Wednesday, October 06, 2010

University Life Roundup

Lots of stuff on higher education has been clogging up my tabs on my computer, so consider this a purge:

Here is a pretty good defense of tenure, aimed at parents of future and present college students, which may not be perfect but is still pretty important. One issue the author does not address is the fact that not only does tenure protect certain types of potentially controversial work, it also protects the ability to do long-range research. It is not uncommon for a historian to take a decade or more to write a book, especially a big, ambitious one. We should embrace that sort of commitment to quality. And if that holds true in the humanities, it is even moreso in some of the sciences -- imagine telling a cancer researcher that they must work on the timetable of a three year contract.

Inside Higher Ed recently published two defenses of something that ought to need no defending (here and here) -- the liberal arts education. The goal of any college or university ought to be to teach students how to think, how to reason, and how to engage with ideas. If students can do that, they will be able to succeed in any range of jobs and careers (which they will change multiple times anyway) where there will be training in any case.

Here is a decent, if too tepid, defense of the professoriate from the onslaught from the outside. Academics are an easy target, but most of the criticisms barely withstand even the minutest scrutiny.

I oftentimes toy with declaring my classes to be a no-laptop zone. The vast majority of students do not use them to take notes, or even to look things up relevant to the class. And yes, sometimes classes can be "boring," I suppose, as dealing with unfamiliar or challenging material often is. But while I hope my classes are entertaining, my job is not first and foremost to entertain them. And if they are on Facebook or ESPN or sending emails, it is a distraction for people around them and it is a waste of time for them and for me. I have also toyed with the equivalent of pop quizzes: "Show me your laptop now." But I'd prefer that my classroom not be a place for "gotcha" moments even if some students deserve to get got. In any case, two recent articles agree with me, here and here. I'm not certain if I'll enact such a policy. But I'd be wholly justified in doing so.

The New Republic's Book has recently published a couple of justly tough reviews of new books on higher education, including Richard Kehlenberg's critical look at Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus' Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids -- And What We Can Do About It and David A. Bell's completely warranted hammering of (former Williams professor) Mark Taylor's Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming our Colleges and Universities.

Finally, can technology help reform (or overhaul) peer review? It will help. But technology is not a panacea. And while a wiki approach to scholarly publishing certainly might have some merit, as a historian, I still believe the craft of writing matters. We are not mere compilers of fact and dossiers for interpretation. History is as much art as science (moreso, I'd argue) and there is pleasure as well as knowledge to be gained from a well crafted book or article in my discipline and in many others.

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