Assorted Links

  1. The Writing Revolution– From the Atlantic, this information that every educator, particularly those in the humanities, should take to heart. In short, it is the realization that schools have been failing to teach students how to logically compose their thoughts and use their own native language. Once the problem is identified, educators have begun to systematically teach language and writing composition from a young age. This is something I very much support since I often feel the need to teach this information to my students who have reached college without being able to write. Likewise, I feel that teaching these underlying skills will best prepare students for life.
  2. Anti-Japan protests: Outrage to a point– An article in the economist about a series of protests in China about Japan. Some of the people involved suspect that mixed in with the ever-present and historic tension between Japan and China is suppressed social unrest in China.
  3. Minnesota Twins Joe Mauer-A rosy account of the catcher Joe Mauer and his efforts to overcome injuries.
  4. Western Lifestyle Leading to Dangerous Bacterial Imbalances– An article in Spiegel suggesting that western lifestyles are leading to a number of health issues because essential bacteria transfers and growths are not taking place.
  5. Want to Change Academic Publishing?– An article in the Chronicle suggesting that academics should stop giving away labor to for-profit publishers on behalf of peer reviewed journals. The author’s idea is that work done for journals put out by non-profit presses could be considered pro bono, but if the press is in the business of making money (and limiting access to articles), then doing the work pro bono is absurd. Publishing peer reviewed writing is the toughest publishing job by academics and is done without immediate financial reward. I am not sure that a change is viable, at least in the short term, because articles help earn jobs so there is a sort of financial gain obliquely.
  6. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted links

  1. So Many Hands to Hold in the Classroom– An article in the Chronicle about a trend observed by the instructor wherein students increasingly struggle to formulate their own opinions and paper topics, as well as the problem of administrators and instructors buying in to the idea that there needs to be set cirricula in order for the education to be meaningful or comparable to other schools. As usual, I agree with the author.
  2. The Contested Color of Christ– An article from the Chronicle about the history of the image of Jesus within the issue of race in the United States. For the most part it is just narrative, and somewhat shallow at that, but it brings up some good points.
  3. The Invention of Political Consulting– A new article in the New Yorker that looks at the development of political consulting in the modern sense. The author traces political consulting back to a California gubernatorial race against Upton Sinclair. She also makes the case that modern advertising developed from political advising, rather than the other way around. I am not sure that I agree with everything here, but it is an interesting read and gives some things to think about during this election season.
  4. Ninjas keep patrons in line at London cinema– Something I heard on Wait-Wait Don’t Tell Me (this week was an amazing show, I recommend it), a London cinema is using volunteer ninjas to combat cell phones in the theater.
  5. Jesus cites wife in fourth-century script, says US scholar– A scholar of Christianity at Harvard recently translated a papyrus fragment written in Coptic that likely dates to the fourth century in which there is a record of Jesus referring to his wife (Mary). This is the only piece of (presumed) scripture that explicitly refers to Jesus having a wife. Unfortunately, the exact origin of the fragment, including what larger work it belonged to, is unknown.
  6. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

I pay taxes.

This is a point that I would like both political parties in this country to grasp. It would be nice if a few of the talking heads on cable news and talk radio grasped the same concept. The reason that this is such a revelation is that in the hidden camera videos of Mitt Romney making casual and inflammatory remarks about poor people to rich donors he makes the comment that 47% of people in the United States pay no income tax and proceeds to use interchangeably “lower taxes” and “lower income tax.” This roughly parallels comments made in the past year by conservative pundits about nearly fifty percent of Americans pay no (income) tax and, therefore, are not invested in the American system. The only part of the system they are invested in is the welfare state and are merely dependent upon the state.

Leaving alone the comments in Romney’s speech about those people voting for President Obama merely because they are dependent upon the state and feel entitled to food and housing, the message Romney and pundits have been giving is that people who do not pay income tax (usually because they do not earn enough money to pay taxes–if they even have a job–or, alternately, because their income is well protected by offshore tax havens or they otherwise show a loss–people who likely will not vote for President Obama anyway) are not invested in the system, have little interest in the message of lower taxes (a fallacy), and will definitely vote for President Obama (also a fallacy).

The counter to these statements from the Democratic establishment is to immediately point out how wealthy the Republicans are and how the (income) tax policies only benefit those who already have money. This is done obliquely and manages to keep the debate about whether or not people do or should pay (income) tax.

There are kernels of truth to the debate, but I would like to take a moment to debunk one of the premises without actually getting at which political party I am likely to vote for this coming November. That is: I pay taxes.

This is only remarkable in this debate because, as a poor graduate student whose income hovers around subsistence level (and, yes, I feel entitled to food and housing), I do not pay the type of income tax usually discussed in this debate.1 Yet I do pay a payroll tax–that is to say, an interest free loan to the government that I am likely to get back at the end of every year (certainly investing me, and everyone else, in the system). I also pay both medicare and social security taxes, which I would like to get back at some point in my life. And those are just on my income.

I also pay taxes when I purchase gas or go out to eat. When I purchase books and school supplies. When purchase air-fare, pay tolls, or register my car. I When I purchase clothing and food.2 Anyone who has property pays property tax. Even if I get back the money I loaned the government at the end of the year, I still pay all of these other taxes, usually the more regressive taxes that hit people without money at a significantly disproportionate rate. I am also willing to pay these taxes and if, at some point in my life, I have enough money to owe taxes to the government, then I would be happy to do so (largely because it means my income would be higher than it currently is). In the meantime, I would like both parties to realize that my decision about which party I will vote for has little to do with how much money I currently possess or how much money I do or do not pay in income tax and, most importantly, that I do, in fact, pay taxes. We all do.

1That said, I have had to pay Missouri income tax most of the years I have lived here.
2I am in my fourth year in Missouri and this one still offends me.

Multiple Choice

Here is a multiple choice question for you:

What is it that multiple choice questions (in humanities and social sciences) actually test?
A) Rote memorization of facts and trivia.
B) Deductive reasoning.
c) Comprehension of key themes from the lecture.
D) Ability to reason and draw connections between events.
E) How closely you read the textbook for facts and trivia.

I would accept A or E, with B being debatable. The problem is that I firmly believe that those are not really the purpose of the humanities, at least not at a college level.1 Although I have had multiple students come to me panicked about short answer, identification, and essay questions, claiming that they would be comforted by multiple choice tests, the comfort has more to do with familiarity and surety of having a “correct” answer than actual performance on the exams. Moreover, the perception that the lectures are utterly incomprehensible because there is a distinct lack of facts and key information plagues those same students. In much the same way that a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the struggles of students to formulate their own paper topics, students seem at a loss as to how to navigate the spaces between assigned reading, powerpoint presentations, and lecture. To my mind, power point presentations present the biggest problems, since the discussion section and TAs should be able to find the balance between the lecture and the readings, but in the lecture hall the students are presented with two distinct sources of information and with professors who vary as widely as not to use presentations to largely testing the students on the material on the presentations while reading the slides out during lecture.2

The sage wisdom once given to me by my father is that the key to getting a good grade is to discover what the instructor wants and then give it to them. Too often this is the key to getting a good grade, and in navigating the technological obstacle course of higher education, this truism certainly applies.

But I digress.

I do understand the appeal of multiple choice tests from the point of view of the instructors. So long as you don’t have to continually update (or have some means of automatically updating) the answers, the exams are easy to grade and are rather clear-cut in terms of right and wrong so complaints about grading are relatively limited. Of course, the students who come to complain about grades are generally asking the wrong questions–and so are the professors using multiple choice questions. Multiple choice questions have a limited range of types of information that can be addressed, but a very broad base of information to pick from. The answers are very precise, easy to mistake, and, most importantly, of little actual value. The professor is emphasizing memorization trivia and eclectica, not skills, logic, or actual learning. Better is to test the learning, logic, and writing, while allowing the trivia to supplement the answers. One of those things prepares people for pub trivia; the other prepares people to take in information and then to be able to produce actual thought, which should serve them well beyond the classroom while (if the students applies themselves) also preparing people for pub trivia. One provides an easy criterion on which to evaluate student performance on relatively trivial things; the other provides a more nebulous means of evaluating student performance on much more significant things and should provide a more meaningful way to gauge student learning and improvement.

In this sense, multiple choice exams, particularly multiple choice-only exams, are practically criminal in higher education.

Like I said, I have had students come to me begging to have multiple-choice exams, the type of which they are familiar with from standardized tests in high school. There is a clear-cut “right” answer and, if nothing else, there is a sense that they can just guess. But, at least in this instance, I don’t care what the students want. Nonetheless, this insistence on direct and absolute answers is an outgrowth of the societal insistence that the important part of the education are the facts learned (note: No Child Left Behind and the expansion of standardized tests).3 Learning the facts is the surest way to make the grade, which, in turn, is the surest way to achieving the degree, which, in turn, is the surest way to getting a job that will make more money, which, as my students usually assure me, is the measuring stick by which society determines your worth.

This calculation is simple, rational, sterile. School is to enable the career, not to learn anything. Classes are merely the obstacles in the way. Most instructors should disagree with the statement, either because they care about educating students, or they are defensive about their field of study being worthwhile, or both, but the too frequent use of multiple choice exams (when even giving prompts in advance and giving writing prompts for class papers seems to be too much direction) undercuts the actual value of the education while reinforcing the misconceptions of what is actually important.

Anyone who gives multiple choice exams on a wide scale is failing the students. The educational industry for high schools as it currently exists is setting the students up for failure, and professors incapable or uninterested in correcting these issues in college are complicit. Fighting against the corporatization of colleges, for-profit colleges, and the societal movement to value the degree over the education is hard enough without professors buying in to the misconceptions and letting the students down. Multiple choice tests are just one example of this phenomenon, one which is threatening to radically alter the shape of college and undercut the ideal of an educated society.

1 I think it is a travesty at lower levels of schooling, too, though high school cirricula and evaluation methods are a lot harder to change than those at college. Here multiple choice should also apply to similar evaluation methods.
2 Powerpoint and the use of the technology in the classroom might be the feature of another post, but I have noticed that students tend to focus on what is on the powerpoint at the expense of what the lecturer is saying, or worse, only writing down the spare outline presented on the powerpoint and setting down their pen. And the really repugnant part as far as I am concerned is that this behavior is condoned or even required by some professors (and of those, not all make the presentations available after the lecture). I can recall one humanities professor using powerpoint in college (yes, this is a “back in my day” moment from a young man, deal with it), and his usual process was to open powerpoint, but rather than actually using the presentation feature, he would scroll down the creation screen. And his slides were maps. Students who did not know initially learned quickly that they had to write down what he was saying. Now it is required for professors to have at least a passing ability to use technology such as powerpoint in classes, but the technology seems to be an inhibitor to learning, particularly if it is done done with a great deal of care (badly done or overly intensive presentations become the focal point of the class rather than a tool).
3 Curiously, this has recently been matched by the idea of providing students with “job-training” at the expense of the traditional disciplines. These two developments are oxymoronic.

Assorted Links

  1. Blood Ivory– A story in Spiegel about elephant poaching in central Africa being used to fund violent conflicts in the region.
  2. New Monkey species identified in Democratic Republic of Congo– As the title says, a new species of monkey has been identified in Africa.
  3. Strengthening of the Chinese Navy Sparks Worries in Region and Beyond– An article in Spiegel about the geo-political tensions between China and every other power in the eastern Pacific. China has been making moves around the South China Sea that are directed at islands claimed by one or more other nations, and has recently launched its first air-craft carrier, with plans for more.
  4. India’s Gandhi family: The Rahul Problem-A note in the Economist about Rahul Gandhi, the son of Sonia Gandhi, who was the wife of Rajiv Gandhi, himself the son of Indira Gandhi, the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru. Rahul, though, doesn’t not seem to have an interest in politics or have any sort of political identity. The article, which focuses on a recent book about the latest Gandhi discusses some of the roadblocks to his accession to office, as well as some of the reasons that their political party would like to promote him as a reformer, developer, and a fresh face in advance of the next election in 2014.
  5. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

  1. Why Che’s daughter fights to preserve his image as idealistic revolutionary-A story in the Guardian about Che Guevara’s daughter as the 45th anniversary of his death approaches. The article addresses both the bloody legacy of Guevara and the financial success that has come with his image.
  2. How Google Builds Its MapsA story in the Atlantic about how Google has mapped the world, increasingly accurate and updated. The article then suggests that, going forward, the maps (both for the data and applications of the data) will be the most valuable asset owned by Google.
  3. Narrative Trust-An essay in the Time Higher Education about how academics have a responsibility to write clearly, concluding: “If we want our work to be consequential – to have an impact in the world – we owe it to our readers to write with conviction, craft and style.”
  4. ‘Moral’ Robots: The Future of War or Dystopian Future-An article at the Chronicle about an ongoing project to develop a moral conscious for battlefield robots that could be programmed to abide by international rules of engagement and, perhaps, limit civilian casualties. They admit that there would not be any moral reasoning that takes place, but that the machine would make fewer mistakes than humans. I understand what the intention is, but it seems to me as though war is already too impersonal (and therefore easier to enact), so even using machines that can’t shoot civilians does little to ease my conscious on this.
  5. Polished Roughhewn– From the New Yorker, some discussion of the terrain and literature of Hemingway, specifically addressing the variety of techniques he employs that do not necessarily conform to ‘good writing’ in order to create his landscape. This is an article that I agree with, particularly in that there are times when Hemingway’s efforts come across as indulgent and fall flat. They are still Hemingway and it is not as though he put little effort into them, but when compared to some of his other writing (e.g. there are scenes, paragraphs, and sentences in For Whom the Bell Tolls to which I have not yet found peers to in English Literature (though I prefer The Sun Also Rises as a novel)) they come across, at best, as put on or contrived.
  6. That’s Dr. So-and-So to YOu– An interesting note at the Chronicle of Higher Education about academic and professional titulature.
  7. “The Satanic Verses,” the Fatwa, and a Life Changed– An account of Salmon Rushdie’s life and how the Fatwa changed it. The article mostly narrates the period around the release of The Satanic Verses and the aftermath of the Fatwa. This article also helped me make the decision that once I am done with Coming Up For Air, my next fun book will be The Satanic Verses.
  8. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Some Thoughts on Sandra Fluke and the DNC

Two nights ago I was watching football, having finished all the homework I had with me and really just wanting a distraction before bed. At halftime I had had as much of the commentators as I could stand for the time being, so I went to find a temporary distraction until the game began again. I settled on the Democratic National Convention. As it turns out I tuned in just in time to see Sandra Fluke’s speech. Until then, it was the only political speech I had seen this past year.1

Let me begin by saying that she was a very good speaker, with good cadence and emotion, and the audience responded. She also established a connection between her own plight and her audience.

Fluke rehashed her experience earlier in the year when she was barred from a hearing on contraception, silenced, and ridiculed for her comments at the time. She then offered that this election is a fork that will lead to radically different countries. An America under Mitt Romney, she says, “looks like an offensive, obsolete relic of our past…that future could be real.” In contrast, there is the America led by Barack Obama wherein “when [the president] hears a young woman has been verbally attacked, thinks of his daughters–not his delegates or donors–and stands with all women.”

To recap: men and Republicans (which may be the same set of people) are oppressing women as a means of accomplishing their political ends. Democrats (in this speech: women and Barack Obama) are the only group of people with humanity.

Whoever said that the Democratic Party is above fear-mongering?

I want comprehensive health care for all people. I believe that (at the least) birth-control should be covered by this health care (or, in our system, health insurance)…and Viagra should not. The only required procedures should be medically necessary. I believe that there should not be religious exemptions for this since it is a form of discrimination. Each person–male, female, or otherwise–should have control over his or her body. In much the same way, everyone should have equal access to education, government rights and services,2 etc. That reality is much closer to being realized for men than it is for women, I admit. So, I am sympathetic to the message presented here.

And yet I found myself offended by what I heard. The speech (as so often happens) felt disingenuous to me. The purpose was to fire up the Democratic base, rally women behind the perils of a Republican led country, and remind women of past insults. The problem is that (besides perhaps trying to anger conservative viewers) the target demographic of the speech was liberal and moderate women who have a personal stake in control of their bodies. Fluke repeatedly melded “our” problems with “my” experience and what “we” are. She also pointed out the work that “our foremothers” did. The dichotomy was conservative and oppressive men with liberal women.

Omitted were liberal men, and conservative women. In fact, as a liberal man who is also white I felt villainized by association. Men were the opponents, the people keeping the women down, etc. Sure. Historically that is accurate, but only in generalizations. There are many conservative women who oppose birth control, are pro-life, and believe that women should be subservient to their husbands. Moreover, the implication may be made that those folks have been duped or oppressed by men, but that is not always the case. If I were ever to persuade a female student of anything liberal or radical, then the same thing could be said about her.3 Conservative men, despite a recent track record for making bizarre statements about women, women’s anatomy, and health care, were not the most vitriolic opponents of Fluke’s speech. Those were the conservative women.

Omitted too were issues about the Democratic Party. Not everyone in the party toes the line, and the party is just as (or nearly) as beholden to corporations as Republican Party.4 Not every has always supported health care as a human right or that everyone should pay the same amount. Not everyone believes in birth control. And, in part, not every Democratic president has young daughters (and the partial implication that Mitt Romney could not possibly understand or care, perhaps because of his personality…or is it because he has sons rather than daughters?). Of course, they calculus was that if I had such a response to the speech, then those other white men who were oppressing Fluke will be apoplectic, and the tradeoff was reasonable. For my demographic within the Democratic Party they have other people to address. Then again, if I was a good follower, then I would be appropriately outraged not at Fluke, but at her oppressors. But I would rather be in a party–and population–of people who think for themselves.

In sum, I am on board. I support the platform Fluke laid out (though I have only a little love for the Democratic party). I just also felt insulted because the force of the speech lumped me in with the other side, the enemies. The only man identified in the speech and also praised was Barack Obama, for obvious reasons. So, I understand, but I found the entire display distasteful. There are plenty of men who are not oppressing women. But that was not the message Fluke gave.

1 In fairness, I saw two minutes of the speech before, have since seen clips of Clinton’s speech, and saw one of the speeches last night that I did not particularly like, but was not offended by.
2 See: Marriage.
3 I can also think of at least one man in the public sphere who has been duped by a woman.
4 The next speech I saw talked of the Republican efforts to disenfranchise minority voters and otherwise oppose race relations. True though it was, there was no mention of machine politics for the Democrats or simply finding new voters (such as graveyards and dogs). There was also no mention of the Romney family on race relations. The political history of the United States is spotty enough all around (with more than one election stolen or won in a backroom deal) that calling out the other guys on such issues without (at least) proof that you aren’t finding your own way to manipulate voters and voting is suspect.

Assorted Links

  1. The credit hour causes many of higher education’s problems-A report at Inside Higher Education that examines the concept of the credit hour (going back to Andrew Carnegie as a tool to evaluate teacher loads and compensation), and covers a new report that says that the credit hour is disingenuous to student learning, has a disconnect between in-class time and the amount of time spent outside the classroom (which, according to the article, limits innovation in online courses).
  2. Fantasy football costs employers-An article in the Denver Post notes the economic costs to people playing fantasy football at work. Nonetheless, it does not account for the business that fantasy football has become (thus stimulating the economy), or that 22.3 million Americans for one hour a week is dwarfed by other distractions plugged in Americans have at work (some of which are more or less approved of by companies, such as the minutes wasted every time there is a “ding” from an open email client). It is a fun note for the start of the football season, but I guess the point I am getting to is that in the grand scheme of dollars “wasted” by modern distractions, fantasy football isn’t really that substantial.
  3. The Plagiarism Perplex-A blog post at Inside Higher Ed about plagiarism and group work and the blurry lines. The author strikes on one of the big issues (at least to me) in that there is a disconnect between what you learn in school and the grade you earn. The emphasis, more so now than ever it seems, is on the grade rather than the learning. It is a disservice to the students, to the educators, and eventually to society to take this stance, though.
  4. How we Teach Students To Cheat-A blog post in the New York times that discusses the issues with cheating and suggests that we are in a society that encourages getting what we want or think that we need is more important than honesty and integrity. There is also a comment about the divide between being successful and appearing successful, with the latter taking precedence. I generally agree, though it is a bit moralizing. The author also side steps the purpose of education, which I think is the larger issue.
  5. Warrior Remains, 2,000 Years Old, Found in Denmark-I don’t particularly like the title from the piece in the New York Times, but it reports on ancient finds in Denmark from around the time of Augustus that some suggest could have been a battle with Romans. If so, it is an excellent discovery for debating how far north the Romans actually went. More likely, though, it is evidence of warfare between Germanic tribes displaced as a result of Roman expansion.
  6. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

  1. Scientists reconstruct genetic makeup of 50,000 year-old girl-An article in the Guardian about the gene sequencing of the ancient woman found in Siberia, with some particular emphasis on some of the genetic variations modern humans have.
  2. Is American atheism heading for a schism?-An article in the Guardian about Atheism+, a new atheism movement that has resulted in more secular fighting than exchange of ideas. The author’s opinion is clearly stated by a youtube clip from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.
  3. Pakistani mullah ‘planted charred texts’ on girl accused of blasphemy-A new development in the blasphemy trial of a young christian girl in Pakistan. The latest is that a mullah who has been vocal in opposition to the christian families stands accused of planting burnt pages to strengthen the case against the girl.
  4. Bad Research and Information Heresies (Draft Syllabus)-A draft syllabus posted by Timothy Burke for a class on bad research and informational heresies. The course looks really amazing, and a propos of many of the current developments in academia and journalism–as well as the current needs and dangers of the internet.
  5. Wild Elks Return to GermanyA story in Spiegel about the return of wild elk, who have found the ir old tracks and paths covered by roads. The best line: “If you come across an elk while looking for mushrooms or walking in the forest, you should under no circumstances make the mistake of running after it because it could turn and attack.”
  6. Barack Obama and Bill Clinton’s Quasi-frienship-A story in the New Yorker about the rocky relationship between the once and current presidents and how they have come together to work towards Obama’s reelection in 2012.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?