faculty

Professor Suspended for Twitter Comment Will Stay Out of Classroom

The University of Kansas has ended the suspension of a professor whose Twitter comment about the National Rifle Association angered many -- but the professor will not be returning to class this year. David Guth "has been assigned additional non-classroom responsibilities in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications for the remainder of the semester, including various service and administrative assignments," said a statement from the university. "Those assignments will be completed away from campus to the greatest extent possible. The decision, made by Provost Jeffrey Vitter and approved by Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, is based on the recommendation of a seven-member committee of faculty and staff, assembled at the chancellor’s request. The committee was asked to assess the current environment and recommend whether Guth could return from administrative leave without disrupting the student learning environment."

 

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Lesley Adjuncts Want to Unionize; Bentley Votes No

Lesley University adjuncts announced their intent to unionize Thursday under the auspices of the Service Employees International Union, which is driving a larger unionization movement across the Boston metropolitan area. The SEIU is mobilizing adjuncts across other metro regions, including Washington. Tufts University adjuncts voted in favor of a union last month, but Bentley University adjuncts voted against a union, they announced this week.

"By strengthening the support for part-time faculty we will improve the educational experience, and as a result advance enrollment and retention," Stella Johnson, adjunct professor of photography at Lesley, said in a news release. "We look forward to working together with the administration to solving the issues that confront our campus and profession and give higher education a brighter future."

Jack Dempsey, a longtime adjunct professor of English and public speaking at Bentley and part of the organizing committee there, said he was surprised and disappointed by the outcome -- 100 votes against and 98 for -- but said that Bentley adjuncts and SEIU were planning to appeal the decision. Because the government shutdown, which began Oct. 1, preceded the voting deadline of Oct. 3, it's possible that more "yes" votes arrived at the National Labor Relations Board Office by the deadline but could not be certified as timely and counted by the time the shutdown ended, he said. Adjuncts at Bentley want equal pay for equal work compared with tenure-track professors; health care insurance coverage; and "contract rights," including hiring preferences for veteran adjuncts and compensation for courses canceled at the last minute.

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Top GOP Senator Questions Humanities Grants

The top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee is questioning how the National Endowment for the Humanities awards its education grants. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama sent a letter this week to Carol M. Watson, the acting chairwoman of the NEH, in which he demanded the agency explain its peer-review process for funding grants that explore “very indefinite” questions.

Sessions pointed to seven grants the NEH funded that seek to explore the following questions: “What is the meaning of life?”, “Why are we interested in the past?”, “What is the good life and how do I live it?”, “Why are bad people bad?”, “What is belief?”, “What is a monster?”, and “Why do humans write?”

“In the current fiscal environment, I question the appropriateness of such grants,” which ranged from about $23,000 to $25,000, Sessions wrote. He also expressed concerns about an NEH-funded program called “Bridging Cultures: Muslim Journeys Bookshelves” that distributed books, films, and other resources to more than 900 libraries around the country and provided money to hold discussion forums.

The program, according to an NEH press release, “is intended to address both the need and desire of the American public for trustworthy and accessible resources about Muslim beliefs and practices and the cultural heritage associated with Islamic civilizations.” Sessions said that the program raised questions about the use of federal funds “on behalf of just one religion,” and demanded that NEH provide an itemized list of similar programs related to sects of Christianity and Judaism.

Earlier this year, the House Appropriations Committee introduced legislation that would have cut the budget for the NEH nearly in half for the current fiscal year that began on October 1. The House Republican budget plan this year said that the NEH “can no longer be justified.” In March, Congress approved legislation in March that prohibits the National Science Foundation from funding political science research unless a project promotes national security or U.S. economic interests. 

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Dog's degree disappoints a cat family (essay)

The news that the BBC-sponsored dog named Pete, using the alias Peter Smith, has procured an online M.B.A. from the American University of London has sent our household into a literal tailspin.

It is not the first time that our cat, Finn Segal, has disappointed us by failing to live up to our expectations, but this may be the last straw. Perhaps most disconcerting is that even now he shows no concern and has stubbornly assumed his usual meatloaf position in a sunny spot.

It’s not that Finn, with a little training, could not master the computer keys. He is already adept at stepping on the capslock and delete buttons. And he darn well has a working knowledge of the internet; it’s just that this slacker would rather spend 8 hours a day watching cat and chipmunk videos on YouTube than applying himself to “International Finance.” 

Especially galling is the fact that not only could our cat have been a contender, but he also let slip through his paws the definitive answer to the time-honored question of “Just who’s smarter: dogs or cats?”

In fact, I will wager a six-month supply of Revolution Parasiticide (for fleas, ear mites, and heartworm) that Finn was the first to complete an online class. Just last winter, we enrolled in an online course in "Introduction to Poetry." While it is true that we registered under my name alone, Finn was with me every step of the way.

Moreover, I am now willing, given the present circumstance and dismaying news about Pete, to come forward with an admission: Finn logged more hours than I did. By the fourth lesson, he had moved into the alpha chair in the study, freeing me up to take care of other tasks around the house and the town. I have many warm memories from that time, when I would peek into the study and see Finn curled up on my desk chair, quietly napping as a soothing voice read from the works of John Keats, Sylvia Plath and Wallace Stevens.

As of today we are instituting a new instructional regime for Finn. He will still be allowed to go outside and he will still be permitted to watch YouTube -- but only after he has completed his M.B.A.-related coursework for the day.

After all, if he could complete a session devoted to the poems of John Ashbery, Finn should have no trouble at all with “Taxation and Accounting.”

Carolyn Foster Segal is professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.

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Academic Minute: Prejudice and Conversational Dynamics

In today’s Academic Minute, Jennifer Crosby of Williams College examines how we react to perceived prejudice in a social setting. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

 

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Essay on what to do, as an instructor, when you miss a class

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Rob Weir considers how to handle it, as an instructor, when you can't be there.

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Federal Cuts for Eurasian and Eastern European Studies

The Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) has learned that the Title VIII program – a U.S. State Department program that funds language training and research in Eurasian and Eastern European studies – did not receive an appropriation for the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Because the money is typically allocated one year and spent the next, that means a significant reduction in the number of fellowships and grants available in 2013-14.

The budget for Title VIII had already sustained cuts: while the funding level averaged about $4.5 million per year throughout the early 2000s, it was cut to $3.3 million in fiscal year 2012, according to an analysis of the funding situation that ASEEES published in its newsletter earlier this year. 

“Government seems to be shortsighted in cutting these small programs that have large outcomes," said Lynda Park, the association's executive director. 

"I think just about every specialist in our field who was trained in the last 25 years was impacted by Title VIII in one form or another.”

ASEEES is maintaining a list on its website of programs that will be suspended for the 2013-14 year. The association is advocating for the restoration of funding for 2014-15. 

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Review of Carl H. Klaus, A Self Made of Words: Crafting a Distinctive Persona in Nonfiction Writing

Intellectual Affairs

Not long ago, this column took up the perennial issue of academic prose and how it gets that way. On hand, fortunately, was Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly, a smart and shrewd volume that avoids mere complaint or satirical overkill.

Bad scholarly writing is, after all, something like Chevy Chase’s movie career. People think that making fun of it is like shooting fish in a barrel. But it’s not as easy as shooting fish in a barrel: to borrow Todd Berry’s assessment of his comedic colleague, “It’s as easy as looking at fish in a barrel. It’s as easy as being somewhere near a barrel.” Besides, it’s gone on for at least 500 years (the mockery began with Rabelais, if not before) so it’s not as if there are many new jokes on the subject.

But Billig did make an original and telling point in his critique of pure unreadability – one I neglected to emphasize in that earlier column. It has come into clearer view since then thanks to a new book by Carl H. Klaus called A Self Made of Words: Crafting a Distinctive Persona in Nonfiction Writing (University of Iowa Press).

Klaus is professor emeritus of English at the University of Iowa and founder, there, of the Nonfiction Writing Program. He is also a practitioner and critic of the genre of the personal essay, and A Self Made of Words seems largely addressed to the students, formal or otherwise, who want to learn the craft. Scholarly discourse rarely assumes the guise of the personal essay, of course. But Klaus’s insights and advice are not restricted to that literary form, and his book should have a tonic effect on anyone who wants his or her writing to do more than paint gray on gray.

To put it another way, A Self Made of Words doesn't stress writing in the personal voice, but rather the persona that always operates in writing, of whatever variety, whether formal or informal, autobiographical or otherwise.

Klaus wrote an earlier book called The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay (Iowa), which I have not had a chance to read, but I assume he there goes into the original use of the word persona, meaning, in Latin, a mask, of the stylized kind ancient actors wore on stage to project a character. The author of even the flattest and most objective or empirically minded paper creates or displays a persona while writing: one that is self-effacing and indistinct, yes, but that manifests its authority through self-effacement and the absence of first- and second-person communication.

Impersonality, in other words, implies a persona. So does the introspective voice and intimate tone of a memoirist, with countless shades of formality and casualness, of candor and disguise, possible in between. The persona is not something that stands behind or apart from the written work, though it may seem to do so. The raw material of the persona is language itself -- not just the vocabulary or syntax an author uses, but the differences in intonation that come from using contractions or avoiding them, from the mixture of concrete and abstract terms, and from the balance of long and short words.

Klaus devotes most of the new book to how those elements, among others, combine to create effective writing -- which is, in his words “the result of a complex interaction between our private intentions and the public circumstances of our communication.” It is not a style guide but a course of instruction on the options available to the writer who might otherwise be unable to craft a persona fit to purpose.

Which, alas, is often the case. Michael Billig did not discuss the academic author’s persona in his book on how to write badly and influence tenure committees – at least, not as such. But it is implicit in his argument about how apprentice scholars orient themselves within the peculiar, restricted language-worlds their elders have created while fighting to establish their claims to disciplinary claims.

In effect, they learn how to write by wearing the personae they’ve been given. And there’s nothing wrong with that, in itself; the experience can be instructive. But the pressure to publish (and in quantity!) makes it more economical to rely on a prefabricated writerly persona, stamped out in plastic on an assembly line, rather than to shape one, as Klaus encourages the reader to do.

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Academic Minute: Israeli and Palestinian Identity

In today’s Academic Minute, Atalia Omer of the University of Notre Dame discusses the role of cultural and religious identity in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

 

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Essay on the impact of adaptive and competency based learning on traditional-age students

Several decades ago – long before the level of technological sophistication we experience today -- I was part of a movement begun by the late Julian Stanley, a psychology professor, and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth (CTY) to save academically talented youth from boredom in the schools. The most controversial instrument to rescue them was a pedagogical practice called, rather prosaically, "Diagnostic Testing Followed by Prescriptive Instruction" or, shorthand, “DT>PI.” It was principally applied to the pre-collegiate mathematics curriculum and relied on just a few key assumptions and practices:

1. Students already know something about a subject before they formally study it.

2. Test students before a course begins and then just instruct them on what they don’t know.

3. Test students again when you as the instructor and they as learners believe they have competency in a subject.

4. Move immediately to the next level of instruction.

The DT>PI model was placed in a more generous context with the adaptation of Professor Hal Robertson’s (University of Washington) notion of the Optimal Match. Simply stated, pace and level of instruction should match optimally an individual student’s assessed abilities — with the caveat that those accessing that talent would always try to stretch a student beyond his comfort zone. The Optimal Match theoretically could apply to all students at any level of education.

When I used to speak publicly in a wide variety of settings — at colleges and universities, community colleges, schools, education association meetings, parent gatherings -- about what I thought to be the commonsensical notions of DT>PI and the Optimal Match, the reactions were pronounced and fiercely negative. My colleagues and I were accused of presenting educators with the dissolution of the structured classroom as we knew it then; forcing students unjustifiably to proceed educationally without sufficient instructional guidance; destroying the communal, cooperative imperative of an American education; and, producing social misfits because students would finish academic coursework before the schedule established (rather arbitrarily, I might add) by educational professionals for all students of one age at one time. Parents joined often with educators to decry such imagined alienation and damage to a child’s personality.

And then there was a change in 2013.

There are now two closely related pedagogies -- adaptive learning and competency-based learning -- that are embraced by a growing number in higher education as a viable component of educational reform. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is awarding grants to 18 institutions to experiment with 10 different adaptive learning platforms, and President Obama has expressed support for these innovations and urged easing of regulations to make that possible.

In general, adaptive learning uses data-driven information to design coursework that permits students to proceed educationally at their appropriate pace and level. And competency–based learning allows students to be free of "seat time" and flexibly progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content.

These definitions, when combined, delineate precisely the key components of DT>PI and that of numerous other experiments in self-paced learning over the last few decades. But now, while the naysayers are still out there, an increasing number of for-profits and nonprofits are turning to adaptive and competency-based learning as a component of the next stage of reform in American education.

Why now? Something must have changed in society to accept self-paced, individualized learning when only decades ago it was roundly rejected on pedagogical, ethical and psychological grounds. Those concerns are clearly not as inviolate as they were only years ago. Answering this question might well provide education reformers with insight into what is now possible — even expected -- from students for the learning platforms of the future.

There are at least three reasons why self-paced learning might be more popular now than it was only a few years ago: technological advances, financial exigency and a new self-profile of the learner.

Advances in technology that rely on advances in data mining and data analytics -- predicting future learning behavior by an individual based upon analysis of thousands of earlier learners — permit now a high ability to track, direct, customize, evaluate and advise student learning at instantaneous speeds. What in previous decades seemed to be an impossible task for a teacher or professor to manage in a single course — diverse learning points among students — is at least now technically feasible.

Many institutions are rather intent to find new strategies that will at once reduce their cost of providing an education. Adaptive and competency-based learning are thought to be such "disruptive" opportunities, although how accompanying data-driven, all-knowing and anticipating, high-touch technologies will reduce dramatically both cost and price (tuition) remains elusive.

And, lastly, students have perhaps finally realized the expectation of the self-esteem movement that has dominated instruction in our nation’s schools for several decades. Students might well now believe that they are the center of all activity — to include education — and that they are both the sole focus and the drivers of learning. All instructional effort exists for the purpose of fulfilling their desires.

This "power shift" makes learners, individually — not teachers or professors -- aggregators of knowledge by and for themselves. Any approach to education that places them at the center of learning activity accommodates their perspective on education. Adaptive and competency-based learning accomplish this masterfully. Self-paced, individually adjusted instruction, enhanced by “big data” technologies that guide student progress “lockstep” in a course and beyond, eliminates distracting elements to the individual control of knowledge. Primary among those distractions for students are faculty with their pesky, seemingly inefficient and irrelevant questions.

And thus, in 2013, what was not acceptable several decades ago is now thought a solution to crisis in American education. A combination of new technologies, financial emergency and a shift in who is at the center and in control of learning has caused this to occur.

But all is not settled. The changing circumstances introduce concerns that did not exist decades ago when students were not the arbiters of their own learning, self-paced instruction was not thought to be a solution for all students in American education but only the academically talented and big data did not exist to mine and anticipate every move in student learning.

A defining element of DT>PI was that students must not just study what is the next logical step in a course, but they must through the exhortations of a teacher or professor attempt to go beyond what was thought statistically possible — they must stretch themselves intellectually at every point. Professor Stanley used to constantly quote the line of the poet Robert Browning that one’s reach must always exceed one’s grasp.

Questions remain whether in the absence of a live instructor exhorting a student who is not necessarily academically acute and motivated, students will extend their reach or settle for statistically generated achievement delivered by an electronic adviser (I am referring here to traditional-aged undergraduates, not working adults who are propelled by substantial motivational factors). Such absence of exhortation could be extremely damaging to the majority of American students who often do not naturally attempt to achieve to the levels of which they are capable without personal mentorship.

And one traces in those who are enthralled with "big data" and "data analytics" for solving the maladies of American education a disturbing belief. Student will achieve through data-enhanced technologies the perfectibility of education — perhaps life itself -- by eliminating all resistance, frustration, indecision, trial and error, chance and expenditure of time. For example, Harvard University social scientist and university professor Gary King is quoted in a May 20, 2013 New Yorker article entitled "Laptop U." as saying, “With enough data over a long period, you could crunch inputs and probabilities and tell students, with a high degree of accuracy, exactly which choices and turns to make to get where they wanted to go in life."

And yet, there is growing commentary that it is precisely the absence of frustration, resistance and associated imperfections in a so-called “Me Generation” and its aftermath that is compromising contemporary students' learning and preparation for a life. By educators blithely accepting students’ assertion of self-determination without legitimate maturing experiences (that will include failure and self-doubt) and by arranging learning electronically so that they will make no wrong decisions, they are granting them little ability to deal with inevitable disappointment and frustration in life.

Students are educated without gaining resilience and that is hardly an education of which a nation can be proud or secure, regardless of the utopian promises of the big data enthusiasts. All this reminds me of a call I received decades ago from an entrepreneur who wanted me to comment on his idea of developing a school basketball court that would have the hoop move electronically with the ball so that no student would ever miss a shot and thus, in his words, "suffer humiliation."

So while I am delighted that self-paced education in the form of adaptive and competency-based learning is finally a more generally discussed component of reform in American education, I urge that those advancing it think long and hard about some of the humanly-damaging consequences of learning platforms so perfected by technology that students are offered a Faustian bargain – the comfort of non-resistant and frustration-free learning in exchange for the ultimate loss of a resilience needed for a satisfying life after schooling.


 

William G. Durden is president emeritus and professor of liberal arts at Dickinson College, and operating partner at Sterling Partners, a private equity company.

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