Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

Archive for the day “May 15, 2011”

A Weird Article on College Education in the New York Times

While I agree that trying to impose the business model on academia is wrong and that high standards of education should be maintained at all costs, I am often baffled by how people go about defending these useful ideas. Take, for example, the recent article in The New York Times titled “Your So-Called Education.” After reading it, I realized that, according to the article’s authors, the greatest problem in higher ed is me. Let’s look at some of the points the article makes.

The quality of college education is slipping because:

1. “In a typical semester, for instance, 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week.”

I must be a real underachiever because in my undergraduate courses, I never assign more that 30 pages of reading a week in any given course. I teach literature and culture, so reading is pretty much all we do. However, my goal is not to get the students to skim through as many pages as possible. I want them to read critically, to engage with the text, to try to go through it slowly. If you read 3 pages a week but manage to come up with some analysis of it, it’s a lot more useful than gulping down 100 pages of a text just to fulfill some silly requirement.

2. “50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester.”

In my trademark course on Hispanic Civilization, students write several short essays that come up to less than 20 pages per semester. The writing component is crucial to that course. (Because I decided that it should be.) However, I don’t see how it helps anybody to get the students to hand in reams of poorly written garbage. If a student manages to produce a single beautifully written page at the end of the semester, I will believe that my goal in the course has been accomplished. Students come to this Freshman course with no understanding of what distinguishes good and bad writing. Giving them humongous writing assignments will only lead them to reproduce the same horrible writing techniques they brought to college from their high schools.

3. “The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying.”

I wonder if anybody has counted how many of those hours a student in the 1960 spent hunting for information and doing manually all those things that today are simplified to an incredible degree by the Internet and text processing. If we take into account how much faster the writing becomes thanks to text editors, I’m sure we will arrive at a conclusion that today students work more.  

4. “Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years. If the test that we used, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were scaled on a traditional 0-to-100 point range, 45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college.

I must have poor critical thinking skills myself because I truly fail to understand how critical thinking and complex reasoning can be measured on “a traditional 0-to-100 point range.” The authors of this article bemoan the fact that the business model has been imposed on academia, but they fail to notice to what incredible degree they have been infected by this very model. Good reading and good writing for them are about a number of pages. Complex reasoning is about a number of points. In short, numbers rule supreme.

5. “Expanded privacy protections have created obstacles for colleges in providing information on student performance to parents, undercutting a traditional check on student lassitude.”

The idea that educators would somehow benefit from having even more helicopter parents buzzing around them is bizarre. Has anybody ever developed their critical thinking skills because they were afraid their parents might scold them in case they didn’t? 

6. “Too many institutions, for instance, rely primarily on student course evaluations to assess teaching. This creates perverse incentives for professors to demand little and give out good grades.

The idea that professors who demand little and hand out easy grades are the ones who get good student evaluations is completely misguided. If I told you what percentage of students I fail each semester, I think you’d agree that I’m anything but an easy grader. My evaluations, though, have always been fantastic. Students actually don’t like professors who ask too little of them. In my teaching experience, the only way to get students to evaluate you highly is to demonstrate that your knowledge of the subject matter is profound.

7. “And the Department of Education could make available nationally representative longitudinal data on undergraduate learning outcomes for research purposes, as it has been doing for decades for primary and secondary education.”

Given that primary and secondary education in this country have gone completely to the dogs in the past couple of decades, this suggestion really mystified me. “Longitudinal data on learning outcomes” is the bureaucracy-speak version of teaching to the test. This model inflicted untold damage on our secondary education on a daily basis, but now we are to inflict it on higher education as well.

In short, even when The New York Times is trying to do something good, it ends up  producing the exact opposite.

>Wired for Compassion


We all know how much I adore pop-science articles that brainwash our anti-science population with talk of brain wiring. (I even blogged about it on my very first day as a blogger.) Volumes of actual science have been published disproving the sexist claims of these brainless brain wirers. Still, they keep publishing their rubbish and ignoramuses keep eating it right up because it fits in so neatly with their expectations of clear-cut gender differences.

Here is one of the most recent examples of such a piece. It tries to convince us that vaginas are more compassionate than penises, even though the bearers of said vaginas and penises disagree:
Mercadillo and his colleagues describe an experiment featuring 12 women and 12 men. As the participants viewed a series of 100 photographs, their brains were scanned using fMRI technology. Every second image was one that evoked compassion (according to previous research). Examples included sad human faces, war scenes and depictions of famine. “No gender differences were observed in the frequency of reported compassionate experiences,” the researchers report. However, what was happening in the participants’ brain told a different story. As the compassion-evoking photos were viewed, activity was observed in two areas of the brain — the thalamus and the putamen, part of the basal ganglia — in women but not in men.
 I’m not going to provide a detailed analysis of why this so-called study conducted on an extremely representative sample of 24 people in a scientifically backwards and profoundly sexist country is idiotic. Echidne’s Blog has done this beautifully already. I just want to call your attention to how both genders are degraded in the concluding lines of this fascinating piece of journalistic stupidity:
So ladies: When the men in your life seem insensitive to suffering, try not to respond with scorn. The problem, it seems, is one of brain circuitry. It shouldn’t be hard to take pity on them; after all, you have an enormous capacity for compassion.
Men are presented as not entirely human here. They have to be pitied and condescended to by women who do have the capacity of experiencing the full range of human emotions. At the same time, just like centuries ago, women are still being exhorted to be understanding and forgiving with men. Five hundred years ago, we were supposed to do that because it was our God-given duty. Today, we are still expected to condescend to men because we are told that this is how our brains work. Some things don’t ever seem to change.

Jesus As Reagan’s Sidekick

You’ve got to love those hilarious folks who somehow manage to combine fanatical Christianity with Libertarianism. Of course, one must have no understanding whatsoever of both to believe that they can be upheld simultaneously. (If you are wondering what Jesus would think of free markets, then I’m wondering whether you know anything at all about Jesus.)

So here is a very inventive blog header whose hapless author is trying to resolve the painful contradiction between worshiping free markets and worshiping Jesus:
As we can see, this particular Reagan fan chose to put “Ronnie” first and Jesus second. I kind of feel sorry for Jesus because playing second fiddle to Reagan, of all people, is quite insulting.

P.S. In the very top post of this freaky blog, I found the following sentence that tells us all we’ll ever need to know about such folks’ scary brand of religiosity:

 I had a lot of sinful years without Christ but God is in the business of forgiving sins.

What I wonder is whether God is successful in business and whether he pays any taxes. I know that Jesus wants us to pay taxes, but does he pay any himself? This is what theologians need to be working on.

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