Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Which to fund: science labs or racial equity?

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

A committee at Berkeley High School in Northern California has proposed eliminating science lab classes—and the teachers who teach them—in favor of funding activities and resources for underperforming students and closing the racial gap in performance at the school.

Writing at the Berkeley High Jacket student newspaper, Chloe Holden explains:

Under the new plan, finalized and approved two weeks ago, the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project (BSEP) grants currently being used to fund science labs, along with those used in the arts programs, will be redirected to fund a new system of “equity grants.” These grants will be intended to support the Action Plan’s larger objective of student equity at BHS. While it is possible that parts of the lab program may be submitted by the science department funding under the new equity grants, potential of this taking place is currently unclear.

According to the East Bay Express,

The proposal to put the science-lab cuts on the table was approved recently by Berkeley High's School Governance Council, a body of teachers, parents, and students who oversee a plan to change the structure of the high school to address Berkeley's dismal racial achievement gap, where white students are doing far better than the state average while black and Latino students are doing worse.

In the same article, a parent is quoted as saying that the lab classes have been presented to the School Governance Council as enrolling mostly white students.  The article also cites Mardi Sincular-Mertens, a 24-year veteran of BHS science teaching, as saying that cuts will impact her black and Latino students as well; for example, she has 12 African-American male students in her Advanced Placement classes, and black students constitute 17.5 percent of her four environmental science classes.  Latinos constitute 13.9 percent of those classes.

That 17.5 percent isn't a representative percentage of the black students at the high school; Razib Khan offers a pie chart illustrating the school's demographics; it indicates the school is 29.1 percent African American, 36.7 percent white, and 12.6 percent Hispanic/Latino.  As Khan points out, the city of Berkeley is 9.3 percent black, 57.4 percent non-Hispanic white, and 10.7 percent Hispanic.  Compare the two sets of numbers, and it suggests parents are sending their white students to private schools in larger numbers than are parents of black or Latino students.  Cutting the science labs may contribute further to this trend, he writes.

This action will reinforce this tendency; the type of engaged parents which a public school benefits from won't consider sending their child to one which has to slash science laboratories to focus on remedial education. So Berkeley High School is simply accelerating its long death spiral.

More generally, the bizarre racialist logic used to justify the slashing of the science curriculum, that science implicitly benefits whites, is objectionable (at least to me, and likely to readers of this weblog). Our civilization is grounded fundamentally in science. Additionally, Berkeley High School is just a few blocks from UC Berkeley, where there are plenty of non-whites who do science. 42% of the undergraduates at UC Berkeley are Asian, as opposed to 31% who are white.

Science teachers at Berkeley have written an open letter to the school community; they are, of course, protesting the cuts.  From the letter:

This proposal flies in the face of the BSEP mandate and the 2020 Vision. The science labs during 0 and 7th periods provide weekly enrichment and satisfy [University of California] and [California State University] requirements that college prep science classes offer 20% of instructional time for hands-on lab activities. In addition, the extra lab periods provide additional time to support struggling students. The science program meets the goals articulated by both BSEP and the 2020 Vision providing enrichment, support for all students and UC requirements.

The extra time BSEP funding supports allows BHS to maintain an outstanding AP science program. Many of our students take and succeed in three AP level sciences courses as first year courses. Our students’ performance on the AP exams well exceeds the national average. These courses would have to become 2nd year offerings if the labs were eliminated. Approximately 600 students per year enroll in our AP programs. All of our students take Advanced Biology, most take chemistry, physics, or environmental science or anatomy and the extra time provides the support students need to develop a deep understanding of these topics.

Where Asian-American high school students fit into all of this isn't clear from material available online, but I will point out that Berkeley High School has the largest racial equity/achievement gap in the state--a gap that is in desperate need of remediation.

It's not yet clear how the funds generated by cutting science labs will be spent, but Joanne Jacobs writes that one possibility is creating "small 'learning communities,' an innovation that’s failed to show results so far."

Vera L. Te Velde, a student at UC Berkeley, is confused--as are many commenters on various blog posts and articles, it seems--how removing classes that benefit one group (white and possibly Asian-American students) is the best course of action in leveling the playing field.  "Berkeley is home of people who are smug about their open-mindedness and intelligence and reasonableness," she writes, "and this is what they come up with."

In the long comment stream at Crazy on Tap, one commenter argued that providing Advanced Placement and honors students with additional class time is unfair to students who don't have access to the science labs, which meet before and after school.  Another commenter replied,

The new argument has been made [...] that there should be equal hours per student, that anything else is unfair.

Obviously the students that predominate the sports classes get far more hours than the regular students.

So, I want to know if you want to eliminate the sports (and possibly music) programs, or if you favor figuring how many hours are involved in that and making sure that all the students not involved get those hours as well.

After all, that is what is fair.

Of course, I want it both ways: I want to see higher achievement by black and Latino students and I want all students to have access to hands-on science.  And, as fellow BlogHer Deb Roby pointed out to me, the two desires aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, as evidenced by the success of Da Vinci Science High School in Southern California.  Both schools offer a "project-based" curriculum that emphasizes hands-on learning, often in groups.  Notably, the Wiseburn School District, which oversees Da Vinci and its twin, Da Vinci Design High School, as well as elementary and middle schools, is one of the few districts in the state to have eliminated the racial gap in achievement.

What are your thoughts?  How should Berkeley High School spend its grant money?  What solution seems most equitable to you?


Monday, December 14, 2009

In which I warm up for Tuesday's job interview by writing about rabbits

Dear academic job interview committee,

So. . . I've been cramming preparing for my 45-minute videoconference with you tomorrow. There's a giant pile of public history books next to me on the dining room table--the end of which has become over the past year an extension of my desk, which itself sits in a corner of my dining room. See, I need the table--which is ridiculously large, really--because my ideas are so big that I need to spread them out across many square feet of horizontal space. It's a bit messy, but what can I say? I'm a visual thinker. (Ask me about different learning styles--ooh, and disabilities---and how I plan for them in the classroom!) Also on the table: books on museums, women in science, history of medicine, and the optimistically titled (at the bottom of an unwieldy stack) Unclutter Your Life in One Week!! Those two exclamation points bother me, but I include them because they are in the original source. (Ask me about how I'm really a historian! Ask me about teaching writing!)

Why I'm writing to you tonight, really, is to point out that, if I'm to believe what I read on the interwebs, the list of questions-I-should-be-prepared-to-answer is very long. And many of the questions are not really that interesting. Do you really want to know what text I'd use to anchor an introduction to public history course? Oh, let's say Everyday America: Cultural Landscape Studies After J. B. Jackson because it's already on my shelf, it's interesting to me, accessible (and perhaps even engaging) to undergraduates, and it has photos, great photos, like the one on page 230 of a rabbit drive in southern Idaho, circa 1900. The jackrabbits are blurry and headed in every which direction, but they are bounded by fences. As I prepare for a job interview that crosses many fields, I'm feeling that way right now. I don't want to know what happened to the rabbits, which, the book tells me, "migrated irrespective of property boundaries." The book also tells me that "at such moments [as a rabbit drive], farmers often behaved less as individualists and more as communitarians as they banded together to confront the biota that threatened their collective landscape."

Did you see on my CV that I'm both an English major and have a Master's in writing poetry? So you can see this metaphor coming, yes? Because I've been reading a report about the crisis in liberal arts at your university (sorry about the Phi Beta Kappa application rejection!), and I'm realizing maybe the liberal arts disciplines--and here I'm talking about everywhere they're in crisis, not just at your institution--need to stop acting like cornered jackrabbits and more like communitarian farmers.

Let me explain. When you're talking about the importance of interdisciplinarity in this report-on-the-crisis, you seem to really be talking about multidisciplinarity, about housing disciplines side-by-side so that faculty can, well, talk to each other. That's like letting all the herb farmers plant their crops in adjacent plots. Those plots are still going to be savaged by rabbits. (I'll let you imagine who the rabbits might be, but here's an example--increased funding for science labs at the expense of, oh, the language lab.) Adjacent herb farming is multidisciplinary. After all, everyone needs herbs, but in small amounts. They're kind of a boutique thing, an afterthought consumers pick up at the farmer's market.

What you really want is interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity is when you plant marigolds, garlic, and onions among the herbs. I know--maybe you don't want my marigolds (cultural studies) in your lemon basil (military history), and maybe I'm not that crazy about lemon basil, either. But who knows what wonderful, beneficial insects the combination of basil and marigolds might attract? What cross-pollination might occur that we wouldn't get if we had only rows of lemon basil, lime basil, Thai basil, African blue basil. . .ad nauseum with the basil. So let's invite the soybean farmers and the mushroom cultivators and the wheat growers and the cashew guys and the tomato folks. And when it comes time to harvest--what salads! What terrific pasta dishes! What great Thai food! (Do you have Thai food in your city? Because we have five Thai restaurants in my tiny downtown, and I find I need at least three to be fully myself.) And yes, I know the cashew guys are scientists, but to be truly interdisciplinary, we'll need them because science is essential to a liberal arts education.

But back to those questions: Have I answered the book question satisfactorily? Does it matter which book I choose, or are you more interested in what I say about it? Is it a litmus test or an opportunity to share some teaching philosophy? If the latter, why not just ask about my teaching philosophy? Because hoo boy, I could go on about that. And you would be mightily entertained and say to yourselves, lo, after reading CVs until our eyes crossed, we have at last found a wise and convivial colleague.

Oh, my dissertation? Yawn. That's like so three years ago. It's practically a book now. Let me tell you about it. There are no photos of rabbits, but part of one chapter features the woman who ran the San Diego Zoo for many years, and another showcases the professional savvy of Alice Eastwood, who was curator of botany for several decades at the California Academy of Sciences (yes, that Eastwood, the one who climbed six stories of iron banister to save the Academy's botanical type specimens in the hours between the earthquake and fire in 1906. The Eastwood whose account of said escapade I read in her own handwriting in a letter in the Smithsonian Institution archives, just as any real historian would!).

Maybe you'll wonder if I'm an historian of science, then, not really a public historian or a women's historian. Guess what? I'm all of the above. I know--isn't it great?

Here's where I explain how you're getting a great package deal when you hire me. You want a gender person. You want a U.S. history person. You want a public history person. My research into U.S. women scientists' lives and work led me to some really quite profound (IMHO) understandings of what it means to create knowledge and how that knowledge comes to be valued--or, too frequently, not valued, by various publics. I understand what play of forces allows for certain thinking and speaking subjects to emerge. I know how Eastwood's success required as much the adoration of the Bay Area flower enthusiasts as the respect of male botanists. Eastwood succeeded--many of the women scientists succeeded--because she was a public botanist, a public scientist. She democratized knowledge, and it paid off for her. Big time.

Are you seeing the parallels with public history? Networks of amateur historians/botanists, connected through complex webs to professional historians/botanists, all of whom value one another's knowledge as they collaborate on projects that neither group could complete on their own? I'm ready to propose public history collaborations--or maybe even digital humanities projects--with your local museums, cultural centers, and historical societies, which of course I can name because I'm just that terrific with the background research. (Ask me about their exhibition spaces' square footage!)

Let's talk interdisciplinary liberal arts pedagogy. In addition to developing my own graduate and undergraduate courses in five disciplines (literature, writing, American studies, museum studies, and education), I've spent the past three years assisting faculty from across the disciplines (yes, even in the sciences, because I'm just that open-minded) be more thoughtful about teaching. And even about teaching with technology. (Did you note those tech-in-teaching/teaching-in-tech conference presentations--nay, cross-institutional collaborations--on my CV?) If you want anecdotes, you're going to have to ask for them at the interview, but let's just say I have a really fantastic example from my classroom that in a single project considers digital archives, curatorship, material culture, museum exhibits, diverse publics, September 11, Muslim Americans, and a London Tube stop.

I'm interdisciplinary, an experienced researcher, and enthusiastic about teaching; I write well and consider teaching writing a core part of any course; and (because you may ask me about my greatest flaw) I've been criticized for being "democratic (small d) to the core." What more do you want in a colleague who does U.S. public history?

But wait--if you act now, you'll also get my thoughts and expertise on first-year seminars; my experience advising faculty on student learning outcomes and assessment at the course, departmental, and institutional level; and an insane willingness to serve on committees. (Again, check out that CV.)

Oh, and if you want to slyly let me know that you've been doing some sleuthing and have read this blog, simply work into your questions the phrase "Tell me about the rabbits." (Only this time, I promise a happy ending; I'll bring the marigolds.)

Yours in interdisciplinary collegiality and mixed metaphor,

Leslie M-B

Friday, December 11, 2009

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Let it. . . ???

Check out tomorrow's forecast--I've never seen the snow icon on my Mac's dashboard. Too bad it's mixed with rain. I don't want sleet. . .

The last time I remember it snowing here was in January 2002, and it was a pretty little dusting, though I must admit I was unprepared to ride my bike through it. Brrrrrr!

A job interview walks into a bar. . .

Just as I've been ready to throw in the tenure-track towel, a search committee has decided to give me a chance. I have a videoconference interview in a little over a week.

And it's in a history department.

Let me repeat that: a history department.

The competition for history jobs is, even in this cutthroat market, exceptionally insane. Over my three years of academic job searching, because my CV doesn't bear a Ph.D. in history, I suspect many copies of it have met recycling bins tout de suite.

Which renders this opportunity particularly extraordinary. I'm trying to walk the line between getting my hopes up too high and being self-defeating. For me, that's a very fine line.

But let's be optimistic for a moment, shall we? The position is tenure-track, and it is in public history and gender history. The institution offers a really distinctive M.A. that overlaps with museum studies—which is just about perfect, both in terms of what I do and where I want to go with my teaching, research, and practice.

The department seems to really value teaching, too, which is fabulous.

Of course, as is always the case in an academic job search, there's the matter of where. It's in a state where I may have camped once as a child, but beyond that I've never visited, and it's definitely a place that, while beautiful, many people would consider flyover territory. But so is my beloved Iowa, so color me intrigued. Politically, it's a staunchly red state, with Republicans holding every major office at state and federal levels, with the exception of one Democratic congressperson in the district where the hiring institution sits. (But that same district voted 69% for GWB in 2004.) The politics wouldn't be a deal-killer, actually--I learned a few years back while living in the Young Women's Christian Home in D.C. that I very much enjoy talking to, and learning from, people who hold beliefs very different from mine.

But I get ahead of myself. For the present I have a stack of a dozen books about public history next to me because while I certainly understand the issues facing museums of history and culture and I am familiar with the kinds of natural and social history interpretation that happen at, say, national parks, and while I have kept abreast of developments in digital history, the finer points of, for example, historical reenactment, genealogy, corporate histories, battlefields, and video games/simulations may be lost on me.

I also have a smaller stack of books relating to the subfield of gender history into which I've been wanting to dive headfirst, but into which I have instead been wading very slowly. I need to outline my next project, even as I must refocus on revising and shopping around my diss.

And of course I have a dissertation to reread. A dissertation elevator speech to revise. Answers to draft to typical first-round job search questions. Syllabi to dream up. Nervous breakdowns to experience.

And the biggie: I need to articulate why a Ph.D. in cultural studies—or maybe especially my degree in cultural studies—prepares me to "do" history and to prepare grad students for jobs in public history.

Any tips you want to give on interviewing via videoconference, or references to books, articles, and other resources I absolutely must not miss on teaching public or gender history, etc. would be most appreciated.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Campus Security Across the U.S. Needs More Transparency

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

This week a commission investigating the campus shootings that killed more than 30 people in April 2007 at Virginia Tech released an addendum updating an earlier report to the state's governor. The findings reported in the 210-page document are disturbing. In the three hours between the initial killing by Seung-Hui Cho of two students in a dorm and his massacre of 30 more people in a classroom building, campus administrators made several errors that resulted in the additional fatalies.

The initial report focused on the campus's failure to recognize the danger posed by Cho's mental illness. The new report looks at the response of administrators and campus security to the campus emergency, as well as state and federal laws that allowed a mentally ill person who posed a danger to himself and others to purchase firearms. Among the report's findings are:

  • "Cho was not legally authorized to purchase his guns but was easily able to do so," even though under federal law he was disqualified from purchasing firearms; Virginia law is less clear. Federal law also prohibited him from purchasing ammunition; Virginia law offered no such restrictions.
  • "Virginia universities and colleges do not seem to be adequately versed in what they can do about banning guns on campus under existing interpretations of state laws."
  • The probability was very low that a double-murder on campus would be followed by a massacre; the only campus mass murder in the U.S. in the preceding 40 years was the sniper attack from a tower at the University of Texas. That said, the report's authors write that "the VTPD had the probabilities correct, but needed to consider the low-probability side as well as the most likely situation." Furthermore, "The police did not tell the Policy Group that there was a chance the gunman was loose on campus or advise the university of any immediate action that should be taken such as canceling classes or closing the university. Also, the police did not give any direction as to an emergency message to be sent to the students."
  • Most police chiefs consulted by the new report's authors agreed that locking down a campus of 35,000 people is not feasible.
  • At least two administrators informed family members about the shooting before alerting faculty, students, and staff on campus.
  • After he first heard about the shootings, the chief of the Virginia Tech police department was unable to reach the executive vice president's office for 17 minutes.
  • The office of the university president was locked down 48 minutes before the massacre in the classroom building occurred; the classroom building in question was not locked down.
  • One of the students shot in the dorm survived for several hours following the shooting, but her family was not notified of her injuries until after she died.
  • Administrators cancelled the collection of campus trash 21 minutes before students and faculty were warned about a gunman on campus.

On the possibility of lockdowns, from the report:

A building can be locked down in the sense of locking the exterior doors, barring anyone from coming or going. Elementary schools practice that regularly, and so do some intermediate and high schools. At least some schools in Blacksburg were locked down for a while after the first shootings. Usually, a lockdown also implies locking individual classrooms. Virginia Tech does not have locks on the inside of classroom doors, as is the case for most universities and many high schools.

A message could theoretically be sent to all buildings on campus to lock their doors, but there was no efficient way to do this at Virginia Tech. It would have required calls or e-mails to individuals who had the ability to lock the doors for at least 131 buildings or sending people on foot to each building.

I am not an expert in campus security, but I do know from working on a campus that most students and faculty have phones with text messaging enabled. The university could have made better use of a subscription service that allows it to send blasts to all cell phone users, or even begun text-messaging those who had opted in to such messages. As it was, the emergency alert system was in the midst of a major upgrade that April. However—and this is really startling—even if the messaging system had been fully enabled, campus police did not have direct access to it; they would have had to request that an emergency alert message be sent from University Relations or the campus's policy group that handles campus emergencies. Regardless, if a message had been sent, word would have spread from student to student like wildfire. While this opens the possibility for panic, it also may have inspired some students and faculty to either not venture onto campus that morning or to bar the entrances to their classrooms and dorms.

Many people are calling for the resignation or firing of Virginia Tech's president Charles W. Steger, as well as for the removal of those who should have been accountable for alerting the students, faculty, and staff to the presence of a gunman on campus. Writes Blue Virginia,

This is unacceptable; it's time for somebody to be held accountable for the fact that immediate notification of the threat posed by a murderer on the lose was not provided to Virginia Tech students, staff, etc. on that horrible day in April 2007. If it had been - and also if Cho's "long list of frightening writings and aberrant behaviors" had been looked into and dealt with aggressively - perhaps this wouldn't have been the "deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history?"

If you or someone you know or love works on a college campus—and particularly a campus in or near a state with lax gun-purchasing laws—the new report should be required reading. If your campus does not already have regulations about guns on university property, ask why. And definitely read this post by Historiann, who points out that women are too often left out of these discussions:

Well–what do actual women students, faculty and staff at Baa Ram U. think? Does the reporter bother to talk to any actual XX chromosome people? Not according to the version of the story published in the Post. No, all of the “student leaders” quoted in the story are men, as are all of the faculty members in the story and the one member of the Board quoted here. But, we’re supposed to trust the “student leader” who said, “I’ve had many say how it makes women feel safer on campus, knowing they can conceal and carry.” (”Many say?” Did this guy even talk to a single woman? Or is he quoting just more men who claim that more guns make women feel so much safer?)

The report also offers another opportunity for any university's administrators, faculty, staff, students, and the surrounding community to reopen conversations about violence, safety, and security on campus. This conversation needs to include protection of students in several contexts. For example, the University of California at Berkeley is investigating the actions of law enforcement against student protestors. As you can see at 38:25 in this video from Democracy Now, officers beat students with batons; there are reports of several observers and protesters with broken bones.

Virginia Tech and UC campuses aren't the only ones who need to reexamine the extent of violence on their campuses. Check out this article by Elizabeth Manapsal highlighting the history of murder and violence in the Ivy League. Remember the September murder of Yale student Annie Le?

Even more puzzling and frightening, many universities seem to be actively engaged in covering up the level of violence, and particularly sexual assault, on campus and within the university communites. The Center for Public Integrity released a report earlier this week showing the following:

  • "Many victims don’t report at all, and those who do come forward can encounter secret disciplinary proceedings, closed-mouthed school administrations, and off-the-record negotiations. At times, school policies and practices can lead students to drop complaints, or submit to gag orders — a practice deemed illegal."
  • "Students reporting sexual assault on campus routinely say they face a host of institutional barriers in pursuing the on-campus remedies meant to keep colleges and universities safe. The result, say experts, is a widespread feeling that justice isn’t being served, and may not even be worth pursuing. Crisis counselors described barriers as overt as a dean expressing disbelief; lawyers pointed out failures as subtle as an institution neglecting to provide access to a professional victim’s advocate to guide students through an intimidating process."
  • "Limitations and loopholes in the federal mandatory campus crime reporting law, known as the Clery Act, are causing systematic problems in documenting the numbers of campus-related sexual assaults, the Center found. The most troubling loopholes involve broadly applied reporting exemptions for counselors supposedly covered by confidentiality protections."
Your thoughts?

Friday, December 04, 2009

Teaching while Mentally Ill

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

Imagine trying to teach while voices in your head are telling you your students are trying to kill you. That has been a reality for Elyn Saks, a professor of law, psychology, and psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at the University of Southern California's law school. This week Saks published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education documenting her personal experiences with mental illness in academia.

Over the past few days, links to the article have been moving through academics' e-mail inboxes like wildfire. There's good reason why. Not only does Saks share some pretty startling experiences and talk about how she has overcome these challenges, but she also opens an interesting discussion on whether, when, and to whom an academic with mental illness might disclose her illness. Here's an excerpt:

The first question you must ask yourself is whether to tell your chair and dean. I can think of arguments both in favor of that, and against.

One of the pluses would be the psychological benefits of not having a secret and being able to be open. More practically you might be able to get extra support, or formal accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). You would serve as a model for other academics in your department and your students.

There are, of course, real pitfalls to telling, too. There is a tremendous stigma, still, around mental illness. People may believe, consciously or not, that you are unreliable or even dangerous, and they may fear you. They may think you can't do the work or your scholarship isn't good, even if it is very good. That may not be intentional on their part but can nonetheless have a big impact on your work life and your prospects for tenure.

Saks is the author of a memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness. (You can read a review of the book by a writer who has schizoaffective disorder herself at Femi-Nation.)

Mental health has become a big issue on college campuses. Campuses with unusually high rates of suicide have worried about distressed and distressing students for several years, and the shootings at Virginia Tech in the spring of 2007 raised awareness nationally of student mental health.

That said, aside from mental health centers for faculty and staff on some campuses, there has not been significant attention paid to the mental health of those who teach students. Anecdotally, there is evidence that mental illness in academia, particularly depression and anxiety disorders, are not uncommon. Years ago, I attended an academic talk on mental health, and the presenter mentioned he was studying four disorders in a particular (nonacademic) population: major depression, bipolar illness, schizophrenia, and dysthymia. Someone asked what dysthymia is—it's mild-to-moderate, long-term depression—and those in the room exchanged knowing glances. Finally, someone said, "Ohhhh. . . It's what we all have."

Many commenters on Saks's Chronicle article shared their own experiences. Wrote one,

Thank you for this brave and thoughtful piece. I struggle with chronic depression and find that academe is probably one of the best places for me, because of its relative flexibility (compared to many other workplace environments). However, I'm still not quite ready to be "out." I agree that coming forward would probably be a good thing, but it also presents more risk than I'm ready for. I really admire you!

Another has faced greater challenges:

I very much appreciate your article and walking the reader through an actual experience you probably have had many times. I suffer from chronic mental health issues, although not to the severity that you do. But nonetheless, they do have an affect on my ability to work at times. I do not feel safe in disclosing any of it to my academic employer. I often hear comments in the work place about people who "are depressed or whatever" are just weak and need to toughen up. I have attempted to get consideration for my "general health issues" in scheduling of courses and my duties as a program chair without much success. In fact, I have found the responses to be hostile. We need more people like you to come out into the open and speak up so that more of us in the shadows can also come out, without resorting to ADA or legal action, which I know in the end will be used against me one way or the other, because I don't work in an institution with tenure (proprietary college). Thank you.

A commenter on a post at Historiann shared her own experience of not getting support when she needed it:

Fried from post-partum depression but afraid that taking a semester’s unpaid leave would jeopardize my future tenure bid, I jumped back into my job 8 weeks after giving birth–with disastrous results. (My female chair’s attitude: “I made tenure as a single mom. You have to give up your life and do what it takes. DO IT.”)

It's tough for graduate students, too, whether they teach or are students. Wrote one woman with a disability that may be a mental illness on the blog Rate Your Students,

Ever since my diagnosis, I have prayed to every god imaginable that I could be "normal" again. And most of the time, I am. I'm properly medicated and as healthy as I can be. But, you have *no* idea how humiliating it is to approach a professor (especially a mentor or a "shining star" in your field of study) and say, "Hi. I'm abnormal. This here sheet of paper gives me accomodations for which most students would maim a nun. Please, oh pretty please, don't put as asterisk next to my grade when I earn yet another A." Because that's how I feel - I work my ass to the bone taking an overload of course hours, studying endlessly, researching for seminars, while working to pay bills and to gain experience - but every time I EARN an A, part of me feels like I don't deserve it...because there's still a socially accepted stigma about mental disorders (as is evidenced often on this blog.)

The grad student blogging at PhD Depression also connects the ways an academic life, and particularly the pursuit of a PhD, can contribute to a major depressive episode.

Dr. Isis also has a must-read post in which she responds to a scientist suffering from depression. In it, she not only offers sympathy, but also some concrete suggestions for accommodations, including some that may be made under the Americans with Disabilities Act. She also links to a post by computer scientist Mark Chu-Carroll, who also has depression. His post is also worth a read, as in it he considers why people have no problem watching him take pills for one illness but not for another:

Somewhat over 1/2 of the people who hear that I take an antidepressant express disapproval in some way. Around 1/3 make snide comments about "happy pills" and lecture me about how only weak-willed nebbishes who can't deal with reality need psychiatric medication.

I confess to being thoroughly mystified by this. Why is it OK for my stomach, or my heart, or my pancreas to be ill in a way that needs to be treated with medication, but it's not OK for my brain? Why are illnesses that originate in this one organ so different from all others, so that so many people believe that nothing can possibly go wrong with it? That there are absolutely no problems with the brain that can possibly be treated by medication?

Why is it OK for me to take expensive, addictive drugs for a painful but non-life-threatening problem with my stomach; but totally unacceptable for me to take cheap harmless drugs for a painful but non-threatening problem with my brain?

What about you? How have you seen mental illness addressed on your campus, in your or your child's classroom, or in your workplace? Is it stigmatized? And what are you doing to cope or to help?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Patrick Stewart on domestic violence and men as allies

A powerful and revealing talk by actor Patrick Stewart on his abusive father, his childhood, and on men as allies:

(as seen at ScientistMother)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Mental Illness in Academia

I have a ton to say on this topic—and probably have already said too much in this space about my own experiences—but I don't have the energy to write about it right now.

Instead, you should read these really excellent reflections on mental illness in academe by a schizophrenic professor. She's saying some incredibly important things.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


I was speaking quietly in my office, so turn up the volume. . .

Monday, November 23, 2009

Lucas reacts

Lucas has been enthusiastic about the prospect of going to a new school, but he didn't understand that going to the preschool means leaving Serena's daycare/preschool. He insisted, "When I go to my new school, I will see Serena a lot."

I explained the reality to him--that we'll still see Serena occasionally, but he won't be seeing her every day--and he took some time to process it. Then tears began to well up in his eyes: "But I like Serena." He swallowed another tiny bite of yogurt and then added, "My kids will be sad."

(That's what he calls the other children at daycare; apparently they're his posse.)

The boy's lower lip started to quiver and his chin to wrinkle. I called Fang out into the living room and we comforted Lucas, who was even more upset about the impending transition than I am. And we all cuddled together. Even the dog (the damn dog, another post in itself) showed empathy for the first time since he arrived 16 months ago, resting his head quietly on Fang's arm and Lucas's lap, absorbing our sadness and resignation.

Even as I understand its growing necessity, I hate this change.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A fierce and mortal green

When I was in college, Dar Williams performed on campus. I had never heard of her, and to say that many of her songs resonated with me would be an understatement. Here's my favorite, then and now. (I couldn't find a clean version of Williams singing it, so here's a video of someone covering it. Go ahead and hit play, and let it run as you read the post.)

I've always been a sucker for songs and poems about place, and a big part of that passion comes from wanting to be grounded, but also frequently from a sense that I'm about to lose the place where I am. I experience, then, a cognitive dissonance of place, where I let myself fall in love with a place even as I'm plotting to leave it.

This feeling is also native to parenthood, but particularly, I think, to motherhood. I love Lucas so deeply at every stage, even as I know that each beloved stage will pass before I even fully recognize it as a defined moment. And as he has moved from fetus to newborn, from infant to toddler and now to little boy, I can feel the changes in my body, even now when he's four years old.

It's a similar sensation to being grounded in a place, but that place is Portuguese Bend, where the ground slides into the Pacific, so much so that pipes are above ground and the main road is under almost constant construction. You're standing on what feels for a moment like solid ground, but you know at the same time that you're headed inexorably to the sea.

There's something about that last verse of Williams's song that always gets me, even as the "you" of the poem shifts for me from being a person to being something unnamed and temporal:
Once I had everything—I gave it up for the shoulder of your driveway and the words I've never felt.
And so for you I came this far, across the tracks, ten miles above the limit, and with no seatbelt—and I'd do it again.
For tonight I went running through the screen doors of discretion,
For I woke up from a nightmare that I could not stand to see:
You were a-wandering out on the hills of Iowa, and you were not thinking of me.
The intersection of motherhood and my nostalgia for place is a complicated one. It's very easy for me to look at the cost of living here, my imperiled employment (thanks to the clusterfuck that is the University of California), and myriad other indicators of the quality of life and to think I should reserve a moving truck for next week. And because I spent the most intellectually invigorating and emotionally formative years of my adult life in Iowa, it's to there my mind wanders, as if I could recreate the sharpness of mind of a 22- or 24-year-old; the freedom of being a young, highly educated, single white woman; or the optimism (always oddly tinged by depression) of the college or university student who has always been told she has all the smarts and talent and drive she needs to succeed as an academic, or indeed in whatever endeavor she pursues.

As if I wouldn't be freaked out by fears of Lucas freezing to death when my unpracticed hands bundled him up each morning for icy sidewalks and wind chills of 30 to 60 degrees below zero. As if I wanted to worry about snow collapsing the roof or tornadoes or whatever it is Iowans fear beyond losing their grown children to sexier locales or letting the literacy rate drop below 99 percent.

As if I could easily move Lucas after he starts public school in less than two years. Tick tock.

I feel I'm at this huge, sad crossroads, and no two things I value lie in the same direction. My parents, my sister, and my mother's family are all in Southern California; many friends, beloved colleagues, and some of the best public K-12 schools in the nation are here in this town; better opportunities for work definitely lie elsewhere. And let's not forget, of course, that I'm married, and Fang's various dreams and fears further muzzy any attempts at mapping a future.

I've been on the edge of tears all evening, not just because of the complexity of being a working quasi-academic mother and wife, but also because of our decision to move Lucas to a different preschool because a slot opened up there for December. His current daycare/preschool provider, whom I've called Serena in this space, truly loves Lucas--not just as a teacher might, but as a surrogate grandmother. He has been at her in-home daycare for three years, and he has two beloved friends--one age four, one only about 16 months old but wise beyond his year--there.

But many of his peers have moved on to more conventional preschools, and Lucas is now the oldest child there. He's not as social as many kids his age, and when we take him to birthday parties where he doesn't know many of the children, he plays by himself in a corner, never quite joining in play with the other kids. I know some kids are slow to warm up or are shy, but Lucas's reticence is, I sense, much more profound, and he needs to be with a slightly larger group of kids his age.

When I talked today on the phone with Serena, we were both crying. After all, she has been so instrumental in Lucas's development and in making him feel loved in the world. She has introduced or exposed him to so much, from letters and numbers to Nepali and Hindu cuisine, from yoga to (through her own life and those of her assistants) Hindu and Muslim cultures and practices. His life has been profoundly enriched by her attention, dedication, and love--as have ours.

Complicating matters is that Serena's son has been sentenced to prison for more than 378 years, probably unjustly. (Seriously, explore the advocacy pages at that link, and then write a letter or make some other small or large meaningful gesture). Fang and I have attended rallies and written letters and commented on blogs and forums and have been, I suspect, far more involved in the campaign than have other parents. Indeed, today Serena told me that we are not like other parents, that we are exceptional in many ways. Her daycare business has declined lately, partly out of coincidence that her students were aging out of daycare (though she does offer preschool up to age 6, I haven't seen any kid stay until age 5) and partly because of the pall that fell over the house after her son's unexpected conviction. Serena and her family have paid a tremendous financial and emotional toll over the past six months (and, unbeknownst to most of us at the daycare, for three years prior to that), and I know that on top of all this chaos and sadness, losing Lucas is at once a relatively small thing and yet no small blow.

One of my favorite lines in all of poetry--"it glowed a fierce and mortal green"--comes from Richard Wilbur's poem "The Pardon." It's a disturbing and raw poem that narrates the death, decomposition, burial, and--in a dream--resurrection of a 10-year-old boy's beloved dog. Recently, all my nostalgia about the past, as well as my mourning of the future I thought I'd have but won't, has been colored not gray and black--as depression tends to shade things--but rather the fierce and mortal green of Iowa in early August, when the corn is tall and the soy rolling like an ocean in a summer wind.

It's the green that comes only from soil enriched with crap and death.

I expect something will emerge from this glowing green that tinges the borders of my vision. Whether the future that approaches will be--to borrow another of Wilbur's lines--"clothed in a hymn of flies" or a bumper crop of something to be desired, I don't know.

I do know that I'm profoundly sad about what's passed and passing. For now, maybe, it is sufficient to feel anything at all.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Not with a bang but a whimper

Welcome to another edition of Leslie's angry ranty depressing blog--now with a grudgingly optimistic ending.

This one's brought to you by the Academic Jobs Wiki. Perusing it this evening for the first time in a while, I discovered that, if the other posters are to be believed, most of the schools to which I applied--including those which I felt were the best fit--have requested additional materials.

I have received no such request.

And this is my third year on the market. Short of not having a book contract (I'm working on that and have received some interest), I'm scratching my head over what the hell is missing from my CV. I mean, really--I have three graduate degrees, peer-reviewed publications, invited papers, presentations, and ten years of teaching experience at four different kinds of institutions and a good balance, I think, between undergrad and grad courses. I've overseen 13 M.A. theses, so I have evidence I can advise grad students, too. I have admin experience launching, running, and evaluating programs, and a ton of service, including now serving on two committees that advise the UC systemwide president. And if the letters I saw from previous years are any indication, I suspect I have rock-solid letters of rec as well from top scholars in their fields. Profs who looked at my application materials say they're very strong.

I suspect, therefore, that it's not what's missing from my CV that's a problem, but rather what is on it. It may be that damn interdisciplinary Ph.D. from a second-tier UC--such degrees are becoming a dime a dozen with all the humanities graduate groups springing up everywhere, and--surprise--no one needs to hire anyone to actually teach in those programs. They're looking for disciplinary folks who occasionally teach interdisciplinary seminars as a hobby.

Maybe I'm wrong. I hope I'm wrong.

But between three years of being on the academic job market, with only one (substantial) nibble for a job running a new teaching center, and the news that the California state budget shortfall will be $21 billion this coming year, it's definitely time to be looking very, very seriously at other options.

While I'm not completely giving up hope, I'm not optimistic about my prospects in academia or at UC Davis. So there are a few things I'm experimenting with in the evening and on weekends. I'm expanding my reading, learning about what it means to be an entrepreneur in the 21st century without selling my soul and while still effecting meaningful change in people's lives. I'm reading Havi Brooks's thoughts on destuckification over at The Fluent Self and learning to cuss more fluently while perusing Naomi Dunford's irreverent advice at IttyBiz. I'm reading--gasp!--business books on consulting and web copywriting and LLCs.

During grad school, I did quite a bit of freelance writing and editing, and I'm not looking to do that again--I want to make my own stuff this time and to apply the specialized knowledge and skills I've developed over the past several years.

Everything is still very, very rough, but I'm testing the waters in a few different ponds:

1) Consulting on professional and organizational development. A colleague of mine at UC Davis and I are looking to launch a partnership/LLC next year called Eager Mondays. We have to do something with our furlough and campus closure days, yes? (I've already earned 19 hours of furlough time. Woohoo.) We're turning staff development on its head by encouraging companies to teach, rather than train, their employees. We will help business owners and managers shift the culture of their companies so that they encourage employees to be not just competent, but also curious, creative, and confident. We've already had productive, heartening conversations with two potential clients. I've already received some terrifically positive feedback from this post on using social media to improve professional development in museums. If you're interested in what we're doing, sign up for our very occasional newsletter--there's a general one and one targeting the museum field. I suspect we'll add more niche newsletters in the future, maybe one on improving writing--and deploying it more thoughtfully—in the workplace.

2) Pursuing a growing interest of mine: urban agriculture. There's nothing but a pretty banner up there yet, but I'm working on a site at Urban Farm Resource. I'm hoping to nurture my own commitment to living greener, direct others to opportunities to learn more, and create (read: sell!) my own resources on a number of niche urban farming topics as I learn more about them. I've been reading a lot about niche and keyword research, info product creation and marketing, and about affiliate marketing as well. (Want to learn more about affiliate marketing, content creation, and passive income streams? I highly recommend Lynn Terry's friendly, definitely non-smarmy, and very accessible blog ClickNewz and, if that interests you, signing up (as I did) for elite membership at her forum, where you get access to all kinds of small business owners with terrific expertise in business and internet marketing, including the very generous Lynn herself.)

3) Posting more regularly (I took a year's hiatus) at The Multicultural Toybox, another passion of mine. Over there I write about issues surrounding multicultural learning and point parents and teachers to toys, books, and games I find at places like Etsy, Amazon, and Powell's.

None of these is going to replace my income anytime soon, but I like having a contingency plan and projects I can work on instead of rather aimlessly surfing the web. I probably won't end up writing about them too much here, but I just wanted to let you know what's been brewing.

So, to sum up:

Academic job market = sucky

Entrepreneurialism = the new black

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

University of California tuition to increase 32 percent

(Cross-posted at BlogHer.)

Today, a panel of the University of California Regents—the ten-university system's governing body—approved a proposal to increase undergraduate "fees" (UC's word for tuition) by 32 percent over the coming year. Should the full board of Regents consent to the increase tomorrow, students will see a fee increase of more than $2,500 by fall 2010.

Needless to say, this is a huge leap.  (By comparison, when I was an undergraduate a little more than a decade ago, tuition at my (non-UC) school increased by 2-4% a year.)  Coming on top of all the cuts being made to education and to supporting units at the UC, the increase is brutal.

The university community isn't taking this news sitting down--unless you count sit-insThe Chronicle of Higher Education reports,

Fourteen protesters were arrested at UCLA when they disrupted the meeting and refused to leave. Protesters then stopped the meeting several times, shouting "Whose university? Our university!" and chanting "We Shall Overcome." Hundreds of students and staff members also gathered at Berkeley and UCLA to begin a three-day protest of the tuition increases and faculty and staff furloughs.

University leaders have argued that the fee increases are necessary to compensate for severe cuts in state support. Mark G. Yudof, the system's president, said three out of four students would be shielded from the effects of the tuition increase by additional financial aid.

What Yudof is really saying—despite assurances elsewhere that the university system will raise grants to subsidize students who demonstrate financial need—is that students who can't afford to pay tuition up front will now have the privilege of taking out even more loans.  College has become so expensive that paying back such loans--particularly if a student goes on to grad school--can become a decades-long commitment.  (Me, I'm paying off my UC graduate education on a 20-year plan.  It's like the mortgage I can't afford because I work at the University of California and live in a UC town.)

Jenna Benty explains the impacts the budget cuts already have had on financial aid.  She focuses in particular on a program that was recently cut from UC Irvine, Student Academic Advancement Services, "which helped support low-income, first generation or disabled students." Benty continues: 

Ironically, the program SAAS was recently eliminated due to budget cuts, considering these are the students that are largely affected by the budget cuts and tuition increases. When talking to past SAAS students and now ex-coworkers, Deborah was shocked to find “the students were rationing their food in order to fight the termination and tuition increase just so they could have the opportunity to study abroad.”

Low-income students have now taken the budget problems from both ends, not only will they have to pay a higher tuition; important programs that assisted them in financial aid are being cut. Former SAAS student Leandra Ordorica states “SAAS has helped me find resources to be able to pay for UCI. Every time I applied for a scholarship, there was always someone there to write me a letter of recommendation.” These small amenities make the largest impact on the low-income students where finances are constantly a concern. Not only did the SAAS program assist in finding low-income students scholarships, “each counselor sat down personally with a student to see what their specific needs and goals were. After assessing each individuals students ambitions, they would personally find a type of aid that fit their specific needs,” according to Deborah Lee.

The office of the student Regent (an undergraduate who serves on the UC board) liveblogged today's Regents panel vote.  From the first post on the event:

9:35AM – [UC systemwide president] Mark Yudof is trying give his board report, but the crowd keeps interruppting and booing him.  the chant is “take a stand.” yudof: “regents have to act.  in the end of the day, it’s your job to blaance the budget.  the budget on the table is the only budget out there that will balance the budget.”  Yudof ends his speech early – asks the people that are distrubing the meeting to leave or be removed form the room.  police have just entered the room and are waiting for the protesters to remove themselves.  students please be safe!

These tuition increases are coming at a time when the UC campuses are actually reducing the number of courses they're offering, and when the quality of education at the university is at serious risk of deterioration.  UC is firing lecturers (contingent laborers, unlike tenured faculty) in droves, and the professoriate is loath to pick up the classes the lecturers had been scheduled to teach.  Worse, although UC may now authentically say that undergraduates have more contact hours with honest-to-goodness professors, many of these professors have not taught large classes (and large-enrollment courses of hundreds of students are increasingly replacing smaller ones, tripling or more the size of some classes) for a very long time.  Teaching very large classes is an art that few have mastered; after all, how does one employ best practices in undergraduate learning (e.g. interaction with and among students, activities, ongoing assessment) in a class of more than 500 students?

Democracy Now recently convened a discussion with a number of UC stakeholders to help people better understand the crisis.  I think Professor Ananya Roy of UC Berkeley's department of Department of City and Regional Planning put it best:

I think there is a very real crisis in California, where continuing budget cuts have devastated the infrastructure of public education, and we have a governor who continues to call for deeper and deeper budget cuts, even though there is nothing left to cut. So we’re clearly fighting for the ideal of public education. We’re fighting for the opportunity of Californians and Americans to get a decent education. But we’re also fighting for the future of our particular university, the UC system, and we’re fighting to be represented by leaders who believe in and can defend the mission of public education.

That bit about leaders may be a reference to UC President Mark Yudof's interview in The New York Times, which is widely regarded by UC denizens as both a disaster and symptomatic of the UC administration's profound misunderstanding of the history and values of public higher education in California.  In that interview, Yudof said he feels like the "manager of a cemetery," admitted he gets about a $10,000/month housing stipend from the UC (his total compensation package is $828,000/year), and admits he doesn't know how he got into education: "It's all an accident," he explained.

In response to that interview, two Berkeley professors wrote a letter to the NYT that included these paragraphs:

These missions of access, excellence and vision have been the essence of California’s Master Plan for Education since 1960. Yudof also says that he fell into education as a profession by “accident.” In contrast, each of us came to Berkeley deliberately, because we believe in the importance of the public research university as an institution — one that provides an outstanding education that is accessible and affordable. We are proud that for decades, our students have gone on to become the next generation of educators, researchers, business developers and public servants.

Yudof’s joking remarks about finance speak to the lack of vision and leadership in his administration. As faculty, we fear that it is not only our present but our collective future that is being destroyed. We need executives who will do more than preside over the collapse of the finest public university system in the world.

In the Democracy Now discussion, moderator Amy Goodman asked Laura Nader, a professor of sociocultural anthropology at UC Berkeley, to explain what she meant by a call for transparency in the UC budget--and suggests it's time for the university to reconsider its priorities:

LAURA NADER: We need transparency about such things as intercollegiate sports, which is a problem all over the country. And Brian Barsky and Alice Agogino, these are people in computer studies and engineering, they can add the figures, and the figures don’t make sense.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

LAURA NADER: The figures, it’s supposed to be—intercollegiate is supposed to bring in money to the university.


LAURA NADER: In fact, they’re in debt, intercollegiate sports. So we’re subsidizing, the student fees are subsidizing intercollegiate sports. And we’re closing libraries. So we had—the libraries are supposed to be closed on Saturdays. There were some students that sat in, professors that spoke. And a wonderful donor, anonymous, gave money to keep the libraries open on Saturday, but the university didn’t fall into line and open the libraries on Saturday. So these are issues of transparency and accountability, fiscal accountability, that are very important today.

Because I earned three graduate degrees from the UC over a period of seven years, taught undergraduates and graduate students at the UC, and have served as a staff member there for more than three years, I've been around the UC block once or twice.  But I've never seen anything like this, nor felt such an atmosphere of fear, anxiety, frustration, and anger at any of the five other universities where I've worked or been a student.  One word comes to mind again and again: clusterfuck.  It's the perfect compound word for the situation.

Really, there's no one person or agency to blame for getting us into this mess, but there are definitely people and offices and agencies who could be working more thoughtfully and transparently to get us out of it.  Because a 32 percent tuition increase in a single year?  That's criminal.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Praying Mantis

This photo may be blurry (damn iPhone camera), but it's the only proof I have that last weekend I was the cool mom at the playground in the park, doing a little entomological interpretation for the kiddies. I was moving the mantis from the play equipment, where it was in danger of being stepped on, to a bush. It was pretty cooperative critter, and I was thrilled that a tiny little girl was the most eager to hold it.

Most of the mantids I see around here are light green, so it was fun to find a brown one.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

On the current situation at work

I've been trying to be careful not to write too much about work, lest my position suddenly be Raptured by the University of California gods. But today I commented on a couple of posts and wrote one e-mail that, taken together, nicely reflect my thinking (and frustration) about working for the UC in an era of lean budgets. Here, then, are my comments; you'll see they revisit themes in my earlier post "Cloudy with a Chance of Layoffs."

I. The freshman seminar teach-for-free controversy

My comment on Tenured Radical's incisive post "And If You Give Us A Full Book Of Green Stamps, You Can Teach Macroeconomics", which responded to this article in the UC Davis student newspaper, which in turn reported that our vice provost of undergraduate studies, along with the director of the Teaching Resources Center, invited freshman seminar faculty to return their stipends to the program:

Oy. I work for the UC Davis Teaching Resources Center as a teaching consultant and programs coordinator, so you might imagine I have some thoughts about this issue.

First, please note: My comments here are mine alone, and are not intended to represent my employer's stance on any issues.

I didn't know about this letter, or the budget info mentioned in the article (that first-year seminars will be the last program cut from the unit), until I read the student newspaper this morning.

I have very mixed feelings about the vice provost's request. I don't work directly with this program, so my comments aren't as well-informed as I'd like them to be, but probably better-informed than those of people outside the unit. :)

On the one hand, the program does attract a lot of senior professors from the sciences who are excited about the opportunity to actually teach a small class that requires very high student participation--as opposed to lecture courses whose enrollment has ballooned to 900 students in at least one case (a subject for another blog post).

If the participating faculty really enjoy teaching in the program and aren't hurting for research funds, then I have no problem with them returning stipends to the program. It is a VERY lean budget year, and honestly, I'm scared the center won't be around much longer if we have further cuts--but I haven't seen the latest budget numbers, so unfortunately I can't speak with any certainty. I do know that unless we find grants to pay his salary, I'll be losing one incredibly talented and thoughtful colleague at the end of the academic year.

On the other hand, I suspect there are also lecturers and humanists (I'm one of them) who use the program as you describe--to have access to research funds they might otherwise not get, and it's not fair to apply any pressure on them, and sending out a blanket letter does, I think, pressure these faculty. For that reason, had I been asked about it, I would have advised they send the letter first to only full professors.

As it offers approximately 200 classes enrolling ~15 students each during the academic year, the program itself represents a very inexpensive way for the campus to lower its overall faculty : student ratio, so from a labor standpoint, any outrage might be better focused there.

I will say that it is an incredibly strong program, with very high quality classes taught by faculty who are passionate about teaching (too rare at any research university)--or who become passionate through the experience of engaging with first- and second-year undergraduates. The program holds faculty to rigorous pedagogical standards. For more information about it, see the first-year seminar faculty toolkit (PDF).

It's sad to see the teaching center connected with this controversy, as the Teaching Resources Center really is a fabulous resource and increasingly an intellectual hub on campus--and we run it on a shoestring budget. (We're small but mighty.) The office staff and graduate student researcher who coordinate and evaluate the first-year seminar program also do really terrific work, so it must be especially frustrating for them to see its administration depicted in an unflattering light.

II. Again with the freshman seminar controversy, but also in response to commenters' calls for reductions in administrative pay:

And then, on Eric Rauchway's post at The Edge of the American West:

Remember one of the reasons the first-year seminars are there in the first place: they provide a very inexpensive way for the university to lower its instructor : student ratio–even more cheaply than having grad students teach might.

I get a little bit antsy when people start talking about reducing “administrator” salaries, both because my own salary may or may not fall under that category and because after three years in the staff trenches, I’m keenly aware of the faculty-staff caste system.

Yes, there are many administrators whose salaries seem inflated. But the line between “administrator” and, oh, “program coordinator” (ahem) can be a blurry one. Staff like me have already had our salaries frozen for years, even as we support faculty who have continued to receive merit increases. With the furloughs, I’m now making less than when I started working at UC Davis, and 14% less than I would have made had I received my merit increases. It’s incredibly demoralizing, especially since these slights are coming from the exact university that supposedly readied me for an academic career.

I sat in a meeting w/a top HR admin at UCOP a few weeks ago, and I asked him point-blank if there would be any relief for staff soon, or if things would continue to deteriorate. His response was that “faculty attract people and resources, while staff don’t”; ergo, staff are dispensable. His remark about resources is a gross generalization, of course–it assumes, for example, staff aren’t writing grants, raising funds, or otherwise helping to recruit, support, and retain faculty.

Today a Staff Assembly e-mail claimed it’s not fair to compare staff and faculty salaries, that it’s like comparing doctors’ pay with lawyers’. But when you have countless lecturers, postdocs, and staff with similar credentials to faculty (PhDs, research agenda, publications, etc.), I don’t think that’s a fair analogy.

III. The Staff Assembly madness

As if the freshman seminar controversy wasn't enough to deal with today, UC Davis staff also received--as I reference in my comment on Eric's post--a Staff Assembly e-mail that featured a link to this article.

Needless to say, I couldn't let that stand, so I sent an e-mail to the author:

While I appreciate your reminder to staff (at that we keep our heads when all around us seem to be losing theirs, I must take issue with one of your claims: “Comparing staff compensation with faculty compensation maybe more like comparing a doctor’s compensation with a lawyer’s compensation. These are different fields with different expectations and skill sets.”

This is a terrible generalization, as there are many, many staff on campus who have the same credentials as faculty (PhDs, teaching experience, peer-reviewed publications) and the same expectations (teaching, research agendas, grant writing, committee service) and skill sets (writing, teaching, intellectual engagement with academics and the wider world), but who are paid half as much as faculty—or less. My colleagues and I in the Teaching Resources Center, for example, are expected to stay current with trends in pedagogy, research and publish, and teach--only we’re expected to do the same for far less, and to manage multiple programs and projects in addition to the responsibilities we share with faculty. I’m on at least eight committees on campus and systemwide, and I chair several of them.

A few weeks back, I was in a meeting at UCOP, and when I asked a top HR administrator if staff would continue to feel budgetary pain out of proportion to our faculty colleagues, he said, “Faculty attract people and resources, while staff don’t.” Ergo, staff are dispensable—even if we write grants and help to recruit, support, retain (and, in my and my colleagues’ case, train) faculty. To say that faculty deserve better compensation than staff because of different “expectations” is too easy; it’s a capitulation to the campus’s continued denigration of staff and contributes the UC’s erasure of the incredibly high-level work many staff are doing.

So yeah, that's about where I'm at right now. How about you?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Murders, head injuries, and assorted violence -- Is it time to cancel high school football?

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

Last night, 16-year-old Melody Ross, an honors student and track and field athlete, was shot to death at the football game between rival Wilson High School and Long Beach Poly High School in Long Beach, California. The shooting took place at Wilson High School, which you may be slightly familiar with if you saw the Freedom Writers movie or read Erin Gruwell's The Freedom Writers Diary. The school serves some of Long Beach's most upscale neighborhoods, but is no stranger to violence by students and even, unfortunately, by a teacher or two. Poly High School, the oldest high school in the district and the alma mater of both Snoop Dogg and, well, me, serves the "inner city" neighborhoods. Poly High has also had its share of violence; my senior year, I was responsible, for example, for the yearbook's obituary page--and that was 16 years ago.

It's not yet known if the shooters who fired into the post-game crowd were students. One of Long Beach's newspapers, the Press-Telegram, reported that parents complained about the lack of Long Beach Police Department presence at the game. The security for the event, according to the Press-Telegram, included three Long Beach Unified School District safety officers, 19 campus security officers from schools across the district, 10 administrators, and 15 teachers.

Here's a thought: Any high school that needs 37 security personnel plus city police department support at its football games knows it has a problem with violence. Any high school that has more than three dozen security personnel and still ends up with three young people with gunshot wounds--two men were also wounded--needs to reconsider having football games at all.

Parents know the district has a problem. In addition to complaining about the absence of LBPD officers, parents worry about violence in Long Beach schools. The Press-Telegram cited a parent's observation that families have actually moved out of the city to keep their kids out of Long Beach's high schools.

Folks, it's long past time to call off high school football games in Long Beach and in other violent school districts.

In calling for the cancellation of football games at high schools with a recognized pattern of violence, I have undoubtedly raised some readers' hackles. Some of you will argue, as does Sue Cooley, that football is actually an antidote to violence:

For example, an individual who is involved in the football program at school is less likely to be involved with alcohol and drugs, as this would have a negative effect on one's performance. In the same respect, an individual who is involved in such a program would have less time to become involved in such activities that may lead to violence. The athlete is not left unsupervised after school, as he or she is required to practice and compete on a daily basis. This results in less time to become involved with such negative situations.

In other words, I see high school football as a positive alternative to violence. It offers participants a means of channeling their energy into something positive. Contact sports are not examples of violence. Violence does not occur as a result of competition and hard work.

But I didn't say that we should cancel football--just the games, or at least evening games where it's more difficult to monitor the crowds milling around in the dark outside the stadium. If football fans get violent, or if games are magnets for violence by non-participants--if high school students (or anyone) is dying, then the games need to go. The latest incident is not an isolated one; there have been multiple reports of violence at football games, including a brawl at a Los Angeles-area high school that involved 100 students. The fact is that while schools are getting safer overall, incidents of violence at football games are increasing.

Because let's be honest: Football is violent in multiple ways. As it is coached and played today, football promotes physical violence on the field that transcends the game play. Increasingly, football is coming under scrutiny for the long-term head injuries that collisons engender--and not just in NFL and college football, but also in high school games, as NPR reported yesterday. Indeed, Malcolm Gladwell equates football's violence with that of dogfighting. In an online chat following the publication of that article, Gladwell had this to say to a high school football coach:

Both you as a coach—and, as importantly, people like me, who are die-hard football fans—need to consider the possibility that the game is irretrievably harmful. It’s way too early to decide that yet. But I think we have to commit to following what the science tell us—even if it means walking away from a game we love.

In addition, high school football players and wrestlers are far more likely than non-athletes to get into violent altercations.

There are countless school-sponsored extracurricular activities in which teen participants and fans do not die and that do not result in violence. Schools need to consider new revenue models that will allow them to both bring in the funds that football games have been generating (but only at significant risk of student health and safety) and pay for additional productive and creative activities, including sports that do not promote violence on the field and off.

When teens are threatened by gang violence, parents, police, school administrators, clergy, and others step in to change the contexts in which teens live. Why aren't we doing the same with the culture of violence perpetuated by football players themselves, by fans at games, and by people outside of the games? It's time to reconsider our priorities and values.

Your thoughts?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

National Academic Standards Draft Released (and Free-Market Ideology Unleashed)

Cross-posted at BlogHer

Earlier this week, a panel of experts charged by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers with crafting a set of national academic standards for English and mathematics skills released the first official draft of the standards. The draft outlines those skills students are expected to have developed prior to graduating from high school. The release of the standards marks the beginning of a 30-day comment period before the panel launches into writing standards for individual grade levels in K-12.

Bloggers from all points in the political spectrum are weighing in on the standards--or, more commonly, on the idea of national standards, especially when they come from the federal government (though, as The Washington Post points out, the federal government really is more of a bystander) or if the federal government will be offering money as an incentive to states that adopt these standards. So far 48 states--Alaska and Texas being the exceptions--have signed on to the initiative.

At the New York Times Room for Debate blog, experts were invited to submit brief comments on the standards. Their backgrounds are diverse--they range from a representative of the libertarian Cato Institute to a charter school founder to a professor of urban schooling--and their comments aren't really surprising. You've heard them before: from Neal McCluskey's tired lament that teachers are fully to blame for all the ills in public schools and that parents will always make the right decisions for their children to Ernest Morrell's similarly cliché (but alas, true) observation that our schools aren't going to improve if we can't provide enough books, better-trained and highly educated teachers, and reasonable class sizes, the comments are predictable.

What's interesting to me is the way people--and here I refer to the NYT's invited respondents as well as bloggers elsewhere--are making the same claims about competing agendas. For example, at the NYT, Robert Siegler claims that variations in state standards "hinder learning, especially among children whose parents move often" and make it difficult to evaluate the learning taking place in different states. Yet McCluskey argues that it's the presence of uniform standards, rather than their absence, that slows learning.

There's probably truth in both statements, and honestly, I haven't done enough research to know which end of this standards continuum is drawing on better evidence regarding student achievement. I will say this: the standards themselves are fairly tame and--aside from a provision asking high school English teachers to teach students how to read texts from other disciplines as well as the traditional literary works--will likely not prove controversial in this draft. (Expect the dust to kick up once grade-specific standards are released.)

I do resent folks who are using this opportunity (as does McCluskey) to argue that we should unleash the forces of the free market on the education system, letting parent-consumers decide what's best and closing those schools that don't receive sufficient parental support. God forbid people who went to school for 5 to 10 (or more) years to study learning theory and practice, who have made it their life's calling and profession, have some say in what students learn. (But hey, I'm biased: I went to school through grade 24, so clearly you can count me among the anti-parent elitists.)

I'm hearing the free-market argument not only in K-12 education but also in discussions of what should be funded (or, rather, cut) in cash-strapped universities. By one measure, if undergraduate engineering majors go on to earn higher salaries than, say, English majors, then engineering is a more valuable major and should be better funded than English, even if equal numbers of students on campus are interested in each major. Similarly, some are arguing that if corporations are giving more money to science professors and researchers than they are to humanities and arts faculty, then the state university should invest its resources similarly because the markets have spoken. Of course, I hear this argument most often from the mouths of science faculty (and, interestingly, mostly white male science faculty).

So what happens if we let "the market" choose what K-16 students will learn? Taken to one (I'm afraid believable) extreme, we see a narrowing of the curriculum, with high school English teachers transformed into drones teaching students to interpret technical texts and universities cutting (as we're already seeing them do) foreign languages, literature, history, arts, and the humanities more generally. As state universities emphasize the lucrative fields of science, technology, engineering, and medicine, the last bastions of a real liberal arts education (by which I mean an education incorporating both breadth and depth across the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences) will be those few elite four-year colleges that can afford, by dint of their endowments or their ability to attract top students, to continue to offer what may come to be seen as an outdated (or maybe "classic") education. But these institutions tend to be pricey, so such education may even further become a privilege of the elite--by which I mean either wealthy families or families that are savvy and well-connected enough to know which schools offer the best financial aid in addition to opportunities to expand students' horizons.

And now for a round-up of what folks are saying in the blogosphere:

Think Tank West addresses some myths--and, it ends up, not-myths--about the interplay of No Child Left Behind, federal and state control and funding of education, and national standards.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers makes a tentative case for national standards.

Writing a few months back at The American Prospect, Dana Goldstein recounted a roundtable debate among Weingarten, New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and D.C. schools Superintendent Michelle Rhee. Goldstein sums up the conversation:

So there you have it: Three of the most influential education leaders in the country, all supporters of national standards, but all raising their eyebrows at the current state and testing-industry-led effort to get there.

Melanie Smollin asks, among other questions,

How will teachers know how to align curriculum, instruction, and assessment with these new standards in ways effective enough to enable all students to have a shot at reaching them?

Chester Finn, writing at the Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog, laments the Byzantine mess states have made of standards:

Yes, those who abhor the thought of national education standards and tests for the United States will find all sorts of reasons to oppose them. I don’t know if the forthcoming product, once fully massaged, will be to my liking. But I do know that our present motley array of state-specific standards and assessments is obsolete and dysfunctional—as well as mediocre or worse in many states. (There are a few happy exceptions.)

For some good discussion on an earlier leaked draft of the national standards, see the comments section of Robert Pondiscio's post Voluntary National Standards Dead on Arrival at The Core Knowledge Blog.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. What do you think about the standardization of curricula, either within state borders or across them?