“Jack-o’-lanterns, revolutionaries, restless chaps, or clever, unscrupulous fellows”

2 April 2017 § Leave a Comment

File under “the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.” From Galsworthy’s The White Monkey (1924).

It was all of a piece with the modern state of things. Hand to mouth, and the steady men pushed to the wall. The men to whom a pound was a pound, and not a mess of chance and paper. The men who knew that the good of the country was the strict, straight conduct of their own affairs. They were not wanted. One by one, they would get the go-by–as he had got it–in favour of Jack-o’-lanterns, revolutionaries, restless chaps, or clever, unscrupulous fellows…. It was in the air. No amount of eating your cake and wanting to have it could take the place of common honesty.

I have preserved gender anachronisms and maintained British spelling in the interest of faithfulness to the text, though it’s pretty clear that it generalizes, except that women probably don’t even “get the go-by”–since they haven’t had enough opportunities for leadership in government and finance to think of them in terms of a golden age, in which they were trusted and valued, now over.

Qualified support for evolution in New York

24 April 2015 § Leave a Comment

The standards for high school biological sciences curricula in New York State are described in The Living Environment Core Curriculum. (“LE Standard,” hereafter) The Living Environment curriculum is Standard 4 in a set of 7 describing the science curriculum in New York State. “Key Idea 3″ in the LE Standard describes the central point instructors in Living Environment courses are supposed to make about evolution.

Individual organisms and species change over time.

There are many ways in which this statement and the associated Performance Indicators fail to describe, even in broad outline, what we know about evolution. For one thing, they almost all concern natural selection. For instance, there is no mention of random drift or historical contingency, or the use of evolution in explaining taxonomy and biodiversity. While this deserves further comment, what I would like to call attention to here are two points at which the LE Standard qualifies support for teaching evolution.

Use of “theory”

Key Idea 3 is further elaborated in the LE Standard as follows.

Evolution is the change of species over time. This theory is the central unifying theme of biology.

The problem here is “theory,” which is widely misunderstood, and which does not appear anywhere else in the LE Standard. Teaching evolution is often attacked on the grounds that scientific knowledge about evolution is “just a theory.” This is not how scientists use “theory,” which, in proper scientific parley, indicates a well-confirmed statement or set of statements of general or universal application, such as Newton’s theory of gravitation, or Einstein’s theory of relativity. Although both of these have been modified with time, no one attributes either to Newton or Einstein as conjectures or guesses. They are understood as describing facts about physical objects derived from initial claims made by Newton and Einstein. Glenn Branch, in a recent blog post, explains the cognitive status of evolutionary biology in depth, and provides some useful links.

The LE Standard ought to state that “The central, unifying theme of biological science is that all living things have relationships of descent with one another.” 

Belief vs. acceptance

Key Idea 3 is also explained with:

According to many scientists, biological evolution occurs through natural selection.

This is the only point in the LE Standard at which the level of support among scientists for a scientific claim is mentioned. Indeed, it would be absurd to preface “Organisms from all kingdoms possess a set of instructions (genes) that determines their characteristics,” the explanation of Key Idea 2, about heredity, with “According to many scientists.” Any scientist that denies this would not be deemed worth of the name. The aim of the LE Standard should be to state what the best scientific evidence provides rational warrant for, which is that evolution has occurred and will continue to do so. Formulating the standard in terms of how many scientists would affirm that evolution occurs by natural selection suggests that there is a parallel between religious belief and acceptance of evolution. This is not the case, as explained in a National Academy of Sciences FAQ.


College without pedagogy

9 July 2014 § Leave a Comment

I once worried about the importance of student evaluations of my teaching for my job prospects in academia. How could students evaluate the effectivness of their instructors? Isn’t it the instructor who evaluates the effectiveness of his or her teaching, at least in part, by the performance of students on graded work? At present, everyone takes a nuanced view. The evaluations are at best a measure of a student’s satisfaction with the course, which is distinguished from teaching effectiveness. Unfortunately, we have escaped the frying pan only to land in the fire. The student evaluations by themselves no longer pose a direct threat to the integrity of college pedagogy—but the institution as a whole appears to be trading its integrity away by adopting the student evaluation as a model for describing success. Towards understanding the state of the institution of college at present, I share a few observations from personal experience.

  1. Colleges are under threat in several quarters. The already absurd cost of college is increasing. Students and their parents view college as probably necessary for securing a white-collar job, but would gladly avoid it altogether if there were an alternative that offered better dollar return on investment.
  2. There is a specter haunting higher education—the specter of the Internet. No one can quite see how it will happen, but everyone feels anxiety and excitement about the prospect of free online courses that can be substituted for college credit, or, what is worse from the college’s point of view, certification obviating college courses altogether. That these concerns are so strong reflects essential aspects of the environment. College is understood primarily as a means to economic security and advancement.
  3. “Online course” has slipped into our vocabulary, although there are few courses online. Mostly, there are materials for courses, such as lecture notes, taped presentations by an instructor, problem sets, essay questions, and course texts. A college course, unless “course” is simply to be redefined, requires a group of students who interact, whether in person or online, and an instructor, who is a leader and facilitator. The success of a course depends on more than acquisition of information or skills. A class is a social entity. Success requires direct engagement with others taking the class at the same time. The “content” for these “courses” is in general created by college faculty, although college faculty are not needed to “teach” them.
  4. Because there are so many colleges, and because so many of them can barely be distinguished from any of the others, colleges compete intensely for the limited pool of students. Tuition funds the college. There is no way of demonstrating that a college provides better pedagogy than others, so this has largely ceased to figure into relative assessment of one college over another. Faculty are encouraged to attend conferences about pedagogy and publish articles in journals about teaching in their discipline as a way of creating evidence that teaching is valued at the college.
  5. As a result of the intense competition, colleges have invested in the students’ quality of life and experience. This does not include pedagogy. Improvements such as new dorms, athletic facilities, better cafeteria food, and new technology are more easily recognized by potential students and their parents. Successful athletic teams, and their mascots, also differentiate colleges from one another.
  6. There is significant investment in advertising (“branding”) and Internet presence. Slogans, mottoes, and the college’s emblem are refined and widely distributed. The college’s image is the subject of retreats, town hall meetings, and committees, guided by a professional public relations firm. The college’s image need not be tied to its history or previous mission; indeed, any such connections are a part of the college’s image itself. If it is not seen as essential to the attracting students, a college will not promote its culture of teaching and faculty-student relationships.
  7. Student success is measured in part by how many of its students win academic awards or publish and present research or creative works. The success of faculty is judged by how many of their students succeed by these measures. Events such as an undergraduate research day are created so that students are guaranteed a venue for presenting their work.
  8. Much like in primary and secondary schools, new regimes of quantitative assessment are being put in place. “Learning goals” are articulated, and students are rated by how well they have met the standards. This is so that academic departments and deans can claim that the students are being taught effectively. Courses are designed for the purpose of satisfying the learning goals and meeting the standards for success. The goals and standards are created internally and are not subject to external review. None of the measures are validated as legitimate measures of student abilities; data are not audited for quality; and data sets are not evaluated by statistical measures of robustness, significance, or reliability.
  9. Because pedagogy is effectively invisible, there is no incentive to invest in pedagogically useful resources for faculty and students. Class sizes are as large as possible so that enrollment can be maximized. There is no reason to promote faculty members’ careers as teachers or scholars. Adjuncts teach courses when the number of course sections is too large to be covered by full-time faculty. Teaching loads are heavy.