Commentators have often described the current batch of twenty-somethings as narcissistic materialists, and the growing number of university students majoring in business may seem to confirm that. In the United States, more than 20 percent of college students now major in business, up from 13.7 percent in 1970, and more than twice the number of any other field. But an article in today’s New York Times, “Millenial Searchers,” cites a recent study that shows most young people today — so-called millennials — actually want something more than money:
the No. 1 factor that young adults ages 21 to 31 wanted in a successful career was a sense of meaning. Though their managers, according to the study, continue to think that millennials are primarily motivated by money, nearly three-quarters of the young adults surveyed said that “meaningful work was among the three most important factors defining career success.”
Of course, “meaning” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, but a sense of meaning generally involves the feeling that a person’s life has purpose and value for both oneself and others. “People who lead meaningful lives feel connected to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself.”
Unfortunately, the economy today rewards only certain kinds of meaningful work. In another thoughtful piece in today’s Times, “The Real Humanities Crisis,” Gary Gutting distinguishes among three sources of meaning: material goods, social connections, and cultural development.
Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the material rewards it brings. To a lesser but still significant extent, our system provides meaningful work in service professions (like health and social work) for those fulfilled by helping people in great need. But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer.
If you’re a young person who wants to get rich or help those in need, you can probably find a job. But if you want to be an artist, writer, philosopher, historian, or cultural critic — if you want to be part of the humanities — you have a long row to hoe. The extremely talented and very lucky can do well for themselves, but the vast majority of cultural workers find the economic deck stacked against them. Gutting writes,
We are rightly concerned about the plight of the economic middle class . . . But we have paid scant attention to the cultural middle class, those with strong humanist interests and abilities who can’t reach the very highest levels, which provide almost all the cultural rewards of meaningful work.
Many cultural workers struggle to get by with adjunct teaching appointments, and one promising avenue for reform appears in efforts to improve the working conditions of contingent faculty. As Gutting writes, “If adjuncts don’t meet the standards to be part of the regular faculty, they shouldn’t be hired. If they do, they should be treated the same.”
Another reform that Gutting mentions would be to give the humanities some of the public funding that currently goes to college and professional sports, which in the United States enjoy enormous government largesse.
The online journal Spontaneous Generations recently published an issue on “Economic Aspects of Science” that addresses many of these dilemmas. It includes a piece of mine on “Public University Funding and the Privatization of Politics.”
On Monday my class on Science, Technology, and Politics will host a public lecture by Miriam Zoll, award-winning author of Cracked Open: Liberty, Fertility and the Pursuit of High-Tech Babies.
The book is an engaging, intensely personal memoir of Zoll’s five-year odyssey of using various assisted reproductive technologies to try to have a baby. Beginning when she was forty, Zoll and her loving husband go through several cycles of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Three attempts fail completely and one ends with a miscarriage.
Their next step is egg donation, and they worry about the ethical issues it raises. Ads in campus newspapers at Ivy League colleges have offered up to $100,000 for eggs from blonde women with high SAT scores and musical talent. And egg donation is a physically taxing process with potential risks to the donor. But having become “fertility junkies,” Zoll and her husband work with a clinic to make laborious arrangements with two egg donors, both of whom turn out to be infertile.
In the end, they happily adopt a child. Zoll makes clear, however, that her odyssey has left a mark. Many women who go through failed fertility treatments, she reports, experience symptoms that meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Assisted reproductive technologies have helped millions of people. But in the United States they are largely unregulated, and fertility clinics often seem driven more by financial interests and technological optimism than genuine medical concern.
One of the book’s main messages is that many young people lack basic information about human fertility and the success rate of IVF techniques.
According to a 2012 survey of undergraduates in the United States, Zoll reports, about half intended to have their last child between the ages of 35 and 44, but over two-thirds thought that female fertility does not significantly decline until after age 40. And well over half overestimated the chances of a woman conceiving after one IVF treatment. According to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, the rate of live births for women age 35-37 is about 30 percent, and for women 41-42 it’s about 12 percent.
Zoll’s mission is not to demonize assisted reproductive technologies, but to foster realistic public discussion about them. As she proceeds though the “fertility casino,” she learns that such discussion isn’t easy.
I was discovering that many couples whose treatments had failed never wanted to talk about it — and who could blame them? There was a cultural taboo, reinforced by the clinics themselves, that said we shouldn’t talk about our infertility or our miscarriages or the inability of science to solve our reproductive health challenges. It was this absence of truth telling that made the success stories sensationalized in the media so dangerously misleading.
For more on these issues, also see Zoll’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times.
If you’re in Sacramento, Zoll will be giving a public lecture on Monday, October 14, 3:00 – 4:15 p.m. in Mariposa 1000 at Sacramento State.
And she is scheduled to speak at the Avid Reader bookstore in Davis on Sunday, October 13 at 4:00 PM.
The summer is a memory, the new semester is well underway, and among other things, I’ve been pondering my approach to laptops and other electronic devices in the classroom. For several years now, I’ve banned laptops in my classes (with some exceptions), due to the many distractions they create. Whenever I polled my students, most said it was a good policy. And a lot of research suggests that multitasking is a myth.
But during the past year or so, many of my students have been turning to e-books for their course texts, and many no longer print out the assigned articles but read them online instead. One student last semester even did all her reading on her smart phone.
So I had to either stop asking them to have the reading in front of them during class, which is often useful for discussing difficult passages in philosophical texts, or I had to give up my laptop ban.
I talked with several colleagues about it. One colleague bans all electronic devices and asks students to leave if they sneak a look at their phone. Another waits until he sees students checking email or texting and them asks them to stop. Another says students are becoming more disciplined and it’s not really a problem anymore. Yet another takes a laissez-faire approach, saying that if students distract themselves or each other, that’s their problem.
For better or worse, here’s what it now says in my syllabus:
Some students like to use a laptop, tablet, or smart phone to take notes during class, and some students use wireless devices to read assigned articles and books. But in a classroom, wireless devices can be extremely distracting, not only for the person using the device but also for other students and the instructor. Several studies have shown that wireless devices may reduce student learning. The general policy of this course is that wireless devices may be used to take notes, but the wireless receiver must be turned off. Cell phones must be turned off or set to vibrate or mute. I will also ask students to close or put away wireless devices at specific times, such as during class discussions or when students are working in small groups. And of course students may not use wireless devices during exams, and not at any time for surfing, shopping, texting, playing games, checking email, or any other activities not directly related to the course. Violations of this policy will affect your grade. If you require special accommodation in this regard, please let me know.
So far it’s working out alright.
And although my students disagree on the policy itself, they have been eager to talk about it, which suggests that civilization may not be doomed after all.
Today at Sacramento State we’re hosting a symposium to honor our friend and colleague Jeff Lustig who died last June. Short talks by distinguished speakers will address the themes of Jeff’s work, focusing on California political ideas, history, and culture. The event is from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Sacramento State Alumni Center.
We’ll also announce the winner of the first Jeff Lustig Memorial Prize for an undergraduate research paper on social and political theory, university politics, and/or California politics.
William A. Dorman, Professor of Government, Emeritus, Sacramento State
Pia Lopez, Associate Editor, Sacramento Bee
Steve Lustig, Associate Vice Chancellor Emeritus, UC Berkeley, and Jeff Lustig’s brother
Charles Postel, Professor of History, San Francisco State
John Syer, Professor of Government, Emeritus, Sacramento State
Richard Walker, Professor of Geography, Emeritus, UC Berkeley
Update: A video of the event is available here.
Having stayed up late last night grading student essays, it was a special treat this morning to read on the front page of the New York Times that new grading software could have completed my work in seconds.
Essay grading software has been around for a while, but the article reports that EdX, a Harvard-MIT nonprofit online education provider, has developed new and improved software that will be available free online.
The problem is not only that such efforts exaggerate the educational potential of automated grading. And I could actually imagine that students might find it useful for improving early drafts of their papers, which they could then submit to a professor for evaluation and discussion.
What really bothers me is the gee-whiz reporting on educational technology, ignoring the economic conditions and political choices that got us into this mess.
The Hewlett Foundation recently sponsored a contest for designers of essay grading software, and one of the winners is now working on the project for EdX. The Times article reports:
“One of our focuses is to help kids learn how to think critically,” said Victor Vuchic, a program officer at the Hewlett Foundation. “It’s probably impossible to do that with multiple-choice tests. The challenge is that this requires human graders, and so they cost a lot more and they take a lot more time.”
This statement implicitly acknowledges the economic pressures driving the recent MOOC craze, but the article says nothing about such pressures. The article then summarizes the comments of Mark D. Shermis, a professor who supervised the contest:
With increasingly large classes, it is impossible for most teachers to give students meaningful feedback on writing assignments, he said. Plus, he noted, critics of the technology have tended to come from the nation’s best universities, where the level of pedagogy is much better than at most schools.
It’s doubtful that undergraduates at “the nation’s best universities” are more likely to enjoy professors with high-level classroom pedagogy, given that most such universities reward their faculty almost entirely for research and not teaching. And to the extent that the “level of pedagogy” is better at elite schools, my guess is that it’s primarily due to better conditions (smaller classes, lower faculty teaching loads, more resources), rather than better faculty pedagogy as such.
But what’s really infuriating about such statements is the way they treat “increasingly large classes” as a natural event, rather than the result of political decisions. For decades now, politicians and administrators have systematically defunded public higher education, and now we’re being told that the only remedy is to replace faculty with robots.
And even worse, the economic pressures that make automated grading seem attractive could easily lead to further degradation of academic work. As Jonathan Rees wrote a year ago:
Once you demonstrate that you can handle 50 essays per week with this new automated tool, they’re not going let you start assigning two essays per week. They’re going to double the size of the class to 100. Why? Because they can, that’s why. . . . The goal of automation is not to provide a better education. It’s to save taxpayers and students money.
So it really misses the point to argue about whether automated grading is good pedagogy. Let’s talk about the money.
There’s nothing wrong with fighting a losing battle. But try not to fight the wrong losing battle.
Yesterday California’s State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg introduced legislation that would require California public universities to award credit for online courses taught by outside institutions, including MOOCs (massive open online courses) taught by private companies like Coursera or Udacity. The goal is to reduce overcrowding and help the almost half million students at community colleges who are on waiting lists for the basic courses they need to graduate.
Unfortunately, the ongoing debate over the quality of MOOCs is a massive distraction from more fundamental obstacles to improving public higher education.
As Michael Meranze points out,
someone might be given pause by the fact that the Steinberg bill is an example of providing private capital with state funds rather than investing it in public education; that the usual venture capitalists are out in force insisting that this is all about access without mentioning their financial interests in this proposal, and that ACE [American Council on Education] is helping to streamline access for private corporations to capture markets with public authority.
Debating MOOCs also offers a comfortable way to avoid talking about spending priorities. Here are two often mentioned possibilities for improving public education with existing state revenue:
At the university level, shift funding from administration to instruction. According to the statistical abstracts for faculty and staff on the CSU website, between 1980 and 2010 the total number of faculty (full-time and part-time) went from 18,129 to 21,384. The number designated as “Executive, Administrative, Managerial, and Other Professional” went from 5,301 to 12,018. Put differently, between 1980 and 2010 the number of faculty increased by 17 percent, while the number of administrators increased by 127 percent.
At the state level, move funding from prisons to education. According to one recent analysis, “After adjusting for inflation, higher education in 2011 received 13% less State funding than it did in 1980. Corrections, on the other hand, expanded its share of the State’s General Fund by 436%.”
These are just two examples of the kind of things we’re not talking about when we’re talking about MOOCs.
All this reminds me of a line from the 1964 book Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan:
Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the “content” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.
McLuhan argued that people tend to focus their attention on the explicit content of a medium, such as the story told by a play or a film. But media always create effects that go beyond their explicit content. A film and a book might tell the same basic story, but they obviously create very different experiences.
Debates about MOOCs focus on the educational content of the technology, forgetting to ask whether even the best possible online courses would actually address the basic challenges facing public universities today.
I’m also reminded of that mantra of modern parenting: “pick your battles.” In politics that’s not always possible, but it’s worth remembering the battles we’re not fighting.