David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Archives: December 2010

Please scroll down to see all of the month's blogs

December 30, 2010:  Rowing To Galveston

One more post related to the inspiration I have gained from Dangerously Funny, the wonderful book about the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. At one point, Tommy Smothers and the writers decided to give the network censors a red herring, the line "rowing to Galveston," which they inserted as often as they could in skits, and then they asked the audience and crew to always laugh and titter whenever the phrase was used.

As you can imagine, the network censors were convinced "Rowing To Galveston" was a hippie euphemism for something and became obsessed with cutting those references out of all skits. 

What an image! I can just see some third-rate dolt in an ugly suit and tie in a position way over his head marking feverishly the scripts that came across his desk.  Red pen, highlighter, turned down corners of the pages making the document a visual mess.  Then, the over-sensitive, lack-of-critical-thinking neanderthal must have run to his bosses every week saying, "I caught them again.  I caught those durn Smothers Brothers making those sex and drug references again."  In the meantime, the joke had become entirely on him, when it was never intended before "standards and practices" laid their heavy hand on the show.

Bless you, Tommy Smothers.

December 27, 2010:  Post-Christmas reflections

Issue #1:  Check out this completely insane idea: Parents identify kindergarten kids' college choices

A school district near Muskegon, Michigan, is encouraging parents of toddlers to identify five top choices for their kid's college education.  Read the whole piece to make your own determination about the merit of this proposal.  For me, I can understand that this is an obvious intent to get parents in lower-income areas to think that college is an acceptable option for their kids.  However, it might be better to get the parents thinking about returning to school to get a degree.  It might make more sense to promote a culture of learning between parent and child, so that the children gain an appreciation for knowledge that carries them into an academic career modeled for higher education. 

Instead I envision little Johnny running around kindergarten in his University of Michigan sweatshirt, while little Allison wears Grand Valley State socks, and little Billy throws his Notre-Dame emblazoned football.  I've seen enough high school seniors crumbling under the weight of their parents' expectations that they go to a certain school or become a doctor or a lawyer.  I know my middle-school son has run around in WVU clothing since he could barely speak, as well as wearing many clothes of the institution where I worked for 15 years. I'm glad he wants to wear those.  But when he goes to make a decision about college in 6 years, he will make it based upon his interests and his needs. I also suspect the college he chooses isn't even "available" right now, and I don't mean in terms of a brand (like a Michigan State University or a Hillsdale College), but in terms of what the college education and experience should be in 2018.

Issue #2:  Finally received Dangerously Funny:  The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour by David Bianculli for Christmas.  What a fantastic book in chronicling the brilliant Tom and Dick Smothers and their attempts to shake up the established world of network t.v. in the 1960's.  Nothing is more admirable than someone who stands up for what he or she believes in, despite all the pressure and "penalties" one takes along the way.  There's one quote from Tom Smothers that says it all:  "If they [the television censors] hadn't been so hard on me, I probably would not have been so intractable.  And pretty soon, I became very intractable."

Besides, how can one not love the insanity that was The Who on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour? If you've never seen the clip, check it out here.  These guys even got Tom truly flabbergasted.

Issue #3: One other book I received for Christmas is the mildly entertaining 1,001 Things They Won't Tell You:  An Insider's Guide To Spending, Saving, and Living Wisely by Jonathan Dahl and the editors of Smart Money.  (I have no idea why my wife thought this would be a suitable book this year!)

Anyway a couple of quick interesting, and actually pertinent items.

From ten things your college financial aid office won't tell you:

  • "Our low tuition rate means less financial aid."  I'm sure many parents have no clue about that fact.  As the book says, often pricier colleges have a better endowment and can afford 100% tuition needs.
  • "We'll let you borrow more than you can afford."  This is a frightening reality that too many college students never realize.  The book emphasizes how many students earn degrees in fields that don't pay enough to realistically pay off the high loans.  I would add that there is a sense of ignorance that many students have about realizing exactly the extent of their loans.
  • "Thought freshman year was expensive? Wait till senior year." Four-year merit awards are typically associated with the tuition rate at the time the student begins.  As can be seen way too often in the news, tuition increases often don't keep pay with the increases in the merit aid.  All the more reason to do well in school and to graduate as quickly as possible.

Then, from the other side of the cubicle wall, ten things your college student won't tell you:

  • "My grades are none of your business."  It's amazing how many parents don't really understand the nuances of the the "Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act," which means colleges can't share student records with parents unless the student has signed a consent form.  And this is regardless of how much the parent is paying for the tuition, room and board, textbooks, meal plans, etc. 
  • "I'm up to my ears in credit card debt."  Yep, banks go after college students with attractive-looking credit card offers like sharks go after blood in the water.  Add to this what is mentioned above, that students often go into low-paying fields, and that debt may be impossible to pay down.

And in the interest of self-revelation, here is one item from ten things your bloggers won't tell you.

  • "Hardly anybody reads me."  I know I can count on my parents and at best two or three friends.  And they're doing it to support me as much as they care about my writing

Dec. 22, 2010 

For the holidays, the blog, home page and random act of poetry all merge into one.

The Twelve Days of Christmas -- College Style

On the first day of Christmas, my college gave to me a participation fee.

On the second day of Christmas, my college gave to me tuition discount and a participation fee.

On the third day of Christmas, my college gave to me free French fries, tuition discount and a participation fee.

On the fourth day of Christmas, my college gave to me for-credit work, free French fries, tuition discount and a participation fee.

On the fifth day of Christmas, my college gave to me STD testing, for-credit work, free French fries, tuition discount and a participation fee.

On the sixth day of Christmas, my college gave to me redesigned courses, STD testing, for-credit work, free French fries, tuition discount and a participation fee.

On the seventh day of Christmas, my college gave to me 24-hour bowling, redesigned courses, STD testing, for-credit work, free French fries, tuition discount, and a participation fee.

On the eight day of Christmas, my college gave to me online tutoring, 24-hour bowling, redesigned courses, STD testing, for-credit work, free French fries, tuition discount and a participation fee.

On the ninth day of Christmas, my college gave to me judicial hearings, online tutoring, 24-hour bowling, redesigned courses, STD testing, for-credit work, free French fries, tuition discount and a participation fee.

On the tenth day of Christmas, my college gave to me major field testing, judicial hearings, online tutoring, 24-hour bowling, redesigned courses, STD testing, for-credit work, free French fries, tuition discount and a participation fee.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my college gave to me diversity awareness, major field testing, judicial hearings, online tutoring, 24-hour bowling, redesigned courses, STD testing, for-credit work, free French fries, tuition discount and a participation fee.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my college gave to me no campus parking, diversity awareness, major field testing, judicial hearings, online tutoring, 24-hour bowling, redesigned courses, STD testing, for-credit work, free French fries, tuition discount and a participation fee.

Dec 21, 2010:  Not much of a Yuletide Blog

Occasionally in It's All Academic I just had to get a crack in about neighborhood dynamics.  Early on there are scenes dealing with bullies, straight from the world where I live, and then later, as the events in the book approached Christmas, I couldn't resist a shot at the spiritual-secular-mythological approaches many Americans (and probably people elsewhere in the world) take to outside decorations:

Meanwhile, at home the Christmas decorations went up without fear of offending any faith or nationality. We quickly realized that we had neighbors dueling for the most elaborate decorations. Our house only had a few basic strands of lights outside, which served us well, because the light coming from the neighbors' houses spilled through our blinds and lit up the inside of our house. The three houses immediately around ours, including the Fosters, covered every tree and every window frame with colored lights.


The Fosters even managed to put a ten-foot Santa in the nativity scene in their front yard. Natalie and I joked about how lost he looked. Later in the month, when I went to write directions to our house for the holiday party, the Fosters provided me the perfect landmark for our guests: "Turn left into the driveway just past the house where Santa has come begging Jesus for forgiveness."

End of Chapter 14

December 18, 2010: Get Cronked for the Holidays

I posted on the Cool Links page today the link to The Cronk of Higher Education, which is The Onion on an accelerated program in educational theory.

You can't beat articles like the following:

The site encourages readers to submit their own satirical articles on higher education, offers merchandise (I can't wait for the Cronk Greeting Cards), and actually has ads for real universities and colleges.  Mid-American Christian University, Kaplan University, the Maharashi University of Management, and ITT Tech have no problems advertising amidst the silliness (then again, we are talking MUM university).  Maharashi University of Management does exist:  http://www.mum.edu/

December 16, 2010:  A Case Study Case Study (Is there an echo in here?)

From yesterday's Inside Higher Ed, an article about a dissertation on an American university offering dual degree programs in China.

Given that many American universities desire such partnerships, it is worthwhile to note some of the more salient points from this well-written article:

  • The overseas student population can often be significantly more than the population on the American institution's home campus(es).  The question, then, concerns whether resources are allocated in proportion to the student populations.  I would guess that it is unlikely, especially given other points (see below).
  • It is not simply a matter of "plopping" the American higher educational system down into another country.  As the dissertation points out, the American leadership often lacks the cultural savvy and know-how necessary to work with the foreign partner. I remember when I welcomed a Chinese delegation for a week-long visit.  I spent countless hours before they came reading everything I could about their expectations, values, responses, and so forth.  In the end, I still felt like I was way out of my league (and they probably felt the same way about their immersion in American culture).
  • Faculty in those partnership programs appear to teach heavy loads well past the limit presumed to still allow for quality instruction and interaction.  Classrooms also often have many more students than would be in an American classroom.  This, to be honest, is a challenge everyday in American universities, where such cost-effective mechanisms are probably argued for daily.
  • Initial contact by Inside Higher Ed to the university in question resulted in a conversation with an "outside lawyer."  Enough said about the cautious ways universities and colleges want to protect their images.
  • The foreign students perceive greater value from the American education than their native population.  And it may very well be that way, although the extent of that value is not necessarily clear.
  • Students perceive these new partnerships as works-in-progress, and are willing to forsake for now the qualities that they are convinced will eventually define the dual-degree partnerships.
  • In the comments section, there is perhaps a reasonable challenge of the strength of the doctorate program for which the dissertation was submitted.  Not saying that this is or is not the case in this scenario, but it is likely that even at the highest degree levels of American universities, the process may sometimes outweigh the learning.

And now, dear readers, you have a better sense of the environment in which Michael Hartley might have been working in setting up a Boan/IMET partnership.

December 12, 2010:  Repeat Offensive

From some education news in Michigan:

Community College Students Repeating Courses

As usual some of the most interesting parts of this brief posting are the comments (with only one having a username that might reveal someone's actual identity). However, I'll stick to the main idea of the article.

The truth of the matter is that those math and English courses cited here are often referred to as the "gatekeepers" to the full degree.  If a student can't get past them, he or she can't move on with the degree.

However, repeating those courses happens more than we'd like and probably at universities almost as frequently as at community colleges.  Knowing they need the class, students fail, maintain at least minimum GPA requirements through other classes, and keep coming back to take the gatekeeping course.  Withdrawals, sometimes early in the semester, but often at the last possible date, lead students back to these courses over and over.  Perhaps a small fraction of these students are the ones being "advised" to re-take the class to improve the GPA (as noted in the article).

What often occurs, then, is that students get to a senior year without still passing these classes, especially if a university or college tries to limit pre-requisites so that students can proceed.  As joked about in It's All Academic, students too frequently get to a point where they only have two or three classes left for their degree programs, and those courses are the 100 level math and English courses.  At that point, it can be rather tough for a provost to dispute the criticism that maybe the classes aren't that important if the students apparently have enough English and math skills to get through the other classes.

This is why "writing across the curriculum" and some kind of "math across the curriculum" are needed in higher education (to be truthful, most institutions have the "writing across the curriculum," a lot fewer have the "math" parallel).  "Across the curriculum" initiatives a) reinforce the importance of a skill to students, and b) empower faculty to be more comfortable "grading" students on the basic skills, instead of focusing entirely on the course's primary content.  Still, as also joked about in It's All Academic, sometimes there are so many "across the curriculum" initiatives, with all their short-cut acronyms, that all of them start to seem diminished.

And a quick personal story.  I once had a student who stood up on the first day of a Humanities class and said, "I don't know why I need this class for my degree in business.  This is the 7th time I've taken it."  I have to admit that I was able to convince her not to drop the class (as she had frequently done) and to give me and it time.  She passed with a well-deserved "C."  Maybe 7 is a lucky number.

December 8, 2010
-- Deserving But Omitted

Many elements of higher education ripe for satire never made the book, in part because some have been handled better by other writers (see "cool links"), because they are simply too obvious, or because they just didn't interest me as much.  A quick top 10 list of topics left out of It's All Academic:

  1. Tenure and politics, which has definitely been handled so much better by other writers.
  2. Faculty/faculty or faculty/student affairs.  Depending upon #1, institutional response is either harsh or weak.
  3. Cultured pretense in apparel, speech patterns, and academic prose, especially in scholarly tomes with titles and subtitles barely intelligible (for the record, my dissertation borders on this.  Hey, when in Rome . . .  I almost certainly wore my suede sports jacket with elbow patches at the same time.). See "It Can Thereby Be Shown" for examples of 3 from this week's Chronicle of Higher Education.
  4. Obsessive following of annual college rankings (see Dec. 2 blog for quick reference to that from Robert Zemsky), even though everyone pooh-poohs how those rankings are generated.
  5. Uneasy balance between athletics and academics, especially in terms of the often paradoxical "student-athlete."  A topic beaten to death everyday in the newspapers.
  6. The disparagement of student evaluations of faculty, perceived as popularity votes by faculty generally not popular with students.
  7. Student complaints about tuition and fees.
  8. Student complaints about parking (7 and 8 almost always rank as the two biggest complaints of students).  If a university is really lucky, students complain about the fees collected for parking.
  9. Faculty and staff complaints about parking.  God forbid if we have to walk 50 yards to the building.
  10. Academic freedom, a generic blanket term used so repeatedly and mindlessly that it is without meaning anymore. Sort of like "transparent leadership."

December 2, 2010 -- Is Boan simply incorrect Spelling?

Tonight I posted a link to a non-fiction book on the "Cool Links" part of this website.  That book is Robert Zemsky's Making Reform Work:  The Case for Transforming American Higher Education.  I have to admit to having only read small sections of Zemsky's excellent book before I started writing It's All Academic.  Now that I have had the opportunity to read the whole book and take copious notes, I realize that this is the book everybody should read if they think the fictional world of Boan University is too unrealistic.  (Although murdered deans, as far as I know, still represent the heights of fancy in It's All Academic.)

Building from his participation in the Spelling Commission, Zemsky shows the limitations of much of the commission's work, as well as those of other declarations of reform.  He then spells out his strategy for creating true reform.  I'm not sure his strategy  for creating national reform is any less "ideal" than what the Spelling Commission might have intended; I do know, however, that Zemsky is right on target with many of the issues plaguing higher education.

As part of a readable summary of many other writings on this subject, Zemsky highlights so much of what is wrong with academia:

  • The tenuous relationship between university values and the marketplace (which Zemsky believes can co-exist peacefully);
  • The American university system as characterized by much unevenness.  Some schools do incredibly well educating students. Many others don't;
  • Technology as a mirage in terms of saving higher education. This is primarily because the people most involved in the transformation of courses and curriculum through technology, faculty, are the least interested in doing it;
  • Fiscally, between the financial aid crisis and the inability of universities to control their spending, tuition costs appear to have gone beyond the reach of many students (Zemsky's not entirely convinced that this perception is truly accurate);

In its simplest form, Zemsky's plea is for academies to strive for more and to take more risks.  He makes this argument as the counterpoint for much of the conservative, "we've always done it this way" attitudes that prevail at many universities.  The most integral part of this reform has to come from focusing on three key areas:  learning, attainment, and money.  The learning piece, zeroing in on the findings of neuroscience about the ways people's brains change because of learning, is so crucial. 

I'm sure no reader would agree on everything Zemsky says (I, for instance, am not comfortable with the dismissal of e-learning as it has evolved); yet, I'm sure anyone with any experience or background in higher education would find some of the arguments extremely cogent.  A university that seriously tackled some or all of these issues would be the kind of place to draw Mark Carter back out of faculty and into administration.