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The Weekly Blab

The Weekly Blab

Volume 6, Issue 19—January 30, 2012


All Is Well…

It’s hard to believe that we’re almost in February now.  The term is just zooming by, and I turned in my early warning grades yesterday morning.  My inorganic chemistry students are doing well, and I’m enjoying teaching the class.

The FA Cup (for those who don’t know what this is, consult last year’s BLAB for details) is in full swing, and at least so far, all is well.  Chelsea beat the Queen’s Park Rangers 1-0, so they go on to the 5th Round (16 teams left!), and Manchester United lost to Liverpool 2-1 (so they’re out).  Earlier in the competition, Manchester United had knocked off Manchester City, so the top two teams in the Premier League are both gone.  This is an unusual FA Cup, because there are still quite a few lower division teams hanging in there (7 out of the 16 remaining).  One of them, Crawley Town, is the real Cinderella team—it’s from League 2, which is three leagues below the Premier League.  We’ll see how long they last.  Anyway, Chelsea has a real shot at it. 

I hear that there’s some other major sporting event coming up this coming weekend, but I’ve forgotten what it is.


Polytechnic Summit

Planning continues apace for the upcoming 4th Annual Polytechnic Summit, which will be held June 6-8 at SPSU.  I’d like to encourage everyone to attend, to submit a paper, and to encourage students doing research or capstone projects with you to present as well.  The deadline to submit a paper, panel, or poster abstract is March 2, so you have a little time, but earlier is always better.  Information about the summit can be found at www.polytechnicsummit.org, as can the procedure to submit an abstract.  You and your students can also sign up as a friend of the Summit on Facebook, where the page is called (what else?) Polytechnic Summit.

The gala Thursday evening event is planned for the Tellus: Northwest Georgia Science Museum in Cartersville, and includes dinner, a tour of the museum exhibits, and a visit to the planetarium.  It promises to be a great event.

If you’d like to help out with the Summit, the planning group meets every other week on Monday at 10AM in B-120.  The next meeting is February 13.

I don’t know if everyone knows this, but the first issue of the International Journal of Polytechnic Studies has been published, under the fine leadership of Mark Stevens and Rich Halstead-Nussloch.  The papers from the first issue can be found at http://polytechnicjournal.org/ojs/index.php/IJPS/issue/view/1.  Congratulations to everyone who published a paper in the first issue.

The goal is to publish two issues a year, with the next issue scheduled for Spring.  If you presented a paper at last year’s Summit and didn’t write it up in time for the 1st issue, there’s still time to make this issue.  The submission procedure can be found by clicking here.



It’s A New World Comin’….

Two interesting articles appeared in the Chronicle this week. 

The first was “Reporting From the New Faculty Majority Summit”.  The New Faculty Majority is a group that is trying to draw attention to the working conditions of non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty in general, and part-time faculty in particular.  The reported statistic is that more than 50% of classes and students nationwide are currently taught by NTT faculty, and their salary and working conditions are lousy.  While the problems were obviously a big issue, the main theme of the Summit was how the treatment of NTT faculty affects student learning. 

This is a real problem with no obvious solution that I can see.  Traditionally, colleges hire part-time faculty because they cost less than tenure-track faculty on a per course basis, and there isn’t enough money to hire more tenure-track faculty without raising the tuition to unaffordable levels.  The budget cuts that have occurred over the past several years have only made this situation worse.  The solutions proposed by the various groups that have sprung up to organize part-time faculty generally come down to that colleges should pay more and provide more job security to part-timers, but both of these raise costs and undermine the reason that part-time faculty are hired in the first place.  We can (and should) try to convince the community to provide more funding for higher education, but it’ll be an uphill climb.  In fact, there was an article today about a state university in California that was having its budget cut because it had accepted more students than the state goals called for.  Tens of thousands of students are being turned away from California state universities, and they’re punishing a state university because it took more students in.

While there was no specific call to action at the end of the Summit, one interesting strategy that was suggested was that “Changes in Adjunct labor begin with attitude.  In particular, Adjuncts should act “as if” they were not contingent but stable members of a department.  Show up to social events, colloquia, open meetings.  Have conversations with tenured faculty over coffee and tell them what you are working on in and outside of the classroom.”  This certainly makes sense, since one’s chances of being asked to teach more (or being considered for a full-time job) depend on how familiar the colleagues who will be making the hiring decisions are with you and your work. 

I think we have a good track record at SPSU of respecting our part-time and NTT colleagues, and offering them full consideration in applying to become full-timers as new positions become available.  I am certain that everyone will make every effort to ensure that our part-time colleagues are welcomed, supported, and encouraged at SPSU.


The second article was titled “A Disrupted Higher-Ed System” and was written by Jeff Selingo, the Chronicle’s Editorial Director.  He touches on a number of arguments and ideas that are currently in the news:

  • “innovations in course delivery will eventually displace established players” –Clay Christensen (Harvard University)
  • Every industry will be disrupted and “rebuilt with people at the center” –Sheryl Sandberg (Chief Operating Officer, Facebook)
  • Educational alternatives to universities (StraigherLine, the Khan Academy, “badges” for outside learning)
  • MIT’s announcement that it will be giving away even more content online through MITx, a self-learning system through which students will be able to earn certificates (though not credits or degrees—YET)
  • StraighterLine’s announcement that it will at very low cost give students access to the Collegiate Learning Assessment and similar tests, so they can prove their critical thinking abilities
  • Apple’s announcement of free software with which faculty and students can easily create textbooks (and distribute them through iTunes U

Selingo concludes with a serious warning:  “Taken together, those announcements portend one potential future of higher ed that’s more collaborative, social, virtual, and peer-to-peer—and where introductory courses are commodities offered free or close to free. That vision leaves room for a slice of traditional colleges to compete either by essentially moving down market or by validating such learning by being the gatekeeper at the end by offering capstone, upper-level courses and granting degrees.

Right now, the biggest hurdle to many of these new course-delivery ideas is the corner that traditional colleges have on the credential market. That right is conferred on them courtesy of the federal government’s student-aid system, built on accreditation.

But unless traditional colleges figure out a way to incorporate the new players and their ideas, such as MIT did recently, the innovators will figure out a way around the credentialing hurdle that will be acceptable to students, parents, and, most important, employers. And when they do, a part of the higher-ed market will be disrupted and rebuilt with students at the center.

We’re having some serious discussions about these issues and how SPSU should respond to them at the Deans Council (and an interesting thread has begun to develop within the School of CSE).  The issues are complex.  Online instruction is getting more and more sophisticated, and as noted above, available at low or no cost.  While most students can’t learn on their own from a textbook, is anyone willing to bet the farm that larger fractions of students won’t be able to learn on their own as online media continues to mature? 

As they do (if this view is correct, and it sure looks like it is), we’ll be faced with increasingly significant numbers of students coming to our door with badges, certificates, industrial certifications, courses from private online providers, and other forms of non-traditional “evidence of learning”, and wanting to convert them into college credits and apply them to a college degree.   How we handle this will impact our future in many ways.  More on this as it develops.


Last Week’s Trivia Contest

Last week’s contest was about inventors and inventions.  Our winner was Hussein Abaza, with all five right.  Here are the correct answers:

  1. What 1947 invention allowed for pocket-sized radios?  The Transistor
  2. He averaged one patent for every three weeks of his life.  Thomas Edison
  3. What type of structure did R. Buckminster Fuller patent in 1954? The geodesic dome
  4. Alexander Cummings got the first patent for this indispensable invention we each use every day.  The flush toilet
  5. What was the name of the British 2nd lieutenant who got the idea in 1784 of filling a hollow cannonball with musket balls (shot) and a charge of gunpowder?  Henry Shrapnel of the Royal Artillery.  Yes, that’s where the word “shrapnel” comes from.


This Week’s Trivia Challenge

This week’s contest focuses on candy.  The first with the most takes the prize.  No looking up the answers now!

  1. The town of Derry Church, PA got this new name because of the large chocolate manufacturer based there.
  2. This candy got its name because it looks like a life preserver.  The original flavor was peppermint.
  3. What brand of candy bar originally contained three pieces:  one vanilla, one chocolate, and one strawberry?  (It doesn’t any more.)
  4. What brand of candy bar was, according to the company that made it, named after president Grover Cleveland’s daughter?
  5. What brand of candy bar was named after its inventor’s family’s horse?