A scientific “revolution”… perhaps

In January, Tim Gowers, Cambridge mathematician and Fields Medal winner, wrote on his blog that he would no longer submit to or review articles for academic journals published by Elsevier.

As this article, Academic Spring: how angry maths blog sparked a scientific revolution, notes, three publishing houses—Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley—own over 40% of all academic journals. Although the budgets for university and college libraries have been flat or declined during the recession, the rates these publishers have demanded for access to their journals has increased 5-7% per year, contributing nicely to their rather healthy 30-35% profit margins.

As a result of Gowers’s blog, a petition–The Cost of Knowledge–was started and has since garnered over 9,000 signatures from people who have similarly pledged to refrain from publishing, refereeing, and/or doing editorial work for journals that do not provide free access online.

It seems difficult to argue that the current system of academic journals benefits academia or the dissemination and  production of knowledge nearly as much as it benefits publishers (who, in the U.K., earn £200 million from colleges and universities or about 10% of the £2.2 billion the government provides in funding to those institutions).

The question is whether a movement such as this one can gain enough momentum to change the system.

It is not a “revolution” that can be propelled by assistant professors who feel compelled to “publish or perish,” but it is one that can be led by tenured professors, particularly leaders in their fields, simply by opting to make their work available only through free, peer-reviewed, online academic journals.

Hopefully that will happen.

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What’s in a name?

In a recent post, a blogger commented on a recent article in the Harvard Crimson that suggested school is simply what one makes of it. She questioned if this was true. Of course, simply attending an “elite” institution does not necessarily transform one into an “elite” student; however, as the blogger pointed out, employers often use the name of the institution as tool to minimize the cost of acquiring new employees.

Depending on the field one hopes to enter, this factor can be significant and perhaps the best reason for attending a “name” institution. In competitive industries, it is common that top organizations—the ones with the most highly coveted jobs—recruit at only a few institutions. It is not that these organizations don’t realize that smart and highly capable students attend schools like Purdue, UVA, and Grinnell, but if you’re Goldman Sachs or McKinsey, Bridgewater or SAC, there’s no need to search for those students when fifty or one hundred smart and highly capable students can be found for every opening in one visit to New Haven and another to Cambridge.

It’s not that going to MIT guarantees one a job at an SAC upon graduation. It’s simply that unless one has a ticket punched from MIT (or a handful of other schools), the likelihood one receives a call for an interview after submitting a resume cold to one of these companies approaches zero. It’s not that the call can’t happen. It’s simply unlikely barring exceptional circumstances.

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The “cost” of not going to college

A recent post referenced an article in The Atlantic about the cost of not going to college. These types of statistics are often cited to support the contention that while the cost of a university degree may be significant (and increasingly significantly over time), it is still a good “investment” because the cost of not having a degree is far more significant.

What these articles fail to mention is that these studies—lifetime earnings of those with and without college degrees—almost never provide an apples-to-apples comparison and, therefore, routinely mistake correlation for causality.

To begin to assess the value of, say, a Harvard degree one cannot compare the lifetime earnings of those who attend Harvard relative to those who do not. Instead, one needs to compare the lifetime earnings of those who are admitted to Harvard and receive a degree relative to those who are admitted, attend, but subsequently choose to discontinue their studies to pursue another opportunity as Gates and Zuckerman did.

Similarly, one cannot compare those with college degrees directly to those who do not have them because those populations are different in many ways that have nothing to do with the degree.

A far better method to assess the value of a college degree is to look to the labor market and examine the income of those with a college degree relative to those who do not have one.

For example, in recent years, upwards of 45% of those who earned a college degree were not currently employed in jobs that required a college degree. To understand the earnings premium realized by that segment of the degree-holding population, one needs to examine the payrolls of companies like Kroger, the Gap, and Wal-mart to determine how much, if any, premium those companies pay to have someone with a college degree ringing up sales rather than someone who lacks a degree.

But it also important to keep in mind that even if those college-educated cashiers and shirt-folders earn a premium, that premium needs to be discounted by lost wages over four (or more) years of college and the debt incurred to earn a degree.

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Are foreign languages a critical component of higher education?

Those who clamor about a crisis in higher education often point to the diminished role of foreign languages in post-secondary studies.

But how important is learning a second language if you’re an American student at a college or university in the U.S.?

Before one can answer that question, it is important to frame it properly.

Unless one advocates increasing the number of credit hours required for graduation, the question is not whether foreign languages should be a part of students’ educational programs, but what elements of students’ programs should be eliminated to create the space for studying a foreign language?

Should students take fewer math, computer science, economics, philosophy, and history courses, so they can devote more hours to the study of foreign languages?

Is it more problematic that many American students graduate without learning a second language or that they often possess barely a minimal grasp of the most basic principles of economics or statistics and have, at best, a passing familiarity with the great works of literature or major strands of philosophical thought?

Another common refrain from proponents of foreign language studies is that in an increasingly flat world being able to speak multiple languages will be critical.

Yes, that is true, but only if one’s first language is something other than English.

Globalization has merely accelerated the rate at which the rest of the world has adopted English. It has made English more not less relevant. And with the increasing ubiquity of technology which enables reruns of Friends and The Sopranos and other aspects of western culture to creep into even the remotest corners of the world, it seems unlikely that the viral spread of English will abate any time soon.

Finally, one might argue that the process of learning a foreign language is inherently beneficial.

While this is almost certainly true, what is ultimately an empirical question is whether this process is more beneficial than, say, learning how to build web applications, do vector analysis, or play a musical instrument.

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The myth of U.S. manufacturing

At times generalizations serve a useful purpose, perhaps as shorthand to convey an important idea. At others, they tend toward hyperbole, at best, and become divorced from reality at worst.

In our aggregated blog and in the media, there has been quite a bit of discussion of late about the elitism of institutions of higher education. In a recent post, a blogger bemoaned the fact that “we no longer make anything in this country.”

We’ve heard this or something similar often enough that it has assumed the form of a given, particularly among certain groups (much like the notion that President Obama was not born in the U.S. and “welfare queens” drive Cadillacs to the A&P to buy filet mignon are truths for certain segments of our population).

It was only in 2010 that China surpassed the U.S. in manufacturing output. As Curious Cat noted, in 2009, U.S. manufacturing output was greater than China; Germany and Japan combined; and more than 6 times greater than the next highest producing countries (Italy, U.K. France, Brazil, Korea, and India).

Yes, factories do relocate outside the U.S. to take advantage of more favorable labor markets and regulatory regimes.

But the most significant factor “destroying” U.S. manufacturing from a jobs perspective is simply American productivity.

The manufacturing output of the U.S. and China is effectively the same; however, the U.S. employees only one-tenth as many workers as manufacturers in China.

Labor-intensive manufacturers have moved to greener pastures outside the U.S., but technologically-intensive manufacturers, the types of companies that require “laborers” to be engineers, have remained.

It is true that the manufacturing jobs that “left” the U.S. over the last three decades are never going to return. Part of the problem is the vast majority of U.S. workers are unwilling to work at globally competitive wage rates.

But, more importantly, no strategically-sound business operating in a highly competitive environment will opt to use less productive means of production absent a suitable (i.e., cost-effective) substitute, for example, cheap labor.

The reality is that, yes, the U.S. does make quite a bit. In fact, manufacturing is alive and well in the U.S.

It’s simply that U.S. manufacturers are more likely to hire someone with a Ph.D. in engineering than someone with a high school diploma.

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The new group-think

How often have you heard something akin to the following: “to succeed in our fast-paced, constantly changing, interconnected world, students must excel at teamwork and collaboration”?

Have universities placed too much emphasis on group projects?

As Susan Cain notes in this article:

Decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” wrote the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

How do group-projects square with notions of student-centered learning? Do most students think “Alright!! Group project!!” or do they tend to elicit a collective groan? Do group projects provide students better learning opportunities than solo projects?


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Work/life balance and the (over)supply of PhDs

Should it be the duty of faculty to be honest with doctoral students about their prospects of securing a tenure-track position in academia?

As a recent article (The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is a waste of time) in the Economist noted, between 2005 and 2009, the U.S. awarded more than 100,000 new doctoral degrees. During that same period there were only 16,000 new professorships.

And the nearly 7:1 oversupply of PhDs relative to openings in academia has occurred even though only 57% of doctoral students in American universities will earn a PhD ten years after their first date of enrollment. In the humanities, this figure is 49%.

I would agree that it’s important to strike a balance between work and the rest of life; but a question every doctoral student should ask is whether she or he feels it is possible to out-compete the rest of the field by putting in fewer hours?

It should provide a measure of comfort to know that once one secures a tenure-track position, the bar for promotion is relatively low.

But the next time there is an opening in your department, it might be worthwhile to ask the chair how many people applied for the position. 42? 117? 283?

And just for kicks, ask how many candidates were selected for interviews not on the strength of their CV but on their apparent ability to strike a reasonable work-life balance.

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… evaluating students

Given the prevalence of grade inflation (and the incentive professors have to inflate grades in exchange for more favorable evaluations or simply to avoid dealing with students who are upset about receiving a B+ rather than an A), why haven’t universities modified transcripts to report the grade a student receives in the class, the mean grade for the class, and the dispersion of grades?

Such a change certainly wouldn’t eliminate grade inflation, but it would provide perspective: an A- in a class where 80% of the students received an A and the rest received an A- is certainly considered differently when context is provided.

Relating this to the previous post on student evaluations of professors, if evaluations were modified to generate ranked-pairs of professors, those pairings could be further modified to reflect the mean and dispersion of grades given. This change would not fully eliminate the incentive professors have to inflate grades, but it would make it far more difficult for a weak professor to generate positive student evaluations by inflating grades.

Consider an example: let’s assume professor X gives an A to 80% of the class and an A- to 20% and professor Y gives grades ranging from A to D and the distribution approximates to normal with a mean of B-. A reasonable expectation given the relationship between the grades students receive and the evaluations they receive from students would be that professor X would be ranked higher than professor Y by most students who had both of them in any given semester (recall that in the modified student evaluation system professors are not evaluated on an absolute basis but on a relative basis, that is, if a student has four classes, she will rank the four professors on a number of criteria such that one professor is evaluated as first, one is second, one is third, and one is last).

But the ranked-pairs can be weighted based on expected out/underperformance given the relative rigor in grading. In other words, in the scenario described above, one would expect X to be ranked consistently higher than Y when paired; however, if Y is ranked higher more often than not, it is a strong indication that either Y is a very strong teacher or X is almost certainly inferior. Additional data provided by additional pairings would provide that answer.

It certainly is not a perfect system. It would not offer the type of precision that would enable one to rank all professors from 1 to n in the university, but it would go a long way toward being able to group them in buckets, perhaps quartiles, and more accurately identify those in the bottom quartile.

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Student evaluations…

If student evaluations, as designed currently, fail to provide the type of substantive feedback that would be beneficial in evaluating teachers, how can they be improved?

The thought off the top of my head was simply to require students to complete a single evaluation form at the end of each semester. In that form, they would evaluate / rank all of their professors simultaneously on a number of criteria. For example, if a student had four classes and the variable was “responsiveness to students,” then only one professor could be rated first, one second, and so on. This type of rating system would eliminate some of the “grade-inflation” in evaluations, especially the inflation that occurs when a seminar is small and there’s a tendency to not want to assess a department chair or potential committee member too harshly.

Yes, there may be an apples-to-oranges comparison for some professors such as assessing GEDI or PFP relative to a core course within a doctoral program, but this is merely a problem of creating an appropriate algorithm.

Clearly, it’s not a perfect system, but in terms of evaluations for promotion, it would seem to provide a better measure, for example, a professor cannot be promoted if his inter- or intra-department rating is in the bottom quartile of all professors.

Other thoughts on how student evaluations can be improved?

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