Hot take on the future of higher education

This is truly a hot take as it is more of a rambling than a well thought out idea. If sports can have hot takes right after the game, why can’t I make one up as an excuse?

Quite honestly, I’m terrified for the future of higher education. We have seen appropriations to higher education shrink and tuition increase. I’m breaking the rules and implying causation through this simple correlation. To make up for that, schools must increase enrollment to attract more tuition paying students. It seems that the mission of higher education is shifting along with it. To me, the mission of higher education is to turn you into a critical thinker. Yes, getting your degree is also an important part of that too; but, learning to think critically is something that transcends disciplines and useful to everyone. It gives us the ability to call bullshit on things without resorting to tweeting #fakenews. Unfortunately, it is difficult to market a school on the grounds of making you a critical thinker. Instead schools are selling college as your ticket into the workforce. They are also in an ever escalating arms race to offer amenities that other schools don’t have. Would you have gone to a particular school if it had a lazy river? Would you have gone to said school even if it meant higher student fees for the purpose of building the lazy river? Luckily, this is not a thought exercise as it actually happened at Louisiana State University.

Again, yes it a degree is an important thing to have when seeking a job. Likewise, the experiences we have outside of the classroom help define who we are and what become. I would contend though, that getting a degree should not just be for the sake of checking off boxes on applications. Choosing that school should not be because the rec center has all the cool stuff. I am worried that this what post-secondary education will be reduced to, box checking and partying.

I have done myself no favors with the paper for this class either, as I am writing on neoliberalism in higher education. It is difficult to overcome the pessimism towards higher education with the direction it has been trending. However, I do find hope for the future of higher education. I make the assumption that we are all in this class because we believe there is more to college than the degree. To me, knowing there are other people who are willing to fight for higher education means this is not a lost cause. I hope you believe that it is a cause worth fighting for.

Twitter Assignment

In the series Small Changes in Teaching , there is a link to an activity with Twitter that could easily be adapted to the class I TA for. The Twitter activity for the author’s class has the students tweet three sentences or phrase they find to be outstanding each week. However, they may not repeat any material that has already been used. They must also include a hashtag for the class so they can find everyone’s tweets. For the purpose of the author’s class, it is a repository for excellent writing that the students can visit. For my purposes, I would modify the assignment and require students to tweet popular press articles that relate to the topics covered in class. With the idea being they have to be able to apply the concepts covered in class to real world situations. There could be further work done in having to pick an article and then turn in short summary of how that article relates to the topics covered. I would use the activity in a similar fashion as the original activity. I would like the students to create a space that shows how relevant the ecological processes covered are to aspects of our everyday lives.

I would also highly recommend reading the Small Changes in Teaching series. It offers a lot of simple things to do that could lead to better outcomes in the classroom.

Ecology Open Access

The journal that I have selected is Ecosphere. It is one of the many journals that is put out by the Ecological Society of America. I do find it slightly humorous that Wiley is the publisher of it, given that they are one of the big bad publishing companies. The journal accepts all submission types that other ESA affiliated journals accept. This means they accept any articles that fall under the broad definition of ecology. They also accept interdisciplinary articles that pertain to ecology. They position the journal as an open access alternative to the other journals that are managed by ESA. They seem to be implying that the journal is just as prestigious, as it goes through the same review process as the others. The publication charge is $1500 for non-members and $1250 for ESA members. Compare that to their flagship journal, Ecology, where the cost is $75 per page. For the full price of publishing open access, one could potentially publish a 20-page manuscript.  The presence of Ecosphere seems merely be an acknowledgement of open access. There is nothing further about open access on their webpage.

Ethics Case

The cause that I would like to discuss is that of Frank Sauer. He was found to have falsified data. He got some good mileage out of the falsified data too, two publications in Science and five grant applications. There was also a follow-up to this case posted as well. Sauer tried to make the case that he was hacked, and his figures were altered by activists who don’t agree with his research. His evidence was found to be rather flimsy and potentially fake. His punishment was upheld by a judge.

Academic misconduct like this always begs the question as to why? I get that it is a highly competitive world in Academia, but is faking data really the solution? Especially if your intended target is Science. I do wish they would elaborate as to how the investigation was began. Was it a student of his, or did the peer review process catch him?  If it was student, that is a brave move. His actions likely have a trickle-down effect on any students of his. Will they be able to continue with their research or will they have to terminate their programs? It is possible that they will also be associated with the stigma of his forgery. Long story short, don’t fake data because other people are relying you for their jobs.

Don’t Stick Your Head in the Ground

We sort of broached the topic in class, about how we should attempt to address current events in the world. We can flat out ignore them, try to relate them to class, or maybe just have a full on discussion about them. It gets me to wondering what type of interaction I want to have with students. What level of involvement do I want to have with them about things not related to class? I do believe that it is important to important to at very least, acknowledge current events in class.  There are some things that are too important to be ignored. If events could be easily related to topics in the course, then all the better. However, what if there was a semi-logical and semi-valid reason for ignoring current events in the classroom? I’ve got some logic that might fit the bill.

As an instructor, you get a set amount of time, about 3 hours, each week for class. That is 3 hours each week over 15 weeks to try and guide students through various topics and ideas. That is a time when you get to have the majority of their attention. Why would you want to shift their attention to something else? One argument against ignoring current events could be that the student experience is everything that happens in and out of the classroom, so we, as academics, need to better address their experiences outside the classroom. Undoubtedly, outside issues will be on the minds of the students from time to time. Would engaging these issue bring their focus back to the topic of class or keep them off topic for class? What if by keeping it to the topics at hand, we can provide an escape from the outside topics that are on their minds. If the student showed up to class, there must be a little part of them that has some interest in learning about the topic. So why not try grow that instead?

I realize that the example is for only one class, but even when taking four class, that is a total of 12 hours a week devoted to class time. That is 12 hours a week when we can focus students on something else aside from is happening in the world. Please don’t read that as being trying to get them to ignore the world, but rather take a break from it. Personally, I find data analysis provides me with the break from the world I need. I realize that the world still exists and is on fire, but right now all I care about is making R work. I guess it all comes down to personal choice of the instructor, but there might be a good reason for sticking one’s head in the sand.


Dang that Ken Burns

I’d love to have a long rambling conversation about the new and improved academic logo that Tech has unveiled. However, that train left the station in class. Instead I will turn to a story on the Chronicle of Higher Ed. website about why historians dislike Ken Burns and his new documentary on the Vietnam War. There are a few ideas worth exploring with the article; but, I’d like to focus in on how Burn’s has managed to reach such a wider audience than academic historians. The author speculates that academics are merely jealous of the size of the audience that Burn’s can reach, as they are mostly limited to an academic audience. I don’t blame them for being jealous, I know I fall into a similar trap with entomology related articles I see in the mainstream media. As the author states, “He (Burns) is a simplifier; we complicate.” Every time I read an article about GMO’s or organic agriculture, that is always my first thought, it’s not that simple. Things are always more nuanced than a simple cause and effect relationship, but the burden of knowledge is what you get with investing your time and energy in graduate school. When you don’t worry so much about the nuance, you are more free to craft your message to connect with a lay audience. That’s not to suggest that there aren’t important details, but rather we need to carefully consider what is essential.

The biggest take away I had from the communicating science night is that an emotional appeal is a better strategy than a logical appeal to connect with people. For me, that is a hard thing to do. When I started my Master’s degree, the creative aspects of writing were beaten out of me with a red pen. Instead, I needed to focus on clear and concise sentences motivated by logic. It is difficult to then turn around and try to connect with people on an emotional level. I have this data that says you should do this, so why wouldn’t you do that? Maybe that’s what I need to realize about social media. I have forums to discuss my research with fellow academic using all the jargon I want. Social media is the opportunity to reach the lay audience and to craft my message in a way that still includes the details that are necessary, but has a better story than a publication. So,  I am asking myself the question, why should you care?

Social Media Blues

As I struggle to put together my e-portfolio to meet the assignment deadline, I realize that I am accruing another platform/presence that will need my attention. I already quit maintaining Facebook, I have deleted Linked-In, I run an uninspiring twitter account, I have a limited use for Snape, I also have a blog that I have to keep up with, and now an e-portfolio. Somewhere in there I also go to school at Virginia Tech. A quick Google search on social media and academia will return with tons of links to articles saying how important that social media presence is. There is a useful site that collates a bunch of the sites and platforms together ( Anyway, the common themes seem to be that it is a useful way to network with people and connect with the next generation. It is a great way to promote yourself and your work too. So yes, there are many benefits to having a social media presence. In making the e-portfolio, I’ve had to make some professional development moves such as thinking about teaching and research statements.

However, I do know that I am actively ignoring the use of social media for my own benefit. Initially, using social media to promote yourself sounds boastful; but, that is probably more a result of my own upbringing than anything. I need to be my own biggest hype-man, so I can get over that. There are occasional lulls in what I would deem shareable content from me; but, I could fill those gaps with sharing other people’s work and ideas. I do have a genuine fear do trolls and attacks on social media. At this stage in my career I would rather keep a low profile and not be saddled with that type of baggage. However, I don’t work on a controversial topic nor do I run that hard hitting of a Twitter account. Honestly, I just don’t want to do it. It makes me feel hard-headed, but I have my reasons.

A career in academia is not a 9-5 job. You can try to make it seem like it is, I don’t answer e-mails after 5 pm or on weekends. Social media is a fast platform and it needs prompt replies. I don’t want to have to be engaging with the world 24/7. If you’ve ever spent time in western Nebraska, you quickly realize life goes on when you lose a cell signal. It feels great to be there and not worry about anyone or anything else. Maybe I could run my social media presence 9-5 on weekdays. That effort level doesn’t seem engaging enough and very half-hearted. I would rather not do something than knowingly do it poorly. Does anyone have any success stories with social media and how it was helpful for them?

Free speech as an academic

In class this past week, the topic of free speech was touched upon. How it is a difficult area to navigate as an employee of a university. Separating your personal beliefs and your representation of your employer. Virginia Tech president Tim Sands was used as an example as a person who has an exceptionally narrow line to walk in regards to the things he says. For him, it would seem to be impossible to express a thought as Tim Sands, and not have that be equated to being the position of the school. I’d like to believe there are things that he personally disagrees with, but has no forum to discuss those issues in. I probably won’t ever want to be that big of a player at a university. However, a recent episode of free speech at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln did involving a graduate student, hits a little closer to where I am in my career.

This episode involved a student advocating for Turning Point USA, an organization that has disagreeable principles with other people. In response to this student’s attempt to recruit new members, other students and a faculty member had a mini-counter protest. Undoubtedly a one versus many scenario would make the one feel uncomfortable, and there were accusations of harassment. What gets this interaction more attention is the fact that some of the accused harassers were employees of the university, including a graduate student. Both parties are entitled to their opinions and the freedom to express them, but it seems that when you are paid by the university you have to play by a different set of rules. As a bit of a shock to myself, the graduate student ended up in a bit of hot water. She wasn’t terminated, but ended up being reassigned to a role that didn’t involve teaching. The reality hasn’t really sunk into my head that even though I perceive myself to be a small fish, my actions may have a broader impact than I might realize. It saddens me some to think that during my career, I may not be able to fully speak my mind or engage in every conversation that I may want to. I don’t want to have to make those decisions of who is talking, me or me on behalf of my employer.

Has anyone had an experience where they have felt strongly enough to say or do something, even though there are potential consequences to your actions? It is a strange line to walk, balancing what you believe to be right versus your career aspirations.


Two schools, two statements, one goal

I was feeling a bit nostalgic, so I decided to look up the mission statement of the school I went to for my Bachelor’s degree. Concordia College is a small liberal arts school  in Moorhead, Minnesota. The college is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The mission statement is: The purpose of Concordia College is to influence the affairs of the world by sending into society thoughtful and informed men and women dedicated to the Christian life. While not part of the mission statement per se the mission statement is further developed: In particular, the mission highlights our commitment to the Lutheran Academic tradition shaped by Martin Luther’s convictions. Theses include

  • Freedom to search for the truth, with nothing off limits for inquiry and critique
  • Education in the liberal arts as the best preparation for leadership
  • Excellence in all we do
  • The engagement of faith and learning as a creative dialogue, where inquiry and scholarship enlighten religious life and faith practice enriches the education experience
  • Intellectual humility in the face of the paradoxes and ambiguities of life

I include the extra bit of the mission statement, as I find them valuable to me the first bullet point in particular. While Concordia is a private school that is affiliated with a church, this point says it is okay ask questions of anything, including my religion. Being in a scientific field, this helps as I struggle with what I learn in my studies and what I was told growing up. It tells me that it is okay to ask questions and offer critiques of the stories that I was told. By answering these questions, I am not only enriching my academic desires, but also my faith. I have been striving to try and remove the dichotomy that exists in my mind that faith and science should not be mixed.

I compare the mission statement of Concordia to that of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. UNL is the land-grant university for Nebraska. The mission statement of UNL is rather lengthy, but the first sentence of it suffices. The role of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln as the primary intellectual and cultural resource for the state is fulfilled through the three missions of the university: teaching, research, and service. The rest of the statement page goes into detail how the university strives to meet their mission. The school seeks to achieve this by educating the citizens of Nebraska, researching ideas that have benefits to the state, and engaging with the stakeholders of the state. The language of this makes it abundantly clear that the university was created by the people of Nebraska for the benefit of the people of Nebraska and beyond.

It is interesting to see where these institutions derive their calling from and how that is reflected in their mission statements. Concordia has an air of a calling to a higher power by sending forth men and women dedicated to the Christian life. UNL seems to be implying that they are the resource of the state and it is their duty to fulfill their obligations to the state. While there might be some differences between a religiously affiliated school and land-grant, they both work to achieve a similar goal, in this instance.