Serfs of Academe

Charles Petersen:

Adjunct, a novel by Geoff Cebula, is a love letter to academia, a self-help book, a learned disquisition on an obscure genre of Italian film, and a surprisingly affecting satire-cum-horror-comedy. In other words, exactly the kind of strange, unlucrative, interdisciplinary work that university presses, if they take any risks at all, should exist to print. Given the parlous state of academic publishing—with Stanford University Press nearly shutting down and all but a few presses ordered to turn profits or else—it should perhaps come as no surprise that one of the best recent books on the contemporary university was instead self-published on Amazon. Cebula, a scholar of Slavic literature who finished his Ph.D. in 2016 and then taught in a variety of contingent positions, learned his lesson. Adjunct became the leading entry in the rapidly expanding genre of academic “quit-lit,” the lovelorn farewell letters from those who’ve broken up with the university for good. Rather than continue to try for a tenure-track teaching gig, Cebula’s moved on and is now studying law.

The novel’s heroine, Elena Malatesta, is an instructor of Italian at Bellwether College, an academically nondescript institution located somewhere in the northeast. Her teaching load—the number of officially designated “credit hours” per semester—has been reduced to just barely over half-time, allowing the college to offer minimum benefits even though her work seems to take up all of her day. Recently, the college has been advised to make still deeper cuts to the language departments, which are said to not only distract students but to actively harm them by inducing an interest in anything other than lucre. Elena responds with a mixture of paranoia and dark comedy: after the cuts there will be only so many jobs in languages left—maybe the Hindi teacher, anxious about her own position, is conspiring to bump her off? Then Elena had better launch a preemptive strike: this could be a “kill or be killed” situation.

Commentary on K-12 Curriculum, Civics and Citizenship

Mary Kay Linge:

“Today we talk as if it’s all about college and career readiness,” education scholar Michael J. Petrilli told The Post. “But going back to the 1780s, the argument in favor of having public education at all has been first and foremost to develop democratic citizens.”

In “How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools” (Templeton Press), Petrilli collects essays from 20 prominent conservative thinkers who survey the current state of America’s schools. The result is a passionate case for a return to Jefferson’s values after decades spent chasing higher graduation rates, glittering college-enrollment numbers and top standardized-test scores.

Those obsessions peaked with the Common Core curriculum, which the Obama administration pushed onto the states — sparking furious backlash from many parents and teachers, who found that technocratic education reforms led to a vacuous mania for the mechanics of math and reading.

“We just don’t teach our young kids anything,” Petrilli said. “Teaching ‘reading comprehension’ with no content is as boring as it sounds, and as ineffective as it sounds.”

Common Core was the culmination of a long-term trend that enshrined math and reading instruction as the top priority of early elementary education, leaving history and civics as an afterthought to be squeezed in once test prep was complete — if at all.

“The data clearly indicate that being able to read is not a requirement for graduation at (Madison) East, especially if you are black or Hispanic”

Madison’s taxpayer supported K-12 school district, despite spending far more than most, has long tolerated disastrous reading results.

In addition, Madison recently expanded its least diverse schools.

Investigating a University’s Ties to China

Mila Koumpilova:

The number of students from mainland China attending an American university has increased by more than 50 percent in the last decade. For many campuses, that student population has become a key source of tuition revenue and talent. For those who see China as an economic, political and military threat, this rapid growth has raised alarms.

Then came a tense standoff between the two countries over trade and other issues. There were tidings of university officials buying insurance against the loss of lucrative Chinese students, closing Confucius Institutes and fielding inquiries about research ties to China from the National Institutes of Health. Some of these eyebrow-raising stories also sparked backlash charges of xenophobia.

I had had a hunch that the University of Minnesota had deep and increasingly important ties to China since before I started covering higher education full-time at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. My paper was intrigued by the prospect of digging into that relationship. But I could use additional funding and some time away from day-to-day coverage, especially because I wanted to make a trip to China to see the university’s recruitment efforts firsthand. So I applied for an Education Writers Association fellowship to explore the university’s engagement in China.

Winning the EWA fellowship encouraged me to pause and ask some ambitious, sweeping questions. What did the university’s multifaceted engagement with China entail? What was its financial and academic significance? And how were the escalating trade war and other tensions between the two countries putting it to the test? Here are some of the lessons of my six-month effort at investigating the connections between China and the University of Minnesota.

Does natural selection favour taller stature among the tallest people on earth?

Gert Stulp , Louise Barrett , Felix C. Tropf and Melinda Mills:

The Dutch are the tallest people on earth. Over the last 200 years, they have grown 20 cm in height: a rapid rate of increase that points to environmental causes. This secular trend in height is echoed across all Western populations, but came to an end, or at least levelled off, much earlier than in The Netherlands. One possibility, then, is that natural selection acted congruently with these environmentally induced changes to further promote tall stature among the people of the lowlands. Using data from the LifeLines study, which follows a large sample of the population of the north of The Netherlands (n = 94 516), we examined how height was related to measures of reproductive success (as a proxy for fitness). Across three decades (1935–1967), height was consistently related to reproductive output (number of children born and number of surviving children), favouring taller men and average height women. This was despite a later age at first birth for taller individuals. Furthermore, even in this low-mortality population, taller women experienced higher child survival, which contributed positively to their increased reproductive success. Thus, natural selection in addition to good environmental conditions may help explain why the Dutch are so tall.

Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician Portrayed in ‘Hidden Figures,’ Dies at 101

Associated Press:

NASA says Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who worked on NASA’s early space missions and was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the film Hidden Figures, about pioneering black female aerospace workers, has died.

In a Monday morning tweet, the space agency said it celebrates her 101 years of life and her legacy of excellence and breaking down racial and social barriers.

Johnson was one of the so-called “computers” who calculated rocket trajectories and earth orbits by hand during NASA’s early years.

Until 1958, Johnson and other black women worked in a racially segregated computing unit at what is now called Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Their work was the focus of the Oscar-nominated 2016 film.

In 1961, Johnson worked on the first mission to carry an American into space. In 1962, she verified computer calculations that plotted John Glenn’s earth orbits.

Phonics. Whole Language. Balanced Literacy. The Problem Isn’t That We Don’t Know How to Teach Reading — It’s Politics

Andrew Rotherham:

Policymakers are focusing on the craft of teaching reading. They must also focus on the politics. 

Last year’s NAEP scores continued a lackluster streak and set off a predictable bout of handwringing. This time, it was reading instruction — or, more precisely, our national pandemic of ineffective reading instruction — catching the flak. In response, the Council of Chief State School Officers held a summit on reading last month, and the media is starting to pay attention. It’s certainly better than nothing. Yet when a National Council on Teacher Quality study found that about half of the nation’s teacher preparation programs are teaching reading instruction based on science, it was received as great news. Indeed, it was progress — only about a third did in 2013. Still, some analysts, at least the cranky ones, wondered how half was in any way really good news. Half? It’s a disaster for millions of kids.

Given the long, tortuous history on this issue, we might pause to ask whether some articles and meetings are really going to get at the core problem. And we might ask whether we even have the core problem correctly defined. Our reading problem and how we approach it is broadly illustrative of a confusion that often pervades education reform efforts: We conflate problems of education politics with problems of educational craft. 

Reading isn’t just the latest obsession of education advocates; literacy is a real issue in people’s lives. Reading matters, from success and belonging in school and being able to navigate everyday situations to the ability to participate fully in the civic franchise of the United States. There is a reason slave owners actively sought to keep enslaved blacks from learning to read and people were killed for teaching them: Literacy is power. Deny people access to the written word, ideas, debate and dissent, and you deny them freedom, agency, liberty — even humanity. 

Unfortunately, national data show we do that systematically. Only about a third of fourth-graders are proficient on the National Assessment of Education Progress, and substantially fewer low-income students and black and Hispanic youngsters. In 2019, only 36 percent of eighth-graders said they definitely could understand the meaning of something they read.

It’s also important to stipulate that there are many educational issues where the evidence is genuinely mixed, or where complicated questions of practice, implementation, context or ethics confront reform efforts. Wrestling with that complexity is no small part of what we do at Bellwether, where I work. What should sober us is how much the education sector struggles just as much with issues, in this case, reading, where the evidence does trend clearly in one direction. 

That points to a different fundamental culprit — adult politics.

The data clearly indicate that being able to read is not a requirement for graduation at (Madison) East, especially if you are black or Hispanic”

Madison’s taxpayer supported K-12 school district, despite spending far more than most, has long tolerated disastrous reading results.

In addition, Madison recently expanded its least diverse schools.

My Question to Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers on Teacher Mulligans and our Disastrous Reading Results.

The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure

Ethan Zuckerman:

Consider a thought experiment on funding: The digital advertising industry is currently a $333 billion global market, and the share of advertising that’s digital continues to grow.

 Three companies that use intensely surveillant advertising practices – Google, Facebook, and Alibaba – represent $200.3 billion of that market. If we posit a 1% levy on highly surveillant advertising – advertising that incorporates user tracking, combines demographic and psychographic data to create user profiles, or targets using factors other than a user’s stated intentions and geography – we can easily posit a $1–2 billion annual fund to support public service digital media.43

43. The $1-2b figure assumes that platforms like Google will change behavior to make services like keyword targeted ads on search less surveillant, a positive side effect of this experiment. It’s also worth acknowledging that many countries prevent tax revenue from being earmarked for specific purposes – it may be structurally challenging to construct taxes on digital advertising that go towards public service digital media. Thanks to Anya Schiffrin for that helpful critique.

 What might we do if we thought on the scale of a $2-billion-a-year project, twenty-two times the scale of Wikimedia44

This is not a new idea, to be clear. Free Press has proposed a targeted ad tax that they anticipate could generate support for “diverse, local, independent and noncommercial journalism that’s gone missing, and to support new news-distribution models, especially those that don’t rely on data harvesting for revenue.”

 They propose a “Public Interest Media Endowment” to manage the funds generated. In May 2019, Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Romer proposed a progressive digital ad revenue tax designed to encourage platform companies to explore models other than surveillant advertising, like subscription-based models.47

 The Romer model is designed to discourage companies from using surveillant advertising, so the tax is likely to be significantly higher than 1-2 percent and increases with the size of surveillant ad revenues earned by a company. In February 2017, Emily Bell of Columbia’s Tow Center earlier proposed an endowment to support independent journalism, funded with billion-dollar donations from tech giants like Google and Facebook.

Civics: Half of Americans Don’t Vote. What Are They Thinking?

Colin Woodard:

“My parents, they were coming out of that generation of the ’60s and the civil rights movement and you voted,” she says. “Now people just don’t get it. They look at it like they have other things to do, like grocery shopping or sending the kids off to school. But elections don’t happen every day!”

Riggins-Furlow’s sense of a fickle, distracted citizenry touches on one of the biggest mysteries of United States electoral politics: Why nearly half of the nation’s eligible voters almost never exercise that fundamental right. The sheer size of the group—approximately 92 million eligible voters—makes it a potential wild card in the 2020 presidential election. That is if the political world understood what keeps them away from the polls, and, more importantly, what might lure them in the first place.

On Wednesday, the Knight Foundation released the results of “The 100 Million Project,” the largest survey of chronic nonvoters in history, and the most robust attempt ever to answer some of the questions that have long bedeviled political scientists. More than 13,000 people were polled across the country, with special emphasis on 10 battleground states, followed by in-depth focus-group conversations with thousands of them. They were asked about their political preferences, media diets, social networks, income levels, general life satisfaction, and about their demographic characteristics and social connectivity, their reasons for not voting, and their assessments of electoral and political institutions. The result is the most comprehensive survey of the politically disengaged to date, with lessons political consultants, candidates and civic educators won’t want to miss.

Notes and links on the 2020 Madison School Board election.

Both Sides The tech press v. the tech insiders

MG Siegler:

I cannot believe I missed this past weekend’s Bitchmeme,¹ especially since it’s right in my wheelhouse: the ever-chilling war between the press and insiders. It seems to me this is likely a normal state of being in every industry. But it becomes far more pronounced as said industry grows in power and import. And so here we are in the tech industry in 2020.

This is my wheelhouse because I have been both a part of the press and, more recently, an insider. Well, as “insider” as a VC can be. This varies pretty wildly, in my experience. But I digress. Point is: I may have an interesting vantage point here having been on both sides. You decide.

So when I read Hunter’s post seemingly walking straight down the middle of those two sides, my instinct was to find this approach too vanilla. Surely some side is worse here, right?²