23 February 2011

Freedom and the Greater Good


I wasn’t going to do it. I wasn’t going to allow myself to lose focus on my current projects and take on Chancellor Martin’s support for breaking apart Wisconsin’s higher education system. Right now I’m focusing on ideas of teaching, education, and – as my post earlier this week indicated – the way that these issues play out in science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) fields. Focus is good and I need to work on that.

But, alas, I could not help myself. Too many important ideas are at stake and this should not pass unnoticed. Too many foundational values are being tossed around and misrepresented; and, somewhere between high rhetoric and self interest, the big ideas behind the real issues deserve at least a little attention.

* * * *

Last week, it came to light that UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin had been engaging in closed-door discussions (without the UW President or Regents) with Governor Scott Walker. The result of these discussions is an imminent proposal to separate UW-Madison from the UW System and establish it as a stand-alone public authority. The proposal has been met with support by some, apathy by others, and outrage by others still.

Differing opinions are good. They lead to healthy debate. However, as is typical of discussions about complex issues, some commentators have taken up the cause and put forth arguments that sound nice but turn out to be deeply flawed upon closer examination. Poorly conceived arguments and half truths are frustrating, but they are a fact of life in democracies. The right of an individual to say thoughtless things is – however distasteful – unassailable. However, the right to go off half-cocked and make cavalier use of language and reason does not include the right to go unchallenged or even to be taken seriously.

21 February 2011

Fee-for-Service Teaching

With the events in here in Madison over the past week, there has been much to discuss and watch. (And we all know how easily distracted I am….)

First there was Governor Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill and its combined proposals to increase state employees’ contributions to healthcare and retirements and benefits, remove some employees’ benefit eligibility entirely, and drastically curtail collective bargaining rights. This, in case you haven’t been watching, has resulted in large-scale protests, all-night committee hearings, and an Illinois-bound exodus of democratic State Senators. Next, information merged showing that the Chancellor of UW-Madison, Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, and the Governor’s office have circumvented the UW System President and Regents to hatch a backroom plan that splits the state’s largest campus from the other campuses.

Regardless of how these issues play out, they have come to the fore this week for one simple reason. The current administration is using the dubious, but politically expedient, practice of nesting major policy changes and political agendas inside budget proposals. To put it simply, in the current economic and budgetary climate, many people are concerned with price tags before policy; and combining political agendas with budget legislation is an easy way to give the impression that it’s just about the money. A-a-and, it’s working.

However – believe it or not – I don’t really want to talk about budgets. I am more concerned about the issues that our budget debates tend to overlook.

In one of the less venomous comments posted to an online news story about the budget/labor law and the teachers who oppose it, one reader offered what I’m sure he felt was a genuinely meaningful response. Teachers are sellers of a service and the state is the buyer of that service. And, as he saw it, the buyer in this case is not willing to pay the price that the sellers are demanding. End of proverbial story.

Is it, though?

14 February 2011

Brainy Valentine

A few months ago, I wrote a cheeky email to WPR in response to a discussion on the drawbacks of doctors’ wearing the archetypal white lab coat. Though the conversation brought up significant issues – including the fact that the coats are often worn day after day, from one exam room to the next without being laundered (um, gross) – I felt one aspect to the white coat was overlooked.

Lab coats are sexy.

My email to the program’s producer was meant to be silly and I was pleased to receive an appropriately amused response. But, somewhere between hyperbole and nerdy humor, I was trying to make a point. Far from objectifying anyone, I was attempting to offer a reminder that smart people are attractive and interesting to be around.

Attraction, though, is a funny thing.

There is a term that my friends and I toss around in fun. It refers, broadly speaking, to the fascination one feels regarding the work, ideas, and personality of a particular academic or intellectual figure. We call it the educrush.

12 February 2011

Seize the (Teachable) Moment

Last week I renewed my campaign in favor of greater flexibility in graduate education and raised the question, What happens to undergraduate education when disciplinary research and specialization are the sole, legitimate emphasis in training future faculty members? My aim was to defend and encourage interdisciplinarity among scholars and future academics. However, I am the first to admit that “breadth of curiosity” is a poorly defined battle cry. It leaves my position open to the criticisms that it lacks meaningful direction and undermines the scholarly expertise that contributes to intellectual progress.

These critiques are fair and it serves little purpose to fight for big ideas that rely on grand notions of learning that are not necessarily shared by everyone. Nevertheless, there are significant issues for the education community to face regarding the pieces of professional and intellectual development that may be missing or underdeveloped in higher education. Consider, for example, development of teaching skills.

Wait… strike that. Forget the classroom-centered image of teaching and consider the skills that prepare someone to educate.

03 February 2011

The Problem with Interesting People

Do you know what your problem is?

You are always there. You’re like a noisy neighbor in an apartment building: banging around, doing what you do, and being an enormous distraction. It is getting to the point where I can hardly focus on the academic and professional progress expected of me.

That is your problem; you and all the other interesting people.

It’s a problem with higher education in general, I think. A college or university is meant to be a gathering of great (or, at least, well-trained) minds. And the undergraduate 'college experience' is supposed to be a time away from familiar surroundings when you encounter new people, new ideas, and new experiences. Graduate school, though, is less oriented toward expanding one’s horizons. Grad students are intellectual apprentices, meant to foster their own special expertise. And the variety of experiences and people – so valued in undergraduate education – are a constant source of frustration and delay when you are a graduate student.