The Future of the University

What should “the university” look like as we lurch further into the 21st century? If there were one thing I could change about higher education in the United States it would be to expand access, broadly speaking.

It is hardly a unique observation to point out the exorbitant cost of college attendance in the US. This is true even of public schools. The US is, in my opinion, behind the curve on recognizing that tertiary education, like primary and secondary, should be a right guaranteed to all of its citizens (and residents). A college education remains a privilege only available to some because of its large cost. And while I believe we should consider it a privilege to have the time to study and learn access to education should not be a restricted privilege available only to those who can pay.

I hope to see the university accessible financially but also physically. By this I mean I hope to see all universities and university buildings literally accessible to any and all students. Though slightly out of date, Inside Higher Ed reported in 2005 that students with disabilities were half as likely to attend college as their peers without disabilities. We need to ensure that the physical space of the university is accessible to people of all abilities. As importantly, we need to ensure that the university is a space in which those with disabilities are welcome and treated as an important part of the make up of the student body, staff, and faculty.

Moreover, black students and faculty are underrepresented on college campuses as well. I would like to see universities that are open, encouraging, and actively seeking students of all backgrounds and therefore reflect the composition of US society. Addressing the economic inequality that high costs perpetuates by making tertiary education free (or very close to free) is one way to address this. The other is to continue the work of education within the university and without to create the understanding in our society that all members, regardless of their socio-economic, racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and/or sex background, have equal rights and claims to a decent life.

Given recent trends a more accessible university will likely mean more online and distance learning classes. I think this can be an avenue to ensure that the university is open and accessible but it is not a foregone conclusion. It is important that online courses are carefully crafted to ensure that the level of instruction and deep engagement is the same as in a “traditional” classroom. Perhaps technologies such as VR could facilitate this in the decades to come. Even better, investment in high speed rail, another area the US lags behind in, could better allow students to travel to and from universities.

However it is accomplished, the most open and accessible university will be the best university in the future.

Open Access Journal – Geo: Geography and Environment

I came across an open access journal related to my field(s) called: Geo: Geography and Environment. It is published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) in London.

The editors are professors at University of Exeter and University College London. It is fully open access and all of its articles are published under the Creative Commons License.

The journal lists its “Aims and Scope” in the following way:

Geo is a fully open access international journal publishing original articles from across the spectrum of geographical and environmental research. Geo welcomes submissions which make a significant contribution to one or more of the journal’s aims. These are to:

  • encompass the breadth of geographical, environmental and related research, based on original scholarship in the sciences, social sciences and humanities;
  • bring new understanding to and enhance communication between geographical research agendas, including human-environment interactions, global North-South relations and academic-policy exchange;
  • advance spatial research and address the importance of geographical enquiry to the understanding of, and action about, contemporary issues;
  • foster methodological development, including collaborative forms of knowledge production, interdisciplinary approaches and the innovative use of quantitative and/or qualitative data sets;
  • publish research articles, review papers, data and digital humanities papers, and commentaries which are of international significance.

The journal explains open access in this way:

Open Access and Copyright

All articles published by Geo are fully open access: immediately freely available to read, download and share. All Geo articles are published under a choice of Creative Commons Licenses which permit use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Copyright on any research article published by Geo is retained by the author(s). Authors grant Wiley a license to publish the article and identify itself as the original publisher. Authors also grant any third party the right to use the article freely as long as its integrity is maintained and its original authors, citation details and publisher are identified. Further information can be found on our open access license and copyright page.

I didn’t find a specific statement on the journal’s stance toward the open access movement but they do list “Reasons to publich in Geo,” which include:

  • high standard, rigorous peer review
  • immediate open access
  •  articles published under Creative Commons Licenses
  • articles can be enhanced by integrated hosting of multimedia and data content
  • fully compliant with all open access mandates

Three of the five reasons listed related to open access. As far as I know I haven’t read any articles yet from this journal but I will certainly keep an eye out for it as I am researching for future projects.

Further Thoughts on Technology in the Classroom

The issue of technology in the classroom has captured my imagination this semester. I’ve been thinking a lot about it this year as I have taught my first online class as well as taken my first online classes. Until this year I had completed small professional development courses online but never a full college course.

First a brief description of the varied types of courses that fall under the “online” or “distance learning” umbrella that I have experienced. In the first summer session of 2016 I taught an online course that was facilitated completely through Canvas. I based my syllabus (and teaching techniques) on the previous summer’s syllabus. As a result, I conducted the course completely through online message boards and written assignments. There was no face-to-face or digital interaction with voice or video. Students wrote on message boards and emailed me with questions.

This fall, I am taking two courses that may qualify as “online” or “distance learning.” The first is conducted through Scholar and is similar to the course I taught. Assignments are written message boards and essays. However, the professor also provides video and audio lectures that he has recorded to supplement the readings and written assignments.

The final course is a “polycomm” course. The professor is in Northern Virginia and has the bulk of the class’ students in Alexandria. I and several other students sit in a room in Blacksburg and join the class through a video conference. Of the three distance learning formats I prefer the polycomm course. It provides the closest experience to an in person, face-to-face and “traditional” classroom setting.

Given the difference in medium, the three courses have had qualitative differences but overall I still prefer teaching and taking in-person courses. As I’ve written before, I believe that the face-to-face (and spontaneous) interaction between students and teachers and professors is where deep thinking and learning occurs. As a teacher answering spontaneous questions from students is both difficult and fun and as a student the ability to ask questions to faculty in the moment they occur and receive nuanced answers is most helpful. It can be difficult to decipher exactly how to understand written feedback. Tone is often lost and critique can read as criticism.

However, despite this reservation, tools such as Skype have made video calling easy to do and it works as well (or better) for speaking with faculty during office hours. If I were to teach an online course again, and I imagine that I will, I would make more use of video and/or audio lectures and definitely encourage my students to meet with me virtually through Skype. It is quite strange to only evaluate students on their written assignments having never met or even spoken with them.

Additionally, the benefit of online courses that do not have fixed meeting times is that it allows students and faculty flexibility in their day to complete assignments on their own schedules. However, in my limited experience I found that some students tended to be silent on message boards until the last day assignments were due. At this point they would post the required amount rapid-fire. I’m not sure this has the intended pedagogical benefit of interaction and discussion between classmates and faculty.

To close these musings I want to note that I am no Luddite!* Technology has been enormously helpful in my academic and teaching career (I am thankful everyday that the internet saves me from card catalogs). However, there is something about face-to-face interactions, both in the classroom and socially, that social media and digital technologies can’t seem to replicate.

* I use the term here in its contemporary meaning of someone averse to new technology. However, actual “Luddites” were skilled workers who sabotaged new machinery they worried would reduce their wages or render them redundant. They were not intrinsically against technology. I have, of course, solidarity with workers resisting the inexorable capitalist drive to lower costs and raise profit.

Social Media in College Classroom: A Public Sphere?

Social media use has increased nearly tenfold in the past decade. We use social media for personal communication (Facebook), professional communication (LinkedIn), news (Twitter), and for entertainment (YouTube). Social media has a role in the classroom as well. So much so that Wikipedia’s page on social media has a subsection dedicated to social media “In the classroom.”

According to a 2010 article on Inside Higher Ed, 80 percent of professors had accounts with social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so forth. (Several of the websites they list, including MySpace and Google Wave, no longer exist.) The poll cited found “little variance” in social media usage by age of professor. The article goes on to say that 52 percent of professors used one or more of these websites as teaching tools. Another study cited in a 2013 Inside Higher Ed article found 40 percent of faculty using social media in the classroom. I am in that plurality.

I have used YouTube many times in class and as a teaching tool. The amount of lectures, speeches, and documentary material on numerous topics makes YouTube a perfect supplement to readings and other class assignments. I can search for nearly any topic and find recorded lectures from prominent faculty, scholars, and practitioners on that topic in seconds.

I have not used other social media in the classroom, however, though I have received videos from students on class topics that they have found through Facebook. I do not have a YouTube account to which I upload videos. This makes me less concerned about breaching personal/professional boundaries with this particular service.

However, I have a Facebook and Twitter feed.  When I began teaching I made sure to set my privacy settings on Facebook to restrict access to anyone who is not already my “friend” in order to prevent my students from finding and seeing my posts. In the classroom we can engage in intense and sometimes uncomfortable discussions but they are face to face. This real interaction helps (I believe) to limit misunderstandings that can arise when reading a Tweet or Facebook post.

Though we have freedom of speech in the US and academic freedom as teaching assistants there are still often repercussions for speaking in ways that are considered “inappropriate.” The Inside Higher Ed article mentions a case of a professor being reprimanded for comments made on social media websites. This reminds me also of the case (relevant to Virginia Tech) of Steven Salaita. He expressed unpopular views and suffered repercussions for them.

I would like to consider social media (and the internet more broadly) as a public sphere in which open debate and dialog can take place. However, open dialog means that views can (and likely) will be voiced that are not popular or that do not conform to what everyone considers “polite” or “appropriate.” I see a troubling trend of punishing those who express views that are outside the mainstream rather than engaging with these views in a productive way.

This is exactly what the classroom is for. And it is important to make it an open space to explore all possibilities of an issue or topic. I do not believe this is happening yet (or perhaps that is will happen in the future) on social media.

Growing Role of Technology in the Classroom?

I assigned a presentation in the class that I am teaching. The syllabus indicated that the students must prepare a 20-25 minute presentation with a handout summarizing the material. The first group presented early in the semester and prepared a great presentation including PowerPoint. I don’t use PowerPoint in my lectures/discussions and I was surprised that the group created one in addition to the assignment requirements. There are only four students out of 19 who have yet to present at this point in the semester. All of the groups that followed the first have also used PowerPoint in addition to their presentations.

My hunch is that the later groups are following the example set by the first (as I indicated publicly that they had done a good job). But I also suspect that the students are more used to PowerPoint (and technology in general) in college classrooms than I am. When I was an undergraduate technology was largely absent from the classroom. Professors didn’t use PowerPoint, students didn’t bring laptops and cellphones only made phone calls (maybe a text here and there). The majority of my undergraduate and Master’s level courses were either lecture style with professors using printed notes and occasionally writing on the blackboard or seminar discussions with reference to books, articles, etc. These materials were also “analog”.

I often wonder if the students expect me to be using PowerPoint and/or more multimedia than I do. I occasionally show short clips from Youtube and I use a lot of maps and some images but that’s typically the extend of it. I may ask them at some point if they have a preference but I’m not fully convinced how much PowerPoint adds to the classroom. I’ve always seen it as superfluous. Either it is a vehicle for a picture and/or a few quotes or it is dense with text and simply a carbon copy of teaching notes. I’m not against new technology in the classroom. It seems that it can add to the classroom experience but it doesn’t seem necessary or sufficient for effective teaching and/or learning.

Does Format Matter: Ebooks vs Paper Books

A study conducted in the U.S., Slovakia, Japan, and Germany between 2010 and 2013 found that the majority of university students surveyed preferred paper books to ebooks. The initial survey in 2010 found that 92 percent of students preferred paper books. In a follow up survey in 2013, 80 percent of respondents preferred paper books.

Given that this was a study on a relatively new technology, as well as the rapid pace of technological change in the early years of the 21st century, it is very possible that the percentage of students preferring paper books has declined even further in the past 3 years. The Washington Post reported this study in February, 2016 and I am unaware if there is more recent data. Three years is longer than the life cycle of a consumer electronics and I would wager that more students have adopted ebooks in the recent years.

From my own experience as a student both in 2010 and again in 2016, I can anecdotally report that I had only just begun to use digital books in 2010. I got my first Kindle that year and I read a lot for pleasure on it but I only used it once or twice to read a book for school. Fast forward to 2016 and I am reading nearly all of my books for school on an e-reader. I buy and loan ebooks from the library and for school reading I actually prefer ebooks.

The researchers noted that for some who preferred paper books to ebooks it was the “physical, tactile, [and] kinesthetic component” of reading that kept them attached to paper books. While I agree that there is not the same sense of weight and touch with an e-reader, it hasn’t stopped me from devouring now even more books in digital rather than analog format. I still love finding great books at used bookstores but the final feature of ebooks that has prompted my switch is the ability to listen to any book I own. The text-to-speech feature means that when I am too tired to hold the book and read, I can turn on the speaker and do the dishes while a robotic voice reads to me about Michel Foucault. This has been priceless for me when I have 500 pages to get through each week.

I highly recommend this feature. Not only does it make texts more accessible to those with limited vision (which is a great thing about ebooks) but it is also worth checking out for different learning styles. There is a debate about whether listening is the same as reading for comprehension, retention and so forth but individuals learn differently and it works for me.

Ethics: The Case of Eric J. Smart

Breaches of ethics are unfortunately common in all fields, academia is no exception. In considering cases brought to the Office of Research Integrity, I found Eric J. Smart’s case interesting for the scale of misconduct. After investigating Smart, ORI found that:

Respondent engaged in research misconduct by falsifying and/or fabricating data that were included in ten (10) published papers, one (1) submitted manuscript, seven (7) grant applications, and three (3) progress reports over a period of ten (10) years. Respondent reported experimental data for knockout mice that did not exist in five (5) grant applications and three (3) progress reports and also falsified and/or fabricated images in 45 figures[.]

As a consequence of this misconduct, Smart entered a “Voluntary Exclusion Agreement” that lasts seven years (starting October 23, 2012). As per this agreement Smart excludes himself from “contracting or subcontracting with any agency of the United States Government and from eligibility or involvement in nonprocurement programs of the United States Government;” excludes himself  “voluntarily from serving in any advisory capacity to PHS including, but not limited to, service on any PHS advisory committee, board, and/or peer review committee, or as a consultant;” and requests the falsified publications be retracted or corrected.

The shear number of data, figures, and documents falsified and/or fabricated really struck me. Since I am at the very beginning of my academic career it is hard for me to imagine having 10 published papers at all, let alone 10 that are falsified. Every paper, article, book review etc. that I work on, I work very hard on and I can’t fathom intentionally fabricating or falsifying information in order to get published. With my dissertation looming, and along with it collection of data, I am hyper aware of the need to collect accurate information. Accusations of plagiarism or misconduct are an added stress that seems unnecessary given the already stressful process of honest scholarship.

The case doesn’t give details about why Smart chose to act unethically in so many cases but there are several reasons that occur to me. The first, and more charitable reading, is that Smart succumb to the pressures of publishing and productivity as a scholar and therefore cut corners in order to keep up and advance in his career. The less charitable read, and because  he committed misconduct in so many cases, is that he realized the shortcut to advancement (falsifying data) was getting him the results he wanted and he therefore continued at it until he got caught.

I believe the latter scenario would be less understandable than the former though neither would get Smart off the hook. I don’t know if there were other ramifications for Smart, such as loss of position at University of Kentucky, but those listed seem appropriate. It seems loss of position would also be appropriate given, again, the on-going pattern of misconduct he showed. It’s ironic that the person involved in this particular case is named “Smart”. Fabricating data on more than a dozen projects is anything but.

On Managing the Graduate Student Workload

My summer was pretty relaxed and now the semester is in full swing. I am currently taking three classes, editing a project for peer review, writing a conference paper, working with colleagues to (re)launch a graduate student journal, and teaching an undergraduate course. I also have personal obligations. Yet, by and large, I loved being a graduate student. Despite the feeling of being on call 24/7, I am very happy.

I worked for 5 years in between finishing my Masters and beginning a Ph.D. at Virginia Tech and I much prefer the graduate student schedule to a full time work schedule. When you work full time for, in my case, a non-profit organization (and I imagine it’s the same at a for profit business) your schedule is 9 to 5 or similar and it mostly doesn’t change. You wake up, go to work, work, and come home. If you are lucky you don’t have to take work home with you. I found the requirement to sit in an office 8 hours a day, 5 days a week to be much more stressful than the graduate student schedule. I also had very little control over what I got to work on. This is why I say if you are lucky you don’t take your work home with you; I didn’t find the work terribly intellectually engaging.

My workload is higher now but I have much more control over when I do my work, how I do my work, and what projects I take on. This is the first time as an adult that I have felt I have the intellectual and professional freedom to pursue my own interests and create and exercise my own internal structure rather than the external constraints of a 9 to 5 job. One of the major differences I have found between working full time and returning to the university is that I have control over how busy I choose to be. My hope is that upon finishing my Ph.D. I will find a position that allows me to keep some of this flexibility and freedom.

I signed up for the hard work of completing a Ph.D. and I try always to remember that fact. The fact that the work was chosen rather than forced upon me makes a big difference on how I relate to it. Opting into a project is much different than having to do work because you don’t have a choice. There are of course moments (and stretches) of stress and the feeling that I can’t possibly get everything done. But so far it has been worth it for the luxury of time to think, read, write, and explore what really engages my mind.

Donations with Strings Attached

Inside Higher Ed recently published an article entitled: Strings Attached. In the article, author Rick Seltzer details a large donation ($40 million) given by Michael and Marian Ilitch to Wayne State University. The donation, given by the founders of Little Caesars Pizza’s, has caused controversy because of stipulations in the donor agreement that would potentially give the donors undue influence in several areas of the university. The contract stipulates that the business school built with donated funds will carry the Ilitch name in perpetuity, something the article notes is uncommon, as well as stipulations on how much the dean of the business school should be paid. Most controversially, the donor agreement “calls for Wayne State to meet with the Ilitches or their foundation at their request to consult on the curriculum of the business school, its strategic plan or ‘other aspects of the educational experience.'”

Given these stipulations, there has been, quite naturally, questions among university staff and faculty about the potential influence the Ilitch’s could have on curricula and fear that this could lead to an infringement of academic freedom. It is easy to see how accepting large amounts of money with strings attached from donors, any donors, can create at the very least a perception that independence will be damaged. Even without explicit language that donors have a say in how organizations operate, large donations have the potential to influence policy and practice. We are currently witnessing this debate play out in the political arena as well.

Illuminating such a case in action, the article cites an example from Yale University, which returned a donation of $20 million because the donors had requested approval of faculty members for certain courses. This seems to be clearly an infringement of academic freedom. Whether the Wayne State case will turn out to be as well remains to be seen. However, the potential for such infringement is large, in my opinion. The Ilitches have made money in a particular way with a particular business model. Yet theirs is hardly the only way an enterprise can or should be organized. It is easy to imagine that input from the Ilitches would be slanted toward their own business model, pushing aside valid and perhaps better alternatives.

It is hard for me to see why a donor should have any input on curricula or other “aspects of the educational experience,” particularly at a public institution such as Wayne State. Public institutions are, ostensibly, accountable democratically to citizens and not to private donors. Furthermore, donors are not necessarily experts in education, pedagogy, or specifically in teaching in a college classroom. Though there are examples of private foundations effectively setting education policy through their ability to direct large sums of money toward particular models, this does not mean that this is an effective or, equally importantly, democratic way to set policy.

If the Ilitches want their name on a building, I don’t have any problem with that. But, their influence should not extend into university buildings.

What are University Mission Statements Telling Us?

For this post, I considered the mission statements of two higher education institutions, both of which I attended: Nazareth College and Syracuse University. (See full mission statement texts below.) Nazareth College (Naz to those who go there) is located in Rochester, NY and was founded in 1924. Syracuse University is in Syracuse, NY and was founded in 1870. Both are private institutions. Nazareth is a relatively small, liberal arts college, around 2,000 undergraduate and 800 graduate students, while Syracuse is a “highest research activity” university and has nearly 22,000 students, undergraduate and graduate. Both schools confer undergraduate and Master’s degrees. Nazareth also offers Doctorate of Physically Therapy degrees. Syracuse offers a wide array of Ph.D. and professional degrees.

Right from the beginning, there is an interesting difference in what the two mission statements emphasize. Nazareth opens their statement with a commitment to providing a “learning community” that educates their students in many fields and with many intellectual competencies. Syracuse, however, opens their statement with a commitment to attracting the “best scholars from around the world.” Syracuse also notes the ways in which their faculty can “support student success.” The impression that comes across is that Nazareth prioritizes its students and what it can provide for them and Syracuse prioritizes or highlights its faculty and its competitiveness. Why this is the case, I can’t say for sure. Having attended both schools, I found the administration, faculty, staff, and others to be equally attentive to student needs.

Additionally, Nazareth emphasizes how it seeks students who want to make a difference in the world and are committed to service. (Not unlike Virginia Tech’s motto: Ut Prosim.) Syracuse does not seem to have a similar emphasis. While Nazareth makes a point of noting its commitment to various values such as service, ethics, and aesthetics, Syracuse focuses on “innovation” and entrepreneurship. In fact, a little over 100 words, Syracuse’s mission statement mentions innovation twice. The implication seems to be that Nazareth wants to connect the education it offers to developing well-rounded, active and engaged citizens. Syracuse seems to be positioning itself on the “cutting edge” of an economy and culture that increasingly values “start-ups” and an entrepreneurial ethos.

Finally, as a brief aside, Nazareth was founded by the Roman Catholic Sisters of St. Joseph. However, in the 1970s, the college became independent of the church and is currently non-denominational. Despite this, it is interesting to note that their mission statement still specifically mentions fostering a life informed by “spiritual” values. In my experience, spiritual life is still very much present on Nazareth’s campus, of many denominations and faiths. There was at the time of my attendance a two course religious studies requirement (I took Introduction to Religion and Buddhism) but there are no religious requirements such as compulsory church attendance.

I don’t want to read too much into short documents, such as mission statements, in isolation. In order to get a full picture of how these schools view themselves, their students, and their faculty, one would need to speak with those groups of people and perhaps enroll in a course or two. However, mission statements are part of the public face that these schools put forward.

With this in mind, if I were looking for a college or university in which to pursue my education and the only information I had to make my decision were mission statements, I would choose to attend Nazareth College. Its emphasis on students first and foremost is more appealing to me than the emphasis on prestige of faculty emphasized by Syracuse. Finally, even though Syracuse uses the term “liberal arts” in its mission statement, Nazareth’s commitment to its liberal arts values comes through more clearly and appeals more to my intellectual and normative orientations than the more research focused language of Syracuse.

Mission Statements:

Nazareth College

The mission of Nazareth College is to provide a learning community that educates students in the liberal arts, sciences, visual and performing arts, and professional fields, fostering commitment to a life informed by intellectual, ethical, spiritual, and aesthetic values; to develop skills necessary for the pursuit of meaningful careers; and to inspire dedication to the ideal of service to their communities.

Nazareth seeks students who want to make a difference in their own world and the world around them, and encourages them to develop the understanding, commitment, and confidence to lead fully informed and actively engaged lives.

Syracuse University

As a university with the capacity to attract and engage the best scholars from around the world, yet small enough to support a personalized and academically rigorous student experience, Syracuse University faculty and staff support student success by:

  • Encouraging global study, experiential learning, interdisciplinary scholarship, creativity, and entrepreneurial endeavors
  • Balancing professional studies with an intensive liberal arts education
  • Fostering a richly diverse and inclusive community of learning and opportunity
  • Promoting a culture of innovation and discovery
  • Supporting faculty, staff, and student collaboration in creative activity and research that address emerging opportunities and societal needs
  • Maintaining pride in our location and history as a place of access, engagement, innovation, and impact