Sunday, February 08, 2015

One Flew East Is Moving!

You will find new posts on One Flew East here.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

There's a Little Bit of Truth...

The best lies sail as close to the truth as they can; the best demagoguery creates canyons out of cracks. And politicians, of course, use any tools they can to rally their supporters, making them feel good about themselves while demeaning the opposition.

When Mike Huckabee, in his new book God, Guns, Grits, and  Gravy, sails close to a truth, his means of turning a crack into a canyon is a cultural divide that I also have written about--in my 2012 book The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth.

Yes, he is right: there are two Americas, one descended from the Enlightenment culture the older colonial settlers participated in, particularly in the Northeast, and the other descended from the Scots-Irish who came to the colonies a little later, often fleeing Ulster Plantation in northern Ireland, many arriving as indentured servants. They weren't welcomed by the descendants of the Puritans or by the Quakers; many of them quickly headed to the wilds of western Pennsylvania and Virginia or headed down the Great Wagon Road into the Carolinas.

It was in the Carolinas that the divide sparked organized violence, in a pre-Revolution conflict called "The War of the Regulation" that pitted the Scots-Irish and those who had joined them against the coastal "elite" of the southern colonies. They were also the disgruntled people of the Whiskey Rebellion shortly after the new nation  had been established. The Scots-Irish, along with the ragtag groups of Germans, Irish and even English who couldn't abide the coastal colonies and who had joined them, were the first Europeans to head west in substantial migration. Except for California and the northern tier of Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas, they were the first European settlers of most of the nation after the Revolution.

The red-state/blue-state divisions of America go back a long, long time. The Scots-Irish even took over some of the older colonials' areas, the defeated South, where the so-called Cavalier culture had been destroyed, became a mainstay of this particular American culture.

The divide, though, isn't nearly as wide as Huckabee makes it out to be. Electoral majorities are not consensus; in few places, do the winners in our political contests gain more than 60% of the vote and, even then, the percentage of people who actually vote is rather small. There are plenty of liberal Democrats in Mississippi and New York City, where I live, is home to many conservative Republicans.

There are also many who, like me, are descended from Scots-Irish ancestors, whose families settled in the Appalachian Mountains, who grew up with grits and gravy but whose inclinations are not toward god or guns.

Huckabee writes:
The three major “nerve centers” of our culture are New York City, Washington,  D.C.,  and Los Angeles.... They are the three “bubbles” of influence in our modern culture and they are indeed “bub- bles.” I call these cities “Bubble-ville.” I intentionally live in what I call “Bubba-ville.” It’s where “Bubbas” live, and where a lot of people are called by two names: Mary Elizabeth, Katherine Grace, Jim Bob, and Darryl Wayne. 
I travel to New York City every week to host my TV show on the Fox News Channel.  Because the  show originates from there,  most people think that I surely must live there. I’m quick to say, “I don’t live there and won’t unless they will let me duck hunt in Central Park.” I’m quite certain that isn’t going to happen since it’s all but impossible to own a gun in New York City, much less legally use it. Unless you’re a cop or a crook, you probably don’t possess a firearm in New York City. In fact, you’ve probably never seen one in person.
But it’s more than guns. Have you ever tried to order grits in a fancy Manhattan restaurant? Good luck. Not even for breakfast! And you’ll get some real weird looks if you ask for “sawmill gravy” on your potatoes or biscuits—that is if you can find real biscuits. And I’m sorry, but gravy on a bagel just doesn’t work for me. If I want to chew that hard, I’ll take up chewing tobacco, which I won’t. I’m not even that rural! I can somewhat understand that New York restaurants might not typically have red-eye gravy or chocolate gravy as those might be a bit regional, but how can an eating place that fancies itself fancy have the audacity to open its doors and not have biscuits and gravy or grits on the breakfast menu?
Huckabee sees only the New York of the very rich, and he's simply flattering himself that he's not part of them, using superficial badges of what he imagines (incorrectly) is the core of the Scots-Irish based culture that he demeans (unintentionally) as the "Bubbas."

One of the key words in this passage is "fancy." You won't find grits in a "fancy" restaurant almost anywhere in the United States... but that doesn't mean you can't get them elsewhere--even in New York City. Toomey's Diner on the edge of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, where the Dodgers ate breakfast in the days of Ebbet's Field, serves grits (or did... I moved out of the neighborhood five years ago so haven't recently checked) as do the diners around my current Marine Park neighborhood.

Though guns may be illegal in New York City, Huckabee would probably be shocked by the number that can be found here in Marine Park, once the home mainly of Irish and Italians, now with a large influx of Orthodox Jews, Asians and people of all sorts. But Huckabee is not likely to come here; his New York is only Manhattan, and a small part of even that.

Huckabee is creating caricatures of the two major American cultures, doing so for his own political purposes. There are real differences between the cultures: The Scots-Irish were never affected by the Enlightenment of the 18th century in the way New England was, and that created a quite distinct vision of the world. What Huckabee does point out are simply things that anyone can don or shed--as politicians often do when wanting to appear, one day, to be part of "the people" and, then next, of the "elite."

Huckabee is adding nothing to what should be national discussions of significant issues. All he is doing is exploiting cultural distinctions to create a political force that, though it will never move him into the White House, will certainly make him tons of money.

Good for him; bad for the rest of us.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Strange Truth--Or Fiction?

[Cross-posted from the Academe blog.]
“Brian Williams Admits He Wasn’t on Copter Shot Down in Iraq,” says the headline in The New York Times. The newscaster “apologized Wednesday for mistakenly claiming he had been on a helicopter that was shot down.” A decade-and-a-half ago, Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Ellis apologized for having claimed in his classrooms to have served in combat in Vietnam when he had not done so.
Neither of these incidents is unusual. People exaggerate their experiences all the time. Our stories get better as time goes on, often until they have little relation to the truth—as happened in both of these cases. What is unusual is that both have high profiles in the media, where such deviations tend to get noticed.
I’ve an exercise I use each time I teach a writing course, one on authority and honesty. I tell the story of an incident in Togo when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). Looked at dispassionately, it seems like it couldn’t be true.
The truncated version is this: Only the morning of August 2, 1990, while I was drinking coffee under an awning outside my house, listening to the BBC about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, I saw an elephant approaching. It would pass near me on its way back to the Fosse aux lions, the game preserve whose border was just across the road. I wanted to take its picture, so I grabbed my camera bag and the radio and walked to the top of a small rise the elephant would likely pass by. It was just about dawn: I pulled out my light meter and two cameras, checked my settings and waited for the elephant, which was following a path between bean fields. When it was as close as I dared stay, I snapped two pictures and prepared to slowly back down the little hill and return home.
Elephant001But the elephant had other ideas: Without raising its trunk or flapping its ears, usual warnings, it charged straight at me. I ran, but fell, losing my sandals as I slid to the wet ground and turning to face the elephant, wanting to see what was going to kill me.
It didn’t, obviously, but stopped a few meters from me and stared at me. Slowly, I removed the straps from cameras, the meter and the bag from around my neck—they’d been flopping around as I ran. Next to me, speaker in the mud, the radio babbled. The elephant turned, looking at me sideways. I scramble up and sprinted past it, heading the opposite way it was facing. Stopping eventually, I turned to see it go over to my cameras and radio, pick each piece up with its trunk, taste it and drop it. Finally, it swung my camera bag by the strap and threw it—then turned and walked into the Fosse. I collected my scattered belongings and returned home.
Over the years, I’ve written about this in numerous fashions—even as fiction—starting with a recounting in the little PCV newsletter we had. I try to keep as close to the truth as I can but a quarter of a century has passed and I sometimes wonder if I haven’t changed the tale in the writing. There are versions, I know, that are not quite accurate: In one, I write of telling the story to other PCVs who had arrived at a restaurant in a nearby town on motorcycles. They hadn’t. They had arrived in a Peace Corps vehicle, having stopped by my village and having already heard the story from people there who had witnessed it.
Anyhow, when I tell the story to my students, I warn them that they should be careful of what a person in authority says, for it is too easy to believe—but that they should not be completely skeptical, either. I then give them a few days to think about the story, to research what they can, and to come to a determination about its truth. When they do, and I have collected their writings, they always want me to tell them which it is, fact or fiction.
“Should you believe me, one way or another?" I respond. That stumps them.

"Standards!" Why the Fuss? I'd Rather Concern Myself with Education

[I posted this on the Academe blog on 12/28/2104.]
Education "reformers," in an attempt to save the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), are now attempting to decouple "standards" and "high-stakes testing." In an op-ed in The New York Times today, for example, David Kirp, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, writes:
Although the Obama administration didn’t craft the standards, it weighed in heavily, using some of the $4.35 billion from the Race to the Top program to encourage states to adopt not only the Common Core (in itself, a good thing) but also frequent, high-stakes testing (which is deeply unpopular). The mishandled rollout turned a conversation about pedagogy into an ideological and partisan debate over high-stakes testing. The misconception that standards and testing are identical has become widespread.
Well, no. CCSS is not, "in itself, a good thing" and it was not the "rollout" that attached it to testing. David Coleman, the creator of CCSS, after all, didn't become the head of the College Board (the holy grail of American high-stakes testing) soon after that rollout by accident.
Implicit in Kirp's comment is the assumption that standards, no matter how they are created and no matter what they consist of, are themselves a reasonable goal. That's about as meaningless as saying happiness is a goal. Sure, but what is happiness? What if the things that make you happy don't do it for me? "Standards," like "happiness," is a generalization. It does not follow that the specific pieces making up what is called a specific "standard" can be rationalized into a universal of any utility. Furthermore, a universal standard, to be universally accepted, would have to have at least a bit of the universal in its development. CCSS does not. It is the vision of a small group that has been 'rolled out' onto the rest of us. As an English professor who has worked with a high school to develop a CCSS-compliant curriculum, I can say for certain that the English Language Arts "standards" for CCSS do not reflect current practice or belief within the discipline. I see no sign that college professors contributed their expertise to help CCSS "create" college-ready high-school graduates.
To create real and useful standards (if standardized education should even be the goal), one would have to take into account all sorts of constituencies for those standards--not even just college professors. What are the standards necessary for participation in a democracy, and who should be asked to define them? What skills can we expect from high-school graduates, and who should determine them? These and other questions need to be addressed before the standards themselves are created--and they were not, not publicly, at least, with CCSS. And the standards, too, need to be created in public through a process that includes as many constituencies as possible.
And that's only if we agree that universal standards are, themselves, desirable. Maybe standards need to be much more personal, as is happiness. Maybe one size does not fit all. I chose the college I attended precisely because it did not have exactly the same expectations from students as every other college. Though CCSS claims not to determine curriculum, it certainly carries assumptions that have an impact on curriculum development, assumptions that, if CCSS is successful, will make education an assembly line, with parts (students) manufactured in one school identical to those of another, and either fitting perfectly into the higher-education machine (which is also heading in a CCSS-like direction through its current mania for "outcomes").
Standardization may be a good thing in manufacturing. It does not follow that it is always good for education. I know, "standards" and "standardization" are not really the same thing. In this case, however, I think maybe they are.
There are, of course, certain skills that everyone should gain. These, however, are not the totality of an education, be it one that stops at high school or that proceeds on to college and beyond. And not even these are universally agreed upon. Again, if we are to insist on standards, we first need to hammer out the "why" and the "what." Then we can turn our attention to the details. CCSS started with the details; its only rationale seems to have been that standards are, on their face, good, simply by the fact of being standards, so its creators worked from there.
Though the current tactic of education "reformers" is to try to separate CCSS from high-stakes testing, their's is, I think, a doomed task. Universal standards cannot be universal without universal assessment, and we are a long way from developing assessment tools that can work the same everywhere outside of quantifiable standardized tests. As things stand, CCSS cannot exist without high-stakes testing. Without the latter, the former has no more power than suggestion. So, there's no sense in trying to save CCSS by pretending to jettison high-stakes testing. People already see through that.
Personally, I think we need to go back to the beginning on all of this. Scrap CCSS and see if we can develop flexible standards that have real purpose in student lives--and standards that can be assessed by means other than numeric ones. The standards need to be simple and able to take into account differing needs of different people in varied situations. They need to be meaningful in how they are assessed. And they need to be agreed upon by the American people, not rolled out upon them.
Then teachers will be able to concern themselves with education and students with learning.

Anti-Intellectualism: A Continuing American Legacy

[I first posted this on the Academe blog in January.]
One of the most influential books on my own vision of academia and American life is Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Though I have serious reservations about parts of it, I return to the book again and again. Not surprisingly, I thought of it once more, today, when I read Patricia Williams' article in The Guardian, "Anti-Intellectualism Is Taking Over the US." It's almost three years old, but worth reading if you (like me) have not previously seen it. Williams writes:
There are a number of factors at play in the current rash of controversies. One is a rather stunning sense of privilege, the confident sense of superiority that allows someone to pass sweeping judgment on a body of work without having done any study at all. After the Chronicle of Higher Education published an item highlighting the dissertations of five young PhD candidates in African-American studies at Northwestern University, Chronicle blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote that the mere titles of the dissertations were sufficient cause to eliminate all black studies classes. Riley hadn't read the dissertations; they're not even published yet. When questioned about this, she argued that as "a journalist… it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them," adding: "there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery." Riley tried to justify her view with a cliched, culture-wars-style plaint about the humanities and higher education: "Such is the state of academic research these days…. The publication topics become more and more irrelevant and partisan. No one reads them." This is not mere arrogance; it is the same cocooned "white ghetto" narrow-mindedness that allows someone like Michael Hicks to be in charge of a major American school system yet not know "Rosa Clark's" correct name.
He meant, of course, "Rosa Parks." That anyone in the United States, to say nothing of someone with responsibilities for education, would make a mistake on that name is beyond belief.
Belief trumps inquiry for many Americans. It always has. Many of the opponents of American institutions of education are people believe they are secure in their knowledge--but who have never tried to put it to the test. When challenged, they lash out against the structures facilitating the challenge: schools and colleges. The difference, today, is that they are increasingly in charge of those schools and colleges rather than simply railing against them from the outside.

From Great Universities to "Knowledge Factories": Another American Institution in Decline

[I first posted this on the Academe blog in December.]
Thomas Frank, perhaps best known for What's the Matter with Kansas?, an examination of America's new conservatism, has an article in Salon, "The New Republic, the torture report, and the TED talks geniuses who gutted journalism." Toward the end, he writes this:
The new press lord’s deeds are all made possible by the shrinking significance of everyone else. Compared to the patois of power, the language of journalism is but meaningless babble. Compared to once having been a friend of Zuckerberg, no form of literary genius matters any more. Compared to the puissance and majesty of the CIA, we amount to nothing. We are playthings of the powerful, churned out by the millions every year from the nation’s knowledge factories. We are zeroes to their ones, ready to rationalize monopoly or rectal hydration at a moment’s notice.
We've been through all of this before, though Frank doesn't write about that. The late 19th century press barons such as William Randolph Hearst also reduced almost everyone and everything else to insignificance (that's the rationale for his San Simeon estate--its grandeur reduced even Hollywood stars to bit players). What's different today is that, after a century of progress toward providing real and substantial security for the majority of Americans we are returning to an age of insecurity, not moving farther from it. After building the possibilities of careers with stability in all sorts of fields (including journalism and academia, the two I want to talk about here), we are moving toward emphasis on the freelance, the contingent, the (to put it the way corporations like to) consultant. Today, we are both those who are churned out and those who do the churning--all without resistance. All of us, in the eyes of the new elite, are quickly and easily replaceable.
Frank, in applauding the mass resignation of the staff of The New Republic recently in response to changes being made by a new, rich owner with no background in journalism (Hearst, to give him his due, at least learned the business he bought rather than just "managing" it from the stratosphere--though he, too, completely revamped his first newspaper for a new age), also calls the act “'Hopeless' because, as The New York Times noted in a story about the changes at TNR, 'freelance writers are in abundant supply' these days." This, Frank goes on to say, is the real story, writing that "It has been obvious for some time that the great age of magazine journalism is coming to an end." For there to be great writers, there needs to be at least the possibility of stability of place and of income (see Virginia Woolf on this, in "A Room of One's Own" and "The Three Guineas").
But Frank is too narrow. It is not only the age of great magazine journalism that is ending, so is the age of great American universities (among other things)--and for somewhat the same reason. When the factory model is imposed, articles and graduates are but widgets and the workers are much the same, identical and easily replaceable. If part of the problem with magazines today is reliance on freelance writers, the same holds true for universities--where up to three-quarters of undergraduate courses are taught by contingent (basically freelance) instructors. As Frank writes, to understand this:
we would do well to take our rapidly polarizing class system into account—the insane arrangements that allow tycoons to buy presidential campaigns while journalists and intellectuals become glorified temps.
He leaves out universities, but they are being bought and sold today, too (look at the outsized influence of the Koch brothers, who increasingly have a say in who is hired in academic programs they fund). The professors have less and less influence, to the point where the former Chancellor of the City University of New York could write that "governance of the University on all matters rests with the Board of Trustees." The owners, to the members of the new American elite, are the only ones who count.
As Frank writes, "they are geniuses—everyone tells them so."

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Why Ph.D.s Should Teach College Students

Who should teach? And who should decide who teaches? What should the learning environment look like? And who should decide how it looks--and should there even be just one “look”? These old questions came to mind today when I read Marty Nemko's October 29 article in Time, "Why Ph.D.s Shouldn't Teach College Students."
I went to college at the tail end of a period of experimentation in higher education, graduating from Beloit College in Wisconsin (after attending two others) in 1973. The Beloit Plan, an attempt to move away from traditional models of higher education, had drawn me to the school. It was an attempt to step aside from some of the rigid structures that had been in place for decades. Included in the Beloit Plan were three full (15 week) semesters in each year with students expected to be on campus continually for their first three and last three, leaving a five-semester flexible period in between (what would have been the third semester of senior year wasn’t included, keeping the time frame from entry to graduation in line with other colleges). A student could choose to take four semesters of classes on campus in a row, then take a year away to do something else, and then come back for a final four--or any variation. The only thing each student had to do was complete a “field term,” working at an approved internship or job for at least one semester and writing a substantial report on the experience (I worked as a “copyboy” in the newsroom of The New York Times).  There were other changes, including attempts to move away from the “Carnegie hour” and to give students greater control over their programs (I was able to design and teach a course on Science Fiction during one of my last semesters--an experience that would prove quite valuable later, when this Philosophy major finally got around to going to graduate school in English and completing a dissertation on a Science Fiction writer).
Financial problems (among other things) let to the abandonment of the Beloit Plan later in the seventies. But it was the reason I went to Beloit, choosing it over Antioch (which had an even more robust "work" program) because I knew I was not disciplined enough to succeed in the even more student-driven environment of Yellow Springs. There were other possible alternatives to the traditional college model, including the “great books” school, St. John’s College in Maryland; Goddard College in Vermont; Friends World College with campuses on Long Island, in Japan, Kenya, Costa Rica; and elsewhere. Some of these are still around and still working to provide alternative paths to the baccalaureate, but their numbers are sadly diminished.
There were also experiments going on in what today we would call “sandboxes” within many colleges and systems, though few of these remain, either. Individual teachers, in addition, were experimenting with new models of learning, including Fred Keller at Columbia, whose 1969 article “‘Good-Bye, Teacher...’” still influences how I envision the perfect educational situation at the college level.
It seemed, at the time I entered college in 1969, that higher education was on the cusp of real and universal change, the development of a panoply of possibilities able to meet the divergent needs to multiple sorts of learners. Instead, thanks in part of the economic turmoil of the 1970s and the subsequent cultural turnaround of the 1980s, we have a reduced vision of education at all levels today, one driven by “outcomes” and “accountability” instead of by learning.
Nemko provides, accidentally, a nutshell explanation of why there these events have led to such a limited breadth to education today, and to so little real contemporary experimentation. Nemko is a “career coach, writer, speaker and public radio host specializing in career/workplace issues and education reform” with a Ph.D. in “education evaluation” from UC Berkeley. Though he has some teaching experience, his main focus seems to be on “results,” not on learning. In other words, he is a reflection of the growing mania for statistical verification and standardization that is now driving education in the United States at all levels and has done so since A Nation At Risk in 1983. He has created what he calls a College Report Card that he thinks should be front-and-center on all college websites:
  • Results of the most recent student-satisfaction survey.
  • The most recent report by a visiting accreditation team (for a college to retain accreditation, a team of experts periodically visits for a few days and writes a report listing the identified strengths, weaknesses and recommendations).
  • The four-year graduation rate.
  • The average four-year student’s growth in writing, analytic reasoning and mathematical reasoning (many institutions use a standardized exam like the Collegiate Learning Assessment).
  • The percentage of students who graduate with their intended major who are professionally employed or in graduate school within six months of graduation.
Frankly, I can’t think of many things seeming so innocuous that would be more detrimental to actual learning on campus or that are more directly reflective of the wrong turn American thinking on education has taken.
Student satisfaction, for one thing, should not be a goal of education. Believing it so is part of the fallout of a mistaken belief that business models can be useful in education. They cannot be (except in aspects of running the institutions). I want my students to be engaged, curious, excited, focused… but I do not care if they are satisfied, as long as they are learning. That is quite different from my attitude toward my customers back when I was running a store. Sometimes, in fact, the process of learning requires dissatisfaction and discomfort. That is never true of customers in business.
Accreditation bodies are becoming more and more suspect as evaluators to those of us who care more about learning than outcomes. Over the past few decades, they have become drivers of pedagogical focus through an over-emphasis on assessment through quantification. They are also overly interested in things like graduation rates, which are not always the most useful tools for evaluation (City College of San Francisco, for example, which is having trouble with its accreditation body, is criticized for low graduation rates yet its mission is not always to move students to degrees but to provide educational possibilities for those people who may be more interested in courses than programs). Today, it can seem like the accreditors want to reduce education to entries on spreadsheets. Their evaluations can seem to have little to do with assessing the amount of actual learning going on.
Which is also the weakness of looking at the four-year graduation rate as a one-size-fits-all gauge. One of the nice things about the Beloit Plan was that it could allow students to take from three full years to five (or more) to graduate. With a one-semester field term and eight semesters of classes, a student could graduate almost exactly three years from matriculation. On the other hand, a student who found their field-term project particularly engaging could extend it to a year or much more without endangering their ability to return and complete their degree. Today, for many CUNY students (I teach at a CUNY campus), graduation in four years is an impossibility. A great number of them work and, even with financial aid, cannot afford the time to take 15 credits a semester, the number they would need for a four-year path. Others have family commitments that keep them from that pace. The idea that the institution should be evaluated negatively for the socio-economic situations of the students is, well, silly and counter-productive.
Let's move on to standardized assessment. In my field of English, it is impossible to standardize assessment and one could even argue that trying to do so is counterproductive. Even the rubrics that supposedly can reduce writing to numerical scales are based on subjective judgments, making the resulting numbers, which can seem so “scientific,” meaningless. One, for example, asks that writing evaluation be based on numeration of things like “minimal,” “some,” “adequate,” and “thorough.” And, in another aspect, of “numerous,” “several,” “few,” or “very few.” How can one differentiate between these fuzzy terms on a numerical basis? It just doesn’t translate. Also, the standards that we do supposedly have were not established through any nationwide (or higher-education-wide) discussion but have evolved through the accrediting bodies or experts without review from outside (one of the same problems Common Core State Standards faces in regards to k-12). There’s an aura of arbitrariness to contemporary “standards” that not only makes them suspect but that makes one wonder if single standards are a good idea in the first place. Though the idea of "standards" may be attractive, there needs to be care and consideration behind their development--and a broad discussion. None of this has happened.
The final of Nemko’s “grades” would be on what students do afterward. OK, but education, to my Dewey-saturated mind, needs to be much more than job preparation. In fact, that should be the least of our concerns in terms of evaluating the efficacy of education. When schools are evaluated on how their students do in the short run, as Nemko wants, they will concentrate only on that, producing graduates who can step into particular jobs but not the educated citizens who will benefit American society over the long haul. Education should be aimed at the future, not at filling immediate needs. When students are well enough educated generally, they can learn the specifics of a job quickly--and that sort of training should be on the shoulders of employers, not colleges. (Of course, I am not writing of certificate programs here, but of the baccalaureate degree that attempts something greater than simple preparation for employment.)
A report card like Nemko’s will do nothing to improve education or make potential students better able to make intelligent decisions on where to attend. It will only limit administrative focus to those particular areas he lists, making them, not education, the center of the college experience.
Nemko’s title, as should be clear by now, is perhaps more than a little misleading. It is, in respects other than institutional evaluation as well. Little of college teaching, these days, happens at the hands of Ph.D.s. Complaining about them is somewhat like beating a dead horse. Adjuncts, most of whom are not research scholars, shoulder much of the burden of undergraduate education. And many of us who are Ph.D.s follow, to some degree, the ideas developed through the likes of Paulo Freire and Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction or the Mastery concept that grew from it over the seventies. At CUNY (and at City Tech in particular) we are constantly working to improve peer-led learning. Nationwide, digital possibilities are being explored as means of enhancing current educational processes or as alternatives. Rare is the “sage on the stage” that Nemko complains of, so rare that the phrase itself has long ago turned stale. What Nemko claims as a “hidebound” situation is not that at all, but a constantly evolving process.
Now that, of course, may seem to contradict my initial point that experimentation in higher education has died down. What has changed, really, is the nature of experimentation, a change brought about by the type of mindset that Nemko himself represents, the mindset with a focus on outcomes and not on learning. Assessment and “standardization” (standards, again, imposed without appropriate discussion of the reasons for them or the reasons why any particular ones are chosen) have straitjacketed attempts at systemic experimentation; the experimentation happening today takes place on an individual level or within constraints and regimentation imposed by accreditation agencies (among other external forces) unlike anything imposed in the past.
This is why there are so few experimental colleges today, or attempts to break out of the box of traditional educational assumptions: We have forced education into boxes like those on Nemko's "report card" or on grading rubrics--and we won't let it out. We are more interested in ranking than in learning. What Nemko offers will only increase this.
I know: I haven't answered the questions I posed at the start. Who should teach? Everyone, but subject specialists can organize the learning in ways nobody else can so need to have at least supervisory responsibilities. Who should decide who teaches? The collective faculty needs to have responsibility for who is deemed a subject specialist, but teaching itself is best based in the collective that includes students and faculty--and everyone in between. Who should decide how education looks? The institutions, working as wholes, need to do that--not outside experts but the people who will actually use the spaces. This, of course, implies that there can be no standardization.
Certainly not, if real learning is the goal.
(Originally posted on the Academe blog.)

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Neourbs and Death's Ironic Scraping

The fantasy of the neourb (the new urbanist): "I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was,—and methought I had,—but man is but a patched fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Mailer's ghost to write a ballad of this dream: it shall be called Brooklyn's Dream, because it hath no Brooklyn; and I will sing it myself at the end of the bridge, upon the walkway: peradventure, to make it the more precious, I shall sing it to our death."

You don't hear much of the death of Brooklyn, of the death of our cities--not any longer. There's a new dream replacing the nightmare demons of black encroachment (now contained in stop-and-frisk and visions of chokeholds and tasers). We, no "they" dream themselves to safety, guns and batons no longer visible during their cloudwalks to vegan markets and galleries whose brick walls flatter themselves into an urban rawness not the experience of anyone involved. Not even their parents. They open their arms to their black brethren--so long as they went to the right colleges, speak the right dialect, and work the right jobs. The rest--white, black, brown, yellow, whatever--are swept away and no longer signify.

But Brooklyn is dying, really, gasping for air, rattling its throes to a beat mistaken for rhythm, sounds mistaken for melody. Sandy warned them, but was passed off as a matter of luck--as though nothing else is, as though Gerritson Beach and Breezy Point died for their... protection (they have no sins). They, the neourbs, the children of the suburbs and entitled educations and trust funds, step into an urban paradise of their own creation, a bespoke Brooklyn crafted from artisanals out of the residue of the pushed behind (left behind? That would be a relief), the people who can no longer afford to live in New York City, let alone Brooklyn.

"Silver heels above me! I watch you pass my face; Climbing above the rest! near there half a step high! I see you turn from my face. Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me! In the limousines, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose; And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more than me, and more in our imaginations, than you might suppose."

Only the dead... only the rich know Brooklyn. Brooklyn... it cannot sustain the weight of wealth--no, its people, its soon-to-be former people can't. No longer can they live here, or in urban centers anywhere across America where the once wilds of Mafia and blackman myth have been tamed to nothing more than trophies of once everyday use. The African restaurant replaces the African; soul food remains though the soul is gone. The servers crash eight to a room out the LIRR while the cook, the landscaper, the contractor have self-styled themselves craftspeople, doing it all alone, those toiling for them simply replaceable parts like all of what once was the working class. They have the luxury of seeing working-class heroes in the mirror for they don't have to work at all or sleep in smelly rooms in illegal roominghouses near a Long Island station. They are moving farther and father out: "What happens when they can't come in at all? Can you really prepare those meals alone? Mow all that grass, trim? Install that oak flooring (bespoke)?"

That's the death. Those who do the real work of Brooklyn are shoved, with no consideration, to the far periphery by neourbs who flatter themselves that they can do it all, all by themselves. They don't need servants, they don't need helpers, they don't need anything but maybe their machines (though those, too, are probably redundant).

But they do. They are walking naked now into the water in their imagined splendid robes. Soon, they will not be waving, but drowning.

"I saw the least minds of my generation corrupted by Wall Street, stuffed hysterical bankers, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fee, self-proclaimed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of money, who pompously flatters his greedy eyes and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of million-dollar flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz.... "

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Gray Mountain

It had been years since I'd read a John Grisham novel, not since 1996, when I put down The Runaway Jury. The book was fine, even enjoyable, but my taste had moved on to the likes of James Lee Burke, whose Cadillac Jukebox came out the same year and whose depth and complexity, to say nothing of style, grabbed my attention. That was also the year of John Le Carre's The Tailor of Panama. When I wanted suspense, I was finding, there were choices of far greater sweep and command than Grisham, though he always did take me for a rollicking good ride.

When I read that Grisham was situating his latest novel, Gray Mountain in Appalachia, I shrugged my shoulders. Though he may be a southerner, Grisham is no child of the mountains. A riveting page-turner against a backdrop of hillbillies and hemlocks was about all I could expect--fine, but I had no need of that. No long trips are in the offing and I hope I won't be inhabiting waiting rooms for the hours and hours that make such books positively lust inducing.

Then I heard that Grisham was taking on Big Coal in his new novel. That, I thought, could be interesting, though the struggle against the mining companies is now much more than a century old and no closer to resolution than it has ever been. The thirst for fuel does more than blind us to the realities of climate change... it even leads us to ignore damage to people and places that occur right before our eyes, not just five, ten, twenty years down the road.

At best, I thought, Grisham would simply be reiterating the sadness and helplessness of the lyrics of John Prine's 1971 song "Paradise":
Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.
In a way, that's exactly what he has done.

Among, fortunately, other things.

Like many whose parents are Appalachian but who grew up away from the mountains (visiting many times a year, of course), I am attuned to even the smallest hint of hillbilly slight. So, it was with a feeling of here-we-go-again that I read this passage from the main character's first experience in the hills of western Virginia:
An old pickup truck approached from ahead, slowed, and seemed ready to stop. The driver leaned out and yelled, "Come on, Romey, not again."
The cop turned around and yelled back, "Get outta here!"
The truck stopped on the center line, and the driver yelled, "You gotta stop that, man."
The cop unsnapped his holster, whipped out his black pistol, and said, "You heard me, get outta here."
This, I thought as I read, looks like it is going to be another book of vulgar stereotypes of Appalachia. Too bad, for I had been enjoying the book, so far.

But Grisham was fooling with me. Romey, it turns out, is the author's way of showing his readers that he recognizes the stereotypes but will be going out of his way not to indulge in them. Quickly, Romey is shown to be a fool even in local terms and the fear he engenders quite unwarranted. We are quickly introduced to Donovan Gray, whose family gave the name to the title location: "He wore faded jeans, hiking boots, a fashionable sports coat, no tie." Throughout the book, Grisham goes out of his way to depict what he has discovered is the reality of Appalachia, not the popular perceptions. Gray and almost all of the other characters (all, except for the bad guys, the main character's parents, and a wealthy lawyer or two) ring true--especially the Appalachians. That, from my point of view, is something of a feat.

There's a reason for Grisham's care, and that's the contrast he wants to create between the Appalachians and Big Coal. He can't solve the problems of mountaintop removal but he can show its quite real impact on human beings--if he can create characters who do not fall into Appalachian stereotypes. Deliberately, he leaves the battle in his book unresolved, just as the actual battle for the survival of the coal-producing parts of Appalachia remains unresolved.

Though the thrills I had long associated with Grisham are missing from this book, for the most part, I like it better, far better than I had thought I would. The care and sensitivity shown surprised me, and my respect for Grisham has grown. The only thing I would wish, however, is that he had found a way to expand the portrait of mountain life to include all of its parts: There is no mention of African-American Appalachians anywhere in the book.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Badass Mark Naison and the Growing Conflict in American Education: A Book Review

One of the many carefully orchestrated myths of the corporate “reformers” who have hijacked American education this century is that opposition comes only from the Tea Party and from teachers union ‘dead enders.’ All right-thinking Americans, the myth goes, recognize that our public schools have failed and that education in the United States can only be saved by alternatives like vouchers and charter schools, by public schools staffed by temporary Teach for America instructors, and by imposition of “standards” by an elite that knows what employers need. Led today by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, billionaire Bill Gates, College Board head (and Common Core State Standards creator) David Coleman, and Students First organizer Michelle Rhee, this well-funded “reform” movement has been steamrolling over resistance for years, opponents often destroyed before they even know they are under attack.

A case in point is the recent experience of Bill de Blasio, new mayor of New York City. Diane Ravitch, the doyen of the anti-”reform” movement, notes his surrender to the charter-school movement and asks: “How did a privately managed school franchise that serves a tiny portion of New York’s students manage to hijack the education reforms of a new mayor with a huge popular mandate?” The answer, of course, is money. The money of the “reform” movement has, over the past decade or so, crushed all obstacles.

Over the last year, however, de Blasio’s caving notwithstanding, the situation has begun to change. Parents and teachers and others not beholden to the big money have started fighting back. The reformers attempted to cross a bridge too far by imposing on the states a standardization formula (Coleman’s CCSS) that utilizes high-stakes centralized testing for evaluation of both students and teachers—and that clearly benefits business much more than it does schools. Parents, seeing their children blindsided by a testing regimen making schooling a dreaded experience, are beginning to opt out of the CCSS-sparked standardized tests. Teachers, finally fed up with the vilification of their profession that has become an accepted part of American political discussion and terrified by new evaluation methods that reflect little of what actually goes on in their classrooms, are also finally beginning to resist. The Badass Teachers Association (BAT), organized in 2013, has become central to organizing the frustrated and increasingly marginalized (in terms of education policy) profession.

One of the founders of BAT is Fordham University’s Mark Naison, a professor of African-American Studies and a civil-rights advocate with an activist pedigree going back to the 1960s. He has now written Badass Teachers Unite!: Reflections on Education, History, and Youth Activism (Haymarket Books). Along with Ravitch, Long Island high-school principal Carol Burris and a growing cadre of bloggers, Naison has emerged as one of the leaders of a movement that may, one day, sweep the “reformers” and all of their money from the center of American education, a place they have occupied since the inception of No Child Left Behind in 2002. Money can do a lot but, when it comes to affecting the lives of children, parents and their allies, money may not prove to be everything.

Based on writings published primarily online over the past few years, Naison provides much more than a simple history of the backgrounds of a movement threatening right now to burst into national prominence. He also provides a context of public schools, real American public schools in the Bronx where real education happens, as a counter-argument to the failure meme at the heart of the “reform” movement. He paints a picture of students not as raw material for factory schools but as individuals with their own plans and desires, ones that can be far different from what the “reformers” draw up for them. And he makes clear just what his movement is fighting against: the Common Core standards, “a one-size-fits-all model of learning that is imposed through bribery, intimidation, and extreme political pressure, for the profit of private companies” (96); high-stakes and excessive testing; teacher evaluation based on student test scores; privatization of public education; federal and state mandates on local schools; and teacher rights to collective bargaining.

In his introduction, Naison describes the reason behind his own latest activism, a growing recognition of “the profound illegitimacy of policies wrapped in the mantle of patriotism, philanthropy, and civil rights” (xvii). He writes:
if my voice is unusual among the many speaking up to challenge attacks on teachers and public schools, it stems from my commitment to try to understand current policy initiatives in light of the historic experience of immigrants and people of color in Bronx schools and the history of great human rights struggles in the American past. (xvii)
The genesis of his writing, and of this new movement, lies not in Tea Party activism or in teachers unions. It lies in an American individualism and activism that has been quiescent, these last decades. The corporatist movement, in a stroke of genius, coopted even the language of past mass movements, leaving them word-tied. It even has the nerve to call itself a new civil right crusade. Yet all the while, as Ravitch points out, it is promoting “the re-creation of a dual school system” as diabolic as that destroyed more than half a century ago in Brown v. Board of Education. What Naison, Ravitch, Burris and the others are part of creating in response may be the first genuine populist movement in America since opposition to the Vietnam War.

Whether or not this movement will succeed—it has a difficult task in the face of concerted resistance by American oligarchs of both political parties—remains to be seen. But, sparked by a growing cadre of talented spokespeople like the three I have mentioned here, its chance of creating an effective counter to the monied movement of “reform” grows daily.

Anyone who wants to understand this movement, to be involved in it, to counter it, or just to observe it intelligently, would do well to read Naison’s book. All of us should want to: the conflict between the “reformers” and this new mass movement may well prove to be central to the American history of the next few years.