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Advice for giving an effective job presentation (opinion)

Stephen J. Aguilar outlines some suggestions to help you avoid common pitfalls.

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Does your institution really need a new LMS?

Colleges and universities should avoid “shiny new object syndrome” when considering if they need to move to a new learning management system, writes Sasha Thackaberry.

A recruiter describes how she experiences job conferences (essay)

Ruth Gotian describes what she sees in job candidates from the other side of the recruitment conference booth.

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Why experiential learning often isn't as good as classroom learning (opinion)

In his classic 1963 study Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter convincingly argues that Americans’ suspicion of purely intellectual pursuits extends even to our thinking about how to structure and value higher education. He might not have been surprised at the currently popular movement on college campuses that goes under the banners of “experiential learning,” “service learning” and “engaged learning.”

I’m not referring here to perfectly legitimate collaborations between communities and higher education institutions in such areas as research centers, clinics or legal programs. My concern is with how the experiential learning movement affects how administrators, some faculty members and the public think about what is most valuable in undergraduate education. Over the past 15 years, in my roles as faculty member and then dean of arts and sciences at two different universities, I have observed proponents of this movement gain more and more credence in their assertion that what undergraduate students need most is more “real-life” experience as a part of their college education -- often at the expense of important academic work.

This admonition to give undergraduate students plenty of real-life experience is justified by a high-minded claim that it is in the service of a higher good. Such experience, it is argued, will help students by giving them a leg up in their careers and making them more useful people. And although that may often prove true in the short term, I am convinced it is not reliably the case when we consider a longer time frame -- particularly for students in the foundational arts and sciences disciplines.

Take, for example, the following three situations. In each one, the student must select between an “academic” and a “real-life” experience, each offered for college credit. My examples do not represent false dilemmas. In an ideal world, one would want to select both, but time is limited, and students, in an understandable desire to graduate on time, are forced to make such choices.

  • A junior majoring in political science can either: (a) take a nonrequired upper-division course in statistical analysis (taught by a professor of statistics, not a political scientist) or (b) do a service-learning experience with a state legislator.
  • A junior majoring in environmental science can either: (a) take a nonrequired upper-division laboratory course in the biochemistry of water-based environmental toxicity or (b) work with the Fish and Game Department monitoring the impact of pollution on the local duck population.
  • A senior history major can either: (a) spend the summer at the Middlebury College Language Schools to become competent as a reader, writer and speaker of French or (b) work with an archivist at a local historical library.

Although each of the activities listed above is worthy, it is clear to me that, in the long term, the (a) options will serve the student much better than the (b) options. Each (a) option provides the student with the opportunity to study and learn a difficult subject matter, something valuable that can’t easily be learned “experientially.” But in the climate that currently exists on so many campuses, the student will likely be pushed toward taking the “real-life” option that has short-term, rather than long-term, benefits.

Around the country, numerous higher education institutions boast that all of their students have had at least one “experiential learning” experience, sometimes in the form of an extended internship. One of the current goals of the State University of New York System, for instance, is “to ensure that every SUNY student has the opportunity to take part in at least one applied learning experience before they graduate.” Other institutions trumpet their experiential learning approach in their marketing materials as a distinctive, overarching characteristic that sets them apart. Drexel University highlights the “Drexel Difference” on its website, proclaiming, “Our interdisciplinary approach to applied education is part of what makes us stand out, in Philadelphia and around the world. At Drexel, we value experiential learning, which is a process through which our students develop knowledge, skills and values from direct experiences outside a traditional academic setting.”

These experiences are, of course, valuable, but they should not be done at the expense of credits that could be devoted to learning difficult intellectual skills within a traditional academic setting. Many of the same programs that require or strongly recommend “engaged learning” also allow students to graduate who are unable to read or speak proficiently any language other than English, whose quantitative abilities don’t allow them to understand even midlevel mathematical analysis, and who are not demonstrably able to write clearly and persuasively about complex topics.

Undergraduates are enrolled in our colleges for usually about 120 credits hours, and before we stress too emphatically the value of “real-life” engagement, we should have the intellectual commitment and confidence that we can offer students many things in our classrooms that are even more valuable than what can be learned on the job.

Almost all of us will eventually have to work for a living, and that will always require sustained “real-life, engaged learning.” It will also call for immersion in interactions with average minds (like most of our own) working toward mundane ends. As educators, we should be proud that we give our students, while they are students, the opportunity to interact -- through their reading and writing, their laboratory work, and our instruction -- with what the best minds have discovered and developed within our various disciplines. This is something the “real world” is unlikely to offer them regularly once they leave college.

Oscar Wilde once said (contradicting Goethe) that it is much more difficult to think than to act. The most valuable thing we can teach students is the ability to think through, with patient focus, demanding intellectual challenges. Solving a difficult linear algebra problem, working to understand an intricate passage from Descartes, figuring out how, exactly, the findings of evolutionary morphology explain the current human stride -- all these are examples of the sort of learning that we should be proud to provide our students. And not one of them features “real-life” engagement.

John Kijinski teaches English at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Before returning to the classroom, he was the dean of arts and sciences at Fredonia and at Idaho State University.

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View yourself as a research topic when writing your résumé (opinion)

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Graduate students should view it as another piece of research-based writing -- with themselves as the subject, writes Melissa Dalgleish.

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MLA panel proposes overhaul of how association takes stands on issues

Panel proposes overhaul of the sometimes controversial resolution process, which some members value. Tensions linger over movement -- rejected by the association last year -- to boycott Israeli academe.

'Conditionally Accepted' announces new editor (essay)

Victor Ray, the new editor of “Conditionally Accepted,” describes his vision for the column going forward.

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Diversity Newsletter publication date: 
Tuesday, January 9, 2018
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Introducing the New Editor of ‘Conditionally Accepted’

Best Practices for Supporting Postdocs

Institutions that employ postdoctoral fellows should increase support for offices of postdoc affairs and offer postdocs better pay and benefits equal to those of other campus employees, according to a new report from the National Postdoctoral Association. The report, which is based on a 2016 survey of 130 association member institutions that hire postdocs, also recommends that campuses establish more generous parental leave and other family-friendly policies and track the careers of past postdocs.

“Improvements have been made in the postdoc experience,” Kate Sleeth, past chair of the association’s Board of Directors, said a statement. “However, there are still areas for growth.” The association says that its newly released data on postdoc stipends, benefits, appointment policies and access to training programs will help postdoc support services officers and other administrators identify best practices and improve working conditions for postdocs.

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The founder of 'Conditionally Accepted' steps down as editor (essay)

As they step down as editor, Eric Anthony Grollman, the founder of “Conditionally Accepted,” writes about creating a platform for marginalized scholars and thanks its many contributors.

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Essay on Library of Congress's Twitter archive

The Library of Congress has the reputation of holding a copy of every book ever published, or at least every book published in the United States -- a reputation that is invalid, however, and that persists in spite of the institution’s efforts to correct it. The collection is huge, a bibliomane's utopia, but it has never claimed to be exhaustive. Indiscriminate accumulation is a sign of hoarding, not of librarianship.

But an exception was made over the past seven years as the LC tried to create a repository of every public posting to Twitter. That experiment is now over. Henceforth, according to a white paper issued in late December, the library will “acquire tweets but will do so on a very selective basis,” in accord with its wider digital-collections policy. A lot goes unsaid in the document, which is perhaps best understood as a sign that the LC is finally getting its bearings again after a long period of erratic leadership.

As noted in this column a few weeks after the project was announced in April 2010, Twitter's initial gift to the library was a complete set of public posts from the social media platform's first four years -- some 21 billion tweets. (Private messages between users were not included.) Going forward, the collection would be supplemented by new batches of tweets that could be made available to library patrons at least six months after they had been tweeted. At that stage about 30 million users had Twitter accounts and produced an average of 50 million new tweets per day. Both figures have increased tenfold since then. And while there is no way to know how many human beings are actually behind the accounts, or how much of the content is computer generated, Twitter itself has grown so ubiquitous as to be a factor in the lives even of people who never use it. We will remember 2017 as the year when a Twitter message leading to war began to seem like a matter of time.

Meanwhile, the archive has been in limbo. Five years ago, an update on the Library of Congress’s blog announced that the work of establishing “a secure, sustainable process for receiving and preserving a daily, ongoing stream of tweets through the present day” was within a month of completion, along with “a structure for organizing the entire archive by date.” I returned to the subject in 2015 with column about a researcher from Germany who received a fellowship to work with the collection -- only to learn that it still wasn’t available for her to study. The recent white paper is at least candidly noncommittal about when, if ever, the archive will be open for use: “The Twitter collection will remain embargoed until access issues can be resolved … There is no projected timetable for providing public access at this time.”

When a mission fails, one possibility is to redefine it retroactively. "The library now has a secure collection of tweet text," says the white paper, "documenting the first 12 years (2006-17) of this dynamic communications channel -- its emergence, its applications and its evolution." And on those terms, the archive is complete, if also completely useless. When a collection is too huge for search and retrieval, being "secure" just means it's unavailable. Conversely, the decision to curate the Twitter stream "on a very selective basis" -- with an emphasis on "events such as elections, or themes of ongoing national interest, e.g. public policy," comes at a time when this will mean duplicating the efforts of other institutions with a vested interest in preserving the record. The president's tweets, for example, fall under the purview of the National Archives.

In retrospect, the decision to acquire the Twitter archive may go down in the record as an example of the problems that beset the final decade (at least) of James Billington’s tenure as librarian of Congress from 1987 to 2015. A report by the Government Accountability Office issued during Billington's final year found significant deficiencies in how the library managed its information technology resources. He appointed the library's first chief information officer only a short time before his own retirement. Acquiring the Twitter archive in 2010 must have seemed like a gesture that would wave off all those complaining that the LC was falling behind. Under good leadership, the LC might have assessed the problems created by the initial Twitter acquisition and gone on to develop the tools and policy needed to create a useful collection. Probably the best thing the institution could do now is to invite scholars to study the records of the whole episode, to see when it went hopelessly wrong and whether it offers any lessons by negative example.

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