Growing University Bureaucracy Lets Down Students

In the past, the teaching faculty at my university served as academic advisers to students. Students would come to us before the beginning of the semester, we would tell them about the courses we are offering, and help them choose the courses they would enjoy the most.

Then, the university decided to hire “professional advisers”, whatever that means. These are people who have no knowledge of the courses we are offering and, what’s even worse, they are not even trying to find out. To give just one example, this semester they suggested to quite a few students that they take my course “Intro into Hispanic Civilization” (that is marked in the calendar as “Taught in English“) in order to learn to speak Spanish. I had to spend quite a lot of time explaining to the students that if they want to learn to speak the language, they are in the wrong place. Of course, the students who wanted to take an English-language course in Hispanic Civilization did not enroll in the course which was presented by the advisers as a language course.

This is annoying to me because my course is really great and it can be extremely beneficial to the right student. I should have gone to those “professional advisers” today and made a fuss but I was too sick. I will go as soon as I get better but I’m afraid I will lose too many students before that.

At first, we were glad to hear that professional advisers would take on some of our duties, but the problem is that these bureaucrats are as clueless as paper-pushers normally are. It’s just easier to do the work on one’s own than to rectify their mistakes.

Why Didn’t We Do This? On Iceland

Via Mike’s blog, I discovered this fascinating article about Iceland.

I’m sure everybody remembers how at the beginning of the current economic crisis Iceland was on the news a lot. This was a country that had participated most actively in the financial bubble and now crashed a lot harder and a lot faster than many other countries. At that time, the crisis that now is experienced by Greece, Spain and Italy was still a thing of the future. Iceland was the first small country (please correct me if I’m wrong here) to be hit hard by the crisis. It was also the first one to come out winning.

Iceland hasn’t appeared on the news for a while, so I’m sure many of my readers will be surprised to learn (just as I was) that this is how the country decided to deal with the crisis:

The belief that citizens had to pay for the mistakes of a financial monopoly, that an entire nation must be taxed to pay off private debts was shattered, transforming the relationship between citizens and their political institutions and eventually driving Iceland’s leaders to the side of their constituents. The Head of State, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, refused to ratify the law that would have made Iceland’s citizens responsible for its bankers’ debts, and accepted calls for a referendum.

While here in the US we keep agreeing to endless cuts to education, healthcare, science, research, social programs, etc. in order to repay the debt caused, to a great degree, by bailing out billionaires, people of Iceland decided to jail the crooks instead of rewarding them:

In the March 2010 referendum, 93% voted against repayment of the debt.  The IMF immediately froze its loan.  But the revolution (though not televised in the United States), would not be intimidated. With the support of a furious citizenry, the government launched civil and penal investigations into those responsible for the financial crisis.  Interpol put out an international arrest warrant for the ex-president of Kaupthing, Sigurdur Einarsson, as the other bankers implicated in the crash fled the country.

Moreover – and this really sounds like science fiction – the people of Iceland are now writing a new constitution. Mind you, not the politicians are writing it. The people are:

To write the new constitution, the people of Iceland elected twenty-five citizens from among 522 adults not belonging to any political party but recommended by at least thirty citizens. This document was not the work of a handful of politicians, but was written on the internet. The constituent’s meetings are streamed on-line, and citizens can send their comments and suggestions, witnessing the document as it takes shape. The constitution that eventually emerges from this participatory democratic process will be submitted to parliament for approval after the next elections.

I don’t think the US needs a new constitution. However, it would be nice to have a system where, instead of watching corrupt politicians of both parties fight their useless battles in Congress, citizens could have more of a say in what’s going on.

For now, it seems like there are two countries that have been able to weather the global crisis pretty well: Iceland and Canada. (I’ve just come back from Canada and, believe me, they are doing extremely well compared to how things are going in the US, let alone in Western Europe). If anybody knows of any other countries that are dealing with the crisis in inventive and productive ways, please let me know in the comments.

Because no matter what your political persuasion is, I think that you have to agree that whatever we are doing in the US is not working.

Weight Gain Equals Weight Loss

I’m already used to the fact that any weight gain a woman might experience is immediately interpreted as a sign of pregnancy. “No, I’m not pregnant, I’m just fat” I keep saying to people who come up to me in the street to tell me that drinking coffee in my condition is dangerous to the baby.

Now, however, I discovered that one’s weight loss makes people suspect the same thing.

I’ve lost about 10 pounds since I got sick with this virus. One of the symptoms is a very sore throat, so I can eat nothing except raspberries and some peaches.

“Oh, Clarissa! You look so slim!” a colleague exclaimed today in the office. “What happened? Are you pregnant?”

There is just no winning here. Maybe I need to buy a “Still Not Pregnant” T-shirt.

More on Student Infantilization

Jonathan was the first to notice this article in The Chronicle of Higher Ed that is very indicative of how we infantilize students. He blogged about it here. In his post, Jonathan looked at the article from the perspective of a professor. Now I would like to consider it from the viewpoint of a student.

Imagine that the day you begin to attend college, you are subjected to the following procedures:

The first day students enter college, many are in the throes of a developmental crisis. They should be assessed in several areas, including their academic ability, social skills, study skills, vocabulary, general knowledge, work history, and community involvement. The results of these assessments would be used to identify the types of support they will need to succeed. This data and interviews with the student can lead to a learning contract between the student and the institution. Participation should be voluntary, but students who opt out would be required to sign a waiver stating they were informed about any concerns and offered appropriate services. This individualized approach would bolster many students and increase their chances for academic success.

I don’t know if I was “in the throes of a developmental crisis” when I went to college. Usually, young women are already past the crisis by the age of 18, so, once again, we are talking about an article whose author pretends that women are still not allowed to attend college.

Leaving that aside, however, I can say that I would have been very annoyed had the university where I got my BA tried to assess my social skills, work history, and community involvement. I never had and still don’t have any community involvement because the word “community” makes me cringe. I’m an autistic, so my social skills have always been quite poor. Nevertheless, I was a stellar student. During the graduation ceremony, I couldn’t leave the stage for several minutes, as the Provost kept enumerating my awards, distinctions, and prizes.

The kind of assessment this article proposes is also extremely invasive. As a student, I didn’t expect my professors to judge my life. I wanted them to impart knowledge, grade my progress, and – with all due respect to my wonderful teachers – keep away from the personal and social aspects of my existence.

I’m quite surprised that the author refers to this approach as “individualized.” What’s so individualized about judging all students on the basis of some imaginary standard of good social skills and appropriate community involvement?

Another problem with this suggestion is that it seems to imply that every student should need some kind of “support.” In case you don’t want support and feel like you are capable of dealing with the demands of college on your own, you are required to sign a waiver to this effect. In this way, self-reliant, independent, mature students are pathologized, while the overgrown babies who will need to be “supported” well into adulthood are positioned as the norm.

The Flu That Stole Christmas

I don’t celebrate Christmas and, for me, the first day of the academic year is its emotional equivalent. I love coming into the classroom, handing out my syllabi, meeting the new students, and reconnecting with colleagues after the summer vacations. After the first day of classes ends, N. and I usually go out to celebrate.

This year, the stupid flu killed all the enjoyment of the first day of teaching I could have had. I dragged myself to  campus today hoping that teaching would magically defeat the disease. That didn’t happen because the flu is too strong. The good news is that I can give the first lecture of the semester in my sleep, so that part of the teaching went well. The bad news is that I’ve lost all hearing in my right ear (and my left ear isn’t good since childhood). So when students ask questions (which they are bound to do on the first day of class), I simply can’t hear.

Another small problem is that my right eye is red and swollen, making me look like a victim of domestic violence. This is not an image I’m trying to project to students, so I initially planned to come to class wearing dark sunglasses. N., however, told me that this would make me look like an alcoholic who is trying to conceal a hangover. A Russian-speaking person is always suspected of being an alcoholic by default, which means that I can’t do anything to make that suspicion even stronger.

But I do feel miles better than I did yesterday and the day before, so there is positive dynamics.

How Much Is Your Blanket Worth?

It’s mind-boggling what passes for science in some fields and what kind of pseudo-scientific studies get published and picked up by the media:

Researchers from the University of New Hampshire and Yale University wanted to understand more concretely how people gauge the monetary value of their belongings in relation to how loved and secure they feel. So researchers asked 185 study participants, average age 35, to complete a couple of exercises. First, they asked half the group to recall a time when they felt supported and cared for; the other half were asked to think about a fun experience, such as eating at a really great restaurant. Then, both groups were asked to put a money value on the blankets currently on their beds. The group who recalled a good dining experience valued their blankets at $173.30 on average, but the group who had thought about an experience of being loved valued their bedspreads at a paltry $33.38.

I know exactly how much the blanket on my bed costs because I paid for it. And that amount doesn’t change irrespective of which experiences I recall. I’m also kind of puzzled by the mention of the “paltry $33.38”. My blanket costs less than that, and I’m now asking myself what kind of a spoiled rich brat wrote this article.

What is really funny, though, is the way the scholar who conducted this study explains its usefulness:

“These findings seem particularly relevant to understanding why people may hang onto goods that are no longer useful. They also may be relevant to understanding why family members often fight over items from estates that they feel are rightfully theirs and to which they are already attached. Inherited items may be especially valued because the associated death threatens a person’s sense of personal security,” Lemay said.

Is there really anybody who doesn’t know the answers to these very simple questions? It is sad to see how much money is wasted on conducting so-called studies that demonstrate what already is painfully obvious.


Because Our Students Are Still Not Infantilized Enough

Nothing bugs me more than attempts to infantilize students and turn them into little babies who can’t be held responsible for their own actions.

Via College Misery:

My Uni has announced they are taking a kinder stance on plagiarism, meaning when students plagiarize it is because they don’t know they are doing it, not because they are lying little cheaters. We are now expected to contact the students to let them know what they did wrong, explain what they did and how to prevent it and then offer them the opportunity to redo the assignment.

Such policies are doing a great disservice both to the students and to the society on which they will be unleashed upon graduation. The students will believe that whenever they mess up, a kindly adult will explain them that stealing (because that’s what plagiarism is) is not a nice thing to do and will give them another chance.