The Weekly Blab
Volume 5, Issue 2—August 30, 2010
It Was a Really Good Week
Last week was a really good week at SPSU. I’ve never seen so many students out and about wherever I went, and students and faculty all seemed very happy at the start of the semester (though I’m sure that won’t last forever!), and everyone was marveling at the new facilities on campus.
On Wednesday, I attended the home opener of the SPSU men’s soccer team. I got there about 10 minutes late, and the score was already 2-0 in our favor. It was a beautiful day—not too humid, and sun behind the clouds, and the ultimate score was an extremely lopsided 11-0. Our team is now 1-0-1 (the tie with last year’s #1 in the country team), so it looks like we’re going to have a good season. Of course my favorite pro team, Chelsea (in the English Premiere League) is off to an equally excellent start—they’re 3-0-0, with the first two matches being won by scores of 6-0. Didier Drogba looks strong, so they look like they’ll have an excellent year as well.
On Thursday, we had one of the best events I’ve seen on this campus (or any campus), with Dr. Muhammad Yunus speaking about how he developed the micro-credit aspect of banking. The number of students turning out was impressive (800-900 total attendance), filling the Student Theatre, backup space in the lobby, and backup space in the Ballroom. The talk was excellent, and what was most striking to me, focused on how little it took to get the ball rolling: his willingness to put up $27 of his own money to get 41 people (mostly women) out of the clutches of loan-sharks. It’s really true that the best ideas are often the simplest, and it’s a function of questioning peoples underlying assumptions (that the poor wouldn’t pay the loans back). I’m sure that lots of people believe that this process wouldn’t work in the United States (and I have my doubts), but of course, that’s what they believed in Bangladesh too. Dr. Yunus was extremely generous with his time in signing all those books, and then attending the small reception we had for him. The really cool thing was that Dr. Yunus wasn’t just some famous name that people turned out to see because of his fame—his work has a real connection to what we do at SPSU, and he was very interested in the hands-on applied approach we take in our teaching.
The opportunity to have Dr. Yunus on campus came about because Dr. Gouranga Banik (Construction Management) had a personal connection to him. This makes me wonder about the rest of our faculty—does anyone else have a connection to someone of this high caliber? If so, please let me know and we’ll see what we can do to set up the next program.
Thursday night, I brought my family onto campus for the Sister Hazel concert. I’d heard of the group before, but wasn’t really familiar with their music. The concert was excellent, and I ran into several faculty and staff there, as well as lots of students, of course. It won’t surprise anyone to know that I’ve since ordered several CD’s and a DVD by the group for the ol’ collection.
I’m pleased to note that our student government has passed an Honor Code. This is part of the ongoing effort of the ad hoc Academic Integrity Committee that I’ve referred to several times in the past. The Honor Code will be shared with the Faculty Senate for its endorsement, and a process for dealing with instances of cheating and plagiarism is forthcoming and will be passed on to the Faculty Senate for its review.
Apropos of this topic, there was an interesting article in the Chronicle last week about a research scandal at Harvard University entitled “One Bad Apple and the Threat to Science”. The scandal involved Prof. Marc D. Hauser, a full professor who is an Evolutionary Psychologist, who apparently faked data in order to support his conclusions and was outed, at least in part, by his graduate students. Ironically, he is the author of a previous book entitled Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong (Ecco, 2006). Sometimes the world is a funny place.
The article goes on to say that this kind of fakery harms far more than the professor and his institution—it harms Science itself. While the fake data will, in time, be found and no lasting damage will occur to “knowledge”; there are a lot of people out there who want to dispute scientific findings for a host of political and personal gain reasons who will pounce on situations like this. A previous Blab discussed the “Climategate” scandal, and the dangerous path that the Attorney General of Virginia has embarked upon. A scandal like this can taint thousands of pieces of good research, and help convince the public that scientific conclusions “are only theories, and probably faked at that”.
Department of “I Didn’t Know That”
This marks the 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the US, and there was an interesting article in the New York Times on the subject. Among several interesting points, the article mentioned something I never really thought about—what happens to the ratification process after an amendment is passed? Apparently, it continues. The women’s suffrage amendment to the constitution was passed over the overwhelming opposition of the Southern states, due to their fear that this would open the door for de facto enfranchisement of blacks. Tennessee’s vote, by only one vote, put the amendment over the top (and was the only Southern vote in favor at the time). When did Georgia approve the amendment? Not until February 1970!
There Is No Superman
If there’s a reference to comic books in an article, I’ll read it. One I saw last week came via the always interesting Thomas Friedman (of the World is Flat fame) in the New York Times. The article, entitled “Steal This Movie Too”, is about a documentary called “Waiting for Superman”. The name comes from an interview with Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which offers comprehensive programs starting with pre-natal “Baby College”, social service programs, and longer hours at its charter school to help prepare the poorest of children in New York City to go to college and escape poverty. “One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist,” Canada said. “...’cause even in the depths of the ghetto you just thought, ‘He’s coming, I just don’t know when, because he always shows up and he saves all the good people.’ ” When his mother told him Superman wasn’t real, “I was like: ‘He’s not? What do you mean he’s not?’ ‘No, he’s not real.’ And she thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. And I was crying because there was no one ... coming with enough power to save us.”
Canada’s idea is that people can’t wait for Superman or for a super-theory to fix their schools, especially in poverty areas. People have to become supermen and superwomen and do the heavy lifting themselves, to assemble the components for the one thing we know works: well-trained teachers working with best methods, supported by their principals, supported by involved parents to help the children learn even in difficult circumstances.
There has been a spate of articles this week on quality in universities. One from the Washington Monthly deals with “Dropout Factories”, 4-year private and public colleges and universities graduating miniscule percentages of their students. The article focuses on Chicago State University, and the fact that only 13% of their students graduate. A list of the worst graduation rates was given in the article. The usual arguments were given (students with weak preparations, lots of transfer students bringing down the percentage, etc.), but in the end, the article says that the difference is if college actually cares if its students graduate or not, and does stuff about it (i.e., provides support structures).
Another article, “The ‘Don’t Suck’ Theory of Improving Graduation Rates” in the Chronicle, makes the argument that it’s not best practices that are required for student success—it’s enough for universities to “not suck” at the basic things, such as offering tutoring and telling the students about it, calculating financial aid correctly, being student-focused, and so on. Surely that’s the minimum that students should be able to expect, but it shouldn’t be enough.
Finally, everyone agrees that there is more and more of a push for universities to be able to prove that they are adding value to their students, or from a more crass perspective, to show that we’re worth the ever higher tuition we’re charging. The Chronicle is going to run a series of articles on this subject. The first is called “The Quality Question” and appeared today. The main point in the article was that there is no common measuring stick for even saying what quality is, with respect to a college education. An interesting ancillary to the article is a table that shows the thirty factors that the various rating organizations (US News and World Report, etc.) use to determine the best colleges. You’ll notice that there is very little correlation between them, which is indicative of the problem. So, there’s a lot of talk about quality in universities, but very little agreement about what it actually means.
Last Week’s Trivia Contest
Greg Wiles (IET) was the winner of last week’s trivia contest with a fabulous four correct, and a good wrong answer for the fifth one. He wins a CD. Here are the correct answers.
(a) Which of the elements was first detected not on Earth, but in space? Helium
(b) Which element is named for a Mediterranean island? Cupper (for Cyprus)
(c) What element is named for the fact that its compounds are so beautiful? Vanadium, after Vanadis, the g-dess of beauty.
(d) Which city has the most elements named after it (and what are they?) Ytterby, Sweden (Ytterbium, Terbium, Erbium, Yttrium and more indirectly, Scandium, Thulium, and Europium).
(e) Which element is named after the city of Paris? [Hint—it isn’t Francium] Lutetium, after the Latin name for Paris.
This Week’s Trivia Contest
As usual, the most correct answers take the swag. This week, our questions are all about American geography.
(1) What is the longest river in the United States?
(2) What is the oldest city that is located in the United States?
(3) What is the northernmost point in the United States?
(4) What is the second smallest state in the United States?
(5) Harvard is the oldest University or College in the United States. What is the second oldest?