Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bumper sticker

I confess, normally I'm not a fan.  (And generally, at least 'round here? People with more than 2 bumper stickers per car tend to be LOONY. Of course, you can usually tell that from the content of the sticker.)

But I saw one that made me chuckle:

"Guns don't kill people. Drivers using cell phones kill people."

Yeah, I had another near miss the other day (but the other driver was texting, not talking on their cell phone). I'm generally not a fan of extra laws to control individual's behavior but I'm beginning to feel like cops should be able to pull people over for texting while they drive. Or, if the person is texting and gets in an accident, the fine doubles. Or something.

I have no problem with lawabiding citizens having cell phones, but when they begin to use them inappropriately....maybe we need background checks and licensing and people who are demonstrably stupid shouldn't be allowed to get one they can text from.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Argh, taxes

I did (most of) mine over my spring break. (Most of, because I'm still waiting on some paperwork having to do with investments. It's complicated. Way TOO complicated).

Two thoughts:

1. It's really disheartening to hear things (like about VP Biden's Paris trip) where huge amounts of (presumably) taxpayer dollars are spent on things that do not benefit the American public. ESPECIALLY when I am having to redo my budget for this spring to account for a bigger tax bite.

2. I think it's time to move Income Tax Day to the week before Federal elections (i.e., move it to the very end of October). Perhaps people would think a bit more about their vote if they had just done their taxes? Or am I being too optimistic there?

I know it will never happen (no political will to do it, especially since it would involve repealing a constitutional amendment), but I remain convinced that replacing the income tax - with its reams of paperwork (if you are someone trying to make money for retirement by investing) and its increasing percentage of bite as a person's wages go up - with a consumption tax would be fairer and easier for everyone. I resent giving up a day of my spring break every year to do battle with a tax code that seems to get more arcane and difficult with every alleged "paperwork reduction act."

I suppose we'll see a type of VAT tax in my lifetime. Not instead of an income tax (which I would favor) but on top of it (which I most definitely do not favor).

Why I would like a consumption-only tax:

1. No damn forms to fill out every spring. No fifteen-page "instructions" in the best legalese to fill out a two-page form. As much as ANYTHING this seems to recommend the system to me.

2. People who work on a cash-only basis (including people like, oh, I don't know, drug dealers) still get taxed when they buy stuff.

3. Savings is not penalized; in fact, people who save and invest are rewarded with lower taxes. The penalty is on people who spend lavishly.

4. Surely, there is some way that low-income people could be given a rebate or some such to avoid concerns about poor families suffering. Or essential items like food could be exempted, but 'luxury' items (like meals in restaurants) taxed.

5. Less of an incentive for people to blow their money on bling or crap. I admit, as frugal as I am, there are even times I look at the rate of inflation and the rate of interest or of dividends that I earn, and I think, "Damn, I should just go buy a crapton of shoes instead of letting my money dwindle down in savings."

6. And okay, I get that  maybe a barter economy or an underground economy might spring up. Is that such a bad thing? Where I have extra zucchini so I trade them to you for your extra tomatoes?

Friday, March 15, 2013

"This is just one of those things..."

That's how my chair prefaced her conveying of the latest request on the part of the administration to us. (Or rather, on the part of AN administrator; apparently everyone's favorite Dean made the comment).

My chair also added, "This is probably because one students screwed up, their parents got angry, and then called the president." (And because, she didn't add, the president's office didn't do as it SHOULD have done, and said, "Well, that's your child's problem then.")

Anyway. The request was, could we now look over the transcripts of all our advisees once a semester and let anyone who is getting close to graduating know? (This isn't a big deal for me as I have five or so advisees, but my chair has 70-some, seeing as she is the main person for the pre-meds).

But this is one of those principle-of-the-thing cases, and I was gratified when several of my colleagues went off on that suggestion.

And here's the thing: it was, apparently, one student being aggressively clueless, their parent, instead of chewing the student out and telling them THEY were responsible for their next semester's tuition, the parent called the President's office. And like any "good" administrator today, they caved.

And here's the thing that gets me: what it's doing is taking yet another responsibility off the students, and loading it on to the faculty and other advisors. So now we have YET ANOTHER duty we must find time to do, students who are, as I said, aggressively clueless get to pass along merrily through life without consequences.

I think what will eventually bring down civilization will not be bloated government, or the coarsening of popular culture, or even (as some conservatives think) same-sex marriage. No. It will be there being a critical mass of people who don't know their anus from their elbow, and who expect to go through life being helped along by the people who do. It's like Idiocracy coming to life. (I cannot watch that movie; it makes me twitch).

Back in the olden days - even when I was in college - the idea was "Here are a series of academic standards; achieve them or drop out." Now, it more often than not seems to be, "Oh, poor kid. You can't make the standards we've set? Well, obviously they are too high - let us lower them for you." Granted, that may be partly a difference between the Public Ivy I attended and the open-enrollment school I now teach at, but I don't think it's entirely that.

The other reason I really don't want to do this is that this will tick off a lot of our majors. The bio majors I get in the upper division classes I teach are, by and large, ADULTS. In fact, and I realize this is anecdotal, but - when I overhear them talking before class or during slack times in lab, and talk turns to "when are you graduating?," nearly all of them know TO THE CREDIT HOUR what they still have to take in order to earn their degree. They're doing it right. In fact, several of my students recently have requested their "grad check letters" - meaning they know they have enough credits, they want to verify they've taken all the classes, and they are on top of things. (The letters are due in in early April, for people planning to graduate in May).

And just as I'm ticked off by the mass e-mails sent to "remind" me to hold my office hours (which I always do, unless I'm sick or have been called into a meeting deemed More Important by TPTB), I'm sure our responsible adult students would be ticked off by us checking up on them and saying, "Hey, you're on track to graduate in December! You need to arrange for a grad check by...."

And I get it: a lot of departments have transfer students, or folks who change their majors, and credit hours can get sticky in those cases. But we also have transfers, or people who changed their majors, and they seem to be on top of it.

This is one of the things that bothers me the most about the modern world. It bothers me even more than having taxes appended to my (very basic, very cheap: no texting, no internet access) cell phone plan so that people who claim to be unable to afford them can have (perhaps) a nicer cell phone than I choose to pay for. Or the anecdotal stories of college kids going on food stamps so they can buy fresh organically raised rabbit meat or something, when I'm making do with chicken. No, I'm more bothered by being told, "Spend your TIME helping out other people who are too gormless or too lazy to take care of responsibilities themselves." Because time is the one thing we all have limited amounts of - and time is also the one thing where we have equal amounts in a day. I get 24 hours; the feckless kid who can't be arsed to check to see if he's close to graduating gets 24 hours. Granted, a certain number of those hours are spoken for: I'm in class perhaps 15 hours a week, I have 10 hours of office hours, I need to do grading and prep and set up my labs and do research and do the laundry and go grocery shopping and go to meetings at church and everything else.I don't know what the feckless kid has to do, but surely it's not as much as I do.

So why, in the name of all that's good, do you take the responsibilities HE should be fulfilling and push them on to me?

The other issue here, aside from the utter unfairness (and yes, I get that life isn't fair, but this is one case where it's especially UNfair) of making a responsible and busy person do the tasks of another person just because that other person can't keep their stuff together: how on earth does this train people to be responsible adults? I refuse to believe that most employers will pat an employee on the head and go, "Oh, you don't know how to fill out a W-9 form? Well, that's okay. We'll give it to Raj over in Engineering and make him do it." Or they won't say, "Oh, you forgot to come to work today? That's perfectly okay. We weren't doing anything important."

At some point, people have to learn it's sink or swim. And I think between the ages of 18 and 22 is actually a little LATE to start learning that, but now it seems some colleges want to put that off even further - push off the hard learning of life-lessons until the working world. And all I can say is, there are gonna be some ticked off students who can't get or keep a job because they're irresponsible. And they'll probably come back and blame their colleges - not for failing to prepare them, but for not finding a job for them.

The one bright spot? Our majors, who, as I said, are by and large ADULTS who can take care of their own stuff? They'll have a leg up over these gormless wonders who have been coddled along all the way.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fad, fad, everywhere a fad

One thing I'm learning fast is if you're in education of ANY kind (from K-12 up through college), there are fads that blow like the wind. And there are administrators who blow in the wind of those fads.

I'm also learning (slowly) not to freak out TOO much at whatever new inanity comes down the pike at us. (The current one: trying to have online versions of all our courses. Yes, even the lab and field based ones. Yes, even the traditionally low-enrollment ones). I'm telling myself (and my father, who lived through it is telling me) that this is like the IETV push of 35-40 years ago, where it was said that "brick and mortar" universities (but I doubt that term was in use then) would be replaced by everyone sitting at home and watching class on PBS or something.

And don't get me wrong - when it's administered well, and there is sufficient IT and other support for it, online teaching can work well. But just as schools and colleges emphasize that students should not have to face a one-size-fits-all classroom experience (how much we are told about "different learning styles" and asked to accommodate them), I also do not think that colleges should push for "all online" - because THAT becomes one-size-fits-all. But a lot of schools seem to see online education and a giant cash cow - that they can invest a little up front (maybe in the form of faculty release time to develop the class) and then continue to reap the rewards without any updating. (I have heard possibly-apocryphal tales of people at the adjunct or instructor level being asked to develop material, then be told "Thanks for all your work. This campus owns the intellectual property of the online course you developed. Oh, by the way, we're not renewing your contract.")

And while online learning can be a tool in the toolbox - by God, don't throw out the rest of the tools just because you have a new one! But that seems to be what some campuses are thinking about. I know on mine there is a real push to make courses online - without apparent deep consideration of what will work well and what will work badly. (We are getting transfer students who did their first year of intro bio completely online - including lab. I really don't like getting students with ZERO real-world, real-lab experience into the lab....already I get an awful lot of folks who don't know what a beaker is, or why it's more appropriate to use a graduated cylinder to measure a volume of liquids, and so on).

I'm telling myself not to freak out too much, that they can't strap a camera on me when I teach field labs with the idea of "simulcasting" the field lab for online students; that's too ridiculous. And that something else will catch the attention of TPTB and they'll shift to the next big thing.

And that pendulums can swing back. Joanne Jacobs
is noting that there is some "new" research suggesting that "tracking" grade school students (that is, grouping by ability) leads to higher test scores.
I went through school in the era of "tracking." Yes, we knew we were grouped by ability. (It wasn't quite so blatant as there being "gold," "silver," and "brown" reading groups (as per the old Matt Groening bit), but we knew). And you know? Yes, it might suck to be in the lowest group - but having a classroom with a wide range of ability levels means often that the kids needing the most help don't always get it, and the high-achieving kids sometimes get bored and act out. (Or, as sometimes happened in my classes - get recruited by the teachers to "tutor" the struggling kids. Yeah, that helped my popularity a lot. NOT.)

I don't know. I think sometimes we've gone too far toward "let's not hurt kid's feelings" rather than "let's do what's best for the child's future."

So maybe at the college level, things will swing back. I will admit that today as I was doing a bit of sewing, I fantasized about quitting working at a university and gathering like-minded educators and setting up an "Institute," where we could teach more or less as we saw fit, where we could expect a high degree of rigor, where we didn't give as much of an inappropriate level of worry to "retention," and where we wouldn't worry about being everything to everybody (which seems to be a fault a lot of small colleges develop: they want to cater to the online crowd, AND do big research, AND offer small and personal classes, AND have cool athletics, AND AND AND....). And I envisioned us maybe being on or near a working traditional farm, and the students would pay part of their tuition in "sweat equity" helping to raise food for the dining-hall tables....

and it's a nice fantasy, but then I got to thinking about "how would we earn accreditation with just a few departments?" (I was envisioning something like English, Mathematics, Natural Sciences, Classics, and maybe something else....History?) And how would the whole thing work? And how would I get the money to start something like that - how do you even plan it?

And I gave up. It's a nice dream - to run away from the rat-race of appeasing the Legislature (my fantasy school would be private, and take no state money, possibly no federal money), to teach the way I want to, to be my own boss in a way I thought I would be here, until we got the current administration we have...

Monday, March 04, 2013

"College for All"

My thoughts on this topic are not fully formed and I may add to it over the next couple of days.

The "college for all" push has been in place for a number of years. I think part of the problem is that a high school diploma tends, by and large, not to represent what it once represented. College has become the de facto high school diploma in many fields that it never formerly was.

There are problems with this, of course.

First off: I do think access SHOULD be made available to every qualified person. Back in the bad old days, African-American people, or sometimes women, or sometimes even Jewish people, were closed out of attending certain colleges because of who they were. That's wrong and that's not how it should be. It does not matter a whit to me what faith (if any) my students are, nor what sex (or gender) they are, or what their ethnic background is. If they are willing to work, if they have the necessary smarts and background (or are willing to do the work to make up lacking background), and they are not disruptive in class, they are more than welcome.

However, the push for college-for-all means that we get a lot of students who don't have the background - they either came from very small schools in very small towns where the teaching wasn't that great. Or they slacked off in high school (and in some cases, still graduated near the top of their classes, which is sad). And so we get a lot of students coming in who are just missing so much background, or who have not formed good work habits in their younger days. And it's frustrating for them, and also frustrating for us.

Not everyone should have to go to college. Unfortunately, that's kind of what it's become, with some high schools apparently being willing to graduate students who can't do what a high school graduate should be able to do. So colleges are tapped to "fix" the "problem."

But now, some colleges are facing pressures. The current thing we are dealing with is DFW percentages. (That stands for Ds, Fs, Withdraws - not the North Texas megaplex city). The problem is, DFW as it's calculated currently is a very coarse measurement. For one thing, it does not separate out "genuine" Fs (as in: came to class, could not hack the material, failed) from "no basis for a grade" Fs (as in: missed so much class and so many assignments that not enough points were earned by the student for a passing grade).

A faculty member with a very high number of that first kind of F might be cause for concern; however, lumping the "no basis for a grade" Fs in artificially inflates the numbers.

Also, with Withdrawals- some withdrawals, while they are sad situations, are really the student doing the best thing at the time. In my fifteen or so years of teaching as a professor, I have seen students withdraw from a semester because of ugly divorces, a parent dying (and them having to take care of younger siblings), identity theft, serious illness, complicated pregnancy, more job pressures than they anticipated, family troubles, and on, and on - and it seems that the talk about DFW percentages have been largely to blame the faculty member for all of these, when most of the withdrawals I've seen have been things beyond the student's control, and they have withdrawn for what are actually very good reasons.

So I don't know. I don't like being blamed for things that I did not cause, and I especially do not like being blamed in a situation where I would argue the student is doing the "right" thing by withdrawing to take care of life (or ensure they have a healthy baby, or be with their loved one at the end of his or her life). But that is how it looks like it may be.

I guess what I am saying here is that "college for all" does not mean "SUCCESS in college for all." Stuff happens. Sometimes even good students have life get in the way, and if you're pushing people who are already at their limits of coping to go to college, you are going to have people dropping out or failing.

I'm wary that there may be subtle pressure to depress our DFW numbers.....the easiest way to do that is by making classes easier. There's also been talk of "removing" faculty from classes in which they have high DFW numbers (or, rather, numbers higher than other faculty in comparable classes). That bothers me. (Though not as much as it might, I flippantly add: the class in which my DFW numbers are highest - and are higher than other faculty teaching the same class - is the non-majors class, which is my least favorite class, for all the reasons that faculty typically dislike non-majors classes: students from many different disciplines having different expectations and skill levels, students lacking investment in the class (science can be a really hard sell), people lacking background in the field and requiring more remediation than should be given in a non-remedial class).

My DFW numbers run about 15% in the upper division majors classes I teach. That's really pretty good, and in some cases, those are inflated a bit by some unfortunate Ws where it wasn't my "fault." But by the time I get those students, they understand the expectations of the department. They have learned that even though this "isn't an English class," you have to be able to read and write reasonably standard English to survive. And they've learned that fifteen minutes of skimming the class handouts before an exam is not "enough" studying. And most of them take notes.

But here's the thing: pressuring us to make the intro level classes "easier" because it weeds people out otherwise? Will only inflate future DFW values in the upper division courses, until then we get pressured to dumb them down too.

And here's the thing: We're a STEM department. We sent people to med school, pharmacy school, grad school in chemistry.....we have to be tough on the students to teach them what they need to know. I think our "stakeholders" (an educational jargon term I hate) are the medical and professional schools, and also the public who need medical professionals. Saying that the students are our "stakeholders" and we should cater to them to the point of making our classes easier is a bad, bad idea.

The other challenging thing? We're pretty much open enrollment. We're not QUITE as bad as some schools, where I've heard faculty claim the admission test is "ability to fog a mirror, and ability to get a student loan" but we're not a selective school. And I'm mostly okay with that, but I'm not okay with us not being selective and then being told we have to graduate "most" of the students who come through with a bachelor's degree. Ain't gonna happen, not if we plan to keep any rigor.

I don't know. I realize a certain amount of this is panic-flailing on the part of the administration, because of things that are being said in the legislature, and also because our regular "site visit" for continued accreditation is coming up very soon. But I don't like the sense that we may be being subtly pitted against each other in terms of how much we "hurt" or "help" retention. I don't think that would lead to internecine fighting (and anyway, there are too many of us who thing that higher DFWs are not necessarily a problem) but I can see pressure from outside the department falling on some of us.

The thing that really makes me sad in the light of these new changes and these new pressures? By and large, I'm really enjoying my classes this semester. My students are sane, mature, and hard-working. So to look at things handed down from the legislature or the administration and be asking myself, "Can I survive another 15 years in academia, or are things going to get too ugly to keep going?" makes me really sad. (I can retire in about 15 years and get my full pension. I probably have about 10 years of "F you money" (as my dad calls it) still, even given investments tanking - I inherited a lot of stock from one set of grandparents - but I don't want to try living on my "F you money" and I don't want, really, to contemplate alternative careers.

The best case scenario? When the accreditation renewal happens, it goes off without a hitch and we are once again left alone until the next instance of panic flailing. The worst? Lots of people get lots of bees in their bonnet about "remaking" education, and we're forced to do things we hate and that we know are bad for our students.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Because it's cheap and ill-mannered, that's why

Okay. As a Protestant, I really have no real investment in the status of the Papacy. But I also have no objection to it either; I have no objection to some Christians believing a need in an earthly guide like the Pope. And I have friends and relatives who are Catholic.

Obviously, some around me don't share that live and let live attitude. I've heard a few snarky comments or ugly jokes about the whole pope-resigning thing, and I admit, I find myself a bit angered by them.

It's the old "put someone else in that place" thing. If some of the comments were made about a religion that was perceived as a "minority" religion in front of some of these people, they'd be calling HR to report the other person. If someone made similar jokes about gay people or certain-ethnic groups, they'd go very tight-lipped and say "That's not funny" and explain to the person making the joke just why they are offensive. Why is it bigoted when it's said about one group, but apparently not when it's said about another?

And yet, because it's Catholics, it's OK. Because they're not "oppressed." Because they're "mainstream." And because, I suspect, because they have these pesky "rules" and commandments and stuff that put curbs on human behavior.

(Though, how "mainstream" is observant Catholicism any more? It seems to me that many forms of observant faith have to part company with a lot of what our culture is doing and saying these days. I've read a lot lately talking about how Christianity is, in many ways, a countercultural movement.)

But more than that: it's just shabby and tawdry and cheap and I think of it as below these people to make those kinds of cheap jokes. Life is hard enough without going around putting other people down. And it really doesn't make you look any bigger to other people, and I doubt it makes you feel any bigger in the long run. I know back in the days (and I still marvel at what an insensitive person I was for doing this) when I teased and sort-of bullied a kid lower on the "pecking order" than I was, I actually felt WORSE about myself for having done it.

The snark - that glib attitude that only what you think and what you believe matters - really gets to me. That unwillingness to consider any contradictions in your own beliefs and behavior. That screaming over the mote in the other guy's eye while blithely ignoring the beam in your own.

When someone's only response to a situation that is, for some people, a genuinely sad and concerning situation, is snark, I think less of them. It seems to me to show an unwillingness to step into someone else's shoes or to have empathy.

And yes, I understand the whole scandal with the priests. And yes, many of the higher-ups handled it VERY badly, in  my opinion: far better, I think, to encourage the men involved to confess, to repent, to face whatever charges they would face, and to deal with the consequences of their actions. But just because there are some people involved who did wrong, does not negate the valuable work done by missionaries and hospitals and brothers or sisters who teach or serve or....anything that the good people do. Because some members of your organization do wrong, does not mean every member is suspect. But that's how it's become, unfortunately. (And the thing is: if I suggested to someone that by the logic they are using, university professors or businessmen or athletes or who knows whom are suspect because a few of that group did wrong - I'd be shouted down.)

I pray for stability in the Catholic church for my friends who are Catholic. And whatever reason Pope Benedict resigned over (and I'm perfectly willing to believe that it is failing health - The Anchoress noted that he seems like an introvert, and I can imagine a position like that would wear down even the strongest introvert very quickly), I wish him peace and healing in his future days.

One thing I learn as I get older: being kind, not giving in to the snark, ultimately makes me feel better and more at peace with the world than going around spouting off like a perpetual adolescent. And it gives me greater strength to weather the storms that do come.