Friday, August 29, 2014

Academic bureaucracies

There was a story in the New York Times yesterday about course shopping tools created by students. We have a terrific tool at Harvard, created by the CS50 team, but it's only available to authorized viewers because it relies on private data. Students at Yale last year got into trouble for creating a similar tool and skipping that crucial step.

The reporter called me a long time ago and I had forgotten about it until I read the story. But my quote is pretty good, as it speaks to a larger change I have witnessed in university culture. The administrative bureaucracy has so many protocols and policies to follow and so many messages to cater to, that the entire educational enterprise becomes more and more dissociated from the daily lives of students and faculty. The bureaucrats look to compliance with policy and protocol, and to consistency with institutional messaging, as their first duty, and to education and service only secondarily. Here is what I said in the article:
“Students are always more entrepreneurial and understand needs better than bureaucracies can,” said Harry R. Lewis, the director of undergraduate studies for Harvard’s computer science department, “since bureaucracies tend to have messages they want to spin, and priorities they have to set, and students just want stuff that is useful. I know this well, since students were talking to me about moving the Harvard face books online seven years before Zuckerberg just went and did it without asking permission.”
That statement really resonated with a couple of colleagues, who came up with other examples. It's part of the reason faculty don't feel ownership of the university nearly as much as they did a couple of decades ago--and why they are, to a greater degree than before, prone to looking out for themselves first and only as an afterthought to the institution. Getting real faculty buy-in to any long range planning process can be difficult as a result; a sense that the real power rests with the bureaucracy tends to breed myopia.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Rest in Peace, Father Gavin

Father Carney Gavin died on August 21, according to a brief death notice in the Boston Globe this morning. (Oddly, it's in the print edition only.)

Carney was a once familiar type that is now rare. A learned, scholarly Boston-Irish priest, warm and gregarious and well-connected in academia, to royalty, and to the Vatican, humble and funny and self-effacing, and boisterous and enthusiastic at the same time. He was always ready to lend human support to anyone, regardless of doctrinal niceties. (Peter Gomes once said to me, after Carney had carried out his offices in a kind and generous way as I suspect not every priest in today's Roman Catholic Church would have chosen to do, "Are they still letting him do that?") He served for a time as head of Harvard's Semitic Museum, and after that started the Archives for Historical Documentation, which describes Carney's mission this way: "Since 1963, Carney's research has been dedicated to understanding and preserving the cultural heritage of the Middle East while promoting peace among the region's prevalent faiths through this shared history."

He has for years been struggling to outrun a cancer, which must finally have caught up to him. I chanced across this passage from Harvard Magazine in 2001, in which he described someone else who was fighting an illness:
 "I call it an ‘odyssey,’" says Rev. Carney Gavin, Ph.D. ’73, a longtime friend of and pastor to the Mee family at St. Columbkille’s Church in Brighton. "It’s terrible and sad and frightening and filled with all kinds of encounters." Even in this age of dot-com billionaires, he adds, "There’s nobody who doesn’t question, ‘What is heroism? What is worthwhile in life?’ I cannot tell you how heroically Peter has worked to find a meaningful place for himself. It involved horrible, horrible failures and incredible obstacles."
Pretty nice description of his own past few years; he never slowed down, traveling to Europe and the Middle east constantly, bringing back vials of water from the River Jordan, lumps of frankincense, and other small gifts for his friends' children, and all the while trying to preserve the history of the Middle East. He was a good man, and I regret his passing.

Thanks to his friends at St. Columbkille's for permission to reproduce the photograph above, which was taken very recently. That's him all right, laughing to the end.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Dolphin has closed ):

I need a nice, family-run, fish restaurant. I like Legal, but that is not what I mean. I mean a place that is not part of a standardized chain, for all the benefits that chains bring.

Over the past twenty years, three favorite haunts for fish have disappeared, places I patronized at least once a week, maybe more. At each of these places the staff, generally nice people with some kind of accent, recognized us and brought us our drinks without our having to order them.

The first was Captain's Wharf, near Coolidge Corner in Brookline; I think it is now a mammography clinic. The second was Village Fish, in south Brookline on Harvard Street; it decamped for the suburbs, and then turned itself into a BBQ joint.

And now the Dolphin, formerly at 1105 Mass Ave in Cambridge, is gone too. (Consolidated with its Natick location, says the sign on the darkened door, but gone to Mars as far as urban dwellers go.)

So the choices for fish seem to be Legal (excellent, but a bit soulless, and always about 40% more expensive than the Dolphin, though no better in the ingredients or cuisine); Skipjack's, which closed in Needham, and whose Clarendon Street location tends to be crowded with a mixture of Masters of the Universe and tourists; and lovely, big, pricey places like Oceanaire and Island Creek Oyster House. If anyone has better ideas (preferably not far from Brookline and with easy parking), I'd love to hear. (Daily Catch in Brookline remains, but it's very limited in both seating and menu options.)

I suspect that there are both ethnic and economic reasons for these changes. The Irish, who in Brookline survived on fish for generations, are now eating Thai food; at least there seems to be a Thai restaurant on every corner, and they are all cheap and good. And fish is costly enough (given the costs of keeping it fresh) that it's now a luxury item.

Very sad developments in the land of the cod. We're talking about Boston and Brookline here, not Lansing and Reno!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Minerva and Plutarch

The Atlantic has a good piece about the Minerva Project, AKA Minerva U. I contributed a few thoughts:
“Like other things that are going on now in higher ed, Minerva brings us back to first principles,” says Harry R. Lewis, a computer-science professor who was the dean of Harvard’s undergraduate college from 1995 to 2003. What, he asks, does it mean to be educated? Perhaps the process of education is a profound one, involving all sorts of leaps in maturity that do not show up on a Kosslyn-style test of pedagogical efficiency. “I’m sure there’s a market for people who want to be more efficiently educated,” Lewis says. “But how do you improve the efficiency of growing up?” 
He warns that online-education innovations tend to be oversold. “They seem to want to re-create the School of Athens in every little hamlet on the prairie—and maybe they’ll do that,” he told me. “But part of the process of education happens not just through good pedagogy but by having students in places where they see the scholars working and plying their trades.”
He calls the “hydraulic metaphor” of education—the idea that the main task of education is to increase the flow of knowledge into the student—an “old fallacy.” As Lewis explains, “Plutarch said the mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be lit. Part of my worry about these Internet start-ups is that it’s not clear they’ll be any good at the fire-lighting part.”
Steve Kosslyn is a good guy and I wish him well with his efforts. I am skeptical that Minerva is the real solution to any real problem. But it is a serious effort backed by serious money, so let a thousand flowers bloom; this one may find a small ecological niche in which it can become a perennial of limited range.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

My Dialog with Deresiewicz

The Chronicle of Higher Education is featuring a back and forth between me and Bill Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep and several derivative articles that have appeared in various fora recently. Bill is right that there is a lot on which we agree, but we seem to be looking at the same animal and seeing different things sometimes. The dialog has three plies in each direction; the Chronicle reproduces it just as we emailed back and forth to each other, with some links inserted.

A lot of reviews have been appearing, most not very thoughtful. I'd just like to add two points that we didn't cover in our exchange.

One expands what I said in a previous blog post, about how Deresiewicz's remedies, when they are addressed to real problems, are not at all well thought through. The writing has all the hallmarks of the work of a man who has never run anything, so has never had to balance opposing values and considerations. He is prone to sweeping, sometimes reckless prescriptions, voiced in very specific terms, which are not translatable into actual action plans and which start to unravel as soon as the surface is scratched. I mentioned before that the appealing idea of not cooperating with US News is silly. Not that I love US News, and of course it is outrageous when institutions let that tail wag their dogs. But what does he really mean? Not cooperate with any rating or ranking agency, including the federal government's if one comes to pass? Not give data to anyone about your institution, out of fear that a some kind of score would be extracted from it? Refuse to cooperate with US News  but give your data to its competitors? Have a board of censors that would decide which publications are honorable enough to give your data to, and somehow enjoin others from referencing it?

Another prescription Deresiewicz makes is this: Colleges "should refuse to be impressed by any experience or opportunity that was enabled by parental wealth." Again a fine impulse, and not news. If your father is president of a pharmaceutical firm and your research is done under the direction of its chief chemist, it would be foolish not to wonder who really did the work. But where does "wealth" begin? Does paying for test prep, or simply for an academic tutor, because your local school is awful, count as such an experience or opportunity? What if your parents aren't wealthy, but have made some sacrifice to compensate for the inadequacies of the school system? What if your family buys a house in a district with a good high school, is that an opportunity due to parental wealth. so your improved academic performance should be discounted? What if your family took out huge mortgages to make that possible? The various prescriptions for change seem to me operationally problematic, or dependent on the much larger social changes called for near the end of the book, such as making all high schools in America equally good. Another fine idea. How to do it in a federation of proudly autonomous states is another question.

The book is full of wild swings. Penn and Princeton are anti-intellectual; this is mentioned offhandedly as a matter of common knowledge. We are all so inbred we are soon going to grow tails. (Sorry, I don't have the chapter and verse of those two, so I may slightly be misstating them.) It's obviously not a scholarly work, but it's so shallow, so devoid of any acknowledgment of reasonable counterarguments to his theses or action plans, that it's really just not a very good book. Lacking, I should say, in those qualities of critical thinking that the author says the liberal arts are supposed to give us.

But there is one passage that makes me wonder whether Deresiewicz is even a person of good character. It's when he launches an attack on Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom. It's fine to attack Chua and her book; that's fair game. But at the end he goes after her daughter too.
As for her own children, the fact that one has gotten into Harvard now is not a validation of her methods. It is a condemnation of Harvard's, and of the system as a whole. Of course her daughter got into Harvard: that is exactly the kind of printing the system rewards. That's exactly what is wrong with it.
Whatever anyone thinks of tiger mom, it's only in North Korea that we take down children for the sins of their parents. I assume he doesn't actually know the daughter, but is dismissing her qualifications for admission wholesale on the basis of a stereotype he has drawn of her. (I don't know her either.) In the liberal societies for which Deresiewicz pleads, we don't do that to people. As a matter of professional ethics in academia, we don't attack students publicly. Ever. That is simply unethical. I am surprised no one else has pointed that out.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Princeton bags its misbegotten grading "rules"

Grade inflation is a problem we love to hate. Here's the problem--a problem shared with many aspects of higher education.

Grade point averages are very precise measurements--we compute them to three decimal places, sometimes four--but are all but meaningless, because they are averages of individual component grades given with little or no normalization or coordination. "A numerical soup of unreliable ingredients," as I called in Excellence Without a Soul. There are various reasons why grades have drifted steadily up (for more than a century, actually), but the main reason is that there is too little disincentive for faculty to be generous when given the choice. None of us really knows, in some ultimate sense, whether a student really deserves an A– or a B+, and if we don't know then the deans and academic committees sure don't.

A few years ago Princeton decided to take grade inflation squarely on by mandating that no more than 35% of the grades in any course could be A's. Except that that isn't what they did, because, reasonably enough, they thought there was no reason to punish very talented students for taking very challenging courses and doing well in them. So the 35% was not a mandate, it was a guideline.

The faculty has now revisited that policy and will probably abandon it. The proximal reason will be described as some as Princeton student complaints that they were being disadvantaged in graduate school applications relative their peers at other Ivies with squishier standards. But the report of the committee that looked into the experience makes clear that its actual rationale was less consumerist. Grades did go down at Princeton for awhile, but much of the increase decrease happened while the problem was under review and before the policy had been adopted. In other words, when the faculty were debating and discussing their grading practices, they got stricter; when they stopped talking about it, policy or no policy, grades started to drift up. The percentage cap was not an effective agent of grade deflation. The talking cure was.

Talk was one of the remedies I proposed last winter when the grade inflation issue flared up briefly at Harvard because of a question posed on the floor of the Faculty by Professor Mansfield. Here is what I suggested on this blog:
Require every department to have a discussion of grading once a year. Hand out the grades assigned by everyone in the department so they have to look at their own and their peers's practices while everyone is watching. Have someone from the administration go to the meeting to make sure it happens. No quotas, no rules, just information and a requirement for talking to each other about what grades are being given and why. The underlying idea here is to make the conversation more intimate, conducted not by a dean from on high but in a collegial way, by people the faculty have to interact with every day and whose respect they value.
We actually did this among the computer scientists. Can't say that it had any effect or that we have any particular problem to solve, but those who were there for the conversation certainly found it interesting. (There has been not another whisper about grade inflation from the university administration. I am not sure that is wrong-- I have always thought we had other educational issues to deal with that are a lot more consequential.)

So here is the bigger problem. Higher education is a soft sort of trade. We are in the business of creating mature, responsible men and women, who understand enough about themselves, the world from which they came, and the world in which they are living, to take responsibility for that world's future. There is no four-decimal place measure of readiness to do that, or of our success in fulfilling our obligation to graduate 22-year-olds who are readier to do that than the 18-year-olds we saw as freshmen four years earlier. We quantify things for various reasons, some of them good, but once a metric exists it becomes an end in itself. It is easier for students to sweat about the last decimal place in their GPA than to think about whether they are getting an education, and it is easier for the faculty to analyze and debate the grading data (the report has some terrifically interesting graphics) than to figure out what they are really doing with the four years of their students' lives over which they have almost complete control, especially in a nearly fully residential college. The same risk of distraction by numerical measures applies in lots of other areas. Really, who cares what percentage of students complete a MOOC? We never try to figure out how many finish the books we assign, and MOOCs aren't even assigned.

So, good for Princeton. (Ed Felton at Princeton has a good blog post on this.)