Choosing a College

By the way, a great measure of whether a school (or a department) is worth attending is what happens after graduation. If professors just forget about their students’ existence two minutes after the graduation ceremony, make no effort to place them in jobs, don’t forward information on employment opportunities, don’t speak to local employers about the graduates, etc. – that’s not a good school.

Our graduation ceremony took place in early May, and since then, I’ve been doing a lot of this kind of work. Everybody should try to locate a recent graduate of their department (this is super easy to do through LinkedIn) before choosing a college to attend and ask how often the school has been in touch for anything other than requests for money.

College Admissions Officers Police Prospective Students Through Facebook

It turns out that college admissions officers use Facebook to police the language prospective students use on their social networks:

Twelve percent of admissions counselors told Kaplan that what they found on social networks hurt an applicant’s admissions prospects—particularly when it involved vulgarity, evidence of alcohol consumption or essay plagiarism, or proof of illegal activity.

This, of course, is ridiculous. How long do you think it will take students to realize that this is going on and create official “good girl / boy” persona and hide their true selves behind it? Who will benefit except the most hypocritical? People who can’t even relax on their own social network and who use it to present a fake persona of a spotless, “moral” creature whose status update is stuck at “Studying hard and working to succeed in life” will end up attracting the stupid admissions counselors who think that lack of profanity on one’s Facebook page is some kind of evidence that one will be a good student.

State universities explicitly prohibit search committees from doing any online searches on the candidates precisely because a job search process for a new faculty member should not be reduced to an exchange of gossip about who said what on their blog or Facebook page. I think the same courtesy should be extended to students, as well.

A few chance readers of this blog have asked me a very bizarre question. “You just accused me of being a troll,” an irate reader of this kind would say. “Is this how you treat your students? You just call them trolls when they ask you questions?”

I always thought that people who don’t understand a difference between interacting with students and with anonymous online trolls must suffer from grave intellectual limitations. It’s not very encouraging to see that these limitations also characterize a significant percentage of admissions officers who don’t understand that their job is to evaluate admissions packages that have been submitted to them and not to troll other people’s online resources.

P.S. My gratitude goes to blogger Miriam whose insightful post alerted me to this phenomenon.

How to Prepare for the Finals?

As I have shared in the previous post, finals are often an unavoidable evil. This is why I want to share some advice with people who are now preparing for their finals in the hopes that these suggestions will make life at least somewhat easier for people who have to go through this ordeal.

1. The absolutely best thing you can do is allow for some time and space before you finish preparing for the exam and the exam itself. Ideally, you should get a good night’s sleep and not study for the exam at all in the morning right before it. I often see students still frantically going over their notes and leafing through textbooks as they walk into the room where the exam will be administered. This is a big mistake. Knowledge needs time to settle and be absorbed. These last-minute consultations with the notes do a lot more damage than good. Preparing for the exam is important but knowing when to stop preparing is just as crucial.

2. If your exam is in a foreign language course, the best thing you can do is get together with a native speaker of that language right before the exam and chat with them over coffee. If that is not possible, download some music in that language and listen to it on the way to the exam. Read something online in that language. All of these things will help you a lot more than any last-minute revision of verb conjugations.

3. I strongly recommend not pulling any all-nighters before the exam. Getting a good night’s sleep will allow you not to feel listless (or hopped up on caffeine) during the exam. Wake up early and do some gentle exercise. Take a walk before the exam. This will get the blood circulating in your body.

4. After you are done with an exam, do not immediately plunge into preparing for the next one. Reward yourself with some pleasing activity that will help you relax.

5. My grandfather was a doctor and he taught me the following important rule for people who do sedentary work: after every hour you spend working, get up and take a 10-minute walk. Getting up, going outside and walking around the building or down the street and up will help you be a lot more productive. If you remember to breathe deep and not think about your work as you are walking, that would be great.

If anybody has other suggestions for people who are currently preparing for the finals, please leave them in the comments. Let’s help out the students! 🙂

Debt-Free Education

I keep hearing about people who struggle under mountains of debt they accumulated as a result of getting a college degree. This is why I decided to do a little promotional activity for my own university.

Tuition for in-state residents of our state university is just $8,864.80 per year (that’s just $739 per month). Tuition includes textbook rental, so the expense of textbooks is covered. I find this kind of tuition to be very reasonable, especially since there is also a great number of scholarships and grants both on the state and federal level.

Many of our students choose to live off campus, but if you want an on-campus experience, your room and board will cost you $8,051.00 per year. This is a price I also consider very reasonable. The room and board cost the same for out-of-state students. Tuition for them, however, is higher and runs to the amount of $18,809.80 (or $1567 per month). This isn’t low, but it is still a lot less than at many other places.

So what do you get in return for this money? Our university made a very smart decision to keep hiring aggressively during the years of the recession. In 2009, when I was hired, the majority of universities canceled or suspended their searches for tenure-track professors. I estimate that at least 60% of all applications I’d sent out returned to me with a letter saying that the search had been cancelled due to the recession. Our university, however, realized that this was the best time to bring a wave of enthusiastic, promising young academics to our campus. I was one of 55 new tenure-track profs hired in that year. Next year, we hired 40+ people. And these hiring efforts continued the year after that.

As a result, we now have a big group of young scholars who graduated from great schools and are very active in research. Nobody else wanted us but this university did. And it offered us great conditions of employment, too, instead of trying to exploit the desperate situation of recent PhD graduates, like some other schools did.

Our undergrads are taught by actual professors on all levels. This doesn’t happen at Ivy League schools where two thirds of undergrad courses are not taught by professors. You can go through your entire Major at certain Ivy League schools without ever taking a course taught by a person with a PhD.

Our university does everything it can to update its technology. None of the universities where I worked before coming here had anything similar to the kind of technology we get here. And I’m talking about really prestigious, famous schools where tuition is several times greater than what it is here. For language and culture courses, for example, it makes all the difference in the world to have satellite television from Spain, a languages lab, a plasma screen to show movies, computers in the classroom, sound systems, etc. It’s one thing to make photocopies of the Mayan pyramids and distribute them to students. It is a completely different experience to show them the pyramids on a huge screen.

Of course, we don’t have anything similar to the prestige of Ivy League schools. However, having studied and taught at the Ivies, I believe that this prestige is not worth getting in debt for. If you are from a background that offers you connections with important people, you’ll have those connections anyways. If you are from a poorer background, you will be a pariah at your Ivy and all that money you pay to be there will be wasted.

In the US, it is more than possible to get a good college degree for a very reasonable amount of money. I strongly recommend that you consider us or any other state university before getting into ruinous debt to pay for nothing but a cool-sounding name. As an added bonus, you might get taught by me, or somebody like me. And that’s nothing to be sneezed at. 🙂

Administrator Humiliates Professors at the College of William & Mary

I just found the following in Inside Higher Ed:

The e-mail to some faculty members at the College of William & Mary came out of the blue, reminding them to be careful about the language they use in class and, specifically, asking them not to use the word “retarded” in class.

Its appearance last week perplexed some professors and prompted one or two to tell the student newspaper that administrators were questioning their professionalism. Several experts on faculty speech said that the missive was unusual, but that rather than a threat to academic freedom, they saw a sincere effort to protect potentially vulnerable students. “…[T]he word retarded has returned in slang usage to mean dumb or stupid, but this is not an appropriate way to use the word in class,” Kelly Joyce, the dean of undergraduate studies, wrote in her e-mail.

Mind you, there had been no incidents surrounding the word “retard” on campus where this piece of idiocy originated. Based on the email of this sad excuse for an administrator, one could assume that profs at the College of William & Mary run around all day long, calling students retards. However, there was nothing of the kind going on at this college.

The insulting email that this administrator sent to professors is not a response to any existing issue on campus. It is nothing but yet another attempt by an overpaid and useless administrator to take vengeance on the teaching faculty for being more intelligent and productive than s/he is. As we all know, scholars go into administration when they realize that they can’t make a name for themselves in research. Their rage against their more successful colleagues who laugh at their ineptness as researchers makes them lash out at professors with these ridiculous and condescending demands.

The other two groups of administrators are either spousal hires (i.e. useless husbands and wives of academics who are given these cushy positions of authority because they’ll get bored at home) or people hired from the corporate environment whose overall stupidity makes them incapable of understanding what the academia is all about. Of course, such folks have no idea how to do anything useful on campus, so they insult and condescend to professors instead.

I have blogged time and again  (and then some) about attempts by administrators to rob educators and scholars of our autonomy, dignity, time, and authority. What is really frustrating is that, more often than not, academics do not resist the offensive onslaughts by the useless and ignorant administrators. Kelly Joyce, the dean who had the incredible gall of sending this condescending message on the proper use of vocabulary to people with PhDs, should immediately become a pariah on campus. A good way of showing this administrator their place would be to recite definitions of words to them whenever they appear in public. For example,

Table, 1. an article of furniture consisting of a flat, slablike topsupported on one or more legs or other supports: a kitchentable; an operating table; a pool table.

Or better yet,

Professor – a person who often gets insulted by administrators, but this is not an appropriate way to use a professor on campus.

One could also email this dean lists of offensive words s/he shouldn’t use in public and explain in detail why these words are offensive and shouldn’t be used.

Unless we start doing something to show these ignoramuses their place, they will continue to insult us.

The Innovative University by Christensen and Eyring: A Review

There is a lot of talk nowadays about the purported crisis within the system of higher education in North America. Every Tom, Dick and Henrietta think they have a recipe that will immediately cure the academia of all its ills. The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out by Christensen and Eyring is one of such attempts to offer a recipe for a cure. In reality, however, the book is more of a symptom of what is wrong with the system than anything else.

Altogether, the book offers a lot of long-winded sentences that state not just the obvious but the painfully obvious. It is, however, very short on substance. The only practical suggestions it makes for the improvement of the higher education system are extremely trivial and well-known to anybody. Moreover, the absolute majority of universities that I am familiar with have been putting these suggestions in practice for a while.

A significant chunk of the book (about 150 pages)is taken up by a very detailed recounting of the history of Harvard University. Since the history of Harvard can be found in a variety of other sources, I felt that its role in THE INNOVATIVE UNIVERSITY was that of padding. Overall, the original content of the book could be summarized in 3 or 4 sentences. The rest is just repetitive, tedious padding.

The things I mentioned, however, are not the worst part of the book. What is really annoying about it is the attempt to analyze the university as if it were a business. Students are referred to as student-customers. Christensen directly compares selling education to selling a box of cereal. And he pushes this “idea” as insistently as he does every other inane observation he makes. With a naivete that makes one feel vicarious embarrassment for him, this author almost exclaims on a variety of occasions, “This strategy works if you want to sell cereal. So it has to work when applied to the system of higher ed, too!”

If anything will end up destroying the American system of higher education – which, in my opinion, is without a doubt the best system of higher education in the world – it is this kind of attitude. Universities are not businesses. Their goal is not to sell the product at all costs. The university’s role in society is completely different. It makes no sense to try to run a business as if it were, say, a charitable organization. Or a household. Or a college. In the same way, it makes no sense to impose on the system of higher education rules and procedures that are alien to it. A much better title for this book would have been How to Destroy a University in Ten Months Or Less because this is precisely what will happen if the ridiculous suggestions of its authors are put into practice.

I’ve been working in the system of North American higher education for a little over ten years now. Every day, I see professors, lecturers, instructors, administrators and students who come together for the purposes of sharing, cultivating and advancing knowledge. And there is nothing more beautiful than a bunch of people brought together by their love of learning and their desire to disseminate their knowledge. However, some colleges have adopted the pernicious practice of bringing in very highly paid business managers to manage campuses. These people are often brilliant business leaders who are, at the same time, absolutely clueless about how to run a university. They begin to apply their knowledge of how to run a business to an environment that is completely different. The results are always disastrous. Even if such administrators manage to raise enrollments by moving most of the courses online and destroying the emphasis on research (which are Christensen’s and Eyring’s main suggestions in this book), the university soon ends up losing all prestige and starts being referred to both at home and abroad as a “diploma mill.”

In the opinion of these authors, it wouldn’t be a problem if most of our universities turned into places that churn out useless online courses and produce no research whatsoever. As long as the “student-customers” are happy with being able to buy a diploma while investing very little intellectual effort into acquiring it, everybody will be happy. As for research, we always have Harvard.

For those of us who believe that our students and our American scholarship deserves better, this is not a valid path.

Choosing a Major in College

I know that I don’t have many readers who are at the stage of choosing a college major, but Jonathan just published a really great long post with very useful advice on the subject. As a student advisor, I often meet students who chose a major that sounded cool and prestigious, like “Communications” and who in their senior year have no idea what people who majored in this vaguely defined field do for a living. I have tried to get students to explain to me what “Communications” as a field of knowledge means but all I get in response is a lot of hand-waving and vague, incomprehensible noises. This is not aimed at picking on Communications. Crowds of people go into Marketing, for example, (for personal reasons I am very familiar with the field) only to discover upon graduation that the industry is nothing like what they’d imagined. Here is part of the advice that Jonathan provides:

Beware of “generic” majors like “communications” and “international relations.” I’m talking about majors that attract students that don’t really know what they want to do, so they choose a major that sounds vaguely interesting and popular. There are a lot of communications majors, so what is going to make you stand out, if you chose the major because it sounded vaguely interesting? And everyone else did too? If you have a passion for sociology, go for it, but don’t major in it because that’s what your sorority sisters do.

One thing that I would add to Jonathan’s great article is the following: if there is a field of knowledge that fascinates you, that makes you want to bring a cot and bunk down in front of the department’s door during the weekend, then this is the field you need to choose, even though it might sound completely unprestigious and people keep telling you that you will never find a job if you major in it.

I have a student who loves Spanish. He probably loves it as much as I do, which is a lot. He is constantly hanging around our department, trying to organize Spanish-related activities with other students, coming by my office, using any opportunity to speak the language. I have no idea how he finds time to do anything else since he is always around our department. This student, however, not only isn’t majoring in Spanish, he isn’t even doing a minor in it. He wanted to initially but then he got discouraged by all the “you need to choose something more practical” talk that people kept giving him. There is nothing practical, in my opinion, in forcing yourself into a career that doesn’t make you light up when you think of it. When I first started taking undergrad courses in Hispanic Studies, I once heard my father say to a friend, “I’m not sure I understand what she is doing but I can see that she starts glowing whenever she talks about it, and that’s good enough for me.”

Choosing a major just because you think it will end up bringing you more money than the field you really love is like rejecting a person you are crazy about in favor of somebody you don’t much like because s/he is rich. In the long run, it is never worth it.

Read the rest of Jonathan’s post here.