Saturday, March 30, 2013

Robot grading and the real student essay

As it always seems to do just before The Season of Heavy Grading, the issue of robot grading is making the rounds again.  Alex Reid has a thoughtful post on it in which he points out that what we mean by machine reading and human reading are two different things. What we want from good writing isn't merely a correct sentence--the "Hitler discovered America in 1315 and published it in the Magna Carta" stellar writing that the machine grading programs love--but something that shows an awareness of the rhetorical complexity beneath expressing something worthwhile. You know, something that shows human thought behind the words.

Let's leave aside for a minute the kinds of tasks that promoters want robot graders to do, including high-stakes testing that determines students' futures. I want to know what the robot graders are going to do with these kinds of papers, which I've gotten plenty of over the years:
  • The Adorable BS Artist paper.  Adorable BS artist is that charming and very bright student who writes beautifully, but because her busy schedule doesn't always allow time for actually reading the text, the essay she produces is a lovely, airy souffle without any actual content in it. Adorable BS Artist will often reassure you that she's never received less than an A on a paper in her life, and you can see why a work-weary high school teacher would be dazzled by the sentences.  But excellence in college writing demands more than that, and if you point out the difference to her early, she can develop into a really good writer, one with substance as well as style.   If Adorable BS Artist puts in a date or two, though, the robot grader will never know the difference, and she'll never learn to think.
  • The Patient Plodder paper. Patient Plodder's paper is almost painfully correct. The sentences are correct. But there is not one idea in the paper, not one, that you have not talked about in class, and there is absolutely no evidence of the writer's original ideas. Yet it is correct, it is of the required length, and it throws in a date here or there. Patient Plodder believes that she should receive an A because "there's nothing wrong." But "there's no there there," and a human grader would point out the difference between "nothing wrong" and "not enough right." Would a robot grader do this?
  • The Icarus paper. The Icarus writer has tried, really tried, and has put herself out there in terms of assertions. Parts of the paper are near-brilliant. Parts of it are a train wreck, in part because the writer has overreached and in part because she doesn't know how to integrate quotations without making a mess of them. If you're a human teacher, you help her sort it out and nurture the brilliance. If you're a robot, you melt those wax wings and let her fall into the sea.
By the way, here's a helpful tip for students: if your essay is being graded by machine and it's not long enough to get full points, copy and paste it again into the essay box. The machine will never know the difference, and you'll get full points!  Win-win!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Leaning in

All the posts about leaning in (see Flavia & nicoleandmaggie) have me thinking about this more than reading the Time article did.

Two things have resulted, one less than positive and one more positive:

  • After reading about Sandberg's schedule, which is timed to a fare-thee-well with nothing that I would recognize as leisure included in it, I now feel deeply and incredibly guilty if I am not doing something productive every minute. Watch House of Cards with family? Guilty. Reading blogs and puttering around the house in between grading discussion posts instead of powering through? Guilty. She is a shining beacon of reproach to me every day. I'm sure this wasn't what Sandberg intended, but it's a real effect, so I'm reporting it. 
  • On the positive side, after turning down a number of administrative opportunities, I've said yes to one after being asked, in part because of the women in positions of power thing that Sandberg talks about.  I turned them down, by the way, not because of the "I'm not worthy" mindset that Sandberg talks about but because they interfered with a greater professional goal that I wanted more. Now that that's within sight or at least hailing distance, it might be time to think of an opportunity that's a leadership role, and yes, all the talk about Sandberg made me think of it that way. 
The guilt should fade, but the position, once finalized, should last, so I would call that a net positive effect. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

MOOCs for Administration (humor at CHE)

Now here's an idea whose time has come: Let's apply MOOC principles to administrators!

If the administrators cannot compete and be effective online, then it’s time to get out of the way for the people who can. After all, no student ever thought it was worth $55,000 a year for time in a room with a particular dean or vice president, but we might be able to convince them, at least for a while longer, that the educational experience of the classroom is worth it.
Not only would putting administration online cut costs and raise profits, it would also cut down on wasted faculty hours at meetings. We faculty could log on and follow administration online, just like the students in MOOCs log on to learn. And like MOOC students, if we didn’t find the administrators entertaining or educational enough, we could stop logging on and just become freer agents in the marketplace of knowledge.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Job skills 101: don't be rude

Northern Clime is in a friendly part of the country, and it's been a long time since I've encountered real rudeness at the university. I'm still trying to figure out what to make of a mild little incident that occurred the other day.

I was at a remote campus site to participate (watch, really) by videoconference in a day-long workshop. I've been at enough of these to know that the usual drill is go in, make a little polite conversation with whoever shows up in the conference room, and pay attention. Everyone there has signed up for it, so you can assume that we're all colleagues of one kind or another.

I enter the room, and, as the senior person there (judging by my being older, more professionally dressed, etc.), give a friendly greeting to the two younger women sitting there.

"Hi.  Are you all here for the workshop?"

No answer.

Undeterred, I press on:

"Are you faculty here?"--thinking I'd introduce myself after getting the conversation started.

One smirks. "No."

Without learning a lesson (not used to rudeness, remember):

"A grad student?"

Another smirk. "No." Glares at me and turns away.  The other woman looks a little unnerved and says nothing.

What I think is this: What on earth is your problem? 

What I say is this: "I was making conversation."

And that is the extent of the conversation in the room until Rude One leaves at the noon hour and Unnerved One unbends a little bit.


What I don't understand is the thought process of someone like that.  It's not about being a professor and having someone suck up to you (don't care about that) or about my being senior to both of them (though why would you go out of your way to alienate someone who might be able to help you?).

It's about being three human beings in a room for the next six hours, and why would you want to make the room tense with rudeness if you didn't have to? It's not as though we were bumping into each other on a downtown street: there was a context and purpose for what we were doing.

I don't get it. I have had students in the past who seriously wanted to Stick It To The (Wo)Man, and one who actually gave me a Nazi salute (!) to indicate that I was Hitler and she was a Brave Iconoclast.  (Yeah, that was a fun time.) Could that be it?

Or is it that she wasn't a professional like the other people I've met through these workshops and didn't understand how they operate?

Your thoughts?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Work to live or live to work?

Nicoleandmaggie recently asked readers whether they could visualize financial independence for themselves, and Dr. Isis apparently shocked the blogosphere with a recent post about maybe quitting academe and doing something else. To me, these seemed to get at a deeper question: do you work to live or live to work?

Unless you're independently wealthy, you have to work; that's not the question. Maybe not surprisingly, the few people I know who are financially independent in nicoleandmaggie's terms don't seem to regret leaving work one bit. I also don't mean choosing between family and jobs (work/life balance), which has a different set of issues from loving the job that you do. This is basically the Office Space "What would you do if you had a million dollars?" question.

But a lot of people who are fully employed at jobs that would seem to provide a decent salary and job satisfaction would still quit in a heartbeat if they could afford it. This completely unscientific poll includes a lot of the First Person columnists over at the Chronicle, who are unhappy in academe, and the few people I've talked to about this, including nonacademics like lawyers and contractors and architects. They work to live and wouldn't do it if they didn't have to, even if their jobs would seem to be satisfying otherwise. That's not to say that all lawyers, etc., feel like this; it's not about the job per se but about an emotional approach to the position.

I'd define the "live to work" academics  as those who, despite having to work for the money and the frustrations of the workplace, get up most mornings with a sense that what they're doing is important and that there's a contribution they can make by teaching, writing, and publishing--that what they're doing in the world makes a difference.  I felt this way during the many years I was an adjunct, and I feel it now.  It's economically unsound if we feel this way--that's what allows universities to exploit part-time faculty shamefully--yet it's what a lot of academics feel, I think.

Academe is just a job, in a way, yet it's not because it brings up all the Holy Calling issues that erupt whenever leaving it gets mentioned.

So how about you? Work to live or live to work?

Monday, March 18, 2013

(Off-topic) Postwar hauntings: Dana Andrews and Don Draper

This is probably truly not of general interest to anyone except old movie buffs and Mad Men fans, so if you're neither, feel free to skip it.

If you think about a postwar character, a handsome, modern, alienated sort of man, one whose dark moodiness occasionally gives way to a smile that masks an inner sadness, you may think of Don Draper. As I was rewatching The Best Years of Our Lives a few weeks ago, it struck me that the actor Dana Andrews is the prototype for this character.  Like Don Draper, he's a creature of the time he's been born into yet always distanced from it. 

Andrews is probably best known as the detective in Otto Preminger's famous noir Laura, where he's a detective in the Raymond Chandler Lite mode--that is to say, cynical, hardboiled, with a few light wisecracks masking a serious attempt to get at the truth. This film defines the Andrews persona of the haunted man: here, what haunts him is a portrait, but elsewhere, there are other memories that haunt him. 

The part that Andrews pays in The Best Years of Our Lives is that of a returning war veteran whose high status as an officer disappears once he returns. The only job he can get is his old job, as a soda jerk, in a drugstore that's undergone a corporate takeover. He seemed to have everything--good looks, status, a bombshell of a wife (Virginia Mayo)--but now there's no place for him in this world. His skills as a bombardier are obsolete. Earlier, we've seen his PTSD, nightmares of a fire on a plane, a dream that he apologizes for. One of the movie's themes is that no one wants to remember the war, now that it's over, but that those who lived it can never forget. 

Near the end of the movie, Andrews  sits in the midst of an airplane graveyard, surrounded by the junked metal that a postwar world doesn't need.  He sits in the nose turret of one of the junked bombers, hearing the sounds of the bombing missions he made and realizing that he's also one of the nation's discards.

His reverie is broken by a voice from the future: the foreman of a construction crew that's turning wrecks into prefab housing. If he wants to live, he has to forsake the past, abandon his old identity, and start a new life. There's a happy ending of sorts for the film, but that haunted look is there to stay, along with the inner torment that inspired it. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Sandberg controversy: The preachments of the wealthy

Update: nicoleandmaggie and Flavia (in the comments) have convinced me that I've missed some important features of Sandberg's perspective, so while I'm leaving this post up, you don't need to read further.  

I've been away from the news for a while and missed the uproar over Sheryl Sandberg's book telling women to "lean in," which seems to mean "pay attention to your career and demand more."

Sandberg has a lot of advice spoken and unspoken. The spoken part: (1) be ambitious, (2) support women in positions of power, and (3) ask for power yourself. The unspoken part: (1) be wealthy, (2) have household help, (3) attract a powerful mentor such as Lawrence Summers so that he can help to elevate you above the crowd.

Sandberg says she wants women to be paid more and to teach them to negotiate to do that.  How are we negotiate and "marshal power" in academe, when there are hundreds of people for each t-t job and the humanities are under attack as it is?

I gather Sandberg's book originated in a TED talk, which for all the hype about them seem to go something like this:

What's most interesting to me is that the media is portraying this as a war of women against women--women trying to tear down other women by sniping at their levels of privilege.  I don't care about her feminist credentials or lack thereof, and who's giving out those badges, anyway?

What's galling, I think, is that this is just the latest person of privilege telling the rest of us how to live.

  • What about Bill Gates telling us how to reform education by replacing teachers with software?
  • What about MOOC providers telling us that our lecturing is bad but theirs is transformational?
  • What about Paul Ryan, with a gold-plated Congressional health plan, telling us that "just let 'em die" vouchers will be a good system of health care?
It's not so much that she's a woman, or is or is not a feminist, or what have you. It's that we're getting tired of the preachments of the wealthy explaining why what we do isn't good enough and that our low salaries are our own fault. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

No Duke for you!: MOOCs are good for California, but not good enough for Duke, Penn, or UC Irvine

Remember all that "MOOCs are just here  so students from all nations can sing kumbaya and learn for the sake of learning" hype?

Turns out, the for-credit model is being eagerly embraced by legislators in California.  I know--like Captain Renault, you're "shocked, shocked!" that this could happen.

From Inside Higher Ed, these two articles have some food for thought:

1. ACE (an accrediting agency) has decided that 5 Coursera MOOCs could be accredited if colleges agree. Highlight:
Given the STEM tilt of this batch of five courses, none of them included peer assessment, leaning entirely on objective, often machine-enabled grading, said Sandeen of ACE. "In the future, perhaps we will be asked to review a course from the humanities or social sciences that relies on peer grading, and we'll take those issues up then," she said.
Translation: We can't get rid of those pesky professors yet, but once we get the One Rubric to Rule them All (h/t to Historiann, I think), those peer evaluators will do just fine.

Here's a little sample of ACE's evaluative criteria:
[U]sing MOOCs [will] "raise degree completion, deepen college curricula and increase learning productivity," as ACE's president, Molly Corbett Broad, said at the time.
Do you hear that about "learning productivity," Sinclair Lewis?  Dreams can come true.

2. How about credit for MOOC courses? Good for California, good for us grimy proles, but not so good for Duke, Irvine, and Penn:
No students at Irvine or Duke or Penn will be able to take any of these courses for credit, though. Matkin said UC-Irvine does not consider its Coursera courses, as currently constructed, to be worthy of its credit because "we do not control learning environment of these students.... There are 250,000 signups in our six courses, with open enrollment so anybody can sign up, and those anybodies can influence negatively the learning environment of students who are serious about taking it."
Translation: "Those anybodies" can watch the feast, or the videos on the MOOCs, and some fool college can give them credit for it, but we know that they could taint the educational experience and Our Brand, so, to paraphrase Seinfeld, "No Duke for you!"

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Oh, MOOCs! I wish I knew how to quit you.

I feel like a broken record or maybe an animated gif. Maybe the MOOC cheerleading  will settle down, I think--and then Thomas Friedman. You know--the MOOC cheerleading piece that Historiann rightly took down in her post yesterday.

I've exhausted just about all the reasons I can think of--and Jonathan Rees has (more elegantly) covered the rest--but here is another one:

What about employers? There's a compelling little graphic over at CHE titled "Employers Prefer All Types of Colleges--Except Online."  Public flagships rate first.  Online universities rank dead last. Heck, they aren't even in the same quadrant.

Now, MOOCs are not the University of Rising Mythical Bird or other for-profits, but except in technical fields, where the appeal of having computer geniuses rise through the MOOC ranks based on sheer talent makes some sense, are employers likely to hire MOOC-certified people who have badges instead of degrees? In this job market?

Is Stanford going to hire its Coursera grads to work at the university in the B.A.-level jobs it has open?

If you want to see any of those posts, here are some:

On MOOCs as "in-person lecture to 35 students BAD, video lecture to 14,000 students GOOD"

On MOOCs as a mechanism to sell textbooks:

On MOOCs as creating a two-tier educational system, or Eloi and Morlocks: 
Would little Charles and Alexandra Wealthyname be headed for a MOOC, or is that just for the rest of us? (With a bonus appearance starring Thomas Friedman's special brand of cheerleading).

On MOOCs, credit, and high-status brand dilution:

On professors as glorified tutors--"handmaidens to greatness"--in the MOOC model: (This one features Head MOOC Cheerleader David Brooks. He and Friedman ought to form a double act and take it on the road.)

On MOOC economics, or what will happen when MOOCs replace the gen ed courses that pay for all those fancy lab courses:

And one from 2011, touchingly (it seems now) called "Ever hear of a MOOC?"

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Random bullets of good news from around the web

It's March now, so spring can't be far behind.  Can it? CAN IT?

Herewith some random bullets to elevate our collective spirits.
In other news: I did not watch the Oscars last month, and we were part of the Nielsen survey for that time, so take that, Seth McFarlane! Seriously, all the magazine and blog coverage pretty much said it all. I am not a 13-year-old boy, and gross-out humor doesn't interest me much (sorry, Family Guy, South Park, Bridesmaids, and Judd Apatow, etc.), so I figured I'd skip it. Who knew the bonus would be avoiding a misogyny-fest?

Speaking of misogyny, someone ought to write about an interesting phenomenon: since "b---h" has lost its sting by being used for women so frequently in modern media, and various synonyms for female sex  workers have also become so common in the MSM, what used to be known as "the c-word" has made an incredible surge in use in the past 5 years or so as an obligatory checked-off item in the list for "edginess" in serious dramas like House of Cards.  I'm sure we all joyfully await the rise of the next misogynist slur once the c-word has lost its punch through overuse.

Friday, March 01, 2013

"Don't know much about history/Don't know much geography"


"It showed wide variations in different ocean regions. In the North Pacific, for example, heavy rainfall dilutes the seawater's saltiness. And in Africa, a wonderful plume of freshwater pulses from the Amazon River and into the sea."

Did someone move the Amazon to another continent and not tell me?