The world's silliest academic regulation

According to the official policies established by the Administration, all classes must meet during their scheduled final exam period -- even if the classes in question are not administering a final exam. I've always found this to be a very silly requirement for seminar-type courses that have final papers rather than sit-down final exams, and since many of my courses are in seminar format, I find myself running afoul of this academic regulation pretty much every semester.

Adhering to the letter rather than to the spirit of the law (whatever the spirit of this particular law is, something on which I am none too clear), I have been showing movies during that scheduled final exam period for a couple of years now; sometimes I show the movies at a different time during the final exam period, but in any event the class is technically "in session." For all that it matters.

For my sci-fi course, the "final exam session" will actually be 2-6pm on 3 May in the Anderson Hall Honors Lounge, during which time I will show two films -- The Day the Earth Stood Still and Contact -- that I couldn't work into the syllabus for the regular semester. For my Ph.D. seminar, there will be a barbecue at my house sometime after the final essays are due.

I classify this particular academic regulation with the one technically requiring me to direct students to purchase their books from the campus bookstore -- less odious than the thing I once had to sign at a different university contractually obligating me not to speak ill of the U.S. Constitution, but annoying all the same. Some regulations make sense to me, but I can't for the life of me grok the purpose that this one is supposed to serve.

[Posted with ecto]


Instrumental value

Steven Roy Goodman had a piece in last Sunday's "Outlook" section of the Washington Post in which he argued that undergraduate education needed to focus more on providing en education that is useful in the sense that tangible benefits are provided to students. And those tangible benefits involve skills that will help students to "advance in their intellectual and professional lives." As an example of things that do not provide such skills and thus do not contribute to advancement, he offers the following course titles: "Pornography and Evolution," "The Beatles Era," and "Introduction to Material Culture." Although later in the piece he declares that "liberal arts courses, taught in the context of free speech, have always helped open young minds to the excitement of the marketplace of ideas and to the value of even unpopular opinions," he doesn't provide a single example of such a course -- making his claim that "I'm not arguing that universities should teach only engineering, business and computer science" ring somewhat hollow.

As a professor who regularly teaches a course on science fiction and social science, I can't help but see this line of argument as something of a direct attack. In fact, it's part of a larger, more insidious trend in higher education that really bothers me: the excessive focus on short-term benefits to a college education, measured in terms of earning potential and/or job placement. There is something of a cultural syndrome -- call it "instrumentalitis" -- that inspires people to evaluate their educations in these narrow terms, obsessively asking what benefits some course or experience provided almost before the experience or course ends, and sometimes before it ends or even before it begins. But there's a logical paradox here: if you already knew what you were going to get out of a course, then why would you have to take it? Why not just go straight to the payoff? And why wouldn't universities just deliver payoffs, without the messy business of connecting students and faculty in the first place?

The whole trick of a good education is that it transforms the student in ways that the student -- and the faculty members -- cannot foresee. Classes are a joint product, emerging someplace between students and professors and the material with which they are collectively wrestling. A college environment is supposed to be a place where students can explore thing, try on ideas and positions, and generally craft themselves in a more or less unconstrained manner. It is not supposed to be job training, or the imparting of skills, or a giant realm of networking for internships and jobs; these things may happen and may exist, but they are IMHO distinctly secondary to the specific mission of undergraduate education, which is to allow people the space to discover who they want to be and then provide them with some resources that they can use to start producing themselves as those people. [In this, undergrad differs from graduate school; grad school is by definition more focused on the imparting of skills and the provision of employment.]

This is where my sci-fi course fits in. Juxtaposing works of social science with works of science fiction allows us to explore questions about whether prediction of social and political events and developments is possible, whether our relations with Others are or should (or can, especially if the Other is very different -- say, regarded to be other-than-human) be governed by notions of fear or love or mutual respect, whether technological changes make us more or less human: some of the classic "big questions" a) with which people should have to wrestle at some point in their lives; b) which are much more difficult to confront when holding down a job and paying a mortgage; c) which do not have immediate, measurable, quantifiable, earning-potential value but which are arguably more central to living a meaningful life than other technical skills.

Goodman is right that the cost of a university education is ballooning far too high, and getting way too out of step with the annual incomes of the people paying the tuition bills. His hope is that consumers will start to demand concrete, practical results for their purchase of a BA. That's my fear: that the high costs of a university education will inspire people to ever-greater heights of instrumentalitis, and lead to an elimination of courses like my social science fiction course precisely because it has no concrete benefits. At least not the sort that translate easily into jobs and higher earnings.

When I read things like that I fear for the future of the university.

</hellfire-and-brimstone sermon>

[Posted with ecto]


The regular season

The 2005 baseball season got underway last night; this is cause for celebration, as it means the return of the great glory that is the regular season of organized baseball. Baseball itself is, I think, a compelling sport on a game-to-game basis, featuring moments of drama and tension that are the equal of anything that football (either type) or basketball or golf or tennis or whatever have to offer. But where baseball beats out the others, in my opinion, is in the regular season: six months, 162 games per team, multiple games between opponents over that stretch, ample opportunity for teams and players to make adjustments for the next time around.

The regular season of professional baseball is almost perfectly designed (setting aside for the moment the question of whether or not this is/was deliberate) to produce that rarest of situations in which random fluctuations cancel out over time and the only thing that remains is a player's actual abilities. Baseball statistics mean something, because players perform the same basic actions in a relatively stable social setting sufficient times that the results aren't purely accidental. The same cannot be said of most other areas of social and political life, which further underscores the rare and precious object that is the regular season.

Academia, for example, does not work like regular-season baseball. There are too few "at-bats" in the classroom setting for statistics to be meaningful, and the standards for success are not governed by the same level of intersubjective consensus and don't have the same kind of bureaucracy (umpires, the Rules Committee, etc.) enforcing them. Student evaluations of teaching aren't the same kind of instrument as a box score; neither are "objective" in the strong sense, of course, but box scores are less arbitrary than end-of-semester surveys of students who haven't received their final semester grades yet and in many cases who haven't even written their final papers or exams yet. We know, for instance, that instructors of early-morning classes do less well on those evaluations than those who teach later in the day; we also know that certain kinds of courses tend to produce lower scores even for instructors who do very well in other courses. Imagine if box scores came back differently for afternoon games than they did for night games, or for American League games vs. National League games; we'd junk the instrument and look for something more consistent.

The solution here, I think, is to appreciate each kind of performance in ways that are appropriate to it. Baseball should be appreciated statistically (or "sabremetrically," as the neologism goes), and teaching should be appreciated more in terms of the lingering effects of particular course experiences on general worldviews or ways of thinking -- effects that can't be captured by on-the-spot surveys, since they depend on the subsequent narratives that students use to make sense of their experiences. Teaching isn't regular-season baseball, and we should not try to evaluate it as though it were.

In other baseball news, the Yankees returned to their usual form of beating up on the Red Sox last night, led by the bat (3-for-5, 1 HR, 3 RBI, and a 1.8 OPS) and the glove (stole a two-run home run from Kevin Millar in the second inning with a perfectly-timed jump at the left-field wall) of Hideki Matsui, behind a typically impressive outing (6.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 6K) by Randy Johnson. God's in her Heaven and all's right with the world :-)

[Posted with ecto]


The History Channel

With my book manuscript finally turned in to the publisher, I can once again begin to rejoin the human race and catch up on other things -- such as this woefully untended blog space. Hopefully I'll be able to post more frequently here in the coming months.

For today, just a brief thought:

Some of my colleagues in SIS appear regularly in the news media commenting on current events and policies. They write op-eds about contemporary situations, do research and produce books and articles recommending specific policies to be followed in the present, and generally use their academic positions as vantage-points from which to critically apprehend the contemporary world. hence it is little surprise when they are tapped by CNN, the New York Times, and the like.

Me, on the other hand: my big media break (if one can call it that) a couple of weeks ago was taping an interview for an episode of Deep Sea Detectives, a History Channel program in which the hosts dive on mysterious shipwrecks and then spend the rest of the hour trying to figure out how the wreck came to be where it presently is and the like. The wreck in question for this episode was the German merchant ship Das Reich, sunk in 1940 with some measure of American involvement (one American ship kept the Germans from escaping, while another fed precise targeting data to the Dutch or Danish ship that performed the actual sinking). So the hosts wanted to interview someone about the meaning of "neutrality" in 1940, and try to figure out why the United States would have been involved in such an event before war had been declared. So they called me, because I know a thing or three about American foreign policy during this time-period, and it says so in the AU Experts Guide.

The great irony of being a professor at a policy school, but being asked for an interview about a historical subject, does not escape me. No one seems to care that my work on postwar German reconstruction has some implications for the present; they prefer to ask me about history. Not that I mind overmuch, since I am generally reluctant to give policy advice or to assume (somewhat naively, I'd say) that past conditions will simply continue into the future largely unchanged and that therefore the experience of past policies and strategies will provide a clear guideline applicable to the present. But it's odd. Most of my colleagues are far more likely to be consulted on other matters, which underlines my position on one wing of the general field of endeavor called "International Relations" -- just not the wing that gets to appear on Oprah to talk about contemporary Islam, or on CNN to help explain contemporary transatlantic relations.

But for basic cable historical programs, I'm your guy.

Oh, and yes, we did end up discussing Hitler quite a bit, which is appropriate for the network often satirized as "The Hitler Channel" given its extreme reliance on WWII topics. The show is set to air 30 May, if you're interested in seeing my big television debut :-)

[Posted with ecto]