The Arizona Desert Lamp

ASUA Senate Meeting, 4 November 2009

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 5 November 2009

Agenda available here [PDF].

1. Consent Agenda. The American Medical Student Association (AMSA) got $864.95 for a benefit concert – $700 for audio/visual equipment, and $164.95 for “police security.”

More importantly for the author, the consent agenda also included a petition from a Young Americans for Liberty chapter. Unfortunately, they missed the meeting, and had their hearing for start-up funds tabled until they show up. It’s great to see that there’s a nascent YAL group on campus, but it be even better to see an active one.

2. Undergraduate Council. A year and a month ago, Professor George Gehrels came to the ASUA Senate to discuss course availability, GROs, class standing, and general education. Today, Gehrels came to discuss … course availability, GROs, class standing, and general education. Send in the snakes!

Anyways, Gehrels cited a few changes in his presentation [PDF] that have been implemented since then: the new class standing policy, the $25 drop fee after seven days, and extending WebReg through the eighth day of the semester.

Impact is “uncertain” for all these policies except for the class standing policy, which has boosted average semester enrollment for full-time students from 13.1 to 13.4 units – a fairly significant boost. It’s unfortunate, though, that Gehrels continues to sell the measure as a revenue-increasing one. Perhaps more units are being taken per semester, but, assuming that this policy does what it is supposed to, these students will stay in school for a shorter average duration. If the school really wanted to boost state funds, it could increase the total number of credit

Yet while this class standing policy encourages students to take 15 units per semester (rather than 12), another policy being implemented this spring will cap pre-registration enrollment at 16 units (Honors students get 19). Both policies are admirable by themselves, but together they serve to put students in a vise. Students taking a language class (i.e. 4 units) will be trapped into their schedule – anything outside of the most basic class shifts will become perilous.

Course shopping often gets demonized, but it ignores how useful it is as a hedge against uncertainty. The Senate rightly emphasized that this would become less and less of a problem as syllabi and book lists are made available online, but that’s hardly the only reason for a drop. Perhaps the professor rubs you the wrong way, or the 10-10:50 is too far away from your 11-12:15, or the class you really wanted just opened up.

Further, as Sen. D. Wallace pointed out, some kids are perfectly capable of taking more than 16 units. 18 units in particular is a fairly common enrollment trend. In fact, this new policy works against graduating kids in three – so basically, kids will graduate in four if nothing interrupts their “plan”; otherwise, they’ll be on the same five-year track that is the norm.

The UGC acts as a sort of de facto on-campus think tank, so it’d be nice for them to look at historical enrollment trends and drop rates across the university. With the right data, it seems that registration capacity could be inflated beyond enrollment capacity, allowing students a bit of flexibility as they perfect their schedule.

The other possibility, if the 16 unit restriction isn’t going away, would be to permit the buying/selling/trading of class seats. Of course, this effectively gives Honors students a 3-unit trading subsidy.

Gehrels “couldn’t believe” that he was discussing GROs again before the Senate, a surprising statement for a 24 veteran at the UA. The Senate deserves credit for pointing out – and this is the only time, I suspect – that there needs to be more “awareness” of the fact that GROs change nothing when it comes to graduate/professional school. Sen. Weingartner proposed putting an informational box on the GRO form, perhaps cutting down on unnecessary retakes.

Some other random, but very bad, ideas:

-A “general studies degree,” reflecting on the “interdisciplinary world we live in.” (/vomit) It wasn’t at all made clear how this would differ from the Interdisciplinary Majors that are currently offered. Sen. Weingartner offered the best hypothesis, contrasting the effective combining of three minors (ID) with course-by-course selection (GS). Yet Gehrels couldn’t say, saying that it was still in the works. Why this is deemed so necessary remains a mystery.

-Gehrels wondered openly whether the GenEd program should “do away with the writing requirement, and not have a writing component in the GenEd program at all.” One must wonder, if this holds, why we have general education in the first place.

-“Success Courses,” such as ‘how to find a major’ and ‘find a grad school for you’, presumably to be offered for credit.

Random notes:

-President Nagata will start discussions with President Talenfeld next week about the Get REAL initiative. Baseless speculation sez, “Get excited?”

-Without irony, we had back-to-back reports urging us to (a) vote for the homecoming royalty online, and (b) to go to a “mixer” with student regent finalists Friday after next, and then fill out a “survey” to indicate one’s preferences. Which is to say: UA students have a greater say over their homecoming court than they do over their representative on the Board of Regents. Can’t you feel the empowerment?

Encouraging three year degrees

Posted in Campus, Education Policy by Evan Lisull on 15 July 2009

Graduating EarlyThe AP has a story on the three-year degree, and unfortunately the UA’s own Roxie Catts speaks out against the idea:

But critics say shaving the fourth year off college could limit a student’s social experience and provide a narrower education.

“From a financial standpoint, particularly in these economic times, it’s a great deal,” said Roxie Catts, an academic adviser at the University of Arizona. But that would mean sacrificing some general education courses, she said — “the things that get you out of your comfort zone and stick with you for life.”

As director of advising, Ms. Catts should know that no matter how soon you graduate, everyone is required to conquer the INDV-TRAD-NATS Chimera, fulfilling the same minimum of 35 units. The only way a student takes less gen-ed courses than the given amount is if they test out of them, via an AP test in high school. It would be surprising if Ms. Catts were advocating towards more mediocrity in Arizona’s already abysmal high schools. Unfortunately, this attitude seems to be shared by university administrators elsewhere:

Another student at a four-year college who figured out how finish in three was Charles Jacobson, 20, who graduated this year in business at Skidmore College. He credits good planning and not AP courses. “Halfway through my freshman year, I had all my courses planned out,” Jacobson said.

He was motivated to get a business degree after a summer job with a pet store in high school. He recalls going to the Skidmore registrar’s office and posing the idea of a degree in three years.

“The first thing they asked me was, are you sure you want to do that? I said yes, and here is my plan.”

In fact, universities have gone further in normalizing “out-in-five” than they have “out-in-three.” As the piece points out:

Only 4.2 percent of U.S. undergraduates earned bachelor’s degrees in three years, according to the most recent statistics from the Education Department. The average student spends six years to get a degree at a public university and 5.3 years at a private institution, according to the College Board.

These stats indicate the unfortunate tendency towards over-consumption, rather than under-consumption. One might cynically remark that this is a profit-maximizing tendency on the part of the university – “milk ’em for as much as they got” – but the unnecessary retention of students also leads to overly crowded classes and other resources, reducing spots available for underclassmen and the overall quality of the school. There’s a reason that the university has penalties for exceeding the 145 unit limit – where 120 units is the bare minimum for a BA.

Yet excess fees alone serve only to punish students that take up Ms. Catts offer and explore something outside of one’s comfort zone, and on a small scale encourage students who have switched majors multiple times to simply drop out rather than incurring the hefty $60+ per-unit fee ($115+ for out-of-state students). In concert with these charges, the UA should be proactive in proposing three year offerings, especially to students in Honors and on scholarship. Rather than questioning the decision-making ability of students like Jacobson, advisers should encourage these sorts of plans – after all, even if things don’t work out, the student still will probably graduate in four. This is a far preferable path than lackadaisically shooting for four years, only to be stuck for an additional semester after forgetting a GenEd.

The school could also restructure scholarships and financial aid to be delivered over the course of three years, rather than four. Keeping funds constant, this would serve to either make annual offerings more generous (full-ride and books, for instance), or to expand the total number of students receiving the aid. Students who are given four year scholarships tend to stay for a full four years.

Further, the school should exempt from the excess fee units that were earned elsewhere – community college, placement tests, or other transfers. Given the UA’s comparatively lenient transfer credit policies, these policies together could actually be a selling point for prospective students with an eye on post-baccalaureate studies. “Come to the UA: Save Money, and get a Research 1 degree in Three!” Perhaps this casts the UA undergraduate as a stepping stone – but sacrificing a little bit of pride could go a long way in allowing the UA to compete with top schools around the country

NB: One last, semi-related note – this “soak the out-of-staters” strategy is getting out of control [but switch the labels – it’s $1,500 for 12+ units, not $12+ for 1,500 units. Apologies – EML]:

There’s absolutely no reason for this. If the goal is to discourage super-seniors, an in-state student takes up exactly as much room in a class as an out-of-state student. As if that weren’t enough, the out-of-state surcharge for taking 7 units is inexplicably less than that for taking 6 units.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Ethan Hurd

“I was talking about my university” – A Horowitz Reaction

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 8 April 2009


“You aren’t interested in Islamofascism?”

“You mean, politics?”

It’s not really worth going into the lengthy expositions on Middle Eastern affairs, or the claim that Dr. Cornel West received his honorary degrees on the sole basis that he is “black and articulate” (no love for pop culture?), or the other various assertions relating to the Duke lacrosse case, President Obama bowing to King Abdullah, Islam as a religion, and US-Mexican border issues. There are other sites if you’re into that sort of thing. All in all, old revolutionaries never die – they just change uniforms. It’s hard, after fighting the system for many years, to simply drop the pugnacious attitude and become a well-tempered professor – there are battles to be fought, and won! And so, Mr. Horowitz attempts to change the world of academia, and along the way finds himself mired in a litany of other debates.

The only interesting part in the presentation occurred when one Jeff Larson, a frequent target of Horowitz’s broadsides, asked a question. Mr. Larson proclaimed that he teaches such “radical leftist ideas as resource mobilization theory, which states that if you want to organize a movement you have to recruit people and get supplies . . . that doesn’t strike me as particularly political.” Yet this is not the only idea that Mr. Larson teaches, according to his homepage:

My main interest is to knock the rich and powerful from their leather-lined perches and give the historically exploited and degraded a seat at the sustainably harvested, round table of autonomy, personal expression, and self-governance. Everything else is secondary.

My secondary interests include studying social movements, organizations, and social networks with an eye toward achieving my main interest.

Which is to say, Mr. Larson’s obligation to the University of Arizona to serve as an instructor to her students is secondary to his goal of knocking “the rich and powerful from their leather-lined perches,” and so forth. This strikes me as particularly political. Yet it is secondary to a more troubling claim:

The problem, from my perspective, of your critique . . . being an insider, I know more than you do – and the audience generally doesn’t, right?

It is hard to overstate the consequences of Mr. Larson’s critique – essentially, you are not allowed to criticize, because you don’t have the proper credentials. When it comes to determining the course of the Women’s Studies department, or the Political Science department, or any department, us ignorant outsiders have no say, and must defer to the experts. This is not to say that there isn’t truth to this – jumping to extremes, Raul Grijalva should not be looking over every biochemist’s shoulder. But when Mr. Larson asserts that he “know[s] more,” what is it that he knows more about? Mr. Larson’s knowledge on social movements is clearly superior, but Mr. Horowitz is not disputing his proposed thesis on social movements – he is disputing the manner of his teaching. At what point is one allowed to review anything with regards to instruction of students at the university?

Yet this is not a pedagogical debate, but an institutional one (bear with me here). For universities are increasingly viewed not as repositories of knowledge, but more as vehicles of social and economic advancement. We can see this in places as diverse as President Shelton’s address to the House Education Committee, which he closes by stating:

Just so, every dollar taken away further weakens a sick economy, shuts off opportunity to Arizona students, and leaves this state further in the dust of national and global competition for jobs, economic opportunity and a better way of life.

To President Obama’s remarks on education, which opened by discussing “job creation” and closed by declaring that,

And we are not going to rest until your parents can keep their jobs, your families can keep their homes, and you can focus on what you should be focusing on – your own education. Until you can become the businessmen, doctors, and lawyers of tomorrow, until you can reach out and grasp your dreams for the future.

These, of course, require an M.B.A., an M.D., and a J.D. – all professional degrees. Yet the non-professional degrees are not as they seem, either, as this quote from the Wildcat exhibits:

Wildcat: What do you do with linguistics?
Student: After college?

Wildcat: Mhmm.
Student: You teach linguistics.

What do you do with African American Studies? You become an African American Studies professor. Etc. In their own way, these majors have become professional degrees of a different ilk. The undergraduate university experience becomes little more than a glorified finishing school. This works out to be a convenient compromise – those willing to spar in the marketplace go pro. Those who do not stay within the quad – and, not surprisingly, are usually skeptical of the catallaxy. This being the case, why should students question a professor if it might hurt their grades and/or their career opportunities? If you know that your professor wants you to write from a leftist perspective, why not take the risk-averse approach? After all, college is quite the monetary investment – you wouldn’t want to muck it up on some quibble about, say, Iranian foreign policy. If you are in this for the salary, then why do these issues brought up by Horowitz matter at all? Bow your head, get the sheepskin, and get real paid – so it goes.

The only place where this trend can really be combated is on the fields of general education, a system in serious need of reform here at the University of Arizona; it is here, and not the finishing schools, where Mr. Horowitz’s critique really matters. Unfortunately, admidst the political static, this important message may very well be lost.

A Cornucopia of Knowledge

Posted in Campus, Culture by Evan Lisull on 3 April 2009

CornucopiaOne of the pet issues here at the Lamp is reinstating a respect for knowledge, especially through the general education system. So it’s nice to see Harvard leading the way:

Although most students may deem the undersubscribed subjects impractical, the bastion of liberal arts education has in recent years begun promoting learning for learning’s sake as a worthy and enriching pursuit. Rather than viewing a major solely as a stepping-stone to a career, the university is pushing students to broaden their interests and explore more esoteric topics.

. . .

To entice students to explore such subjects, Harvard has more than tripled the number of small freshman seminars taught by star professors. Among the 132 diverse classes: “The Beasts of Antiquity and their Natural History.”

Also relevant in this vein is this Atlantic Monthly piece from a few years, arguing that future business managers should major in philosophy rather than getting an M.B.A:

What they don’t seem to teach you in business school is that “the five forces” and “the seven Cs” and every other generic framework for problem solving are heuristics: they can lead you to solutions, but they cannot make you think. Case studies may provide an effective way to think business problems through, but the point is rather lost if students come away imagining that you can go home once you’ve put all of your eggs into a two-by-two growth-share matrix. [emphasis added – EML]

This quote, I think, sums up the argument against professional undergraduate degrees (Pre-Law, Pre-Business, etc.) as well as the politicized ends-based classroom (for a qualified defense, read here). This quote criticizes the “seven Cs” generic framework, but this criticism applies equally to any framework: social justice, feminist activism, libertarian Leninism, and so forth. When the purpose of seeking knowledge is replaced with the purpose of using knowledge, then the ability to think is replaced with the ability to act.

The UA’s justifications for general education include the development “critical thinking, writing, and information literacy.” The problem with this list is that it ignores entirely the issue of content – it wants us to be full without providing food. In his post, Matt argues that

In any case, at a fundamental level, there can be no unambiguous distinction between facts and ways of thinking about things, because what count as facts and what count as significant facts are entirely dependent on a certain perspective and mode of thinking

This puts the cart before the horse – a student cannot begin to think critically until he has something to think about. To use a media metaphor, the ends-based classroom replaces the News section with the Opinions section – opinions are important, but a student who learns from opinions alone becomes nothing more than a parrot of other critical thinkers, unable to think on his own.

More preferable is the following list, offered in a piece from the Pope Center:

  • To help students to develop crucial habits of mind,” such as a spirit of inquiry, logical thinking, and a regard for the proper evaluation of evidence.
  • To make students more literate, meaning to make them more proficient in their reading, writing, and speaking.
  • To familiarize students with mathematics and the statistical evaluation of data.
  • To should provide students with a sense of history and framework of time.
  • To give students an understanding of science, and especially of scientific method.
  • To introduce students to the world of art and aesthetics.

Yet I can’t quite sign off on the proposed remedies:

One major structural flaw is State’s “smorgasbord-style” approach to general education that gives the students a huge assortment of courses to select from. For example, instead of requiring a specific important course that all students must take, such as Western Civilization or American History, the current requirements merely said that students had to take a history, philosophy, or religion course. Students are then offered a wide array of 66 courses to choose from, many with an extremely narrow scope (such as HI/AFS 275: Introduction to History of South and East Africa), and at least one that borders on the silly: HON 341: Time Travel.

I fail to see how a seminar on time travel – a philosophical problem not only integrated with an “understanding of science” but also contributing to a broader “sense of . . . the framework of time” – is bordering on the silly. Anyways, the first problem, naturally, is logistical – to implement a “Western Civilization” course, the UA would have to open McKale to accommodate all of the students that would have to take the course. Besides, what sort of graduate student and/or instructor is qualified to teach ‘Western Civilization’? Most importantly, though, this sort of instruction reeks of remedial education. In another passage, the author Jay Schalin bemoans the lost sense of time among current students:

Another problem with not requiring a broad history survey course, such as Western or Eastern Civilization, or American History, is that many young people enter college without a mental time-line of history the way earlier generations have (or had). This is likely because primary and secondary education have de-emphasized pairing great events, people, and ideas with specific dates and eras. A history survey course requirement directly addresses that problem—but courses that fill the new humanities requirements such as WGS 492, Theoretical Issues in Women’s and Gender Studies or PHI 214, Issues in Business Ethics do not.

Yet as Schalin implicitly admits, this a failure of the K-12 system, not the university system. Yet this critique does touch on an important problem for undergraduate education, which lies between the intense specialization of graduate studies and the basic knowledge drilled through pre-collegiate education. The best way to reconcile these two impulses is to provide a a patchwork of specialization, which when taken in whole provide a broader understanding. To become an effective – rather than close-minded – hedgehog, one must first have the understanding of a fox. This Slate article (HT: James Poulos) on the decline of Trivial Pursuit sums up the problem rather well:

Trivia lives; it’s generalist trivia, the kind of fluency that Trivial Pursuit prized, that’s ailing. Just as the Internet splintered trivia into thousands of niches, Trivial Pursuit has contented itself with turning out games like “90s Time Capsule” and “Book Lover’s,” and, more frighteningly, those devoted solely to the vagaries of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Gone is the proud generalist of the original Trivial Pursuit, who knew the most common Russian surname (Ivanov) and the international radio code word for the letter O (Oscar). In his place is the specialist, who knows every inch of Return of the Jedi. There are many of us who have a nagging fear we belong to the latter group.

Perhaps the distinction is best summed up by viewing the undergraduate education as a plate set before a hungry mind. The ends-based classroom seeks to implement a healthy diet – call it the SHAC of education. You eat your social justice because it’s full of socially-democratic vitamins. The ‘classical’ education model from the Pope Center wants to pretend that hummus doesn’t exist, and offers a nice steak dinner. The ‘module’ or ‘corncucopia’ model offers samples of all sorts of food – a piece of sushi, a bite-sized kangaroo burger, barbacoa, apples, and so forth. If you’re trying to develop a palate, it’s hard to argue against the latter model.

Image courtesy of WikiCommons

Towards a new liberal arts

Posted in Campus, Culture by Evan Lisull on 31 January 2009

BooksIf you care at all about the academy, you really should read Stanley Fish’s “The Last Professor” :

What is happening in traditional universities where the ethos of the liberal arts is still given lip service is the forthright policy of for-profit universities, which make no pretense of valuing what used to be called the “higher learning.” John Sperling, founder of the group that gave us Phoenix University, is refreshingly blunt: “Coming here is not a rite of passage. We are not trying to develop value systems or go in for that ‘expand their minds’” nonsense.

. . .

Those ideas have now triumphed (Carnegie and Crane are victorious), and this means, Donoghue concludes, “that all fields deemed impractical, such as philosophy, art history, and literature, will henceforth face a constant danger of being deemed unnecessary.” And as a corollary “professors will come to be seen by everyone (not just those outside the academy) as unaffordable anomalies.”

Such arguments are not new, but that does not mean they are any less pertinent — anyone who has spent time around Eller can attest to this myopic employment-driven educational model. I am sure that the liberal arts students who read this blog can attest to the number of times that they’ve been asked, upon telling their family and friends what they’re majoring in, “And what you plan on doing with that?”

But I feel that this specific reaction — that the golden days are past us and filled with nothing but ‘practical’ sciences — is not thought through. First, it’s important to remember that, inherently, not everyone can, or should, have a liberal arts education. You can read various takes on this from John Stossel and Charles Murray, among others, but the current fetishism with the four-year degree is pretty nonsensical when you think about it.

The problem, however, lies in the labor market — increasingly, there is a fairly irrational demand for four-year college degrees in jobs where, really, no college degree should be required. Such policies are questionable in theory, but not in practice — if you want a job that doesn’t involve squeegees or beef tallow, you have to go to school. Thus, a good number (I can’t say with any degree of certainty if its a majority or not, but this varies from, say, an Oklahoma St. to a Yale) of students are in school specifically for employment purposes. This is a fine at a community college — and ideally, we’d start to see a decreasing of the stigmata towards these kinds of schools.

The other problem comes from the other side — that universities are being run like corporations, dropping “ineffective” units in favor of job-oriented majors and programs. But the problem lies not with the basic human instinct of the profit motive, but rather with the unnaturally large size of these universities — a direct result of the huge uptick in the demand for college graduates in the market. You simply cannot have a 20,000+ member school and act unconcerned about finances Any entity of that size must inherently be run like a corporate entity, unless you want to some serious recklessness and bankruptcy. This instinct also has a feedback, when it comes to student demands from the university. When the ‘university’ was simply a collection of professors, a small campus, and a few cots, the demand was simply knowledge — and, way back in the pre-Gutenburg days, access to the great texts, which pupils would diligently copy down, word for word, the great texts. Now, however, a university is not up to par unless  it has a $27.5 million recreation center, a health care system, an attorney for counseling, and multiple options for healthy eating.

All this is beside that point that, technically, there really isn’t a problem. If students really want a liberal arts education, properly understood, St. John’s College is still taking applications. If students want a purely professional degree, DeVry is always taking in new students.

The problem, for Finish and Donaghue, are the state universities, which occupy a hazardous median between these extremes. These schools also contain a great proportion of college students, and take up almost the entirety of media coverage. (I also think that college sports play a very large role in this predominance, or at the very least a larger role than any educational administrator would admit.) So how do we compromise these two impulses? How do we avoid being devouring by the School of Management, and how do we continue the school’s ostensible mission of providing publication to the citizens of its state (i.e. not reducing the UA down to 5,000 students and focusing entirely on the humanities)? Part of the answer, I think, reveals itself in this response, from the ISI’s First Principles:

The Fish-Donaghue thesis is not about what ought to happen but what has happened. Fish is resigned to the fact that the kind of wide-ranging knowledge that he followed in his academic career will no longer be given a place in academia. He is obsolete, the last. He is grateful that he entered academia when it was still possible to spend his life in learning things. This was a world in which students were excited not about what they could make, however valuable this was, but what they knew because reality contained things worth knowing, because truth was a real enterprise of the mind [Emphasis added — EML].

This brings us back, in a very convoluted way, to the module-based General Education. Part of the problem with this “wide-ranging” knowledge is that it used to be based in the Western Canon, which served us well until the rise of relativists, when dutiful Aeneas was ravaged by the vagaries of post-feminist defenders of Dido and the Enlightenment reduced to a fraud. Yet there’s no going back — like Adam, we know too much. The alternative is then a widening — trying to explore curiously the many wonders of this life — which really should  be the goal of the GenEd program, even if it isn’t. Instead, they’ve replaced one canon with another, “Individuals and Societies” replacing “Rhetoric” and “Diversity Studies” taking the place of “Logic.”

Again, this is a good aim — but if your goal really is to widen one’s interests, to expand a student’s intellectual strivings, the best way to do that is to make them study as many different things as possible, a goal more effectively accomplished through 30 1-unit classes than 10 3-unit classes. Some understanding will certainly be lost, but it’s hard to argue that the current GenEd system encourages deeper understanding of any kind. If we’re opting for foxes over hedgehogs, we might as well go the whole way with it.

Image courtesy of Flickr user vieux bandit

Majoring in Starcraft, Minoring in WoW

Posted in Campus, Technology by Evan Lisull on 30 January 2009

Computer Gamer (Starcraft)Over at Cal, the dreams of a technophile have finally come to fruition:

This course will go in-depth in the theory of how war is conducted within the confines of the game Starcraft. There will be lecture on various aspects of the game, from the viewpoint of pure theory to the more computational aspects of how exactly battles are conducted. Calculus and Differential Equations are highly recommended for full understanding of the course. Furthermore, the class will take the theoretical into the practical world by analyzing games and replays to reinforce decision-making skills and advanced Starcraft theory.

Naturally, this comes with a disclaimer — but it’s quite the disclaimer. The class is a “DeCal,” which means, according to the correcting commenter, that students teach the class. Huh?

DeCal is the Program for Democratic Education at Cal. It is a student-run organization on the UC Berkeley campus. It is a registered student group through OSL (Office of Student Life) and is sponsored in part by the ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California). DeCal’s mission is to provide support for student facilitators. Each semester we support over 150 courses facilitated by students, for students, on topics ranging from Taiwanese Language to Simpsons and Philosophy. These are accredited Pass/No Pass courses on our campus. In order to facilitate a course, a student must find a faculty sponsor in a specific department. For example, a student wishing to facilitate a course on a favorite book can find an English professor to sponsor the course, and the course number can then show up as English 98/198 on student transcripts. Between 3000 and 4000 UC Berkeley students take DeCals each semester.

Cal isn’t the only school with such a program — besides other California branches, U. Texas-Austin, Oberlin, Stanford, and Tufts.  Even with the pseudo-socialist overtones, this is a pretty cool idea — and, if applied correctly, would fit in quite nicely with a module-based form of General Education. I would far prefer to take this class as part of my GenEd requirement than, say,”The Social Construction of Race: Whiteness.” Furthermore, there’s no reason that grad students, over even high-achieving/Honors upperclassmen, can’t teach — excuse me, ‘facilitate’ —  a basic, one-unit class on something that they have pursued passionately. Such student-courses naturally must supplement, rather than fill, the core of any general education curriculum — but now, any sort of supplement looks good; a plan with such possibilities is definitely worth pursuing.

Image courtesy of Flickr user razorxripsaw

March of the Modules

Posted in Campus by Evan Lisull on 28 January 2009

The first step towards module-based General Education (which I wrote about at length here), will be implemented in the field of “information literacy”:

One of the first casualties of the impending budget cuts will be a face-to-face instructional program meant to teach English 101 and 102 students how to navigate the library, Stoffle said. Instead, this program will soon be delivered as an online course.
. . .
Hall said, the new online modules are set to be tested in the fall semester of 2009, and would be structured as a one-credit course that will teach the research skills previously taught in the face-to-face program.

She said this would be the first time the English writing department would require an online course. It would be set as part of the curriculum in spring 2010.

Laura Rupprecht, a sociology senior, has experienced the current research training program from her honors English courses. She said this new online course may have potential for some students.

“For people who haven’t learned this stuff that might be more useful,” Rupprecht said. “I don’t think (honor students) are going to like it much.”

As I remember it (back in my day . . .), the whole thing was quite a sham. To be fair, it was a nice field trip, and walking across the mall with the class reminded me of the day trips I used to take as a kid at my Midwest elementary school, to the local museum of art or the park or wherever. We spent the rest of class lazily wandering the library to find various call numbers. The ‘hardest’ part of that exercise was finding various articles among the tomes of archived journals — an exercise that is largely defunct in the wake of JSTOR and LexisNexis. The class as a whole, however, was formative, and Mr. Skeffington was one of the best teachers that I’ve had here.

Honors kids probably won’t like this unit — because it insults their intelligence. But they also don’t like most of the GenEd program, core introductory classes, etc. The beauty of this program is that it can probably be knocked out in one hungover early afternoon. In fact, wouldn’t it be nice if you could do this with all (or, at least, a great majority) of your GenEd classes?

NB: The headline of the article reads, “Budget cuts may force UA library closure,” implying by its formulation the library that everyone is associated with — the main library. Of course, the “library” in question is never specified, and the lede describes the potential closing of “a” library. So no, we’re not at the point where the library is going to be closed, ever.

A Galaxy of Modules

Posted in Campus by Evan Lisull on 7 January 2009

Computer for EducationWay back at the last Senate meeting, the Senate (and yours truly) was unexpectedly exposed to a bizarre new plan for general education (in case you’ve forgotten the details, the outline of the plan can be found here). I promised to write more about the plan in the future, because the discussion brought up much broader issues; why, for instance, do we have General Education in the first place?

According to Vice-Provost Burd, there are three components, or goals, to the GenEd program here at the UA: critical thinking, writing, and information literacy (i.e. the ability to use research resources at the library). Certainly, these are all commendable goals, but I think they beg the question — what about the students who already have these skills? Consider, for instance, an incoming freshman who scored a 5 on the AP English test, which (ultimately) earns credit at the UA. This student clearly has demonstrated her ability to critically think, and obviously she can write. Perhaps, somehow, she is unable to use a library search system or JSTOR — but even we accept the dubious assertion that our AP-tester is “information illiterate,” that can easily be remedied in a semester, or even more effectively on that student’s own time. What does the GenEd program provide for this student?

The problem with these goals is that they ignore the importance of subject matter — hypothetically, you can become an effective thinker fed on mere concepts, but a growing mind needs intellectual food. This leads to a second approach, in which the thinking methods come from the subject matter itself — this is the idea underlying the Great Books, or Western Canon approach. Here students are exposed “classic” texts that are universally acclaimed as “great,” and through engagement with these texts become the idealized bright young things we always thought that they were. Sarcasm aside, I have to admit a wistful desire for the implementation of this method; in an alternate world, I would have gone to St. John’s College. Sadly, for a litany of reasons (Derrida, Said, and Lyotard — oh my!), the idea of reinstituting the ‘classical education’ on a wide-scale is pie-in-the-sky dreaming; imposing such a curriculum top-down would be so burdensome, so criticized, and so impossible (imagine the bookstore lines for Aurelius!) as to be risible.

We are left, then, in a conundrum — focusing simply on “skills” isn’t enough, but there’s no shared subject matter worthy of teaching for its own sake.

This brings us back to Burd’s modules, which need to be described in more detail. These courses would be worth one credit each, and would be taken online. Each week, there would be a short reading and a related assignment — a write-up or a quiz, I presume.  While these modules would be taken in conjunction with a full, three-credit GenEd class, they would not be related at all with the actual class, and would be randomly assigned — thus, while you and your friend Joe might both be taking “Dinosaurs,” you would take module “Intro to Etymology” while Joe would be taking “It’s a Gas!” (Poor Joe.)

But why bother with the regular classes in the first place? Suppose you had the option to take all of your GenEds as modules. There would be no issues of availability (there’s really no limit to the size of online-based courses), they offer more flexibility in a schedule, and (let’s be frank) they will be less likely to bore.

What such a system of GenEd further offers is the best possible compromise between the issues of subject matter and Burd’s goals. Students, rather than learning more than they ever wanted to know about Clovis man before promptly forgetting him, would be briefly exposed to wide range of ideas. Some might complain The idea of the GenEd program is to build a knowledge base, not to make every student of “Mind, Matter, and God” a published philosopher.By focusing on a wide-range of shallow knowledge, rather than a smallish range of shin-deep knowledge, such a GenEd system also encourages cross-linkages in thought. (Christ, that’s a horrible term. I am so sorry, George Orwell.) Ideally, a graduate of this system will be marginally conversant in a range of subject wide enough to encourage unique thought and connections rarely considered i.e. the laws of physics and the laws of sociology. This is the stuff that idea generation is made of.

Granted, this sort of general education system is batshit insane. Yet since you’ve come this far, a few final thoughts:

1. This system would initially, and perhaps indefinitely, be administered through the Honors College, for Honors Students and the few non-Honors kids who applied for the program for particular reasons (with every regulation, come exceptions to said regulation). This system could be used as a way to lure high-achieving kids to the school, as it would provide a very feasible way for a motivated student to graduate in three years (a perk that I predict will become increasingly popular).

2. We could also do with a reorganization of the categories. Thus, I propose Science, Arts/Literature, and Social Sciences. Each department would offer a minimum of one module. Students would then have to take eight modules in each field, with modifications being made for majors and incoming credit.

3. In designing these modules, it would be nice to see some of the school’s more PR-friendly departments get pimped. For example, the astronomy department could offer a module on the Phoenix mission to Mars, while the Tree-Ring Laboratory could do a module on . . . well, tree-rings, I guess. Nothing like a little UA propaganda for the undergraduates.

4. One of the problems the Senate expressed in response to the online modules is a lack of instructor contact; this fear, I think, is safely held by a wide portion of students. I wonder, though, how hard it would be to offer a professor contact guarantee. Students taking an online module would be given the contact info and office hours of a sponsoring faculty member — ideally, someone closely connected with the material in the module. Students who need contact with the professor would be able to do so, just as any student in a “normal” class would.

5. The other option, which I’ve left unsaid, is simply eliminating general education altogether. I definite have a visceral reaction against this, and it is definitely unseemly. Yet somehow, I’m having difficulty conjuring up a coherent reason as to why.

Image courtesy of Flickr user BALLISTIK!

ASUA Senate Meeting XV

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 11 December 2008

One of the better meetings this semester. For starters, there were extra copies of the agenda, which means that non-ASUA attendees got copies for themselves.  Again, it’s small stuff like this — and the recently lost podcast idea — that represent important steps in improving ASUA transparency. More, please!

1. Parking & Transportation Services Presentation. The folks behind the recent parking rate increases ($50 increase next year, with large percentage increases for the next two academic years afterward) came in to justify themselves to the Senate. They also had a nifty handout, filled with super-swanky graphs and pro-PTS agitprop.

First, though, on the rate increase itself. Naturally, this is being cast as one of those “we need new revenue things,” but their justification for the increase conveniently provides an illustration of the problems in environmentally-friendly policy discussed here:

Our goal of educing the number of single occupancy cars on campus, reducing traffic congestion and providing more sustainable transportation choices will dramatically improve our environment and reduce our carbon footprint.

So, here, again, we have the students on campus being punished with what amounts to a Pigovian tax. I agree that the traffic congestion problem is worth improving as a service to the campus. There is an argument to be made here for increasing “sustainable” transit options on campus — providing services to students that make a car less of a necessity to attend the UA. Contra this column, it is very hard to fully appreciate everything that the UA and Tucson have to offer without a vehicle. Using this justification — “help the students” — is far more convincing than “reducing the carbon footprint,” which is specious as all hell. Remember, it’s P&T Services.

You also have to love this tidbit:

Due to the current economic and campus environments, the President has authorized a change in the recently approved parking program. PTS will modify next year’s rate increase and will implement approximately a $50 increase instead of the $116.

Oh, Great Shelton — how kind you are to us lowly serfs! Shelton, indeed, is so concerned about students in this current environment that he’ll go out of his way to make sure that tuition can be as affordable as. . .oh, right.

The programs that the fee increase is intended to provide also are under-whelming:

1) Car Sharing Program — The idea here is that students will have access to a car renting company that will allow them to take cars out for a couple of hours at a time to run errands. But what niche is being filled here? Most errands that require a ride can be accomplished with less paper work (and, in all likelihood, more convenient hours) through SafeRide. Also, the insurance costs of providing cars for hourly rent to college students cannot be cheap. Then there’s that whole “bumming a ride” thing, as well as SunTran. I can see this being marginally more convenient for some things, but I can’t envision a scenario in which the provides anything necessary at a cost-effective rate.

2) Bike Sharing Program — Perhaps there’s some hope here. Right now, it sounds as blasé as the other sharing program — mostly, it entails allowing students to rent bikes for a semester or a year. But if implemented correctly, and in conjunction with the UAPD, this could be used to cut down on bike theft. Such a program would automatically register all of its bikes with UAPD, and would give them an atrocious, unique color — yellow was proposed by VP Patel in her campaign bike proposal, but orange and teal also work — to make them very obvious. The bikes would be backed with an insurance policy, which would allow anyone who did have their bike stolen to get a new one at no cost. The plan could be hawked as the “safe bike option” to incoming students, which would raise the popularity of the program, and thus decrease the number of unregistered, uncolored bikes for thieves to choose from. And yes, students would pay a fee to use these bikes. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

3) SunTran Bus Pass Subsidy Program — It’s not clear at all what will happen here, since negotiations are “on-going.” But I can’t think of another major university that simply shunts its students off to the city bus for transportation.

4) Park & Ride Lots — This is an especially curious thing for PTS to propose when you look at the fare increases. Next year, everything goes up by the flat $50. Afterwards, the rates go up at varying percentages. But the Off-campus Park & Ride rates go up the highest, percentage-wise, from $153 this year to $300 in 2011, a nearly 100 percent increase.

What you should in fact be doing is maintaining, or even lowering the cost of these lots, to make them an especially appealing deal in the wake. Also, it provides an affordable option for the students, who are getting their pockets picked by just about every university administrator these days.

5) Streetcar! — Read here. This is, clearly, a long term project.


Finally, PTS states that about 45 percent of the fee will go towards garage spending. What would have stopped the directors of PTS from instituting a lower fee increase, and having a greater proportion of the money (and the same amount of funds) go to garage spending?

Oh, right, it’s not about us — it’s about our carbon footprint.

2. Consent Agenda. Another nice thing about having a copy of the agenda is that we can actually look at the consent agenda — hooray! Turns out, approving the consent agenda is essentially an approval of the decisions of the Appropriations Board meeting the preceding Monday. The agenda also provides a nice summation of the activities of the Board — each item includes a paragraph describing what funding is being requesting, who is requesting, how much was ultimately allocated, and some description of why the board decided the way that it did. If you want a copy, I can retype it up upon request, but nothing in here is controversial enough to merit reproduction here.

What would be really nice would be if these consent agendas (and the meeting agendas that they were attached to) could be made available for download from the ASUA website. The document’s already ready, so all that would be required would be an upload to the (sparse) Senate site.

3. Gen-Ed Reform. Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Gail Burd came in to discuss a new plan that she’s come up with for reforming General Education here.

There’s a lot to say about it, but enough for a separate post — this Senate report is getting long enough as it is. For now, a brief summary of the plan: instead of the current six Tier 1 Gen Ed courses, we would now have four Tier 1 courses (NATS, TRAD, INDV, and a wildcard). In addition, these units would also contain a separate, unrelated online unit — your 3-unit class might be on astronomy, but the 1-unit might be on biology. This online unit would have weekly readings, quizzes, etc. etc., and would be administered by a grad student. A bad chart (with changes in bold):

NATS        TRAD        INDIV                         ARTS
1    6 units    6 units    6 units
3+1        3+1        3+1        3+1 = either NATS or INDV or TRAD
2    3 units    3 units    3 units    Assessment Phase = 1 unit 3 units

The assessment unit is placed to a) ensure that the student has met the goals of the Gen Ed program; b) provides a cheap alternative to a system-wide test to monitor improvement, something that the university currently lacks.

The highlight in her presentation came, however, when she said “off the record” that, “Our system for General Education is strange. No one else in the world does something like this . . . it’s really off the wall.” Good to hear that even the highest administrators are as baffled by the system as the students that are forced to go through it.

4. New appointees. We have a new Diversity Director, a new Deputy Elections Commissioner, and a new Academic Affairs director. The only one worth mentioning is the last, since it is none other than Sam Ellis, who previously worked for NoteHall. Buchanttenae, naturally, are ringing — this would be a bit like appointing the former head of Goldman Sachs to head the “regulation” of Wall Street. Oh, wait.

5. Supreme Court Bylaws Revision. What do you know, these are attached to the agenda too! From the sound of it, these bylaws haven’t been updated for quite some time, and the new changes reflect changes in behavior since then. Pretty innocuous, especially given the impotency of the Court. How I would love to see the Court rule its own Marbury v. Madison, and declare the ability to review ASUA proposals for their constitutionality.

One White Paper to Rule Them All, Part I

Posted in UA Transformation Plan by Evan Lisull on 8 November 2008

Things have obviously been busy here (VOTE!); enough so that we somehow missed the release of the Strategic Planning and Budget Committee’s decision [PDF] on the 75 white papers that came through.

Suffice to say, it’s a pretty important step; this is stage two, before the actual proposals come in, the proposals that will actually be implemented. We’ll be going through this in more detail, but for now, an initial gloss.

First, the review provides a list of proposals that have made the cut to the “Full Proposal Stage” :

#112 Graduate Program in Integrative Insect Science
#115 School of Geography and Development
#118 Umbrella Program for Graduate Training in Molecular Life Science
#125 School of Information Science, Technology and Arts
#127 Literary Arts Emphasis
#129 Future of Science and Mathematics Teacher Development
#137 Department of Mexican American and Raza Studies
#140 School of Animal Systems
#141 Institute for Mineral Resources
#146 Consortium for Critical Analysis and Social Change
#147 Research Institute for Arts in the Americas
#149 Disability Studies
#151 Arizona Center for Educational Success
#153 Educational Studies or Teaching and Learning
#154 Leadership, Higher Education and Policy
#158 School of Anthropology
#159 School of Plant Sciences
#162 Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture
#164 Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
#185 Near Eastern Studies

We haven’t been through all of these (yet!), but there’s nothing here that immediately stands out as a bad choice.

The SPBAC review buries the lead, though, in its analysis of the proposed school of Government and Public Affairs:

The merger proposed in #138 has positive potential and the support of the affected units.
Therefore, we recommend development of a Full Proposal. We suggest that the proposers  explore possible collaboration between the proposed School of Government and Public Affairs and the Udall Center and, likewise, that they explore collaborations with UA South, particularly with regard to the Criminal Justice program.

We recommend that no further action be taken at this time on #150, pending the outcome
of #138.

Two notes here: one, the committee is really trying to smooth over the hard feelings over Portney’s stab-in-the-dark on Public Administration, assuring the program that if this merger falls through, they’ll still have a home at Eller. Secondly, you really do have to wonder why UA South exists in the first place. The Criminal Justice program is one of the major offerings of the school, which already operates in an awkward no-man’s-land between big school university and community college. Assuming that there are serious tuition increases, it increasingly becomes either an expensive community college, or a shoddy version of UA-Tucson.

The review, however, is straight-up disappointed with the papers by the Arizona Health Science White Papers:

More generally, the SPBAC Transformation Subcommittee is concerned that the Arizona
Health Sciences Center (AHSC) colleges and units have not fully utilized the White
Paper process to explore the opportunities for improvements and innovations. We
recognize that this is likely due to the fact that the Arizona Health Sciences Center is in a
transition period with new Vice President for Health Affairs, Dr. William Crist, just
beginning in this position as we write.

Among the papers singled out with no mitigating praise are those of the Sarver Heart Center and the “Tripartite Reorganization” of the College of Medicine. The review goes on:

Therefore, our overall and strongest recommendation is that the “Transformation”
process for AHSC be re-started under the leadership of the new VPHA.
recommend that Vice President Crist bring together the Deans and Faculty of the four
colleges to explore possibilities for cross-college collaborations, mergers and other forms
of restructuring to achieve collective and individual prominence and success.

If this were a college paper, it would read, “Please Rewrite.”

The review then tackles the the Broad Issue of “College-Level Structures,” and the many proposals for new Colleges on campus. The SPBAC cites a lack of  “adequate information” as to whether or not this would be a good idea, as it pertains to rankings and keeping up with the Jones’s in the Association of American Universities.

The school is surprisingly gung-ho on the Honors College, dropping this tidbit:

The committee encourages the Honors College to be as creative as possible in developing
solutions; at the same time, we acknowledge that additional funding, or a redistribution of
resources, might be needed to support and build on the excellence represented and
advanced by the Honors College. The strengthening of the Honors College is a priority,
which should not be lost sight of during this time of transformation.

This is at least partly influenced by a “Let’s at least keep up with ASU” sentiment, but the strengthening of an Honors College within a major state school is a model that has been modeled at Georgia, South Carolina, and the University of Maryland.

As far as general education is concerned, the paper saves some its harshest rhetoric for the asinine proposal to “specialize” Freshman English:

#126 raises legitimate concerns about the writing skills of our undergraduates. However, we do not believe that the proposed solution, which would be to dismantle the Writing Program and relocate writing instruction to the disciplines, has been properly informed by expertise regarding writing instruction. Nor is it clear that it would cut costs as claimed.

It also recognizes the stark divide between the two futures for General Education: specialized faculty and courses designed specifically for Gen Ed (as proposed by the VP for Instruction), or an expansion of students taking 100 and 200 level courses (as proposed by ASUA). The review’s proposal?

. . .we recommend that the Provost appoint a committee, on the model of an Academic Program Review (and thus including external reviewers with expertise in the relevant areas), to provide an authoritative and independent review of Foundations (to include not
only writing skills but also mathematics) and General Education.

If there’s anything this school needs, it’s more committees and reviews.

The rest of the analysis largely consists of the committee taking papers of similar themes (such as the eleven papers relating to Earth and Environmental Sciences), and telling them to get together and form a common Proposal.

Yet out of recommendations, a bit of certainty for a few programs on campus:

#133 Arizona Research Laboratories
#156 Arid Lands Resources Sciences GIDP
#160 Cancer Biology GIDP

These white papers do not propose the reorganization of academic units but, rather, argue that the proposing units should remain as they are. We are persuaded that these units should in fact remain in their current form. Therefore, no further action is needed on these proposals.

Looks like the “Don’t Tread on Usattitude fared pretty well in the process.