Quality Assurance Program for Teaching

What would a quality assurance program for teaching at the higher-education level look like? We don’t have one now, nor even much to build on, but perhaps there are analogous programs we could adapt or copy. I think there are, and I will suggest an approach below. Continue reading “Quality Assurance Program for Teaching”

On Blaming Black Leadership

This fine piece in In These Times  reminds us how instrumental Federal policies on homeownership and road construction were in killing Detroit, and gives the lie to those who want to blame the city’s bankruptcy on corrupt leadership–specifically, corrupt Black leadership.

Certainly there were, and are, Black leaders whose personal weaknesses interfere with the progress of the entities they seek to lead; but the pattern of blaming Black leaders comes from the same bag of racist tricks as the suggestion that the President isn’t really an American because he has black skin.

Detroit is not struggling because its leaders, or its people, are Black.  Its troubles lie at the door of white legislators who made abandoning cities a winning proposition for white families, and white regulators who contributed to the same flight, and white car company executives who decided they owed nothing back to the city of their birth.

To claim otherwise is simply to blame the victim.



Letter to Janet Napolitano

Dear President Napolitano:

Welcome to the University of California, one of the really great institutions of the world.  I don’t know whether you will have fun, but you will never be bored here, especially if you can get out of the office in Oakland and go to and fro across the campuses.  You’re coming to us with a stellar resume and a priceless variety of work experience, so I’m looking forward to having you take the helm.  Of course, anyone who takes on a job like your new gig here will get lots of advice: here’s mine.

Not surprisingly, your imminent appointment has been the subject of much chatter among my colleagues.  A lot of this schmoose has articulated a fear that, not being a PhD, an academic, or a scholar, you won’t “understand the culture of the university”. Voices on this side hope you will (i) keep your hands off the educational and research enterprise completely, (ii) apply your political skills outside, somehow making  the state and the feds pony up a lot of money so (iii) we (faculty) can do what we know is best to do (this last is a close fit, as far as I can tell, to “what we [think we] are best at doing”), (iv) not interfere with our choices about what and how to teach and research, and (v) maybe charge our students less tuition as well.

I do not take this position; indeed, if you adopt our view of who we are and what we should be, and all we get from you is flackery and comfort, we will have been swindled. Even if we get more money, because merely patching up our financing is unlikely to be of much long-term value. I hope you will pay more attention to shaking up the actual internal culture of the university than to pitching us to the legislature, and coming in from outside our very closed little club at least raises the odds that you can perceive the needs and will give us the courage and confidence to attend to them.  Continue reading “Letter to Janet Napolitano”

The tragedy of Mitt Romney: a smart man trying to fit in to the party that loves stupid.

Why is there no Republican who can explain policy as well as Bill Clinton does? Jonathan Bernstein knows the answer: if there were, Republicans wouldn’t want to hear it. And this explains a lot about Romney.

I watched Bill Clinton’s speech last night with my wife, an immigrant who didn’t grow up following American politics. As someone who knows much more about policy than I do, she loved the speech and said, “if only more politicians would explain policy like that!” I doubt many students of American politics would contest my reply: “There’s only one American politician who can explain policy like that.” In particular, the Republicans have nobody who’s even close.

Jonathan Bernstein nails the reasons this is no accident. Read the whole thing, but here’s the kernel:

Granted, political talent could show up for either party. But a Republican these days couldn’t do what Clinton did tonight, because Republican gatekeepers and, probably, Republican audiences don’t want that kind of thing.

It’s not that there are no solid, factual, arguments for the policies Republicans prefer. There certainly are! But a politician who tried to stick to those would be competing with the Glenn Becks of the party, and the Rush Limbaughs, and the Newt Gingriches, and the “facts” that those party leaders constantly trot out. Democrats, to be sure, have to compete with some fringe voices who have a dubious grasp of facts and policy, but for whatever reason those voices are kept on the fringe. That’s just not the case for Republicans.

It’s not always been that way. But that’s how it is now.

And so Paul Ryan gets a reputation as a substantive Republican…while repeating the most nutty myths about budgets and health care reform (yes, a David Obey would or a Henry Waxman will give a very partisan interpretation of contested facts; how often do they just make stuff up?). And so Republicans celebrate the policy ignorance of a Herman Cain or a Sarah Palin. And so Republicans don’t even bother forcing George W. Bush to show he knows anything about policy or government before they nominate him; to the contrary, they argue that he’s a better president because he’s not bogged down by all of that stuff and can better govern from his instincts.

You’re not going to get a Bill Clinton if your party gives no incentives at all for a smart youngster to try to become that sort of politician. Truth is, a Republican who really knew policy well enough to make the arguments Clinton made tonight would have to hide it.

One of Jonathan’s commenters (“swain”) notes that Romney illustrates the thesis perfectly. I’d expand on that. Continue reading “The tragedy of Mitt Romney: a smart man trying to fit in to the party that loves stupid.”

Richard Grenell

…was recruited to the Romney campaign as an expert in national security – this means Romney’s team thought he was the best person for the job (did I mention, the job is national security?) – and has plausible credentials in the field.  Mitt Romney let his gay-bashers run him out of town without a peep, so we have another data point on Romney’s character: not only is he OK with anti-gay prejudice, and not only won’t he stand up for his people (the morale meter at Romneyville must be bouncing on the zero peg), but he is willing to sacrifice national security to please a bunch of ignorant bigots.  What a guy; spineless, bigoted and treasonous.

If he’s afraid of a piece of garbage like Brian Fischer, it doesn’t bode well for his dealings with any foreign leader who can say “boo” in English.



Joachim Gauck and Ksenia Sobchak.

Joachim Gauck has been elected President of Germany. Very much against Angela Merkel’s wishes, but the two previous Presidents, unremarkable warhorses from her own CDU party, both resigned in disgrace [update: but see comments for a distinction between them] and Gauck became inevitable. He’s the dream candidate to everybody who isn’t Chancellor and wants an invisible head of state rather than a possibly inconvenient person of independent character and stature. The office is ceremonial but can have moral weight.

Gauck is a former leader of the opposition to East German Communism and later ran, impeccably, the office responsible for the Stasi files. Timothy Garton Ash wrote a fascinating account of obtaining and reading a copy of his own slim Stasi file, created when he was an exchange student. Serious players like Gauck had files of thousands of pages. We can be sure that if Gauck had any real weaknesses, the most efficient and comprehensive secret police force in history would have found them. Psychological portrait here.

He’s already adroitly moved to disarm excessive expectations. Der Spiegel:

At a news conference on Sunday evening [video in German], he already asked to be forgiven for making mistakes when he’s finding his feet as president. After all, he said, he couldn’t be expected to be “a Superman or a flawless person.”

Gauck is as good a man as Germany could reasonably hope to find. Excellent news.

The same day’s paper carried reports of a more unlikely as well as prettier (footnote) heroine, Ksenia Sobchak.

She’s a celebrity of the Paris Hilton type: spoilt child of the new nomenklatura, Playboy cover-girl, hostess of a trashy reality TV show, protagonist of endless sex-and-partying stories. A Google image search gives you the idea.

She is also the intelligent daughter of a flawed hero of Russia’s flawed democratic revolution, Anatoly Sobchak: mayor of Leningrad (which he restored to St. Petersburg), stand-up guy against the 1991 putsch – and patron of Vladimir Putin, rumoured to be her godfather. Even six years ago, she was dabbling in politics. Now it’s got serious. She’s become a leader of the protests against Putin. She wasn’t in fact well received by the demonstrators: she’s not courting fame, rather using it. The move has led to a break with her mother. On a talk show, Sobchak said (my italics):

Kinship is a very strong tie, a strong material, But the ideas in my head are also of very strong material, so I have no choice.

Her stand does not compare with the decades-long struggles of Joachim Gauck and Aung San Suu Kyi. Her offer of leadership may still be rejected by the protest movement because of her past – a bad move IMHO, they badly need her national name recognition, not to mention looks. On my reading of modern Russia, such a rejection would be out of distaste for her nouveau riche flaunting of ill-gotten wealth rather than her interesting sex life, which worries Russians about as much as it would Italians or Brazilians. Alternatively she may be nobbled by her godfather’s ruthless minions: stand by for the tax evasion charges. Or she may just not have the stomach for the years in the wilderness facing the Russian opposition, or the graft needed to develop workable and saleable alternative policies.

Still, she’s come a long way already. Stranger things have happened in politics than the conversion of a playboy to a saint or steely politician. Slippery slopes go both ways: the feedback loops which reinforce acquiescence and venality, or lonely courage and resistance. Ms Sobchak has already taken the first steps down a path which may lead her to power or to martyrdom.

Best of luck to the old man and the young woman.

I know, I know. But her looks are a crucial part of her story: both her past and her possible futures.
Update Follow-up post.

New Hampshire public education goes in the ignorance business

I missed this while it was happening, but it got some attention in the NYT today.  New Hampshire has enacted a law that seems to give parents unilateral power to line-item veto their kids’ curriculum in public schools.  The law looks like a can of worms, because the parents’ substitute material has to be “sufficient to enable the child to meet state requirements for education in the particular subject area“.   Here’s some text from the state’s science curriculum framework:

Science is not a matter of belief; rather, it is a matter of conclusive evidence that can be subjected to the test of observation, reasoning and peer review….

The science is based on two fundamental assumptions:

  1. A naturalistic explanation is sufficient to account for the functioning of the universe.
  2. The universe can be understood using logic and rational thinking.

It’s easy to imagine a parent who finds these offensive, and hard to imagine what could replace them that is both different and the same enough to satisfy them if they are viewed as “state requirements”. Perhaps “state requirements” for science is something content-free, like “X classroom hours of instruction labeled science“.  It will be interesting to see how this unfolds in practice.

However it goes forward, the idea is simply stupefying, figuratively (for me) and literally (for the kids).   It’s right that parents have a lot of power over their children, but there are rights they don’t have, like physically abusing them and denying them adequate nutrition. Maybe Plato was wrong about the relative importance of what you eat and what you think. The idea that someone educated twenty or thirty years ago knows everything that should be known by someone in school today is a spectacularly reactionary proposition; let’s bring the world to a stop now, and forever.  I guess I’m not surprised that there are parents, perhaps after too many long cold winters alone in isolated farmhouses, cruel and vengeful enough to want to make their kids as dumb as they are, or dumber.  But this was passed over the governor’s veto, and in a state with a well-regarded public education system that’s cheap, has a very low dropout rate, and good test scores.

This piece of evil does raise questions about what schools can and can’t demand of students (note to self: remember to go over this with students early this semester).  Assuming there is a collective public education obligation at all, with grades and some sort of testing, what can we demand of students?  There would seem to be a category of facts like mathematical theorems, uninteresting and vacuous to debate, that we can just require students to recall to pass a course.  But what about evolution: when we “teach it”, are we demanding that students say  “organisms evolve over time through natural selection for fitness” on the exam?  If a student doesn’t believe it, who gets the failing grade – her, or the teacher? – or does she have to lie to pass the course?  My view is that the school has the right to force students to recount the principles and processes, and the evidence that supports the model, but all they have to believe/know is that “Miss Smith and the textbook say that the theory of evolution says A,B,C, and they offer reasons A,B,C for saying so.”  The words in italics are tacit and easy for students to miss, and I think we owe it to them to point out that they are assumed as part of any exam answer and almost any lecture even though we don’t say them every time. After all, we can teach classical Greek theology without worrying about seeming to tell students that Zeus is the source of lightning, or even that there is a literal Zeus.

Of course there are parents who don’t even want their kids to hear what scientists believe about evolution, or what Communists say about economics, just as theocratic states don’t want alternative religions on offer at all.  I believe this view comes from a deep insecurity about whether what we believe will actually hold up against an alternative, and a natural desire to avoid starting a process that might end with me discovering I’ve been wrong about something important for a long time, or my child doing some independent thinking (and maybe going to Hell).  In my father’s formulation of this childishness, “I’m glad I don’t like lemons, because if I did, I’d eat them, and I hate the things!”

I can feel my policy analysis students tightening up when we start looking at markets and what prices do, and I think their resistance is similar to what’s going in in New Hampshire, and perfectly understandable (note to self: see previous note to self): “This is starting down a path that seems to lead to valuing everything at how much money people will pay for it.  I don’t want to be a person who believes that, but the prof has been doing this for a long time and I don’t think I’m quick enough, or know enough, to get off the path by arguing with him if it leads where it seems to be going.  [Furthermore, I have no idea how delicate his ego is nor how vengeful he is when students push back.]”  This condition is not the level of arousal and curiosity that leads to learning, it is a state of fear that arrests it.  It seems to help to recognize it explicitly in the classroom, but it’s really hard to reassure adults who feel the earth moving under them in many ways, including very scary ways (factory closing? job lost? house foreclosed? priests and coaches abusing children? the president is going to be either a member of a weird cult, or a black guy who talks better than anyone I ever met,  or a serial adulterer? my daughter what? …I want the world to be the way it was when I felt like I could deal with it!).

I think I understand the pain of the Granite State citizens who have grasped at this very ill-advised device for reassurance and comfort. It’s a rare political leader who can guide them to a more adaptive response; I hope they get one, because this little cry of anguish may be the source of a world of hurt for a lot of kids who deserve better.




Something happening here

The faculty senate meeting passed all four resolutions en bloc about 10:1,  336-34. The resolutions are here, here, here, and here. This morning, specific language of no confidence in the administration was removed from one of the resolutions by its sponsors so it wouldn’t appear to be a demand for resignation.

I think the attendance, 370 recorded as voting, was a record, about a quarter of the faculty.  One could think the other two thirds would have voted no, but one would then probably also believe in the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, and be bidding for a bridge I am offering, [email me off-line on that].  It was not a good day for Chancellor Birgeneau, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Breslauer, or  Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Harry Le Grande.  I recall an observation by Mark, possibly here, that more people are fired by their subordinates than by their bosses. That would be a fair characterization of the event; “no-confidence” language or not, it’s hard to imagine a more complete rejection of this team’s leadership, including their attempts to justify their decisions post facto.  They may go on doing executive things and drawing pay for a while, but they will be doing it with nothing but the trappings of formal authority. Let us hope they at least understand this no longer includes the authority to sic armored police on students.

The meeting put itself into committee of the whole for an hour, after the resolutions were moved as a group, to allow discussion without having to fuss about Robert’s Rules, with another hour afterwards for voting and amending.  The first 25 minutes of the discussion hour was granted to the three above-named to address the group; then they left. Not one clap.  I interpret not staying for the meeting as some combination of cowardice or a constructive resignation, or maybe both. It was extremely painful to watch, worse because this plan was announced by the chair with the insulting justification that it would “allow us to speak freely,” – do they think we don’t dare say what we think in front of them?  Really: they acted out, in front of everyone, their worst management habit, which is to talk instead of listening, and not ever visibly go into input mode or engage with the people who nominally work for them.  Which, I guess, explains how they could so completely misread the mood of their troops. Someone mentioned that Birgeneau has lunch with a dozen faculty every month, which would have him encounter each of us every fifteen years. I don’t know who does the talking at those lunches.

A couple of dozen speakers lined up at the microphones for two-minute remarks, each to applause, and to my real surprise, not a single person spoke against the resolutions. No-one wanted to debate them formally or offer amendments: the issue was obviously settled already in all important respects. After the vote, there was another on whether to have a mail (web) ballot, which was defeated 216-165.  Perhaps this should have gone the other way, but I have the sense that the no’s were not trying to protect the formal outcome of the meeting from being diluted or overturned (see fairy, tooth above), but just felt the message was so clear already, and the whole exercise so painful and embarrassing, that there was simply no point in bothering people who didn’t care enough to show up, or had to be in class.

Now we’re effectively rudderless.  It will be interesting to see if there’s a way for the faculty to take on some authority. (A promising ray of sunshine: mirabile dictu, I was buttonholed by the chair of the Committee on Teaching, who had come upon this post and asked if I wanted to chat with the committee about things they could do beyond choosing the annual teaching award winners.)

Or we can just wait for Zeusdof to throw a new log in our pond.  I don’t think we will sit still for a stork now, at least I hope not.

Occupy UC

On Monday, the Berkeley faculty will have a special meeting to consider several resolutions condemning the police behavior at the Nov. 9 Occupy Cal demonstration, and another resolution that says in part:

Therefore be it Resolved that the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate has lost confidence in the ability of Chancellor Birgeneau, EVC Breslauer and VC LeGrande to respond appropriately to non-violent campus protests, to secure student welfare amidst these protests, to minimize the deployment of force and to respect freedom of speech and assembly on the Berkeley campus.

This is going to be a complicated, awkward (not that that’s a fatal flaw) exercise that will probably not clarify much for anyone.  In the first place, the “Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate” is not a representative body but a committee of the whole 2000-odd of us, and its meetings are rarely attended by more than 100. Obviously it meets in a dense cloud of selection bias that obscures its legitimacy, so its resolutions and actions don’t seem to be taken very seriously by the campus authorities, who can easily say, “well, that’s what several dozen malcontents think, end of story”.  In the second place, the motion uses very strong language. Despite having signed the call for the meeting, mainly because I think this stuff desperately needs to be discussed, I’m not sure I’ve lost confidence precisely in the leadership’s ability to protect protesters from beating and chemical assault. Admittedly, it’s hard to reconcile the chancellor’s public words from two years ago on the occasion of excessive police force at the Wheeler Hall occupation

Any tactics to exercise crowd control on campus must provide a safe platform for expression of free speech and freedom of assembly and we expect that, as a result of this review, modifications will be made. We must strive to ensure that there is no possibility in the future of the alleged actions of police brutality and that our actions are guided by non-violence.

with what happened three weeks ago, but probably the latest quite broad outrage and criticism have got their attention and they will not make that mistake (whether of omission or commission doesn’t matter too much) again.

But that’s not the big mistake, outrageous as it was. Continue reading “Occupy UC”