How did a physics professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill end up in an Argentine jail on drug charges? An article in The New York Times describes how Paul Frampton found what he thought was a love interest online, how she lured him to Latin America and -- without meeting him in person -- convinced him to take a suitcase of hers, one that ended up containing illegal drugs.
Edwin Mellen Press is dropping a wildly unpopular libel lawsuit against a university librarian, CBC News reported. Mellen sued Dale Askey, associate university librarian at McMaster University in Ontario, where he’s been working since 2011, over a blog post he wrote in August 2010, when he was at Kansas State University, that was highly critical of Mellen. The press says that it wants to focus on its authors and books and so is dropping the suit. Many scholarly and library groups were furious about the lawsuit and criticized Mellen for filing it.
The top of the annual performance review form at my university has a blank space for us to list any additional education we obtained during the previous year. I’ve never filled that space in before, but that will change in my review for 2012 because I spent part of my sabbatical last fall as a student in a massive open online course (or MOOC).
I'm an American historian by training, but ever since I left graduate school a global perspective has become increasingly important for historians of all kinds. That’s why I decided to get some free professional development in world history, courtesy of Coursera. I learned a lot of interesting and useful specific factual information from the MOOC instructor (or superprofessor, as the lingo goes) that has already helped me become a better teacher and scholar.
But I didn’t just listen to the lectures. Like any other student (since that’s what I was), I also wrote out all the assignments and helped grade papers written by my peers in class. This peer grading process differs from peer evaluation (which I use in class all the time) since students not only read each other’s work, they assign grades that the course professor never sees. Professors in the trenches tend to hold their monopoly on evaluating their students’ work dearly, since it helps them control the classroom better by reinforcing their power and expertise. On the other hand, superprofessors (and the MOOC providers that teach for them) have begun to experiment with having students grade other students out of necessity since no single instructor could ever hope to grade assignments from tens of thousands of students by him or herself.
With MOOCs in their infancy, few precedents exist for designing online peer grading arrangements for humanities courses. For this reason, I don’t intend to criticize my superprofessor’s choices here. However, I do have to describe some of the peer grading process from my class in order for my critique of peer grading in general to make sense. All students in the MOOC were supposed to write six essays between the start of the course and its end. For each assignment, we could choose one of three single-sentence questions to answer in 750 to 1,000 words. The week after we submitted those essays, we were supposed to grade the essays of five of our peers with respect to their argument, evidence and exposition, and leave comments. If you didn’t grade the essays your peers wrote, you didn’t get to see the grade you earned.
With respect to the grades I earned, I think my peers graded my essays just right. The grading scale in our MOOC went from zero to three. When I already knew a fair bit about the topic of the question that I answered or I tried very hard to write the best essay I could, I earned mostly threes from my peers. When I didn’t try very hard, I tended to get twos. While I listened to all my superprofessor’s lectures fairly closely, I never read the recommended textbook, which also undoubtedly hurt my scores.
For me at least, the primary problem with peer grading lay in the comments. While I received five comments on my first essay, for every subsequent essay I received number grades with no comments from a minimum of two peers and as many as four. In one case, I got no peer grades whatsoever. That meant that the only student who evaluated my essay was me. Every time I did get a comment, no peer ever wrote more than three sentences. And why should they? Comments were anonymous so the hardest part of the evaluative obligation lacked adequate incentive and accountability.
I read in The New York Times a few weeks ago that a study had begun to examine whether peer grades would match the grades assigned by professors and teaching assistants in one sociology MOOC. While that would prove an impressive feat if true, it would in no way validate the process of peer grading. Learning, as any humanities professor knows, comes not through the process of grades but through the process of students reading comments about why they got the grades they got. That’s how students find out how to do better next time.
To be fair, the course included a good set of instructions about how to grade a history essay linked from the course homepage. Unfortunately, there was no way for the superprofessor to force students to read those instructions, and due to the inevitable pressure to cover as much world history as possible, he never discussed how to grade in any of the class lectures. How could he? Good grading technique is difficult enough for graduate students to learn. Because of the size of the course I think I can safely assume that many of my fellow MOOC students inevitably had no history background at all, yet the peer grading structure forced them to evaluate whether other students were actually doing history right.
The implicit assumption of any peer grading arrangement is that students with minimal direction can do what humanities professors get paid to do and I think that’s the fatal flaw of these arrangements. This assumption not only undermines the authority of professors everywhere; it suggests that the only important part of college instruction is the content that professors transmit to their students. How many of the books you read in college can you even name, let alone describe? It’s the skills you learn in college that matter, not the specific details in any particular class, particularly those outside the major.
Over the course of my career, I have increasingly begun to spend much more time in class teaching skills than I do content. Some of this has been a reaction to encountering students who do not seem as prepared for reading or writing college-level material as the students I had back when I started teaching. However, I have also come to believe that teaching these skills is much more important than teaching any particular historical fact. After all, it really is possible to Google nearly anything these days.
Certainly good students can do a good job grading peer essays and I got a few short but insightful comments on the papers I wrote for my MOOC. Even if all of my comments had been less than helpful, I didn’t come into the MOOC process seeking to improve my writing skills. I wanted to learn new information, and many other students who engaged the material the same way that I did probably felt the same way.
Students like me won’t be the ones who’ll suffer because of peer grading. Its victims will be the future students who take MOOCs to earn college credit at increasingly cash-strapped universities. Who will teach them how to write well? Who will monitor their progress through the peer grading assignments? Who will help them understand that history is as much about argument as it is about facts or that literature can be appreciated on multiple levels? While other students can certainly teach other students some things, they can never teach students everything that a living breathing professor can.
Education startups like Coursera are experimenting with peer grading not because it is the best way for students to learn history or English, but because it is the only way that the MOOC machine can ever run itself in a humanities course. If MOOCs incurred high labor costs the same way that colleges do, those startups would never be able to extract a profit from those classes. While that’s a legitimate concern for Coursera’s venture capital investors, everyone else in academia – even the superprofessors – should give more weight to purely educational concerns.
In 1892, the president of Leland Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, managed to convince Ewald Flügel, a scholar at the University of Leipzig, to join the young institution’s rudimentary English department. Flügel had received his doctoral degree in 1885 with a study of Thomas Carlyle under the aegis of Richard Wülcker, one of the founders of English studies in Europe. Three years later, he finished his postdoctoral degree, with a study on Sir Philip Sydney, and was appointed to the position of a Privatdozent at Leipzig.
The position of the Privatdozent is one of the most fascinating features at the modern German universities in the late 19th century. Although endowed with the right to direct dissertations and teach graduate seminars, the position most often offered only the smallest of base salaries, leaving the scholar to earn the rest of his keep by students who paid him directly for enrolling in his seminars and lectures. In a 1903 Stanford commencement speech Flügel warmly recommended that his new colleagues in American higher education embrace the Privatdozent concept:
What would the faculty of Stanford University say to a young scholar of decided ability, who, one or two years after his doctorate (taken with distinction), having given proof of high scholarly work and spirit, should ask the privilege of using a certain lecture room at a certain hour for a certain course of lectures? What would Stanford University say, if – after another year or two this young man, unprotected but regarded with a certain degree of kindly benevolence […], this lecturer should attract more and more students (not credit hunters), if he should become an influence at the university? What if the university should become in the course of years a perfect hive of such bees? […] It would modify our departmental boss-system, our worship of "credits," and other traits of the secondary schools; it would stimulate scholarly life at the university; it would foster a healthy competition in scholarly work, promote survival of the fittest, and keep older men from rusting.
Unabashedly Darwinian, Flügel was convinced that his own contingent appointment back in Germany had pushed him, and pushed all Privatdozenten, to become competitive, cutting-edge researchers and captivating classroom teachers until one of the coveted state-funded chair positions might become available. He held that the introduction of this specific academic concept was instrumental at furthering the innovative character and international reputation of higher education in Germany. Flügel himself had thrived under the competitive conditions, of course, and his entrepreneurial spirit led him to make a number of auspicious foundational moves: He took on co-editorship of Anglia, today the oldest continually published journal worldwide focusing exclusively on the study of “English.” And he founded Anglia Beiblatt, a review journal that quickly established an international reputation.
Despite his formidable achievements, however, he could not secure a chair position as quickly as he hoped. Since he was among the very few late 19th-century German professors of English who possessed near-native proficiency, he began to consider opportunities overseas. Even the dire warnings from a number of east coast colleagues ("the place seems farther away from Ithaca, than Ithaca does from Leipzig"; "they have at Stanford a library almost without books") could not scare him away. Once he had begun his academic adventure in the Californian wilderness, he took on a gargantuan research project, the editorship of the Chaucer Dictionary, offered to him by Frederick James Furnivall, the most entrepreneurial among British Chaucerians and founder of the Chaucer Society. As soon as he took over from colleagues who had given up on the project, he found, in this pre-computer age of lexicography, "slips of all sizes, shapes, colors, weights, and textures, from paper that was almost tissue paper to paper that was almost tin. Every slip contained matter that had to be reconsidered, revised, and often added to or deleted.”
Undeterred by this disastrous state of affairs, he decided to resolve the problem with typically enterprising determination: Although grant writing was uncharted territory for him, he applied for and secured three annual grants for $7,500 and one for $11,000 (altogether the equivalent of at least $300,000 in today’s money!) from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching between 1904 and 1907 "for the preparation of a lexicon for the works of Geoffrey Chaucer," bought himself some time away from Stanford, and signed up a dozen colleagues and students in Europe and North America to assist him in his grand plan.
His and their work would become the foundation of the compendious Middle English Dictionary which now graces every decent college library in the English-speaking world and beyond. Beyond the work on the Chaucer Dictionary, the completion of which he never saw because of his sudden death in 1914, he maintained an impressive publication record and served in leadership positions such as the presidency of the Pacific Branch of the American Philological Association. When Flügel passed away, his American colleagues celebrated his "enthusiastic idealism" and remembered him as "more essentially American" than the other foreign-born colleagues they knew, an appreciation due to his entrepreneurial spirit.
I am relating this story to counteract the often defeatist chorus sung by colleagues in English and other humanities departments when confronted with a request, usually from impatient administrators in more grant-active areas, for at least giving grant writing and other entrepreneurial activities a try. There is no doubt that, compared to the situation in most other Western democracies, government support through the National Endowments for the Humanities and Arts is small in the U.S. Conversely, the number of private foundations, from the American Council of Learned Societies through the Spencer Foundation, makes up for some of the difference.
In my experience, what keeps the majority of English professors from even considering an involvement with entrepreneurial activities is that they deem them an unwelcome distraction from the cultural work they feel they have been educated, hired, and tenured to do. Most grant applications require that scholars explain not only the disciplinary, but also the broader social and cultural relevance of their work. In addition, they entail that scholars put a monetary value on their planned academic pursuits and create a bothersome budget sheet, learn how to use a spreadsheet, develop a timeline, and compose an all-too-short project summary, all grant-enabling formal obstacles many colleagues consider beneath the dignity of their profession.
In fact, many of us believe that the entire discipline of English and the humanities in general may have been created so as to counterbalance the entrepreneurial principles and profit motives which, from within the English habitat, seem to have a stranglehold over work in colleges of business, computing, engineering, and science. However, by making English a bastion of (self-)righteous resistance against the evil trinity of utilitarianism, pragmatism, and capitalism, English professors have relinquished the ability to be public intellectuals and to shape public discourse. After all, too many of our books and articles speak only to ourselves or those in the process of signing up to our fields at colleges and universities.
Ewald Flügel labored hard to remain socially and politically relevant even as he was involved in professionalizing and institutionalizing the very discipline we now inhabit. Recognizing that the skills and kinds of knowledge provided by his emerging field were insufficient for solving complex real-world issues, he became a proponent of a more co-disciplinary approach to academic study, a kind of cultural studies scholar long before that term was invented. Most of us would agree that he applied his formidable linguistic and literary expertise to a number of problematic goals, speaking to academic and public audiences about how the steadily increasing German immigration and the powers of German(ic) philology should and would inevitably turn the United States into an intellectual colony of his beloved home country. However, even if his missionary zeal reeks of the prevailing nationalist zeitgeist, I can appreciate his desire to experiment, innovate, and compete to make the study of historical literature and language as essential to the academy and to humanity as did his approximate contemporaries Roentgen, Eastman, Edison, Diesel, Marconi, and Pasteur with their scientific endeavors.
Perhaps his example might entice some of us to revisit and even befriend the idea of entrepreneurship, especially when it involves NGOs or the kind of for-profit funding sources the Just Enough Profit Foundation might define as (only) "mildly predatory" or (preferably) "somewhat," "very" and "completely humanistic." At the very least, Flügel’s biography provides evidence that today’s prevailing anti-entrepreneurial mindset has not always been among the constitutive elements defining the "English" professoriate.
There are encouraging signs that some colleagues in English studies have begun to abandon that mindset: George Mason University’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship (directed by Paul Rogers, a professor of English) and the University of Texas consortium on Intellectual Entrepreneurship (directed by Richard Cherwitz, a professor of rhetoric and communication), generate promising cross-disciplinary collaboration between the academy and society; English professors at Duke, Georgia Tech, and Ohio State, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are among the national leaders testing the pedagogical viability of the controversial massive open online courses (MOOCs); and Ellito Visconsi of the University of Notre Dame, and Bryn Mawr colleague Katherine Rowe created Luminary Digital Media LLC, a startup that distributes their "Tempest for iPad," an application designed for social reading, authoring, and collaboration for Shakespeare fans with various levels of education. I believe Ewald Flügel would find these projects exciting.
Richard Utz is professor and chair in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology.