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The Weekly Blab 5.4

The Weekly Blab

Volume 5, Issue 4—September 13, 2010


Happy Holidays

It’s holiday season for many of us, so Happy New Year and a Blessed Eid-Al-Fitr.  If you feel left out, I’d like to add: happy Patriot Day (September 11), Grandparents Day (September 12), Stepfamily Day (September 16), and Constitution Day (September 17).  And maybe the most important of all, happy International Day of Peace (September 21).


The Week in Review

It was not a good week for Georgia football fans, with UGA, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, and the Falcons all going down to defeat.  The good news, of course, is that SPSU’s football team remains undefeated, as does the greatest football team of all, Chelsea (in the English Premier League), now 4-0.  Take that, Manchester United fans, with a dismal record of 2-0-2!  The State of Georgia fared a bit better, with tax revenues up in the double digits for the previous month.  We were told, however, that the current 4% budget cut is still in place.


Ever since Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus spoke on campus, questions have arisen about how we’re going to follow that up.  Well, this coming Wednesday (September 15), SPSU will host a talk by Phillip Jennings, author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Vietnam War”.  Mr. Jennings is also the author of “Nam-a-Rama” and “Goodbye Mexico”, and was a marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam and an Air America (CIA) pilot in the “secret war” in Laos.  The talk will be in H-203 from 12 noon to 1 PM, and was arranged for by our own Prof. Roger Soiset (SIS).  It promises to be interesting and perhaps a little controversial (Mr. Jennings believes the U.S. won the Vietnam War, but that the press has caused most people to not know that, and that Richard Nixon is quite underrated as a president).  A “History of the Vietnam War for People with Attention Deficit Disorder” by Jennings can be found at Human Events—Leading Conservative Media Since 1944, and will give you a taste of what’s to come. And of course, like it seems everyone else in the known universe, he was born in Kansas.


Later this term, I hear that we’ll have Dr. P.K. Fokam (President of PKFokam Institute of Excellence in Cameroon, and Afriland First Bank), and our visiting Fulbright Scholar in residence, Eszter Simon, giving talks.  Dates will be announced as I get them.


On Thursday, I got an email about the upcoming celebration of the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of the University of Georgia.  They plan on having 50 events related to this 50th anniversary during January and February 2011.  Jeff Orr and I will be submitting a proposal titled “The Rest of the Story”, talking about how the other Georgia institutions desegregated, with a special focus on SPSU.  Let’s see if it’s accepted for their program.  It seems hard to believe that this happened only 50 years ago, but it’s true.


Mountains and Molehills

The “big” news event this past week, judging by the amount of airtime it was given, was the potential burning of the Koran by Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center (population 50).  The obvious questions are “Why does anyone care what a man with this small a following proposed to do?” and “Why was it newsworthy?”  Of course, there are lots of folks with their own agendas who are always willing to take advantage off of any crazy thing.  In this case, we had rioting in Afghanistan and Pakistan (which continues with “Death to America” rhetoric even after the burning was permanently cancelled), and we had 18,000 people signing up as liking the International Burn a Koran Day page on Facebook, before it was taken down.  We had all the major networks giving blow-by-blow coverage, and we had people as high up as the Secretary of Defense and the Pope commenting on it.  My own inclination would have been to ignore Pastor Jones and help him remain the unknown he formerly was, but every news medium on earth seems to disagree.  So, we’re now left to wonder what the next media frenzy will be about.


The “A” Word

The fall semester has begun almost everywhere, and where there are classes, can assessment be far behind?  An article appeared in the Chronicle entitled “Why Teaching is Not Priority Number 1”, which looked at the assessment movement and asked a number of questions about whether we can prove that assessment is worthwhile. 


The article states: “But a roadblock may emerge: faculty culture. Not because professors care little about quality or students—indeed, many care deeply—but because of what colleges tell them is important. "Faculty rewards have nothing to do with the ability to assess student learning," says Adrianna Kezar, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California. "I get promoted for writing lots of articles, not for demonstrating learning outcomes."

A survey last year by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment found that provosts at doctoral universities identified "faculty engagement" as their No. 1 challenge in making greater efforts to assess student learning. Faculty members have long enjoyed autonomy in the classroom, and persuading them to change the way they teach is more difficult than it might sound.

“…Indeed, many professors feel little pressure from either students or the public to change the way they do business. "Why I need to spend a lot of time working with my colleagues documenting learning outcomes is unclear to me," Mr. Tierney says of a hypothetical professor. "What is going to happen if I don't? Will no one take my classes? Will no students attend this university?" Faculty members, Mr. Tierney notes, are busier than ever, and assessing student learning is often viewed as just one more demand on their time. "Should they pay attention to learning outcomes rather than understand how to make their classes go online or how to update the syllabus on reading that's changed in their area in the last year?" he asks. "They can't do it all."”

One of the blogged responses added:  “The unproven assumption here is that assessment improves teaching. Assessment is first a fully self-justifying system. There are few external yardsticks by which to measure whether assessment actually improves learning. Essentially, university are pouring countless work-hours into an endeavor that is dubious at best.  Assessment also fails because It assumes that students unfailingly work hard to do what professors try to teach them. Any failure to get results must be the fault of the professor. Stanley Fish says it best in his piece, "Aim Low" (and I paraphrase): Teachers are responsible for the performance of teaching, not for its results.  Working hard to improve teaching should not be confused with assessment. The two are not synonymous.”

None of this is new—faculty have questioned the necessity for course and program assessment for decades, usually when FCAR and ABET (or whatever) review time swings around.  The Chronicle is even collecting a compendium of “Assessment Projects from Hell”.  One of the more interesting blogged responses came from millerdb and said:  “Does nobody ever see the elephant in the room of assessment-of-major outcomes? The emphasis seems to always be on what faculty are or are not doing to meet learning goals. One can explicate and enumerate as many learning goals as one likes. But, at the University level, it's up to the students to make certain that actual learning takes place. This is not high school. We're not in the business of teaching "for the assessment goal." Students who "get it" have no problem. Too many just don't get it. Maybe sometimes that's the fault of faculty who fail to get them engaged, but not always. It's easy to blame allegedly overpaid faculty (who work 60-80 hr/week and get paid for 35-40 hr) for the shortcomings of students who are used to being spoon-fed material (from high school) and, in many cases, do not want to evolve beyond that. Fortunately, there are a lot of exceptions to that. But this assessmentpalooza is wearing thin, as it considers only the faculty-side of the coin.”


Millerdb is joined by the always interesting Thomas Friedman, in his article “We’re No. 1(1)” Friedman is reporting on a Newsweek article named “We’re No. 11”, which ranks the United States as only #11 on its list of the 100 best countries in the world.  He also quotes Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson, who wrote about educational reform: “The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation…Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a ‘good’ college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school ‘reform’ is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers.” Wrong, he said. “Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited ‘student apathy.’ ” 


To me, all this is true enough, except for one pretty obvious point.  We’re the ones who chose to become teachers.  As teachers (and especially as teachers of science and engineering), we should care about whether what we are doing is working, and whether our students, no matter how unmotivated, are learning.  And we should want to develop accurate ways of determining that they are indeed learning what we say they’re learning.  Yes, students don’t work as hard as they should, and can be an unmotivated bunch.  I’m pretty sure that Aristotle also complained about this.  But I’ve also seen how a great teacher can motivate even the most unmotivated students, and fan the tiny flame of curiosity into a roaring fire.  So, yes, ultimately it is up to the students to actually learn—we can’t do that for them.  But we can motivate, help, and at the end of the process, assess.  That’s what good teachers do.


By the way, many students come by their apathy and lethargy honestly.  Friedman writes:  “We had a values breakdown — a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism. Wall Street may have been dealing the dope, but our lawmakers encouraged it. And far too many of us were happy to buy the dot-com and subprime crack for quick prosperity highs.”  He adds: “Our generation’s leaders never dare utter the word “sacrifice.” All solutions must be painless. Which drug would you like? A stimulus from Democrats or a tax cut from Republicans? A national energy policy? Too hard…So much of today’s debate between the two parties, notes David Rothkopf, a Carnegie Endowment visiting scholar, “is about assigning blame rather than assuming responsibility. It’s a contest to see who can give away more at precisely the time they should be asking more of the American people.”  Nothing much I can add to that.

Last Week’s Trivia Contest

You were all a bunch of philatelic weenies, as no one even tried to win last week’s trivia contest on Stamp Collecting.  Here are the correct answers


(1)  What country issued the first postage stamp?  Great Britain (the famous penny black)

(2)  What two people appeared on the first two U.S. postage stamps?  Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.

(3)  From what country is the world’s most expensive postage stamp?  British Guiana

(4)  From what country is the first postage stamp that could be played on a record player? Bhutan

(5)  The first Israeli postage stamps do not actually say “Israel” on them, because the name of the country hadn’t been decided on yet when the stamps were printed.  What is inscribed on the stamps? “Doar Ivri”—which means “Hebrew Post”.


This Week’s Trivia Contest

As usual, the most correct answers take the swag.  This week, our questions are all about the TV Show “Leave it to Beaver”, and hopefully someone will try to win!


(1)  What was the name of the smarmy kid that was Wally’s best friend?

(2)  In what town did the Cleavers live?

(3)  What was the Beaver’s elementary school teacher’s name?

(4)  What was Lumpy’s real name?

(5)  The first episode of the show was actually broadcast second, due to not being able to pass the CBS censor.  What did the censor object to?