

TL;DR--a student response to paper comments?

I've been thinking about the efforts of e-book purveyors to quantify our interest level in the books we read and had this idea for an invention:  what if someone could build a device or application that could track how students really respond to our comments on their papers?

There are lots of studies on this; that's how "minimal marking" and other trends in grading got started.  But what if we could know what they actually focus on, not through self-report or hand-coding responses based on video, but on real-time tracking depending on where their eyes went on the page?

Let me hasten to add that this ought to be done as an experiment with IRB approval and all that; I'd never advocate this kind of spying on people's reading routinely (although Amazon, B & N, and, as we all found out last week, Orbitz are all ready to do so).  But just think what we could find out:

  • Do students, when confronted with a mysterious check mark, pause and wonder what the minimal marking means, or do they skip over it to go to the comment where something is actually written? If you return papers electronically and provide links in the margins, do they click on the links for an explanation? 
  • If you've marked up a paragraph to show typical errors and then said something like "can you see other examples in the rest of the paper?" do they actually look at the other paragraphs to see if they made those errors? 
  • Do they read the marginal comments or skip right to the end to see the grade? I think most of us as classroom teachers have a well-documented set of cases that say that skip-to-the-end is what happens, but are there times when it doesn't happen?
  • I occasionally read comments (laments? bragging?) from teachers who say " . . . and then I added a full single-spaced page of comments at the end of the paper." I guess that's okay if it works for you, but I wonder if they're confusing quantity of comments with the effectiveness  of comments. Past a certain point of writing the end comment, it seems more effective to call the student in and talk with him or her than to keep writing.
  • Given the way we've been trained by internet reading to look for short paragraphs, do the students even read long comments like that all the way through? Or if they could, would they write "tl;dr" and stop before you've been able to convey all those helpful hints?
  • Another part of this invention: should we structure our comments like those ridiculous slideshows that are oddly compelling and force you to click through to see the whole thing? "Five Good and Bad Things about Emily's Paper: Click here to continue"? 
  • Or should we maybe give them a chance to say "tl;dr" in comments to our comments?