Rankings, Schmankings

If you are in any way connected to American higher education, you have had to live through 24+ hours of blather about the latest U.S. News and World Report rankings of colleges and universities in the U.S.

All across America there is jubilation, gnashing of teeth, hand wringing, self-satisfied smirking, sadness, and relief-that-we-didn’t-go-down-a-spot.

Honestly, I couldn’t care less about these and any other ranking of American colleges and universities. Why? Because not one of the rankings that flood the airwaves captures the educational experiences of the 99% of college students who don’t attend one of America’s elite institutions.

Just so you understand, when we talk about “America’s Top Colleges” as though they were somehow representative of higher education in this country, we are guilty of such gross over simplification that if one of our students did that in an essay, we’d probably give him a D-. As evidence for this gross conflation of the elite institutions with higher education, I offer the following:

The top two institutions in this year’s USNews rankings are Princeton University and Williams College. Princeton’s endowment floats around $21 billion dollars. Williams College’s endowment is in the $2 billion plus range. Between them, they enroll about 10,000 students. Princeton’s endowment per student is almost $2.6 million and Williams’ is around $1.1 million.

By contrast, in the states where these elite institutions live, Montclair State University enrolls around 20,000 students and has an endowment just over $55 million. UMass Lowell enrolls around 17,500 students and has an endowment of just under $80 million. Montclair State’s endowment per student is almost $2,800 and UMass Lowell’s is almost $4,500. Thus, Princeton has more than 900 times the endowment per student of Montclair State and Williams has 244 times the endowment of UMass Lowell.

Princeton and Williams together enroll just over 10,000 students. Our two state schools together enroll just under 40,000. And those are only two of the public institutions in the local state systems.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 20 million Americans will attend college this year. Fewer than 175,000 will attend one of the 20 institutions in the two Top 10 lists in USNews. In other words, 0.8%, as in less than 1%, of all students in American colleges and universities attend one of these 20 institutions. And yet, we talk about these 20 as though they were somehow representative of American higher education.

As crude as these raw numbers are, they demonstrate very clearly how any conversation about the educational experiences of students in American higher education has to segregate out the elite institutions, just as any conversation of golf would segregate Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, and Jason Day from the foursome that just teed off in front of you at the local public links.

By way of corrective, here’s a good example of the reality of American higher education–a reality never discussed in USNews or any other publication that ranks American institutions:

Last year I was fortunate to come to know, in great detail, Johnson State College in Johnson, Vermont. Unless you are from Vermont, you probably haven’t heard of Johnson State. But what happens there every day is what happens on campuses across this country. Among the many great and wonderful people I met when I was there were staff from housing and student life, who told me that over the holiday and summer breaks they have a number of students who they simply can’t send home, so they find ways to keep them around, warm, fed, and learning.

Can’t go home? Why not? Because there is no home for the student to return to. Because one or both parents is addicted to heroin, a scourge in rural New England just as it is across the United States. Because one of the parents is violent and the student would be at risk of substantial physical harm. Because the family is too poor to welcome back another mouth to feed.

This is not the bucolic Vermont we see in all the tourist brochures. But it is the Vermont that exists behind the pretty post cards, just as it is the Virginia that exists behind the “Virginia is for Lovers” billboards, just as it is in Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon, or any other state you choose.

Far too many American students have to fight every single day just to eat, to be warm, and to learn, and far too many American colleges and universities do just what Johnson State College does–they feed those students, they put roofs over their heads somewhere, somehow, and they teach them, find them jobs, launch them into productive lives, or simply inspire them to think about the world in ways they never had before.

That, my friends, is the reality of American higher education.

Not Princeton.

Not Williams.

And there isn’t a ranking on the planet that captures that reality.


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“Katrina ruined it all; Katrina ruined me”

How should history be written? And when we do write it, whose voices should we hear?

Two of my colleagues and friends, Roy Rosenzweig and Michael Mizell-Nelson, both now sadly deceased,  believed that we can only really understand the past if we listen to the voices of the too often faceless and nameless majority. It is, as Roy and Michael argued throughout their careers, the lived experiences of average people that often teach us the most important lessons of history.

And so, on this the 10th anniversary of the day in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, I want to say something about a group, tossed by the storm, whose voices are almost never heard in the many accounts of Katrina and her aftermath: Katrina’s children.

In the fall of 2005, Roy, Michael, and a team of collaborators at the Center for History and New Media and the at the University of New Orleans, began a digital archiving project–the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank–with the simple goal of capturing as much of the digital record of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, all three of which battered the Gulf Coast that summer. Stories, pictures, recordings, and just about anything else they could get their hands on found their way into the memory bank. [A nice overview here]

Among the 25,000 digital objects in the archive, you can find more than 8,500 individual stories. Over the past month I’ve been reading back through those stories–stories that are still being written and deposited into our collection. Along the way I found myself gravitating to accounts written by those who whose childhood ended abruptly on August 28.

I can’t claim to have read them all–there are 8,500 stories after all. But I have spent a fair amount of time searching the story collections, slowly narrowing my results to stories about childhood, high school, teenage life, and other keywords identifying those who were children that summer. My colleague and one of the people who really made this project work,  Sheila Brennan, has done something similar in the ways that an advanced digital historian might, using topic modeling techniques to find patterns emerging across all the stories in the collection. [Read about Sheila’s results here.]

What did I learn about Katrina’s children by reading their accounts of the storm and its aftermath?

As you might expect, there were those who were not devastated by the storm. They had to evacuate. They lost some possessions. They missed some school. They came home. They rebuilt. They persevered. They went on with their lives. As one put it, “we were some of the lucky ones.”

But for so many of Katrina’s children, the stories of their lives after August 28 are of disaster, indignity, fear, loss, confusion, broken families, and the rootlessness that comes with the loss of home, possessions, and friends.

“I felt helpless. I felt numb the whole time.” [Full story]

“Katrina didn’t just take my house. She took my home, my childhood, and my mental state. The person I used to be was lost along with everything else.” [Full story]

My father “saw an elderly woman being beaten to death for a 6-pack of kiddie water.” [Full story]

“Not only did I lose my home but I lost my family. Katrina not only caused an uproar in the home but a divorce that should’ve never happened…Katrina caused pain and nights of constant cry. Katrina ruined it all; Katrina ruined me.” [Full story]

These are the voices of Katrina’s children–the ones whose lives were irrevocably changed by the storm. Were it not for the efforts of pioneering digital historians like Roy and Michael, and their many colleagues and collaborators who helped build the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, these voices would be lost to us. Of course, these stories represent a tiny, unrepresentative sample of Katrina’s children.

But for now, it’s what we have.

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Does Playfulness Crowd Out Rigor?

If you’ve been a reader of what I’ve been writing about teaching and learning the past several years you’ll know that I’ve been arguing that historians should make room for a more playful approach to the past in the undergraduate history curriculum.

I’ve never argued that playful teaching and learning should be the only way we pursue our goals in history education. But I do think we need to lighten up a bit and make room for courses that are not so dependent on the classic style of history teaching: the lecture or seminar that has as its primary goal the writing of one or several analytical essays and, perhaps, a final presentation to the class, with a mid-term and a final examination.

The fact is that the vast majority of undergraduate history courses taught in the United States are taught in pretty similar ways.  Students have every right to be bored with the sameness of it all and, I suspect, this sameness is one of many causes of the continuing slide in history majors around the country.

Way back in 2008, I started to experiment with more playful approaches to teaching and learning. My forays into teaching students to create online historical hoaxes generated more than their fair share of commentary and controversy around the world. That course, and my more playful version of the historical methods seminar [syllabus], also generated some blow back within my own department.

When I came up for promotion to full professor in 2012-13, my departmental tenure and promotion committee (which ultimately voted against my promotion), wrote the following in their letter to the dean:

Nevertheless, members of the department are concerned that the playfulness of Kelly’s courses can crowd out rigor. Some faculty are concerned that Dead in Virginia [my methods course] was offered as a section of the required historical research methods course yet did not require students to do as much analytical writing as do other sections of that course, which is designated as writing intensive.

Because no one on the committee ever spoke to me about the course, I don’t know, but I suspect, that the concern about the supposed paucity of analytical writing in my version of the methods course arose from the fact that instead of a 10-15 page essay, I required my students to write a series of database entries and the first two pages of a long essay (which I then iterated with them). My students wrote a lot — just not in the format historians are more used to — the 3, 5, 10, or longer essay.

The bigger and more interesting issue here is whether, by having my students write in chunks rather than in long form, I was adequately preparing them for the rigors of our capstone seminar, in which they must write a 20-plus page essay built on primary sources they acquire through their own research.

The promotion and tenure committee also criticized me, quite correctly, for not testing the claims I made in my most recent book [relevant chapter] about the success of the more playful methods course “by comparing the outcomes of Kelly’s section with those of other sections.”

Ever since reading their critique I’ve been a little worried that, in fact, I had not adequately prepared my students for the rigors of the capstone seminar. So, I decided to do what I should have done all along — compare my students’ outcomes with those of other sections of our methods seminar.

To get at that information, I asked the registrar’s office to pull student data from all the sections  of our methods course offered in the semesters when I used my more playful syllabus (spring 2011, spring 2013). I compared student grades in the methods seminar (HIST 300 here at George Mason) to the grades those same students received in their capstone seminar (HIST 499). I did not teach the capstone seminar to any of these students.

Here’s what I learned.

  1. My students outperformed the students who enrolled in other sections. Of the students who took my section of the methods course in 2011, their average GPA in the capstone seminar was an 88.47. Four of my colleagues taught methods that same semester. Their students’ average grade in the capstone seminar was 88.28. In the spring 2013 semester, 64 students took methods (22 of them in my section). The average capstone seminar GPA of the students who took the course from someone else was 88.06, while the average GPA of the students who took the course from me was 90.15.
  2. More of my students have completed the capstone seminar. Only 80% of the students in the other 2011 sections ever went on to take the capstone seminar, while 100% of mine have done so. Given the slow pace of some of our students, it’s likely that more students from the 2013 sections will take the capstone in the coming year. As of now, though, 69% of the students who took the methods course from someone else in spring 2013 have taken the capstone seminar, while 80% of my students have done so.

I will admit to being much relieved that the students who took the methods course from me did not suffer from having taken a more playful version of historical methods in which they wrote database entries rather than a long essay. In fact, quite the opposite happened. They did just fine.

While I’m relieved, I’m also a little peeved with myself for letting the criticism I got during my promotion year convince me to go back to teaching methods the more traditional way. I’m teaching the course again this fall and can’t ditch that more traditional syllabus entirely for the more playful one. I will certainly ditch the 10-15 page paper in favor of more shorter and iterative writing assignments.

And, like a zombie, Dead in Virginia will rise again…

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How to Close a College

Yesterday, the board of trustees of one of the older colleges in Virginia–Sweet Briar College–announced they were closing the college at the end of this academic year, despite the fact that the college still has an endowment worth over $80 million for its student body variously reported as being between 550-700 students. This choice to end the college’s life on the college’s terms rather than the market’s terms was certainly a wrenching one and has been widely debated all across the Internet in the past 24 hours.

I fully understand the difficulties the board faced, because in 2002, I was the chair of the board of the Civic Education Project (CEP), a very successful international educational NGO operating in the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. That spring, our board voted to cease operations and donate whatever cash was left in our accounts after the shut down to an NGO doing work similar to ours.

In our case, the reason for our decision to close was that our primary funder had decided that we would have to either merge with his own organization, or lose our annual grant that represented more than 65% of our funding base. I have no complaints with his decision–and it’s worth noting that over the 15 years that CEP was in operation, he was extraordinarily generous, far beyond our wildest expectations. It was, after all, his money.

Thus, as a board we were faced with three choices: merge with an organization whose values we shared, but whose operational approach we disagreed with; close; or become a grant driven organization rather than a mission driven organization. We spent six months (and much of our cash reserves) scouting the waterfront of possible options for that third way. In the end, we voted to close rather than become an organization we couldn’t be proud of.

My reading of the news coming out of and about Sweet Briar is that the college’s trustees faced similar choices, albeit in a slightly different context. As happened to the CEP board back in 2002, their options were constrained by market forces they could not control. And as we did back in 2002, they chose death with dignity over a slow death inflicted by the market.

Sweet Briar isn’t the first college to close in Virginia this decade, nor will it be the last. But in making difficult choices early rather than in extremis, the college’s board set an example for those who all too soon will face similarly constrained options.

I’m sad for the students, faculty, staff, and alumnae of the college, and for the community of Amherst which is losing an important economic engine. But I’m proud of the college’s board. They’ve made an incredibly painful decision and are, as far as I can tell, doing all the right things now that the choice has been made.

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