Monday, August 20, 2012

"Using" the Work of Others

The recent incidents concerning Fareed Zakaria and Jonah Lehrer have brought all sorts of issues to mind--far beyond the simplistic tsk-tsking for failure to provide attribution (accidental plagiarism?) and the making up of quotes. Though these shouldn't happen, they are commonplace occurrences. These writers just happened to get caught.

Careers are made on such things, and have been for generations. One of my favorite novels is Budd Schulberg's 1941 What Makes Sammy Run? It contains this passage:
"I read it," I said. "Maybe you'd like to know he copied that first paragraph from Somerset Maugham?"
"Maybe that's where you need to go for your stuff," he said....
The funny part of it was the kid's stuff wasn't bad. He was just smart enough never to crib from the same writer twice....
He even found a way of turning... retractions into a good think. For instance, if some bigshot happened to demand a correction, Sammy would call him by some private nickname and say, "Sorry, Jock," or "Pudge" or "Deac, thanks for the help."
I remember reading a biography of Elizabeth Taylor a couple of decades ago that was filled with quotes that exhibited exactly the style and cadence of the author. Usually, I have to take a breath when entering into a blockquote, reminding myself that the "feeling" was going to be different from what I had been reading. Not in this case. A person who had been a researcher for the author confirmed to me that much of the source material had been made up.

All who write base their work on those who have written before, and all bring work of the past forward, making it new (to paraphrase Ezra Pound). Many biographers do 'make up' conversations out of scanty information, doing so to make vivid what their research has shown to be true. Personally, I am not sure they should do that, even when it is clear that they are not taking the words from any one recorded source but are extrapolating from other information, but it has become something of a standard practice The problem is in knowing when one has gone too far, when one has reached Sammy-Glick status.

Personally, I don't think Zakaria did. His mistake seems to have been honest, and he admitted to it immediately. Lehrer? He tried to cover it up. Plus, he did something a little different from providing what is, in most cases, clearly a reconstruction. The way he used his Dylan "quotes" gave them a much more direct link to the source than an imagined conversation has. The same was true in that Liz book.

The thing isn't really to pillory either Zakaria or Lehrer, but to work to establish new tools for writers and researchers, tools that allow them to ensure that the words of others that they are working with don't get intermingled with their own, and new standards for sourcing what we are writing. Only when these become commonplace will it be possible for these--and the hundreds of other unnoticed incidents--situations to disappear.

Update: After posting this, I came across this piece by David Carr in The New York Times. He says it all better than I.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Reading Film

When I was writing Quentin Tarantino: Life at the Extremes, I decided not to attempt a standard film book. Not that I could have: my background is in literature and my inclination is toward cultural studies. Film studies has grown into its own conversations and I really could not be a part of them without engaging in a great deal of study.

The first thing I do in the book is try to put my study into a different context, doing so by coupling Tarantino with novelist Thomas Pynchon and talking about what I see as artificial distinctions between the ways we look at filmmakers and the ways we look at novelists. Following that, I write:
Whatever the reasons, we hold movies to a standard different from fiction. When Robert Coover and John Barth and Don DeLillo write novels about writing novels, they are esteemed. No one implies that they degrade their craft by "only" writing about writing. We always assume, with novelists who show their craft as they write, that much more is going on beyond simply showing off one's skills and knowledge. With Tarantino, though his work is related to fiction as much as to film, we are not so sure. (2)
As I do when writing about literature, I wrote the book with the movies constantly beside me, referring to them constantly through the process of composition. I did not think back on them or think about them... I thought with them. And I had a glorious time flipping back and forth from scene to scene, shot to shot.

I was taking advantage of new possibilities for the study of film brought about by digital access, possibilities that allowed me to work slowly and carefully and to make connections not quite so easily made when watching a film as a discrete unit over a limited viewing time.  I was discovering what film and digital media scholar Virginia Kuhn knows, that "digital technologies endow films with the same infinite patience that books possess."

Though I had not been able to express that so elegantly, the pleasure I found in writing about Tarantino's movies stems exactly from what Kuhn points out. I expect it will be the basis of a new and expanding method of considering film (far beyond what I did in my book) as we move further into a digital culture.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Why the Business Model Doesn't Work for Education

It's simple, really. In our adoration for free enterprise that has been built into cult-like status over the past generation, we have forgotten the prime rule of business: failure is the norm.

Let me say it again: failure, in business, is far more common than success. When we opened Shakespeare's Sister in 1994, the cliche was that 90% of new businesses close within the first two years. By the time I closed the store for good in 2008, I had seen enough businesses come and go to know that the cliche is not far from the truth. Yes, many businesses are created for a limited time only, but most start-ups do fail.

We cannot afford that with schools. When they don't work, closing them isn't an effective option--as New York City is learning right now. Closing a business affects only the owners and employees. The business failed (generally speaking) because it did not meet demands, whatever they have been, so the impact of its closing on customers is negligible. Closing a school disrupts its community and sidetracks education. Its impact on students is huge. Furthermore, it fails not because it does not meet demands, but because it did not reach benchmarks. As any entrepreneur will tell you, benchmarks do not make or break a business--they are only tools created to aid the entrepreneur. In education, however, they are used to destroy, not to improve. It is meet them--or else. That is artificial. It has nothing to do with concepts of free enterprise, the marketplace, or business in any way. And it is destructive, hurting students and communities, not to mention.

Trying again, for an entrepreneur, is difficult and emotionally draining, but it is the individual's choice to keep trying to find something that will work in the particular marketplace around the endeavor. It doesn't even have to be done. If there is real demand, another business will step in: that's the nature of supply-and-demand.

The same isn't true for education. It doesn't work on an entrepreneurial basis and never has. A community can't just wait for an educational entrepreneur to step in and found a new school on his or her own. For another thing, for the sake of the students one really should not displace them from school to school the way one can move from store to store. Ask any of us who attended multiple schools growing up: it's not a good experience--and, for most students, it impedes the flow of education rather than enhancing it. Closing and opening schools buffets students about but does not improve their learning--as we are seeing today in the wake of the current school-closing mania.

The fact that allowing a school to fail is not the same as allowing a business to fail should be obvious. It is, to anyone who has been a real entrepreneur, who has tried to build a business from scratch and who has experienced (or seen) the frequency with which businesses fail. Business is risk, but the risk is taken by the entrepreneur--it is not passed off onto the customer. It should not be passed on to the student, who many now mistakenly view as a customer. For, in the putative business model of education, the real risk is put on the student, something one should never do to a 'customer'; the 'entrepreneur' loses nothing when the enterprise fails. That is exactly the opposite of what happens in the real business world.

All of those people who tout the business model for education? For the most part, they are either government types or corporate types (neither has much experience with start-ups or with education). They don't know what they are talking about, not when the subject is education, but they do know how to pass money from government to corporations. School closing (and the charter-school movement in general) is a great way for doing that.

Even though it leaves students--and communities--in the lurch.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

"And All the Pundits Are Below Average"

In January, Thomas Friedman wrote:
In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.
 Today, he followed up:
Yes, this is a simplification, but the trend is accurate. The trend is that for more and more jobs, average is over. Thanks to the merger of, and advances in, globalization and the information technology revolution, every boss now has cheaper, easier access to more above-average software, automation, robotics, cheap labor and cheap genius than ever before. So just doing a job in an average way will not return an average lifestyle any longer.
How does he justify this? Through test scores. What do test scores rely on? Averages.

Friedman, of course, is displaying a little slight-of-hand in his use of the word "average." He is conflating a statistical term with the common 'good enough.'  It leads him to gobbledygook like the above, where he says average is over but also talks about above-average software, which can't exist, of course, without average software. If the above-average is cheap and easy, the average disappears and the above-average becomes average. So what is he talking about?

What he is talking about is testing and comparative results. He is 'concerned' that Americans aren't testing as well on standardized international assessments as some other countries. We are, he finds, below average.

A little ironic--if average is over.

What he doesn't understand is that tests, and averages, don't provide any real indication of a school or schooling. In fact, they do little more than tell how well the test-takers have done on that particular test on that particular day. Their correlation to anything else is meager, at best. I once watched the second of two IQ tests given to an eight-year-old. On the first, he scored below 90, which would have put him into a 'special' classroom (this was over thirty years ago). On the second, when the tester kept a pile of nickels that grew with each correct answer at her side where the child could see it, his score came up almost to 100. Which is the 'real' score, and why?

Yesterday, a student came in for advisement. She has a stellar GPA but had failed a placement test for an extremely competitive program. I asked her what had happened. She told me that, seeing that time was running out, she simply filled in answer bubbles at random, to get something down for each question remaining. I explained to her how this was not good test-taking strategy, especially if the grading took into account (as many do) the chance factor. If so, she might have done better to leave all of the remaining questions blank (again, depending on the scoring strategy). This excellent student failed the placement test, I am certain, simply because she is not skilled in test-taking.

Friedman quotes Andreas Schleicher of the Program for International Student Assessment:
“Imagine, in a few years, you could sign onto a Web site and see this is how my school compares with a similar school anywhere in the world,” says Schleicher. “And then you take this information to your local superintendent and ask: ‘Why are we not doing as well as schools in China or Finland?’ ”
This is a scary thought: who is to say if this "information" has any value? Because there are test results doesn't mean those results mean anything.  The person taking this information to a superintendent has no idea (or likely has no idea) just what that information represents. Schleicher, and the other proponents of standardized testing, imply that they know what education is--and can measure it. And the rest of us should just take their word for it.

Personally, I don't trust numbers-crunchers to evaluate education. All they are looking at is averages.

And, as Friedman says, average is over.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

PolicyDirect: Educational Policy Research for Dummies?

Cross-posted from the Academe Blog:

When I teach my technical-writing students about executive summaries, I tell them to imagine that their boss is either too dumb or too hurried to look carefully at the material behind the summary. They laugh, but they get the point: the boss (who is probably smart, actually, and a good judge of time) doesn’t want to be bothered with the details of a report unless she has to be. I also warn my students never to try to fool their bosses, never try to slip something by. Always be on your employer’s side; never act on another agenda.

Making sure that goals are identical is one reason for doing as much research as possible “in house.” Another is that your own experts will always know more about your situation than will outsiders. Yes, there are times when bringing in someone makes sense—but generally just do so to evaluate what has been done locally, and only if the outsider has been carefully vetted.

There are other reasons for doing one’s own research or, at least, keeping it local and open. As anybody who has attempted real research knows, the value of conducting research isn’t only in finding what you are looking for, but in the other things you discover along the way. Narrowly directed research, without the possibility of accidental findings, generally does little but confirm what we already “know.” This, of course, is why database searches can only be a small part of any research project, a ‘review of the literature’ at most.

Even then, the search needs to be broad, covering as much ground as possible. Just finding an article or two is never enough—nor is using a single database: there is no ‘one stop shopping’ in library research.

I saw a website today, for something called PolicyDirect, saying it is “connecting postsecondary education research with decision makers.” At the bottom of the page is a paragraph starting with this: “PolicyDirect serves as a one-stop, easy-to-use resource for quality research that illuminates critical findings and further challenges around important student outcomes.”

Aside from language that seems more like a smokescreen than illumination, what bothers me is that there probably are higher-education “decision makers” out there who would be grateful, without questioning it, for such a service. What bothers me even more is that this completely bypasses the century-old concept of shared university governance. That is, it should be assumed that the “decision makers” include the faculty—who just happen to also be the primary movers of postsecondary research. The research and the ability to connect to it is already there. Why establish another pathway? But that's a topic far larger than I can tackle in a blog post, so I will keep to something simpler.

What bothers me, too, is that PolicyDirect does not even represent best practice in business. It asks the “decision makers” to rely on the judgment of outsiders whose purposes may be far from those of the very “decision makers.” On its “About Our Reviewers” page, PolicyDirect says:
Selection of the Academic Fellows were based on the fellows. [sic] promising body of research and interests, recommendations from senior scholars in the fields of higher education and public policy, as well as input from national philanthropic leaders. This prestigious selection allows a unique opportunity for the fellows to influence the national postsecondary education agenda by evaluating critical research to elevate the current policy discourse. New Fellows are selected each year, in partnership with former Fellows in order to preserve consistency.
Nowhere is any indication given about who these “fellows” actually are. Maybe they are listed on the pages of the Institute of Higher Education Policy (IHEP) or Lumina Foundation pages (for these are the sponsors of the site), I don’t know, but nothing at PolicyDirect tells anything about them. “Decision makers,” it seems, are supposed to simply trust that these “fellows” are impartial, that they aren’t steering people toward specific articles or types. My students, who now know something about the possible follies of research, would be appalled.

In addition, the articles are presented through “excerpts,” not abstracts or summaries of some other type. Strangely enough, the site even mentions “full excerpts,” an odd phrase....

Just to see what PolicyDirect is doing, I tried a number of searches. One thing I noticed immediately was that a single article kept coming up at the top, a piece by Clifford Adelman who, it turns out, is a “Senior Associate” for IHEP.

At some point, I decided to compare PolicyDirect results with Google. Wanting  to use something neither too common nor too obscure, I searched on “Fred Keller Personalized System of Instruction.” PSI is something I know about but that has not been part of education discussions for quite some time. From Google, I came up with 180,000 hits; from PolicyDirect, 100. The first one from Google links to an .edu site with a .pdf specifically on PSI. All of the following three or four pages worth dealt directly with PSI.

On PolicyDirect, after that same Adelman article, which doesn’t mention Keller at all, came 99 hits. None of them seem to have anything to do with Keller or with PSI.

Thinking I had perhaps been too esoteric, I tried another search, on “early college high school,” a topic that should be of interest to PolicyDirect, given its connections to IHEP and Ilumina. Google gave over 400 million hits, each on the first few pages directly relevant. PolicyDirect?  99, if you count that ubiquitous Adelman article. Here, at least some of the articles did pertain to the topic, though many seemed a little far removed. Little of it seemed like it would be helpful in developing an understanding of the 'early college high school' movement.

My question, through all of this, is what’s the point? I quickly established that I can get more pertinent results through Google than through PolicyDirect, so why would I want to use PolicyDirect? Especially since I have no idea what the databases are that PolicyDirect has searched in order to prepare its own “excerpts,” and to what ends, I really cannot trust what I am finding there. I mean, Mr.PolicyDirect, just why are you trying to help me? I can carry my own bags—and if something is missing, I have only me to blame. Why should I trust you, a complete stranger, to do my work for me?

I hope our “decision makers” are asking just this as they look at the PolicyDirect site. My students, who are right now working on guides to effective web research, certainly would be.