A question of sorts about tuition

College is too expensive, and for every glowing report about the financial returns of a college degree, another blows apart those numbers by showing that particular schools and particular careers that, by grace of family connections, artificially inflate the numbers. At the same time, U.S. Taxpayers are disproportionately subsidizing the elite universities with large endowments— schools that spend more money managing their portfolios than on scholarships. The jobs of Presidents hang on their ability to pull in large donations. Most colleges are simultaneously seeing increased selectivity and increased enrollment and are crafting incentives to push those numbers higher still. I don’t want to get bogged down in most of those perks and whether they ought to exist or distracted by other cost-saving measures taken by schools or even question where all that money goes. I’ve been lead to believe that universities function through dark rituals carried out by accounts and involving large piles of imaginary money. Yes, I am being glib, but since I know just enough about it to make wildly inaccurate generalizations, I will refrain from doing so. Instead, I will focus on the extension of in-state tuition and tuition freezes, because there is something I find troubling here.

On the issue of tuition freezes, I have just one comment: the phrase itself is a red-herring. Promises to eliminate or freeze tuition do not keep down the price, but adds incentive to call the bills something else, usually fees. The itemization of the bill is a nice addition, but it also represents rhetorical chicanery when some of the fees can plausibly be argued to belong in the tuition pile. For instance, in graduate education, there are instances where students with tuition waivers nevertheless pay a fee for every credit they take. Fees or tuition, the result is the same: costs rise.

My working hypothesis on the split between in-state and out-of-state tuition is that the out-of-state rate represents more or less the full tuition rate, while the in-state is a lower rate because it is subsidized by the taxpayers of that state. This is not to say that there is a 1:1 correlation, and there is the added variables of federal funding and donations, but, in general, this seems to be a reasonable model. Likewise, though I haven’t seen it stated outright, it seems likely that state taxes that go to supporting state higher education institutions are done with this sort of implicit assumption in mind. States are, by and large, reducing their financial support for higher education, for a variety of reasons, which forces out low-income students and results in more cost increases for families.

Working with the model, though, and the fact that states still do help subsidize education, there is another anomaly that has me turned around: the extension of in-state tuition to out-of-state students. The University of Missouri participates in the Midwest Student Exchange Program, which reduces the cost of attendance for students in surrounding states and I have seen other proposals to reduce out of state tuition. The purpose, of course, is to attract ever-more students to the university in order to get more tuition dollars and, as for-profit institutions can attest to, means milking federal funding for all it is worth. International students bring in even more money.

I am sure that I am being overly simplistic with all of this, and it is linked to and symptomatic of all sorts of other issues in the finances of higher education, but I can’t help but wonder if the mad race to bring in students has the side-effect of making these institutions large businesses that happen to reside in a particular state, blurring the lines between where the students come from in order to lure them in. I do wonder if maybe it would be useful to frame the state funding for higher ed specifically as a benefit for in-state students. On the other hand, maybe I am making mountains out of molehills.

An end of semester thought

Another semester come and gone, or almost. I have a student primed to come in an collect his final exam tomorrow and I am expecting a grade complaint to ensue, but the other context of this post is that I had a student email me last night or early this morning thanking me for being “stricter TA than the others” because it helped her mold her study habits, her reading, and her writing. The student who sent me that message was a delight to have in class (I actually enjoyed that entire section quite a bit, even if the classroom itself made me sometimes feel like Yuri Petrova while I taught), and I did appreciate the way that she phrased her statement that I was a hard-ass, suggesting that I had expectations about what the students should have prepared before class and what we needed to talk about in class rather than that I was a malicious grader.

In a sense this is another “grade inflation” piece following after “confessions” of grade inflators, a piece about grade compression” instead of inflation, this response to the slate Confessions piece, and this from the Harvard Crimson, dated June 5, 1997 that cites a controversy from four years earlier when a professor at Harvard said in the Harvard Magazine that the causes of grade inflation stem from affirmative action in 1969. The way this latest bout of frustration has swirled across social media† has seemed to strike a nerve with academics. People have stumped for their cause of choice, whether that they are not paid well enough to “waste” time arguing grades, standardized tests (and the ensuing results-based education), customer-model of higher education, the desperate need for good teaching evaluations to keep a tenuous employment,‡ etc. Each also has his or her own response…and no one has a feasible solution. What I have been thinking about, rather, is the aura of mystery that surrounds grades.⚔

I can only echo the frustration expressed elsewhere about the student demand for making the grades and what exactly the grades mean. I really don’t care about grades, even though I dutifully assign them throughout the semester, but, like most teachers, it is a dreaded activity. But I am musing about the perception of grades versus reality. In most of my sections my average test score ranges from about a 77 to an 82 simply based on the class makeup and parameters of the exam and caveats about small sample sizes apply–outlier sections will sometimes skew a little bit lower or a little bit higher than that general range and 81 or 82 is probably the most common average I have seen. Mind you that I am talking just about the tests, and there is usually between 10 and 40 percent of the grades that rely on written responses, attendance, etc, for which a student gets full credit simply for completing the task.± The result of these extra points are that students who follow through with the course work have a final grade somewhat higher than their test grades. Even when the students have read the syllabus, many assume that their grade is exactly as it reads on the tests (an observation, nothing more).

I also don’t particularly like to talk about overall course averages because there is a non-negligible chunk of the students who don’t come to class, miss tests, miss in-class quizzes, and don’t complete response papers…these are most of the students who fail the class. With those students in the equation, the course average may dip below that of the exams, but often pulls it back to even with them. Students who do the work are rewarded for it, those who don’t can sometimes float by on exams alone, but if their exams are borderline, slip below into failing range.

I TA for an intro American history class and have been an adjunct,¥ and rarely have full authority over my own course design and final grades, but my students usually walk away from my classes believing that I am a hard grader, and this is something I worry about. I am fine being known as a somewhat demanding instructor so long as it is coupled with the knowledge that I will reciprocate whatever effort the students put in and work with them to master the material. I would also like to be known as a fair grader, though I know that it is impossible to please everyone all the time. My fear boils down not to fairness, though, nor that I am some kind of boogieman set on the earth to terrorize students, but that my expectations are punishing my students. I do not believe this to be the case, but the recent talk of how other professors and other TAs grade makes me wonder–and in a system that prioritizes results over process, is it simply a cop-out to hide behind the syllabus outlining student responsibilities when they cry foul at the end of the semester because missing work has harmed their grade?

I tell myself that I am about average in terms of actual difficulty; I try to challenge my students every week knowing, but often not revealing until the very end of the course, that the students are doing “fine”§ in my class–hey, the grading parameters are in the syllabus. My students may believe me to be some sort of Devourer-of-GPAs, but in the final calculation doesn’t bear that out, even if I made them work to receive the desired grade.

Of course I could be the one bearing the brunt of the punishment from this perception since if I make it seem that I am not handing out top grades across the board–whether or not any possible “deficiency” (that which I call grading) is buttressed elsewhere in the grade–then the perception is that I am punishing students, keeping them from the sterling GPA that they want. Here perception, not reality, is what matters and a perceived lack of inflation/ease/compression/whatever is a sign of curmudgeonly vindictiveness and a signal that that instructor is the GPA-Devourer at fault for whatever bureaucratic issues the student faces. More directly, unless the student has been engaged with me throughout the semester they probably don’t know that they are doing better than the tests might indicate before they fill out their course evaluations.


† I love most things about Twitter, but its ability to enable internet pitch-fork mobs, ardent Jacobins, and devout Crusaders in defense of their perceived (and sometimes correct) injustices is terrifying.

‡ Of course, those evaluations come in before the final grade, so perception is everything. More below.

⚔ Many students say that they prefer multiple-choice, but the grades are actually lower on them, from which many levels of interpretation may be read.

± There may also be prompt-based papers the students have to complete, but they typically are in the same range as the exams and don’t change the calculation about amount of attendance/response/etc points.

¥ Not every student attended every class, but everyone did all the assignments, so I didn’t quite have this problem in that class.

§ Fine can mean that I don’t care about the grade, but in this context it really means that the student is doing much better than they think they are in terms of the overall grade.

Some Thoughts Concerning Contemporary Education

The assigned reading this week for the class in which I am a TA included several selections from John Locke, among them excerpts from his 1693 “Some thoughts concerning education.” In this piece, Locke argues that children need to be guided, encouraged, tempered, and, at times, disciplined, but that too much rigidity or punishment creates a “slavish” temperament. He calls the rod a lazy form of punishment that causes the student to study or learn out of fear and that it “breeds an aversion to that which it is the tutor’s business to creating a liking to.” Locke also calls for different education for different people, ostensibly because people learn at different rates and it is not necessary for everyone to know Latin. [1]

For their weekly discussion question, I asked my students to consider Locke’s proposals about education in relation to their own experiences. For a variety of reasons, I received fewer responses than usual this week and some of those responses got bogged down in the curriculum proposals rather than those about the educational theory. Some of the more insightful responses (paraphrased) were:

  1. Locke might be frustrated with the expedience of shipping kids to school because a one-size-fits-all approach will result in less efficient learning, particularly for students who learn slower and faster than “normal.”
  2. Children should not be coerced into study, but encouraged to be actively engaged. As such, students should be engaged in conversation, not lectured at. [2]
  3. Over-regulation and over-obedience results in people of slave-ish temperament, which is ill-suited for an engaged member of society. This is a tenet at least paid lip service to in education today.
  4. There should be (at least some) emphasis on skills of various sorts. [3]

The thing that jumped out at me in this exercise was the role of the teacher. The teacher’s job, according to Locke, is not just to inscribe trivia onto the mind of the students, but to give skills and interest in the subject so that the students can become engaged citizens. To wit, there are only so many hours that one can read for an English class in school, but someone who learns to love reading in school will continue to read later in life.

When the emphasis is on how well one performs on a canned test or testing the ability to produce cliched, hackneyed short essays after idly doodling through hours of lectures rather than engaging with material, it is an exercise in futility. Students are not conditioned to fear the rod or the lash, but they are equally conditioned. The topics in class are associated with drudgery that leads up to a test and so students want to know what will be on the test and what the answer is–they would just rather you skip the boring part. Of course, teachers are then evaluated on how well students perform on those tests, creating a vicious circle.

More than three hundred years have gone by and new expediencies have produced a similar result in education. Lectures, blue-book exams, standardized tests, these are all expediencies created in a world with large numbers of people and even more paperwork. Locke called the rod a lazy tool, but these new tools are not necessarily borne of sloth, but perhaps mechanization or standardization and the effects are just as insidious. I got the sense that some of my students thought I was being pedantic when I said that Locke has relevance and isn’t just another boring dead white guy rolling around in his grave. I may have been falling victim to the type of trap Locke lamented, but I wasn’t kidding.

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[1] This is a somewhat gross exaggeration since Locke actually divides the curriculum by social class rather than just by ability. His divisions could still be applicable, though, if one were to assume that, regardless of actual class, there are underlying characteristics that map onto what Locke calls class. It likely behooves someone going into a trade to learn Spanish, for instance, while Latin may only be helpful for a smaller segment of the population. Of course everyone should learn Gree…oh, that is a personal picadillo? Nevermind, then.

[2] I find this answer simultaneously accurate, frustrating, and ironic since conversation is a great way to learn, but the standard for many college courses, including this one, is a lecture, and then it is at times excruciating to get the students to actually converse when given the opportunity, as if the discussion needs to be coerced.

[3] The student believed that this is something education today does emphasize to a degree, but disagreed with the idea that manual skills should be included because not everyone will need to use e.g. carpentry.

College Athletics, Academics, and Student Success

There are a host of problems with the system of college athletics. For one thing, it is exploitative of the student athletes, even for those athletes who receive a full scholarship for the duration of their stay at the university.[1] For another, professors and aspirant professors (such as graduate students) grouse that the athletic budgets continue to rise while the academic budgets fall, so that top-tier universities have become sports conglomerates with an attached institution of higher education.[2] It is naive and simplistic to blame athletics for the tribulations of academia, though. And college athletics, whether it is a football game or march madness or some other sport, can be fun to watch.[3] It is also rewarding to watch students succeed in and out of the classroom both. For the students trying to become professional athletes the first measure of that success would be getting drafted and so it was cool to see a student succeed in last night’s NBA draft. Not in a “cool, I knew that person with national name recognition way,”[4] but in a v. public recognition of one student’s success way.


[1] According to the NCAA website, the percentage of student athletes on athletic scholarships in college are less than two percent. There are a number of documentaries, particularly in the ESPN 30 for 30 series, that deal with the issue of NCAA regulations and exploitation of student athletes and take all sorts of different perspectives about payments. “Pony Excess” examines the scandal at SMU in the 1980s and treats the situation as a dirty, out of control system of payments. On the other end of the spectrum, “The U” looks at the University of Miami scandals a decade later and the participants revel in the fact that they broke the rules because the system was unfair to them. Somewhere in between the two extremes falls “The Fab 5,” which looks at Michigan’s basketball program in the early nineties. While “The Fab 5” is at times hyperbolic about Duke and the monumental shifts in the landscape of basketball at that time, some of the more interesting elements are how it examines the relationship between athletics and profit for the university.

On a related note (although not about college athletics), I highly recommend the documentary “Ballplayer: Pelotero,” which examines the system by which Major League baseball recruits and signs players from the Dominican Republic. The system there is significantly more exploitative than even the NCAA is.

[2] There is truth to this statement, even though most sports don’t actually make money beyond attracting students. Using information for 2008 published by ESPN, I created a quick cross-section of some D1 institutions. With budgets sometimes well in excess of one hundred million dollars, eight of the nine institutions sampled ran a surplus, but once university subsidies are again taken out of the revenue, only three did so. Three of the schools operated with deficits of more than ten million dollars. The actual numbers, particularly for media revenue, have changed since 2008, but I suspect that it remains an exemplary sample overall.

I do not mean to declaim collegiate athletics or to self-righteously declare that that money would be better spent on academic scholarships, library books, humanities centers or hiring more tenure track professors, although all those would be in my own personal self-interest. Much of that money, including the money supplied by the university, may not exist without collegiate athletics. There are studies that convincingly demonstrate that successful sports programs bring in donations and increase the number of applications the university receives. Sports, more than academics at most universities, create a national brand and raise the profile of the university that can (even though it does not always) create a symbiotic relationship that bolsters both the athletic and academic programs. I should also note that the most noxious fact on the ESPN chart is that pay for coach often far exceeds the tuition expenses. In athletics, just as in academics…and in the rest of US society, it seems that there is a growing gap in benefits for upper level administrators and the workers. Of course, largely unlike many university presidents, the football coaches are actually critical for the success of the football programs, which leads back to the hope for the ideal symbiosis of athletics and academics.

[3] While the NCAA’s feel-good commercials about helping student athletes succeed in school and then in a career once their playing days are over seem rather phony,[3b] there is some truth to this. Most of the student athletes will not go on to be paid for playing the sports, either. There are also a myriad of other emotions teaching these students, from horror stories about runaway egos, to apathy, to the detachment experienced when national announcers praise a student for being such a vocal and active leader while that same student quietly goes about his business in the classroom. In my experience they are much like other students except longer, broader, lithe-r, and with more demands on their time.

[3b] Phony because like all major sporting organizations, the NCAA is basically a protection racket being run for money-making interests…and one that does more to provide a show of legitimacy than one with actual power over those interests. To wit: the NCAA office of enforcement has a v. limited budget and limited power to investigate or enforce rules. A recent report at Sports Illustrated revealed that the enforcement office itself was in disarray in large part because the president of the NCAA ignored internal reports about payments being made at the University of Miami and then acted shocked when the allegations were presented to them publicly. The V.P. of enforcement was then fired and others have stepped down. This evidently leaves a nominal staff of 60 enforcement personnel, with just two with investigators with experience in football or basketball cases. The enforcement office is still more than two grizzled old cops in a water closet conducting investigations, but there are 125 FBS football schools, more FCS, and hundreds of other sports teams across the country, so the office is heavily dependent on college enforcement offices to do the actual heavy lifting on rules enforcement. This may at times turn out to be a conflict of interest.

[4] Collegiate basketball players good enough to be drafted already had national name recognition.

Assorted Links

  1. Romney’s America Doesn’t Need Public Colleges– A discussion in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the place of colleges in the Romney economic model, which encourages elite, privately funded universities and the import of other highly educated people such that other countries pay for the education, while Americans fall further and further behind. The essayist seems to take an extreme stance on this, but the point is not without merit.
  2. Pop Culture Has Turned Against the Liberal Arts – An article in the Atlantic about the fact that thirty years ago an archeology professor was an action hero. It focuses on the new Josh Radnor tv show Liberal Arts, which it suggests that it denigrates people who go in to the Liberal Arts and instead focuses on all the stereotypes. At the same time it was suggested to me that perhaps it is the talking heads that play down the Liberal Arts.
  3. Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama– An essay in the Atlantic about not voting for Obama because he has crossed several lines and the author cannot morally justify continuing his support, even if he likes Obama better than he likes Romney. I am very sympathetic to this argument and have thought much the same way recently, though I am worried enough about the alternative that I might vote for Obama anyway.
  4. Great Writing Comes out of Great Ideas– An article in the Atlantic about the pedagogical debate surrounding how to teach writing. The author suggests (rightly, I think) that in addition to teaching the basics and fundamentals of writing, educators need to allow students freedom to pursue novel projects, think for themselves, and use (and develop) their own voice. Nonetheless, writing needs to be approached from a much younger age, but once–and in tandem with–learning the fundamentals, they need to be able to make their own way. Regimented writing assignments just teach regimented prose.
  5. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

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. For Profit Colleges– Yet another look into the for-profit College industry, this time in the Village Voice. There are new anecdotes, but the same conclusions about how the industry profits by scamming the financial aid system paid for by tax dollars, without offering much in the way of an education. One person is quoted as saying that “This is basically a parasitic industry that is preying upon not just some of the most vulnerable members of our society, but the best of these most vulnerable members, people who listen to the rhetoric we feed them and who are actually attempting to better themselves.” I suspect that there is a link between the emphasis on standardized tests (which mostly benefit the test-prep industry1) and the idea that the same model can be applied to the college degree (hence massive online universities). Call it a gut instinct, but the fact that the Kaplan test prep company–which charges exorbitant fees for marginal real returns on the standardized tests of all sorts (from what I have witnessed, most of the gains come from either learning how to beat the testing system or actually feeling responsible to dedicate time to studying since you are now paying for it)–has an accredited online college and university makes me see a link.
  2. College Costs Too Much Because the Faculty Lack Power– Commentary on the Chronicle that suggests that the cost of college is not rising because of too many overfed faculty members, but because the number of full time administrators has risen well beyond the proportion of full time faculty and students.
  3. Amazon Kindle E-book Sales Overtake PrintAt least for the UK site, Amazon is now selling 114 Ebooks for every 100 print books.
  4. Gabby Douglas Isn’t Jingoistic Enough for Fox News-Apparently Gabby Douglas bothered some people because she did not wear red, white, and blue spandex when receiving her award. They did actually use the words “jingoistic” and “exceptionalism” in berating her for not having enough pride.
  5. Can Hospital Chains Improve the Medical Industry – A piece in the New Yorker that evaluates restaurant chains as a successful business model vis a vis hospitals and tries to make a claim that some of the lessons of the chain restaurant (regular updates in offerings, more cost efficiency, standardization) could be beneficial to the hospitals. I have little to not experience with hospitals, but I do have a bunch with restaurants, and the description of the restaurant model grated me. The most basic problem I had with it was the glorification of the Cheesecake Factory as an exemplar of the model, when it is no different from most chain restaurants. Moreover, the assembly-line model and the organization of a kitchen for efficiency is not some miracle that this restaurant came up with, but is something that will be applied in some form at any restaurant. The same goes with the ratios for costs at restaurants, though it is misleading. The cost of food is often not second after payroll. The hidden cost that is not factored into the equation is rent and utilities, though perhaps at the Cheesecake Factory, the revenue is high enough that the rent and utilities are smaller. At a Pizza Hut, though (also referenced), that would not be the case. It is also important to note that (despite the author’s claims), the model usually relies on providing consistent–not good–quality food. Most of these chains (see: Pizza Hut) offer you food that is worse than many hole-in-the-wall restaurants and food stands that I have had. Yes, there are things that hospitals need to work on, but the chain restaurant model, particularly when offering it as somehow revelatory to food in general and overlooking the poor to bland quality of most of it, is a flawed comparison.
  6. 1One of the biggest beneficiaries of the No Child Left Behind tests was Ignite! Learning, a company that was run by Neil Bush.

    As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

  1. Greenland ice sheet melted at unprecedented rate during July – 97% (rather than the usual c.50%) of Greenland’s ice sheet melted this month. The title is somewhat misleading since one researcher said that this happens once a century or two, but they fear that since it happened by a heat dome crossing over the island, this melt could become a regular occurrence. Most of the melt took place over five days in July.
  2. Misery on the March – A note on the (new) humanitarian crises beginning in South Sudan from the Economist.
  3. One-Third of Colleges Are on Financially ‘Unsustainable’ Path – According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, there was a Bain and Company study that claimed a third of non-profit schools are financially unsustainable or will be–including some of the schools that are traditionally considered wealthy.
  4. NCAA Gets PSU Sanctions Right, But For Wrong Reasons – A note from a Michigan blog about the Penn State Sanctions that argues that the NCAA took appropriate or fair actions within the bounds of realistic options, but did so in a way that was hypocritical and weak, rather than following perfectly legitimate reasons and bounds that are within NCAA jurisdiction. These mirror my own thoughts fairly well.
  5. Are We Addicted to Gadgets or Indentured to Work? – An op-ed in the Atlantic suggesting that “addiction to devices” is really being ever more available for work because of the communication technology. I do not entirely agree given that, for many people (myself included), they are also addicted to Facebook, Twitter, and Texting.
  6. Inside the Minds of Mass Killers– an article Hana shared with me about the problems underlying mass killings that debunks the notion that the root cause is insanity.
  7. Promises About Another American Century Are Pretty Lies – A piece in the Atlantic that (while not really that novel) decries the current campaign promises of another American century as perhaps insidious lies.
  8. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

1. In Praise of Downtime -Yet another Op-Ed in the Atlantic that responds to and builds upon Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece. Ellen Ruppel Shell instead focuses on the “system that increasingly relies on overwork–and underemployment–to pad the bottom line.”

2. In Praise of Idleness – One of the articles that Shell references is this one by Bertrand Russell from 1932.

3. Do The Eyes Have It? – A hypothesis that the domestication of dogs and particularly communicative eyes may have given early humans an advantage over Neanderthals. Evidently the large amount of white in human eyes could have made it particularly easy for humans to silently communicate with their canine companions.

4. Subway Work Unearths Ancient Road in Greece – Work on a subway in Thessaloniki (which should make that city significantly easier to traverse!) has unearthed a Roman road that used marble paving stones. The current plan is to raise the road to the surface level to put it on display. There was also an older Greek road that was found underneath the Roman one. Work on the subway has allowed for some of the best archeological work in the center of Greece’s second largest city and workers have been excited to discover that the earlier roads lie roughly in the same spot as the modern ones (although in a city that has been continuously occupied for something over two thousand years and with some other indications that the center of the city has not changed layout in pretty much the entire time, I am not sure why this is a surprise).

5. The Missing Constitution – Some more thoughts about the ACA ruling, this time by Mark Graber, a law professor at the University of Maryland.1

6. Romney: Students should Get “As Much Education As They Can Afford” – I actually think that some people (such as the ones at Think Progress who wrote this article) are taking the quote a bit out of context, though it is true that there is a symptomatic problem with his statement that the presidential candidate is not acknowledging. People have been honing in on the byte about affording the education when he is trying to say that they should get as much education as they can. I am also a bit more concerned when he says “if they have a willingness to work hard and the right values, they ought to…have a shot at realizing their dreams” (emphasis mine). Of course he mentioned money and this is not the first time that Romney has been out of touch with how (most) students pay for college and hasn’t actually offered a viable solution to fix the cost and paying for college. Sadly, this is just yet another of the election year sound clips that are more about rhetoric than about solutions–as are the knee-jerk reactions to pieces like this. In fairness, the Think Progress article is not nearly as bad about this as were some other places I saw report on this.

7. Professors condemn New York’s ‘overreliance’ on standardized tests – Earlier this week more than 1,100 professors in New York signed a petition aimed at ending the reliance on standardized tests to evaluate teachers.

8. The Liberal Arts and the Great Recession – an op-ed in the Huffington Post that suggests that reformed liberal arts are needed to end the adversarial relationship between liberal arts and career-oriented degrees. He tries to find a middle ground between people who believe that kids should go to college to prepare for a career and those people in the liberal arts who claim some sort of intrinsic superiority. I agree that some direction is necessary, but I often feel that the reforms to the liberal arts are mere appeasement.

9. The Incredible Resilience of Publishing Fantasy – A blog post from the Huffington post that argues that traditional publishers have lost their two main monopolies, marketing and distribution. He is, in particular, responding to an overly cheery op-ed put out by a publishing executive.

1 Thanks to Naomi Graber for forwarding me this link.

Ivory Tower

I recently heard the opinion that ancient history (and possibly even Classics more generally) should only be taught at a graduate level at a select few universities across the country. Schools not in that elite core (e.g. the Ivy League, most Big 10 schools, Berkeley, Stanford, Duke, UNC, etc) should offer programs for undergraduates, but should not offer graduate degrees. Though I heard this opinion third hand, it originated from an ancient history professor. I agree to a limited extent with the sentiment about the necessity of standards, but wholeheartedly disagree with the actual opinion–not least of which is because I have thrice failed to gain acceptance into those elite programs and am therefore at another school.

I have three qualms with the opinion:

  1. There are too many deserving applicants for too few spots at those top programs
  2. There are too many quality advisors who, for one reason or another, are not at those universities
  3. The notion that those are the programs that can produce doctorates and none other can is a cause of stagnation in the profession. It is not only possible, but also necessary for “tier-2” schools to build viable programs.1</sup

1For the moment overlook the increasingly vocal proponents of reducing the number of people who get advanced degrees in the humanities.

Let me examine each of these in somewhat more depth. Despite the overall trend wherein a lower percentage of the population attains a college degree than in recent history, there has been record application and acceptance rates at most, if not all colleges. A college degree is seen as necessary for advancement or employment in many jobs and though I have strong objections to both this and the claim that college is a place to learn jobs skills and the the movement to turn colleges into money making machines, the perception is transformed into a reality because businesses actually put it into practice. So, with enrollment at record highs, and the job market remaining spare, particularly at those jobs that college does prepare students for, the rates (and the percentages, I think) of application to advanced degrees has gone up. For some students this is a dodge on student loan payments or an extension on college in the same way they received extensions on papers, and in these cases the academic world only serves to further coddle them. But for others, graduate school or other post-Baccalaureate programs are the right fit and it stands to reason that these numbers are also at an all-time high. Lump these numbers together and combine it with funding cuts across the academic world, and there simply are not enough spots at the top universities for all deserving applicants. The rejects, as they may be, then go to other schools where classics and ancient history are taught, and they may join the other rejects to study the field they love, build a program, and so on. Note that reject here is not a negative term and applies to all graduate students in the field not at these universities–you can not succeed if you do not try, so not applying is not an excuse (unless you are pointing out how much money you saved).

A second issue is that many, if not most, potential advisors are not at those top universities. The best programs have larger staffs, more students, and more opportunities. These are all boons to graduate work, however if none of the programs have a potential advisor for your interests, then it may behoove you to cast a wider net. There are scores of excellent teachers, advisors, and scholars whose careers, for any number of reasons, bring them to schools that are not among the traditional academic factories. Slowly, the field is moving into a time when production counts for as much or more than the name. It is not yet, nor will it likely ever be a true meritocracy, but it is moving in that direction. Would I like the name to bolster my ego and look impressive on my wall? Yes, but the truth is that the name often has little bearing on the formal apprenticeship of graduate school.

Third, and perhaps most important, is that Classics and ancient history are very old fields. Livy, one of our great historians, wrote about events 700 years before his birth, which could easily be considered ancient even in his own day. Gibbon, Napoleon, Collingwood, and all of the founding fathers were at the very least amateur ancient historians, and some of the chairs of Classics at UK universities are themselves hundreds of years old. The field is old, and the only way to keep it relevant is to innovate and change, something best achieved by building new programs to see what can happen. Keeping just a few in their ivory tower will lead to stagnation. In no way am I claiming this is a novel stance–Who Killed Homer first came out in 1998, and there has seemingly always been a tension between tradition and innovation.

The point I have to emphasize is that the only time in which so-called elite universities hold a mystical status is when professors and students at the “lesser” universities accept the status quo. The top programs may remain elite and coveted, but they also work to remain at that level by actively recruiting top scholars and prospective scholars. Yet the position is not guaranteed or divinely mandated. In fact, competition for the services of scholars from a more diverse set of institutions, with a larger number of talented writers and thinkers involved in the process would be good for the field. Scholarship in its own right would advance, and at no point would elite programs be able to take their status for granted. Of course I want to study and teach at premier schools, but until such time as I am seen as Ivy League material, I want to do whatever I can do make the school I am at be the best it can be and, as much as it can be, I want that to be my fault.