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The Weekly Blab

The Weekly Blab

Volume 6, Issue 8—October 2, 2011


Happy New Year to All

It’s Rosh HaShana (the Jewish New Year), so I hope everyone has a wonderful 5,772.  If you want to see a fun Rosh HaShana video, click here.


The Inevitable Happened…

It was inevitable.  I knew it, and yet it still bugged me.  The Red Sox completed their September swoon, blowing it in a spectacular way on the last day.  In the bottom of the last inning.  Ahead 3-2, with two outs and two strikes.  To the bottom team in the league.  A double and a gapper tied the game, and then a lazy fly that popped out of a glove to lose it.  The curse even expanded to envelop the Braves, which were originally a Boston team, don’tcha know.   And even a 7-0 lead into the 8th in the Yankees/Tampa Bay game didn’t save them, with Tampa Bay coming back to win it.  So, no playoffs for Boston, no World Series this year, and a new conspiracy theory born:  the Yankees purposefully lost to the Rays just to keep Boston out of it.

Meanwhile, Chelsea continues in 3rd place, 3 points behind Manchester City and Manchester United, with a 5-1 rout off the (current) bottom team in the Premier League, the Bolton Wanderers.  The nice thing about the game is that Frank Lampard scored a hat trick (that’s 3 goals!), just at a point when people were saying he was past it (at an ancient 33) and should be permanently benched.  That’s showing them Frank!


Ban That Book!

For those who don’t know, each year during the last week of September, libraries, publishers, and schools sponsor Banned Books Week, which, as the American Library Association puts it, “highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship”.  The ALA’s website has some interesting material about Banned Book Week—it’s well worth looking at.

 Banned Books Week

Our own L.V. Johnson Library has mounted an exhibit about these banned books, which will be open until this coming Friday.  The banned books fall into many categories: children's and youth books, fiction, non-fiction, classics, etc. The exhibit consists of a number of showcases containing copies of the banned books (and information about why they were banned), as well as more than a dozen display posters that cleverly wrap the columns on the main floor of the library.  Our library also has a virtual exhibit that can be found online.

The library exhibit is the work of our new reference librarian Amy Coughenour (pronounced "coke-an-hour"), who came to SPSU in October 2010.  When she’s not designing clever exhibits, she covers the reference desk and assists with library instruction as needed.  She also volunteers to offer reference assistance with the “Ask an ipl2 Librarian” service.

To me, the final word on the subject was written by Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson (in 1943 in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624): "The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One's right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections."   The court case was about children in West Virginia being compelled to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

Why not stop by the library, check out the exhibit, and say thanks to Amy for her fine work?


A Straighter Line Right Back Atcha

I got an interesting reply to the StraighterLine item in last week’s BLAB.  For those who don’t remember, StraighterLine is a for profit company offering online courses in (mostly) core areas at $99 a month.  They have a relatively small number of schools that will transfer their credits in, but plan on lobbying state legislatures and so on to force “bricks and mortar” state colleges to accept their credits.  I thought this was a threat, because if StraighterLine succeeds and students take their core this way, we’ll be stuck offering the more expensive engineering/computing/etc. courses, with no additional revenue.

The StraighterLine approach struck a nerve with Julie Newell (Chair of SIS), who wrote:

Okay, so if the only purpose of the core is to be easy and cheap to teach and thus to subsidize the other programs, why is quality really even an issue? We can teach huge sections for far less cost if quality doesn't matter and there's no real point to the core except the bucks it brings in. And we can do it with more and more part-time faculty--because that's even cheaper and thus more profitable. And pretty much anybody with the basic credentials to keep us accredited can teach core. You didn't explicitly argue that any of that was true, but there's nothing in what you wrote with which it is inconsistent, either.

Maybe, just maybe, we should have a conversation on this campus about why the core matters and why it's not just some hoop "engineers" and other important majors have to jump through that takes time and energy away from their "real" courses. Or some abstract requirement imposed by accreditation bodies. And if core really matters, then we take it seriously, we build the cost of doing it well into all the majors, and we don't accept junk transfer credit from just anywhere. Because maybe, just maybe, the future depends as much on the historical perspective and cultural awareness and social skills of the people who will invent it and run it as it does on their technical skills. 

I would even go so far as to argue that the difference between the dystopian themes so common to the 1950s science fiction about futures in which the technical abounds, but the aspects of our culture represented by the arts, humanities, and social sciences have been left behind. Rocky Jones, on the other hand, is a hero precisely because he can not only pilot a mean rocket ship and throw a good punch, but because he thinks and cares about things like what's right and looking out for others and respecting talent and achievement in a colleague very different from himself. He probably did pretty well in his core classes too.

Julie, I agree with every word you wrote.  My argument isn’t that we need to do the core as cheaply as StraighterEdge (that would be both undesirable and impossible)—my argument is that StraighterEdge’s model and argument is dangerous to us.  They are arguing that what they are doing will lower costs to students and will allow the various states to cut the amount of money they have to give to their state universities.  It’s a false argument. 

At a non-profit such as ourselves, what a student has to pay depends on basically two things:  the cost of instruction and the amount of money we get from the state.  Our cost of instruction is an average of what it costs to offer the various classes we do.  Some classes are more expensive (they have labs that require expensive equipment, or they are taught by high-salary faculty, or they are capped at small sizes due to accreditation requirements, etc.), while others—many of which are core courses—cost less to teach (core courses have larger enrollments, on average, and the faculty who teach them are at the lower end of the salary scale, on average).   If StraighterEdge creams off the less expensive to teach courses, the average cost for what remains obviously goes up.  Our state allocation is (or was, anyway) based on the number of credits we deliver.  If the number of credits we deliver drops (due to StraighterEdge or whomever), our state allocation will drop.  If we have less money coming in and the average cost of our remaining courses goes up, we’re behind the eight ball.

So—what should our strategy be?  First, we have to fight the StraighterEdge “race to the bottom” crowd, and their agenda of getting state governments to see this as a cheaper way to higher education.  The quality of their course materials may be OK today, but the quality of their instruction isn’t.  A faculty made up of “online interchangeable part-timers” strategy doesn’t bode well for classroom quality, nor does it work well for most first-time students.  It’s a false path, leading only to disaster.

Second, we need to look at what we’re doing and see if we can do it in a more efficient way without sacrificing quality.  Some of these efficiencies will no doubt turn up in the core (better scheduling will help here), but the greater opportunity is in the more expensive parts of the curriculum. 

Ultimately, unlike what some of the public believes, there’s no free lunch here—higher education ain’t cheap and we can only go so far in controlling costs.  We also need to keep Derek Bok’s dictum in mind: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance”.


Trivia Contest!

Last Week’s Winner

Last week’s contest focused on bodies of water.  Our winner was Bow van Riper, with all five right.  Bow wins a Barbra Streisand DVD.

  1. What is the largest lake in the United States?  Lake Superior
  2. What is the longest river in Asia?  Yangtze River
  3. What is the largest lake in Africa?  Lake Victoria
  4. What is the fifth (and last—not until 2000) ocean to be recognized by the International Hydrographic Organization?  The Southern Ocean
  5. What is the name of the body of water between Finland and Sweden?  The Gulf of Bothnia.  Back in the day, I visited what is claimed to be the northernmost sand beach in the world in Kalajoki, Finland, which is located on this gulf.


This Week’s Challenge

This week’s trivia challenge focuses on passenger train names.  First with the most right gets the prize.  No looking up the answers now!

  1. Train in a song by Arlo Guthrie, it ran from Chicago to Louisiana.
  2. Only passenger train that currently goes through Atlanta.
  3. Hercule Poirot could often be found on this train, running from Paris to Istanbul.
  4. Train ridden by Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in the movie North By Northwest, it ran from New York to Chicago.
  5. Luxurious tourist train that runs from Cape Town to Johannesburg in South Africa.