Friday, November 08, 2002

Quotes from the Underground

In an article about college student presence at the recent Washington anti-war protest, a reporter from the Chronicle for Higher Ed (print version and paid version only--so no link, sorry!) interviewed some of the marchers for their thoughts. Here are some quotes you may find interesting:

Adam B. Harris, a senior from North Central College in Illinois: "'I don't have any hard facts. But I want to get educated about what's going on.'"
Nicholas Krehel, VP of Progressive Student Union at Sussex County Community College in NJ: "...celebrated 'the feeling that we're not alone in our radical--what's portrayed as radical--opinions. It's kind of a self-esteem thing to know that I'm not wasting my time. This is all I live for.'"
Tyler J Mintzer, Quaker Institution, Indiana: "'Personally, I don't think anything we do here is really going to affect whether or not we go to war...I mean, really, what impact can we really have? We're just in the streets being angry and rowdy, but we're not making our case...General Bush-bashing isn't effective.'"
Stephanie A Carrie, NYU: "'I don't support the whole anti-Bush talk. I mean, we're here trying to get him to help us. We're saying 'No More Hate' and 'I Hate Bush.' What the hell is that? I don't support that. We need to be cooperative. Otherwise we could become what we hate.'"

"The fate of the movement remains unclear. After the event, about 300 students from more than 30 colleges convened at a student-sponsored town-hall meeting on the campus of George Washington University."

"The chief goal of the meeting was to create an online discussion group ( to coordinate antiwar action among campuses. Organizers began by asking the crowd, "Would anyone like to say anything about the events today?' Not a single hand went up."

Sorry I have no pithy commentary, aside from the observation that Vietnam-era retread protesting seems not to be filling the purpose here. Which begs the question--should these kids be trusting anyone within the university over 30?

I'm off to take more cold medicine. Arg.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Hi, My Name is Peter Kirstein and I am Everything That's Wrong With the Academic Class

So Instapundit and Neal Boortz are all over this story. Mike at Cold Fury posted the kind prof's website, where he has graciously put his academic philosophy in writing for all to see. Shall we peruse the top 11--apparently, his vision of scholarship is just too dang expansive for a mere top 10:

1) Teaching is a moral act. No, it's not. Not the way you want it to be, because by "moral act," you mean "indoctrination to the truth." And what is the truth for Dr. Kirstein? Read on...

2) Teach peace, freedom, diversity, multiculturalism and challenge American unilateralism. Ahh, a bunch of catchphrases that have nothing whatsoever to do with his specialty, which is ostensibly recent US History.

3) Move beyond the ideological confines of academe. I was unaware that academe was ideologically confining, unless, of course, you're a conservative, in which case you aren't really encouraged to express your views at all.

4) Instructors should be secure and unafraid to express their opinions. They have every right to do so and should be free to engage in academic revisionism in their field. ACADEMIC REVISIONISM?!?!? Pardon, have to retrieve and reassemble my head post-explosion. He's admitting to being a revisionist--look, new facts come to light all the time in history, and that's fine. But are you completely unaware that revisionist history is a Bad Thing?

5) When emphasizing key concepts in your field, confront the canon so that your "discipline" is challenged by questions and not affirmed with answers. Why is discipline in scare quotes? Is it not real enough for you? Do you hold it in the same contempt as, say, the armed forces?

6) Be demanding and have high expectations for your students. They will respond positively if they sense you are hard working, love your subject matter and are dedicated to their learning. Sure, and if they think you're a nutcase, they'll smile and nod and back away slowly.

7) Encourage student discussion and debate. Let them know you like to be challenged and that your ideas and values are not a form of proselytizing or domination but a honest effort at conversation. Bwaaahhaaa! Haaahaaahaaahaa. Ohh, that's a good one. Have you looked at your own homepage lately?

8) Teach what interests you even in a required "core" course. Yeah, pesky course guidelines are always secondary to professorial designs.

9) Publish papers and attend conferences that interest you. They always energize me and give me new ideas and fresh material for my teaching. They also help you keep that pesky thing called Tenure, just in case you're wondering.

10) Be prepared for occasional frustration when students don't always respond to your enthusiasim and dreams. Meaning, when they think that you're a crazed relic of the 60's who needs to be put away.

11) Be who you are; don't try to reinvent yourself should you possibly be challenged by institutional culture. While you should be receptive to new ideas and respond affirmatively to formative and creative criticism, teaching is an intensely personal act-despite its public posture-and one should be true to one's beliefs and ethics. And you should take every opportunity to ram them down the throats of everyone around you, too!

The sad thing is that picking on this guy is probably what he wants, so that he can live out his fantasy of the Brave Radical, taking on the Industrial Military Complex. What a loser.

Shut Up, The Truth Dot Com

Maybe I'm super-sensitive to this issue because I live in North Carolina, or maybe this is just another example of my increasing frustration with organizations that purport to speak to large issues but that really have a pointless, narrow and narrow-minded agenda, but I'm finding my ass increasingly chapped by the cloying ads from The Truth.

Tobacco is bad for you. Yep, got that. Cigarette companies lied. Yep, but we found that out, and I think they've been quite thoroughly bitchslapped for their actions.

Here's the thing, Truth Dot Com--your message is neither groundbreaking nor innovative. You are not "fighting the power" with the guy in a rat suit writhing around at a subway entrance. You are not edgy because you engage in cheap derivative street theatre to bring the message to the people that smoking is bad. I don't admire your courage for disrupting the corporate environment with news that was old TEN FREAKING YEARS AGO. You are childish and petty and whiny and every bad thing that makes me want to take your candy and push you in front of a bus.

If you want to be edgy, why don't you stop picking on a kneecapped industry and go after one that is unregulated and equally damaging--like, say, a Colombian drug cartel? I would pay good money to see the rat suit guy and all the other placard waving, flyer handing Truth Dot Commers standing outside a South American mansion screaming about the fact that the cocaine entering America is being cut with sugar. It would be a real test of your commitment to the truth to take on an industry that could actually defend itself--with bullets.

Monday, November 04, 2002

Grade Inflation and the Hot Air it Inspires

Interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (free section, so you can read it yourself!) which purports to debunk the whole grade inflation myth. Couple o' relevant paragraphs for you:

However, even where grades are higher now as compared with then -- which may well be true in the most selective institutions -- that does not constitute proof that they are inflated. The burden rests with critics to demonstrate that those higher grades are undeserved, and one can cite any number of alternative explanations. Maybe students are turning in better assignments. Maybe instructors used to be too stingy with their marks and have become more reasonable. Maybe the concept of assessment itself has evolved, so that today it is more a means for allowing students to demonstrate what they know rather than for sorting them or "catching them out." (The real question, then, is why we spent so many years trying to make good students look bad.) Maybe students aren't forced to take as many courses outside their primary areas of interest in which they didn't fare as well. Maybe struggling students are now able to withdraw from a course before a poor grade appears on their transcripts. (Say what you will about that practice, it challenges the hypothesis that the grades students receive in the courses they complete are inflated.) I have a problem with his statement that lower grades are an "attempt to make good students look bad." The myth of the evil professor out to destroy your soul by refusing to give out A's like candy is just that--a myth. It is also telling that he's invoking the old "concept of assessment has evolved" idea. In public high schools during the 70's, assessment "evolved" to the point where spelling and grammar became secondary to self-expression, to the detriment of communication everywhere. Perhaps THAT'S the sort of evolution we're seeing here?

The bottom line: No one has ever demonstrated that students today get A's for the same work that used to receive B's or C's. We simply do not have the data to support such a claim. Actually, funny you should mention that. I can climb up to my attic and retrieve my TA training kit, in which we were able to practice grading standards for freshman comp. In prior decades, the grading scale for the grammatical content was like this: every grammatical flaw = one letter grade lower. By the time we got there, we had a "holistic" approach which largely disregarded grammar. In FRESHMAN COMP. I can show you essays that received B's or C's that were largely illiterate, which I graded according to the set standards, and which would have been grounds for repeating the the course in years past. Other interesting aside--students here have a "free pass" for Comp if they get a D or below their first try. They can retake the course and the first grade won't appear on their transcript. So basically you have a free do-over and much more lenient grading sanctioned by the department. Nope, no proof of inflation here! Carry on...

But here, buried halfway down a very lengthy article, is the writer's point:

To understand grade inflation in its proper context, we must acknowledge a truth that is rarely named: The crusade against it is led by conservative individuals and organizations who regard it as analogous -- or even related -- to such favorite whipping boys as multicultural education, the alleged radicalism of academe, "political correctness" (a label that permits the denigration of anything one doesn't like without having to offer a reasoned objection), and too much concern about students' self-esteem. Mainstream media outlets and college administrators have allowed themselves to be put on the defensive by accusations about grade inflation, as can be witnessed when deans at Harvard plead nolo contendere and dutifully tighten their grading policies. Damn. I should have known. It's those eeeeevvviiiil conservatives again, determined to oppress the masses! Dood, we just, like, wanna educate people, maaaan! Grades are totally the tools of The Man! Fight the power!

The rest of the article explains in detail why competition is bad, and why grade inflation is a lie. Look, here's reality, at least as I experienced it as a lowly instructor: universities need cash, so they're letting kids in who really cannot hack college life. But if they flunk, the university must replace that tuition, so it makes sense to try and keep them in as long as possible. So, we tweak the standards to do it. A cynical view? You betcha! But you didn't have to read the dreck I got from these "college level" students who could not identitfy thesis statements, much less create them, in classes designed to hone argument skills and prepare them for writing in the collegiate milieu.

Ultimately, universities must work with what public education sends them. To me, the grade inflation controversy in colleges points to ills in grammar school. Railing against the idea that "grades just don't mean what they used to" in order to villify the "other side" is an amazing example of how adept we've gotten at ignoring the elephant in the classroom. Did I mention that the elephant can't read? Not that it matters, since we're all ignoring it...