Monthly Archives: August 2011

More on syllabi

Now that the semester has begun there is a sudden flood of helpful ideas about how to put together an interesting syllabi.

I thought that this posting from ProfHacker was pretty interesting. The American History syllabus included in the links was especially interesting.

It’s too late for most of us now. However, I thought I’d provide the link in the hopes that I’ll be able to find my way back before the start of the next semester and think about a couple of the suggestions.

Students and Textbooks

A new study sponsored by the The Student PIRGs’ Make Textbooks Affordable Campaign found that 70% of students reported not buying textbooks because they were “too expensive” even though 78% of respondents reported that they thought students did worse if they didn’t have the textbooks. [Full results in pdf format]

Why we shouldn’t take this study too seriously

  1. The question in the survey was: “Have you ever decided against buying a textbook because it is too expensive?” The use of the word “ever” means that if at any point in college a respondent did not buy a textbook they could answer yes.
  2. The question said “a textbook” when it probably should have said “a required textbook.” A lot of faculty suggest supplemental texts/readings.
  3. The phrase “too expensive” is too vague. We know that some of our students spend a lot of money on beer, entertainment, and cellphones that are fancier than the ones faculty purchase. Some students may be making those items a higher priority than their textbooks.
  4. Students make excuses. Students also tell me that they do not have enough time to do all the reading.

Why we need to take this issue seriously.

  1. Whether it is true or not, politicians have decided to make textbook costs an issue.
  2. Many of our students can not afford all their textbooks and need help.

The ridiculous political blame game going on around higher education politics should not distract us from doing every thing we can to help students.

The San Antonio Express defends higher education

The San Antonio Express delivered a nice one-two punch today on behalf of higher education.

In one story, reporter Melissa Ludwig explored the question: “Is there a cheap road to Tier One?” The story includes a pretty extensive discussion of why simple cost/benefits don’t add up.

Business is a popular major; math or physics is less so. Intro courses in psychology can be taught in enormous lecture halls, biology laboratories can’t. Some courses are part of the core curriculum and have huge enrollments, others are more specialized.

Despite the lack of demand by students, the state needs mathematicians and high school physics teachers, and students need some specialized courses to graduate with certain degrees. Universities must cover all these bases, even if it’s not always cheap, administrators say.

The paper followed up with an editorial (“Don’t undercut Texas higher ed“) that urges the state to steer clear of a one-size fits all mentality.

The bottom-line approach also disregards the importance of crucial subjects — such as the top-rungs of math and science — that are not broadly popular with students but develop the crucial professions that push discoveries and job-creating advances in knowledge. Cutting-edge, hard-to-master disciplines attract a small but important cadre of students and professors.

These stories are probably the most realistic discussion of higher education reform we have seen from a newspaper. They attempted to take the reader beyond a knee-jerk reaction to the reality that many of the aspects of education we need the most are costly.

“Americans for Prosperity” challenge that pesky business community

Today, Americans for Prosperity Foundation held a press conference calling for changes to higher education. It was the usual populist gibberish: “too much research,” “not enough teaching,” “we don’t understand the research you’re doing.”  Apparently, “Americans for Prosperity” was formed to counter the business community’s recent efforts to support the attack on university research.

Here are the steps required to become a higher education reformer in Texas.

  1. Forget that any schools other than UT and A&M exist.
  2. Avoid developing an understanding of what research is about.
  3. Complain that there is too much “frivolous” research and not enough teaching.

Taking these three steps will demonstrate to the rest of the world why we need the tenure system to protect faculty members from political pressure.

We need to talk

Insider Higher Ed has a good blog entry (“One Chart to Rule Them All“) by “Dean Dad” that picks up the argument that higher education need to reform from the inside.

He begins by suggesting that readers look at “a chart recently discussed on The Atlantic website. The chart compares student loan debt to other household debt. I’m going to put it right on the screen here so we have to look at it.

Chart of student load debtYou can read the Insider Higher Ed blog entry on this or the original Atlantic commentary. The picture seems clear. Something has to give.

Arguing over who caused the problem misses the point that we need to play a role in the repair. We’re supposed to be smart people who know a lot about higher education. We need to lead and Dean Dad seems pessimistic that we can.

After slightly over a decade in higher ed administration, I’m increasingly convinced that change will have to come from outside. The forces of inertia from within are as powerful as they are shortsighted. They insist on continuing to frame a structural problem in personal terms.

There is something to this. Our resistance to change is not always healthy and we sometimes take the call to change the institution too personally.

If you think I’m worried…

James Miller has an article in Insider Higher Ed (“Get out while you can“) that advises faculty get make preparations for new careers because “this collapse could be sudden and catastrophic.”

I am not sure how serious Miller is about this warning and he may deliberately overstate the case to get your attention. Still, I thought a guy this anxious had to be mentioned in a blog caller Higher Ed Anxiety.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation hits bottom

I generally try not to be to political neutral on this blog. Partisanship does not have much to do with higher education. Academics are much more interested fights based on differences in methodology, theory, department, or the differences between faculty and administrators.

However, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) has become a distraction in the higher education debate and Rick Perry’s alliance with them means that they could continue to push some really bad ideas.

Let’s start the story with Rick Perry on the campaign trail where he said that researchers have “maninupulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.”

My question today is: Why would Rick Perry believe that scholars would lie to get more money.

Maybe the answer springs from his relationship with TPPF.

Read the commentary in the Houston Chronicle (“Poor management hurts college completion rates“) written by Ronald Trowbridge, a senior fellow at the TPPF. Ask yourself: “What grade would this earn on a research paper assignment in an undergraduate class.”

His argument is that administrators should assign professors (rather than graduate students) to teach more freshman courses. This is to done in order to increase student success (graduation rates).

His evidence? Two sets of facts:

  1. Graduation rates are highest at the University of Texas and Texas A&M.
  2. Teaching loads are lowest the University of Texas and Texas A&M.

Trowbridge’s evidence contradicts his argument. The most successful schools do exactly what he says they should not.

He does throw in a quotation about how courses are taught at Harvard. I think the teaching load is pretty low at Harvard and the faculty does a lot of research. Trowbridge might want to look into that.

There is other research that should be done. However, Trowbridge is so committed to the idea of de-emphasizing the role of research at universities that he apparently refuses to do research on universities.

Trowbridge and the TPPF conveniently ignore the existence of other schools in Texas. Texas currently has just over 100 state-funded institutions involved in higher education. This includes 35 public universities, 50 public community college districts, 2 independent junior colleges, 7 public technical and state colleges, 9 public health-related institutions, and 1 independent health-related institution. Trowbridge suggests that most of these schools have the same teaching loads as UT, A&M, and the University of Houston. They do not.

If higher teaching loads are the answer, Trowbridge should at least acknowledge that many schools are already doing exactly what he prescribes. Why doesn’t he look at the data from these schools? He is either lazy or worried (correctly so) that looking at the graduation rates elsewhere will wreck his arguments. They might also cast doubts on all the claims about progress in Texas public schools coming from the state’s political leaders. After all, a new report shows that the majority of Texas high school graduates are not ready for college. TPPF just as easily could look at these numbers and give the state’s universities credit for getting these students back on track.

So, what grade would Trowbridge get from you if his commentary was a research paper? Maybe not so good.

Back to where our story began. Why would Rick Perry think that researchers make up results in order to keep money rolling in? Maybe he knows some people that do.

Gender differences on the value of higher education

The Pew Center has put together a study that show that half of women graduated from college rate the value of higher education as excellent or good while only 37% of their male colleagues do so. The differences are primarily in the percentage of graduates responding “good.”

Gender and higher education

The gender differences seem pretty consistent across a range of similar questions. Women just like college better.

Attitudes on higher education by gender


Public still values college degree

A new Gallup poll finds that almost 7 of of 10 U.S. adults agree that having a college degree is essential for getting a good job.

The poll also reveals that their primary interest in education is large income-related. That’s not to say that they do not also value becoming a well-rounded person or learning about the world. They just value money more.

Gallup Poll Results

Syllabus tune up

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a blog with a nice entry on fixing up your course syllabi. I thought it was a good checklist for the beginning of the semester.