Editor of new volume discusses his colleagues' attempts to explain the arts and sciences

A professor discusses how he turned to his colleagues for help answering the question -- and turned the results into a book.

OER could boost revenues

Inside Higher Ed blogger Matt Reed wrote this past week that he's been thinking that an aggressive move towards OER could actually help generate revenue for colleges. Here’s how.

Review of Joshua Reeves, "Citizen Spies: The Long Rise of America's Surveillance Society"

It was the working conditions of Soviet spies in the TV program The Americans that really drove home to me how pervasive and taken for granted the surveillance of public space has become.

Set in the Washington area during the 1980s, the show focuses on central characters who are extremely deep-cover agents -- the pride of the KGB academy -- and who seduce, betray, compromise and (when necessary) liquidate their human-intelligence sources right under the Reagan administration’s nose. The usual pleasures of a period drama are infused with an occasionally melancholic sort of dramatic irony: the agents struggle to meet their superiors’ demands in the interests of a regime that the audience knows already has one foot in the dustbin of history.

I’ve written about The Americans here in the past and will try to curb my fannish enthusiasm except to make a point. The show’s whole premise turns on the risk of exposure; the viewer develops a vicarious feel for the state of remaining constantly on guard against leaving tracks, and for speed and thoroughness in erasing them when you do. But rarely do the spies have to worry about being watched or recorded on a security camera. Video surveillance represents so negligible and manageable a risk as to seem odd, not to say careless, to the 21st-century viewer, for whom it is as much a fact of urban life as the danger of being run over by a driver checking his email.

While the options for storing, searching and retrieving visual data were limited, closed-circuit video systems tended to be larger and more blatant in 1984. (The year, I mean, not the book -- although, on reflection, that too.) But the ubiquity of monitoring devices now is not just a matter of superior engineering. It comes as part of the most recent phase of a process Joshua Reeves studies in Citizen Spies: The Long Rise of America’s Surveillance Society, published by NYU Press. (Reeves is an assistant professor of new media and speech communications at Oregon State University.)

By “citizen spies,” the author does not mean anyone engaged in espionage but rather people who, upon noticing (“spying”) criminal or otherwise suspicious activity, convey that information to the proper authorities. The latter are presumably legitimate, powerful and competent to respond appropriately. To put it another way, Reeves has in mind the kind of citizen who takes the widespread slogan “If you see something, say something” very much to heart. The good 21st-century citizen may even be defined as a “seeing/saying subject,” to adopt the author’s preferred expression.

He very quickly drives it into the ground, but it does imply an interesting conceptual prehistory. In the days before the rise of the modern police force in the West (about 200 or 300 years ago, depending on the country), enforcement of the law was the citizens’ duty. They faced the task not just of identifying lawbreakers but of apprehending them, as well -- rallying a crowd to find and corner a thief, for example. To ensure that citizens did their duty, those atop the social hierarchy imposed sizable financial burdens on municipalities where law and order were breaking down. Periodic service as a watchman was also mandatory. Reeves quotes a colonial commander in New York in 1776 proclaiming that “any who refuse to take Part in preserving the City will be judged unworthy to inhabit it.”

See something, say something, or move to New Jersey, I guess. Anyway, this early mode of community self-policing was the source of the expression “hue and cry” -- in which “hue” meant “horn,” the instrument watchmen used to communicate. “Patterns of repetition, tone and emphasis allowed patrols in disparate communities to announce a criminal’s presence,” Reeves says, “and direct the dispersal of a number of civilian patrols.” Later, printed “hue and cry” bulletins performed a similar function in circulating information about wanted criminals over much wider areas.

So conditions emerged in which law enforcement could be practiced as a regular, organized activity in which specialized bodies of armed men were part of a social division of labor in tandem with courts and prisons. In principle, at least, that would be more efficient and perhaps also fairer than the earlier ad hoc practice of rounding up a crowd prepared to deal out rough justice on the spot.

At the same time, having a police force separate from the rest of the population imposed its own problems -- to which technology at times seemed to provide answers before opening up new difficulties. Reeves’s chapters on the integration of the telephone into police practice are especially interesting. The public telephone seemed like a promising way to multiply the impact of the force by directing cops quickly and precisely to where they were needed. Doing more with less sounded good in the 19th century, too.

But the police did not trust the public’s ability to use the (expensive) new technology wisely or responsibly. The phones could be accessed only by using keys, a small number of which were distributed to worthy citizens and marked to indicate which key belonged to which recipient. The phone line went directly to police headquarters; furthermore, once the phone was opened, the key could only be removed by an officer. Some models had buttons for what you were calling to report -- 6 for murder, for example, or 11 for fire. Sexual assault is noticeably absent from the dial appearing in one of the illustrations.

Developments tracked in later chapters (such as neighborhood watch programs and junior police clubs for children) follow a similar course of encouraging citizen participation in the effort to monitor and report on others -- while at the same time trying to limit and channel that involvement. Reeves’s larger point is that the array of surveillance and control systems established in American society since the Sept. 11 attacks is largely dependent on habits of complicity, or at least of acquiescence, that have been a very long time in forming.

And that seems true enough. But it may underestimate the difficulty now of imagining that things were different even before the turn of this century. That walking down a city street and thinking that any number of cameras might well be recording you would have seemed a bit deviant, if not pathological, once. Now it’s normal and, more strangely still, not even much of a concern.

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Book offers data on impact of grades, test scores and other factors on admission to competitive colleges

New book shows the impact of grades, test scores, race and gender on admission to competitive colleges.

Trial and Error: Lehman and Hunter Colleges boost chemistry course passing rate to 80 percent

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Review of Antony Alumkal, 'Paranoid Science: The Christian Right's War on Reality'

No estimate of overall turnout for last weekend’s global March for Science is available, but it surely qualifies as a milestone event in President Trump’s first 100 days. A table showing attendance at a few dozen protests (out of the estimated 500 to 600 that took place around the planet) suggests the total to have been in the hundreds of thousands.

In Washington, at least, the demonstration had an urgent point of local emphasis: the severely slashed budgets the administration has proposed for the National Institutes for Health and the Environmental Protection Agency. With the EPA, the cuts amount to disemboweling the agency; the limbs can be sawed off later, presumably at leisure. But the line of defense was wider than that, as expressed by one of the march’s honorary co-chairs, known to a generation or two of public television viewers as Bill Nye the Science Guy. Speaking to The Washington Post, he said, “Somewhere along the way, there has developed this idea that if you believe something hard enough, it’s as true as things discovered through the process of science. And I will say that’s objectively wrong.”

Upon reading this, I noticed three responses click through my brain in rapid succession. First came full and immediate assent: “Yes, of course.” The next was in the nature of a sigh, its verbal equivalent being something like: “How messed up are things that someone not only feels the need to say this out loud but is compelled to do so as publicly as possible?”

And finally, what’s hardest to put into words: a kind of forceful reminder of the reality that politically weaponized ignorance is effective, well funded and (to go by every available indication) here to stay. This is unacceptable. More than that, it is extremely dangerous; resignation is not an option. But people who find comfort living in a cosmos of “alternative facts” aren’t going to leave it willingly. They tend to stand their ground.

Least of all are they going to be driven out by Antony Alumkal’s Paranoid Science: The Christian Right’s War on Reality, just published by NYU Press. The very title of the sermon ensures that nobody will attend but the choir -- and few besides the most fervent members, at that. That is unfortunate: the element of pamphleteering in the book proves less significant than its four case studies of bad ideas going out in search of rationales to entrench them.

Neither believers nor conservatives have a patent on that process, but Alumkal -- an associate professor of sociology of religion at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver -- is especially irked that evangelical Christianity and the right have become so tightly bound to one another. He reviews four seemingly unrelated developments: intelligent design (creationism rebranded); the milieu of so-called ex-gay ministries and therapies; Christian right bioethics (exemplified in opposition to stem-cell research); and those for whom the very idea of anthropogenic climate change shows a troubling lack of confidence in the divine plan.

Alumkal treats each as a movement trying to maneuver between an expressly theological opposition to some aspect of science, on the one hand, and an effort to show that “real science” happens to coincide with religious beliefs, on the other. Opposition to the theory of evolution through natural selection is an obvious example with a particularly interesting history. The effort to find an alternative has taken a couple of seemingly distinct forms, with the earlier version, “creation science,” proving effectively indistinguishable from a literal reading of the Book of Genesis.

The intelligent-design movement is more circumspect. It treats evolutionary theory as a kind of secular mythology (part of a religion it calls “naturalism”) which is not based on evidence and in no way preferable to thinking that life is the product of an intentional act of creation. Hence the role of a supreme being with a long-term plan is as scientific as any other theory.

This possesses at least the form of a rational argument, with nothing to imply a diorama showing Adam and Eve with a brontosaurus, though also nothing to rule it out, either. But the history of intelligent design over the past 30 or 40 years is one of persistent tension between its nondoctrinal framing (i.e., no credal statements about the designer) and the reality that specific religious concerns animate it.

Quoting numerous passages from the literature of intelligent design and the other movements he analyzes as well, Alumkal shows that hostility toward science -- including a kind of fearful contempt toward scientists -- is fairly palpable. “Militantly secular professors, intoxicated by the naturalistic doctrine of Darwinism,” are depicted as “bent on strengthening their dominance of American culture.” Not content with making godless secularism pretty much a condition of employment at the universities, the naturalistic elite also influence the mass media and even seek to make a religion out of concern for the environment: “It even has a special vocabulary, with words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘carbon neutral.’ Its communion is organic food. Its sacraments are sex, abortion and, when all else fails, sterilization. Its saints are Al Gore” and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Does this seem like laying the caricature on a bit thick? I would agree, except for the fact that Alumkal is actually quoting from an anti-environmentalist tract. (Nor is it even the most unhinged passage he found there.) “When it comes to science,” he writes, “perhaps the key issue is the ease with which these individuals deny reality when they find it undesirable.” True, but it remains difficult to conceive why they’d choose to live in such an abject fantasy world instead.

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Lumen and Follett team up to deliver open course content through bookstores

OER provider Lumen Learning joins with Follett to bring open course content to faculty through the campus bookstore.


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