programming note

Hey gang, I’m writing to let you all know that I’ll be blogging for Andrew Sullivan while he’s on vacation next week. Feel free to come and check it out, starting Monday morning. I’m excited.

Posted in Meta | 20 Comments

the subtle approach in the age of clickbait

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Posted in Meta | 7 Comments

my letter to Phyllis Wise, Chancellor at UIUC

Dear Dr. Wise,

I am writing to ask that you please reconsider the decision made by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to rescind an offer of employment to Dr. Steve Salaita. As an academic and a public writer, I am deeply disturbed by the consequences for intellectual and academic freedom when scholars are judged not by the quality of their work but by the popularity of their political opinions. Israel’s conduct in the Palestinian territories is a matter of great and legitimate public controversy, one which has inspired passionate reactions from both sides of the argument. Every day, the conflict is discussed with emotion and conviction by a multitude of voices, from a diverse and complex array of actors. To punish Dr. Salaita because he happens to hold positions considered extreme by those in a position of particular power and institutional authority cuts directly against the spirit of free inquiry that is the lifeblood of the research university. Some have questioned Salaita’s tone, but to police tone is to police speech. There is no clear dividing line where legitimate expression ends and illegitimate tone begins.

My grandfather was John James deBoer, who served for decades as a professor of Education at your university. It’s a connection to UIUC that I have long cherished. During his time there, he and several other colleagues were the subject of a vicious campaign of McCarthyism, thanks to their socialist and pacifist beliefs. He and his colleague Norman Cazden were specific targets of the notorious Broyles Bills, a set of Illinois state bills that were expressly designed to punish political dissidents. In many ways, this campaign deeply damaged my grandfather’s life. But he had the benefit of tenure, and so was able to serve out the rest of his career at UIUC. His colleague, Dr. Cazden, was pre-tenure, and his career was destroyed. Now, we can only look back and regret the terrible legacy of the anti-Communist panics of last century.

To deny Dr. Salaita a job for which he was already approved, on the basis of his controversial political beliefs, is to draw from the same poisoned well. I urge you and others within the administration at UIUC to consider whether this action is something that the university will ever look back on with pride. Please stand for academic freedom by reinstating your offer of employment to Dr. Salaita.

sincerely yours,

Fredrik deBoer
Doctoral Candidate in Rhetoric & Composition
Purdue University

Posted in Education, Meta, Popular & Digital Writing | 1 Comment

sometimes they’ll just show you the strings

Here’s The New Republic‘s Hillary Kelly, ostensibly talking about how you shouldn’t say you’re from the city when you’re really from the suburbs, and really about how Hillary Kelly is a cool and interesting person, and therefore also about how Hillary Kelly feels like she has to sell everybody on the idea that she’s a cool and interesting person, and therefore probably doesn’t really feel like a cool and interesting person. Oh, it’s also about how Hillary Kelly’s Cool Story Bro boyfriend tells a Cool Story Bro story sometimes. I’m really entirely unclear on why I’m reading about Hillary Kelly’s boyfriend’s inane geographical musings, but then I guess that’s the internet.

Do you think she’s aware that there are many large cities in the world, such as Mexico City and Tokyo, where there simply is no clear dividing line between the city and the suburbs? That, in fact, the notion of such a clear boundary is foreign to many cultures and governments? I mean, that would be an important point to make, in an argument about how the suburbs aren’t the cities! It’s the sort of knowledge that, if you’re being paid real money to write something for a professional magazine like The New Republic, you might bother researching. But oh well!

Perhaps next time save that one for the Tumblr. Or just say the hell with it and literally write “everybody be envious of my interesting life!” You know, for economy of expression’s sake.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing | 37 Comments

Blogarach and Wilkinson on BHTV

My all-time favorite blogger and true mensch Jacob Bacharach has a conversation with liberaltarian writer and cartoonist Will Wilkinson on Bloggingheads. I can’t wait to go check it out. You come, too.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

the very real difficulty of identifying patch writing

While putting the finishing touches on a draft chapter of my dissertation recently, I happened to go digging around in the research archives one more time. I felt that one section, about the earliest advocates of large-scale assessment of higher education, was missing that killer quote. I happened to find an unpublished dissertation that considered some of the same themes as my own, but which used a very different methodology and which comes from a different programmatic background than mine. I found a good source to look up there, which leads as always to the dilemma: am I obligated to cite the place where I found another citation? Does the obscurity of that source matter? Certainly, if what I had found through that dissertation was some obscure manuscript, I would have cited the dissertation as well, but in fact the source was just another scholarly journal article. As is often the case, I would have found it myself if I had just slightly altered search terms. (I often think of Law & Order episodes where there is some controversy about an illegal search, and the prosecutors argue inevitable discovery.)

Reading further, I was somewhat surprised to find how many other sources we shared. Looking back, I shouldn’t have been. The topics I’m researching include very obscure avenues of education assessment, psychometrics, and the history of higher education policy. But it was worrisome to see a half dozen or so shared citations, even while I knew that there were far more references that we did not share. Most disturbingly, we had even quoted some of the same passages and sentences, although where we chose to truncate those sentences was different. At that point, I had a mini-panic attack; was I guilty of plagiarism? Of course not. I had written this stuff down weeks before I had found this other dissertation. But the implications were disturbing: if my advisor or another reader compared my work to this other researcher’s, it might cause them to question the originality of my work. I ended up quoting and citing the dissertation as a way to touch that base. That sort of self-defensive approach to plagiarism or the appearance of same comes from my years-long experience in academic writing.

I tell you this story because of the accusation of plagiarism that has been leveled against Rick Perlstein, the historian of contemporary conservatism. Craig Shirley, himself a biographer of Ronald Reagan, has accused Perlstein of copying and pasting some of his work, of patchwriting, and of insufficiently sourcing his research. I can’t really adjudicate the fairness of these accusations at present, as Shirley has not yet presented his full claims or evidence. I doubt very much that Perlstein intentionally plagiarized Shirley, but I am unable to say that this attitude is a matter of addressing the accusation rather than the accused. I admire Perlstein’s work very much, and there’s some significant overlap in our politics, so it’s hard for me to doubt his integrity. (In a remarkable lapse of ethics of his own, Fred Barnes fails to disclose in that Weekly Standard piece that he himself wrote the forward to Shirley’s book.)

Patchwriting is a very sticky issue. In the Poynter piece I linked to above, it is discussed as a type of dishonest practice in which “rather than copying a statement word for word, the writer is rearranging phrases and changing tenses, but is relying too heavily on the vocabulary and syntax of the source material. It’s a form of intellectual dishonesty that indicates that the writer is not actually thinking for herself.” In other words, this is not strict copy-and-paste plagiarism, but rather plagiarism wherein the writer changes some minor syntactic and stylistic features but preserves the information and content of the original. I certainly agree that this practice is bad business, one which prevents students from learning the necessary moves for writing well, and one which amounts to stealing from the original author. But I also think that it can be hard to say where appropriate paraphrasing ends and patchwriting begins, and it’s even harder to tell the difference between someone drawing from the same sources and someone copying.

As I said before, when boring down into great detail about very specific subjects, it becomes common to find that only a handful of other people have written about your subjects. And without getting into an epistemelogical debate, facts are facts, more or less, and we can expect for different people to come to the same conclusions quite frequently. This is a particular issue when the topic is history; two different historians investigating the same time periods and people will inevitably dig up some of the same stories. Facts, famously, cannot be copyrighted. During the Benny Johnson dust up, I was quite convinced that Johnson was a serial plagiarist, and I think there’s tons of evidence that he had lifted text word-for-word from other sources without attribution. I think firing him was appropriate. But there were also accusations that seemed less clear to me, places where he had paraphrased historical or factual information that, while too close to other people’s materials, seemed more a matter of clumsy paraphrasing and bad judgement. More, I’m not sure that if you put several similar paraphrases or discussions of the same material against each other, I could safely say which was a matter of intellectual theft and which was coincidence.

Again, I don’t say any of this to exonerate Johnson. I think Buzzfeed dismissing him was an appropriate step. But I do think that we have a tendency to slide very quickly from the obvious, identifiable problems of copy-and-pasting plagiarism to the harder to define, harder to defend accusation of patchwriting. The current structure of the “content” business just makes this more difficult. With the constant claims of joke stealing in stand up comedy, I’ve often thought that, with so many people trying to make it in that industry, different comics legitimately coming up with the same material seems inevitable. Likewise, in an era of so many people writing online, and writing about the same small handful of subjects thanks to the economics of the industry, some overlap is inevitable. So how do you adjudicate that? I don’t know.

In Purdue’s introductory composition classes, there’s a mandatory, weekly conferencing session for all students where they work with their instructor individually or in small groups. It’s a major investment of resources, and there are always administrators asking why we bother. But when I was teaching freshman comp, I found these sessions immensely useful. I actually felt that I got more real teaching done in these small groups than in any other part of the class. Beyond the pedagogical value, conferencing was the only way I felt confident that I was minimizing (not eliminating) plagiarism in my class. With the internet making plagiarism a constant temptation, the only way I truly felt that I could substantially curtail the problem was by seeing student writing through from beginning, to middle, to end. Usually, the students just weren’t savvy enough to plagiarize without my noticing. They’d go from having nothing to having a totally polished, impressive draft, or they’d have a piece that was sketchy and unfinished and suddenly several clean paragraphs that didn’t really connect. And Google helped, as well. But I know that there were likely some smart plagiarists who, with enough effort and smarts, could put one over on me. The fear with plagiarism is that what you can really punish isn’t so much plagiarizing as failing to do it well.

That’s my  fear with plagiarism outside of the classroom, too. But I’m also afraid of accusing those who didn’t plagiarize, in part because I know how easy it can be to appear to have done so, and because the accusation is rightly very serious and potentially damaging. It’s a sticky, sticky set of problems.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing, Prose Style and Substance | 3 Comments

contemporary culture is the opposite of solipsistic

In a piece about the concept of “relatability,” inspired in part by Ira Glass’s dopey complaints about Shakespeare, Rebecca Mead writes:

to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

Relatability is indeed a somewhat troublesome lens through which to look at art, and given that Glass’s take on Shakespeare was the hottest of hot takes, I’m happy to read some criticism of both. But this is odd. Selfies are the opposite of solipsism; they are the creation of a perspective that is entirely alien to the person taking them. None of us can naturally see our own face. We build mirrors precisely to get outside of our own perspective. We use the camera to put ourselves in the position of other people. Call that what you’d like, but it isn’t solipsistic.

Complaints that we’re all self-obsessed are evergreen, but I think that they badly miss the point in our current technological moment. Rather than being obsessed with our own point of view, I think we are instead in an era in which we are obsessed with the gaze of others. Yes, we are watching others watch us, and so there’s a second order sense in which we are still the subject of our own drama. But rather than being uninterested in the point of view of others, I think we have constructed an immense digital apparatus to focus on little else. There’s the obvious culprit of social media and blogs (like this one), where the opinions of others are fed to us in an endless stream. But there’s also Most Emailed lists, Netflix and Amazon recommendations (based on “people like us,” whoever that might be), algorithms that measure popularity or “virality,” online reviews, crowdsourcing…. All of this, I think, has consequences for what it means to be a person, and I am afraid not that we’re too much ourselves but that we’ve forgotten how to be, without instantaneous information about how other people are.

In a piece on the internet phenomenon that is performatively hating Zach Braff, Noel Murray writes:

I think the phenomenon Fritz is describing is just an unfortunate byproduct of how the cultural discourse has developed in the Internet age. Even though we live in an era of fragmentation, where people can more easily seek out and enjoy their own niche entertainments or opinions, the conversation online often seems to presume—or to push for—a monoculture. It’s almost as though we’re all anxious for some certainty: a point of view shared so widely that dissenters are singled out as freaks or morons. Often that means that movies most people don’t feel strongly enough about either to defend or dispute get defined by a passionate few, who want to make sure that the default position on a film like Garden State is that it’s an abomination.

Of all of my many petty complaints about online culture, this is the one that bums me out the most: that a set of technologies that enable limitless diversity in tastes seem to push towards numbing consensus. Take, for example, the phenomenon of the perfect “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the people who punish critics for spoiling one. I find this totally bizarre: critical unanimity on any piece of art means that criticism has failed, because a critical establishment that does not represent a diversity of opinion must be one that has systematically excluded a particular point of view. And any artwork that everybody likes must be, in a certain deep sense, toothless and unthreatening. More and more, I find that the middlebrow projects that receive the most unified, unbroken praise are fine but boring, crafted to be critic-proof, beautiful but safe.

Undoubtedly, human beings paying attention to what other human beings think is a good thing. Perhaps this type of chronic obsession with the hive mind is a necessary precondition of a new era of empathy and consideration. If so, I’ll gladly make the trade. But I worry about what it means to exist as a thinking individual when the subtle conditioning of other people’s opinions is a constant. And I’m worry about these passionate young writers who seem deeply uncomfortable with being disliked, when being disliked is a natural consequence of writing things worth reading. What I think is possible, and worth fighting for, is a culture where we strive to understand one another, but can achieve that understanding, recognize disagreement, and live comfortably with the mutual rejection of someone else’s opinion.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing | 11 Comments

things people should stop writing, part 1,234

The whole “I’m not even going to link to/quote from/respond to X thing that somebody wrote….” deal.

1. Not linking to, quoting from, or responding to that thing does not mean it does not exist.
2. If you’re writing those words, you already are responding to it.

Posted in Meta | 10 Comments

exactly what I’m talking about, re: journalist tenure

So in our recent Bloggingheads, Conor Friedersdorf and I talked about my claim that journalists and pundits, once they reach a particular career rung, seem to enjoy life-long tenure that makes them totally unaccountable for mistakes. Conor was singularly unimpressed with this line of reasoning. Well, look at his colleague at the Atlantic, David Frum, and his heartless, destructive, and absurd allegations of photo fraud against the New York Times and a decorated  photo journalist. He slandered the photographer, heaped disrespect on the grief stricken, traumatized Palestinians in the photos, and then issued a classic weaselly non-apology. All while occupying a professional role that is supposed to place a premium on journalistic  responsibility and care in public pronouncements.

So: will there be professional consequences for Frum? If not, why not? What would it take for an imperial messenger like Frum to face formal, professional censure from his employer?

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing | 6 Comments

Dear Americans: every exploding building is not 9/11

I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating.

9/11 was a crime and a tragedy. It was one crime and tragedy in a long history of humanity’s capacity for evil. I don’t diminish the loss of life; nothing could. But I insist that people acknowledge that similar or worse has been meted out again and again in history, and often by people Americans see as “the good guys.” You can acknowledge the enormity of the pain and anger that 9/11 caused without acting like 9/11 was a wholly unique historical crime, or as if the loss of those lives was somehow worse than the loss of countless other lives from intentional human destruction.

Here is a poster for the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.

Here’s a taste of the public reaction. (And here and here, etc.) This is supposed to be inherently tasteless and shocking, I suppose, because it’s got a building blowing up and the release date is September 11th. The building that’s blowing up does not resemble the World Trade Center or the Pentagon in the least. It’s just a blowing up building. Buildings blowing up is, I’m sorry to say, a perfectly common feature of contemporary big-budget movies. If you find that stupid and vacuous, I agree. But as I said last year, the insistence that any shot of urban devastation is inherently a reference to 9/11 is exactly the kind of self-obsession that drives much of the rest of the world nuts about America. It’s an thoughtless, reflexive kind of American chauvinism, the unexamined assumption that what happens here is more important than what happens anywhere else, and that American lives are worth more than others. Buildings were blown up in other countries before 9/11, and they have been blown up after 9/11, and they are blowing up right now. If you think that buildings blowing up is necessarily a matter of sensitivity only to Americans, I suggest you spend a little time in Gaza.

By the way: the poster is for Australia.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing | 3 Comments

Campbell’s Law in action

My friend Isaac Butler of Parabasis clued me in to a nice little illustration of Campbell’s Law, which states “The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” Try doing a Google search for any prominent figure, organization, or event in US history, and start typing in “APUSH” after. For most things you’ll see the term pop up along with a bunch of related terms like quiz, timeline, notes, questions, etc. APUSH stands for “AP US History.” The Google suggestions come from students trying to get information for the test.

Now you can certainly make the case that there’s nothing wrong with using the internet to fortify your learning and your research. I’m guessing that a lot of kids are doing this to skip out on reading their textbooks, which their teachers probably wouldn’t be thrilled about, but I’m somewhat sympathetic to that viewpoint. But the bigger issue is this: I doubt there’s very much difference in the thinking of students who go out of their way to legitimately get more information and students who go out of their way to cheat the system. In fact I think experience tells most teachers that, when it comes to tests like the AP US History exam, the distinction is illusory. This students are interested in achieving a particular score on a test that they see as having immediate incentives for them. The challenge of learning US history is merely an impediment to that goal, so they will subvert that challenge if they can and acquiesce to that challenge if they must. By instrumentalizing knowledge of our country’s history, we have placed the priority of scoring highly on a test that contributes to a student’s college applications above the priority of actually understanding history in terms of content and as a methodology.

All of this is eminently predictable, and was in fact predicted by critics. Perhaps the elevation of the test above the material will have the beneficial consequence of more students learning about history, I don’t know. I do know that the inevitable consequence of rampant standardized testing is generations of students whose interest in the tests far exceeds their interest in the material. That’s a rational response to the world they’re living in. The question is whether the policy makers will ask if it’s rational on their end as well.

Posted in Education | 14 Comments

two recommendations and a note

I’d like to take a minute to make a couple of reading recommendations and to offer an explanation. First, I can’t recommend this Jacobin piece by Allie Gross highly enough. It’s an exhaustively researched piece of investigative journalism, and totally damning of Detroit’s charter school and the profiteers who have created them.

Second, I’d like to recommend this Gabriel Rossman piece on the incredible aggravations of peer review, and where they come from. My recommendation, I assure you, has nothing to do with recent events in my day-to-day life as an academic, trying to build a career like anyone else, buffeted by the whims of a system that is set up to make accountability and transparency impossible. Nothing at all!

Finally: please forgive me for what an awful correspondent I can be. I’m temperamentally bad at responding to correspondence, because a) I find it incredibly difficult to face up to praise and support, and b) because I think to myself “I need to reply to this email” and then put it into the filing cabinet of my mind and then push that filing cabinet into the sea. It’s not intentional. I just think “I’m gonna answer that email!” and then it’s three months later and it’s weird for me to just write back.

But I’m also just crazy busy right now. I’m not complaining; I know you’re busy, too. But just to give you a flavor of where I’m at right now:

  • I’m dissertating. So far this summer I’ve written two draft chapters (which will need extensive revision, of course) and am just sitting down to start a third.
  • I’m collecting research and interviews for my dissertation.
  • I’m rating exams for Purdue’s Oral English Proficiency Test.
  • I’m trying to send out an article in the next couple weeks, as the incredibly slow turnaround times of academic publishing means that if I want to get any credit  for a new article on the job market in a few months, I need to send stuff out yesterday.
  • I’m prepping for an oral English skills “boot camp” for the computer science program coming up in a couple weeks.
  • I’m doing editing for a project out of the Education department.
  • I’m taking a class in advanced qualitative research methods just for fun, to the confusion of pretty much all of my peers and professors.
  • I’m prepping for a major assessment project for our introductory composition program this fall.
  • I’m trying to see if I can learn enough to create a database website for a not-for-profit, academic resource I would like to start.
  • I’m writing a review for an online journal.
  • I’m getting ready for an exciting writing opportunity I’ll share with you all soon.

So those are my excuses. Which, you know. Everybody’s got one. Just please know that if you’ve written to me I intend to write you back. It just might take some time.

Posted in Meta | 7 Comments

the higher education assessment sour spot

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a qualified supporter of the Collegiate Learning Assessment+, the Council for Aid to Education’s standardized test of college learning that is the subject of my dissertation. For awhile now, I’ve been poking away at a post about why; it sometimes disturbs my fellow education reform skeptics to hear that I am supportive in the use of a standardized test (as long as that test is used with critical, careful understanding). I hope to finish that piece before the new school year starts, so you can get a better idea of my thinking. Suffice is to say for now that, like Richard Shavelson, one of the developers of the CLA, I don’t think that any one test can tell us everything we need to know about college learning, but that some tests can tell us some things of interest, and that there are reasons to believe the CLA+ is superior to some alternatives. In the meantime, I do want to mention one pitfall not just for the CLA but for any standardized test: the low student stakes/high institutional stakes trap.

One of the foremost criteria for any test instrument is that test’s validity. In simple terms, validity refers to whether a test measures that which it purports to measure. (This straightforward notion of validity is now often referred to as “face validity.”) There is a vast literature on the various kinds of validity and how to assess them, and that kind of meta-research is some of the most fascinating and complex I’ve read. But even aside from the grander questions, validity is important for everyone whose life is impacted by a test. We need to feel confident that a test measures what it is understood to measure.

One question in test validity is the question of student motivation. When we give a test, we want students to work at the best of their ability; otherwise, we introduce construct-irrelevant variance, which undermines our ability to interpret the test’s results. In many or most educational contexts, student motivation isn’t a problem: because tests help determine grades, and grades have direct stakes for students, we can generally assume that students are trying their hardest. Similarly, voluntary tests of academic or intellectual aptitude like the SAT, GRE, or LSAT generally are only taken by those who are motivated to score highly. Someone with no interest in attending graduate school would be very unlikely to take the GRE, while someone who is intent on attending graduate school would try their hardest. (Whether students are trying their hardest on the vast number of standardized tests now being implemented in our K-12 schools is a question I leave to you to ponder.)

A test like the CLA+, currently, is not like that. The CAE has talked at length about their hopes that the CLA+ will become a recognized standard for employers and graduate schools (here’s their information for employers), but at present, it’s unlikely that there is much advantage for students putting their CLA+ scores on their resumes, or much chance that a particular employer would know how to interpret those scores. A certain critical mass of students and institutions participating would have to be reached before the potential benefit to students on the job market is realized. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that there are competitors to the CLA+, other tests of college student learning that could potentially be adopted by colleges themselves. (The Spellings Commission report, though it mentions the  CLA by name, only calls for “interoperable” test measures, not one universal test of college learning.) Currently, colleges often have to provide some sort of incentive for their students to take the test, such as discounts for graduation or similar. As it stands, I think most anyone would conclude that the CLA+ is a  low-stakes test for students.

And yet, if the Obama administration gets its way, the test will have high stakes for colleges and universities. As has been much-discussed, the Obama White House has called for the creation of a set of national college rankings, based on which schools do the best job teaching undergraduates and which provide the most “value.” Assessments like the CLA+ are to be a key part of the creation of the rankings. Those rankings, in turn, will be tied to how much federal aid and subsidies colleges are able to access. While we can debate the wisdom or efficacy of this plan, or the values and conceptions of education that are implicit in these rankings, most anyone would say that this makes the test high-stakes for institutions.

That low-stakes/high stakes divide represents a challenge to the fair use of the test, particularly given that student perception of the stakes involved has a direct impact on student performance. In 2010, Braden Hosch, an administrator at Central Connecticut State University (my alma mater!), published a study on the administration of the CLA at CCSU. He found that student motivation played a strong role in determining test scores, and that strong student motivation was not universal. Last year, a major study by researchers from the Educational Testing Service demonstrated that motivation made a large impact on performance on ETS’s Proficiency Profile, one of those competitors to the CLA+. The researchers told one group of students that their test results would be linked to them in the future, that their professors and college would have access to this data and use it to assess them. Those students performed consistently and significantly better than those who were not told that the test’s results would follow them. Clearly, then, a student’s perception of a test’s importance plays a strong role in their test scores.

We can therefore easily imagine a “sour spot” for this type of assessment. Students could, sensibly, continue to see the test as an unimportant task for their own lives, while institutions could face serious consequences if their students don’t perform to the peak of their ability. Since the CLA+ is a value-added metric, this problem would be particularly acute if seniors take the test less seriously than freshmen do. Given the tendency of freshmen to be so malleable and gung-ho in comparison to upperclassmen — I’ve often joked that first-semester freshmen would consent to washing my car without blinking an eye, if I put it on a syllabus — that’s a legitimate concern. This difference in the intrinsic stakes for these tests between students and institutions is one of my foremost fears. It could cause public policy to go wrong in a very serious way.

The easiest way to ameliorate this problem is for administrators, politicians, and policy makers to maintain an appropriate skepticism towards this kind of test in general, and to see such assessments as only one part of a broad perspective on what a college does and should do. That type of probity, I’m sorry to say, can be hard to find in a politicized educational environment.

Posted in Education | 3 Comments

Hey Spencer Ackerman: do you still think Libya ended successfully?

Back in 2011, the Libyan intervention was a bit of an obsession of mine. It wasn’t just that we were starting yet another deployment of American military power in the Middle East. It was how desperate liberals, after years of complaining about Iraq, wanted to be seen as tough, cool, and serious. Self-styled liberals and progressives fell all over themselves to declare this a good war. When it comes to foreign policy, American political journalists and analysts fall into two camps: those who support every conceivable military operation imaginable, and those who take a kind of tick-tock approach to warmaking, being sure to balance their rejection of one conflict with the aggressive embrace of another, in order to prove how Very Serious they are in the village that is elite political media. A potential third alternative– a profoundly necessary alternative, given the last decade and a half of American failure– is a set of pundits and journalists who recognize that military intervention is almost always a disaster for both America and the people on whose behalf our military supposedly intervenes, and who therefore oppose military adventurism and aggressive foreign policy as a matter of principle. This third alternative essentially does not exist within connected, elite media.

In the immediate aftermath of the Libyan intervention, Ackerman spoke for the liberal hawks, if only after the fact. Here’s what he had to say in 2011:

In the spirit of intellectual honesty, I need to concede that I got the Libya war wrong. Several Danger Room pieces under my byline ran this year predicting that Libya was an open-ended mission, lacked a clear plan for victory, and could lead to NATO peacekeepers battling post-Gadhafi insurgents. While reasonable people can disagree about whether the war was in the U.S. interest (or even legal), or whether President Obama portrayed it honestly, the fact is that the war successfully ended after eight months, contrary to consistent predictions on display here.

We owe it to you to acknowledge forthrightly that we were wrong, and probably too blinded with fears of Iraq 2.0. It’s not just the Pentagon that has trouble with predictions.

This is a Very Serious fellow! And a seriously very wrong fellow. Libya is in chaos. Nothing was finished. Nothing was successful. The country is broken, utterly broken. The political apparatus is in shambles. Basic governance has failed. Militias vie for control. Ordinary citizens lack any control of their country and suffer without basic services. All of this was predictable. Some of us warned as much at the time. Like me!

what actually matters– what has moral valence– is the material condition of the lives of the Libyan people. Nothing there is finished. Nothing is settled. To call it a democracy now would be an absurd act of projection. Many corrupt men are now freely operating in Libya, armed to the teeth and with a feeling of entitlement. Some of them want to execute homosexuals, oppress women, and adopt Islamic theocracy. Some want to ensure the ascension of their tribe or clan. Some just want to get their piece of the pie. But that’s the reality. There is neither security nor stability yet, and anyone who actually cares for the future of the Libyan people would admit that.

As I said at the time, the time frame of genuine humanitarianism– of ensuring that actual human beings are capable of living lives with basic material security and democratic power– is far, far longer than the time frame of pundit careerism. To declare Libya won at that date was wrong on its face, as there was no possibility that anyone could have safely said that security and political stability had been established. Those things take time, and I’m afraid our political media doesn’t have time to wait.

So Spencer. (In the spirit of intellectual honesty!) Care to revise your opinion on Libya?

Update: Some people are saying to me, well, it may not have ended successfully for Libya, but from the point of view of NATO, it was a successful mission. That doesn’t make any sense. The only pretext for this war was humanitarianism. There was never any self-defense argument made. Since the humanitarian outcome was the only goal, and the humanitarian  situation is a disaster, you can’t call Libya a win for intervention.

Posted in Meta | 13 Comments

a heated argument about teacher unions and teacher tenure

I’m grateful to Bloggingheads and Conor Friedersdorf for having me on again. This is an issue about which I feel great passion. I’d like to point you in the direction of this excellent Jacobin piece about the charter school takeover in New Orleans, which is pretty much exactly what I’m talking about with Conor here when I talk about sweeping changes to public education based on dubious methods.

By the way: the thumbnails of these are always maximally derpy, but I’m on another level in this one.

Posted in Education | 2 Comments