faculty

Latest literary fad combines Shakespeare with Seuss and Twitter

What if Dr. Seuss rewrote Shakespeare and did it on Twitter?

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Virginia Supreme Court blocks attorney general from going after research records

Virginia Supreme Court shuts down state attorney general's effort to gain access to records of a researcher who believes in climate change.

Academic Minute: Defining the Middle Class

In today’s Academic Minute, Dennis Gilbert of Hamilton College examines the murky definition of middle class in political rhetoric. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

 

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Essay on the role of the dictionary

Sometimes I get a little fancy in the final comment of a student paper. Usually my comments are pretty direct: two or three things I like about the paper, two or three things I think need revision, and two or three remarks about style or correctness. But once in a while, out of boredom or inspiration, I grasp for a simile or a metaphor. Recently I found myself writing, "Successfully rebutting counter-arguments is not unlike slaying a hydra.”

I started with great confidence, but suddenly I wasn’t so sure I knew what a hydra is: a multiheaded creature? Yes.  But how many heads?  And can I use the word generically or do I have to capitalize it?  Would “slaying the Hydra” be the correct expression?

Since I have no Internet connectivity at home, never have, and don’t miss it, I grabbed my Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary from 1965 — the kind of dictionary you can get for free at the dump or from a curbside box of discarded books — and looked up hydra. On my way to hydra, however, I got hung up on horse, startled by a picture of a horse busily covered with numbers. I knew a horse has a face, a forehead, a mouth. A nose, ears, nostrils, a neck.  A mane, hooves, a tail.

Pressed for more parts, I might have guessed that a horse had a lower jaw, a forelock (which I would have described as a tuft of hair between the ears), cheeks, ribs, a breast, haunches, buttocks, knees, a belly.

I don’t think I would have guessed flank, loin, thighs, and shoulders, words I associate with other animals, humans, or cuts of meat.  I know I wouldn’t have guessed forearm or elbow.

What I’d thought of as an animal with a head, a mane, a tail, hooves, and a body has 36 separate parts, it seems, all enumerated in a simple design on page 401 of my dictionary.  Had I not forgotten the precise definition of a hydra, I may never have learned that a horse also has a poll, withers, a croup, a gaskin, a stifle, fetlocks, coronets, pasterns, and cannons.  (The withers are the ridge between a horse’s shoulder bones.)

Hoof is defined and illustrated on the page opposite the horse, an alphabetical coincidence.  That picture too caught my eye, now that I was in an equine frame of mind.  For the moment, I wanted to learn everything I could about the horse. The unshod hoof, it turns out, has a wall with four parts — the toe, the sidewalls, quarters, and buttresses — a white line, bars, a sole, and a frog, behind which lie the bulbs.

Eventually I returned to my original search. A Hydra with a capital H is a nine-headed monster of Greek mythology whose power lies in its regenerative abilities: if one head is cut off, two will grow in its place unless the wound is cauterized. With a lower case h, the word stands for a multifarious evil that cannot be overcome by a single effort. After all this dictionary work, I’m not sure hydra is the word I want.

I've been thinking about dictionaries lately. The writing center at Smith College, where I work, is transitioning from paper schedules to an online appointment system, and yesterday we spent part of the morning moving furniture around trying to create room for a new computer station dedicated to scheduling. One of my younger colleagues suggested getting rid of the dictionary stand, which, he said, "nobody uses." I bristled. It’s a beautiful thing, the dictionary, an oversize third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, just a hair over 2,000 pages. For more than a dozen years it’s resided in a cozy nook on a well-lit lectern below a framed poster publicizing the 1994 Annual Katharine Ashen Engel Lecture by Murray Kiteley, then Sophia Smith Professor of Philosophy. The poster was chosen as much for its elegance as for the lecture’s title: "Parts of Speech, Parts of the World: A Match Made in Heaven? Or Just Athens?"

For years I had an office across from the dictionary and never used it myself, preferring the handiness of my taped-up 1958 American College Dictionary by Random House. The American Heritage is too massive. It takes me too long to find a word and I get easily distracted: by illustrations and unusual words. I continue to find my college dictionary completely adequate for my purposes. I’ve never needed a word that I couldn’t find in it.  

Another colleague within earshot spoke up for the American Heritage, claiming he used it once in a while. "Maybe," I thought. More likely, he didn’t want to contemplate the loss of the big dictionary while he still mourned the loss of the blue paper schedules. The dictionary stayed: words, that’s what a writing center is about, and the dictionary is where they live.

I cannot remember the last time I saw one of my students using a paper dictionary, much less one carrying one around, not even an international student. Have today’s students ever instinctively pulled out a paper dictionary and used it to look up a word or check its spelling? Is a paper dictionary as quaint as a typewriter? Have things changed that much? I wonder. Is it partly my fault? It’s been many years, after all, since I’ve listed "a college dictionary" among the required texts for my writing course.

I doubt my students use dictionaries much, of whatever kind. You have to care about words to reach for the dictionary, and I don’t think they care very much about words. At their age, I probably didn’t either, though I think I did care more about right and wrong. I was embarrassed when I used the wrong word or misspelled a word. I still remember the embarrassment of spelling sophisticated with an f in a college paper, something a modern spell checker doesn’t allow. But it does allow "discreet categories" for "discrete categories," another unforgettably embarrassing error — this one in graduate school!

My students appear cheerfully to accept whatever the spell checker suggests, or whatever word sounds like the one they want, especially if they’re in roughly the same semantic domain.  They are positively proud to confess that they’re bad spellers — who among them isn’t? — and really don’t seem to care much that they have used the wrong word.  Words don’t appear to be things you choose anymore. They’re things that pop up:  in autocorrect, in spell checkers, in synonym menus. They are not things you ponder over, they are things you click, or worse, your laptop decides to click for you.

When I meet with a student about her paper, we always work with a paper copy. Even so, more often than not I still have to remind her to take a pencil so she can annotate her draft as we discuss it. Toward the end of our meetings, we talk about word choice and the exchange often goes like this:

"Is this the word you want?"

"I think so."

"I think here you might have meant to say blah."

"Oh, yeah, that’s right" and out comes the pencil — scratch this, scribble that, lest it affect her final grade. No consideration, no embarrassment. I used to pull out the dictionary "to inculcate good habits," but no more. In the presence of today’s students, pulling out a dictionary feels as remote as pulling out a typewriter or playing a record.

Sometimes the situation is not so clear-cut. The student might, for example, write a word like security in a context where it makes a bit of sense, but after some gentle prodding and, yes, a few pointed suggestions, she might decide that what she really means is privacy. Out comes the pencil again. Scratch "security," scribble "privacy." What she really means is safety, though, I think, but I let it go. If I push too hard, she’ll stop thinking I'm being helpful and begin to think I have a problem: "What a nitpicker! The man’s obsessed with words!" I imagine her complaining to her friends. "But it matters! It matters!" goes the imaginary dialogue. "What precisely were the opponents of the ERA arguing, that it would violate security, invade privacy, or threaten safety?"

I have used the online Webster's on occasion, of course, and recognize the advantages of online dictionaries: They can be kept up-to-date more easily, they can give us access to more words than a standard portable dictionary, they can be accessed anywhere at any time, they take up no shelf space, etc. I'm not prejudiced against online reference tools. In fact, unlike many of my colleagues, I'm a great fan of online encyclopedias and a lover of Wikipedia. Online dictionaries leave me cold, though. They should fill me with awe the way Wikipedia sometimes does, but they don't. I marvel at the invention of the dictionary every time I look up a word in my paper copy; at the brilliant evolutionary step of such a book; at the effort of generations of scholars, professionals and lay people that led to such a comprehensive compendium of words; at how much information — and not just word meanings — it puts at my fingertips; at how much I still have to learn; and at how much my education could still be enhanced if I read my college dictionary cover to cover.

I think of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in which the author makes a powerful statement about the dictionary as a pedagogical tool. Frustrated with his inarticulateness in writing while in prison and his inability to take charge of a conversation like his fellow inmate Bimbi, Malcolm X came to the conclusion that what he needed was "to get hold of a dictionary — to study, to learn some words." The experience was a revelation: "I’d never realized so many words existed!" He started at the beginning and read on, learning not just words but also history — about people, places, and events. "Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia," he noted. The dictionary was the start of his "homemade education."

Online all I get is quick definition of the word I want, and I’m done. On paper I get the definition plus something akin to a small education along the way. The experience is not unlike that of slaying the Hydra: For every word I word I look up, I see two others whose meaning I don’t know. If I were Hercules I could put an end to the battle once and for all, but I’m not, and glad I’m not. The battle is far too delicious. But how to convince my students?

Julio Alves is the director of the Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching and Learning at Smith College.

Essay on how to give a job talk

Remember your audience, kill the jargon and keep everything understandable, writes Kathryn Hume.

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Essay calls for faculty members to challenge use of standardized tests

Following my presentation last year at “The Case for Change in College Admissions” conference at the University of Southern California, a dean from one of America’s most prestigious universities said, "We know the SAT and ACT are not good predictors of college grades, but our faculty resist going test-optional. They are worried about standards."

While the debate over standardized tests and college admissions began 20 years ago, the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room is faculty complacency and ignorance. Nearly all of the 870 colleges that are test-optional today have gone that way due to leadership from administrators or admissions deans. It’s a harsh reality, but as winners at the testing game many faculty are oblivious to the damage done by a test that is statistically redundant and socially discriminatory. It's time to set the record straight.

Faculty members need to know that college admissions remain more art than science, As documented in my new book, SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional College Admissions, our best statistical models predicting first-year college grades explain only about 30 percent of what’s going on, leaving 70 percent of what matters unknown. In those models, the academic variable carrying the most weight is always high school grades, while the unique statistical contribution of test scores is marginal: for example, at Johns Hopkins it adds two percentage points; at the University of Georgia one percent; and at DePaul one percent.

In my book, the president emeritus of the University of California Richard Atkinson and Berkeley statistician Saul Geiser stress, "[i]rrespective of the quality or type of school attended, cumulative grade point average (GPA) in academic subjects in high school has proved to be the best overall predictor of student performance in college. This finding has been confirmed in the great majority of ‘predictive-validity’ studies conducted over the years, including studies conducted by the testing agencies themselves."

When not being "truth-optional" in their public relations spin, even the tests’ sponsors concede that the single variable that most highly correlates with college grades is high school grades earned over four years, not test scores derived from four hours of stress on a Saturday morning.

Rather than leveling the playing field, standardized tests such as the SAT and the ACT perpetuate social discrimination in the name of academic selectivity. Whereas high school GPA and class rank do not correlate with family income, the SAT and ACT can’t say that.  Defenders of the tests say they are fair and the social disparities expressed in scores sadly reflect the unfairness of life, but the reality is that family income, gender, and race predict test scores more powerfully than test scores predict college grades.

As a result, the tests create a costly, anxiety-ridden and time-consuming distraction from real learning. They undermine the high school curriculum, sending the wrong signal to youth that test prep – which typically costs hundreds, if not thousands of dollars – will get you further than hard work in class. Would standardized testing have such a powerful and distorting impact on the whole of the K-12 experience if the SAT or ACT were not required by colleges for admissions?

Faculty need to know that rather than lowering standards, test-optional admissions raise them, and there’s new data to prove it. Wake Forest University went test-optional three years ago, and since then we’ve seen first-year students from the top 10 percent of their high school class jump from 65 percent in 2008 to 83 percent this year. Pell Grant recipients have doubled. Our student body is more racially and socioeconomically diverse than ever before. Library usage is up, and classroom discussions are reportedly livelier than before.

It's just as Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade predicts in SAT Wars: going test-optional increases the social diversity and academic strength of students at private colleges, and being “don’t ask, don’t tell” at public universities does the same. We expect to see universities that drop the requirement, including most recently Clark University and DePaul University, rewarded with stronger and more diverse applicant pools in the near future. Test-optional enriches the campus experience. So what would it take to end this farce?

Charles Murray, a contributor to SAT Wars, believes that action by top colleges such as Harvard or Stanford would push us past the tipping point. "If just those two schools took such a step, many other schools would follow suit immediately, and the rest within a few years." He adds, "Admissions officers at elite schools are already familiar with the statistical story … They know that dropping the SAT would not hinder their selection decisions."

The aforementioned dean asked me to send a copy of SAT Wars for an overdue discussion amongst faculty at that prominent institution. With data from Wake Forest and other schools that have removed the requirement on the table, it’s time for professors at America’s most prestigious colleges to set the myths aside and take their position of academic leadership seriously. It’s time to do your own research, hold a discussion, contribute to the national debate, and vote.  Don’t be part of the problem when you hold the solution in your hands.

 

Joseph Soares is a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, and editor of SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional Admissions (Teachers College Press).

Essay on similarities between starting as a parent and a professor

Afshan Jafar considers the similarities between starting a family and an academic career.

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Upcoming Events in Higher Ed: Admissions and Registrars, Campus Planning, Department Chairs, Engineering Education, Jane Austen, Technology and Liberal Arts

These meetings, conferences, seminars and other events will be held in the coming weeks in and around higher education. They are among the many such that appear in our calendar, to which campus and other officials can submit their own events. Our site also includes a comprehensive catalog of job changes in higher education; please submit your news to both listings.

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Book by intelligent design proponents upsets scientists

Biologists were upset this week to learn about forthcoming book by intelligent design supporters from a reputable publisher. Springer, the publishing company, is now holding up the book for additional peer review.

John Carroll U. faculty send letter supporting birth control compromise

Professors at John Carroll University sign letter asking Jesuit university's president to "stand up to those who would play politics with women's health."

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