Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Gen Ed-itorial

Why I don’t like our Gen Ed system. – Guest Column in the Daily Nebraskan

First, I’d like to note that I support Liberal Arts wholeheartedly by taking as many weird classes as I can. In fact, this semester I took classes in Marketing, International Studies, and Ed Psych. Which makes me uniquely qualified to… whine, I guess.

I don’t like forced gen eds. Value vanishes as sizes skyrocket and students conscripted into classes stop caring. The facebook group ‘Keep Your (bleeping) Hand Down in Lecture and Shut Up. No One Cares’ has 131,451 members as of this writing.

Unfortunately, in a big university it’s not easy to make sure that students are getting experience outside their major. You make a list of subjects that are important, and higher level courses have more requirements, sticking students in basic classes en masses.

Why Gen Eds Exist
Gen eds are seen as ways for the University to make more money. In the current gen ed system classes often don’t count after a student switches majors, but this image is more tied to the fact that the classes are seen as useless hurdles. And they often trip students, forcing graduation in 5, 6, or more years.

The problem is partly the current system of ES, IS, and BS (like history of rock), but that’s being worked on by the Gen Ed Planning team. Send ideas to John Janovy at jjanovy@unlserve.unl.edu, or search for ‘Review and Revision of General Education at UNL’ on the UNL website to learn more. And note that Educational Psych is useful!

Why Gen Eds Suck
There’s always fighting between professors who want to, you know, teach; administrators who want to, you know, keep student fees low with more people in each class; and students who want to, you know, get a degree on the cheap.

So we make classes huge and use TAs. I don’t like it. It forces students to ‘learn’ from TAs, professors to ignore their students, and administrators to deal with cranky professors, TAs, and students. But it’s kind of a necessary evil. Fees must be low and students must be educated, or at least lectured at and busyworked. Hence… the cranky teaching the bored on the cheap. Welcome to UNL.

The real problem I have with Gen Eds is that nobody cares about them. They’re just a hurdle to jump for everyone. But anyone could fix it. Which makes understanding why it’s not fixed even more…Byzantine. International Studies to the rescue.

Good Classes
I’ll start with Students, because you’re the bored ones reading this in your gen ed classes. Professors are good people. If you sign up for a high level class you’ll probably get in if you show you’re interested. You’ll likely have less work; Gen eds need busywork to make sure every loafer seems to learn.

The work will be harder, but there’ll be less of it. It might actually have a point. Try making a list of cool looking classes and signing up. You’ll be surprised what you get into, and if you can always drop later.

Small Hurdles
Administrators, try to make caring as easy as possible. Ignore complaints about diluting learning. Prereqs aren’t learning; they’re what’s required before you can learn. If you’re forced to pretend a hurdle isn’t something to jump, you resent hurdles and whoever the hell made hurdles so high. If a student is interested, they’ll learn. If not, they won’t. If they’re learning so they can move on, they want to learn fast and focused. Make it easy, and they’ll thank you for it.

If there are requirements for high-level classes that really only consist of a textbook, make it Keller Plan. Make every course you can Keller plan. If you get a reputation for efficiency, it pays off. Cultural Branding. (I was paying attention in Marketing, Prof. Epp. Please don’t fail me.) If you could get up to 490 level (read; cool) classes without years of prereqs more students would be willing to do it.

Keep In Touch
Professors, look at the gen ed requirements. I wonder why students are forced to take gen eds if professors don’t even care enough to know them. Audit a gen ed, see what students are being forced to sit through. Apathy is a conditioned response. Students are expected to complain; If professors whine, changes happen. If you aren’t a whiner, try fitting gen ed concepts into your lectures. If the students see you care, they might start.

Executive Summary
It’s not that students don’t want to work, we just don’t want to work more than we have to. Forcing students to waste time on busywork in huge, cheap classes isn’t what anyone wants, it’s a necessary evil. As long as we let hurdles stand, they will. I, for one, will keep taking crazy classes and ignoring requirements. Even if 131,478 (27 added) of you think I should keep my bleeping hand down.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

GCensus, Show Yourself.

I found a very cool project that overlays US Census data onto Google Earth maps. As US census data is notoriously difficult to use, I found it amazing. Only supported by three states, but I've contacted my State Gov about it and hope others do the same.(Form to send a Question to the Nebraska State Governor. Copy and paste this post as you please :))

Here's the link to the website, the link to the app (requires Google Earth), and the link to the Digg article.


I also made a couple of changes to the sidebar to the left. I added a neat widget from Show Yourself that displays all of your web 2.0 ids for people to click and stalk you with.

It's a good sign you're not famous if you're okay with people stalking you. Not happy about it... but it's sort of flattering.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

On Wordcounts

Minimum wordcount requirements don't make good papers.

Any discerning, unpretentious, and charisma-majoring student can write the same thing using sixty-three words as he could write in a seven word sentence through the use of conjunctions, hyphens, unnecessarily long lists, lengthy descriptions such as 'discerning, unpretentious, and charisma-majoring' and 'unnecessarily long lists,' and fluffy latin phrases which look pretty but have no real effect on meaning. Ecce signum.

Minimum wordcounts and page lengths seem to be poor substitutes for 'good idea' requirements. Imagine if a teacher required a paper with four good ideas. Any class except an honors class would be in an uproar, and even the honors class would be moderately sursurrant! I think that's what they call it when they're mad. How could you be sure that your ideas were 'good' and how could the teacher tell?

Actually, you can't and they couldn't. But who said learning was supposed to be easy? The same people who said that a class of a hundred can be taught by a single professor and five TAs, I suppose. If not easy, at least mass-produced. Good ideas are never mass-produced.

The only way to make sure your ideas were good would be to talk to the teacher about them (gasp!), and the only way the teacher could tell which ideas are the good ones would be to read the paper carefully and know the material. Grades would be challenged and discussed, perhaps even changed! Hmm… doubtful. More likely everyone would get an A. Seems like a win-win to me. Grade inflation at its finest, or at least purest.

A good paper would be famed for its shortness, its concise and clipped writing style. Fitting ten new ideas into a two-page paper would be a feat worthy of the ages!

So I guess I'd better wrap this up. Wordcounts and page lengths are bad replacements for thinking. Instead of forcing students to write a certain number of words or pages, more maximum page lengths without lower bounds should be used. They'd take less time to read, force students to choose their words more carefully, and stop forcing ridiculously pretentious BS into ten-page papers.

A bad paper is a bad paper and a good one always good, whether two pages or twenty. In the words of George Orwell, 'Never use a long word where a short one will do.'

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Orwellian rules for Writing

George Orwell's Politics and the English Language should be required reading for every blogger, writer, and especially every marketer.

He blasts sloppy, ambiguous language as a political tool but it applies just as well to marketing and writing in general. English, he argues, is increasingly sloppy just because we don't make it clean. He presents a few rules to solve the problem;

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Spam Filters

Management guru Peter Drucker once said that “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn't being said.” I suppose that being a guru entitles you to be, um, ‘deep,’ but if Mr. Drucker were to see the University of Nebraska-Lincoln today, he would have no trouble making his comment fit.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I find the University Spam Filters problematic. I send emails to a lot of professors asking questions about their classes, papers they’ve written, offering bribes, and generally being as… annoying? As vocal as possible.

And yet, every single letter has to be followed up with a phone call or even a visit in person, because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that these professors have not received my messages. No matter how short the message, how easily responded to, I must waste my time and theirs hoofing it around campus, risking my life dodging bicycles and that old guy on a skateboard for a simple “No, you can’t have my autograph.” The culprit is none other than the well-meaning spam filters which help our fine teachers and administrators by routing all unknown email, including that of students, right into the trash bin.

Lest you think that I am crazy, I am pro-spam filtering. I just wonder if it would be possible for those fine administrators of ours to allow email addresses other than internal memos and Bigred accounts through the machinery. A system for registering another email address to your student name would do the trick. I like having the Google staring over my shoulder at my letters too much to use Bigred for anything.

The most annoying part of the system is that I don’t even know if professors I’ve spoken to before have suddenly begun to hate me, or haven’t gotten my emails. It’s usually a pretty good question. I shudder to think of emails from outside the university which are left in spam bins to rot because nobody knows about our system. Would an email response letting you know when a letter has been consigned to purgatory be so hard?

I recognize the time saved by spam filters and appreciate that the University is keeping tuition down by saving professors time on their email, but I’d like my professors to hear what is being said. Then they can worry about the rest.