A Philosopher's Blog

Campus Concealed Carry & Free Speech

Posted in Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 29, 2016

While a concealed weapon permit allows a person to carry a gun many places, the campuses of public universities have generally been gun-free areas. My adopted state of Florida has been wrangling with a bill to allow concealed carry on campus and Texas recently passed such a bill into law.

The faculty of the University of Houston met to discuss this issue and express concern about its impact. A slide from a faculty meeting about the law suggests that faculty “be careful in discussing sensitive topics”, “drop certain topics from your curriculum”, “not ‘go there’ if you sense anger”, “limit student access off hours, go to appointment-only office hours , and only meet ‘that student’ in controlled circumstances.”

What is rather striking about this slide is that the first three suggestions are identical to limits imposed by what detractors call “political correctness” and there are also similarities to recommendations about trigger warnings. This provides the grounds for the discussion to follow in which I consider limits of free speech and academic freedom.

One way to justify limiting academic freedom and free speech is to argued that students are entitled to a non-hostile learning environment in which diversity and difference are not only tolerated but respected. That is, students have a right to expect limits on the academic freedom and free speech of professors. This is often supported by a moral argument that appeals to the harms that would be suffered by the students if the freedoms of the professors were not suitable limited for their protection. For the good of the sensitive students, professors are supposed to accept such restrictions.

This sort of reasoning assumes that students would be harmed without such restrictions and that their right not to be harmed exceeds the imposition on the rights of the professors (and other students who might gain value from such subjects and discussions).

A similar sort of argument can be made in the case of concealed weapons. The reasoning is, presumably, that an armed student might be provoked to violence by what happens in class and thus hurt other students. As such, for the safety of students, professors should accept restrictions on their freedoms.

This reasoning assumes that armed students pose a threat and are easily provoked to violence—a factual matter that will be discussed later. It also assumes that the risk of harm to the students by a fellow student outweighs the rights of free expression and academic freedom (on the part of both professors and students).

Somewhat ironically, the attitude expressed in the slides suggests that there will be a hostile environment for gun owners—something I have experienced. Being from rural Maine, I learned to shoot as soon as I could hold a gun and spent much of my youth hunting and fishing. While many colleagues do not take issue with this, I have run into some general hostility towards guns and hunting. I have had fellow professors say “you are not stupid, so how can you like guns?” and “you seem like such a decent person, how could you have ever gone hunting” (often said between bites of a burger). While being a gun owner is a matter of owning a gun, there is also a culture that includes guns—one I grew up in and remain a part of. Hostility towards people because they belong to such a culture seems comparable to hostility towards other aspects of culture—like being hostile towards Muslims or towards men who elect to wear traditional female clothing.

It might be replied that gun culture is not worthy of the same tolerance as other cultures—which is, of course, what people who hate those other cultures say about them. It might also be argued that the intent is not to be intolerant towards people who have guns as part of their culture, but to protect students from the dangers presented by such irrational and violence prone people.

Another way to justify limiting academic freedom and free speech is on practical or pragmatic grounds. In the case of political sensitivity, professors might decide that it is not worth the hassle, the risk of law suits, the risk of trouble with administrators and the risk of becoming a news item. As such, the judgment to voluntarily restrict one’s freedom would be an assessment of the practical gains and harms, with the evaluation being that the pragmatic choice is to run a safe class. This, of course, assumes that the practical harms outweigh the practical benefits—an assessment that will certainly vary greatly depending on the circumstances.

The same justification can be used in the case of armed students. The idea is that professors might decide on purely pragmatic grounds that risking provoking an armed student is not worth it—this would not be a moral assessment, simply a pragmatic decision aimed at having a bullet free day in the classroom.

This, of course, assumes that a pragmatic assessment of the risk shows that the best practical choice is to focus on safety.

A final way to justify restricting academic freedom and freedom of expression is a moral argument that is based on the potential harm to the professor. In the case of political sensitivity, there is considerable concern about the damage that a professor can suffer if she is not careful to restrict her freedom. While privacy concerns preclude going into details, I have had colleagues in the professor express considerable terror at the prospect that a blog they write for might post a controversial piece. The worry was that their careers would be damaged in terms of keeping or finding employment. While such fear might be unfounded, it is quite real and certainly provides a moral foundation for self-censoring: the professor must restrict her freedom to avoid doing moral harm to herself. As with any such assessment, the risk of harm and the extent of the harm needs to be considered. As noted above, this does seem to be a very real fear today.

In the case of guns, the worry is that a professor could cause herself harm by provoking gun violence on the part of a student. The moral foundation for self-censorship is the same as above: the professor must restrict her freedom to avoid doing moral harm to herself.

As was the case with career damage, a professor would need to consider the risk of provoking a student to gun violence and perhaps the moral choice would be to choose safety over the risk. This leads to the factual matter of the extent of the risk.

The fear expressed by some about concealed carry on campus seems to be based on an assumption that it presents a significant risk to professors. However, it is not clear that this is the case. First, the law only allows those with permits to bring their guns on campus. Threatening people and shooting people remain illegal. If someone is willing to break the law regarding threatening or murder, presumably they would also be willing to break a law forbidding guns on campus. As such, there does not seem to be a significant increase in risk because of allowing concealed carry on campus.

Second, campuses do not (in general) have security checks for guns. It would be one thing if the law disbanded existing security screening to enter campus—this would increase the risk of guns on campus. This law just allows law-abiding citizens to legally bring a gun on campus and has no effect on how easy or hard it is for someone to bring a gun on campus with the intent to commit violence. As such, campuses would be about as safe as ever.

It might be objected that a person will legally bring a gun to class or the professor’s office, be provoked to violence and act on this provocation only because she has a gun (and would not use her hands, a knife or a chair). Thus, the danger is great enough to warrant professors to self-censor.

One reply to this is to note that violence by students against professors is rather rare and allowing guns on campus would not seem to increase the violent tendencies of students. It could, of course, happen—but a student could also decide to run over a professor with a car and this possibility does not justify banning cars from campus. The fear that a student carrying a weapon legally will murder a professor after being provoked in class or in the office seems analogous to the fear that Muslim refugees will commit terrorists in the United States. While it could happen, the fear is overblown and does not seem to justify imposing restrictions. As such, while free expression combined with legal campus carry does entail a non-zero risk, the risk is so low that self-censorship seems unwarranted.

 

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Sex, Power, Professors & Students

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 5, 2015

In February of 2015 Laura Kipnis’ essay “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Though perhaps potentially controversial in content, the essay was a rational and balanced consideration of the subject of campus codes regarding relationships between students and professors. In response to this essay, Kipnis was subjected to what she rightly calls a Title IX Inquisition.

While I will not be addressing the specifics of Kipnis’ essays, reading them caused me to consider the topic of university regulation of relations between professors and students. While the legal issues are certainly interesting, my main concern as a philosopher lies in the domain of ethics.

I will begin by getting the easy stuff out of the way. Since universities have an obligation to provide a safe environment conducive to learning, universities should have rules that forbid professors from sexually harassing students or pressuring them. Since universities also have an obligation to ensure that grades are assigned based on merit, they should also have rules that forbid exchanging goods or services (in this case, sexual services) in return for better grades. Crimes such as sexual assault and rape should be handled by the police—though universities should certainly have rules governing the employment of professors who are convicted of assaulting or raping anyone. Of course, since the professor would most likely be in prison, this would probably make continued employment rather difficult.

Somewhat less easy is the issue of whether or not universities should forbid consenting relationships between professors and students when the student is enrolled in the professor’s class or otherwise professionally under the professor (such as being an advisee, TA, or RA). There is certainly a legitimate concern about fairness. After all, if a student is sexually involved with a professor, then the student might have an unfair advantage relative to other students. I consider this to be distinct from the exchange of a grade for sexual favors—rather, this is a matter of such things as positive bias in favor of the student that results in special treatment. For example, that a professor might grade her boyfriend’s paper much easier than those of other students.

While sexual relations can lead to bias, these are not the only relations that can have this effect. A professor who is friends with a student or related to a student can be subject to bias in favor of that student (as distinct from pure nepotism in which grades are simply handed out based on the relationship). So, if the principle justifying  forbidding a professor from having a student in his class he has a relation with is based on the potential for bias, then students who are friends, relatives or otherwise comparably connected to the professor would also need to forbidden.

It can be argued that there is a relevant difference between sexual relations and non-sexual relations that would justify forbidding a professor from dating a student in her class, while still allowing her to have a friend or relative as a student. Alternatively, a university could simply place a general ban on professors having students with whom they have a potentially biasing relationship—be it sexual, platonic, or a family relationship. As a general policy, this does have some appeal on the grounds of fairness. It can, however, be countered on the grounds that a professional should be able to control her bias in regards to friends and family. This, of course, opens the door to the claim that a professional should also be able to control his bias in regards to a sexual relationship. However, many people would certainly be skeptical about that—and I recall from my own graduate school days the comments students would make about students who were sexual involved with their professor or TA. Put in polite terms, they expressed their skepticism about the fairness of the grading.

My considered view is a conditional one: if a professor can maintain her objectivity, then the unfairness argument would have no weight. However, there is the legitimate concern that some (or even many) professors could not maintain such objectivity, thus making such a general rule forbidding relationships justifiable. After all, rules limiting behavior are not crafted with the best people in mind, but those that are less than the best.

The fairness argument could not, of course, be used to justify forbidding professors from dating students who are not and will not be in their classes (or otherwise under them in a professional capacity). So, for example, if an engineering professor were to date an English Literature major who will never take any of the classes she teaches, then there would seem to be no basis in regards to fairness for forbidding this relationship. Since harassment and coercive relationships should be forbidden, there would thus seem to be no grounds for forbidding such a consensual relationship between two adults. However, there are those who argue that there are grounds for a general forbiddance.

There are, of course, practical reasons to have a general forbiddance of relationships between students and professors even when there is no coercion, no harassment, and no unfairness and so on. One reason is that relationships generally fail and often fail in dramatic ways—it could be problematic for a university to have such a dramatic failure play out on campus. Another reason is that such relationships can be a legal powder keg in terms of potential lawsuits against a university—as such, university administrators probably feel that their money and brand should be protected by forbidding any such relationships.

From a moral perspective, the concern is whether there are moral grounds for forbidding such relationships (other than, of course, a utilitarian argument about the potential for brand damage).

One stock argument is that there is always a power disparity between professors and students and this entails that all relationships are potentially coercive. Even if most professors would not consciously coerce a student, rules (as noted above) are not made for the best people. As such, the blanket ban on relationships is necessary to prevent any possibility of coercive relationships between students and professors.

It might be objected that a rule against coercive relationships would suffice and that if the professor has no professional relationship with the student, then they should be treated as adults. After all, the professor would seem to have no power at all over the student and coercion via professional position would not be a possibility. So, they should be free to have a relationship despite the worries of the “nanny” university.

It could be countered that a professor always has power over a student in virtue of being a professor—even when the professor has no professional relationship to the student. While a professor might have some “power” in regards to being older (usually), having some status, having more income (usually), and so on, these do not seem to be distinct from the “power” anyone could have over anyone else. That is, there seems to be nothing specific to being a professor that would give the professor power over the student that would make the relationship automatically coercive. As such, there would seem to be no grounds for forbidding the relationship.

It could be objected that students are vulnerable to the power of professors and lack the autonomy needed to resist this power. As such, the university must act in a paternalistic way and forbid all relationships—so as to protect the guileless, naïve and completely powerless students from the cunning, powerful predatory professors. This would be analogous to the laws that protect minors from adults—the minors cannot give informed consent. If college students are similarly vulnerable to professors, then the same sort of rule applies. Of course, if students are so vulnerable, then there should certainly be a reconsideration of the age of consent—increasing it to 23 might suffice. Then again, many students take six years to graduate, so perhaps it should be 24. There are also graduate students, so perhaps it should be extended to 30. Or even more—after all, a student could go to school at almost any age.

Unless it is assumed that students are powerless victims and professors are powerful predators, then a blanket ban on relationships seems morally unwarranted—at least on the grounds of forbidding relationships because of an assumption of coercion. However, there are other moral grounds for such rules—for example, a case can be made that dating students would be a violation of professionalism (on par with dating co-workers or clients). While the effect would be the same, the justification does seem to matter.

 

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Student Evaluations of Faculty

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2015

While college students have been completing student evaluations of faculty since the 1960s, these evaluations have taken on considerable importance. There are various reasons for this. One is a conceptual shift towards the idea that a college is primarily a business and students are customers. On this model, student evaluations of faculty are part of the customer satisfaction survey process. A second is an ideological shift in regards to education. Education is seen more as a private good and something that needs to be properly quantified. This is also tied into the notion that the education system is, like a forest or oilfield, a resource to be exploited for profit. Student evaluations provide a cheap method of assessing the value provided by faculty and, best of all, provide numbers (numbers usually based on subjective assessments, but pay that no mind).

Obviously enough, I agree with the need to assess performance. As a gamer and runner, I have a well-developed obsession with measuring my athletic and gaming performances and I am comfortable with letting that obsession spread freely into my professional life. I want to know if my teaching is effective, what is working, what is not, and what impact I am having on the students. Of course, I want to be confident that the methods of assessment that I am using are actually useful. Having been in education quite some time, I do have some concerns about the usefulness of student evaluations of faculty.

The first and most obvious concern is that students are, almost by definition, not experts in regards to assessing education. While they obviously take classes and observe (when not Facebooking) faculty, they typically lack any formal training in assessment and one might suspect that having students evaluate faculty is on par with having sports fans assessing coaching. While fans and students often have strong opinions, this does not really qualify them to provide meaningful professional assessment.

Using the sports analogy, this can be countered by pointing out that while a fan might not be a professional in regards to coaching, a fan usually knows good or bad coaching when she sees it. Likewise, a student who is not an expert at education can still recognize good or bad teaching.

A second concern is the self-selection problem. While students have access to the evaluation forms and can easily go to Rate My Professors, students who take the time to show up and fully complete the forms or go to the website will tend to have stronger feelings about the professor. These feelings will tend to bias the results so that they are more positive or more negative than they should be.

The counter to this is that the creation of such strong feelings is relevant to the assessment of the professor. A practical way to counter the bias is to ensure that most (if not all) students in a course complete the evaluations.

Third, people often base their assessments on irrelevant factors about the professor. These include such things as age, gender, appearance, and personality. The concern is that this factor makes evaluations a form of popularity contest: professors that are liked will be evaluated by better professors who are not as likeable. There is also the concern that students tend to give younger professors and female professors worse evaluations than older professors and male professors and these sorts of gender and age biases lower the credibility of such evaluations.

A stock reply to this is that these factors do not influence students as strongly as critics might claim. So, for example, a professor might be well-liked, yet still get poor evaluations in regards to certain aspects of the course. There are also those who question the impact of alleged age and gender bias.

Fourth, people often base assessments on irrelevant factors about the course, such as how easy it is, the specific grade received,  or whether they like the subject or not. Not surprisingly, it is commonly held that students give better evaluations to professors who they regard as easy and downgrade those they see as hard.

Given that people generally base assessments on irrelevant factors (a standard problem in critical thinking), this does seem to be a real concern. Anecdotally, my own experience indicates that student assessment can vary a great deal based on irrelevant factors they explicitly mention. I have a 4.0 on Rate my Professors, but there is quite a mix in regards to the review content. What is striking, at least to me, is the inconsistencies between evaluations. Some students claim that my classes are incredibly easy (“he is so easy”), while others claim they are incredibly hard (“the hardest class I have ever taken”). I am also described as being very boring and very interesting, helpful and unhelpful and so on. This sort of inconsistency in evaluations is not uncommon and does raise the obvious concern about the usefulness of such evaluations.

A counter to this is that the information is still useful. Another counter is that the appropriate methods of statistical analysis can be used to address this concern. Those who defend evaluations point out that students tend to be generally consistent in their assessments. Of course, consistency in evaluations does not entail accuracy.

To close, there are two final general concerns about evaluations of faculty. One is the concern about values. That is, what is it that makes a good educator? This is a matter of determining what it is that we are supposed to assess and to use as the standard of assessment. The second is the concern about how well the method of assessment works.

In the case of student evaluations of faculty, we do not seem to be entirely clear about what it is that we are trying to assess nor do we seem to be entirely clear about what counts as being a good educator. In the case of the efficacy of the evaluations, to know whether or not they measure well we would need to have some other means of determining whether a professor is good or not. But, if there were such a method, then student evaluations would seem unnecessary—we could just use those methods. To use an analogy, when it comes to football we do not need to have the fans fill out evaluation forms to determine who is a good or bad athlete: there are clear, objective standards in regards to performance.

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Relative Cost of Education

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 23, 2014
A Plumber at work.

A Plumber at work. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a professor I am aware that the cost of a university education has increased significantly, even adjusting for inflation. I am also well aware that this cost increase is not due to proportional increases in faculty salary. One reason for this is that the salaries of professors, especially those at state school, tend to be compressed. For faculty who have been around a long time, such as myself, the compression can be quite extreme. This is one reason why star faculty move around relentlessly in search of ever larger salaries. Another reason is that universities are relying very heavily on badly paid adjuncts. While the rates vary, a typical adjunct can make about $24,000 over nine months for teaching eight classes. There are generally no benefits at all, so the cost to schools is rather low. Given that such faculty typically have advanced degrees, they are perhaps the worst paid of the best educated.

It is true, as I mentioned, that there are some star faculty—they are the celebrities of academics who can use their status and connections to slide smoothly from one well-paying job to an even better paying job. Such stars also sometimes enjoy exemptions from the mundane duties of faculty, such as teaching. As with any profession, such stars are relatively rare and they are generally not a significant factor in the increased cost of education. As such, blaming the faculty for the higher cost is not, in general, a legitimate complaint.

That said, I do agree that complaining about the cost of education is legitimate: costs have increased significantly while there are increasing doubts about the quality and value of education. However, it is worthwhile to put the cost of education into perspective. Being a professor, I will focus on the educational aspects of the matter.

At a state school like my own Florida A&M University, a student will typically take a class from a person with a terminal degree in her field, usually a doctorate. A standard class is three credit hours, which means that a student is supposed to be in class for two and a half hours per week. My fellows and I typically teach four classes per semester and we are required to hold two hours of office hours per class. We also have various other research, advising and administrative duties. Thanks to email, students can also contact us around the clock—and many faculty, including myself, respond to emails outside of normal hours and on the weekends. We also typically do work for the classes, such as grading, preparing lessons and so on throughout the week and during “vacations.”

While the exact hours will vary, a student at a school like FAMU will have access to a professional with and advanced degree for 2.5 hours in the classroom, have access to 8 hours of office hours, and typically have unlimited email access. Most faculty are also willing to engage with students in their off time—for example, I have stopped while grocery shopping to explain a paper to a student who also happened to be shopping at that time. This is in return for the cost of tuition, only a small fraction of which goes to the professor.

Now, compare this to the cost per hour for other professionals. For example, a psychiatrist might charge between $125-$285 per hour. As another example, a plumber might charge $90 an hour. As a third example, a consultant might charge anywhere from $30 to thousands of dollars an hour. As a fourth example, an attorney might charge hundreds of dollars per hour.

Imagine what it would cost to have a plumber, medical doctor, or attorney spend 2.5 hours a week with you for 16 weeks (divided by the other people, of course), be available an additional eight hours a week, do work for you outside of those hours, respond personally to your emails and so on.  If professors billed like plumbers, lawyers or medical doctors, the cost of school would be insanely high.

It might be replied that plumbers, lawyers and medical doctors perform services that are more valuable than mere professors. After all, a plumber might fix your pipes, a lawyer might get you a nice settlement and a medical doctor might re-attach your quadriceps tendon. A professor merely teaches and surely that has far, far less value. The obvious practical reply is that people with college degrees make considerably more than those without—this would suggest that teaching does provide some value. There is also the obvious fact that plumbers, medical doctors and lawyers need education in order to do what they do—thus showing that education does provide something of value (although plumbers typically do not go to college to become plumbers).

As such, while education is too expensive, the actual cost of paying professors is ridiculously cheap relative to what other comparable professionals cost.

 

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Why Do Professors tend to be Liberal?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on December 23, 2013
from Princeton University Press

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One common conservative talking point is that academics is dominated by professors who are, if not outright communists, at least devout liberals. While there are obviously very conservative universities and conservative professors, this talking point has considerable truth behind it: professors in the United States do tend to be liberal.

Another common conservative talking point is that the academy is hostile to conservative ideas, conservative students and conservative professors. In support of this, people will point to vivid anecdotes or make vague assertions about the hostility of various allegedly dominant groups in academics, such as the feminists. There are also the usual vague claims about how professors are under the sway of Marxism.

This point does have some truth behind it in that there are anecdotes that are true, there are some groups that do  consistently express hostility to certain conservative ideas, and some professors do embrace Marxism or, worse, analytical Marxism.

Obviously, I am far from the first person to address these matters. In an interesting and well researched book, Neil Gross examines some of the myths relating to the academy, liberals and conservatives. Gross does make some excellent points and helps shed some light into the shadowy myths of the academy. For example, the myth that professors are liberal because they are more intelligent than conservatives is debunked. As another example, the myth that there is an active conspiracy to keep conservatives out of the academy is also debunked.

As to why professors are liberal, Gross expands on an idea developed earlier: typecasting. The general idea is that professors have been typecast as liberals and this has the effect of drawing liberals and deterring conservatives. A more common version of typecasting is gender based typecasting. For example, while men and women can serve equally well as nurses, the field of nursing is still dominated by women. One reason for this is the perception that nursing is a job for women. In the case of professors, the typecasting is that it is a job for liberals. The result is that 51% of professors are Democrats, 14% Republican and the rest independent (exact numbers will vary from year to year, but the proportions remain roughly the same).

It might be thought that the stereotyping is part of a liberal plot to keep the academy unappealing to conservatives. However, the lion’s share of the stereotyping has been done by conservative pundits—they are the ones who have been working hard to convince conservatives that professors are liberal and that conservatives are not welcome. Ironically, one reason that young conservatives do not go on to become professors is that conservative pundits have worked very hard to convey the message that professorships are for liberals.

While the typecasting explanation has considerable appeal, there are certainly other reasons that professors would tend to be liberal or at least have views that would be regarded as liberal.

One factor worth considering is that professors have to go through graduate school in order to get the degrees they need to be professors. While there are some exceptions, being a graduate student gives a person a limited, but quite real, taste of what it is like to be poor even when one is working extremely hard.

While it was quite some time ago, I recall getting my meager paycheck and trying to budget out my money. As I recall, at one point I was making $631 a month. $305 went to rent and I went without a phone, cable, or a car. Most of the rest was spent on food (rice puffs and Raman noodles) and I had to save some each month so I could buy my books. I did make some extra money as a professional writer—enough so I could add a bit of meat to my diet.

While I was not, obviously, in true poverty I did experience what it is like to try to get by with an extremely limited income and to live in cheap housing in bad neighborhoods. Even though I now have a much better salary, that taste of poverty has stuck with me. As such, when I hear about such matters as minimum wage and actual poverty, these are not such theoretical abstractions—I know what it is like to dig through my pockets in the hope of finding a few missed coins so I can avoid the shame of having to return items at the grocery store checkout. I know what it is like to try to stretch a tiny income to cover the bills.

I have spoken to other professors who, not surprisingly, had similar experiences and they generally express similar feelings. In any case, it certainly make sense that such experiences would give a person sympathy for those who are poor—and thus tend to lean them towards liberal positions on things like food stamps and welfare.

Another factor worth considering is that some (but obviously not all) professors are professors because they want to be educators. It is hardly shocking that such people would tend to accept views that are cast as liberal, such as being pro-education, being in favor of financial aid for students, being in favor of intellectual diversity and tolerance of ideas, favoring freedom of expression and thought, and so on. After all, these are views that mesh well with being an educator. This is not to say that there are no exceptions. After all, some people want to train others to be just like them—that is, to indoctrinate rather than educate. However, these people are not nearly as common as the conservative talking points would indicate. But, to be fair, they do exist and they perform a terrible disservice to the students and society. Even worse, they are sometimes considered great scholars by those who share their taste in Kool Aid.

Given that conservatism is often associated with cutting education spending, cutting student financial aid, opposing intellectual diversity and opposing the tolerance of divergent ideas, it is hardly surprising that professors tend to be liberals and opposed to these allegedly conservative ideas. After all, what rational person would knowingly support an ideology that is directly detrimental to her profession and livelihood?

Thus, what probably helps push professors (and educators) towards liberalism and against conservatism is the hostility expressed against professors and educators by certain very vocal pundits and politicians. Fox News, for example, is well known for its demonization of educators. This hostility also leads to direct action: education budgets have been cut by Tea Party and Republican legislatures and they have been actively hostile to public educational institutions (but rather friendly to the for-profits). As such, the conservative pundits who bash educators should not express shock our outrage when educators prefer liberalism over their conservatism. Naturally, if someone insults and attacks me repeatedly, they should hardly be surprised when I do not want to embrace their professed values.

It would seem, in part, that the reason professors are liberal is because certain conservatives have done an excellent job demonizing the profession. So, conservatives would tend to avoid the profession while those that enter it would tend to be pushed even more away from the right. So, if the right wants more conservative professors, they need to stop doing such a good job convincing everyone that professorships are for liberals.

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Committee Blues

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on February 13, 2013

This semester is a rather busy one for me. In addition to my usual four classes, advising, serving as the philosophy & religion facilitator, I have a few more duties. These include the program review and serving on seven (possibly eight now) committees. Two of these committees are hiring committees. I have had plenty of experience on such committees, but they are always a considerable amount of work to do properly.

Serving on a committee and assessing applicants is somewhat like grading papers-the idea is to assess the candidate on the basis of the materials provided. As with student papers, the application material varies considerably. However, there are some fairly easy ways for a candidate to put together a better application package.

One common mistake made by candidates and students alike is to
simply leave out things that are supposed to be turned in. I have seen applications missing a few things (such as transcripts) and others that are missing almost everything. While search committees will often review incomplete applications, some committees will not consider them-especially when they are large numbers of applicants to consider. Even if the incomplete application is reviewed, the fact that it is incomplete will mean that those reviewing it will have less information to go on and this will tend to result in a lower evaluation.

A second mistake common to applicants and students is turning or sending in too much. In some cases, people seem to have thrown anything close at hand into the envelope they send in. There are some good reasons to not send in too much material. One is, obviously enough, the extra cost of mailing all that extraneous material. An important reason is that some unfortunate person probably has to make copies of or scan all the material sent on paper to make it available to the committee. As might be suspected, pushing an entire dissertation through a scanner is not something most people enjoy. People enjoy reading through it even less and, as might be suspected, some committee members will elect to simply skip over all those extras. In most cases this is quite reasonable-after all, the committee is supposed to assess based on what is requested and not based on whatever an applicant decides to send in (apparently in the hopes of increasing his/her chances).

A third mistake is to send in the requested material, but to make it needlessly long, perhaps in the attempt to “pad” the application. While the material should present all that is requested and provide adequate coverage of what should be covered, making committee members plod through needlessly long material will tend to not contribute to the desired result. As with a good paper, the application material should do what must be done, yet remain as concise as possible.

A fourth mistake is have material that is poorly organized or unclearly written. As might be suspected, this sort of material makes it difficult for the committee members and does not create a good impression.

Back to work…

Contingent Faculty

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 16, 2013
Tenure (film)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I began my career as a professor, I worked as an adjunct. There are many downsides to being an adjunct, not the least of which is that employment is entirely contingent. That is, an adjunct can be let go simply by not offering a contract for the next semester. It is also not uncommon for adjuncts to begin work with only the promise of a contract-a promise that sometimes turns out to be empty.

After being an adjunct, I became a visiting professor. This is rather better than being an adjunct, since it comes with better pay, benefits and the contract length is longer (a year or sometimes longer). However, visiting professorships are (by their very nature) limited in duration. Visiting professors also do not, as visiting faculty, earn tenure.

After being a visiting professor, I was able to get into a tenure track line and eventually earned tenure. There are various misconceptions about tenure, such as the notion that tenured faculty cannot be fired. This is not true-tenured faculty can be fired. Unlike contingent faculty, a tenured faculty member can not be simply let go. Rather, a tenured faculty member can only (in general) be fired for cause.

While tenure is presented as its detractors as a means by which inept faculty can avoid being fired as they coast towards an easy retirement, this is not its intended or actual purpose. One purpose of tenure is to serve as an incentive for success. That is, if a faculty member works hard for the better part of a decade and achieves professional success, then she can get the security of tenure. Naturally, this is not as lucrative as the rewards ladled out to comparable levels of success in the financial or business sectors-but people who go into academics tend to have somewhat different values. To steal a line from the folks who argue relentless against depriving the wealthy of even a fraction of their wealth, to remove tenure would punish success and destroy incentive. After all, if the job creators would be broken and demoralized by tax increases, then presumably the faculty would also be broken and demoralized by the loss of tenure. But perhaps significant incentives are only fit for the job creators and no one else.

A second reason for tenure is to protect academic freedom. Once a faculty member has tenure, then she has a degree of protection that can allow her to express intellectual ideas without (much) fear of being simply disposed of in retaliation. To be honest, once a person has spent years grinding away towards tenure, she has obviously learned to work within the system. One rarely sees a faculty member suddenly emerging from the caterpillar state of being tenure earning to become a radical butterfly once getting tenure. However, tenure still serves a valuable purpose by protecting intellectual freedom more than a lack of tenure would.

As might be imagined, some are opposed to tenure. These people tend to favor the business model of academics in which one key goal is to reduce labor costs. By removing tenure, faculty can be let go and replaced with cheaper faculty as needed. Also, faculty perceived as “troublesome” (such as union organizers) could be fired, thus reducing the threat of a powerful faculty union.

Some people also oppose tenure on more philosophical grounds. One common view is that employers should have the right to fire employees at any time, even without cause or reason. Going along with this view, obviously enough, is the idea that employees do not have any right to be employed. Interestingly enough, many of the same folks who hold this view also contend that the risk-takers in business should have the chance for massive rewards because of the risks they take. Interestingly, they seem to fail to see that people working without job security are rather big risk takers. After all, everyday is a day they risk being fired because their employer wants to cut expenses to boost profits.

Folks who support this view often tend to point to live outside of academics where most workers lack job security. A standard refrain is “why should tenured faculty have the job security that other workers lack?” But, a better question might be “why should other workers lack the opportunity to earn the job security that faculty enjoy?”

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MOOCs

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2013
MOOC Crib

MOOC Crib (Photo credit: snowpup5)

Thanks to games like World of Warcraft, many people are familiar with MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games). However, people are probably somewhat less familiar with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

While MOOCs vary considerably, the name provides their basic features. First, they are massive (or potentially so). This means that such a course can support an indefinite number of students. This is in obvious contrast to the traditional classroom which is limited by the size of the room and even with the now traditional online classes which are typically limited in size because they are taught by one (or a few) teachers.

Second, they are open. This is in contrast with the traditional closed course which is available only to students registered at a specific school. Currently, the MOOCs are operating on a free model as well—that is, students do not pay to take such classes. However, the monetization of MOOCs is certainly inevitable.

Third, they are online. This also typically involves a high degree of automation for the course. In most cases, a MOOC is pre-packaged course without interaction with an actual teacher.

Finally, they are courses—that is, they are aimed at teaching people something. The best known MOOCs, those offered by Coursera, are college classes. However, they could be classes at any level. Currently MOOCs do not provide college credit, but there are plans to change this—most likely as part of the monetization process.

Obviously, MOOCs do have some clear positive features. Since they are massive, they can support a large number of students, thus making the courses more widely available. Since they are open, the classes are available to anyone who can access a computer, thus making them available to people who might not otherwise be able to afford college classes.

As might be imagined, I find these aspects of MOOCs very appealing and consistent with my own view of broad education. After all, I have made my work on fallacies freely available for almost two decades and I have various (admittedly lame) educational videos on YouTube. However, as a professor I have some concerns about the future of MOOCs.

As noted above, it is a matter of time before MOOCs are monetized. In general, I have no problem with this—after all, I work for money and sell books via Amazon. Heck, I’d probably get involved with a reputable MOOC service. My main concern, then, is not that MOOCs will go from open to being monetized. Rather, my concern is what impact they could have on the quality of education.

Having been in education for a while, I am well aware of the business-model push to minimize costs in education. Before the web, there was (and still is) a push to have classes as large as possible—in my case, I am paid the same whether my class is a mere 35 students or a ridiculous 75 students. The web merely allows this to be taken to an even greater extreme, since it is not limited by the size of a physical classroom. With truly massive online courses, a single professor could supply an education product to thousands of students. There are, of course, some obvious concerns here. One is the workload of a professor responsible for a massive class. Another is the quality of education in such a diluted learning environment, even if the main professor is supported by graduate students or staff.

Of course, greater savings can be had by eliminating the professor entirely. That is, the class can (as MOOCs typically are now) be a pre-packaged learning product that the students click through, without any actual teacher. While a professor or other professional would be needed to design and create the course content and assessment material, this could be done once (like a book) and updated from time to time. Thus, rather than paying a professor for each semester, a professor could be paid to put himself (and others) out of a teaching job.  No doubt, some star professors (like star authors) would make good money off the courses they created. However, it would probably not be very good for most faculty.

Naturally, if the MOOC is for credit, there would be a need to grade the work of the students. Much of this can be done, obviously enough, by the use of software. True/false tests and their ilk can easily be graded automatically. Papers, lab reports and so on would still require a human grader. However, just as graduate students are currently used as grading machines, they could be employed (at vastly lower pay than professors) to grade such work. Others could also be hired solely as graders, perhaps paid like migrant farmers in terms of the volume of their work—so much per page graded, perhaps. Outsourcing would also be an obvious approach here—just as students talk to a person in India for support for their software, their papers would be graded there as well, perhaps by the same person.

This would be a dream come true for some: the arrival of the industrial revolution in education in which the labor of a person (the professor) is replaced by a vastly more efficient mechanized (or rather computerized) education machine. Students simply pay their money, log in and click their way to a degree at minimal cost to the university or college. At long last the knowledge factory would be a true factory.

For those who would profit from such a system, it obviously has incredible appeal. A college could now operate like a true business, largely unburdened by costly and often troublesome professors. It could also be advantageous for students: they might pay significantly less for their education and be able to complete it faster than they could via the traditional means of education (or even via normal online classes).

There is, however, a point of great concern: would a MOOC be an adequate substitute for the traditional class or even the traditional online class? That is, would students have the same quality of education?

Honesty compels me to admit that when it comes to classes that are traditionally taught as massive lectures there would probably be little difference. In fact, a well done MOOC might actually be superior to the education acquired by sitting in a lecture hall with 800 other students, watching a professor up on stage. As such, such massive service classes could be reasonably replaced by MOOCs.

Obviously, some classes would not work as pure MOOCs, such as classes that require actual lab work, dissections or other such things that require a physical presence. Of course, a college could simply have labs run by low paid staff members with everything else being done via the MOOC.

However, there seem to be many classes that would lose a great deal of educational quality without the sort of interaction that having an actual teacher would provide. To use an obvious analogy, while clicking about on a web site to diagnose an illness can be a good start, at some point a person should probably see an actual doctor.  Likewise, clicking through an automated class can be a good start, but at some point one should probably interact with an actual educator.

Of course, there is still the question of whether or not having the real thing (a doctor or professor) is worth the price. This is a matter that should be seriously considered. Of course, if we take the approach of replacing people whenever they can be replaced by automation, at some point we would replace everyone—even the administrators, shareholders and students.  But perhaps the ultimate dream is to have a completely automated system: machines teaching machines and money automatically multiplied in automated banks with no humans left in the process at all. More seriously, the challenge, then, is deciding when the automation is not worth the price.

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Migrant Professors

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 19, 2012
This image was selected as a picture of the we...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many years ago I was running with a friend of mine who is also a professor. We were talking about the fact that university faculty in the Florida state system generally have nine month contracts and hence are effectively unemployed in the summer. We also talked about how the adjunct faculty had it far worse: they tend to work on a course by course basis and have no job security beyond the need to have them teach classes. My friend said that this was somewhat like being migrant workers— working part time and moving from job to job without any security and with terrible pay. Naturally, the migrant professors, as my friend called them, have it somewhat better than migrant laborers who pick crops and do other such backbreaking work for pitiful wages. However, the comparison seemed apt.

At my mother’s suggestion I did try my hand once at picking blueberries for extra money. When she was a kid, this was something commonly done by the Maine kids. But this was apparently before the days of cheap migrant labor and, as we found out, things had changed. My sister, her friend and I gave it a shot, but we did not make it through a full day and ended up in the hole because someone stole our rakes and baskets. It was the worst job I ever tried.

Years later, I started my academic career as an adjunct professor. I taught four classes each semester for $2,000 per class and had no benefits or job security. The next year I was hired as a visiting professor and made $30,000 for the year—plus benefits. After three years of that, I was finally hired into a tenure track line. Though I am a tenured full professor, I certainly have not forgotten those adjunct days. It was not as bad as raking blueberries, but it was a lot of work for very little money and it felt a lot like that blueberry day, although it lasted for an academic year.

During this time, it was common for my university to rely heavily on adjuncts. There was, however, an effort made to hire full time faculty and this met with some success. However, there are still many classes taught by adjuncts and other universities rely very heavily on adjunct instructors who are treated as migrant laborers in the academy.

Like migrant laborers, the migrant professors are poorly paid. Back in 1993 I was paid $2,000 per class, making $16,000 for the eight classes I taught over the school year.  In 2010, the median salary for adjuncts was $2,700 per three credit hour class. The low was $2,235 and the high was $3,400.

Like migrant laborers, the migrant professors generally have no benefits. While there might be some exceptions, adjunct (or part time, although “part time” might actually mean teaching what would be a full time number of classes) faculty typically do not get health coverage from their employers or other benefits. When I was an adjunct, I was fortunate to be young and healthy, but a major medical problem would have ruined me financially. The same is no doubt true of other adjuncts.

Like migrant laborers, the migrant professors typically have to travel from workplace to workplace to make their living. One of my colleagues, who has a doctorate and years of experience, typically teaches at my university, Florida State, and Tallahassee Community College. He has to rush between classes to get from school to school. His situation is not uncommon—other adjuncts I know teach at both universities in Tallahassee, the community college and other colleges in town just to make enough to live on. Some even travel about the county from job to job, literally acting as migrant laborers. While regular faculty have offices, phones and computers, adjuncts sometimes do not. They might, for example, be assigned a room for office hours and have to get the department office manager to open the door for them because they are not given a key.

Unlike migrant laborers, the migrant professors are highly educated professionals who are doing jobs that normally pay full time employees reasonably well. To use an analogy, the situation of adjuncts in higher education is comparable to what it would be like if hospitals employed adjunct doctors. The adjuncts doctors would have their medical doctorates, perform surgery, treat patients and so on. That is, they would be just like the regular doctors except that their pay would be a fraction of what the doctors received and they would have little or no benefits or job security.

As might be imagined, this terrible disparity in pay is rather unjust. After all, the adjuncts are being paid far less for doing the same work and they are generally just as qualified as regular faculty. It would, of course, be another matter if adjuncts were far less educated or did work proportional to their pay. However, this is not the case. As such, the treatment of adjuncts is clearly wrong.

Naturally, those employing adjuncts have a good reason to use them: they do professional work at a fraction of the cost of hiring regular faculty and they can be terminated simply by not re-hiring them next semester. It is also not uncommon for universities to hold off providing an adjunct with a contract until two or more weeks into a semester—that way they can be sure that the class with fill and that the money is available. An adjunct without a contract can typically and unfortunately just be let go. I have seen this happen—people working for two weeks, then being told to not come back for week three. This is unfair as it hardly seems unreasonable to be able to tell a person in advance whether or not they will be teaching that semester. Obviously enough, the failure to pay an adjunct for the time worked would be theft, although this does happen.

One irony of the plight of adjuncts is that the students they are teaching will generally increase their earning potential significantly by getting a college degree. In fact, the college graduates will most likely end up making more per year than the adjuncts who taught them.

One rather obvious question is why adjuncts put up with the terrible conditions rather than simply getting a job elsewhere. While in some cases people do admit that they have been unable to get a job elsewhere, the majority of adjuncts I have spoken with (and I have met many over the years) make it clear that they love teaching and that they are willing to live with horrible salaries to do what they love to do.

Naturally, this claim might be doubted. However, this sort of attitude holds all through teaching, from K through the graduate level. After all, people who have the degrees needed to teach could make much more money working in other professions, yet they choose to remain in academics. While they might have some other reasons, it is most often because they believe in what they are doing and like teaching.

Unfortunately, this love is being unfairly exploited and little is being done to address it. In fact, the current trend in public education has been towards cutting budgets and for educators’ unions to be subject to concerted attacks. As such, it seems likely that the situation in higher education will worsen. This suggests that there will be an increase in the number of adjuncts (some universities are 33-55% adjunct faculty). Oddly enough, education costs continue to increase—but you can be sure that this money is not going to paying adjuncts properly.

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The Aesthetics of the University Dress Code

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 12, 2012
Example of a common dress code for males in mo...

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My university, Florida A&M University (FAMU), recently adopted a dress code (or, to be more technical the trustees approved new dress standards). This code allows professors to prevent students from attending classes (or other functions) if the students are not dress appropriately. Previously only the school of business had a dress code.

There seem to be three main reasons for this code. The first is that it is taken as educational. That is, it is supposed to teach students what sort of dress will serve them best professionally and socially. The second relates to classroom order, namely it is intended to deter students from wearing clothing to class that could disrupt the class. The third is a matter of image, specifically that it is aimed at preventing students from wearing clothing that will make FAMU look bad.

While I have not (as of  this writing) been supplied with a list of banned attire, it does include “do-rags”, hoods, and the infamous underwear revealing “saggy pants.” Rumor also has it that tube tops and t-shirts with inflammatory language will also be banned.

While the matter of dress codes can be approached in a variety of ways, I will approach it from an aesthetic standpoint. This will not be in terms of the beauty of the clothing but rather looking it the matter within the context of the branch of philosophy relating to art and beauty.

While a university is supposed to provide substance, it (like almost all things) can also be seen as an institute of appearance and, in many ways, as a stage upon which various theatrical  roles are played. The role I happen to play is, of course, that of a professor. As might be imagined, this role does require knowing certain things.The same would seem to hold true for students as well. While they are not expected to know nearly as much as professors, they also have their roles to play. As with any role played out upon the stage, there is the expectation that the costume will match the part. That is, a professor should be costumed as a professor and not as something else, such as a marathon runner or a pirate. Likewise a student should be properly costumed as a student and not as a night club patron or thug. As such, a dress code could be seen as being on par with the costuming specifications for a play, movie or TV show and warranted on the grounds of aesthetics. That is, it would just not look right to have the actors costumed inappropriately. This ties in nicely to the second and third reasons. After all, an actor in the wrong costume can disrupt the production and, of course, make the theater company look bad.

Another way to look at the matter is that the university is not only teaching students the material in the subjects of math, chemistry, philosophy and so on, but also training students in the matter of appearances. That is, students are also being trained for the proper aesthetics of the roles they will be taking on when they are working for the job creators. This, of course, ties nicely to the first reason given in support of the code, namely the training of the youth in how to dress professionally and socially. In this regard, the university can be seen as a literal dress rehearsal for the show that starts (hopefully) shortly after the students graduate.

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