About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.

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Thursday, May 30, 2019

On Counting and Writing


           For something I’m working on, I have been reading several books by the surgeon Atul Gawande. At the end of Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Gawande offers five suggestions on how to avoid being “just a white-coated cog in a machine” and make “a worthy difference” in the world. Gawande is primarily addressing other physicians and surgeons, and it would seem to many of us that they do make a difference—a big difference if we’re sick and in need. But his point is that work in medicine—well-paid and prestigious though it is—can get routine and burdensome and requires some extra effort to avoid feeling like you’re on a treadmill. Physicians I know who work in HMO settings confirm this feeling.
            Given the kinds of work most people do for way less money and status but often with a good dose of repetition and stress, it might be difficult to sympathize with Gawande, but I was interested to see that two of his five suggestions were to “count something” and to “write something.”
            On counting, Gawande writes: “It doesn’t really matter what you count… the only requirement is that what you count should be interesting to you.” In Gawande’s case, counting obvious things in the operating room contributed to techniques to improve performance and avoid dangerous mistakes. “If you count something you find interesting, you will learn something interesting.”

             On writing, Gawande observes:

            It makes no difference whether you write five paragraphs for a blog, a paper for a      professional journal, or a poem for a reading group. Just write. What you write need not achieve perfection. It need only add some small observation about your world.

Gawande confesses that he did not write before he became a doctor. (I assume he means for publication.) “But once I became a doctor, I found I needed to write.” Writing, for him, helps him hold onto a “larger sense of purpose,” enables him to “step back and think through a problem.”
            For Atul Gawande, counting and writing have high stakes and have contributed to his considerable achievements as a surgeon and author. In this blog, I want to reflect on small-scale counting and writing, everyday tallies and scribbles that can lift you momentarily out of the flow of events, help you take notice and give you a tool to think about what you perceive. How many are there of this object I’m seeing: trees, cell phones, shopping carts, cracks and buckles in the sidewalk, books and magazines? As I go through my day, are there more in one place than in another? What about behaviors, casual ones? How often do people greet or somehow acknowledge each other? Does this behavior vary by place?
            Writing. With a pen or keypad record a line from a song or t.v. show or from something you’re reading that touches or informs you, or the surprising color on a burst of flowers, or an overheard blip of conversation (this from a guy with a sad laugh on a cellphone: “Cuz I messed up, that’s why”), or something lovely someone says to you. Especially write that last one down.
            I probably need to state what I imagine is on some readers’ minds: I’m not asking that you count or write all the time, certainly not encouraging an obsessive adding or recording. But I do like the idea of momentarily focusing on the little things of the world that peripherally catch our attention.
            What I also value is that this orientation to count and describe small, everyday objects and events becomes a potent research tool when brought to bear on what one studies—for me and a number of the readers of this blog that would be school and schooling. Bring your writing and counting together. What kind of buildings surround the school—homes, shops? How many of each? What about signage? Where and how do students enter campus? Do they come alone, in pairs or groups, are they dropped off—on foot or by car? As you walk to your destination (the administrative offices, a classroom) what do you see and hear? The flow and clustering of students and adults? Bits of conversation? What blares from the loudspeaker? Are there trees and how many? Banners, flags, signs? Anything, anything that catches your attention.
            This is just the start, of course. Counts can be reductive as can snippets of description. You have to make sense of them—and try to understand what sense the people in the school make of it all. But both modest insights and big ideas can begin with a small amplification of our attention, kicking it up a notch, and counting and scribbling down or tapping out what we might have missed before.

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Monday, April 29, 2019

The College Cheating Scandal, Inequality in College Admissions, and the Preoccupation with Status in Higher Education

Last month the college cheating scandal became our national soap opera with episode after episode of wealthy parents paying big money to hire test takers, falsify records, and create phony athletic profiles for their children. I’ll admit, I was in the front row gaping at the brazen grab for advantage by people who have every advantage imaginable, tuning in daily as the tawdry details emerged. The rich and famous were having their star turn on Jerry Springer 
Within a few days of the breaking news, the national conversation broadened to the much more consequential issue of overall inequality in college admissions, and this discussion lasted for several weeks— a very long time in our sound-bite world. There was discussion of the legal, if questionable, ways the wealthy secure privilege though legacy admissions, donations and endowments, and the like; of the vast test-preparation and college advising industries; of the extraordinary advantages that accrue over time from access to resourced schools, enrichment programs, tutorials, and professional social networks.   
Less discussed but thankfully present was our obsession itself with admission to a small number of high prestige schools when, in fact, most education beyond high school in the United States occurs in community colleges, state colleges and universities, and regional colleges, public and private. The intense preoccupation with fifty or so “elite” institutions not only contributes to inequality, but also detracts from the real issue of what we should want from a college education and what needs to be done to enable all our institutions to forward that goal. 
            There is a powerful economic motive driving the scramble to get into the “best” schools, the wish to secure advantage for one’s children. Not unrelated is the symbolic motive of status, which was directly revealed in the transcripts of phone calls among the people involved in the scandal. Those of us who work in higher education were appalled by the cheating scandal, and a number of us have commented in various ways about the broader issue of inequality in access and admissions. But in our way we participate in the obsession with status that is part of the bad brew of social and economic factors underlying this whole mess. 
Concerns about status run throughout higher education, inflected with contemporary commercial and celebrity culture. Universities employ specialists to market their “brand.” Faculty hiring and promotion includes language of someone’s “star” status, even that someone is, God help us, a “rock star.” Several years ago I wrote a short essay about the preoccupation with status in higher education (published as “Who Is Smarter than Whom: Status Games in Higher Ed in Inside Higher Ed), and I think it might be worth rereading it in the context of our current discussion of inequality in college admissions. 

*** 

A while back I was reading letters of support for an award, and in one of the letters there was a demeaning characterization of the home academic department of the candidate. While the letter writer praised the candidate to the skies, the writer portrayed the candidate’s department—a department of great prestige outside of the candidate’s university—as being of marginal status in the eyes of those in other academic disciplines within the university. The letter writer wanted to assure anonymous evaluators like me that the candidate was of much higher intellectual quality than the candidate’s discipline would suggest.  
Boy, am I sick of this academic snobbery.  
What I read is not without its irony, however—worthy of the most trenchant portrayals of academic life (think David Lodge’s Small World or Richard Russo’s Straight Man). The discipline of the snooty letter writer is one that I heard routinely ridiculed when I was studying and then teaching in an English Department. 
And so it goes in the academic status games. 
Applied disciplines (e.g., journalism, nursing, management) have less status than “pure” ones: philosophy, biology, mathematics. And within disciplines there is typically a status hierarchy, with “theoretical” pursuits having more dazzle than applied work. Art history and musicology trump the making of art or music. The theoretical mathematician has the status edge on the applied statistician. The literary theorist sits on a higher rung—much higher—than those who teach writing. 
Of course, these status dynamics are not absolute, are ignored, even subverted by some faculty, and an institution’s history and current reality come into play as well. And in our era of the “entrepreneurial university” and economic accountability, traditional academic status markers might lessen in importance; what will count will be enrollment numbers and the employability prospects of a given major. 
Still, as someone who has spent decades at a research university running a tutorial center and a freshman composition program and then residing in a school of education—all quite low in that disciplinary hierarchy—I can tell you that judgments of intellectual virtue based on disciplinary affiliation are alive and well and factor into all sorts of behaviors and decisions, from departmental funding , to faculty promotion, to the letters written for honors and awards—like the one I read. 
We have not even considered the more pronounced status differentials among various units at the college or university: for example student services versus academic departments. And then there are the loaded status distinctions made among the different kinds of institutions that comprise higher education in the United States: the community college versus the state college or university versus the research university—with research universities scrambling to climb to the top of their own heap. 
All professions generate status distinctions, so why should the field of higher education be any different? Fair enough; I take the point. But the thing that gets to me in all this is that the distinctions are made through narrow and self-interested attributions of intelligence that hardly reflect the variety of ways people use their minds to apply knowledge, solve problems, reason and make decisions, and so on. Furthermore, intelligence doesn’t reside inert in a discipline or a kind of work or in one segment of a system rather than another; intelligence emerges in activity and in context. The attributions of intelligence I’m concerned with have much more to do with the preservation of power and prestige and turf rather than helping us all—faculty, staff, and students—improve on what we do. Faculty don’t get better at teaching by luxuriating in their bona fides or looking down on the department across the quad. 
This last point about getting better at educating is at the center of a new book by my UCLA colleague, Alexander Astin, an expert on higher education in the United States. In Are You Smart Enough?, Astin argues that colleges—especially “elite” colleges—are more concerned with acquiring status markers of intelligence (high entering student gpas and test scores, faculty publication numbers, and so on) rather than creating the conditions for students to become more intelligent during their time in college. Instead of the scramble to attract students already identified as smart, Astin wonders, what if colleges put increased effort into helping students become smarter through more attention to teaching, mentoring, and enrichment activities? It’s a provocative and important question. 
Back, now, to that letter. Over the years, I’ve spent time in many sectors of higher education, from a medical school to a community college tutoring center, and one of the things that has most struck me is the distribution of intelligence across the domains of the enterprise. To be sure, I’ve observed the routine pursuit of trivial research, uninspired teaching and unimaginative management, tireless self-promotion. A whole host of sins spread across areas of study and levels of the system. But I’ve also witnessed insight and inspiration, deeply humane problem solving, moments of brilliance in both a writing and a mathematics classroom, in a counseling session and in a meeting of tutorial center coordinators, in a laboratory and in a library. No little domain has a lock on being smart. 

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