Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

Archive for March, 2008

Conference

Posted by Gerald on March 30, 2008

I just got back from a conference of local community colleges.  It was pretty small, but had some really good sessions concerning assessment at the individual course, program, and college level.  Half of the sessions dealt with assessment in some fashion and the other half seemed to center on our student’s culture.  There were sessions dealing with the rise of the helicopter parent.  If you do not recognize the term, count yourself lucky.  The day before I left I had gotten a long phone call from the mother of one of my advisees who wanted to discuss what “they” had decided that “they” were going to take – and no, she is not enrolled in any classes herself.  There was also a good session on “the millennials.”  Most of these tend to just talk about differences – this one focused on learning needs and adaptive strategies.

We ended with a final session on change.  The presenter was more entertaining than informative, but that was okay.  He then felt it necessary to subject us to a powerpoint he had done for some students years before on the guard unit at the tomb of the unknown soldier.  It ran the entire length of Lee Greenwood’s overplayed paean to mindless patriotism “God Bless the USA”.  By then I was ready to leave. 

Assessment has been the center of big conversations for us of late – how do we assess student progress in a way that we can demonstrate to accrediting bodies and to the government?  The Spellings Report really showed the future.  We are coming to the end of the time when those agencies are going to continue to nod at us and say “Yes, oh wise ones, your assurance that students are doing well by your criteria is enough for us.  Have a few more billion dollars.”

Some other stuff I learned:

Out of the total amount this state spends on education, K through 20, the entire community college system here gets 8%.  Out of this we have to find money for preparatory needs for 44% of our students.

In terms of faculty pay for community colleges, we rank 41st in the nation (the current president of our system has been fighting this for years – we used to be 47th.)  This despite the fact that our system is generally regarded as very good – enough that we get sitting Presidents (Clinton and Bush the Younger) and Presidential candidates (Hillary once and Barak twice) who come to our community colleges to talk about how swell they are.

The conference was held on the coast, so I got to go out for a couple of very good seafood dinners.  I also spent a fair amount of time drinking beer in the evenings with my associate dean – which was both pleasant and informative.

I also got to spend just a couple of hours sitting looking out at the bay with my window open.  I read a book and watched seabirds and a couple of dolphins while I enjoyed the breeze.

I think that might have been enough to get me through the rest of the semester.

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Clarke is Dead

Posted by Gerald on March 18, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke has died.

 Clarke was an early favorite of mine.  I loved his novels, but I thought he was at his best as a short story author.  I still remember the closing of his “Nine Billion Names of God” as giving me one of the creepiest and most awe-inspiring moments I had as a young reader.

 I always liked his work best when he allowed his humanism to come before his science.  He had an optimism about human potential in spite of his awareness of human weaknesses.  I always saw a similarity there between his view of humanity and its future and Carl Sagan’s.  Both of those men taught me to admire science and to see the beauty that is so often hidden by the jargon.  Both gave me an example of how one could be realistic about the human condition and fervent in calling for change without ever giving in to despair and cynicism.

I think Clarke made us all a bit more for his having been here, and we are all going to be a bit less for his leaving.  If he finds a journey beyond this one, I hope he enjoys the exploration.

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Caudillo

Posted by Gerald on March 9, 2008

If you aren’t familiar with this term, it comes out of South American politics.  It indicates an authoritarian ruler.  The reason I’m bringing this up is that the caudillo usually presented himself as the great man on a white horse who comes to save the day.

Which brings me to the race for President.

Whether Republican or Democrat, man or woman, white or black, our Presidential candidates – and not just in this election cycle – have a whiff of the caudillo about them.  They are going to bring change, or experience, or whatever, to cure the nation’s ills.  Their respective followers and detractors – including me – play the game as well by lionizing or demonizing them by turns.

Isn’t this all a bit anti-democratic?

The reality is that the President, however bad, is never the source of the nation’s ills and however good, is never its savior.  The land and the President are not one, nor should they be.  The major power of the modern Presidency is the ability to motivate people and to focus attention.  To my mind, this was FDR’s great discovery.  The most effective President’s since him have known and used this.  That isn’t about leading or deciding – it is about inspiring.  The problem is that the same fact also makes the Presidency an easy focus for the national mood.  We had a world trade boom in the 1990s that translated into good economic times here at home – for some.  Bill Clinton had precisely nothing to do with that, but is still claiming credit for it.  As much as I hate the current guy and his policies, the current economic woes here have little to do with him.

I’m not trying to suggest the Presidency is meaningless.  As the last eight years have shown, an unengaged President surrounded by self-serving careerists and manipulators can make a bad situation much worse.  On the other hand, wise policies and an engaged President can help extract the maximum benefit out of good situations and can make sure that more people benefit from them.  I’m arguing that the person in that center seat doesn’t so much call the tune as help keep the orchestra on tempo.

As lousy a President as I believe Ralph Nader would be, I absolutely agree with him about one thing.  The Presidential elections are no longer democratic, if indeed they ever were.  I disagree with him about the cause.  I don’t think this is about big whatever or special whosits.

It is about us.

We have created a system through action and through passivity that leaves power in other hands.  We the People want to elect Big Daddy or Big Momma to deal with all the hard stuff so we don’t have to think about that.  It is an absolutely natural thing for people to want to just be left alone to live their lives, the problem is that doing so abrogates the basic responsibilities of free people to determine their own destinies.  We want to be free – but what we usually mean by that is that we want to be free from care and woe.  That is the freedom of childhood.

Ultimately I don’t believe our freedoms are taken away.  We give them up.  We keep looking to “them” to solve the problems – whether the “free market” or God or Science or John/Barak/Hillary/Ralph.  Then we get upset when “they” fail.  The problem is the only solution has always been us.  We are our greatest enemy and only hope.

But still, we are going to remain focused on the speeches and the cheering.  We’ll all pick our person on a horse… and we’ll keep waiting for them to save us.

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Shaky

Posted by Gerald on March 2, 2008

While returning from a lunch date this afternoon I lost control of my car as I avoided another car on I-85.  I’m still not sure how this happened, given that I’m not a real speed demon and my tires and all are in great shape.  I know some times all it takes is the wrong angle on the wrong piece of asphalt, but still – that stuff is supposed to happen to someone else.  My best guess is that I’m still getting used to how much lighter this Camry is compared to every other car I’ve ever driven.  It doesn’t seem to slow much when I take my foot off the accelerator, which is what I did to no effect when the car started to fishtail.

Luckily the cars around me were mostly past by the time my fishtailing became a full-on skid.  There was a large break in the traffic which allowed me to get going again before anyone else came up.  I pulled over and checked, but there was no damage (there was never an impact, and everything else seems fine) so I drove home.  What I think has me feeling retroactively shaky is how easily this could have gone much worse.

I think it might be time for a glass of wine… or so.

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