Weekend Reading: Mediocrity Edition

springSomehow it never ceases to amaze me how little people understand higher education, or have registered the pernicious effects of the shift away from full-time, tenure-track faculty over the past three decades. So, for example, here is Kevin Drum, who is a perfectly reasonable person, arguing that while computers might not be as good as readers at an Ivy League school, that’s not a reasonable comparison:

But the vast majority of grading isn’t done by top notch readers given plenty of time. It’s done by harried, mediocre readers. Can machines do as well or better than they do? Probably.

Harried, I’ll grant. The overreliance on adjuncts makes harried more or less par for the course.

But this notion that there is a wide gap–especially when it comes to teaching–between prestigious schools and more downmarket institutions makes me crazy, not least because it plays into higher education’s biggest myth: that the academic job market is a meritocracy. But the hiring practices of colleges and universities over the past couple of decades has meant that there are actually very strong faculty members at schools people have never heard of. The harried part-time faculty aren’t all that “mediocre,” either. Especially if those schools are in geographically desirable areas! It’s also foolish because the prestigious institutions tend to value research, not teaching, when it comes to promotion and tenure. (Also, I’ll admit that after hiring a pretty big research gap opens up between hires at elite research schools and other institutions, but that obviously has less to do with the quality of the faculty member in question than it does with relative resources and time.)

On to this week’s links!

  • It turns out that if you are going to steal guidelines about good poster design and pass them off as your own, you probably should not steal them from Colin Purrington: The 2 1/2 pages of tips in that section might seem oddly familiar if you’ve ever been on my site (approximately 90-95% similarity…and trust me, it’s not by chance).  You won’t be able to easily find a copy of the document on the internet because they have, in red, at the top “Do not post on the internet.”  But there are copies on the internet if you look carefully, and I did. (via Better Posters)
  • Andres Bonini explains that “Urls Are For People Not Computers”: We are all familiar with URLs: the string uniquely identifying the requested document. However, we don’t always consider they are more than that: URLs are user facing and should be considered important UI elements.
  • Suzie Sheehy describes “A Week in the Life of a Particle Accelerator Designer”: Ask any high school student or taxi driver, the hardest thing to portray about a job in science is not what I’m trying to achieve with my research, but what I actually genuinely do from when I wake up in the morning to when I go to bed at night.
  • Michael Eisen lays out “The Past, Present, and Future of Scholarly Publishing”: keep in mind that this is about more than just academic publications. This is about the future of the Internet and what we are willing to do, as individuals and societies, to ensure that information that should be free IS free. If we can’t figure out how to make scientific and scholarly works – most of which were funded by taxpayers and published by authors with no expectation of being paid – freely available, we will struggle to do it in cases where the conditions for free access are less ripe.
  • Kim Mann highlights “Three Ways to Teach Students Technology Skills”: Having to teach students how to do things with their computers that we ourselves have only just learned or are experimenting with is one of the challenges to using technology in the classroom.  In fact, I would guess that this is a major reason why more faculty don’t use Web-based assignments, blogs, wikis, etc., in their classes. I know that when thinking through a course, and during the course, the last thing that I wanted to be doing was troubleshoot student technology issues.

In this week’s video, Iain Banks, who disclosed this week that he has late-stage cancer, discusses his writing process with Derek Neale:

Bonus: You had me at “Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines.”

Photo “Minifigs enjoy Spring in Central Park, New York City” by Flickr user sirexkat / Creative Commons licensed BY-SA-2.0

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