30.5.08

SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONS.


RUNNING OUT OF TRACK. What happens if freight car loadings double in the next 25 years?

Railway executive Matthew Rose stood before fellow industry leaders, pointing to a map meant to tell the future of the U.S. rail freight network. It was drenched in red — east to west, north to south.

The blotches illustrated areas where, by 2035, traffic jams could be so severe trains would grind to a halt for days with nowhere to go.

"For those of you who've ever seen a good rail meltdown, this is what it looks like," Rose, CEO of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., said as the crowded hall shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. "It's literally chaos in the supply chain."

The missing capacity isn't only on the rails.

Other modes of transport can't take up the slack: Trucking faces its own congestion problems, a shortage of drivers and high fuel prices. Ships and barges can't reach large parts of the country. Airplanes couldn't begin to carry the millions of tons of coal, waste, chemicals, grain and cars hauled by trains. And hauling freight by rail remains far more fuel-efficient than trucking.

Many politicians are joining rail executives in sounding the alarm.

"The amount of money we're investing nationally is pathetic," Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said during a recent congressional hearing on congested freight routes. "We're heading toward fourth-world infrastructure."

Others suggest the railroads are being alarmist.

Kenneth Kremar, another Global Insight analyst, said talk of a looming crisis serves industry interests as rail companies jockey for more money from Congress. He said investment in larger, high-tech train cars and computer systems that better pace trains should help avert logjams.

Amtrak, which shares the rails with freight trains, is also feeling the pinch. Its long distance trains were on time just 42 percent of the time last year, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general.

There is likely to be political maneuvering, particularly if passenger train operators intend to add new routes. Union Pacific got that third track into Elburn as a condition of adding the Metra service.

The article did not mention whether repeal of the cartel-era railroad speed limits or asking the trucking companies to pay for their rights-of-way were discussed at this conference. In the world of rail infrastructure upgrades, the Harsco Track Renewal Train is parked east of the coal dock in DeKalb. Last season, the train worked through Creston.
LOSING SKIPPERS BLAME THE BOAT. And the crew and the race committee and the wind. That's the impression Newt Gingrich's Real Change left me. As Book Review No. 12, it's the other side of the reactionary progressivism of The Big Con, reviewed late last week. Again, the subtitle, if a bit shorter than Mr Chait's, summarizes the plot: From the World That Fails to the World That Works. The "world that fails" is that of government, particularly when it's in the hands of the self-styled progressives who have governed New Orleans and Detroit ... well, you get the picture. Oh, and it's a Regnery book, so the preach-to-the-converted tone typical of that publisher's offerings is there, should you already be converted and want a bit of shoring up. Well, maybe not. Mr Gingrich relies on some polling data, without discussion in text or footnotes of sample sizes, margins of error, questions posed, or anything else that might help the reader decide whether the figures he reports even qualify as ad popularum claims, to suggest that what he characterizes as "the Left" is out of touch with The People. ("The Left", of course, is quite willing to use the same tactic in popular discourse. We can do better, people.) The balance of the book is a collage of business-guru speak, a favorable retrospective on that Republican Congress better known for mistimed government shutdowns and sex scandals than for any privatization of Social Security or development of energy supplies or tort reform or any of the other "real change" Citizen Gingrich is now advocating. The book illustrates one problem he, or any other leader of the turn-of-the-century Republican coalition faces: finding common ground between the business types (for whom a strict libertarian position means no room for influence peddling and pork procurement) and the religious types (for whom a strict libertarian position means freedom to sin.) He's never able to accomplish the proper synthesis.
THE WORLD WE LIVE IN. Two articles from The Onion detail the positional arms race. In one, Closing Of Homeless Shelter Leaves College-Application-Padding Students With Nowhere To Turn, the losers are not the relatively few homeless people in the neighborhood.

The shelter, long a place of refuge for those in need of extracurricular credit, was shut down Monday due to statewide budget cutbacks and a drop-off in private donations. According to sources, the news has devastated countless high school seniors who had come to depend on the outreach center in order to impress prospective colleges.

"Where am I supposed to go now?" said 17-year-old Jeremy Krassner, one of many B-plus students left to wonder about his future. "Princeton only takes the very best candidates, and even schools like Columbia check for community-service experience."

Added Krassner, "I'll never make it."

Krassner is not alone. Over the years, the temporary housing facility has turned a number of academic lives around and provided many young men and women with a second chance at graduating with honors.

In addition, the homeless shelter has reportedly supplied college applicants with a safe, inviting place to improve their transcripts, allowing them to escape the dangers of having to clean up inner-city neighborhoods or commit to other risky volunteer activities.

In another,Women Increasingly Choosing Dead-End Careers Over Dead-End Relationships, there's a marvelous send-up of higher education.

According to a report published Monday in The Journal Of Gender Studies, many American women are bucking centuries of traditional gender roles by placing stunted, emotionally unfulfilling relationships on hold in order to pursue mind-numbing careers devoid of any upward mobility.

The study, which surveyed a cross-section of 477 female recent college graduates, found that young women were 23 percent more likely than any previous generation to seek dissatisfaction in the professional world rather than in empty romantic partnerships. Dr. Gillian Detweiller, a professor of women's studies at the University of Maryland and coauthor of the report, said that the data suggests a cultural sea change in how women choose to experience lifelong disappointment.

"Avoiding dying alone at all costs is no longer the primary goal for many of today's women," Detweiller said. "Every year, millions of educated females discover that they can be just as underappreciated and ignored in the workplace as they can while doting on loutish and inattentive boyfriends."

Communism was doomed when its inmates began laughing at it, long before President Reagan correctly applied the "evil empire" tag to it. I look forward to a similar dynamic in the excessively earnest corners of higher education.
SPELL OUT YOUR LOSS FUNCTION. Fordham Law's Thane Rosenbaum contemplates the calculus of national security.

Each American city adopted its own visions of trauma. There were new categories of vulnerable public spaces. Our worst terrorism nightmares were projected onto local landmarks: Rodeo Drive, the Sears Tower, the French Quarter, River Walk, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Space Needle. Suddenly, living in rural, outlying areas seemed like a sensible lifestyle choice.

We all waited for terrorism's second shoe to drop, and, seven years later . . . nothing has happened.

Post hoc nec ergo propter hoc. All the same ...

Americans have been safe from suicide bombers, biological warfare and collapsing skyscrapers, while the rest of the world has been on red alert. And yet President Bush is regarded as the worst president in American history? Sorry, I must be missing something here.

Yes, there are those who maintain that our promiscuous misadventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel have rendered America even less safe. That the president has further radicalized our enemies and alienated our nation. That the animosity for America now, improbably, runs even deeper. Whatever resentments and aspirations gave rise to 9/11 have grown and will not be easily dissipated. For this reason, no one should draw comfort in the relative safety of our shores.

Maybe so. But when a professed enemy succeeds as wildly as al Qaeda did on 9/11, and seven years pass without an incident, there are two reasonable conclusions: Either, despite all the trash-talking videos, they have been taking a long, leisurely breather; or, something serious has been done to thwart and disable their operations. Whatever combination of psychology and insanity motivates a terrorist to blow himself up is not within my range of experience, but I'm betting the aggressive measures the president took, and the unequivocal message he sent, might have had something to do with it.

Read and understand.
A NORTH SHORE LINE MOMENT. I spent some time in the workshop this evening, with the radio approximately tuned to a talk show although a Relevant Radio affiliate's evening devotional (repeated Hail Marys and Our Fathers) came in through the cheap tuning coil on the shop radio. That reminded me the North Shore Line had a flagstop at Perpetual Adoration, near the shrine operated by the Conventual Friars of Marytown.

25.5.08

MARKING OFF. Pause on Memorial Day to honor those who gave up all their barbecues in order for you to have yours.


Posting resumes at the end of the month.
YOU HAVE TO OFFER SOMETHING BETTER. The subtitle of Jonathan Chait's The Big Con serves as its plot summary: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics. This Book Review No. 11 suggests that omission of salient facts is not telling the truth, and a focus on culture war themes seasoned by Bush Derangement Syndrome is not a rebuttal of crackpot economics. Thus we have yet another polemic that might confirm some people's prior beliefs without encouraging others to rethink theirs. What can one expect, however, of a book that reveals the author's nostalgia for the days when "New Deal" had the force of a commandment and Republicans knew their place, which was at the country club when they weren't proposing the most modest of tweaks to the Establishment Consensus. One would not learn about stagflation or rational expectations or the unfunded liabilities of Social Security or the excesses of affirmative action or Leonid Brezhnev's buildup of the Red Army.

That said, Mr Chait offers a potentially useful work for members of the Republican coalition who are not obsessive tax-cutters or lusters after corporate welfare or culture warriors. His analysis suggests that those members have not been well served by the cutters, lusters, and warriors, but it also suggests that what remains of the Establishment Consensus has little to offer. He concludes with yet another lament over rising income inequality, which he ties to cuts in the top marginal tax rates and to corporate welfare. That the government schools failed to develop the habits of highly effective people in individuals who could most benefit by them, and that the welfare state enables people in their lack he does not address, and that the Congressional machinations that fascinate Mr Chait are precisely the machinations developed by the Democratic majority in the New Deal and Great Society era, and that "limited and enumerated powers" ought not be a libertarian cliche are the things unseen in the work.
A NATIONAL TRAIN DAY, IF WE HAD SOME NATIONAL TRAINS. That appears to be the complaint of a New Republic columnist who mocks National Train Day and then comes in for some mocking from The Bellows.
Acela doesn’t “zoom around the nation.” The Acela routes are confined to the northeast corridor. And maybe those trains aren’t fast relative to European high speed rail, but they get you from central Washington to central New York in 2 hours and 45 minutes–at least twice as fast as the bus, and not that far off from the plane (with much less hassle). Acela service is also frequent and reliable.
Yes, and it uses appropriated furnds that are therefore unavailable for the rest of the system, to achieve Capitol Hill-to-midtown times not much better than those offered by Penn Central 40 years ago, and Baltimore to Boston times comparable with the Amtrak casualty Twin Zephyr linking St. Paul to Chicago, with most of the Acela-ration obtained by the simple expedient of skipping stops.

Amtrak gets, for the record, a little over $1 billion a year from the feds, to run its high traffic lines as well as the lumbering cross-country routes Congress insists upon. The 2007 DOT budget set aside about $1.3 billion for the Federal Railroad Administration. The Federal Aviation Administration, by contrast, got nearly $15 billion. The Federal Highway Administration got over $31 billion.

Amtrak would love to unveil all kinds of new programs, and I don’t doubt that Americans would like to have better rail options to help them avoid driving. Unfortunately, our government pours most of its transportation money into modes that use expensive fuel far more intensely than rail. And then, of course, when farsighted politicians try and boost the funding for rail, they get angry calls from their constituents telling them not to throw money away on rail services that are money-hungry and slow. I wonder where those constituents get that impression?

In other states, the legislatures have to put up the money to have those rail options. Thus residents of Michigan and Illinois and Wisconsin get a semblance of a corridor service for which residents of the Official Region get to avoid some of the tab, while sticking the Midwesterners with their part of the tab for the Acela Expresses. I grumble because I have to repeat an old complaint.
I submit that faster trains, in much of the country, are possible at much lower outlays than those feared.
OUR KIND OF TOWN. Fast Company's U.S. City of the year, Chicago is.
The real Chicago isn't so easy to keep up with. It's constantly reinventing itself. Jumpy. Agitated. Impatient. It's as if the place is trembling. Move aside. Don't linger. And if you're going to dawdle, get out of the way. But what any Chicagoan will also tell you is that the past is very much present. It doesn't go away. It shouldn't. In fact, that's Chicago's lure and its beauty: its ability to take what was and figure out what could be.
And thus another reason for me to pay close attention to the Northern Illinois strategic plan. The academic pecking order in the state system is somewhat ambiguous once one gets away from the flagship institution, which has been weakened by internal dissension and state stinginess, and it matters for developing and retaining human capital that the educational institutions of Greater Chicago do their part.

24.5.08

SCRATCH A CHEESEHEAD, FIND A FARMER. Work progresses on the new Victor E. Garden. The grass mulch accumulating where the vegetables will go is the product of the lawnmower you see at the right.



The idea is long overdue. That's a battery pack on the left side of the reel housing. It powers a small motor that spins the reel. The gearing, however, allows the operator to provide all the power if he wants. So for thick grass, one engages the motor. For thin grass, one simply pushes.

The mower is the Mantis Cordless Reel Mower in the United States. Europeans would purchase the Brill ASM 380. (I looked at the builder's plate. Mine is also marked Brill ASM 380.) I got it on sale from Amazon. It's a smooth running machine, and under power it cuts quite effectively. I will have to invest in some additional battery packs in order to do all the mowing in one go.

In the States, the J. G. Brill company (no relation) built streetcars and interurbans, including the famous Brill Bullet cars. Look closely at the control station on my lawnmower. With the left hand, depress the red button and with the right hand squeeze the lever. It starts cutting. As long as you hold the lever closed, the reel turns. Release the lever, and the reel starts. You have to do the depress-and-squeeze routine to restart it. The deadman control handle on a streetcar uses the same principle. (Unlike a streetcar, however, this control stand can be set up for left-handed squeezing.)

IT'S NOT JUST A SUMMER JOB. A few years ago, I noted the preponderance of amusement park workers in the Wisconsin Dells from Warsaw rather than from Wausau. At the time, I suggested that homegrown collegians had it easy.
Years ago, when the Superintendent was in college, chances were pretty good that if you got to talking with a kid from the sand county, he or she had a summer job in the Dells or in the cranberry bogs. In fact, I knew one kid who had a football scholarship that also drove a Duck. Perhaps the academy can get away with tuition hikes and hard to complete schedules to the extent it can because registration and records no longer has to deal with disappointed Duck drivers or cranberry cultivators who might have more of their own sweat, rather than Daddy's plastic, invested in getting finished.
It transpires that I was right in part and wrong in part. First, the background.
For more than a decade, eastern European summer workers at the Tommy Bartlett Show and Exploratory have been as crucial to the attraction's success as the grinning water skiers in the human pyramid.
Now the policy change.

But due to changes to the national temporary guest-worker program and the weak American dollar, General Manager Tom Diehl and other Dells employers are facing an international labor shortage this summer.

"We have 27 (foreign workers) this year," Diehl said before the Tommy Bartlett Show opened its season Friday night. "Usually, we have no less than 60."

The nationwide crunch among tourist-town employers comes after Congress failed to renew a provision that exempted returning foreign guest workers from counting toward the limit of 66,000 per year. Without the exemption, applications for the H-2B visas were filled remarkably fast this year.

Here's where I erred.

Some resorts and attractions in the Dells have gotten around that hurdle by hiring college workers on summer travel and work visas, known as J-1s, which aren't as restricted by the government. But as the region has grown into a year-round destination, employers need laborers for more than the summer, said Jerome Grzeca, an immigration attorney in Milwaukee.

"The problem is that if they really want that person to stay around, there's no legal way for them to hire that unskilled worker after four months," Grzeca said. "It's a service-sector economy, and there's a lack of local workers and lack of interest in these types of positions."

That's been a traditional challenge for much of the tourism business, particularly where the college help returns for registration before Labor Day.

The irony of the situation hasn't escaped those tuned in to the growth of tourism in Wisconsin Dells. The area couldn't have expanded to the blinking, beckoning mecca it has become without the help of guest workers.

Last year, visitors for the first time spent more than $1 billion. But now that the region needs to keep foreign workers year-round to sustain that momentum, legal options to do so are limited.

Until a different immigration policy is passed, Grzeca is encouraging his clients to more aggressively recruit workers from U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands.

Another option chosen by resorts such as the Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort is to continent-hop and recruit student workers during their respective summers to cover all four seasons in Wisconsin.

(I remember seeing advertisments from upscale U.S. summer camps in New Zealand.) The local collegians, however, aren't blameless.

At the Tommy Bartlett Show, Diehl and his staff devised new recruitment campaigns early this year aimed at college students from as far away as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Diehl tried several years ago to recruit youths in Milwaukee for summer work, but the program fizzled when politics got involved. On top of that, he said many of the youths were unreliable workers, while others were unwilling to stay in the Dells for the whole summer.

The article does not elaborate on the nature of the "politics" or the "unreliable" behavior.
FIRE AT WILL. A number of public policy books, including several that I reviewed in the last quarter of 2007, have suggested that the 1950s might not have been all that bad for the semi-skilled worker in the United States. That the remnants of Jim Crow and a different social norm with respect to female labor force participation and the other great powers rebuilding from war and revolution and the underdeveloped countries underdevelopment might all have contributed to that state of affairs generally goes unmentioned. Louis Uchitelle's The Disposable American, the subject of a long-delayed Book Review No. 10, does recognize global economic development as a source of change in the conditions facing semi-skilled workers, but when it comes to policy recommendations, once again, it's trade sanctions (in this case, if countries are not friendly to unions) and greater unionization and higher marginal tax rates. One could go directly to the policy proposals without the preceding journalism.

Mr Uchitelle focuses on two case studies of plant closings that highlight the inefficiencies of that 1950s consensus while undermining his policy proposals. One is the Stanley Works of Connecticut, where managers grappled with competition from imported tools and ultimately closed the plant. Although I insist on drills and taps made from proper Ohio tool steel, there are a lot of people who will make do with lesser stuff, and much of what we used to understand as heavy industry is routine that people in the developing world can pick up. What happened to Stanley was not fun for anyone, whether they depended on the company for a paycheck or a dividend, but stronger unions or closed-border trade policy or the reincarnation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt Himself was not going to keep routine tool manufacture in Connecticut.

The second case study involves a United Airlines maintenance facility in Indianapolis that was the object of much hold-up behavior between the airline and the city, the airline and the mechanics' union, and ultimately the mechanics union' and private and public social service agencies in Indianapolis. A case study involving a formerly cartelized company, with management unaccustomed to market tests, a union working for a regulated firm, and a bid for tax concessions that ultimately do not save the jobs is hardly a prototype for a new social-democratic paradigm.

One line of thought that Mr Uchitelle might have developed more successfully is the loss of institutional memory that comes with restructuring, downsizing, and layoffs. He notes that several investigations of the productivity gains from such behavior turn up very little gain, much disruption of corporate routine, and a tendency of the surviving staffers to devote more time to crisis management than to thinking about the things that they were hired to think about, such as improving or selling products. To pursue that lead, however, might be to discover that market tests are much more effective correctives of restructuring (or diversification or management buyouts or any of the other business fads I've seen crash and burn over the past 40 years) than any public policy might be.
CORPORATE WELFARE ENDANGERS CHILDREN. A Burma Shave jingle went BOTH HANDS ON THE WHEEL/EYES ON THE ROAD/THAT'S THE/SKILLFUL/DRIVER'S CODE. Apparently that code does not apply when a trucker chugs too much pop.

A semitrailer truck smashed into the back of a school bus that was stopped and letting children off in western Kenosha County on Friday afternoon, injuring 14 children and the drivers of both vehicles. Authorities thought the truck driver might have been distracted, Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth said.

"He may have been occupied inside the cab drinking a soda," the sheriff said. "He was either coughing or choking on it."

The driver was interviewed at a hospital.

The semi driver and four of the children were injured seriously, but none of the injuries were believed to be life-threatening, Beth said. All 16 were taken to hospitals.

The driver and the children will walk away from this. It's likely, however, that this cokesucker will be in the cab again, posing a continuing obstruction at traffic lights and a renewed hazard to stopped traffic.

Remind me, why are taxpayers providing right of way subsidies to these companies?

22.5.08

TEMPERING PRINCIPLE WITH PRACTICALITY. The Atlantic Monthly lament by an anonymous writing professor that University Diaries Extension brought to my attention has come to the attention of a number of commentators, most of whom confirm that which they expected to see. We'll start with George Leef at Phi Beta Cons, who sees the social waste of credentialitis.

The author teaches evening English classes at one of those colleges that will enroll anyone with some money. He feels lousy about having to give bad grades to pathetic students who just don't have the capacity to write a coherent sentence.

What jumps out are the reasons why most of his students are in school. It is not because they have any yearning for knowledge. They just want to "get ahead" and the system they live in places undue faith in college credentials as indicators of worth. The author (who remains anonymous), says, "I teach young men who must amass a certain number of credits before they can become police officers or state troopers, lower-echelon health-care workers who need credits to qualify for raises, and municipal employees who require college-level certification to advance at work."

In other words, the students are there because of our credentialitis.

Here's an anomaly for economics researchers: if the credential is at best a noisy signal of the underlying human capital, why does it hold any value?

Rod Dreher is less charitable.

What drives this essay emotionally is not disdain for and disgust with dim-bulb students. X says he really identifies with his students and their struggles in life, and wants to help them along. "I could not be aloof even if I wanted to be," he writes. But he can't compromise academic standards out of pity or solidarity.

What it all boils down to, he says, is that a cruel hoax is being played on these students. "America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting someone's options," he writes. And he sympathizes with this ideal -- but he's the one who has to see how little it has to do with reality. His students aren't college material. They don't read (some of them can't really read). They don't share even the rudiments of a common intellectual culture on which to build. He says he tries to explain the basics of narrative to them in terms of movies, but they haven't all seen the same movies. They are more or less well-mannered, hard-working barbarians. The only thing they all share is a sense that they are good people for being in college, and that they can be anything they want to be.

Prof. X says the whole system, premised on a false egalitarianism, is to blame here. One key question this excellent essay raises by implication is this: if quite a lot of Americans are incapable of doing college work, what does that do to the Thomas Friedmanesque understanding that in order to compete in a flattened, globalized world, US laborers are simply going to have to get retrained and better educated? What if there are natural limits to their ability to expand their cognitive skills? What then?

I mean, look, what if things were flipped, and the Friedmans of the world were telling the "knowledge workers," for lack of a better term, that staying competitive in this globalizing world economy meant having a stronger back. Ergo, nerdling, you're just going to have to start spending a lot more time at the gym to develop a longshoreman's body, or get left behind. We'd laugh at this, because we have no problem grasping that nature has not endowed all of us equally well in terms of physical strength and capabilities. The nerdling would be able to improve his strength to a certain degree, but to tell him his physical limits are defined only by his desires and will to succeed is to play a cruel hoax on him.

On the other hand, the nerdling could invent the shipping container or the mechanical stoker. The voicemail systems and what will evolve from them are not yet at the stage where they will threaten the livelihoods of the least able symbolic analysts. That, too, will come.

Are we not doing that with some of the people who are in college now? And furthermore, aren't we shortchanging them when we fail to make allowances for them in the kind of economy we're building? A public schoolteacher friend back in the 1990s railed against free trade agreements because she said these agreements did not consider the interests of US workers who made their living with their hands and backs. It's very easy, it seems to me, for the university-educated meritocratic elite to assume that an economic order in which symbolic analysts are the paradigmatic workers to construct in total innocence a "rational" system that favors their interests, at the expense of manual laborers who are by no means dumb, but whose intelligence is not geared toward academic achievement. Indeed, is that not what we have done?

The supposition that makes that kind of economic order seem just is the belief that cognition, and improving cognitive skills, is simply a matter of running people through a diploma mill -- and the conviction that anybody who wants to succeed in school badly enough can. Again, this is what you get when those who have been genetically blessed with cognitive capability -- intelligence, in other words -- don't grasp how unearned their advantages are. You get what Gov. Ann Richards, I think it was, said of George H.W. Bush: "He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple." [Correction: It was Jim Hightower. Thanks, Victor Morton!]

Understand I'm not making excuses for mediocrity. Plainly there are people who are capable of succeeding in the classroom, but who don't because they lack focus, self-discipline or initiative. What I'm talking about is the taboo we have against admitting that some people are smarter than others, and the contemporary American disdain for the dignity of manual labor, and the gnostic egalitarianism of US culture, which holds that we create our own realities by force of will.

The problem the anonymous professor is dealing with is somewhat different. His essay makes no suggestion that the health workers or first responders are in any way lacking those skills. They might understandably ask whether creative writing or teasing out hidden meanings will enable them to work better with patients or drunk drivers. (Well they might, but a newly-minted freeway flyer might not yet understand it.) "Dignity of manual labor," incidentally, isn't what it used to be. It takes a symbolic analyst to lay track these days.

I reached Mr Dreher's post from a reference by In Medias Res (a better writer than I might have put that more wittily) who is in the middle of some broader strategic thinking.
There was a time when I struggled with this tangle of issues a fair amount--mostly, it was back when I was teacher at Arkansas State University, trying to figure out what I, the Highly Trained Political Theorist Only a Couple of Years Out of Grad School, had to offer the good students of northeast Arkansas, some of whom wanted to get out and go on to other things, but most of whom wanted a BA (so they could get the sort of work for which these days such is a requirement), and perhaps to pick up a little odd learning along the way. I tried to figure out what my own class perspective was on all this, and ultimately I had to kind of shrug my shoulders, acknowledge my own elitism and my own contribution to an educational system that is so thoroughly a product of a globalized and technology-amplified (not to mention cheap-oil-fueled) mindset that I might as well just find a niche where I could feed my family and continue to teach in the best way I could, balancing (and perhaps even occasionally combining) the classical aspirations for liberal learning or "Humanit├Ąt" which I still held (and still hold today) on to on the one hand, and the populist needs of the people I increasingly felt my greatest allegiance to on the other. I wrote: "It's not easy being an academic, especially when it seems that the internal contradictions of the whole system--and, more especially, its complicated and sometimes near-absurd relationship to the socio-economic world of America today, where an education in the elite liberal arts or research-university sense is often irrelevant to the sort of jobs most people are able to obtain and sort of schooling options available to most of their children--are promising an inevitable and total collapse."
The passage appears to be an extended reaction to this observation from 11-D.
These unprepared students are the product of a shoddy public education system. Community colleges are picking up the pieces for that failure. And only the invisible adjuncts know the truth.
What the Atlantic columnist and the Arkansas State professor and I and a good number of other faculty members, visible or invisible, at the land-grants and mid-majors and converted normal schools and community colleges grapple with is on the one hand serving the place-bound yet ambitious student without discouraging the ambitious striver while on the other hand not enabling the time-server or the corner cutter. The hardest part of my job at Wayne State was attempting to manage that juggling act for 20 hours a week while keeping my research tools sharp enough to manage single-authored articles in top journals the other 40 plus hours. That the Detroit school system was melting down even then was part of my problem, but not the only part. Sherman Dorn reminds readers of those other parts.
And for the larger argument of the article, I will just advise that everyone read Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary, which addresses many of the same issues in much more depth and with far more compassion.
That there are people attempting to better their lives against long odds nobody gainsays. That striking the right balance between compassion and discipline is difficult is captured in an anonymous missive to Rate Your Students.
What's sad is that the majority of students who have perfected game-running and scams and chronic lying have made us 'toughen up' on the rest.
I don't know if it's the party animals wrecking it for the strivers in difficult situations, or excessive sympathy for people in difficult situations that enables the party animals. Better socialization to proper life-management skills in the elementary and secondary schools would help.
BE VERY, VERY AFRAID. The figure is from Greg Mankiw.


I'm one of those curmudgeons who argues that fifteen to twenty times earnings is evolutionarily stable. The figure suggests some irrational exuberance left in the system.

21.5.08

CONTEMPLATING HIGH SPEED RAIL. I see that Tom Bozzo is now posting for Angry Bear, and a recent post mentions my case for faster passenger trains without the huge capital outlays of dedicated electrified high-speed rail. In brief: some cartel-era speed regulations are the largest impediment to passenger train operation in the 110 mph (180 km/h) range, and I have a sequence of posts to that point. Historically minded readers might find this speed tape instructive, and I can offer a look at the infrastructure that made it happen.
THEY ROLLED OUT OF COLD SPRING SHOPS. A street resurfacing project in Waukesha (which, if that village's past history is any indication, will lead to yet another reversal of direction of one-way streets in village center) includes the unearthing and removal of rails from the long-lost interurban.



Waukesha Freeman photo by Kevin Harnack

Spring City Chronicle, who unearthed the images, uses the occasion to take a dig at the latest light rail projects in Greater Milwaukee.
Examples of the light rail line which once linked southeastern Wisconsin communities and went out of business because it lost huge sums of money and no one rode it are in the blog’s header and decorating this post.
I replicate the poster's use of bold italics, where either alone would suffice.
Snarking aside, the reasons for the failure of the interurban include the forced divestiture of Railway from Light under the Public Utility Holding Company Act and the use of tax money to build rights-of-way for competing bus lines and private vehicles that now creep along the roads that parallel the Rapid Transit Line's path. Some errors by the management of The Milwaukee Rapid Transit and Speedrail Company, which operated the curved-side cars as illustrated below, contributed to the demise of the line. The late Frank Zeidler was unable to obtain legislative support for a transit authority to continue its operation.



Unattributed photo of Speedrail car 63 in Waukesha from Spring City Chronicle

Before Speedrail, and before divestiture, the combined power and transit company operated these rather substantial cars. One history of the Rapid Transit line suggested that it would have been more successful had it been operated in the manner of a modern light rail line, with lighter, faster-accelerating cars. Those, however, had not yet been developed at the time the interurban company was upgrading the route to Waukesha.


Unattributed vintage photograph from Waukesha Freeman.

The interurban at one time had plans to move the cars out of the streets of Waukesha, in keeping with contemporary suburban light rail practice. A friend who worked for the regional planning commission discovered, in a survey of potential rail corridors, that one of the Wisconsin Electric transmission line rights of way uses land owned to this day by the power company, rather than the more conventional eminent-domain easement more commonly used by power companies. That right of way is exactly where one might want to run a railroad near the center of Waukesha without using the streets.

19.5.08

AN UNCONVENTIONAL ECONOMICS MAJOR. Arnold Kling's suggestions at Econ Log. No industrial organization?
AS OLD AS HILLARY. David Letterman just cracked another pantsuit joke.
GETTING THE MISSION RIGHT. Another post that I started some time ago was a reaction to last September's State of the University address, which continued the theme I noted, favorably, in the 2006 address.
So much depends on our ability to establish and maintain a clear identity: student recruitment … alumni affiliation … corporate and private investment … the ability to attract top faculty … even the workplace value of an NIU degree. All of these imperatives depend on our ability to establish a clear institutional identity in the marketplace.
The Northern Star summary of the speech is still available online. The major focus of the speech, and of much behind the scenes work on campus this year, has been on strategic planning.
Task force efforts culminated in June 2007 with issuance of a report that identified four strategic imperatives to guide NIU’s planning efforts: 1) Preserve, strengthen and extend NIU’s teaching and learning environment; 2) Develop a strategy for investing in multidisciplinary scholarship and artistic clusters that complements NIU’s focus on individual scholarly and artistic achievement; 3) Strengthen and extend NIU’s global/regional impact; and 4) Make NIU an institution of ‘first choice’ for faculty, students and staff.
A weekend editorial in the DeKalb Daily Chronicle suggests challenges, as well as reasons for optimism, in that strategic plan.
Whereas last spring's commencement occurred less than a month after an event that served to divide the university from the community, this year's commencement took place as the university had begun to return the community's embrace.

Last May, four NIU students had been charged, one with murder and the others with aggravated battery, following events that led to the death of Luis Noriega outside a DeKalb bar. Many in the community generalized and lumped all students - NIU students in particular - into the category of the criminally undisciplined. Unfair to be sure, but prejudice is never fair. Fear and distrust crowd out what is fair.
That fatal beating took place in the wake of a year of frat-boy yobbery. "University of 'first choice'" is meaningless without reference to the kinds of individuals: the ambitious, the party animals, the time-servers? who are ranking their choices. We had a different kind of trouble this year.
This spring's commencement, held in the wake of the Feb. 14 shootings that took the lives of five NIU students, occurred as those on campus were making demonstrable steps to say “Thank you” to a community that had reached out to hug them back in February. Hugs are just plain better when you're hugged in return.
The memorial issue of the alumni magazine includes some observations that ought be part of Northern Illinois's, or any university's strategic plan, whether there is excess demand for perceived prestige, or not. The preface notes,
In 1895, at the cornerstone-laying ceremony for the new Northern Illinois State Normal School, Governor John Peter Altgeld set out the core values of the school that was to become Northern Illinois University. “Above all things,” he said, “we want this institution to stand on the basic principle that all people are born equal, and that only industry, intelligence, and effort shall lead to preferment.”
That's a far cry from "all have won, and all must be given prizes."

The president of the alumni association sees in our fallen students a representative sample of the people we serve.
They were five very special individualswhose collective face embodied what NIU has stood for over its long, rich history. First-generation college students, veterans, and hard-working kids from middle class families seeking a better life through higher education—that’s who they represented.
Far from the positional arms-race anxieties among the well-heeled, it still matters that higher education equip its charges to hold their own with the graduates of the more famous or more selective if not necessarily more rigorous institutions. Industry, intelligence, effort.
THAT EXCESS DEMAND FOR CREDENTIALS. I've been working on this post for some time. In March, a graduate of Yale and Wharton who turns students away from Stonehill College suggests that fevered applicants get a grip. The "easy for you to say" is left to the reader as an exercise. The column makes some valid points.

Curiously, there is not enough pressure for the right reason: finding the school that is the right fit. Today, students can receive a top-notch education at any number of the 2,629 U.S. colleges and universities. If an applicant simply focused on the top 10% of those institutions, they would select from a pool of 260 schools. Given the relatively fixed supply of seats in prestige colleges, there are other ways to view this world.

On many campuses today, students can learn from a professor who holds a Ph.D. from an Ivy League or similar top research institution. Thirty years ago, in most cases, students had to attend one of a small set of colleges to accomplish that feat. But the supply of U.S. Ph.D.s has grown from 32,946 in 1976 to 45,596 in 2006, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates.

So why are parents pushing their children so hard for admission to an elite college? Regrettably, admission to a first-choice college has become a referendum on Baby Boomer parenting skills, and the popular rear-windshield decal is often seen as the ultimate prize in our "winner take all" society.

Yet, I remain hopeful that we can correct our collective shortsightedness. Let's start by revisiting why we send our children to college in the first place. Certainly, our desires for their better economic future play a predominant role. But college still claims a larger public purpose, which includes preparing critical thinkers to engage productively with the wider world.

Parents and students would be wise to examine the missions of the schools they are considering (even the second-choice ones), and the way that the institutions are living their missions. They will find that such public purpose is not the monopoly of a handful of "brand-name" elite colleges, but instead pervades a community of scholars that extends to campus after campus, from coast to coast.

A Greg Easterbrook article in The Atlantic elaborates, concluding with the suggestion that the status obsessed also get a life.
Surely it is impossible to do away with the trials of the college-application process altogether. But college admissions would be less nerve-racking, and hang less ominously over the high school years, if it were better understood that a large number of colleges and universities can now provide students with an excellent education, sending them onward to healthy incomes and appealing careers. Harvard is marvelous, but you don't have to go there to get your foot in the door of life.
Advice notwithstanding, a New York Times article reported that the excess demand for the Gotta-Get-Ins was no April Fool.
The already crazed competition for admission to the nation’s most prestigious universities and colleges became even more intense this year, with many logging record low acceptance rates.
Perhaps the universities could learn something about load management from the airlines, or perhaps from treating their economists properly.

“We love the people we admitted, but we also love a very large number of the people who we were not able to admit,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard College.

Some colleges said they placed more students on their waiting lists than in recent years, in part because of uncertainty over how many admitted students would decide to enroll. Harvard and Princeton stopped accepting students through early admission this academic year; that meant that more than 1,500 students who would have been admitted in December were likely to have applied to many elite schools in the regular round.

Many factors contributed to the tightening of the competition at the most selective colleges, admissions deans and high school counselors said, among them demographics. The number of high school graduates in the nation has grown each year over the last decade and a half, though demographers project that the figure will peak this year or next, which might reduce the competition a little.

Other factors were the ease of online applications, expanded financial aid packages, aggressive recruiting of a broader range of young people, and ambitious students’ applying to ever more colleges.

By May, the New York Times was reporting that the overbooking algorithms had broken down, with the Gotta-Get-Ins digging deeper into the wait list.

Although colleges turn to wait lists to fill out their classes, it is unusual for the most selective to go so deep, college officials say.

For high-school students graduating in an unusually large class and for colleges trying to shape a freshman class, this has been an unusually challenging year, with the changes in early-admissions programs and the broad expansion of financial aid at many elite universities.

Right up until the May 1 deadline for students to respond to admissions offers, colleges have been unsure what to expect.

“Our class is coming in exactly the way we wanted it to, fitting into the plan we had to get to a class of 1,240,” said Janet Rapelye, dean of admission at Princeton, which, like Harvard and the University of Virginia, eliminated early admissions this year.

Ms. Rapelye said that with such a big change in policy, it was difficult to predict results, so “we deliberately aimed to have a slightly smaller group.”

The Los Angeles Daily News reports on overbooking and bumping in California.

"There is one great myth about going to college today - that is that there are only a handful of good schools," said Katherine Harrington, dean of admission and financial aid at the University of Southern California.

"There are more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the country and many, many, many of them provide an excellent education," she said.

"This notion that someone's life will be ruined if they don't get into the top 20 or 50 universities in the country is just not correct and we choose as a matter of practice not to do anything that encourages that notion."

Harrington, who saw 36,000 applications this year for 2,600 available slots, said avoiding the waiting-list process also makes things easier for her office, which gets to skip having to sift through applicants again.

Even as waiting lists swelled this week, several top colleges across the country announced that they would be receiving more students from their waiting lists.

The swap could cause a domino effect that might get [El Camino Real valedictorian Nielson] Weng admitted into one of the five schools that have kept him on hold. Stanford is his top choice, with California Institute of Technology a close second.

Until then, Weng said he'll work to get into one of his dream schools by gathering transcripts, awards and letters of recommendation.

"When people ask me where I am going to school, I say Berkeley, but I know they were expecting me to go to an Ivy League school," he said.

Still Weng, who has tentatively accepted an offer from the University of California at Berkeley, said the waiting game is growing tiresome.

Now that Massachusetts is proposing to tax what its Guardians of Public Morals deem to be idle assets in endowments, can "denied boarding compensation" be far behind?
TODAY'S RAILROAD READING. This week's Destination:Freedom has a great deal of substance. I commend in particular this interview with fellow O Scale King John Stilgoe and this squib about Norfolk Southern working with the Fitchburg Railroad. At one time, railroad policy makers envisioned Norfolk and Western absorbing Erie Lackawanna, Delaware and Hudson, and Boston and Maine as a way of introducing a second carrier into Penn Central country. That combination failed thanks to Boston and Maine reluctance as well as Hurricane Agnes erasing much of Erie Lackawanna and some of Delaware and Hudson. Now Norfolk Southern will get the old Troy and Greenfield through the Hoosac Tunnel and much of what remains of the Conn River. The conversation between John and Living on Earth's Bruce Gellerman is instructive.I'm very serious about where this country is going.
My book "Train Time" deals with the problems of trucks moving from Mexico to Canada, not stopping in the United States except to fuel, clogging up interstate highways in the Midwest and high plains that never used to see this traffic, and essentially making people wonder, ordinary tax payers wonder, why this cargo isn't on the Kansas City Southern, when you can run a freight train at 90 miles an hour, as happens frequently west of the Mississippi, it feels kind of sad to be sitting in a vehicle on a publicly-built highway where the speed limit's 65 or 70. And once people see freight trains moving at 70 or 75 miles an hour, they start wondering why there can't be a passenger train.
I haven't communicated with John for some time, and when we do converse, it's usually about things O Scale. All the same, we're thinking along similar lines.
West of St. Louis a lot of the nation's freight railroads are now adding a third track, because there's so many freight trains moving that they have to get the faster trains around the slower ones. Once we get the freight railroads back to the condition they were about 1950, I think Amtrak will have a golden opportunity to prove itself.
That might be asking for a complete change of attitude at Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern, and for better supervision and dispatching on the Chessie. On the other hand, in 1950 there were still a few 75 minute Hiawathas dispatched behind an A or F7 deputizing for a pair of E7s. To quote from a Broadway musical of about 30 years ago, one could also reach New York in sixteen hours, a lot can happen in sixteen hours.
My students figured out there was overnight mail service, first class mail, between New York and Chicago, for the price of a first class stamp. Nowadays you'd have to pay a lot of money to get something overnighted. But the real key is that meant there was very frequent fast mail service between places like New York City and Harrisburg, Pittsburg, Cleveland. We've forgotten all of this.
And Emergency Fast Package Service.
You could order a refrigerator, for example in the evening, and it would be delivered to your house at noontime the next day. You could do that in 1929. You can't do it today.
I wonder if some of those real estate inquiries the book (which I must add to the stack of things to review) refers to are looking at the interurban rights of way.

17.5.08

I CAN CALL THE SEMESTER DONE. The three graduation ceremonies (the weather would have permitted one big one in Huskie Stadium, Wisconsin style, although the platform party would not have a chance to go to the ice bucket between events) are done, degrees conferred, bottles and kegs opened. Liberal Arts graduated a marvelous singer.

Some of the academic weblogs I've visited include the usual carping about tight grading deadlines. That's a matter of course here. Grades for Thursday exams are due by 10 am Monday. It's not unknown for students to receive a diploma cover and have to sort adverse consequences out later.

This year, for the first time in I don't remember how long, all of my exams were on Monday and all of my marks were in the hands of Registration and Records by close of business Friday. Next year, we're supposed to have online grade filing, which I hope means being able to enter the information once and have it available on Blackboard and to Registration at the same time.

16.5.08

THE NEXT INTELLECTUAL CHALLENGE.

Some cutting and soldering and fettling is in order.


Click the image for a larger view. Note the divided eccentric.
NORFOLK SKATE? In the matter of the Norfolk State firing of biologist Steven Aird, the Inside Higher Ed column now includes statements from Professor Aird, a dean at Norfolk State, and a graduate of the biology program. Joanne Jacobs has the story, and the bull session at her place is, shall we say, not complementary to Norfolk State. Casting Out Nines summarizes the tradeoffs of the case. Observation of the Day honors go to the dean at Anonymous Community.
And as a left-leaning sort, I like the idea that a kid without the money to 'go away' to college has access to the same academic rigor as the kid with rich parents. A former colleague of mine used to say that algebra is a civil right, and I agreed with him. To offer the less-well-off a diluted product offends my egalitarian sensibilities. If we're serious about access, it has to be access to academic rigor. Otherwise we're just babysitting. The rigor should be fair and impartial, and we need to explore the right mix of support services, tutoring, and the like to help students succeed, but that's okay. At the end of the day, the best service we can do is to provide a truly higher education, even if it takes some doing.
THE POSITIONAL ARMS RACE. Inside Higher Ed begins to analyze the NCAA financial statement.

College leaders and sports officials often argue that it is a mistake to require sports programs to be self-supporting, as that can only increase the pressure on them to cut corners to win if they believe winning teams will be more profitable. But it is also true that in tougher economic times, as higher education is surely entering, questions of what colleges spend on sports — particularly out of funds that could conceivably go to other institutional purposes — are likely only to grow louder.

The new report suggests that sports program budgets are growing quickly, as are institutional subsidies. For the 119 universities that compete in the NCAA’s top competitive level, the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A), total revenues grew by 25.5 percent from 2004 to 2006, slightly faster than the 23 percent growth in expenses. But in the more important category — generated revenues, those actually earned by athletics departments, excluding other institutional support — rose by only 16 percent over the two-year period.

In the 2006 fiscal year, the latest of three examined in the study, only 19 of the 119 Football Bowl Subdivision institutions had positive net revenue, while for the rest, expenses exceeded generated revenues. (For the entire three-year period, only 16 athletics department turned a net profit.)

The article does not address the central economic puzzle, which is whether making what appear to be uneconomic investments in college sport is actually the dominant strategy. I will return to this point once I've had a chance to review the report, which, now grades are in, is a possibility.
INSTEAD OF GOING TO HARVARD, THEY ALL GO TO YALE. Greg Mankiw relays another threat point, should Harvard be subject to a Massachusetts bill of attainder. "Harvard can decide to no longer accept the children of Massachusetts residents." Meanwhile, life is likely to go on as usual at ZooMass.
PATE DE CITY COUNCIL. As Charlie Sykes puts it, a blow against the nanny state.

The alderman whom Mayor Daley derisively calls Joe "Foie Gras" Moore (49th) now knows how the geese and ducks feel.

Two years after the City Council banned the liver delicacy made by jamming a steel pipe down a bird’s esophagus, Daley essentially did the same to Moore on the City Council floor.

Like father, like son, as the balance of the article, and the honking from the barnyard, indicate.

Perhaps the urgency is to obtain the French vote for the 2016 Olympics. One wonders about the wisdom of securing this prize, possible expansion of the Hiawatha line and use of Huskie Stadium for play-in football notwithstanding. A British reader recommends this Guardian article that characterizes the London Olympics as a "financial black hole."

15.5.08

ON THURSDAY CAN EXAM WEEK BE PRAISED. The final final examinations for the spring semester are being graded. It appears as if we will make it to graduation day. This evening, I served as master of ceremonies for the DeKalb County Challenge Stock Market Game(TM) awards. Once again, the winning team demonstrated that you can see a lot just by looking, although simply picking the businesses along Sycamore Road with full parking lots is not as successful a strategy during a market correction. One cluster of students was preparing to write an examination in the Sandburg auditorium, perhaps the last of the classes that had to move to other quarters at midsemester. We end the semester, however, noting two Fulbright fellowships.
While Northern Illinois University student Matt Konfirst is analyzing Antarctic core samples in Germany, fellow NIU student Shari Meggs will be teaching the English language to students in Hong Kong.
Good going.

14.5.08

WHO DO I TIME-SLIP? Consider this Easily Distracted vision of the next-generation small liberal arts college of about 2,000 students.

Regular faculty would not hold permanent tenure. The standard term of employment would be eight years, which would be divided into two cycles of three teaching years with a fourth fully compensated sabbatical year for all members of the regular faculty. Contract renewal would be the normal expectation following the eighth year, but faculty might not be retained either for reasons of performance or because of significant changes in the needed competencies within the core curriculum. For this reason, all faculty would be urged to remain professionally viable as practicioners outside the college’s environment, whether as academics or in some other context, and this would be the major purpose of the generous sabbatical support.

The college will commit substantial resources, including travel funds and subsidy of professional memberships, to encouraging core faculty to maintain their professional identities outside the college’s purview.

Assessment of faculty performance at contract renewal would focus on both teaching and evidence of continued interest in intellectual exporation and general activities as “public intellectuals” . It would not center on scholarly productivity as it is traditionally understood (though certainly scholarly publication would be regarded as a meaningful contribution to the public and communicative responsibilities of the faculty).

Normal faculty load would be 2/3, with the fifth course being a variable number of fourth-year supervisions, usually 2 or 3.

I have tenure, but I'm only eligible for sabbatical at seven year intervals. I earned a good evaluation for research last year, but aspire to land further work in journals economists read. And today I turned in marks for three fourth-year supervisions and a master's thesis supervision. I still owe marks for 80 examinations, which will be ready in the next day or two.

The dean at Anonymous Community has observations about what goes on elsewhere in the academic food chain.

And thus concludes Wednesday, with exams again taking place as scheduled.
SHE'S FINISHED. David Letterman just cracked a joke about Senator Clinton shopping for discount pantsuits.
WHERE THE EXCESS CAPACITY IS. Norfolk State University attempts to temper tough love with retention, with the expected results.
Because so many students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and never received a good high school education, they are already behind, he said, and attendance is essential. Norfolk State would appear to endorse this point of view, and official university policy states that a student who doesn’t attend at least 80 percent of class sessions may be failed.
But biologist Steven Aird failed to make tenure, and the article suggests his willingness to fail students was the reason.

The problem, Aird said, is that very few Norfolk State students meet even that standard. In the classes for which he was criticized by the dean for his grading — classes in which he awarded D’s or F’s to about 90 percent of students — Aird has attendance records indicating that the average student attended class only 66 percent of the time. Based on such a figure, he said, “the expected mean grade would have been an F,” and yet he was denied tenure for giving such grades.

Other professors at Norfolk State, generally requesting anonymity, confirmed that following the 80 percent attendance rule would result frequently in failing a substantial share — in many cases a majority — of their students.

Professors said attendance rates are considerably lower than at many institutions — although most institutions serve students with better preparation.

One reason that this does not happen (outside Aird’s classes) is that many professors at Norfolk State say that there is a clear expectation from administrators — in particular from Dean Sandra J. DeLoatch, the dean whose recommendation turned the tide against Aird’s tenure bid — that 70 percent of students should pass.

The article has provoked a wide-ranging discussion in the comments section, including a differing perspective on the Atlantic print article noted here.

The column has been Instalanched. George Leef at Phi Beta Cons summarizes.

American colleges and universities want to keep the classrooms full of paying customers, and many of them reach far down into the barrel of high-school graduates to do that. Lots of those students are very ill-prepared and unmotivated. They're used to a K-12 environment that isn't demanding and excuses weak performance as a matter of course.

When in college, if they run into someone like Professor Aird, most of them continue with their old habits and find themselves earning D and F grades. How do they react? Most of them do what the political Left encourages: instead of adjusting to the world, expect the world to adjust to you. Complain that the professor is too hard, unfair, unreasonable, out of touch, etc. Anything except improving your performance to meet the standards for a good grade.

Professor Aird offered a similar perspective to his students in January.
"You can only develop skills and self-confidence when your professors maintain appropriately rigorous standards in the classroom and insist that you attain appropriate competencies. You cannot genuinely succeed if your professors pander to you. You will simply fail at the next stage in life, where the cost of failure is much greater.”
What is Norfolk State's job and graduate school placement record? This article notes that Norfolk State's enrollment has been falling, this despite the echo baby-boom and the universal college bubble. Careful readers will note that it is also despite heavy doses of access-assessment-remediation-retention.

13.5.08

TOE THE PARTY LINE, OR ELSE. At the University of Toledo, one form of identity politics cannot be held superior to another. A columnist in the Toledo Free Press, writing, she thought, as a private citizen, observed,
As a Black woman who happens to be an alumnus of the University of Toledo's Graduate School, an employee and business owner, I take great umbrage at the notion that those choosing the homosexual lifestyle are "civil rights victims." Here's why. I cannot wake up tomorrow and not be a Black woman. I am genetically and biologically a Black woman and very pleased to be so as my Creator intended. Daily, thousands of homosexuals make a life decision to leave the gay lifestyle ...
Leave the psychology aside and focus on the identity politics. She continues,
The normative statistics for a homosexual in the USA include a Bachelor's degree: For gay men, the median household income is $83,000/yr. (Gay singles $62,000; gay couples living together $130,000), almost 80% above the median U.S. household income of $46,326, per census data. For lesbians, the median household income is $80,000/yr. (Lesbian singles $52,000; Lesbian couples living together $96,000); 36% of lesbians reported household incomes in excess of $100,000/yr. Compare that to the median income of the non-college educated Black male of $30,539. The data speaks for itself.
Leave the social science aside: this is a culture war theme I've seen elsewhere.

Focus, rather, on the reaction of the University of Toledo.

The University of Toledo has suspended with pay one of its administrators for writing a newspaper op-ed that questions whether homosexuality is a civil rights issue. The school said the administrator was suspended precisely because her views on homosexuality do not comport with those of the university, a state institution.

Crystal Dixon, associate vice president of human resources at the Ohio-based university, sparked controversy Apr. 18 when she wrote in the Toledo Free Press that she did not agree with comments by the newspaper's editor that portrayed homosexuals as civil rights victims.

This is the same University of Toledo that takes strategic planning beyond parody.

John Lott asks,
If she had written a piece say the opposite, what would have happened to her? Even if she had listed her affiliation at the university, nothing would have happened.
I'm not sure what he means by "opposite?" Privileging the claims of homosexuals over those of people of color? Or suggesting that the oppressions are equivalent?

Robert VerBruggen at Phi Beta Cons notes this:

I'd add that this is not a school publication but a local paper — one could argue that advancing such views on campus could conflict with her human-resources job.

On a side note, why is a public university "on record" supporting controversial legislation?

Perhaps more to the point, someone in headquarters could ask whether an associate vice-president's public reservations about a university policy might make her less effective at implementing that policy.

As far as "supporting controversial legislation," what's new? Student Affairs and Human Resources and more than a few curriculum committees treat the provisions of civil rights laws as indecently minimal requirements, and seek to have their more aggressive practices codified as law. Thus do professors have to retrain as special education teachers.
THEY SAVED LIVES. Northern Illinois University invited first-responders and community members who pitched in with everything from cookies to ribbons to a reception this afternoon. At the end of the formalities, university and community announced the debut of Huskies on Parade, where $1000 leases you two fiberglass Huskies to decorate in time for the resumption of classes in the fall.

Tuesday's examinations appear to have gone off as scheduled.

12.5.08

ON SATURDAY CAN EXAM WEEK BE PRAISED. I'm returning to grading jail for much of this week. Monday's exams took place with only the usual anxieties. I won't consider the semester done until I see that graduation procession on Saturday.
DON'T KNOW MUCH TRIGONOMETRY. Don't know much about algebra, despite a state mandate.
In a pattern that has area math professors scratching their heads, some community colleges are seeing an increase in the numbers and proportions of entering students who can't do algebra, or even basic arithmetic.
These skills require practice, they're different from riding a bicycle.

One of the biggest reasons for the large wave of college students behind in algebra is timing. If a student takes algebra as an eighth- or ninth-grader, it often means arriving at a community college or state college with several years separating their last encounter with x and y.

"You have to keep practicing your skills or they diminish," said Michael Kane, interim dean of sciences and mathematics at Sierra College. "The pipeline from secondary education to college can have such big gaps."

Even students who have worked through several years of higher math in high school can find themselves back at the algebra drawing board. Too often, high school standards do not run as high as college standards, professors said. [California's] high school exit exam, required to graduate from public school, tests basic math and pre-algebra skills, but doesn't go deeply into algebra, they said.

In addition, if students earn C's or lower in high school math courses, or if teachers grade too softly, it can lead to wider gaps.

"If you get a C in a math class and you try to go on and build, you're going to have holes," said Cosumnes [River College] math professor Lora Stewart.

As Joanne Jacobs notes, universal testing can have perverse effects.
Teachers feel pressured to lower standards so unprepared students — the kids who didn’t learn arithmetic in elementary school — will move on. The math section of the state graduation exam can be passed with a 55 percent; random guessing would yield a 25 percent.
The comments to her post suggest demoralization in the trenches. Wonderful world indeed.
WHERE NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND BEGAN. Via Charlie Sykes, a Dallas television station's discovery of the state of college readiness.

This month 7,500 Dallas ISD seniors are expected to walk across the stage and make their families proud.

But what if we told you that 75 percent of the seniors headed to Dallas community colleges can't read above an 8th grade level, and others can't add or subtract?

Graduation is a time for feeling proud, but that might quickly change to frustration for thousands of DISD students like Gia Hollis come fall, when reality hits.

News 8 requested and received documents from the Dallas County Community College District that show, over the last three years, an average of 75 percent of the DISD students enrolled in classes took at least one developmental education course.

“My reading levels are so low, and I’m really not comprehending, and it’s really holding me back," Hollis said. "It’s taking me longer."

Hollis is in a developmental reading course at El Centro College. Developmental courses prepare students to take college classes. In the Fall of 2007, out of the 1,110 DISD students enrolled in Dallas community colleges, 810 had to take one of these courses.

“This percentage is much too high," said Dr. Joan Rodriguez, who teaches developmental reading at El Centro. In her upper level course, where we met Hollis, most students read at an 8th to 10th grade level, struggling to comprehend what’s in some newspaper articles.

“I get so frustrated," Hollis said. "Don't know why I wasn't taught those skills before coming here and having to be at this point in my life and start all over. It’s been very challenging."

”It's very frustrating ... for the students who come in here who say: ‘Wait a minute, you're asking me to do all this? I don't know how to do this. I don't have enough time to do this. I'm not used to doing this. I don't want to do it,'" Dr. Rodriguez said.

Dr. Rodriguez believes high school tests reward students for minimal knowledge, which won’t work in college where professors expect you to know how to read and comprehend complex sentences. She says college professors don’t grade you on whether you try, but what’s right.

The article notes the continued tension between teaching to the test and having the right kind of test, as well as the deleterious effects of calculators on math skills.
QUOTE OF THE DAY. University Diaries Extension, on the fruits of access-assessment-remediation-retention.

“No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to [university] classes they cannot possibly pass,” writes an anonymous adjunct English professor in the June 2008 Atlantic magazine (far as I know, it’s not available online). He teaches in two “colleges of last resort,” where local, often older, students, go to rack up credits so they can move along a career track.

But they can’t pass the anonymous professor’s required course, because it’s not about memorizing practical vocational information. It’s about thinking and writing coherently, and having a point of view of your own. Many of his students don’t know how to analyze anything, let alone take a polemical position relative to it. They can’t use prose coherently, and they don’t know what it means to set out a grounded, rational argument. Worse, the professor’s other course asks them to write a formal paper about a work of literature. They’ve read almost nothing.

The essay concludes,

Note what the author isolates as the key intellectual trait of authentic college students: They have already learned something by the time they get to college, and the most important thing they’ve learned is a sort of rough intellectual history, an early but functional sense of the categories by which we organize and understand various human expressive acts — this is literature and these are its traits; this is the legal tradition and these its salient features. The serious college curriculum builds upon this foundation by adding not merely more information to it, but more complexity to its categories. The best-educated college graduates move easily among categories to make important intellectual connections — they put science and theology into play in order to think at a high level about empirical and non-empirical truth claims. They read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Mimesis in order to ask not merely what a particular theory or novel means, but what the fact of our having evolved particular standards of scientific legitimacy, and a particular ethos for fiction, means.

This is what university education is about — the disciplined assimilation of information into historically established categories which allow us to regulate and embellish thought about the world. This professor’s English comp and Intro Lit courses are primitive stages in this education: they ask students to convey only the most basic sense of categorical awareness, the shakiest intimation that there are contexts that connect what would otherwise be arbitrary bits of information, random creative eruptions. A few of this professor’s students will be able to do this, but most will not, and it is a cruel and expensive hoax to fail them repeatedly on their efforts.

I'm not sure which hoax the article has in mind: college lite, or social promotion in elementary school, or some mix of both.