Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Welcome To My World

The National Association of Scholars :: The Classroom Without Reason: wherein the author discusses politics and rhetoric on campus. All i could do was nod in the affirmative. Critical thought is replaced by sloganeering. Four legs good, two legs bad -or better, as they are taught to say at the end (cf. Animal Farm).

Monday, April 27, 2009

Rough Recipe: Macaroni Mishmosh Casserole

Generic mac/cheese mix; ground beef; fresh squash and zucchini (I picked the first of the season today!), eggs; grated cheese; seasonings.

Brown beef and squash together. Make mac/cheese and combine into squash/beef mix. Season. Add tempered eggs and grated cheese and bake until it's a casserole. Onions wouldn't be bad in here, either.

(It was raining too hard to go out for Date Night, so I used what I had on hand and made dinner. I'm at my best when forced to improvise.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why Jeremy Lott Is Wrong (and so is the Instapundit!)

Jeremy Lott -- Why We Should Get Rid of the Vice Presidency: makes the case that the office of Vice President is superfluous and ought to be eliminated. His argument is specious. He quotes Federalist 68 to bolster his case, to wit, " '[the office] has been objected to as superfluous, if not mischievous' but... was needed to break tie votes in the Senate. But some state legislatures have a clear alternative rule: if it ties, it fails."

He conveniently omits Hamilton's response to this argument, also in 68: "[T]o secure at all times the possibility of a definite resolution of the body, it is necessary that the [Vice] President should have only a casting vote. And to take the senator of any State from his seat as senator, to place him in that of President of the Senate, would be to exchange, in regard to the State from which he came, a constant for a contingent vote."

There's another important reason to preserve the Bucket of Warm Spit that Hamilton did not properly foresee. Factional politics and the rise of political parties, contra Washington, came into being in the Age of Jackson with the result that we had to endure our first impeachment hearings in the early 1840s, when the House actually debated the removal of President John Tyler --his only real crime being to have offended the Whigs who put him on the 1840 ticket as VP under Wm. Harrison (and the Democrats, whom he angered because he used to be one). As it is the legislature that defines the order of succession beyond that prescribed within the Constitution (as modified by the 25th Amendment, naturally), there is a very clear conflict of interest in eliminating a President via impeachment when his replacement would come from the legislature. To me this is a implicit violation of the principle underlying the whole "separation of powers" doctrine. And we've seen where this could lead: Andrew Johnson's non-removal from office by the Senate was in no small part contingent on the knowledge that he would be succeeded by the President pro tempore of the Senate, a Radical Republican whom certain of the dissenting Republicans believed would abuse the Presidency. (Recall that at the time there was no provision for replacing a Vice President who became President; Johnson inherited the #1 position when Lincoln was assassinated.)

Like it or not, the Vice Presidency now stands as insurance against politically motivated impeachment and removal. Without it, a partisan Congress could be more able to seize control of the country. Given their absolutely stellar record of late, I'm happy to let them cool their heels, even if this means putting up with Joe Biden (or Dick Cheney or Al Gore or Dan Quayle).

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tweet tweet

I am on Twitter. MojoBison. For those times when RSS just isn't enough!

Where's MY Money!?

America's Newest Profession - WSJ.com: damn, I must be seriously under-paid...

An Update

In re this post, the class in question is now down to four. One of the students, as it turns out, had failed to take a single exam the entire semester. Now this should have been very apparent immediately after the first exam, when none of the rest of the course quizzes or exams could be accessed. But this individual only chose to say something to me at the end of last week.

No, it is too late to drop the class.

No, you may not make up any of the missing work, it's not fair to those students who did the work when it was due, and it's certainly not fair to those students who dropped the class because of borderline grades.

So you're going to fail the course. Why are you angry with me for following my syllabus? (NB all students are warned in the syllabus that anyone not taking the first exam is automatically locked out of the course shell and must drop the course to avoid earning a grade of "F", as I am not paid to do students' data-entry work for them.)

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Great Outdoors In Spring

After a weekend of torrential rain the local forecast calls for sunny and warm the whole week. The sloughs and creeks are all full-up and the catfish are hitting. The grass is really greening up and the maters are looking to put on a bumper crop in the coming weeks. My Wee One discovered the flying disc in the guest bedroom and I began to wonder if she was old enough to play Catch. I found my light-duty elbow brace and thoughts of frisbee golf arose unbidden.

Damn you, Chores List!

My Thoughts On Student Loans

In Grim Job Market, Student Loans Are a Costly Burden --wherein the New York Times considers the students who borrow above their own eyeballs to pay for a degree that doesn't pay enough for them to get out of debt. I'm not a huge fan of the Financial Aid Game; institutions high and low have zero incentive to discourage students from borrowing money; frequently, their own federal subsidies are tied not just to enrollment but to disbursements and so their incentive is actually negative. The students I see most often falling into this trap are lower-income students who don't understand that loans aren't free money (despite what they may have heard). Meantime the cost of higher education continues to climb over and above the rate of inflation. I suspect the two things are at least somewhat related.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Ya know, I had a hunch the moment I saw the lede on FoxNews.com...

A teenage star of the Harry Potter films is arrested after cops find cannabis farm in his bedroom | The Sun |News: link to the original Sun article. The lede on Fox indicated that one of "Harry Potter's Foes" got busted for drugs, and that very instant I thought, "I bet it's one of Draco Malfoy's goons, I have a hunch their real-life actors are bringing more to the role than one might think..." And dang if I wasn't spot-on! Crabbe, you moron!!!

But at least they got the filming done OH NOEZ! THEY'RE STILL FILMING PART I OF THE LAST BOOK! At least they can quickly insert a new Crabbe into the shooting... assuming, that is, that they don't take the "well, the characters are getting edgier and edgier, it can't hurt PR that badly to subtly acknowledge that this sort of thing goes on" route.

[Update: Dear Rocboy, do refrain from being "witty", as I try not to fight unarmed opponents.]

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"Oh, it must be the fault of the instructor...." [LONG]

I did a head-count of how many people are still active in my Tuesday/Thursday AM class: officially eight, but unofficially five, out of a class that had twenty-three students enrolled on the first day. Even by community college standards, that is a big ol' number of drops. Knowing something of how administrators in the modern age of pedagogy think, I feel compelled to rebut in advance the argument that "oh, it must be the fault of the instructor...."

I do try very hard to acknowledge that, as a community college instructor, part of my job description is that of bridge-builder for students who want higher education but who may not be Quite There Yet in terms of ability and/or maturity. But at the same time, I'm not doing them any favors by automatically passing every student who shows up. That's what they learned in high school, and that's what they'll take with them into the Real World if we're not careful: a sense of false entitlement. College is about learning, not deserving.

But a close-to-80% attrition rate is a bit hard for anyone to swallow. None of my other sections this semester has anywhere close to that level of drops. So I did a bit of digging. As usual, there was a significant drop-off in enrollees around the time of the first exam --which, coincidentally, was the time that several series of student loan/grants/gimmes sent out their final payments for the semester. I'm not going to mince words: many students who drop around this time were only enrolled to pad their wallets with financial aid, and were going to drop out no matter what. A few more usually drop after they actually see the results of their first exam (cf. The Gut-shot Post). But then I'm generally left with a more-or-less serious core of between 60% and 80% of the original roster.

The next round of drops usually occurs immediately after the results of the second exam are released, and the students who realize that they aren't going to magically improve their grades head for the door. This is what got me this time around: about half of the class in that morning section did this. Some of this was aid-related in that some aid programs required enrollment for at least half the semester. But a bigger part this year was along the lines of this: "I needed an A in your course but I wasn't going to get it so I dropped."

Whose fault is it that you aren't getting an A?

Is it my fault for not dumbing down the course to where you could ace the exams? Is it similarly my fault for not spoon-feeding you the exam? Most of these students are at least marginally competent --they wouldn't have stayed enrolled after the first exam otherwise. Is it the fault of the exam for being invalid? Is it the very nature of history classes to be dull and tedious and Worse Than Having Wisdom Teeth Pulled?

I could go on but I think most of you have seen the direction I'm going. More often than not it's the fault of the students for not being ready to be in a college-level history class. I don't necessarily blame them: many of them were told to "go ahead and take it, you don't need to read well to learn history" (and yes, enrollment counselors do say things like that); or "you're only working 30 hours a week, you can go ahead and take five classes." But sticking the most egregiously in my craw are the ones who are going into programs like nursing that require a very high GPA for admittance. These are the most notorious students around, they will whine and complain and appeal until they have that A, and if they don't get it, they run for the door and try to find an easier instructor the next semester. I'm not sure I want someone with that approach to learning (or work) trying to run a foley on me or making sure my meds are correct at 3AM. (No disrespect to nurses in general, that's a hard job --which is precisely why I want good students going into the program.)

But back to my original premise: the path of least resistance is to blame the instructor. K-12 administrators learned a long time ago that the best way to keep their own jobs was to keep parents happy, and parents are happy when their kids are getting passing grades. It's almost never written down, but most school districts drill it into the heads of the teachers (backed up by education professors, some of whom are my friends but most of whom are Fairly Useless) that anything above a 15% failure rate is Unacceptable. The path of least resistance is to curve up everything until that magic number is achieved --which works right up to the moment that the students figure out the game and begin doing less and less work, knowing that the teacher will be the one to get into trouble and not them. News flash: we were there ten years ago (at least!), and things haven't gotten any better. Today's college students come less prepared than ever, feeling more entitled to good grades than ever, and more prepared to blame their instructors for not giving them good grades than ever. And college administrators, concerned most about the Bottom Line (money based on enrollment), are starting to pressure instructors about failure rates. It's never directly said. It's always couched in terms like "retention" and "achievement," but the intent is clear: more students passing means more students enrolled means more money. Numbers trumps quality. Students who are limited-proficiency ESL or enrolled in remedia---err, developmental writing classes are channeled directly into writing-intensive courses with no thought beyond "well well, our numbers are up for the third semester in a row!"

The real losers in the long run are the students. Many do get discouraged and drop out. But the ones who are Passed Along suffer the most, because they actually come to believe that they are learning when in reality they aren't, and when they do finally get out into the workforce or into a four-year institution, they get that 4AM-bucket-of-ice-water-to-the-snarglies-wake-up-call. The ones who succeed are the ones who rise to the challenge, but many more turn around and blame their old instructors for doing a poor job of preparing them for What Was Coming.

It is frustrating to see students fall into that trap. I don't regret being thorough and challenging my students --no good instructor ever does. I do it because I don't want them falling into that trap. But in a community college you walk a fine line between challenge and bridge-work. My own institution is part of a regional system, and I regularly endure the abuse of my colleagues from other campuses with better-prepared clienteles: "oh, you dumb down your instruction too much," or "you guys don't assign enough writing or reading, you're almost not a college." In other words, "we're better than you and you should really do things more like we do." (NB in public school they sometimes refer to Gifted/Talented Syndrome: teachers of G/T students come to believe that they themselves are somehow G/T and that their students are only G/T because of their efforts --the sad fact is that most of the G/T teachers I knew were barely competent, and their students knew it. I'm a G/T kid myself, and I know the looks they give when they know that they are smarter than their teachers...) But when I talk about requiring more reading I get told not to Rock That Boat because "students don't read and besides they don't want to buy all those books" and "you're only making harder for your students to pass."

If I thought it really was my fault, wouldn't I be the first person to want to fix the problem? I'm not that sinister to intentionally set students up for failure --I'm not paid extra for failing more students. But this idea that everything ultimately falls to the instructor simply does not stand. If you don't want students to fail, eliminate grades and go to a standardized pass/fail rubric based on attendance and the ability not to sleep or text or Google in class. If you want the students to actually learn, on the other hand, send them to me.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Bring Back Oral Exams!

Cheating is So Much Easier | The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy: talking about essay mills (no relation to J.S.) and the reasons why students not only refuse to write, but cannot recognize that the papers they're buying actually are terrible. "For the most part, our K-12 schools no longer do a decent job of teaching students how to write good, clear English, a defect rooted in the “progressive” education theory that it’s bad to drill rules into students." That's why I have to tailor my essay questions so that you can't simply Google or Wiki the answer --in fact, the last two plagiarism cases I've handled involved straight pasting from Wikipedia. But it's mighty hard to cheat when you're faced with a panel of questioners...