30 March 2011

William Cronon will be fine but that doesn’t make me feel better.

There is natural cycle to higher education news. In the mid-fall, we read about outrageous football budgets and coaches’ salaries. In the spring, folks are interested in admissions policy. In late summer, we get ourselves jazzed up about financial aid. And, somewhere between these perennial headlines, there are other oldies-but-goodies that show up: compensation for chancellors and presidents, US News and World Report rankings, or “Why can’t college students write good?” Aside from my belief that we treat most these issues superficially, I am constantly annoyed by our nasty little habit of evoking important ideas and using them as convenient shibboleths or attention-grabbing buzzwords.

“Academic Freedom” is possibly the most overused and misunderstood term in the higher education. When it creeps into the headlines, I cringe. Then something happens and (just as I’m getting ready to roll my eyes) I realize that we have, in fact, stumbled upon an important issue and now is the time to call upon our cherished principles.

I am referring, predictably, to the “Cronon Affair” unfolding at UW-Madison. This is one of those rare cases worth getting upset about. However, my concerns are not what one might expect.

27 March 2011

Catching a Lifeline at Office Hours

The last several weeks have been downright ugly. The unions that represent me and my wife have been stripped of most their bargaining rights and, as public employees, we have been called everything from selfish and lazy to bloodsuckers and whores. So, that sucks.

Let’s see… what else? The flagship campus of a great public university, which I uprooted my life and career to attend, is pushing an embarrassing policy to ditch the other public campuses in the state. Bill Cronon – a brilliant, fair-minded history professor – has been targeted with a FOIA request by the Wisconsin GOP for dubiously unspecified reasons. Gas prices are climbing. The largest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history has claimed thousands of lives, caused partial meltdowns at nuclear power plants, and literally knocked the planet off its axis. A-a-and the United States Congress is trying to strip all public funding from Rick Steves and Elmo.

Yes, my friends, it is the Golden Age of Man.

But, somewhere between the end of common sense in Wisconsin and what feels like the end of days, this month hasn’t been entirely bad.

11 March 2011

There is Life Outside Your Lab

Earlier this week I wrote a question-laden post about the inherent need and responsibility to train STEM students to engage with ideas and populations from outside their immediate laboratory. And, shock of shocks, I'm not the only one who wonders if we really prepare students to become responsive and responsible scientists.

W-a-a-a-it a minute... You mean there are other people who think we could maybe do a better job preparing students for, ya know, life?

I know. Crazy, right?

Shortly after posting on Monday, I came upon a 2009 essay by Jennifer Frederick, Associate Director of the Graduate Teaching Center at Yale University. In it she raises similar questions; offers an insightful, passionate proposal for innovation; and concludes,

As we push for transformations of increasing scale, we should bear in mind that the potential payout is tremendous: meaningfully educated scientists capable of understanding assumptions of their work and thus more able to converse with nonscientists. The next generation of scientists will seek solutions to global warming, environmental sustainability, and the humane use of science and technology. Let us train them well.

Well said, Dr. Frederick. Well said indeed.

* * * * *

The entire essay, Non-Science for Majors: Reforming Courses, Programs, and Pedagogy, can be accessed (for free!) care of the Essays on Teaching Excellence series published by the Professional & Organizational Development (POD) Network in Higher Education.

07 March 2011

Questioning Science

Last weekend, I read an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It profiled a UCLA faculty member, J. David Jentsch, and his resolve to continue live-animal research in the face of escalating, violent tactics from extremist animal rights groups. Dr. Jentsch’s story – which includes having his car fire bombed in his driveway – was juxtaposed with the experience of others who left animal research after their homes were vandalized and their children frightened in the dead of night. I could go on at length about how outrageous these acts are, the dilemma of animal research, or the complexities of using university resources for contentious research. But these topics seem best left for another time.

At the moment, I am most intrigued by an issue raised toward the end of the article:

"You're called upon to defend what is a completely legitimate, ethical thing to do," Mr. Jentsch says of his own work. "Society has grappled with these issues and thinks using animals is legitimate. But we are constantly called upon to redefend it."

Part of the reason for that, some say, is that universities—fearful of alienating students and donors—have shirked their role in educating the public about the benefits of animal research. And scientists are so busy doing their work that they either assume that the public shares their views or will simply trust that scientists know best.