Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Is higher education hurting working class students, instead of helping them?

A few days ago, a student, "K," who was in one of my classes last fall, knocked on the office door to say hi, and we ended up having a wonderful conversation for more than half-an-hour.  I told her it felt like I was talking with my daughter and not with a student.

"That's a good thing, right?" she asked with a smile.

It is a good thing, indeed.  Taking such an interest can also mean that I end up worrying about things I don't really have any business worrying about.  Because, I can't change a damn thing, which is what the personnel officer tried telling me even at the campus interview as I was wrapping up my undergraduate degree.

I worried about her sister's college admission.  A high school senior I haven't even met! Later that night, I wrote in an email to "K":
you may want to pass this along to your sister.  This news item will also provide you folks with a perspective on what makes a college "selective" and why it matters.
It is a dirty, rotten, secret in higher education that is rarely ever openly discussed: it is not merely the diploma.  A diploma from a college like where I work doesn't have the same weight as a diploma, in the same academic major, from a different college.  The selectivity of the college and its prestige matter a lot.  I would think that it is the same case anywhere in the world.  On top of that, the possibility for post-college career connections at those selective institutions dwarf what a student at the university here can even hope for.

Add to all that the family background.

And then the dollars that students shell out.

The bottom-line then is a disastrous reality:
If you are a low-income prospective college student hoping a degree will help you move up in the world, you probably should not attend a moderately selective four-year research institution. The cards are stacked against you.
That’s the sobering bottom line of Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Harvard University Press), a new book based on five years of interview research by Elizabeth A. Armstrong, an associate professor of sociology and organizational studies at the University of Michigan, and Laura T. Hamilton, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced.
But, those students do not have any idea of how much higher education is becoming yet another brick in the wall!
The co-author of Academically Adrift, Richard Arum, whose research famously showed that a striking number of students learn little to nothing of intellectual significance in college, said in an interview that the book powerfully demonstrates that that lack of learning is not just attributable to student laziness. “This current work shows how students can – from their perspective – come to understand and interpret the life of being a student, the life of being in college, as having very little to do with academic engagement,” Arum said. “The institution itself has basically built this into the structure of higher education today.”
What I don't get is this.  It is one thing for a loony tune blogger like me to keep writing about all these issues with nobody listening to me.  But, what about all these researchers from a lot more prestigious places and think-tanks whose findings are also pretty much ignored?  

Institutions like the one where I work have a significant number, I would think more than a simple majority, of students who come from working-class backgrounds.  Many are the first from their families to attend college.  They, innocently, believe that if they somehow manage to get a college diploma it will be a guaranteed pathway into the prosperous upper-middle stratum.  All is not on the level:
More affluent students have parents who can help them figure out how to get through college — what courses to take, and when; how to manage time, get help or mercy from professors, etc. They can also use connections to get the kids jobs regardless of academic performance. 
Slightly more than a year ago, two sisters wrote about their educational experiences and decisions they made in an essay with a provocative title: "Should Working-Class People Get B.A.'s and Ph.D.'s?"
Briallen has a Ph.D. from Princeton University and is a lecturer in the English department at Yale University. Johanna is a high-school graduate working full time at a bakery for slightly above minimum wage.
It is not that Johanna was any less capable than Briallen; they were "equally bookish and academically inclined."  So, why college for one and not for the other?
For both of us, decisions about education have been limited and complicated by our class status.
Sisters, equally capable, from the same family background.  First the elder one:
Briallen worked in child care and food service for a while after high school, went to community college, and was accepted to a selective four-year college but was not offered enough financial aid to go. She finally graduated from a local college with the help of Pell Grants and a lot of debt. She can't imagine her life without higher education, but as a non-tenure-track academic in a tough job market, she has limited job security, and she owes more than $800 a month in student-loan payments. Her student debt makes it impossible for her to save money or start a family anytime soon, and she is entering her mid-30s.
The younger sibling processed her sister's experience, and had some of her own:
Johanna was wary of graduating with substantial debt and no family safety net, so she took a year off to work and save money and try applying to college again. Her financial-aid offers the next year were no better. She ended up taking classes at the local satellite campus of a state university while living at home and working long hours at a salon to pay her own way.
But after a couple of quarters she discovered that, because of the poor academic advising she had received, none of the introductory courses she had taken were actually required for her degree. Her AP credits from high school should have qualified her to start as a sophomore, but she was mistakenly placed in freshman-level courses.
After learning that she'd spent almost all of her hard-earned savings on classes she was not even required to take, Johanna lost her faith in the wisdom of investing in higher education. She left school and is now working full time for $13,000 a year. She's proudly debt-free and self-supporting, and in her limited free time she is pursuing reading, writing, and the free or cheap cultural and educational opportunities available to her.
Their conclusion?
Although we both continue to struggle with the stressful economic implications of our different education levels, we are proud of each other and of our very different choices. We just wish we'd been given the opportunity to make them more freely.
As I noted in this op-ed:
We push teenagers into higher education by scaring them about the earnings they could lose. Here, we commit two huge mistakes. First, we simply define higher education as nothing but a passport to a job, instead of a means of instilling in the young a joy for lifelong-learning as a path toward understanding their own potentials, of which earnings is merely one. On top of this, by constantly dangling the dollar sign in front of them, we are almost brainwashing teenagers to think that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is nothing but the pursuit of money.
Instead, the young ought to understand something entirely different — that life entails making decisions all the time, and that this will mean difficult tradeoffs, which sometimes can be expensive. Thus, we would not simply push teenagers toward college because they would otherwise be losers, but we would help them think and act every time they reached a fork in the road of life — the tradeoffs that Robert Frost so elegantly articulated as “the road not taken.”  
It is to also highlight the other road that I emailed "K"--as long as her sister has seriously considered the different roads that could take her in different directions from the intersection where she currently stands.  Because, blindly taking any one route can be disastrous, especially for those from working-class backgrounds.

Half a world away ...

Monday, April 29, 2013

Macho men also can hear the sound of violins ...

My version of macho is all about standing up for ideas. It is never macho in the sense of muscles. Which is also why I have often commented that Hillary Clinton has a lot more cojones than many American males combined!

When people see me, and hear me talk, there is a high probability that they think I am an easy pushover.  Poof you blow and Sriram falls flat, they assume. Except, that is not a correct estimate.  They then find me, and annoyingly so, a hard rock to even nudge.  My version of macho is different.

I suppose the level of empathy I have for the suffering can also make me look less macho.  But, I have always wondered how one can not feel that pain.  And, at the other end, how can one not find pleasure in the intoxicating bubbly laughter of a two year old?  Such emotions do not make one any less macho.

So, why all this rambling on machismo?  All because of Michael Bublé.  I think I was finishing up my toast and coffee on a pleasant Sunday morning when I heard him say on NPR:
I don't know what happened to this world where - look it, there was a day when these guys from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra and The Rat Pack sang these incredibly romantic songs. And you know what? It was macho. You know what? There was something that was very manly about having the strength and having the courage to sing about love and romance. And that was looked at as [macho]. And I don't know what happened in our world where that was turned into being soft, because I don't think it's soft at all. I think a man can be in touch with his emotions.
I agree with Bublé.  Presley or Sinatra or Dean Martin or Sammy Davis ... were not any less macho.  Certainly different from the John Wayne machismo, yes.  Macho is not about beating the daylights out of somebody else.  Perhaps that is also why I wasn't a big fan of John Wayne's movies?

A few years ago, thanks to my wonderful neighbors who paid for the ticket, I got to watch Bublé perform live in Portland.  I still remember his cover of Fever.  The first finger snap signaled to the audience that it was Fever and we were pumped up right away.

Back in graduate school, when I was rapidly immersing myself into the popular music that I didn't care for when I was in India, two young men (I was also young then!) seemed to be creating their versions of this image of singing macho men with emotions: Chris Isaak and Harry Connick, Jr.  Who can ever forget that awesome video of Wicked Game!!!

YouTube quickly answered my question of whether Bublé had performed with either of these guys.  Here is Bublé "swaying" with Isaak, for a double-shot of macho:



Sunday, April 28, 2013

So, what's so special about a man and a woman holding hands?

"Make hay while the sun shines" confused me back when I was a kid.  Because, in the parts of India where I grew up or vacationed, the sun always shone, and mercilessly it seemed like.  Except for those few weeks of monsoon rains when everything everywhere was damp.  Damp enough that sometimes mold grew and mother would attack that with bleaching powder.

Language is cultural, and to make hay when the sun shines probably came from a culture where there were quite a few days, weeks even, when the sun practically disappeared.  That statement makes a lot more sense to me in my middle age here in Oregon.  It is such a pleasure when the sun comes out, especially in the spring.  Flowers everywhere, bees buzzing, people biking ... and me walking by the river to take advantage of the sunny spring day.

Even the birds were sunning themselves on the rocks!


I crossed the bridge to walk along the river's west bank.  A young couple walking hand-in-hand were laughing and talking.  There is a reason I write about them.

The young man was in jeans and a tight-fitting athletic short-sleeve shirt.  I am sure if I were as fit as him, with well developed muscles, I too would wear that kind of a tight fit.  But, the muscles I have are puny, and even those hurt some time that I have to go in for physical therapy!

The young woman on that guy's arm, well, to go with the image one might expect her to be in shorts or jeans and a t-shirt, and big sun glasses.  That seems to be the typical outfit for young women on the bike path.  But, she wasn't.  This young woman was wearing a black abaya over something colorful underneath that showed in the gap between her sneakers and the abaya.  And, she had a hijab also on.

A conservative outfit.  Yet, holding hands in the public?  In the traditional Hindu Brahmin context in which I grew up, this would be like the woman wearing the sari in the madisar style and walking about while holding her husband's hand.  Chi-chi, as my grandmother would say to dismiss such possibilities.

My great-grandmother wearing the sari in a madisar style

We passed each other.  Like young lovers, this couple was also lost to the world.  I could have picked the guy's pocket and he wouldn't have noticed.  Ah, to be young and to be in love!

As I continued walking, I remembered that once before I had spotted a young woman wearing a hijab and smoking a cigarette.  A few days ago, as I was heading to work early in the morning, I saw a woman in an abaya and sneakers and walking the brisk walk of an exercise walk.  I suppose there is a lot more to women in abayas and hijabs than what meets the eye.

It was one of those rare walks when I paused to take in the scenery.  I walked away from the concrete path towards the river.  The lack of normal levels of rain was the reason why the volume was much lower and I could walk in areas that would usually be accessible only late in the summer.  The gently flowing Willamette was clear over the rocks. Clear enough for me to notice the sunlight dancing on the ripples creating mesmerizing patterns on the dark stones.  Nature is beautiful, indeed.


As I looked around, to my left was a middle-aged couple a little bit away.  We were separated by the wild growth and I could see them through a gap in the greens.


It was, really, a good day to be out with another person.

I, the solitary man, kept going.  Why I know not..After all, there is nobody waiting for me.

But, we do what we have to do to make hay while the sun shines.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Struggle of the Uighur people is quite real

If you are thinking that my blogging, yet again, about the Uighurs can mean only one thing: their situation hasn't improved and something serious happened recently, yes, that is, indeed, the unfortunate story.
In the deadliest ethnic violence in China since 2009, 21 people were killed in confrontations Tuesday between police and Uighur residents of Kashgar, the country’s westernmost city.
Among the dead were 15 police and neighborhood security officers and six people that the state media described as “mobsters.’’
Kashgar, which lies close to China's borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, has been a frequent site of violence between the dominant ethnic Han Chinese and the Uighurs, a Muslim minority.
Terrible!  We can only act polite from afar:
The US has urged China to conduct a transparent investigation after clashes in the restive Xinjiang region left 21 people dead.
US State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell also urged that "due process protections" be given to all Chinese citizens, including ethnic Uighurs.
Even worse is that we really don't know what is going on in Xinjiang:
Beijing's media blockade has been successful. Instead of allowing some access to Western reporters, Beijing a few years ago resumed an old strategy and restricted their ability to enter Xinjiang, and almost entirely banned them from entering the mountainous, 460,000-square-mile Tibetan Autonomous Region.
That means that there is no independent verification of the "official" version of incidents in Xinjiang:
[In Xinjiang, Hou Hanmin, a Xinjiang propaganda bureau spokeswoman] is sticking to the message. Tuesday's violence is "certainly a terrorist attack," she told reporters, comparing the incident to the Boston Marathon bombings. And until Western reporters can investigate, her version of the events will remain the last one standing.
While the US is now urging China to protect its Uighur minority, it was also the US that made it so easy for the Chinese to refer to anything in Xinjiang as terrorism.   In a post four years ago, in July 2009, I quoted James Fallows, who wrote:
it is a lasting error and embarrassment that after 9/11 the U.S. won Chinese government support by agreeing that Uighur separatists -- formally, the East Turkestan Liberation Organization -- should be seen as part of the world terrorist threat. After all, they are Muslims.
Screwy!  The guy who ushered in the Global War on Terror, meanwhile, gets to open his Presidential Library!

In that first post from four years ago, I wrote about the Kafkaesque Guantanamo scenario in which the 22 Uighurs found themselves in.  Where are they now?
The U.S. refused to grant them asylum. Nearly a dozen now live in Albania, Bermuda, El Salvador and Switzerland. Three remain in custody at the U.S. Navy prison in Cuba.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/03/17/3291352/in-chinas-shadow-guantanamos-former.html#storylink=cpy

From a part of the world with a long and rich history.  A part of the old stories of the Silk Road.  In reviewing a book on the Sufi shrines in Xinjiang, Ian Johson writes in the NYRB :
Looking at these bright, numinous images, we begin to sense something inexpressible but more profound than any of the region’s difficult politics—a glimpse at the intangible traditions and beliefs that have given shape to Xinjiang’s Muslims over many centuries.
I suppose no god can be of help!

What does it mean to be college educated anyway?

Even if I am a total dud in helping students in my classes understand and appreciate the materials, I bet there are very few who doubt my commitment to liberal education.  If they paid attention to me, then they also know that even as they go through a rigorous liberal education, they have to keep thinking about their career plans as well.

In this structure, problems are in plenty.  Universities offer such a diluted and distorted version of liberal education that we insiders are the ones giving liberal education that awful stink.  Here is an example: at my university, a student can major in the social sciences and minor in geography, and successfully graduate with not even a tenth of the requirements coming from the sciences.  This is merely one of the gazillion possibilities of students legitimately avoiding being liberally educated even as they earn their diplomas at the colleges and universities all over the country.  Not the well-rounded liberal education at all.

My point has always been that such an education is a waste of time and money.  We might as well merely offer professional training.  We should stop referring to what we do as liberal education.  Why call it liberal education and offer something else?

At the same time, we have been completely marginalizing professional education too.  Instead of providing career and technical education to those students who might prefer that, we put that down as some kind of an inferior option and we force all students to go through the hoops of whatever that is we do at four-year schools anymore.

No wonder then we are finding ourselves all twisted trying to figure out the "real payoff of a college degree." To a large extent, Ronnie L. Booth, president of Tri-County Technical College, near Greenville, S.C., articulates the points that I try to get across to people:
A vocational degree is not for everyone, he readily admits, but many of his students are arriving with four-year degrees in hand, looking for something practical. In coming months, he will direct Tri-County's academic counselors to more aggressively steer students away from fields and majors that might prove a bad fit. Don't like the sight of blood or the smell of bodily fluids? Nursing might not be for you. Interested in engineering? Let's have a serious talk about your grades in algebra.
"Better to find out on the front end," he says. "I believe in truth in advertising."
More parents and students, he says, need to "understand that someone has to pay the bills." In his region, he frequently meets waiters and waitresses who have four-year degrees, and he has a friend whose daughter went to college to study dance. She is working in retail.
"That is not what Daddy had anticipated," Mr. Booth says in a Southern drawl. "I believe in a broad educational program, things that make you a good citizen, but I am not sure that it is necessary to rack up $50,000 or $100,000 in debt to get that—and then not to be able to get employment. I have told my children that one of Daddy's goals is to get you off my payroll."
In healthcare, which has been one of the fastest growing sectors, ""It looks like B.A. is now entry-level, or it's becoming that way."  The jobs that didn't require a four-year degree are rapidly evaporating:
The erosion of midlevel jobs goes beyond nursing. Experts say several forces are at work. Automation has eliminated many transcription and clerical jobs. Cost pressures have led hospitals and other health-care providers to push many routine tasks onto medical assistants and other lower-paid workers.
Pharmacies, for example, increasingly employ a mix of licensed pharmacists—who now often need a doctorate—and technicians who fill prescriptions with only limited training.
The shift to electronic medical records, meanwhile, has eliminated many traditional jobs maintaining patient records but has created a wealth of new opportunities for those with coding skills.
At the same time, the increasing complexity of medicine, along with an increased focus on measuring and improving patient care, has raised the bar on educational requirements for some jobs. An Institute of Medicine committee in 2010, for example, recommended that 80% of registered nurses have bachelor's degrees by 2020, meaning nurses with associate's degrees may soon find themselves in the position LPNs face today.
The system is so rigged that the youth seem to have no choice but to get a college degree, even if it means that they will be underemployed:
In the short term, we're still obviously digging out of the jobs hole left by the recession. Unemployment for college graduates is higher than normal. Underemployment is more prevalent, though it's less severe than college critics portray, and perhaps no worse than during the Reagan days. It's the long view that's cloudier. Maybe, as the recession's impact fades, the economy will naturally go back to quickly churning out more jobs for high skill workers, and academics like Beaudry and his colleagues will be proven wrong. Or, perhaps they're right, and we'll need to wait for another great tech revolution before the market for educated workers goes back to growing the way it did 15 years ago.We can't say for sure. But we do know that young people are safer with a degree than without one.
One would think that all these mean that now is a real good time to seriously think about what it is to be educated.  Here is an example: how much math should we require that students do?  Or, even if we think that the math will do them good for critical thinking skills, which I believe it does, should we reconsider how we teach math?  We need to look into such questions because "less than a quarter of U.S. workers report using math any more complicated than basic fractions and percentages during the course of their jobs.":

And, here is the interesting aspect of it all.  Remember how we systematically treat technical training as some kind of a second-class option that the young should be discouraged from?  Ahem, they need math!


  • Upper level blue collar, e.g. craft and repair workers like skilled construction trades and mechanics
  • Lower level blue collar, e.g. factory workers and truck drivers

  • So, quo vadis?

    Friday, April 26, 2013

    My life might be a "C" .. .not because of these "C" places

    By April 1986, I had quit my first job straight out of college at Coimbatore. I had spent all of three months on the job in Calcutta and was convinced that I did not want to waste my life in engineering.

    Those were the days before the proliferation of phones in India and, therefore, my parents did not know anything about me having quit the job.  And that, as it would turn out later on, I would simply loaf around doing nothing for a few months after that.

    My parents lived in a small town called Choudhwar, a little outside of C ttack.    Father was the consulting engineer there for an industrial construction.  I showed up unannounced, with the few belongings that were packed into one suitcase and with a briefcase in another hand.  I told them that I was done with my job in Calcutta and that I needed time to figure things out.

    I am sure my parents were worried that I would turn out to be one heck of a loser. (There is a fair chance that they don't think that anymore.  I know the reality that I am a loser!  But, hey, I am in America!!!)

    After a few days of puttering around there--nothing much to do in that small town--I headed to Madras.  Yes, it was Madras those days, before it went through the name change to Chennai.

    In those old days, newspapers and radio were pretty much all we had, with the Indian television (Doordharshan) news on a competition against itself on how much lamer its soap operas could get.  I recall thinking that the C ernobyl disaster must be a serious one if the Swedes were complaining about the radioactivity detected in the sky above them.

    After more loafing around, taking up a job that I quit after three weeks, and then taking up another job in which I lasted for nearly six months, I took off for the US with a conviction that I had figured out what I wanted to do with my life.  I bet my parents were relieved that I was no longer a nasty reminder of a wasted life.

    A couple of years after that, the Soviet Union itself was gone.  As more than one commentator, like this one, has pointed out when looking at the events in the rear view mirror of life,
    Chernobyl, then, represented a fundamental shift in the relationship between the Soviet citizenry and the state. Before the explosion, most Soviets were not discontented dissidents; they believed in the Soviet system, forgave its flaws, and hoped for a better future within its confines. But after Chernobyl, the system seemed potentially unredeemable—and actively dangerous. In the early days of glasnost, stories of Stalin’s mass murders decades earlier slowly bubbled to the fore, but those generally receded, so far removed were they from everyday life. After Chernobyl, though, every citizen’s safety was at stake.
    On this anniversary of that Chernobyl disaster, I am reminded of a dinner from two years ago.  I had invited for dinner a visiting Ukrainian environmental attorney,Olga, and her host, "M,"who is a friend.  Of course, I couldn't wait to ask Olga about Chernobyl, and so after dinner I did.

    "Where were you when Chernobyl exploded?" I asked her.

    Olga said that they lived in Kiev, which is just about 100 kilometers from Chernobyl.  But, 100 km in the Soviet era was a lot more than the mere physical distance, particularly given the state of telecommunications then.  Thus, they had no news about the disaster for days, and went about their daily business.  Children played outside.  And, children and people marched like they did every year to celebrate May Day.

    But then, Olga said, there was one notable absence--the children of senior party and government officials were not in town but had gone away to far away places like Moscow.  A week later, many of them were not present at the rah-rah May Day parades and celebrations.  Only later when the news of the disaster started trickling in did they understand that those with the inside information had scooted away their children to the safer environs of Moscow, far away from potential radiation fallout.

    Olga's father was apparently one of the many men who volunteered to go to Chernobyl to help move women and children out of that place.  And, like many of them, he now lives with a thyroid problem as a result.

    Chernobyl is, thus, a symbol not only about the huge downsides associated with a careless and reckless use of nuclear energy but also a tragic reminder of the horrible totalitarian state that was in existence up until a mere two decades ago.  The Fukushima event from two years ago is a stark contrast--when the entire world could watch and follow in real time how that nuclear accident was being handled.

    Over the years in between Chernobyl and Fukushima, I have certainly figured out what to do with my life.  It was about eleven years ago about this time in 2002 that I submitted my notice to quit the job that I had in California.  Yes, there are plenty of people who would prefer that I am not one of their colleagues where I now work; but, I have no plans to quit what I am doing.  Especially when I live in a place that proudly proclaims that it is a nuclear-free-zone!


    Thursday, April 25, 2013

    On two old women from two countries ...

    As I often note here, I feel incredibly lucky to have been born and raised in a wonderful country with lots of stories of its own, and to then to make myself at home in another wonderful country on the other side of the planet.

    In the old country, a music legend died yesterday--she was 94.  In the country that I now call home, today would have been the 96th birthday of a music legend.

    Shamshad Begum in India, and Ella Fitzgerald in America.

    In all my growing up years in India, I never knew anything about Ella Fitzgerald.  Not a clue.  It seems very strange now, and the Indian past feels like a previous life sometimes for the stark contrast that is against my contemporary American life.

    Google's doodle to commemorate her 96th birthday
    It is not that I grew up without any music interests at all.  I did, with plenty of music that was almost all Indian, with very little from the West.  Thus, it wasn't until I was in graduate school at Los Angeles that I got to know about Ella Fitzgerald's magic.  Ironically, it was another Indian student, Praveen, who provided me with that taste when I heard the sheer wonder of Fascinating Rhythm pouring out of the speakers.  When I heard Fitzgerald team up with Louis Armstrong for Dream a little dream of me, I was way too ecstatic with that scat way of singing. I got hooked.  Much later, in a mixed-tape that he gifted, the first song on Side A was that Fascinating Rhythm.


    A lucky guy I am to be able to relate to, and enjoy, the music of a culture that I never knew about.  And, at the same time, continue to enjoy the music of that old country. Old-time music at that.  One of those legends of that old music from India died yesterday.
    Shamshad Begum, one of the earliest and most versatile playback singers from the golden age of Bollywood music, died at her residence here on Tuesday night after prolonged illness. She was 94.
    A contemporary of Fitzgerald's halfway around the world.  I wonder if the two ever met; I suppose not.

    Shamshad Begum's film songs were in a language, Hindi, in which I had no fluency even back in my India years.  But, they were always wonderful melodies and hers was an unmistakably distinct voice.  My all-time favorites of hers are these two duets: "Leke Pehla Pehla Pyaar" with Mohammed Rafi, and this one which is like a duel, more than a duet, with Lata Mangeshkar.

    Last December, when I spent a few days with my parents, father played his collection of old Hindi film songs.  He was pleasantly surprised that I was familiar with those songs, perhaps like how earlier this afternoon I was surprised with the musical taste of a student, "K," that was expressed on the t-shirt that was wearing.  Anyway, we talked about Shamshad Begum too.

    All good things come to an end. Eventually.  That is life!

    Wednesday, April 24, 2013

    Spring is in the air ... out come the crazies!

    "Such a wonderful day" remarked my neighbor.  It has, indeed, been a string of gorgeous sunny, spring days.  "I bet it makes your commute also easier without the rains" he added.

    I merely smiled as we went our different directions.

    The reality is that the commute and life seem to have been easier during the rainy days.  The sunny days bring the crazies out.

    Yesterday morning, I was thinking about my class as I tailed two other vehicles on the country road with plenty of sharp curves when out of nowhere a Lexus appeared in my rear-view mirror.  He was in a hurry alright.

    Suddenly he shot out to pass me and I slowed down to allow him to jump ahead of me.  He kept going, however.  He did not care that a curve was coming up.  He did not apparently care for the double-yellow stripe on the road that makes passing illegal.  He kept going in the opposing traffic lane, past me, past the car that was ahead of me, and past the first car also as he rounded the curve.  Crazy #1 he was!

    A few miles later, with the other vehicles having exited the country road, I had the road all to myself and was enjoying the drive until I had to slow down from 60 mph to between 35 and 40 mph because the driver of that Honda Civic was not apparently keen on anything more than 40, though 55 was the posted speed limit. Crazy #2!  Unlike the Lexus driver, I waited for conditions to be safe for me to overtake the Honda, which, by then, had slowed down to as much as 30 mph.

    At least no other crazies after those two.

    At the end of the day, as I walked back to my car to begin the return home, I was shocked to find that the campus police had ticketed me for parking without a permit.  The officer had in his/her infinite wisdom completely overlooked the decal on the rear fender.

    Pissed, I drove up the campus safety office, and waited my turn at the counter.

    "Your officer made a mistake in writing this ticket.  I have a permit on the car" I said.

    "We cannot take care of it here" she said.  "We only administer the parking.  Only the people at the administration office can void it for you."

    I am now even more pissed.  "But you are the parking people, right?"

    "Yes.  But we cannot take care of your ticket."

    "So, for a mistake that you people made, you want me to run around?" I asked her as politely as I could.

    "If you want, we have a complaint form there" she said with a tone that seemed to be mildly sarcastic.

    This is how bureaucracy works.  When they mess up, they don't have to correct it.  The burden is upon us.

    So, I drove to the administration office and waited for my turn at the counter.

    I stepped up.  "Your officer made a mistake" I said, again.

    She said it was her colleague's job and returned to her chair.  The colleague came up to the counter.  I handed her the parking ticket.

    "Do you have a permit?" she asked me.

    "Yes."

    "Where is it on the car?"

    "On the left side of the rear bumper."

    Meanwhile, she looked up the database.

    "This time I will void it because the system shows that you did purchase a parking permit" she said.

    I got really, really, pissed off.  She could have said something like "I am sorry for the trouble."  But she did not.  Instead, she made it seem like she was doing me a favor with "this time I will void it."  So, the next time?  WTF!

    But, over the years I have come to realize that there is no point fighting with bureaucrats.  I simply walked away.

    It was thus that I merely smiled at my neighbor's remark--I am sure he wouldn't have had the patience to listen to all these as a response to the small talk that we engage in.

    Life does change in many ways with the changing seasons.


    Tuesday, April 23, 2013

    Yes, Virginia, there are Muslims in Mexico, too!

    I stayed away from blogging anything yesterday because of a nagging suspicion that I might end up ranting about Earth Day.  As much as I am worried about the natural environment in my own way, I am convinced that we misplace our emphasis when we worry more about the plastic bags that are tossed about while ignoring ... see, this is the kind of rant I wanted to avoid!

    I am far more interested in the "Muslim" angle of the Boston bombers.  The brothers Tsarnaev.  From my observation deck, it seems more a case of disgruntled losers taking to violence, which is, unfortunately, an all too familiar American happening.  Yet, it is the "Muslim" connection that fascinates many.  Unsuspecting Americans who do not know where Chechnya is can easily be misled into thinking that it is one of "those" Middle Eastern countries.  As I noted here a couple of days ago, "The Islamophobes who now will consider any Muslim with ultra-suspicion might be shocked to know that the brothers are Caucasians. "

    Here in the US, we do not seem to be investing any time and effort to understand Islam and Muslims.  Sometime soon after I re-started this blog, I noted about the global Muslim population.  The web and blogging are simply fantastic when it comes to getting updates, discussing policies, ..... Many academics have also taken up blogging big time.  I suspect that in many cases, blogging provides a lot more interactive discussions than a journal article can.  Juan Cole is one of those academics who has blogged a lot--on the Middle East in particular.  Here, he responds to the news item that a quarter of the world's population is Muslim:
    I don't think most people in the West realize the implications of the likelihood that one-third of humankind may soon be Muslim. We don't have a real sense of scale in the US. We don't realize that Brazil alone is nearly as big as the US in area, or that the US could be fitted into East Africa. We don't realize how huge Iran is, or what it implies when we call India a subcontinent.

    One of the implications is that the US is a little unlikely to thrive as a superpower in the 21st century if its more venal and bloodthirsty politicians go on barking about "Islamo-fascism" (they never said Christo-Fascism even though Gen. Franco in Spain was a good candidate for the label) and denigrating Islam and Muslims and seeking to militarily occupy their countries and siphon off their resources. That kind of behavior may have worked in the 19th century before Muslims were mobilized, but it does not work now.

    The Muslim world is the labor pool of the next century, and is also the custodian of much of the world's fuel. New American crusades of the sort favored on the right of the Republican Party may finally induce imperial overstretch and deeply harm the US. Some 5 percent of the population cannot dominate by force 25 percent of the globe and what may eventually be 33% of the globe.
    Even from that pragmatic demographic perspective, we need to spend a lot more time understanding Islam.  I am always shocked that it is possible for students at many colleges and universities to graduate from an undergraduate program without learning anything about Islam and Muslims.  Twelve years since 9/11, and how can that be possible, right?  Absolutely bizarre!

    It is not as if Muslims live only in certain geographic areas either for us to ignore understanding them.  When I was in the Avis shuttle bus to LAX, a family got in.  Four kids hopped in followed by their hijab-wearing mother and then the father with a scratchy beard on his chin.  The couple looked like they were in their early to mid-thirties.  The bus driver, a Hispanic woman, went to help the couple with their bags and hesitantly spoke in English to them.

    She was surprised, and so was I, when the hijab-wearing woman replied in Spanish.  I paid attention to whatever words I could recognize, and I understood the driver telling them that she was from Guadalajara.  The man joined in the conversation and told her that they were from very near Guadalajara.  Then a whole lot of jabbering--the driver even forgot that she had a job to do!

    The driver looked at the kids and asked them for their names.  And then asked what their mother's name was.  One kid with glasses said "Fatimah."  A name that Muslims revere.

    I am yet to recover from the shock of a Spanish-speaking Muslim family, and hijab-wearing mother in that, from Mexico!

    So, the nerd in me, I went to the Pew Survey that I had linked in that old post.  An estimated 110,000 in Mexico are Muslims.  A tiny, tiny, minority, yes.  But, who would have thought that; certainly not I!

    If Mexico has about 110,000 Muslims, then any guesses on the Muslim population in Russia, of which Chechnya is a part?  Think of a big number.  Way bigger than 110,000.  Way bigger than the Muslim population here in the US.

    Ready for that answer on Muslim population in Russia?  Hold on to your seat:
    The country with the largest Muslim population in  Europe is Russia, with more than 16 million Muslims, meaning that more than four-in-ten European  Muslims live in Russia
    Yet, we choose not to make any effort at understanding Islam and Muslims because ....?

    Fatehpur Sikri (India) 2012

    Sunday, April 21, 2013

    Country club colleges = student debt and no learning!

    As if I am not being Quixotic enough in my tilting at the academic windmills, a student, "Z," emails me the link to this NY Times column by Frank Bruni. That column, which I hadn't read until Z emailed me, is about the ongoing struggles in Texas--a struggle against the university system, led by an ideologically driven governor, Rick Perry, and the regents of the board that oversees the university system.  Of course, all the regents are Perry's appointees, which makes the effort to reform higher education nothing but a political issue.  Politics rarely ever solves problems and, instead, creates more.

    The fundamental problem is, of course, the escalating costs.  What Z probably didn't know was that I was holding myself back from blogging, yet again, about this.  I mean, at some point I have to take a break from this and watch reruns of How I Met Your Mother!  But, his email pushed me over.

    Todays's hassles began much before Z's email reached me.  It started earlier this afternoon when I read this oped in the LA Times.  I tell ya, from coast to coast, the cost of higher education is one hot issue--unfortunately, all talk and no shit!
    Today's plush campuses ply students with absurdly lavish goods and services. No wonder it's so hard for them to pay their bills when they get out in the real world.
    Written by a father of a girl who is in high school.  What makes it even more insightful is this: he "teaches history and education at New York University."  So, the insider perspective doubles--a father and a university professor--writing about, yes, climbing walls too.  A lot more than climbing walls though.  From "walk-in tanning booth" to 2,100-gallon aquarium, to, my favorite, "spherical nap pods."  (Note to myself: email the campus that our recruitment will skyrocket if we built "spherical nap pods" right in the classrooms--after all, classrooms have always been only for sleeping and this way, students won't feel the pain when their heads crash on the desk!)
    What if universities declared a moratorium on new construction? It's not as crazy as it sounds. At my own institution, New York University, faculty and students have been protesting a projected $6-billion expansion. It's likely to add to students' debt, which is already 40% higher than the national average. And lots of nice new stuff won't prepare them for life after graduation, which won't be nearly as cushy.
    Ha, my kind of a guy--has no clue that such suggestions will go nowhere.  A moratorium on new construction?  What has this lefty faculty been smoking in his office!  I should have bookmarked an article that I read a few weeks ago--it was all about how hot the construction business is in higher education.

    That oped concludes:
    "This is the first generation that can expect to do less well than their parents, and that's a terrifying prospect," Dunham told Oberlin's alumni magazine last spring. But you wouldn't know that from looking at our colleges, which have continued to spend as if there's no tomorrow. And that might be the most terrifying prospect of all.
    It is one heck of a lack of critical thinking when students fail to make the connection between their soaring debts when they graduate and the country-club amenities they seek when in college.  Shouldn't they be scoping out colleges that do not waste money on expensive amenities?  More than that, what the hell is wrong with the parents--how come they don't ask those tough questions?  Are they happy to relive a youthful experience vicariously through their sons and daughters?

    This country-club attitude simply cannot go on forever:
    The amenities arms race may attract students and publicity in the short term, but in the long term the strategy might be a risky game.
    What if we take away the residential college and promote MOOC is what Rick Perry and his ten-gallon hats are asking.  There is one fundamental flaw with MOOC: that anybody who signs up for one will come to understand:
    [The] first thing I learned? When it comes to Massive Open Online Courses, like those offered by Coursera, Udacity and edX, you can forget about the Socratic method.
    The professor is, in most cases, out of students’ reach, only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon. Several of my Coursera courses begin by warning students not to e-mail the professor. We are told not to “friend” the professor on Facebook. If you happen to see the professor on the street, avoid all eye contact (well, that last one is more implied than stated). There are, after all, often tens of thousands of students and just one top instructor.        
    That matters to faculty like me who continuously bug students with questions.  We want to behave like Socrates who went around asking Athenians questions all the time.  No wonder they finally gave him an option: get the hell out, or die!

    As I have often noted here, university students are all too familiar with bubbling-in answers to tests.  Most classes are far from a Socratic environment.  Then they come to classes like mine and experience a culture-shock.  And I get a shock when they tell me that they had always earned "A"s and "B"s in their three years and, therefore, it is not possible that they can be the "C" students that they are in my classes.

    The author notes in that oped on MOOC that the teacher-student interactions in the classes he took were at a "D" grade level, while student-student interaction was slightly better at B-.  So, at this rate, go MOOC yourself can be a good curse for anybody!

    We seem to be doing everything the worst possible way.  I routinely warn students that education is about their futures.  I assume that most simply dismiss my cautions.  Being dismissed is not a new experience for me.  After all these years, I am used to it.

    It shocks me anymore when I notice a student actually having paid attention to my feedback.  That too happened earlier today, in an email from a student:
    I appreciate that you take the time to actually read all of our work and take the time to comment on things you liked and on things that needed work. 
    An email here, a comment there, and Z or T or a few others engaging me means that I have enough and more to keep going.  Until I am offered a cup of hemlock, that is ;)

    Description at the source:
    The College of New Rochelle, which opened a $28-million wellness center (above) in 2008,
    could be one example of what researchers describe as institutions caught up in an amenities arms race

    Saturday, April 20, 2013

    Will race disappear once we ID our genetic formula?

    Turns out that the Boston bombers were of Chechen origin.   The younger brother, the one who is alive, was a naturalized citizen as well.  The Islamophobes who now will consider any Muslim with ultra-suspicion might be shocked to know that the brothers are Caucasians.

    We are a strange people ready to classify fellow humans into various categories simply based on how we look.  White and brown and black and yellow and red.  Whites aren't really white, and there was never any "red" Indian either.  It is all in our imaginations.  Here on the web, nobody knows what color your skin is, and everybody is just a dog.

    Source
    Even the government systematically collects information on our "race."  I have almost always picked "other" or "white" when responding to those questions.  "Other" because I am usually pissed at the data collection, and "white" because I want to make a point that I, too, am a Caucasian if that is how they define a white.

    However, I had no idea, until reading this essay by Amitai Etzioni, that whenever I chose "other" the Census folks were imputing a race for me anyway:
    [Never] underestimate our government. The Census Bureau has used a statistical procedure to assign racial categories to those millions of us who sought to butt out of this divisive classification scheme. Federal regulations outlined by the Office of Management and Budget, a White House agency, ruled that the Census must “impute” a specific race to those who do not choose one. For several key public policy purposes, a good deal of social and economic data must be aggregated into five racial groups: white, black, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, and native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. How does the government pick a race for a person who checked the “Other” box? They turn to the answers for other Census questions: for example, income, neighborhood, education level, or last name. The resulting profiles of the U.S. population (referred to as the “age-race modified profile”) are then used by government agencies in allotting public funds and for other official and public purposes.
    I wonder what race I was assigned to when I bubbled in "other."  Do I exist as a white, or a black?  How bizarre!

    I agree with Etzioni's simple request:
    Let us begin with a fairly modest request of the powers that be: Give us a chance. Don’t make me define my children and myself in racial terms; don’t “impute” a race to me or to any of the millions of Americans who feel as I do. Allow us to describe ourselves simply as Americans. I bet my 50 years as a sociologist that we will all be better for it.
    Yes.

    Simply as "Americans" will be wonderful especially when we are all nothing but a collection of genes underneath.  With an origin in Africa.
    Our ancient mother, the mother of us all, lived in Africa some 150,000 years ago. She was one individual in a world population of Homo sapiens—recently evolved out of Homo erectus—amounting to 2,000 individuals at most. There were other females of course, but their lines died out long before historical times. Everyone alive today descends from this one woman, from one of her two daughters. This is the astonishing news revealed by the book of the human genome, the book whose pages we are just beginning to turn.
    I noted nearly a year ago, based on the results of my DNA analysis, about my forefather:
    The man who gave rise to the first genetic marker in your lineage probably lived in northeast Africa in the region of the Rift Valley, perhaps in present-day Ethiopia, Kenya, or Tanzania, some 31,000 to 79,000 years ago. Scientists put the most likely date for when he lived at around 50,000 years ago. His descendants became the only lineage to survive outside of Africa, making him the common ancestor of every non-African man living today.

    We then invented the languages that separate us.  We invented the religions that separate us. Our adaptation to the natural settings helped us develop the color of skin and hair and everything else that separate us.  If we are all given our respective genomes, will we begin to understand that we are not any different at all?
    One way to show how contrived racial divisions actually are is to recall that practically all of the DNA in all human beings is the same. Our differences are truly skin deep. Moreover, the notion that most of us are of one race or another has little basis in science. The Human Genome Project informs us not only that 99.9 percent of genetic material is shared by all humans, but also that variation in the remaining 0.1 percent is greater within racial groups than across them. That is, not only are 99.9 percent of the genes of a black person the same as those of a white person, but the genes of a particular black person may be more similar to the genes of a white person than they are to another black person.
    We humans are so awful that we will want to focus on the 0.1 percent.  We will then finely dice that into components that will reveal the 0.00000001 percent that makes us different from some group and that 0.00000001 percent will be the basis for discrimination. For stereotyping. "Those people, you know."  Crappy apes we are!

    Friday, April 19, 2013

    Reliving my past lives in my present that was a week ago

    It was time to head back to Oregon after the conference.  I had a couple of hours to kill before I had to return the rental car.  It was an overcast, "June-gloom" day in mid-April.  I loved it, thanks to having acclimated to the Oregon conditions.

    I decided to go for a drive.

    Los Angeles was my first home in the US.  Thus, there is always a feeling of nostalgia when I visit LA and there is always an urge to check out those old places.  There are places I remember but, of course, there is no there there.  Everything has changed.  Such is life.

    Fully expecting changes, I set out on an unhurried drive.  From the Santa Monica Freeway, I transitioned to the Pacific Coast Highway.  PCH is always a draw for me, to get to inhale the moist salty Malibu air and appreciate some of the gorgeous scenery.

    When I stopped to fill gas, a thought struck--why not drive up to the Hindu temple in the canyons only a few miles away?

    As a first year graduate student, I  always looked forward to exploring the world outside of the campus. For the most part, as one who had yet to start driving in the US, I had to wait for offers of rides.  I went to this Hindu temple with Arun and two other grad students whose faces are now so blurry in my mind.  It felt very strange to go to a temple in the US.  Me, an agnostic at that time, at a Hindu temple, in Los Angeles.  Very surreal.

    I decided to head there.  The difference between that first trip with Arun versus now was this--I stopped whenever I wanted to, in order to enjoy the scenic setting and take photos.


    As cars sped past me, I wondered what could be more important than to stop and take in the beautiful canyon.  Perhaps some were speeding to the temple; but, wouldn't their god be ok with them stopping along the way to smell those proverbial roses?

    Finally, I reached the temple.  The parking lot was nearly full.  I remembered then that it also coincided with the new year day according to most Indian calendars.  Toyotas and Hondas and Mercedeses that reflected the affluence of the Indian-American community.  I wondered whether the few who drive beaten up Fords and Chryslers simply do not show up at the temple, which is also then why they don't get rewarded with BMWs?.  The faithful are also rich?  A shiny Range Rover parked by my rental vehicle.  I suppose it helps to pray to the heavens.


    I stepped out of the vehicle and walked around.  Rare was a solo worshiper -it was mostly in groups of families and friends.  It seemed that some were visiting from India.  The locals and the foreigners alike were taking photographs.  The locals and the foreigners alike didn't smile when the cameras were clicked--, as is the case in India, .  A teenage boy rushed out in a dhoti and sneakers.  Will his high school mates make fun of him if a photo of him in dhoti and sneakers were to be passed around on Facebook?  Or is he very comfortable with his persona?

    I was tempted to walk into the temple and get some tasty snacks from the cafeteria.  That was always something I looked forward to when Arun, or later Ramkumar, drove us there.  But now, unlike then, I cook pretty tasty foods, though not the fare that would be available at the cafeteria.  I no longer drool for the foods of the old world.  Perhaps it is a reflection of me getting older as well.

    Not much time left, and I wanted to experience a few minutes on the beach.  As I drove out of the temple road on to the canyon road, there was an odd feeling that I might not be back again.  If not ever, then certainly for a long time.  It seemed like it was a farewell to an old friend.

    A few miles of curves later, I made a left on to PCH, and parked.  I walked down the steps onto the sands.  The pier was only a few more steps away, but I was short of time.


    Behind me, a young mother was playing catch with her two boys.  I know I have reached a stage in life that I can never again get that sense of excitement and joy and awe those two boys exhibited as they chased each other with the plastic baseball bat and ball.  I was also a kid once, but that was a long time ago.  That past seems like a movie that I watched.  Was that past real, or is me looking at the pier and watching the kids the real life of mine?

    I got back into the vehicle and drove towards the airport to return the car and board the plane.

    Can astrology predict when I will die?

    Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children has recently been in the news a lot for many reasons.  For one, it was recognized with the "The best of the Booker" books.  A movie version, for which Rushdie contributed the screen-adaptation as well, will hit the US screens next week.

    The midnight that is referred to in the title is the midnight that India became independent and marked the country's "tryst with destiny" as its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, put it.  India chose that midnight hour for independence, and for its Constituent Assembly to convene, because of the majority opinion of the Indian astrologers that the morning of the 15th was an inauspicious time.  Thus, the midnight, which then made possible the magical title for Rushdie's book--otherwise he would have had to title it "Morning's Children" and that would never have had that same magical appeal ;)

    Astrology is a huge deal in India.  From side-walk squatting palm-readers to horoscope-reading specialists in luxurious settings, there are hundreds of thousands who make a living out of predicting others' futures.  As I noted in this post from three years ago:
    a classmate from my engineering days is now a much sought after (which means highly paid as well) astrologer in India.  Yes, astrology!  The guy is proving in his own ways that there is a sucker born every minute :) 
    Astrology is highly revered by many in India and rarely is anything out of the ordinary life ever scheduled without consulting with the astrologer.  From matching the horoscopes and determining the wedding date and time, to the time when a business venture might be inaugurated, to when one might want to set off on a long voyage, and, apparently, even when a Caesarean operation should be done so that the child will be delivered at the best of all times and not at the worst of all times!

    The latest issue (March/April 2013) issue--not online yet--of the Skeptical Inquirer has an interesting piece on a scientific experiment that was conducted in India to test the accuracy of astrological predictions.  Surprise, surprise--they were no better than results that one would end up with by guessing or tossing a coin!

    Jayant Narlikar, who is an astrphysicist, and his science colleagues set up an interesting experiment to test the  astrologers' claim that "they are able to tell intelligence from a person's horoscope."  So, they first collected from different schools names of "teenage children rated by their teachers as mentally bright.  They also collected names from special schools for the mentally handicapped."  A total of 100 bright and 100 mentally-challenged children.  Then they obtained the relevant information from the parents of these children and charted their respective horoscopes.

    Narlikar and his associates invited astrologers to participate in the controlled experiment--"each participant would be given forty horoscopes drawn at random from our set of 200 and would have to judge whether their owners were mentally bright or handicapped."  Interested astrological organizations--not individuals--would be given all 200 horoscopes.

    Long story short, the participants failed, failed miserably at that.  "None were able to tell bright children from mentally handicapped children better than chance.  Our results contradict the claims of Indian astrologers ... In summary, our results are firmly against Indian astrology being considered a science."

    The pairing of astrology and science is especially important because it is one crazy country that even legitimizes offering astrology as an academic degree.  Yes, if you are interested, you can work on that degree  thanks to distance education opportunities like the one offered here!

    It is a culture where determining auspicious times and seeking the divine assistance is so pervasive a practice, so much so that a few weeks ago:
    Ahead of the launch of the Indo- French satellite 'SARAL' onboard ISRO's workhorse rocket PSLV from Sriharikota, ISRO Chairman K Radhakrishnan today offered worship at the hill shrine of Lord Venkateswara near Tirupati.
    In case that didn't impress you enough, the same news item continues:
    Since the last two decades, heads of the space agency have made it a practice to visit the the over 2000 year-old Tirumala hill temple to seek divine blessings before every satellite launch, the sources said.
    Shouldn't surprise us in a country whose hour of independence was determined by astrologers!

    A much younger me, with a whole lot of hair, amusing myself with Linda Goodman's astrology (1989)

    Thursday, April 18, 2013

    The pleasure when students get educated ...

    It is only three weeks into the quarter and, therefore, it is too early to celebrate, yes.  But, dammit, I am excited.  I am excited because it is clear that at least a few students are demonstrating that what we are trying to accomplish over the term's ten weeks is a lot more than merely the course contents and their eventual letter-grades.

    The larger and nobler goal of liberal education is that even as we engage students with everything from economic geography to biology to literature, they would begin to use these to figure out for themselves the good life they would want to lead and the good and just society in which they would like to live.  And, thus, contribute to making the world a better place for all of us.

    We accomplish that by questioning, especially within ourselves.

    Thus, when students' essays include comments that reflect that internal inquiry, I get excited.  I am not referring to any youthful and anarchic dismissive statements, but constructive exercises.  While thinking about the economic transformation over the past couple of centuries, a student writes in an assignment:
    Instead of taking advantage of what people before us did, we sit and watch television all day. ... I went home with a different mindset and started appreciating all the time I had to do homework, and when I thought I was getting bored I would just think of other activities to do because I should value the free time I have.
    Even if the student has already forgotten this and has gone back to the old ways, isn't it fantastic that the light shone brightly for those couple of days?

    Another student notes in the context of the complex web of interdependent economic interactions in the world:
    A lot goes into making our world livable, but many don't understand or think about these conveniences.  Everyone should take an economic geography class so they too can understand how even small things are actually a big part of our world.
    BTW, such opportunities to examine life won't be possible in a typical "test" scenario, especially when students have to merely bubble in their responses, right?  All the way from the K-12 system and into the undergraduate studies, our fascination with testing is simply killing learning.

    I worry that students who have been brought up in a standardized testing environment will find it even more difficult to become thinkers and creative people.  I am quite convinced that I am beginning to see that already in my classes.
    The gap in what students are expected to know between high school and college is often thought to be vast. A newly released survey quantifies just how wide it is.
    Eighty-nine percent of high-school instructors described the students who had completed their courses as "well" or "very well" prepared for first-year, college-level work in their discipline. But only about one-quarter of college faculty members said the same thing about their incoming students. The gap was similar when the survey was last conducted, in 2009.
    Even as I worry about all those, a few students like these easily convince me that the future will be in safe hands.  A future that, in a democratic society, will depend on citizens thinking about many, many important issues:
    “When we ask about the relationship of a liberal education to citizenship, we are asking a question with a long history in the Western philosophical tradition. We are drawing on Socrates’ concept of ‘the examined life,’ on Aristotle’s notions of reflective citizenship, and above all on Greek and Roman Stoic notions of an education that is ‘liberal’ in that it liberates the mind from bondage of habit and custom, producing people who can function with sensitivity and alertness as citizens of the whole world.” –Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, 1998
    We don't need fancy buildings with climbing walls to achieve these goals, right?

    At the college where I did my undergrad
    No liberal education there!

    Wednesday, April 17, 2013

    Can colleges that are failing produce successful students?

    A presenter at one of the sessions that I attended at the conference spoke about the difficulty in capturing how students might be picking up valuable soft skills via their part-time work, and how much we need to understand that.  I agree with her--I have interacted with a number of students whose communication and leadership skills are exemplary, but these were not via classroom instruction.  It was then an added bonus to have such students in the classroom because of those skills they brought to the discussion-based learning that I prefer.

    A hand shot up from the back of the room.  "Don't you have student clubs and organizations at your university?"

    It didn't require that metaphorical doctorate in rocket science to understand what was going on--the presenter was from the UK and the audience member was from the US.  Very different contexts.

    "We do" the presenter replied.  "But they are mostly student-run anyway and we won't be able to capture that ..."

    The rejoinder from the audience member was all too revealing a statement on the higher education issues in the US.  She said "at [I am withholding the university name she said] where I work we have plenty of people who work on those student life issues."

    Yes, the very "student life" bureaucracy that has driven up the cost of higher education is the one she referred to as a plus point for the US.  I chose not to engage her on a discussion about it--no fun constantly being the nagging one with a minority viewpoint!

    It is atrocious how much we drive up the cost of education by hiring people in order to provide services all under the pretext of serving the customer--the student, that is.
    If asked to explain the wildfire growth of their administrations, college officials would say, “It’s what the customer wants.” That huge “student life bureaucracy,” Johnson observes, was supposed to “enhance the typical student’s campus experience, since these students are incapable of navigating the modern college experience themselves.”   
    If that sounds odd given the context—the context being college education, not new cars, clothing, or foodstuffs—you’re right: it is odd. “[T]he vision behind the student life bureaucracy sees the student as a consumer rather than a learner, someone who needs to be accommodated lest he take his finances elsewhere by transferring.” That’s the theory behind it. 
    Yet, the faculty member in the audience was promoting the "virtues" of a student life apparatus at her university, when I think that we ought to go the European way--if students want to play soccer, or go hiking, or whatever, they should do that on their dime, er, Euro.  Yes, dear reader, even my university employs full-time staff to coordinate downtime activities for students.  And we think we don't have enough of them!  We are worried that without these, students will drop out of the university or, worse, they will transfer to other universities.

    This NY Times piece on "colleges struggling to stay afloat" refers to a report from Bain that I have cited in this blog before:
    One-third of all colleges and universities in the United States face financial statements significantly weaker than before the recession and, according to an analysis released last July, are on an unsustainable fiscal path. Another quarter find themselves at serious risk of joining them.
    “Expenses are growing at such a pace that colleges don’t have the cash or the revenue to cover them for much longer,” says Jeff Denneen, head of the higher education practice at Bain & Company, the global consulting firm that, along with the private-equity firm Sterling Partners, performed the analysis. “A growing number of colleges are in real financial trouble.”
    At public institutions like the one where I work, we don't want to rise up to this financial challenge by looking hard at how we do what we do.  Instead, we press for more money from the government and even use students as lobbyists for this noble cause--in the name of helping students.  That won't work because there isn't enough money in the coffers.  So, we will raise tuition and fees instead.  After all, we need rock climbing walls!
    Perhaps the continued financial struggles indicate that there are just too many colleges for the marketplace — or at least too many that, with their climbing walls, lazy rivers and five-star dormitories, look too much alike in the battle for prestige, and have lost sense of their mission. A thinning of the ranks might be long overdue.
    Just because we believe that colleges are a public trust and shouldn’t fail doesn’t mean they won’t.
    We are already failing--in how much we are not educating students when that ought to be our core and only business.  The financial failure is only a result of veering way off.

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