Sunday, March 17, 2013

Irish Pride

In case it isn't obvious from the name, I'm Irish, mostly: three-quarters Irish, one-quarter German. At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, I like to joke that I get my love of reason and ordered thinking from the German side and my sense of humor and love of arguing from the Irish side.

I grew up hearing Irish music in the house (Clancy Brothers, Irish Rovers), and not just on St. Patrick's Day. I've always been conscious of being Irish and have drawn a sense of pride from it. Ethnic identity can be a powerful good, but it can also be ugly. Keeping the former without the latter can be tricky.

When I teach the subject of nationalism in Western Civ, I have the students read a piece from 1789 by Richard Price. As an Enlightenment thinker, Price warns that love of country "which is our duty, does not imply any conviction of the superior value of it to other countries." Every celebration of one's nationality or heritage threatens to bleed over into "love of domination; a desire of conquest, and a thirst for grandeur and glory."

So how do we keep ethnic pride from becoming something ugly? Guisseppe Mazzini, the 19th century Italian nationalist, said we do it by always remembering that in "labouring for our own country on the right principle, we labour for Humanity." Have pride in your own, but always remember that you and your people are part of all Humanity, no better, no worse.

Looking back, I can now realize when I was taught that lesson. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, when the civil rights revolution was taking place. I was a child and had a limited sense of the events going on around me, but at some point something must have registered with me. I don't remember exactly when, but I must have asked my Dad about it. His exact words are lost, but the sentiment stuck with me.

He reminded me that we were Irish, and that when the Irish first came to the United States, they sometimes suffered discrimination. (Family legend has it that the name was originally "O'Byrne" and the "O" was dropped and the "S" added to make it sound less Irish.) If it was wrong to do that to them then, he told me, it was wrong to do it to black Americans now too.

As I learned more about the history, I realized that the two situations were not exactly comparable, but the simple lesson held true: if it is wrong when it is done to one of your own, it is wrong when it is done to anyone. Simple enough for a child to understand, easily forgotten by too many adults.

This is the right way to use ethnic pride--not to exalt some over others, but to reinforce our common humanity; to unite, not divide; to foster empathy, not hatred.

So St. Patrick's Day is not a day for me to lord my Irish heritage over all of you unfortunate enough to not share it (as tempting as that is), but to celebrate the Irish in everyone. 


Monday, March 11, 2013

MOOCs and Books, Ctd.

Thomas Friedman continued his love affair with MOOCs this week. Some of us "may think this MOOCs revolution is hyped," he wrote. But we're wrong, because one Harvard professor who is about to teach the first Humanities MOOC on edX was asked to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game in South Korea. No, I'm not making that up.

Friedman is confusing celebrity and fame with being an effective teacher. Since this professor's lectures have been seen on TV and online, he is now famous in places like South Korea and China. I am all for this--I'd love a world in which professors who lecture on justice are routinely as popular as "Hollywood movie stars and N.B.A. players."

My question for Friedman would be this: did Carl Sagan revolutionize teaching? He was a learned scholar, and his "Cosmos" programs were seen probably by millions (maybe even "billions and billions"?), and he achieved celebrity and pop culture fame. But his success at popularizing science did not change the way we learn.

Moreover, Friedman really does not seem to understand the difference between MOOCs and online education (or using online resources in traditional classes). The key word in the acronym is "massive." These courses purport to be able to do for tens (even hundreds) of thousands of students what college and university classes do for dozens or at most hundreds now.

But he blithely slides into a discussion of the "blended model" in which online lectures are "combined with teacher-led classroom experience." There is simply no way this can be done in a MOOC. There can be no meaningful "teacher-led classroom experience" that is also "massive."

Friedman actually says "we have to get beyond the current system of information and delivery--the professorial 'sage on a stage.'" I had to read that twice to be sure he really said that--MOOCs are the ultimate "sage on a stage" experience. Those 20 million Chinese views he earlier extolled were pure "sage on a stage." The MOOC is almost exclusively a means of information delivery. Yet Friedman seems utterly unaware of the contradiction.

What MOOCs promise (at least as represented in Friedman's fevered prose) is ultimately impossible. Their massive nature precludes it. He says, for example, that all that matters now is that you "can prove you mastered the competency." How does a MOOC do this? If the competency is critical thinking, no professor, even with assistants, can judge that in a MOOC. So what are MOOCs moving toward? Peer grading. So the people who decide whether you have "mastered the competency" are also people who are in the process of mastering the competency themselves. In what other area would anyone accept such a proposition?

Peer evaluation can be a good teaching tool. In our Historiography and Research Methods course here at Wofford, we do a peer evaluation exercise. But the actual grade is not assigned by another student. The professor grades both the essay under peer review and the review itself. Having done this many times, I can assure you that students cannot competently grade each other--certainly not without oversight. Many times a student will "correct" something that is not wrong or offer terrible advice that would make the essay worse rather than better. Only someone who has mastered the competency already is in a position to judge those things.

Friedman makes an obligatory nod to the "huge value in the residential college experience and the teacher-student and student-student interactions it facilitates." But, he continues, they cannot survive without "blending in technology." That just shows how little Friedman understands current realities. That's being done all the time--but NOT in MOOC style. (A tool like Moodle, e.g., allows for posting PDFs and videos to an online syllabus, as well as online discussion, and is used widely at Wofford College right now).

The real problem is what Friedman thinks technology can do. Technology, he says, can "improve education outcomes in measurable ways at lower costs."

That's the fantasy at the heart of MOOC mania. The very things that create that "huge value" are not "measurable," and cannot come at "lower costs." As I wrote in my previous MOOC post, the mirage is the same old one: a quick, cheap technological fix.

Friedman says "We still need more research on what works." While more research and more data is always good, I disagree. We know what works: dedicated teachers, low student-faculty ratios, experts who give concrete individual feedback on student work. We know these things work. They just don't come cheap.

If American society were determined to provide better educational opportunities to more people, it could do so without a single MOOC. There are thousands upon thousands of unemployed or underemployed PhDs out there, ready, willing, and able to give students the individual attention they need to thrive. But that does not come at "lower costs."  It is time to face the fact that in American higher education, we want the quick pay-off and we want it cheaply. This is the short-term corporate mindset come to education. We could simply make a choice to invest in more colleges, to increase the government funding given to state universities. Instead, as a nation, we have been disinvesting in higher education. We lack the will to put the money into it. MOOCs foster the illusion that we can have our cake and eat it too.

One footnote on the benefits of the old ways of doing things: I read Friedman's column the old-fashioned way. In print. Right along side it on the page was another op-ed by David Toscana entitled "The Country That Stopped Reading," about the education system in Mexico. One sentence struck me: "In our schools, children are being taught what is easy to teach rather than what they need to learn." That is the danger of MOOCs--that we will let the technology drive what we teach. As Toscana says, "it’s not about pedagogical theories and new techniques that look for shortcuts. The educational machine does not need fine-tuning; it needs a complete change of direction. It needs to make students read, read and read."

Does anyone think MOOCs will do that?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Perverse, Anti-democratic Logic of Antonin Scalia

This past week, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the Voting Rights Act. The nearly 50 year old landmark legislation is under challenge by those who claim that its work is effectively done. The challengers argue there is no need for states (and other areas) with a history of discriminatory tactics to be under any special burden to show that proposed changes in voting practices will not be discriminatory.

Some of the "questions" from Justices John Roberts and Antonin Scalia have received a lot of attention: Roberts for falsely claiming that Massachusetts had the worst record of racial disparity in voter registration, and Scalia for despicably calling the continuation of the current provisions of the Voting Rights Act the "perpetuation of a racial entitlement."

Scalai made another less obviously loathesome, but just as disturbing, statement. With stunning arrogance, he claimed that the unanimous vote in the Senate in 2006 to reauthorize the act is precisely why it needs to be ruled unconstutional. Pointing to the widespread support for the law, he said: "Now, I don’t think that’s attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this." (It never seems to occur to him that we might have a political consensus that we need it.)

Scalia evidently not only believes that he has the ability to read the minds of the Framers of the Constitution, but also believes he can read the minds of today's legislators. Those 98 senators (and by extension the 390 members of the House) who voted for it did so not out of conviction, but because there was no benefit in voting against it: "I don’t think there is anything to be gained by any Senator to vote against continuation of this act."

What a bizarre argument: the Court must step in and rule the law unconstitutional because Congress won't vote against it. The law, it seems, is too popular, and that's why it needs to go.

As I've written before, Scalia does not make a constitutional argument: he decides on a politically preferable outcome and figures out how to achieve that result, with no concern for consistency or principle.

What is particularly sickening about Scalia's approach to this question is that, on a superficial level, it echoes the arguments for Court decisions in civil rights cases like Brown v. Board of Education. Because local and state governments had systematically disenfranchised black voters, the political process in those places had in fact become a "racial entitlement"--for whites. That made it impossible for the political system to produce a just and constitutional outcome because that local political consensus (among whites) effectively prohibited political participation by black members of the community. As long as that was true, there was no "benefit" to legislators to vote to end Jim Crow. It was thus necessary for the Court to step in and rectify that situation by ruling against segregation.

Scalia, in what strikes me as a disgustingly cynical inversion, now argues that our current mechanism for insuring the right to vote is a similar flaw in our system: it creates, Lord help us, a situation in which elected representatives see no advantage in opposing the means of insuring the right to vote. 

That is exactly what it was meant to do. A well-functioning democracy requires that its citizens have equal access to the ballot box. When all members of society have that access, they can protect their own rights through the democratic process. That was the purpose of the Voting Rights Act--and that result is what Scalia finds objectionable.

Yes, Justice Scalia, no senator sees benefit in voting against legislation that protects the most basic right of a citizen in a democracy. But no, it is not a problem. It is a solution.

That Scalia equates the evidence of the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act with the evidence of the effectiveness of Jim Crow tells us all we need to know about his approach to this question. That a member of the Court today could espouse such views is evidence of how far we still have to go to achieve the "color-blind" society Scalia would like to pretend we've already achieved.