academia: November 2006 Archives

Idiocy of some sort, yes

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Hard to ignore the shot across the bow disguised as an IHE story this morning: Are College Students Techno Idiots?, where among other things, we learn that

A new report released Tuesday by the Educational Testing Service finds that students lack many basic skills in information literacy, which ETS defines as the ability to use technology to solve information problems.

Well, if by "report," they mean a PowerPoint deck that is stuffed with generalizations and bullet points, and atrociously designed in places, then yes, a report happened. I remember taking a little trip over to ETS to see what they were defining as Information Literacy™, and it all came rushing back to me as I revisited their Flash demo. My personal favorite is the task where a body is asking to take an email and to compose a single, persuasive PowerPoint-ish slide to present to a faculty advisor.

A persuasive slide? Umm. A healthy part of information literacy is, in fact, knowing that a single-slide PowerPoint is unlikely to be the best way to persuade one's faculty advisor. And there are similar difficulties all the way through the demo questions that I saw. There are some pretty weak attempts to instantiate "IL principles" that ignore the fact that most of what we do as "literates" is heavily context-based. I'm not sure that generic test scenarios are going to be the best way to assess this. Nor am I convinced that many of these "skills" can be reduced to right/wrong sorts of answers.

And of course, the folk who are supporting this study are those who have direct, vested interest in convincing us that there's some sort of IL crisis. Of course. Doesn't take a great deal of information literacy to suss that out.

Too much of this strikes me as Critical Thinking! With Computers! I suppose. Maybe that explains why it just leaves me feeling sour.

Snip snap snout.

The Ethics of Fit

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Like Donna, I've been finding myself blogging in the evening. More to the point, and a point I hope to change, I've been blogging each day in the 24th hour of the day, as the clock hits 11, and I realize that NotADayGoesBy Month will only be satisfied if I blog that very hour. I'm not sure that it's the best of strategies for me. But here I am again.

When I read Nels talking about searches yesterday, something he said stuck with me a bit. To wit,

It's hard to know who really wants to live in this area, who might have family they want to move closer towards (or further from). That's the stuff that really shapes who will fit here, but no one can know what all that stuff is. Even candidates don't always know. I mean, some people move expecting a certain kind of life (spouse finding a job, starting a family, hitting a certain kind of social scene) but finding something else. Some people end up happier in the process than they expected.

I wrote a while back about how I was only applying to places that I would seriously consider, but as I think I mentioned then, that's a luxury that far too few of us can afford. In other words, I think it's no secret that most of us must cast our nets widely in searches. Until academia's stripes change substantially, finding a job must take priority over finding the right job (and that's assuming that the "right job" is any less mythological than finding the "right partner," which I'm not sure about).

The problem with this, though, is that it leads to the kind of speculation that Nels talks about. This isn't a slam on him, because it's speculation that I've engaged in as well, and I presume that my applications at various times have been the object of such thought. But I want to suggest that this is a fine ethical line, one that gets crossed more often than we'd probably like to admit. Most of us harbor few illusions about the relative place of our institutions, and that may lead some to narrow down the mountainous stack of applications by engaging in a little prognostication.

And some forms of prediction have been rationalized approvingly in the field. Applicants to smaller liberal arts schools are advised to downplay their research, lest they be perceived as uninterested in teaching. At some places, "tenurability" is used in the same way that commentators at the NBA draft speak of "upside potential." I'm not sure, though, that these kinds of approaches to applications are all that different from more personal kinds of speculation. And I'm torn about the ethics of thinking in these terms.

I'm not suggesting that we can't bracket such speculation when we're making hiring decisions, or that it would be possible to avoid it altogether--I think it's natural to think in those terms, if we begin from the perspective that we're not hiring brains on sticks. But I also think that this kind of speculation is too far-ranging sometimes, that in the interest of making the "right choice," the concept of departmental "fit" is stretched to the breaking point. A lot of times, you can't know that you've made the right choice until a year or two into a person's time in a particular place.

For me, that's not justification to try and get it right during the search by trying to determine if a particular applicant will fit perfectly, and more importantly, it's not justification for deciding that certain applicants are applying just to be applying rather than out of genuine interest. It's natural to wonder, but impossible to answer. I've been thinking about this recently for reasons other than Nels' entry--I don't think he's crossing any sort of ethical line there. If anything, I think he's right to be honest about the kind of speculating that goes on in every search. I don't think we gain anything by pretending that it doesn't go on, or that we don't take some of these things into account as we make our hiring decisions.

I think it boils down, for me at least, to the conviction that if I'm not qualified for a position, so be it. But I'd just as soon not have strangers deciding that I wouldn't be interested in a position before I've had a chance to consider it. Even when we know that not every application that goes out or comes in is as serious as we might like, I think we're obliged to take it at face value, and to treat it as an expression of genuine interest. Anything less gets into real trouble, really quickly.

And no, I'm not talking here at the end about Nels' entry, about my own apps, or a search that we're doing (since we're not this year). I'm just saying.

Turnitinica Mars

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It was probably only a matter of time, what with Veronica Mars headed to college and all, for plagiarism to find its way into the plot of at least one episode. And tonight it did, as Veronica's paper for her Criminology class is "lit up like a Christmas tree" by the "plagiarism scanner" used at Hearst College to police its students. Don't read on if the episode's sitting on your TiVo...



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This page is a archive of entries in the academia category from November 2006.

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