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  • The College Status Game: Why I Think Chico State is a Better University than UC Berkeley  

    College is not just about learning, it is about status and hierarchy, too. So what do the fine nineteen year-olds at UC Berkeley think about us at low ranked Chico State? And how do we think about the snobs at UC Berkeley? Dismissiveness, preening, and sour grapes are part of the ranking game.

    Status is the posturing we do in order to be a member of a desirable group. We posture because status has implications for how valued resources such as money, prestige, power, and honor are distributed. In an ideal world, the labor economists tell us that the more productive labor is, the more money, prestige, power, and honor will be acquired via the blind mechanisms of a marketplace that knows only productivity. But this ideology while important, belies what many of us intuitively know about the real world. Status is not only dependent on the mechanisms of a blind market, no matter how efficient it may be, but also is obtained through who you associate with. These associations may be through family connections, club memberships, school networks, fraternity membership, or what university you attend. None of these connections are blindly entered into, irrespective of their utility in the marketplace. And as study after study have shown advantage in the labor market also depends on legally pernicious status categories like race, gender, religion, and social class.

    Universities are at the intersection of this status paradox, between a market that sees only productivity, and a social world tuned into status distinctions based on relationships. As labor economists (and university administrators) assure us, what is learned at the university makes labor more productive in the marketplace. But, this is not the whole story. Because, universities are not only about the acquisition of skills valued in the marketplace. Attendance at a particular university is also used as a status marker to determine how money, prestige, power, and honor are distributed irrespective of what skills an individual has. Were this not the case, no university administrator, parent, high school student, college counselor, or anyone else would pay any attention to the college status rankings published each fall by US News and World Report and other rankers of college and university prestige. And for this reason, it is interesting to think about what implications this annual ritual has on how we inside America’s colleges and universities view each other. And of course these views are not the same because, after all, status matters. Thus, people teaching and learning at dominant universities like UC Berkeley have one way of viewing their privileges and advantages in what they presume to be a competitive life in which their true honor is recognized. Those of us who teach at lower-ranked universities (in my case Chico State) do too. But our views about the justice of Berkeley graduates’ privileges are different.

    Beemers

     Why Chico State Does Better at Undergraduate Education than UC Berkeley: A Brief Rant

    I will be blunt. When it comes to undergraduate education I think Chico State does a better job than UC Berkeley. The many large classes at Berkeley are too big for undergraduates. Berkeley’s classroom teachers or what they call “discussion leaders” are often inexperienced graduate students, and not the big name (and well-paid) research professors on the letterhead who may be widely published but often are poor undergraduate teachers. Berkeley also freely gives students credit for time the faculty do not teach. For example, Berkeley’s Introductory Sociology course in spring 2011 had 279 students who were lectured to for two hours per week, and a smaller graduate student-led discussion section that was one hour per week. Students received four hours credit for these three hours. In contrast, Chico’s Introductory Sociology classes were three hours per week of lecture with about 40 students, and Chico students received only three hours credit for this. As for Berkeley’s undergraduate students, they themselves are among the smartest and hardest working high school students in California. And, at the end of four years at Berkeley, they may well still be smart and hard-working, although I have yet to see any evidence that this quality is acquired at Berkeley rather than one the students brought with them fro high school.

    Chico State in contrast has smaller classes, few inexperienced graduate student teachers, and hire faculty because they want to teach undergraduates for their career. Big name or not, undergraduates routinely interact with experienced faculty hired for demonstrated teaching skills, even though they may also write books and academic articles just like the big names at UC Berkeley. It may well be true that Berkeley educates the very best high school students that California has. But Chico State takes California’s second best students, and makes them into really talented people. One day, I would like to see Chico challenge Berkeley on “value-added” in terms of student learning. I am confident that Chico grads would best Berkeley grads in terms of how much they learned from their classes between the day they walked in the door and the day they graduated. After all, it does not take much to take the straight A student from high school, and then turn them into a college graduate like Berkeley does. Chico though takes the B student, and turns them into a college graduate. And Chico State does it for less tax money than do the overpaid professors (and underpaid teaching assistants) at UC Berkeley. Chico State’s true honor is hidden, and US News and World Report got it wrong when they published their college rankings last September, and informed us that again, UC Berkeley was the number one national public university while Chico State didn’t even make the list.

    A Little Sociology: The Relationship between Status and Achievement

    But this paper is not only a rant about Chico and Berkeley. Rather it is about the nature of status and how alongside market forces status distinctions shape what colleges do and think. I think Chico would best Berkeley in a fair comparison of undergraduate quality of education, but then I teach at Chico, and naturally take some pride in what we do. And so more than self-righteous navel gazing, this paper is also an exploration of status systems work to allocate unequally both prestige and access to opportunity outside the blind mechanisms of the labor market. As such, this paper draws very heavily on sociologist Max Weber’s[1] description of status inequality in ethnicity, occupational categories, and caste. By extension, this also applies to how college rankings reported by US News stratify America’s system of higher education.

    So first a little sociology. High status means that one group (in this case Berkeley people) monopolizes goods or opportunities through the maintenance of social distance from lower status people like me at Chico State. They do this through their power to award status markers for and assign prestigious goods. Thus, despite the fact Berkeleyites and Chicoites look alike, take the same classes, teach the same things about sociology and economics, Berkeleyites are routinely paid more, more likely to sit at the head of a table, be elected to honor societies, be selected to divide up federal grants, and become the arbiters of the institutions which award academic status. More to the point, US News asks Department Chairs working at places like Berkeley to determine their own rankings as well of that of everyone else. And not surprisingly the smarty-pants from places like Berkeley tautologically conclude that since they are paid more, they must do a better job at teaching, and therefore deserve another raise because their ranking in US News is so high [2]. (When I was a chair at Chico State, I never had a phone call or email from US News soliciting my opinion about the quality of undergraduate programs at Berkeley—so goes it in the game of status). Note that this has nothing to do with an objective measure of “quality” in undergraduate programs which I wrote about in my rant. Indeed, as I said before if this were the case, Chico would beat Berkeley hands down in US News rankings. But in fact ranking has nothing to do with the anonymous mechanisms of labor markets, which Weber as writes, status systems run by US News in fact abhor.

    Weber writes that the inequality between groups like Berkeley and Chico are maintained through rituals which ensures that we will coexist in a system of mutual repulsion and disdain. My rant about Berkeley’s underserved status is typical of how a subordinated group emphasizes its own honor by disdainfully pointing out the pretensions of the dominant (In this respect, I guess I am a typically ungrateful and unappreciative subordinate). But the dominant group also has its own ways of justifying its status is deserved, typically by emphasizing the acclaim it received in the past and present. The result is a rhetorical dance engaged in by both parties. Thus both universities believe that there is something unique about their own institution, and each believes its own honor to be the highest one, a fiction cultivated in avoidance strategies which mean among other things that Chico’s students chances of getting into graduate school at UC Berkeley are virtually non-existent.

    But at Chico we too protect our honor from the pretensions of Berkelyites. At Chico we routinely explain how our secret honor is hidden from the rest of the world, including US News, and particularly the stigmatizing rank Playboy once gave as the number one party school in the nation. We also need to explain why so few National Merit Scholars come to Chico, and why so many of our students routinely take so few classes while working at tedious minimum wage jobs while attending Chico State.

    Still Berkeley too has an image problem. They need to explain why their honor is deserved, and how pretensions of people like me are the result of envy, jealousy, and sour grapes. In short there need to be rituals and stories to explain caste dominance (Berkeley), and caste subordination (Chico). According to Weber, because Berkeley is on top of an established pecking order, Berkeley’s story is about a glorious past, which explains why logically Berkeley is the highest ranked public university in the United States. The past leaders who made the glory of Berkeley possible are heroes. There are regular remembrances of these heroes on special days, in the names of buildings, scholarships, and other tokens acknowledging their role in creating the deserved glories of the present. The message is clear to Berkeley grads: they are special and deserving of their exalted place in the world. And by implication the rest of us are losers.

    At Chico, the stories and rituals are of course different. They are not be about a glorious past (we don’t have a plausible one), but about why our clandestine honor is routinely hidden and ignored. What is more, buried in the story we tell about ourselves will be an assertion that one day we will overcome the odds, and our secret glory will be revealed.

    Chico’s Story of Hidden Honor

    At Chico State, I routinely explain our position in higher education’s hierarchy to prospective students and new faculty. The story follows much along the lines I ranted about above. I describe the easy access to faculty Chico students have, the smaller classes, and point out that UC Berkeley has none of these. Because I am an alumnus of the University of California (Davis in my case), I typically tell visitors that I learned to teach undergraduates at the UC, but I became good at it only at Chico. The ideology I describe is one that explains away Chico’s stigma as a second rate public university in a manner which highlights our special, albeit unnoticed skills. Our mythology about our hidden honor goes something like this: If you would look closely at Chico State student, you will find that they work harder in the “real” world. After all Berkeley students tend to be richer and more spoiled. And because they have better high school grades they are more likely to have scholarships. This means that they rarely are exposed to the reality of a job in the dining commons, local restaurant, or camp counseling during the summer. Chico students also write better because real professors (not graduate students) grade their papers. And because all the hyper-competitive self-absorbed nerds from high school went to Berkeley, our students develop collaborative relationships in classes. This means that Chico State students are better prepared to be part of the teamwork found in the modern workforce. Chico’s applied hands-on approach encourages students to be involved in businesses, schools, and government as “real people” not theoretical drones ungrounded in the real world. Our students will never labor as a heartless drone holed up with a calculator screen and spreadsheets for fifty years as would a Berkeley student. Rather they will work in offices inhabited by real people.

    Wildcats

    Image of Wildcats

    All this of course avoids the fact that Chico students are perceived as being a bunch of drunks. But wait, there is secret honor even in this distinction. Chico’s Business School routinely brags about the “social skills” of their students. They point out that the party-school atmosphere is actually a strength; it means that employees have already learned how much alcohol they can hold and shall not—how shall I put this delicately?—throw upon the lap of a client during their first year on the job as would a socially unsophisticated nerd from Berkeley.[3] In short, we at Chico have a providential mission to save the culturally inept Berkeleyites from their own social cluelessness. Whole organizations would undoubtedly collapse if it were not for the strategically placed Chico State student who quietly and competently smooth’s large egos, and connects the human elements necessary in every organization. Or to borrow a Biblical saying, we believe that in the end days, the last will be first, and the first will be last; in the end, say in fifty years, the honor of Chico State will be recognized by even US News while presumably Berkeley will be noticed only by Playboy. Undoubtedly, this will happen when one of my colleagues is plucked from obscurity and awarded a Nobel Prize in something, or an alum is elected president of the United States. After all if Eureka College’s Ronald Reagan, and Texas State Teachers College’s Lyndon Johnson can become president, why not someone from Chico State?

    Steeped in History

    Kingdoms of This World…

    While typically Berkeley and Chico faculty do not run in the same circles, I can still walk on the Berkeley campus, and also browse their web-site. What you find is a presentation of self that is different from Chico’s. Berkeley doesn’t dream of Nobel Prizes, they already have them. Indeed, the list of current Nobel Prize winners (7) is only three clicks from Berkeley’s home page (along with the 13 deceased prize winners, and then one more click to the 24 alumni winners—who says that nerds aren’t the best?). Department rankings are only a click or two in another direction, where a page indicates, “In the most recent National Research Council study, 35 of Berkeley’s 36 graduate programs ranked in the top 10 in their fields in terms of faculty competence and achievement.” In case you don’t have a web-browser, go on the UC Berkeley campus, and you will see ostentatious privileged parking places reserved for Nobel Laureates. Buildings are named for outstanding scientists including those who developed the atom bomb in World War II, rich alumni like William Randolph Hearst, and other heroes who have graced Berkeley’s campus. In short, while Chico’s promise is still in the future, Berkeley’s Kingdom is in the here and now and they are going to let everyone know about it. The University’s web page preens with history, leading UC Berkeley to conclude with the self-satisfied observation that “[Already] In 1966 Berkeley was recognized by the American Council on Education as ‘the best balanced distinguished university in the country.’” Nothing is shy, or hidden, or clandestine here. It is out in front for all to admire.

    The implication of all this self-promotion for Berkeley’s undergraduates is that only the very best will be admitted; only the intellectual elite will be given admission to the hallowed grounds. Sometime in their first week on campus, it will be made clear to them that because Berkeley is the best, they too must be the best, a form of tautological reasoning that insecure 18 and 19 year olds embrace enthusiastically. And indeed they are the best, at least in terms of high school grades, SAT scores, extra-curricular activities and the other things that UC Berkeley and others at the top of the current status heap value highly. And this in turn justifies the self-satisfied assertion that only the best recognizes the best, and in this way the inequality of the American higher education system is perpetuated, seemingly ad infinitum. And as a result throughout their careers, they will give each other pay raises, jobs, honors, appoint each other to boards of directors, in the belief that being of high status is an end in and of itself.

    But There are also Kingdoms of the Coming World…

    None of the things that Berkeley brags about on its website addresses the undergraduate excellence like small classes, contact with faculty, etc., that we have at Chico. But even I will admit that Chico is weaker on one thing: presentation of our history. There is no “history of Chico State” link to our home page, nor as far as I can tell, any other place. There are no obvious lists of the accomplishments of our faculty (no Nobel Prizes) and our buildings are mostly named after obscure northern California counties. Despite over a hundred years of history, there are few illustrious faculty, donors, or alumni bragged about. On the President’s page, there is a brief mention that CSU Chico is one of the highest ranking public colleges in the West, but unlike Berkeley, the source is not cited.[4] More significantly though for an essay about the nature of status stratification, is the focus of two prominently displayed slogans on Chico State’s web page. “Today Decides Tomorrow” is mentioned in both the President’s welcome page, and is emblazoned above the door of the Kendall Hall, one of the few buildings to bear an illustrious name, former president Glenn Kendall. The second prominently displayed slogan is the campus’ latest goal, which envisions Chico as becoming a center for sustainability education. So on the home page for months was a large green hot link reading “Our Sustainable Future” and led to a list of planned programs designed to position Chico in the future.

    What both of these slogans of course represent is the belief that Chico’s unseen glory is the future—tomorrow as the slogan says. The future may be ours, and by extension not Berkeley’s. Someday, Chico’s mythology goes, an illustrious figure will emerge—in Weber’s terminology a messiah figure—who will demonstrate how quietly but excellently we have been delivering for California all along. In this respect I suppose it is fortunate to have so many buildings named after obscure counties. They are sitting there, waiting to be named for people who will give Chico great sums of money, our first Nobel Prize winner, or better yet invent an even bigger bomb! Best of all, those of us who have been around awhile will get to divide up the resources differently, meaning we will get a big pay raise, putting us ahead of even UC Berkeley: in this promised future, we will be of this world, and no longer have to worry so much about tomorrow!

    The Persistence of Status Stratification

    Of course, the status inequality between Berkeley and Chico is hardly unique. Such inequality inherently permeates the relationships which order our hierarchically ordered modern society. I could have as easily written this essay about the relationship between Chico and the local Community College, Butte College. I am sure that the faculty there are acutely aware of the differences in pay and teaching load (i.e. they get less money and grade more papers). They will undoubtedly have the same uneasiness and chip on their shoulder relative to Chico State, and with equal faith await their first Nobel Prize winner and the arrival of a messiah figure in the form of a hundred million dollar endowment.[5] What this illustrates are not the implicit differences between Butte, Chico and Berkeley, but the nature of status and honor within society. Ultimately, status, unlike market economics, is a zero sum game. For one institution or person to have more status, another institution must have less.

    As Max Weber wrote, status systems are about sorting out who has advantages and who does not. Dominant ideology aside, it is not simply the provision of rewards on the basis of the blind labor market; indeed, status systems are about the privileged avoiding the mechanisms of the blind marketplace. The labor market may in theory be blind, but employment resumes still prominently indicate what college you attend. Highlighting such a status achievement is as important in the seeking of privilege as the skills learned, and tells to others where you belong in the pre-established pecking order.

    So, from Weber’s perspective, the mystery of why neither UC Berkeley or Chico State use much of their web-site plugging the quality of undergraduate education is not so baffling. Berkeley spends its time asserting the importance of past Nobel Prize winners, and Chico dreams of tomorrow because they are, respectively, a dominant university seeking to preserve its status, and a subordinate institution dissatisfied with the status quo. The good news is that while such status distinctions persist and are evident in how each institution presents itself, they are also malleable. No currently dominant institution started out that way, which is why messiah figures (in Berkeley’s case the Nobel Prize winners) become so prominent in the mythologized histories they publish. Symbolically such heroes mean a lot, even though in delivering the core product of the institution—quality undergraduate classes to 19 year olds—they are irrelevant. This means that while Chico State may not be tomorrow’s dominant Berkeley, an institution like Chico, meaning anyone of the hundreds of undergraduate colleges, will find its rightful place in the sun, which in its own vicarious way gives us all hope.

    [1] This essay draws very heavily on Max Weber’s classic essay “Class, Status, Party” which has been published in both From Max Weber, and Economy and Society. The essay was also recently retranslated by Dagmar Waters, Tony Waters, and others, as “The Distribution of Power within the Community: Classes, Staende, Parties,” and published in the Journal of Classical Sociology (2010).

    [2] Institutional reputation, which US News calls “peer assessment” comprises 25% of US News’ measure of university quality. Reputation is calculated by asking Department chairs at research universities like Berkeley what they think of themselves, and everyone else. The chairs indicate what their gut level feelings are which not surprisingly are that people like them are better than people at places like Chico State. The other 75% of the rankings are mostly made up of qualities students bring with them from high school like grades and SAT scores (15%), how much money alumni give (5%) and faculty pay (20%). Retention rates (20%) of all the numbers US News uses is the only one that has much to do with undergraduate education, although it too is not a direct measure of the quality of classes.

    [3] This is what President George H. W. Bush (Yale and Skull and Crossbones Fraternity 1948) notoriously did in the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister in 1992.

    [4] Number three in the MA granting public institution category for the west—source US News)

    [5] Indeed, there was a brief flurry of hype at Butte College in 2011 when rich alum Aaron Rogers quarterbacked the Green Bay Packers to Super Bowl glory. But Aaron has yet to return the love, or cut a check, and has instead has highlighted what he apparently believes is a stronger college connection—at UC Berkeley.

    Berkeley Playboy

     Images by: Brad Nail

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  • How Working at a Community College is Like Working Retail

    Adjuncts Unite

    Expectations are a pain in the ass. There’s an old saying, “plant an expectation, reap a disappointment.”  Yep I did it, planted and am now disappointed. I teach Sociology at a rural community college; I love teaching, but I don’t love that adjunct teachers like me are temporary, at-will employees.

    Who knew that the working conditions at a community college would be the same as they were when I was a bookseller, housekeeper, caregiver, fast food worker, and waitress? How did I wind up with the part-time shift again, scrambling for hours (classes) so I can keep up with the fuckin’ bills?

    Go ahead call me naïve, I was. I was warned by my profs in my grad program about the local community college, “they never keep the good people,” one of them said. “That’s the ultimate system of social reproduction,” said another. I liked the “good people” comment and was determined to be a “keeper.” Naïve me, I assumed that education was going to be a different sort of work environment, that it would be more fair and equitable than the crappy low-wage service jobs of my uneducated past. It’s hard not to laugh at me cynically and with sadness; perhaps some understanding as you read this. Now I know that labor practices at a community college don’t differ much from what they were at Barnes and Noble–my last job before entering the elite world of the professional middle class.

    To illustrate it’s important to note that labor costs comprise the biggest chunk of a business’s expenses; a community college is the same, the fewer benefits and salaried hours paid out the better. In California, adjunct faculty earn about 56 cents on the dollar of a full-time faculty, don’t have benefits, and don’t take up a lot of space except for the classrooms where they do their work; more adjuncts = massive salary savings. Moreover, limited access to resources creates competition, fear, and resentment among employees very similar to what I observed about the divisions amongst the retail employees that worked either full or part-time at Barnes and Noble.

    This division benefits the community college (and business) because conflict among the ranks prevents employees from noticing their exploitation. In an academic workplace adjunct faculty manage an inconsistent status, having power and authority in the classroom the same as their tenured peers while also aware that they lack benefits and are working out of their cars instead of offices. This is where labor practices differ. At Barnes and Noble a low-ranked bookseller with limited responsibilities got paid accordingly; at the community college however, all of us faculty share the same level of responsibilities, but 70% of us are paid a pittance in comparison to our tenured peers. Adjuncts are a secret working poor (we know but students and non-academics do not), and we earn anywhere from $13,000-25,000 a year (and that’s an estimate, many earn less and few earn much more). In my last year at Barnes and Noble I earned $23,000.

    The common piece of these not-so-different work environments is the fact that we serve “customers.” Faculty dislike being asked to call our students customers, but its part of the new business-tinted lingo of the community college, one that sees students as consumers of a service. It makes me feel like I should thank them for “stopping by” during office hours or tell them to “have a nice day” when they leave class. These days, receiving professional development trainings in customer service skills is the sort of silly bullshit that proliferates at institutions like mine. They (the students) aren’t fooled and neither are we (the faculty). It feels phony just like it does at Christmas when an exhausted clerk wishes you “happy holidays” because their manager gave them a script that they are required to follow.

    The inequity itches at me, I went back to school to get away from these types of labor practices. Teaching at a community college is cool, but the working conditions suck and should make anyone think twice. I have no regrets, but I also have the privilege of no regrets; I don’t have children or a mortgage – and besides, I’m working class, I’m used to this.

     

    *Above image by H.E. Whitney. Click this link and follow him on twitter.

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  • Privilege, Honor, and Meetings

     

    Cheese Squares, Olives, and Power without Responsibility. Gentry, Blue Blood, and Privilege. Max Weber’s ideas about Honoratioren, Voting Cows, and Power.

    Meetings are rituals, and rituals need symbols, and decorations. I’ve been to a lot of meetings in my time as an academic where I sat bored and confused, but still fulfilled my function as a decoration, and clap on cue. And to a large extent, that is what such ritual is about: clapping on cue about that to which you are brain dead. The most obvious place I am such a decoration is in May graduation ceremonies. I march into a stadium to a lively tune, and then sit in a hot black robe with the other faculty who all react in unison. March, clap, stand, and sit all in unison. We then sit—decorations for the larger ceremony, just like potted plants. In fact, when I sat on a stage last May at Chico State’s graduation ceremony, there were literal potted plants on either side of the stage, bookending the potted plants in the robes. The redeeming value of the whole thing was the excitement and joy that many of our students felt.

     

    But potted plants are found at many ceremonies besides graduations, and usually take less obvious forms. The most common place for such potted plants—Honoratioren, in Max Weber’s German—are at meetings. In academia, Academic Senate meetings come to mind as places where esteemed faculty arrive, stand, clap, vote “aye,” and are confused (at least that was my experience when I was on Faculty Senate some years ago). Moving further afield, there are the boisterous political conventions Weber himself writes about where Honoratioren arrive to enthusiastically legitimate decisions already made behind closed doors. Student councils, annual meetings at churches, and corporate boards of directors also have such rituals. For that matter, as again Weber himself points out, there is Congress and other Parliamentary bodies, all places where honored and confused Honoratioren come to listen, vote aye, clap, provide legitimacy for pre-prepared, and finally return gloriously to their homes flattered but confused.

     

    Honoratioren invited for their notability and prestige, ratify decisions about which they may have little understanding. Indeed, to make such rituals work, the professional “party whips” in places like Congress make sure that everyone lines up when they are supposed to, and then mutter “aye” on cue. Weber calls Honoratioren manipulated in such ways “voting cows,” content and sated notables who are herded by “leaders” toward a new pasture (or restaurant).[1] Weber wrote in “Politics as Vocation,” that we potted plants are needed by the politicians (peacocks if we keep to our decorative metaphor), to legitimate foregone decisions that preserve the pre-existing social order and its privileges. The person chairing the meeting with such gravity (and plumage) needs us Honoratiorien to make “tough” decisions, even if we don’t really make decisions better than do the other potted plants at either end of the stage. We potted plants show up at a meeting, look busy, and ratify what we are supposed to. If you are at a university, you are then rewarded with cheese squares and olives, and then maybe even get a free dinner. Indeed, if you are really honored, you get a nice dinner at a nice restaurant, which might even cost $25.00.

     

    Oh yes, and then at the end of the meeting, the peacocks tell us how we all made difficult decisions, and are profusely thanked for our critical participation. The funny thing is that often not even the political peacocks really run the meetings. The ones who often really run the show are the functionaries, clerks, secretaries, and others who organize the meetings, pour the coffe, serve the cookies, and present us with information to “consider.” They pre-package such information in a fashion that means that there is one logical “evidence-based” decision to take; thus there is only one single conclusion for us to mumble “Moo” about. To do otherwise would be, we are told, be quite foolish, and beneath our accumulated dignity as Honoratioren. Oddly, at such meeting, the lower-level staff, those who Weber described the “technocratic functionaries” who served the coffee and shove files under our noses, are sometimes the real “deciders” to whom peacocks chairing the meeting effectively defer when asking them to explain, “the numbers.” The numbers inevitably spill out in their calculable and predictable beauty, and the authority of the only evidence-based decision—as determined by the person who compiled the numbers—suddenly tumbles out. The peacock chairing the meeting nods sagely, and we potted plants nod even more sagely as if our opinion mattered.

     

    We vote “aye” and then clap. The coffee-pouring technocrats who organize “the files,” and so readily serve up more legitimacy for the, ahem, evidence-based decision-making (we Honoratioren only make decisions with evidence!), smile wanly. But really, this essay is mostly a way of introducing the German word Honoratioren, which I plucked out of Max Weber’s essays “Politics as Vocation” and “Bureaucracy,” which my wife and I are currently re-translating from German to English. Honoratioren are the esteemed people of a community to whom others habitually defer, despite the fact that really, as Weber points they out, don’t know that much what they are doing; and are really “dilletantes” when it comes to knowing the nuts and bolts of the organization they legitimate with their sage advice. Where do you find Honoratioren? Traditionally they are from the right families and include wealthy business people, gentry, and performers of past glories. Today they include movie stars, sports figures, rock stars, and high tech Silicon Valley tycoons—i.e. the “better strata” of a community. I guess it is even me with all my seniority at the university now; a minor Honoratioren who gets trips to exotic conferences in southern California, where I dine on those cheese squares and olives, and then top it off with that $25.00 meal at a fine restaurant (without alcohol!).

     

    But the real habitat for Honoratioren are the boards, commissions, and so forth which ostensibly run corporations and government. Such Honoratioren may indeed, as Weber points out be dilletantes, but that is really beside the point. As long as their egos are stroked, and vanity appealed to, they (we?) lend the air of legitimacy to what really is pre-prepared. Weber’s “voting cow” metaphor is good—and of course raises the question of why do we unanimously vote “aye,” why not instead say “moo?” So what is the best translation for Honoratioren? The traditional one for Weber translators is “notables.” But, I’m thinking “potted plant” conveys Weber’s meaning better! So if you see the German word Honoratioren in our translation some day, just think, “potted plant.” And, “Moo!”   Reference: Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, edited and translated by Tony Waters, and Dagmar Waters, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015 (forthcoming).   [1] Or just maybe, as Rousseau once wrote, they may even be led to the slaughterhouse! But that is going too far for now.

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  • Campbell’s Law and the Fallacies of Standardized Testing

    Donald Campbell was one of the leading psychologists of the second half of the twentieth century.  His was a time of optimism for planners—there was a belief that the power of technology could be brought to bear on many of the world’s ills.  And indeed they were, often with positive effects.  As a result of central planning, more people receive water, more places are electrified, more children educated, and more diseases eradicated.  All good goals with which Campbell would not quibble.

    But Campbell noticed something else to, the emergence of “corruption pressures,” based on the general principle that is now known as “Campbell’s Law.”

    The more any quantitative social 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.

          In different ways, both Michael Scroggins and Max Holland have pointed at this basic problem in their recent blogs critiquing intelligence tests ranging from the standard tests, to the SAT and college entrance exams.  Such intelligence tests are indeed used to divide up the spoils of placement spots at elite schools, and not surprisingly, ambitious parents seek to corrupt it by means both fair or not. But for use in general analysis like that done by the evolutionary psychologists, the consequences are that their data source over time is corrupted.  The cheating scandals associated the No Child Left Behind Act are a byproduct of Campbell’s Law.  So is the fact that the SAT exam was recently cancelled in South Korea due to widespread cheating.  However most of the corruption does not come from cheating.  It also comes from the fact that such standardized tests are routinely gamed by testing companies which guarantee 100 extra points on the SAT through $1000 prep courses (I used one of these classes for my daughter—it worked!).

    For what it is worth, tests like the internationally administered National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) which do not have consequences attached to them are much less likely to be gamed.  They do not have consequences for funding, admissions, etc., attached to them because they sample across broad areas, and report results on large geographical areas rather than individuals.

    Which brings up the BGI Cognitive Genetics Gene Trait Association Study of Intelligence that Michael Scroggins wrote about, and which Dr. Steve Hsu is promoting as a member of the Core Team of BGI.  The Chinese company is seeking people with “high cognitive abilities,” as defined by high scores on the SAT and other standardized tests, or PhDs in a limited number of fields (e.g. physics, computer science, electrical engineering) from “top” US universities.

    The implicit assumption is that these people must have DNA which makes them higher functioning than the rest of us.  There are a number of flaws with this approach, starting with those pointed to by Donald Campbell—particularly the fact that the measures they are using long ago lost the validity and reliability due to corruption pressures.  There is also the problem that Michael, Max, and I have been hammering home here at Ethnography.com, which is that “intelligence” is always culturally defined, typically by those who have the power to define people like themselves as, well, “intelligent.”  (Perhaps this is why BGI does not want people with PhD degrees in fields they have not studied, or from universities outside the US–this is who they are).

    There are of course other reasons why BGI are off on a fool’s errand, some of which is described in Chapter 5 of my recent (2012) book Schooling, Childhood, and Bureaucracy: Bureaucratizing the Child.  Chapter 5 is called “The Sorting Function of Schools: Institutionalized Privilege and Why Harvard is a Social Problem for Both the Middle Class and Public School 65 in the Bronx.”  For that matter Chapter 8 “Seeing Like a State: Efficiency, Calculability, Predictivity, Control Testing Regimes, and School Administration” is also relevant.  (Sorry the book is still only out in hardcover at $90, and Kindle for $72—check your library for a copy, or wait for the paperback version).  To summarize the findings in my book:  Success on tests are inevitably associated with reproducing the status quo, whatever status quo the elites of the day might be promoting.

    As for Campbell’s Law, I hope that the people organizing such projects as the Gene Trait Association Study of Intelligence read Donald Campbell’s article carefully, even if he is not an electrical engineer or physicist with a PhD from a top US University, or an 800 on the math portion of the SAT.

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  • Did Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) Seven Practices of Good Undergraduate Education Dumb Down American Education? A View from Germany

    I just finished my semester teaching as a Guest Professor at Leuphana University in Germany, and am beginning to figure out an answer to a question I get asked frequently: “What is the difference between American and German universities?”  Actually, the German students who have been exchange students in the United States have helped me along.  They say:

     

    In American universities, there’s lots of assignments, busy work really, and the students are not expected to take responsibility for their own learning.  Really it is like [German] high school, not the university.

     

    German university classes in contrast to American universities do not involve a lot of graded work during the semester.  The credit for the entire course comes down to a few ungraded assignments during the semester (typically including a 20 minute oral presentation), and a final test or paper which is the only thing actually evaluated for a grade. Class itself is a combination of student presentation, faculty lecture, and if it is small enough, seminar.  In the case of the paper, it is usually 10-12 pages long—one for each class.  There are no incentives for attendance.  There are also is no preparation for midterms or quizzes–because there are few such tests in the American sense.  The term paper for the class is handed in is due about six weeks after the semester ends. The professor then hands in a grade sometime in the next few months, which is then reported to the student, without elaboration or feedback.  And that’s it—if you pass, you go on to the next semester.

     

    In other words, at this German university, there are classes in which there is little encouragement for contact between students and faculty, professors do not initiate cooperation among students (that is up to the students), there is little feedback from the faculty regarding student work (and feedback need not be prompt), time on task is not monitored, and no one really cares if a student has another way of learning that does not show up on assessment.

     

    The good news, though is that there are high expectations for German students, and if they meet the high expectations, they get a degree at the end of three years or more.  Oh, and before they can also organize complex ideas in their 10-12 pages, read voraciously, and are up to date on current events both within and outside their fields.  But they are this way not because of class content and monitoring by university faculty like me.  Rather they are like that because that is what a good student is.  The 20-30 minute class presentations are generally include high quality analysis, too.  Also, with most German undergraduates you can have an well-informed conversation about their lives or the events of the day in English, German, and perhaps another language.

     

    But is this really good practice in undergraduate education?  According to the gurus of American undergraduate education, Professors Chickering and Gamson (1987)  the German system is a lousy system which should produce

     

    Apathetic students, illiterate graduates, incompetent teaching, impersonal campuses — so rolls the drumfire of criticism of higher education.

     

    The problem of course is that my German students are far from apathetic, certainly not illiterate, and judging from the fact that major political parties show up on campus to court the student vote they are far from apathetic.  As for the incompetence of teaching, I cannot judge that from my perspective, except to note that my German language teacher was pretty good!

     

    Nevertheless in response to the problem that Professors Chickering and Gamson (1987) diagnosed regarding apathy, illiteracy, and incompetence, they prescribed seven best practices for high quality undergraduate education which American faculty are routinely held to in faculty reviews:

     

    1. encourages contact between students and faculty,

    2. develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,

    3. encourages active learning,

    4. gives prompt feedback,

    5. emphasizes time on task,

    6. communicates high expectations, and

    7.respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

     

    A German academic high schools (Gymnasium) teacher might recognize Chickering and Gamsons (1987) criteria, but the German university system I described above only meets 1/6 of Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) goals, i.e. the one about high expectations.   The other six, are considered to be the responsibility of the student, not the faculty, which is why of course my German students hold American undergraduate education in such low esteem, and typically consider their exchange experience to be “high schoolish.”

     

    The German view is that university faculty is in charge of organizing interesting class to which students will come if they are inclined, and participate when they are prepared.  If they show up sort of regularly, and do the major assignment/test at the end of the semester, they will get credit for the course.  University faculty are not in charge of checking endless assignments, homeworks, administering quizzes and the many other tasks which are really about checking for “time on task,” the metric that is most valued by administrators and faculty?

     

    Could it be too that the reason that the German students believe that American undergraduate education is “like high school” is the fault of Chickering and Gamson (1987)?  I bring this up because since I started teaching American undergraduates in 1996, the administrators who hired me have asked me to include Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) seven goals of good undergraduate practice in my employment dossier.  I have dutifully done this, and in a show of faith upped the number of assignments in my classes, made a point of returning assignments quickly, encouraged active learning in the assignments I make, tried to make sure that I assigned 2 hours of reading/out of class work for each Carnegie unit the students receive, and checked to see if they did it by using quizzes.  I am an accountable professor!  But does this really make me a good professor who creates students who think creatively and deeply about sociology as I see my German students doing?

     

    And anyway, what do we in the American system get in response?  Undergraduates who are like, well, high school students in their capacity to work independently (meaning they work like well-supervised high school students).  The expectations authored by Chickering and Gamson (1987) have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We defined high quality as demanding a lot of busywork (not critical thinking, routine reading, or the capacity to work independently, and surprise, we get undergraduates who

     

    –contact faculty frequently

    –do group work

    –equate active learning with recreational activities

    –expect prompt and voluminous feedback rather than editing themselves

    –spend a lot of time doing homeworks

    –read for the detail on quizzes rather than for “fun”

    –have high expectations of their own abilities, and

    –expect learning accommodations to be made for different learning styles

     

    This is not to say that German students are faultless.  Indeed, the German system has recently undergone major reform because students frequently floated away from a system that by American standards can be pretty brutal (it is easier to flunk a student you do not know, than one who has frequent contact with faculty).  German students also take too long to graduate, and so forth.  I should add, that my experience last semester is that American attendance patterns are a bit better than German, and punctuality is also a lot better at Chico State, where I routinely start class within 15 seconds of the class start time, a process which seems to take 5-10 minutes here…).

     

    Still, when the German students do finally get to class, they bring intellectual preparation that my American students do not.  But then again, habits of intellectual engagement, like voluminous reading, independent thought, oral presentations, and routinely crafting 10-12 page essays are really not part of what Chickering and Gamson (1987) have defined as high quality undergraduate education, are they?

     

    Reference

    Chickering and Gamson (1987).  There are hundreds if not thousands of copies of Chickering and Gamson’s original article floating around on the internet.  If you really want to read it (I encourage you to do so), either click the link embedded in the article, or simply google it up!

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  • Chico Rocks, and Berkeley…

    I was back on the Chico State campus last week, and the new first year students are here, parents hovering nearby as they prepare to cast them out to wilds of Chico State.  The newly minted frosh are of course relishing this—they realize that Chico Rocks, and that they have finally managed to land where they are meant to be, if only they can finally ditch their parents, and seek out what the college president insists are that elusive “Chico Experience.”

     

    So in this essay I will confirm:  junior you’ve made it.  I know that you could have gone to UC Berkeley, but somehow you managed to elude that destiny.  Some of you flat out turned down the offer of a free ride to Berkeley—and we thank you for having the gumption to do so.  Others of you were trickier and more devious in avoiding being cast into the huge classes of Berkeley, even though that was your parents’ greatest desire.  Perhaps you cut class during that 11th grade history exam in order to ruin your 4.0 gpa.  Or you got placed in detention during that stupid health exam for talking in class.  Maybe you hung out behind the gym doing who knows what.  Or perhaps you (like me) you flunked p.e.  Whatever it was, congratulations and well-done!  Now you’ve arrived at Chico State, and you can finally announce to all Chico Rocks, and Berkeley Sucks!

     

    Now, go read this essay which will put into big words what you have known all along about the relationship between Chico and Berkeley.  Your parents are bound to be amazed at your learned erudition when you roll in next Thanksgiving.  And to top it off, the geek from you high school who made it into Berkeley (and refused to cut  the history test or hang out behind the gym) won’t really understand what it is about, and will stomp off huffing and puffing and announce “Sour Grapes!”

     

    Back form reading the essay?  Good.  Now go out and drop that Accounting Class, and sign up for a Sociology Class.  Intro to Sociology (Sociology 100) will do—your goal should be to work yourself up to Classical Social Theory where you can learn more about the astonishing thoughts of not only Max Weber, but also Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, W. E. B. DuBois and Mary Wollstonecraft.  (Yes, that’s the same Karl Marx you might learn about in Berkeley, but we put a slightly different spin on it at Chico!).  I guarantee you that you will really like Mary Wollstonecraft in particular—all students do.  Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the first writers who described the weird dance between men and woman—and offered a virtuous formula for getting past the nonsense you, as new students recently freed of your parents, will likely be engaging in as you prance about the dining commons seeking “true love.”

     

    So you’ve checked Chico State’s Fall 2012 schedule and found out that there are no sections of Sociology 100 available?  Yep, that’s right, the man (that’s Governor Jerry Brown and the State Legislature) cut a bunch of Sociology 100 sections this year so your parents and their friends do not have to pay as much in taxes as your grandparents did to the same Governor Brown (he never goes away).  But don’t worry, generational inequality is a problem which you will also learn about in Sociology.  The end result is that you can’t get your sociology class, even though your parents did.  So you better stick out Accounting, but be sure to be aggressive about getting it next semester.  That way I will hopefully see you in Classical Social Theory in your sophomore year!

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  • This Week in Ethnography: Second Digital Ethnography Week _ Trento 17-21 sept. 2012

    There is not much to report in “This Week in Ethnography”, a segment I am inventing as a means of reporting on the global pulse of this most important subject.  The one item that jumped out of my feeds at me was that I missed the application deadline (of July 22, 2012) for the:

    Second Digital Ethnography Week _ Trento 17-21 sept. 2012

    The second “Digital Ethnography Week” (DEW), an intensive week focused on the study of digital methods and digital ethnographic approaches. The DEW is intended for Ph.D. students and researchers interested in developing advanced methodological skills to account for the digital in contemporary social life.

    As their website reports, this looks like a great opportunity for aspiring digital ethnographers.

    .

    Ethnography and Journalism

    Be warned: The Data Journalism School in Rome is involved in this effort.  I know the conflation of ethnography and journalism is shocking to some. During my graduate training, I recall one of the senior faculty members of my anthropology program criticizing a students’ work by referring to it as “journalism”.  The context for this event was a thesis draft presentation based on ethnographic fieldwork in a doctoral colloquium.  I believe the Professor’s intention was to imply that the student was “only out for a story” and had “little theoretical or methodological reasoning” for how they had generated the data they were reporting on.

    .

    The irony of this situation was that this was a program in applied anthropology.  In any event, let us not “throw the baby out with the bath water” or in this case, throw good data or solid technique out with the researcher using it.  Data Journalism is a fantastic means of getting at reality.  For example, check out the following TED talk by David McCandless: The beauty of data visualization and try to tell me that this “journalist” is “only out for the story”.

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