Tuesday, January 29, 2013

No slow news day

This morning's News & Observer featured an article detailing North Carolina's recently-elected GOP Governor Pat McCrory's views on our state's system of higher education. Never mind that his party has done and is doing all that it can to undercut job growth in any meaningful way, never mind that employers almost uniformly profess to wanting students who can think critically, solve problems, and communicate effectively (all skills best instilled at a liberal arts institution), never mind that his comments are short-sighted, misogynistic, and just downright mean...

...to add insult to injury, hours later the President of the UNC system shot back with a halfhearted response that does little to instill confidence in anyone who cares about higher education in this state. His response is itself a paean to high-stakes standardized testing, homogenization of higher ed, and efficiency at the expense of actual erudition. Ross apotheosizes economy and pledges to "work with" McCrory as the latter goes about his task of eviscerating one of the nation's premier university systems.

Angels and ministers of grace, defend us.

Here's Ross's statement, in full:

“The University of North Carolina has partnered with business and government to build the state’s economy.  We pledge to continue to work with the Governor and the General Assembly to ensure North Carolina has the strong talent pool needed to fill the jobs of today and tomorrow, some of which haven’t yet been invented.  Our campuses are committed to academic quality and to graduating students who are adaptable, creative, innovative, and equipped to succeed in the workforce and to conduct the cutting-edge research that enables North Carolina to develop, attract, and retain industry, businesses, and good-paying jobs.

“Of course, we understand that state resources are limited and agree that there must be many pathways to jobs in the modern economy.  We are completing a Strategic Plan that involved business leaders from across the state, the president of the Community College System, and legislators in our efforts to set degree attainment goals for our state that are responsive to the talent needs of the future economy.  UNC is already transitioning from a campus funding model focused solely on enrollment changes to a model that considers campus performance on key measures related to student success and academic and operational efficiencies.  We believe this funding model sets the right direction for our University and our state.

“The University’s value to North Carolina should not be measured by jobs filled alone.  Our three-part mission of teaching, research, and public service requires that we prepare students with the talent and abilities to succeed in the workforce, because talent will be the key to economic growth.  We must also continue to serve the state through our agricultural and industrial extension programs, our Small Business and Technology Development Centers, our Area Health Education Centers, and through the many other ways our faculty and students are engaged in our communities.  Higher education plays a key role in ensuring a higher quality of life for all North Carolinians. 

“North Carolina’s economy is in transition, and we must position the state to compete nationally and internationally in the years ahead.  We look forward to working with Governor McCrory to develop the well educated and skilled talent pool that North Carolina will need to compete and win.” 

Buckle up, folks. It's gonna be a rough ride.

CLARIFICATION: additional information for those out-of-the-loop on the Strategic Plan (o, venerable capitals!) Ross mentions: said plan is the one whose draft calls for reliance on a single assessment instrument (the CLA, College Learning Assessment) to determine "value added" over the course of a student's college career, the one whose draft calls for homogenization of campus-level curricula to the point that permission would have to be sought from general administration to modify core courses or propose new ones, the one whose draft has had pretty much the entirety of the UNC system's faculty up in arms over the past few weeks. Yeah, that plan.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Whither? Wither?

Today we (the members of the Curriculum Review Task Force) offered the faculty their first plenary opportunity to share their views on the current CRTF proposal, in the form of a "faculty listening session." I joined my colleague Warren in making a few short remarks to lay out the context for the meeting, but said little else. As I put it at the meeting's outset, I truly wanted this to be what we claimed it to be: a faculty listening session.

I listened, and said little.

The sense I get from the faculty who did most of the speaking today was that they're profoundly dissatisfied with the plans we've drawn up. I'm chagrined by this, and more than a little frustrated. My chagrin and frustration don't stem so much from quality of the resulting proposal or the specific recommendations it makes; I admit that I'm not entirely happy with much of the proposal myself. (I think some of the recommendations, though offering efficiency and sustainability, are facile and reductionist and make too many assumptions about the nature of our students and faculty.) Rather, my chagrin and frustration stem from the failure of the process. I feel like the faculty who are objecting are objecting too late in the game for their objections to make any difference. One of my colleagues in political science expressed reservations so severe that if we were to follow his recommendations we would jettison the whole of what we've done for the past 22 months (yes, it's been that long) and start over again.

If such a move were to guarantee us a superior result, then so be it: I'm all for a process that yields an optimal product. But who would step up to take part in this process if we were to start it from scratch? Probably the same damned people (or a subset of them) who were involved in the process this first time around...and how would this change things? I doubt my dissatisfied friend would involve himself meaningfully in the groundbreaking discussions that got this process moving, that he would have spent the hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of poring over data, comparing curricula, engaging in conversations with colleagues, drafting documents, etc. that I and many others involved in this process have done for the past nearly-two years. It's much easier to sit back and let someone else do the work and criticize it when they're nearly done than to get involved meaningfully early on and work to make the product a better one.

As I see it, there aren't many courses of action left to us here. Generally speaking...

1. We push on with our proposal and manage to make a few incremental moves, dropping the controversial components. In my view some of the proposed moves, even those with strong consensus, are steps back (I've blogged about some of my reservations in the past), and taken as a whole I don't think the incremental changes we would make would be all that salutary. I'm honestly not thrilled with putting our plan into action at this point.

2. We scrap it all and start again. In this case, as I said above, who'll involve themselves this time? I would volunteer myself to take part in good-faith discussions...but only if I could be assured that those discussions are indeed in good faith, and that something good will come of them. I don't know that such assurance could be given. It's not worth the gamble.

3. We scrap it all, period, and stick with what we've got. I think this is the course of action many of today's naysayers favor, given the conservative tone of many of their comments.

Yes, there I said it: I said the "c" word. So many of my colleagues would bristle to hear that word applied to them, but it's often so apt. There is, for instance, this pervasive belief that the Humanities Program as it exists now, that lumbering dinosaur, is the best model for interdisciplinary engagement we might ever devise. The true believers resist calls to rethink, reexamine, or rearrange the program; they resist attempts to embed more truly interdisciplinary material into it; they resist attempts to make it more sustainable. To hear one of my colleagues today you'd think that the Humanities Program is the only insurance we have that interdisciplinarity will survive on our campus, that if we remove but a single course requirement (that's all we're recommending, after all...we're not even dropping the course, just its requirement) from the sequence then we will all retreat into our dark, dank disciplinary silos and never again interact. As you might suspect from my tone here I have no interest, have never had any interest, in teaching in the Humanities Program...but I think I can safely say that I might offer myself as a model for interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching. I've chosen to make my career an interdisciplinary one; I've not been forced to by an artificial crop of courses. Honestly, I felt personally insulted by my colleague's comments.

But I digress.

So, whither? We'll see. We've got another few weeks during which faculty have been invited to give us their feedback. I honestly don't think we'll hear anything we've not heard before, and I think the more useful ideas we might hear will be drowned out in the sound and fury coming from the other side.

I should relax. It might not matter much in the end if the state legislature ends up forcing a uniform core curriculum on every last campus in the state's system.

And that's a story for another day.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

I have a Beau-présent for you!

I'm sitting in my Oulipo class at the moment, updating as my students take part in their first peer review activity of the semester, reading over one another's beaux-présents, poems written using only the letters appearing in the name of the poem's dedicatee (in this case, the author herself or himself). For shits and grins, here's Mathematica's representation of my beau-présent, as a finite-state automaton:

I'm curious to see how these turn out! Perhaps I'll ask permission to share one or two of the resulting poems once they're done.

It's been a bit since I mentioned my other course this term, Calc III. Please know this omission does not indicate dissatisfaction; on the contrary, this section of the course is by far the most engaged and engaging section I've ever taught. (I think the presence of several really eager nontraditional-aged students helps!) I'm just a bit more outspoken regarding the Oulipo class owing to its newness.

More soon!

Friday, January 18, 2013

n + 7: variations

Today's Oulipo class began with an (n+7)-like exercise: I chose a single sentence from Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea (the first of the books we're reading for the course) and generated a number between 1 and 50 using Mathematica. (The number 24 was chosen.) I then asked students to turn to that page in a book other than Ella Minnow Pea (I provided such a book to those who didn't have one on them, including Peggy Meszaros's Self-authorship: Advancing students' intellectual growth and Carl Sagan's The cosmic connection) and perform the following algorithm: for the kth noun in the original sentence beginning with a given letter x, find the kth noun in the other text beginning with x and replace the original noun with this new one. The sentence I selected to start with had two words starting with "p" and three starting with "c," necessitating a little searching (a couple of students had to look long and hard for a "w" word, too).

We let ourselves modify number in order to preserve grammatical correctness. Other than this, we made all changes verbatim. The results are below, beginning with the original sentence as it appears in Dunn. See if you can tell which one came from a calculus textbook, and which from the Bible. Carl Sagan's led to the most mirthful replacements, I think.

Parents: you may wish to help your children absorb these new words by turning the process into a game of some sort, simple flash cards also constituting a tried and efficient course.

Policies: you may wish to help your chapters absorb these new welfares by turning the precedent into a government of some setting, simple flash congruences also constituting a tried and efficient care.

Partnerships: you may wish to help your conisiderations absorb these new ways by turning the professor into a going of some script, simple flash cases also constituting a tried and efficient challenge.

Privileges: you may wish to help your challenges absorb these new works by turning the partner into a group of some story, simple flash cars also constituting a tried and efficient claim.

People: you may wish to help your city absorb these new ways by turning the presence into a gateway of some sake, simple flash catastrophes also constituting a tried and efficient condition.

Packages: you may wish to help your courses absorb these new worlds by turning the place into a Georgia of some sorrow, simple flash clouds also constituting a tried and efficient child.

Paths: you may wish to help your c(t) absorb these new ways by turning the planet into a graph of some set, simple flash curves also constituting a tried and efficient cos(t).

Planets: you may wish to help your chapters absorb these new ways by turning the purpose into a generalization of some size, simple flash circles also constituting a tried and efficient confusion.

Points: you may wish to help your ciphers absorb these new writings by turning the place into a gear of some solution, simple flash cases also constituting a tried and efficient change.

Pies: you may wish to help your charts absorb these new ways by turning the passenger into a group of some slice, simple flash classes also constituting a tried and efficient category.

Pioneers: you may wish to help your criticism absorb these new women by turning the president into a genitalia of some salutation, simple flash Chicagos also constituting a tried and efficient castration.

By the way, I managed to get this class moved; starting this coming Wednesday we'll be meeting in the Honors seminar room, a windowless affair about fifty feet from my office door. It's bit dark and dreary for my tastes, but the kids seem to like it. It'll be nice to have a room where we can actually sit in a circle.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Time's up!

The prompt for the first reading response I assigned my Oulipo students asked them to consider the nature of constraint and the impact one constraint in particular has on their individual lives: "pick some sort of constraint that governs your work life, your school life, or your personal life, and write about the way in which it affects your perception of and action in the world we share together."

Should I be surprised that four of the nine students whose reflections I've read so far zeroed in on "time" as a constraint, complaining that they've not got enough time in the day to do all they feel they need to do? I know these kids, Honors students all, are the driven, the determined, the year-after-year best-and-brightest, but I'm beginning to worry about them. Admittedly, it's taken me a long time to learn this lesson, but I know it now (though I don't always heed it): productivity makes a poor yardstick when it comes to measuring how well the day's been done.

Maybe tomorrow I'll bring a carafe of white Russians and a copy of The Big Lebowski to class.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Day Three

Calc III's now met thrice (love that word!), and Oulipo twice. I've learned a lot in both, already.

The second meeting of the latter offered a great discussion on the many ways we can construe "constraint," and how constraint affects us. "What kinds of constraints do we see in our lives?" I asked. One student spoke of the way her anxiety constrains her actions: she must choose to do or not do certain things for fear her anxiety will overwhelm her. Another student talked about physical constraints, explaining how the perspectives we take on, constrained by the routes we take when we travel and the modes of transportation we use, affect our engagement with the world. While much of our discussion focused on the negative aspects of constraint and the ways in which removal of constraints liberates us, I asked the students to indicate some positive effects, too.

Regarding constrained literature, one student brought up a point an Oulipian might make: by constraining the words you're allowed to use or the way you're allowed to use them, though you you may find yourself with an impoverished list, you can nevertheless focus your attention on this list and make more astute, intentional choices as you write. Indeed, much the same can be said in other forms of art: as one of the Honors Program's star musicians pointed out, once free jazz hit the scene and all bets were off, one could argue that music became meaningless and it was only with the reinstitution of constraint that meaning was restored. Though we find pleasure in flouting constraint, as another student pointed out, that pleasure is unobtainable if constraint does not exist: how can we break the rules if there are no rules to break?

This class is going to be a good one, I think. The only complaint I have is that the classroom stinks, as I explained in a previous post.

More on my Calc III class, and curriculum-review goings-on, Honors Program whatnot, etc., soon. For now, I've got to get to dinner.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Day One, Spring 2013, Part II

My Oulipo (HON 373) class didn't have quite the zing I was hoping it would have, but it could be because everyone was a bit tired. We'll see how it turns out.

As planned, I started off by asking all the students to join me in writing for ten minutes or so about what they did over break. After this, I gave them each (each of 9) one of the 9 most common letters in the alphabet (giving myself the last of the most common 10, out of ETAOINSHRD) and asked them to revise what they'd written and, retaining the same meaning and tone, omit the letter they'd been given. Hilarity ensued.

Well, for some it did. I'm not sure what folks thought of this first exercise in constraint. Admittedly it was a bit contrived, but it was a nice introduction, I thought. We'll unpack it some more on Wednesday, before which I've asked them to think about the role constraint plays in everyday life.

Meanwhile, Honors Program nonsense made up most of my day. An incident with the Honors sections of our Humanities courses made me think deeply about the inherently exclusionary nature of the Honors Program. It made me feel a little dirty about the deeds I do.

More on this tomorrow, perhaps. Now I'm off to my first real meal in nearly 8 hours...

P.S. -- for those of you not familiar with Oulipo, check out its Wikipedia page, at least...

Day One, Spring 2013

My first class of 2013 went well! I've got 31 folks enrolled in Calc III, and one more itchin' to get in.

We met today for the first time and began with a brief low-stakes writing activity, a brief version of the now-common object-ive writing activity elaborated in the blog 3 friends, 30 things, 90 stories which I wrote with my colleagues Libby and Mariposa (and yes, we're doing it again this coming April!). This broke the ice, got people talking, and got everyone up to the board to jot a few words down. After that, we had just enough time to go over the syllabus before breaking for the day.

A minor rant: I hate hate HATE the configuration of Rhoades 213, the windowless pit in which I teach both of my courses this term. The "desks" consist of modular table-lets which each accommodate a single chair. They're small and mobile and ideal for gathering together in small groups to form a place for collaborative learning...if only they weren't bolted together, side-to-side, in phalanges of three or four per row. This static and stultifying configuration is nothing short of asinine. Only a pedagogical peewee would think that this structure of classroom is helpful. I am appalled.

How will it work out? Stay tuned...I've got the first meeting of my Honors seminar on Oulipo in that same classroom in about 30 minutes...