Monday, March 28, 2005

Some thoughts on reading The Lord of the Rings out loud

Last night I finished reading LotR to my daughter, who is four and a half. We had started very soon after Christmas (when we had finished The Hobbit) and finished on Easter, which comes pretty close to mirroring the time it took the Frodo and Sam to go from Rivendell to Mount Doom. I absolutely loved reading the books to Rhys and watching her reactions, and 90% of the time when I was reading I wasn't analyzing, just reading. I do a few voices for her when I read (Gimli--with a Yorkshire accent--the orcs, Treebeard, Saruman), but mostly I just read.

Now I've read LotR easily 40 times, so it wasn't likely that I'd suddenly discover anything new. And my first introduction to Tolkien was my dad reading the books aloud to me, so I'm familiar with the aural effects. And yet I did notice a few things:

Tolkien spends an enormous amount of time on physical description of geography. There is just passage after passage describing, in detailed but not purple prose, the land, and the largest portion of this writing describes topography. Foliage and water flow gets some description, but topography really takes the lion's share. I think this is particularly interesting because Tolkien gets criticized regularly for archaic or inflated style, but none of that style is evident in these many, many passages.

The Fellowship of the Ring is by far the most engaging of the three books. I have always been a lover of The Return of the King because, of course, it's the climax, with the great battles, the destruction of the Ring, etc. But Fellowship is so powerful because it all happens at a much more personal level -- at least in the eyes of a four-year-old. Fellowship is also a lot scarier: the Black Riders, the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs and the Mines of Moria are just a lot more viscerally frightening than the more intellectually frightening battles and monsters later on. In fact, rather than progressively building to more and more terrifying monsters (such as whatever is living in Minas Morgul, or even Shelob), the monsters in the Shire and on its edges are more emotionally powerful. Part of this is probably due to the hobbits being on their own at the beginning, and less experienced, etc. But I think that Tolkien does a very smart thing dramatically by building up the tension so quickly even for such a long work.

"The Counsel of Elrond" is long and difficult, but not (contra so many) boring to a four-year-old. I think, though, that if I hadn't been able to explain back story, etc., it would have been more difficult for her. The most tedious chapter for her was "The Voice of Saruman" : she wasn't impressed by the rhetoric and debate.

Lothlorien, and particularly the Lady Galadriel, is incredibly powerful. Even with all the excitement throughout LotR, Rhys' favorite chapters were in Lothlorien. Her next favorite moments were Eowyn slaying the Lord of the Nazgul and the ents destroying Isengard.

I am a far bigger sap than my four-year-old daughter. Both at Thorin's death at the end of The Hobbit and the Grey Havens in LotR, I got all misty. Not so, Rhys, though she did feel very sad about Theoden's death.


The Silmarillion? To a four-year-old? Not as big a hit.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

"Overproduction" of Ph.D.s

Last week I wrote a long and link-filled post about the "overproduction of Ph.D.s" problem, but blogger swallowed it and then one child got sick and then I had to give a lecture in NYC and then the other child got sick and then the proofs of two articles arrived on my desk with the standard "we sat on this for 28 months but now we need your corrections and revisions in seven days" letter and then the babysitter's great-grandmother died and then the babysitter's cat had to be put to sleep... (I am not making this up), so I have not had the chance to re-construct the post. And I won't here, either, since I have exams to grade. But here's the quick and dirty version.

John Bruce writes rather emphatically that he does not accept my analogy of academia to art, music or sports:
I see with some frequency the argument, always from tenured faculty, that to say there's something unfair about the academic economy if it overproduces PhDs is wrong, since there's no difference between the pyramidal food chain in academics and the same pyramid you see in sports, acting, music, art, and so forth. In other words, Hollywood (say) is full of wannabes. Only a few of those wannabes turn into Humphrey Bogart or Meryl Streep or Brian Dennehy. Thus, there are thousands of adjuncts, tens of thousands of TAs, and if the great majority never make it to tenure, that's no different from the minor league ball players who never become Joe DiMaggio.
Well, first, I can see why your average tenured prof would like this argument. It makes him or her into Maggie Smith or Ted Williams or Van Cliburn or Mary Cassatt or Ernest Hemingway. In fact, this is a real problem I see with this way of thinking. Nobody who says this is even remotely at the top of a talent-based pyramid. Nor is any of their colleagues, save only the Nobelist three states over. The fact that you got tenure, Prof. Throckmorton, makes you neither Leonardo DiCaprio nor Bruce Willis. You are instead an ordinary working stiff with pretensions beyond your station. No professor who hasn't shaken hands with the King of Sweden rises remotely to the merit of a top athlete or artist, and much as you'd like to think so, tenure isn't equivalent recognition. So let's get that out of the way.

Well, duh. I don't think I was even implying that getting tenure, even at Stanford, is the equivalent of becoming Humphrey Bogart. The economies of scale are very different, as the rewards differential shows. But getting tenure at a university can certainly be analogized to being a "working actor," who manages to keep gainfully employed at various jobs. Some of these actors will cross over to become more famous --the way a professor like Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins can cross over into mainstream publishing where he will make 10X his professor's salary -- but most will simply have a middle-class career at, say, the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. And many, many more will invest years of auditions, poverty and struggle and end up with no tangible reward for it. I think the parallel with getting and Ph.D. and trying for a faculty job is obvious--and the odds are actually a lot better for a Ph.D. than for a hopeful actor.

But, John argues, it's different in academia because:
Nobody, except possibly the stars' cooks and gardeners, works at low pay in the system specifically to enrich a movie star in hopes of getting a payoff later. This, however, is specifically what grad students do. And a tenured professor at a research university would not be paid if there were not low-wage graduate assistants foregoing income in the system.

I've addressed this point before, but I see no evidence that professors are dependent upon low-wage graduate assistants in the way that John is suggesting here. As I wrote in the above-linked post, if someone made all graduate student teaching and assisting illegal tomorrow, the profession would go on with only a few changes. I can only speak for English, and it may be more of a big deal in the hard sciences, where research groups often rely very heavily on graduate students (but in those sciences, there are plenty of rewards for Ph.D.s outside the academy; only 1 person from my wife's "class" of Ph.D. students at Northwestern went into academia; the others went into industry and made money). But at Missouri, for instance, more than 75% of the English 20 (=English 101) TA's are M.A. students, mostly high-school teachers who are getting an additional credential to improve their salaries. So you'd have to replace 25% of the intro classes if you eliminated "overproduced" Ph.D. candidates. Not painless, but not hard. You could "place out" the top 10-15% of the students, who might benefit from intro English but not need it the way other students do. Then you could deal with the other 10-15% of students by slightly increasing the number of introductory classes taught by Professors (say, from 1 per year to 1.5 per year for a big department like Missouri). So to say that the tenured professors "would not be paid if there were not low-wage graduate assistants foregoing income in the system" is incorrect. Their jobs may be made easier (since intro courses are harder to teach than advanced courses), but the students and their revenue stream would still be there if the Ph.D. students were gone (in fact, at most places directing dissertations or having graduate assistants is not explicitly calculated as part of faculty workload; it's an add-on -- though teaching one or two graduate classes per year is part of the workload/salary package).

Now I don't want the above to be seen as a slam on graduate teaching or on adjuncts. That tenured professors don't rely on their "exploited" labor for their salaries does not mean that their contribution to the life of the college and the educations of students is negligible. I'll push the acting/music analogy a little further: the members of the ensemble in a Broadway musical are collectively essential to the success of the production. But they don't get the money and the security of the "stars" or even the established mid-level actors because although the collective work of the ensemble is necessary, any single ensemble singer can fairly easily be replaced by someone else who wants that job and is willing to work very hard for low pay as a way of getting a chance to move up.

Having gone to Carnegie Mellon for undergraduate, I know a fair number of actors and musicians. Some, like my best friend from college, have become stars. Others have not had as successful a career path, although quite a good percentage of them are full-time in their art (which, according to Bruce Springsteen, is the definition of success in the arts: when you can quit your day job). But among these folks there isn't the incredible sense of resentment that there is among people who have not had the same success in academia. Why is that?

I think the sort of folks (myself included) who tend to go into academia expect to be rewarded if they follow the rules: get into a top undergraduate institution, make A's, get into a good graduate school, make A's. The next obvious step is a TT job. When that doesn't materialize, because there are a lot of other people who are just as smart, hard-working and driven as you are who want it, then the rationalization develops that the system must be broken and you must be being exploited.

It is also the case that among Ph.D. candidates, graduates of the Ivies and other elite scholars are very over-represented. And, I have to say, my experiences suggest that these folks are heavily overinvested (emotionally, socially) in their undergraduate degrees. There is a very, very strong sense of entitlement among graduates of these elite schools (note how often the graduates tend to offhandedly mention their institutions -- Harvard grads are particularly repellent in this regard; there's a kind of up-talked, pseudo-question in the voice when, a Harvard grad has been asked where he/she went to school: "Harvard?")

I read a lot of the calls to reduce "overproduction" of Ph.D.s to be a thinly-veiled attempt to get rid of those hustling kids Missouri or Wayne State or Arizona or Notre Dame who are taking the jobs that rightfully belong to the graduates of the elite schools. For, make no mistake, if "overproduction" of Ph.D.s is somehow to be reduced by some kind of cartel system, it won't be the Ivies that will be asked to produce fewer graduates, and it won't be the Ivy programs that are shut down. The end result of such a process would be more intellectual inbreeding and stagnation. It will also push the decision tree of who ends up as a professor further back from graduate work to undergraduate work even to the (largely meaningless, imho) high-school work and test-scores that determine what undergrad institution one goes to (and lest I sound like the sour-grapes fox here, I was accepted to one Ivy and wait-listed at another but chose Carnegie Mellon anyway for my undergraduate degree).

This post is way too long, but let me also add that I do think there are problems with tenure (not so much Ward Churchill not being able to be fired for being a horse's ass, but the inability of colleges to separate out useless 'dead wood,' scholars who no longer teach well or do research, from productive people); and there are problems with intellectual close-mindedness; and all "speech-codes" are idiotic and should be completely scrapped; and the ridiculous proliferation of deans and sub-deans and various non-academic programs and centers should be radically reduced; and the single best thing that the country could do to fix college life would be to return to the 18-year-old drinking age so that the whole alcohol-Gestapo mandated by Congress and vulture lawyers could be dismantled. I'll try to address these things in other posts. But like the the medical system's problems, academia's flaws are not subject to one simple fix (from either left or right). Getting rid of tenure would have some good and some bad effects. Reducing the number of Ph.D.s would also have some good and bad effects, but I'm pretty sure that most of them would be bad for academia as a whole even if they might help individual Ph.D. candidates.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Some Problems with Teaching Evaluations
When you measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it, but when you cannot (or do not) measure it, when you cannot (or do not) express it in numbers, then your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.
--Lord Kelvin

As part of the long, multi-person discussion going on about tenure and other aspects of academia (see John Bruce's blog and scroll down, and also see Jim Hu's comments), there has been some talk about the subject closest to my heart: teaching. John Bruce posts a few very negative reviews of faculty members from The Dartmouth Review and wonders how such people get hired given the current 'buyer's' job market. Jim Hu responds by examining what he can of one of the professors so harshly criticized, Fernando Commodari. Jim says that he takes such evaluations with a large grain of salt. I agree, except that I would add that you need a whole shaker.

Without a lot of context, student evaluations are probably meaningless--and I say this as one to whom student evals have been very, very good. For example, teachers in introductory classes get consistently lower numeric evaluations than they do in upper level courses. Science profs in particular get slammed on intro courses. There's also a pretty good correlation at the lower end of the scale between grades awarded and evaluation numbers, so that if you're a weak professor, handing out A's can increase your evals (science profs, especially in intro classes, don't usually have the luxury of very skewed grade distributions). At the upper end of the scale there seems less of a correlation between grades and evals, and in fact some of the very highest evaluated profs give out some of the lowest average grades (your truly included).

There there are the comment-sheets, like that published by the Dartmouth Review, in which anonymous students can savage a professor. These are completely useless, imho, since we have no context as to what other beef the student(s) may have with the prof. A cheating scandal, a refusal to give an extension, a disagreement over partial credit... anything can cause a student to blow up and write a scathing negative review. I've had colleagues get comments like "never available outside class" when I know for a fact that these profs are on campus 8-5, at least four days a week. But because the student didn't want to come in for 8:30 a.m. office hours, he or she wrote "never available."

Thus I give you Prof Commodari's take on his being listed as a terrible professor in the Dartmouth Review:
It'stoo late for me to go into the innaccuracies in that Dartmouth Review 2004 (In the same article they rake the new President of Dartmouth over the coals for being an "outsider"). I never taught Chem 5 there. I only taught Chem 6, after declining the invitation the year prior, in the Spring of 2004 (March 15-June 30, 2004) during mud season. There is a revolving door of temporary faculty at places like Dartmouth where the tenure-track and tenured faculty often need a break from teaching freshman chemistry. The fellow before me left and never returned. I took the job as an oportunity to checkmy experiences in teaching in mostly public non-priviliged settings with one in an ivy school. In my class of CHEM 6 atDartmouth, there was an element of students who could not adapt to my teaching style, using power point to allow for more time for problem solving. This 10% took it upon themselves to compare me in a "survey" / petition to a tenured faculty member who did nothing but chalk with his back to the class, as opposed to the more interactive approach that I use, after 15 years of evolution. It was awful. They passed this survey in my class unbeknownst to me, until other students came to me, and upset a good part of the class that was very content with my teaching. I had made the mistake of "blitzing" or e-mailing the whole class with the class emails unhidden (I did not bcc), and this small element would e-mail the whole class, unbenownst to me, trying the to convince the other students to have me give up the powerpoint. This was only one week into my teaching there. They made it very difficult for me, I did try to appease the minority by adding more chalk-talks, but the minority had already poisened the atmosphere in my class. At the end, my class average was a B+ higher than the B that was the Dartmouth "traditional" grade for the class, and I was pressured to change this, but I could not justify it based on Z score calcualtions etc. I can assure you that my standards were no less than anyone who taught Chem at Dartmouth, as I teach with a focus on substance. Unfortunately, the 90 % of the students who were happy don't post on blogs. Let me say, that in all my years of teaching, the students, five years later, are most thankful to those professors who were rigorous and layed a strong foundation in the basic (chemistry) class in preparation for the future, even if at the time they might not have appreciated a professor who always challenged them to go beyond the average.
Fernando Commodari, Ph.D.

I want to focus on the last sentence of prof. Commodari's email: "Let me say, that in all my years of teaching, the students, five years later, are most thankful to those professors who were rigorous and layed a strong foundation in the basic (chemistry) class in preparation for the future, even if at the time they might not have appreciated a professor who always challenged them to go beyond the average. " That kind of rigor (and I have no reason not to take Prof. Commodari's word for it) can alienate students who are overly-concerned about GPA and also students who have a different comfort level with different styles of teaching.

So how do we evaluate teaching? At Wheaton we focus on the actual comments by the students rather than their numeric evaluations. We look for things like use of superlatives, discussion of the difficulty of the class, and phrases like "tough but fair." If students give specifics of what they learned, we take that as a big positive. But that still isn't a very good metric, and so our knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind. What we really want is for students to have learned a lot from a course. If they did, it was a good course. But we don't have very good ways of measuring that knowledge without using up resources on before-and-after evaluation (costs time and money to develop instruments, grade them, administer them again, and do the statistical work to make meaningful comparisons).

In the meanwhile, it's worth being skeptical of student comments either in anonymous college publications or at sites like or whatever it is.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Tenure, Again

John Bruce at In the Shadow of Mt. Hollywood has a number of challenging posts about tenure and its problems. For instance, John notes that departmental staffing can take a very long time to adjust to student demands. It's certainly possible to have a department full of tenured professors teaching classes with four or five students in them while in another department all the classes are completely overcrowded. Administrators would like to address the problem, but if you can't reduce the number of tenured faculty in department A, it's budgetarily dangerous to increase the number of tenured faculty in department B. So things just stay the same, and administrators make up the difference with exploitation of adjunct faculty. It is difficult to determine what the "legacy" departments are, though, particularly at a small school like Wheaton which has several departments that have only one or two members. Things change rapidly. When I started at Wheaton there was some grumbling that English had a lot of staffing (we're the biggest department, by one, over psychology) and not too many majors. A few years later, we have more majors than we know what to do with.

Obviously administrators would have a lot more flexibility in staffing courses if they weren't constrained by tenure. Administrators could also continually replace senior faculty with less-expensive junior faculty. The senior faculty and all the junior faculty who hope to become senior faculty (i.e., all the faculty in TT or T jobs) know this, and it is by far the biggest reason for the ferocity of the defense of tenure. Everyone fears that, were tenure eliminated, expensive senior professors would be fired to save money. And where would they go? How would a professor support him- or herself when let go at 53 so that a 'young turk' who got paid a lot less could be hired?

Now the non-academic sector seems to handle this problem fairly well, it seems to me -- in that there's not a gigantic number of late-career professionals constantly being fired to be replaced by cheaper new college hires -- but I honestly think that when professors think about the ending of tenure, it's this kind of result they fear far more than being muzzled for controversial speech.

But economic self-interest is not a particularly good defense for a practice as expensive as tenure. I do think, as I wrote previously, that tenure can save colleges money in many situations: I would certainly be lured away for more money more easily than I have been (i.e., I have thus far stayed) if Wheaton hadn't awarded me tenure. But the cost/benefit analysis is beyond my economic competence, especially since it is going to involve hard-to-measure things like productivity, insitutional memory, wisdom, flexibility, etc.

Thus it will be very easy for people to attack tenure. I can in fact imagine a successful movement to eliminate the practice at public universities: I don't think many people realize just how much middle-class anxiety and anger there is out there about college costs (and admissions, but that's another post). Because the financial system is set up in such a way as to deliver a strong financial punch to just about everyone who is middle class (i.e., if you make more money, you get less aid, and full tuition is so ridiculously high) a populist attack on "lazy" professors who get paid too much and can't be replaced, and who can be tarred (fairly, in many cases but certainly not in all) with the "anti-American" brush, could be quite a potent political force.

This is one reason why I find the Ward Churchills of the academy so despicable. They, like the journalists who abuse the hard-earned authority of their profession for fleeting partisan advantage, are eating the seed corn. When the whole system comes toppling down, the good with the bad, the 200 idiots at CU defending Churchill's violation of every professional norm will blink their eyes and wonder what happened, and it'll be the responsiblity of the younger scholarly generation to clean up the mess.

One of the big reasons for tenure and 'academic freedom' is to allow universities to be keepers of the light, protectors of hard-won real knowledge in the face of the tides of politics and fashion. I don't mean that academia has to be hidebound, dusty and boring (though a little bit of these things can be a useful counterweight to a culture that is very much in the 'now'), but there's a presupposition that it is worth listening to those who have spent their lives in study and teaching. When their pronouncements are no better than those of a below-average Op-Ed writer, the people start to wonder why they occupy a privileged position, and even why that position needs to exist. I have no problem with leftist or rightist or any other ideas occuping a refugium in academia, but they should be ideas of a quality that can't easily survive somewhere else. That Moron Ward Churchill does not meet that test, and thus he undercuts the existence of the very tenure system by which he profits.