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Author discusses new book on how technology has transformed K-12 education

Author discusses new book on how technology is changing K-12 education, and the lessons of schools' experiences for higher education.

More Bad News on History Jobs

After publishing an anemic preliminary job ads report in November, the American Historical Association released its final annual job ads report Monday. In all, the association’s Career Center ran ads for 529 positions in 2016-17, the “lowest total number of advertisements since Ronald Reagan was president,” according to AHA. Of those, 295 were tenure-track positions, some 222 in history departments. H-Net, an online forum for scholars of the humanities and social sciences, ran an additional 549 ads for positions either in history departments or open to historians. Some 118 H-Net ads were for tenure-track jobs, for a combined total of 340 tenure-track jobs in history (counting AHA's ads).

AHA and H-Net also listed 166 non-tenure-track and visiting positions, adding up to approximately 500 academic jobs in history departments last year. AHA’s report notes major growth in the number of listed non-faculty positions for jobs open to historians, at 136 ads across boards in 2016–17. 

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Illinois Grad Union to Resume Strike Tuesday

Graduate assistants at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign went on strike Monday over protracted contract negotiations. The graduate union, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, says members have been working nearly 200 days on an expired collective bargaining agreement. Points of disagreement include pay, health insurance, a childcare provision proposed by the union and tuition waivers. The union wants to maintain contractual assurances that tuition waivers will not be reduced for students in good standing, but Illinois wants to be able to adjust that provision for future students.

Provost Andreas Cangellaris said in a statement that the university is “disappointed” that the union “made the decision to end Sunday’s negotiations and to ask its members to participate in a strike.” Of tuition waivers, Cangellaris said UIUC’s proposal “explicitly guarantees tuition waivers for bargaining unit members, offers clear protections of the value of those waivers throughout a student’s academic career here and was adjusted to remove language about eligibility” the union said was a concern. The Graduate Employees Organization said the university’s final prestrike offer “made no real changes from their previous proposal, illustrating that they’re not interested in bargaining a fair contract that protects tuition waivers.” The Chicago Tribune reported that 53 people withheld their work Monday, 66 classes were moved to different locations to avoid picket lines and 27 classes were canceled.

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Hampshire College centralizes academic assistance programs in the library

Centralizing a range of academic services has boosted their use at Hampshire College.

Skills disconnected from academic programs shouldn't matter to colleges (opinion)

Skills do not matter.

Let me say that again. On their own, skills do not matter.

This is worth saying in response to Thursday’s Inside Higher Ed story stating that the American Council on Education will “team up with the digital credential provider Credly to help people put a value on skills they have learned outside college courses.” The initiative, funded by the Lumina Foundation, is, in the words of ACE’s Ted Mitchell, “about creating a new language for the labor market” in which skills-based competencies are valued and credited.

It’s wonderful and important for employers to develop their employees’ skills, but colleges and universities need not take notice, because these efforts are irrelevant to collegiate education’s goals and purposes.

One way to think about why skills do not matter is by analogizing to other kinds of education. Imagine your employer provided you a manual dexterity class where you learned to move your fingers about effectively. Now imagine that you came to a guitar teacher and asked for credit. Certainly, guitar players need to have manual dexterity, but the guitar teacher would wonder why you deserved credit. Learning dexterity absent actually playing guitar is not particularly valuable. It certainly does not mean that one can play guitar, nor that one has understood guitar nor embraced the purpose of studying guitar. It’s a meaningless skill from the perspective of a guitar teacher.

The same can be said of a karate teacher. Imagine that your employer had taught you to kick but had never introduced you to the specifics of karate. Do you have a “karate competency” because karate also requires kicking? Of course not.

Instead, a good karate instructor will point out that kicking abstracted from the context of learning karate is not particularly relevant to the task at hand. It will not teach one how to kick within karate, nor embody the values and discipline that a karate instructor intends to develop in her or his students.

The same is true for college professors committed to ensuring that students graduate with a liberal education. Certainly, being successful in the arts and sciences requires high-level cognitive and academic skills. But those skills are meaningless unless they are learned within and devoted to the purposes of liberal education.

In short, offering college credit for disembodied skills is as much a mistake as a guitar instructor offering credit for manual dexterity.

How, then, should colleges and universities understand skills? For starters, they should always see them in relation to the specific ends of the programs that they offer. This is as true for vocational as for liberal education. The skills of a carpenter or a nurse or a car mechanic are not isolated but are interconnected and oriented to the end of wood construction, providing health care or repairing engines, just as a guitar teacher’s goal is to impart knowledge and techniques in relation to playing the guitar.

For four-year colleges and universities, on the other hand, the skills that matter should be related to their primary mission of offering every undergraduate a liberal education. At such institutions, academic skills should be developed in the context of, for example, reading and writing about literature or history or engaging in scientific inquiry.

A liberal education is not just any kind of education. Like carpentry, nursing or guitar playing, it has content. It seeks to cultivate specific virtues through specific practices. For example, the goal of a historian is not to teach abstract skills (such as parsing evidence or writing papers) but to help students engage in intellectual inquiry about the past. This means that skills are developed within the context of reading and writing history. The end is historical perspective, and the skills are means to that end. From the perspective of a historian, it matters little whether someone has good skills unless they also have learned to value history and to develop historical insight.

In addition, skills, from the perspective of four-year colleges and universities, are meaningless outside studying specific subject matter. If colleges and universities want students to care about and think with the arts and sciences, students need to spend their time studying the arts and sciences.

Indeed, scholars of teaching and learning have made clear that critical thinking skills cannot be abstracted from the material that one studies. As James Lang writes in his book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning (2016), “Knowledge is foundational: we won’t have the structures in place to do deep thinking if we haven’t spent time mastering a body of knowledge related to that thinking.” That is because the ability to ask sophisticated questions and to evaluate potential answers is premised on what one already knows, not just on skills abstracted from context.

Thus, if the goal of four-year college education is liberal education, we need students to study subject matter in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Students need to engage seriously with history and politics, or economics and physics, before they will be able to think critically about history or politics or economics or physics. This takes time. Assessing skills cannot, and certainly should not, be done outside the context of the subjects one ought to study in college.

This is not to deny that employers should invest more resources in developing their employees’ skills, nor to suggest that those skills don’t matter within the context of specific employment markets. There are many reasons to celebrate public and private efforts to develop Americans’ work-force skills, and doing so can benefit both employers and individuals.

It simply matters little to the kinds of things that one should earn college credit for. Employers’ goals are not to graduate liberally educated adults, but to generate human capital. Generating human capital may also be a byproduct of a good liberal education, but it is certainly not the goal of it.

In fact, a good liberal education asks students to put aside, even if just for a while, their pecuniary goals in order to experience the public and personal value of gaining insight into the world by studying the arts and sciences. This is the end, the purpose, the reason for a college education. Whatever other purposes students might bring to their education, and whatever valuable byproducts emerge as a result of their time in college, colleges and universities should remain true to their academic mission.

Johann N. Neem is a professor of history at Western Washington University. He is the author of Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (2017). The ideas in this essay draw from "What Is College For?" in Colleges at the Crossroads: Taking Sides on Contested Issues (2018).

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Men Talking About Women in Math

No, it wasn’t satire. A poster inviting “all women who love math” to an all-male panel on the topic was widely criticized at Brigham Young University and beyond this week.

The university’s math department soon responded to the controversy on Facebook, saying that the poster was made by a student organization and had since been updated.

A university spokesperson referred a request for comment to the math department’s response, as well as to commentary from an undergraduate student who said she made the poster. 

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Lego Grad Student Is Now an Assistant Professor

Known for his grimly humorous depictions of graduate student life in Lego blocks, and, of late, more politically charged messages, the social media figure Lego Grad Student was uncharacteristically joyful Wednesday in sharing that he’d accepted an assistant professorship (or at least his anonymous human creator had).

Lego Grad Student, who studied the social sciences at a large university on the West Coast, spent two years on the job market -- and just about as long making people laugh and cringe online. He debuted his Lego portraits in mid-2016 and quickly developed a major following: some 40,700 fans on Twitter alone.

Lego Grad Student’s creator said Wednesday that some in his new department know about his “other identity,” since several graduate students and professors mentioned it when he was visiting. Still, he said, he’d like to remain “semi-anonymous.” 

Asked about what his success communicates, Lego Grad Student said that he hopes it “provides some inspiration or hope to others.” But after going on the job market twice, he said, “I've also come to realize that the process is so arduous and uncertain that my words of support can only do so much to help endure the market season. It's the toughest experience I've had in recent memory.”

As for a possible Lego Assistant Professor, the jury is still out.

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Polk State College Accused of Censoring Art Instructor's Anti-Trump Work

The Foundation for Individual Rights is challenging Polk State College’s alleged censorship of an art instructor’s anti-Trump work. In a statement Tuesday, FIRE accused the Florida college of rejecting Serhat Tanyolacar’s submission to a faculty art exhibit in an attempt to “childproof” the campus. Tanyolacar’s piece, called “Death of Innocence,” depicts poets, writers, President Trump and other political figures engaging in sexual activity. Tanyolacar said the art is intended to highlight “moral corruption and moral dichotomy” and provoke debate, but Polk State informed him it could not be displayed because the campus offers classes to local high school students and “we feel that that particular piece would be too controversial to display at this time.”

FIRE and the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote to Polk State president Angela Garcia Falconetti last week, asking her to reconsider the college's decision. A spokesperson for Polk State said it had no comment. Tanyolacar was involved in another censorship debate over his art at the University of Iowa in 2014, when he was a visiting assistant professor there.

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Community colleges question whether online courses meet accessibility requirements

Community colleges are increasingly unsure whether their online courses meet federal accessibility requirements, survey finds.

Presidents of online institutions propose new language for federal distance education requirements

As senators prepare to rewrite the Higher Education Act, leaders from seven institutions weigh in with proposed definitions for distance and correspondence education.

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