Another Day, Another Collection of Student Evaluations to Consider

Yesterday was like new comics release day except instead of being on the receiving end of one of the cooler parts of popular culture I was the recipient of documents which bear only the merest of traces of what students may be getting out of any of my courses. There is also a remarkable paucity of interesting art or action sequences.


A Callabi-Yau manifold useful for utterly confusing people about multi-dimensional space

Unlike comic books student evaluations are often used to perpetuate a faculty person’s paid position. Unfortunately, and as most faculty are abundantly aware, student evaluations do not really measure course pedagogy very well. Higher education administrators love student evaluations for a variety of reasons. First, they are easy to hold; they are tangible, physical evidence of proof-of-something. Evaluations can be printed, placed in envelopes and bring substance to the insubstantial. They can be shaken, pointed to (“See??? My students loooove me!”), burned, wadded-up or otherwise rendered into an angry version of a Callabi-Yau manifold on a moment’s notice.

Evaluations are wonderful for empowering students and administrators alike. Students get to feel like they are contributing something worthwhile. Administrators have evidence of collecting data, data which is mostly irrelevant for improving education quality, but data nonetheless.

Student evaluations tend to ask a limited number of questions biased towards students opinion of the instructor and the course and not really about how the student approached the course. Questions like:

  1. Did the instructor reply promptly to emails?
  2. Did the instructor provide clear due dates?
  3. Did the instructor provide a well-organized course?
  4. Did the instructor provide well-organized course materials?
  5. Did the instructor grade assignments on a timely basis?
  6. Did the instructor appear excited or interested in the material?
  7. Was the instructor knowledgeable on the material covered?
  8. Was the instructor able to answer questions on course topics?

These questions really only scratch the surface of a course, and provide no substantive information about the student actually managed the course. Nor are questions provided that strike at the core of the instructor-student relationship. Where are the questions like:

  1. Did the student ask questions about the syllabus?
  2. Did the student ask for extra guidance for any course-related topics?
  3. Did the instructor provide other inquiry-based assignments to help develop complicated material?
  4. Did the instructor provide a collection of online notes to compliment the course?
  5. Did the instructor provide any ancillary educational materials, such as lecture podcasts, YouTube videos, or web-based simulations?
  6. Did the student avail themselves to any of the ancillary educational materials?
  7. If the student did avail themselves to ancillary educational materials were these materials helpful?

These are questions I generally do not find on course assessment materials, and I have been employed by three community colleges and one university. On the other hand, I do provide courses my own assessment questions.

  1. List your 5 favorite topics covered in this course.
  2. List 5 topics, themes, or assignments you would change in this course.
  3. What was your least favorite assignment for this course?
  4. How has your opinion of world geography changed since the first week of the course?
  5. Do you believe your opinions or knowledge base has been improved by taking this course?
  6. Would you recommend this course to a friend?

The 13 questions provided above are far more suited to evaluating a course and perhaps a faculty person than the assessment tools currently used which trend to giving students a platform for promulgating weak opinions based on poor personal behavior and attitudes augmented by logical fallacies.

Here is anonymous feedback provided by a recent student, provided in its entirety:

The biggest issue for me was the lack of deadlines. In all other online and actual classroom setting classes, I have been highly successful because I have a clear frame of when I need to get things accomplished. Having unclear deadlines left room for procrastination.

The syllabus was very long and tricky to understand, so when asking questions I would read the syllabus twice, and still wouldn’t come to a clear answer to my questions.

The detail of the essay questions seem to be quite difficult for a simple weather and climate class. I understand that this class is meant to challenge students. But when I am a straight-A student and can’t find a clear answer after reading the textbook and researching answers, there is a problem.

I am not a weather/climate major and need this course for a requirement for my major, and this class seems much too difficult and time-consuming to meet a major requirement.

To begin, this commentary is actually for more literate than my typical feedback. I entreat my students numerous times around evaluation time to give thoughtful consideration to the course, to contemplate content, course management, and to assess their own approach to the course. I have to commend the author of the feedback on their attempt to meet my recommendations. However, their response is replete with problems.

My course had low enrollment, about 7 students. Due to low enrollment, keeping track of students efforts was not very time-consuming. Thus, I can say with no equivocation this student never emailed me to ask questions about the syllabus or any of the course content. The student never indicated using any of the 60+ online lectures I have on my YouTube. My geography channel on YouTube includes over 100 self-created videos, open to people around the world, not simply my own courses. The student never indicated using my lecture notes upon which my videos are based.

Weather and climate is not a “simple” course. I try to reduce the complexity of the course into common terms and circumstances people can relate to, hence the videos. Most textbooks tend to weigh heavy on the science. As a coach and educator my job is to distill these concepts into simple forms. Then I can reconstitute them as knowledge improves. A person who tries to use “The University of Google” to conduct their own research in weather and climate will have issues without a good foundation in some science. Additionally, and at the risk of committing a logic error myself, based on our current Congressional ignorance of climate science no one can truly claim weather and climate is “simple.” Anecdotally, with the messed-up Blizzardopocalypse of 2015 forecast, even meteorologists get things wrong.

[Watch Jon Stewart provide up-to-the-minute coverage of CNN’s ridiculous weather coverage]

Not to belabor this psuedo-rebuttal, but one point mentioned I hear frequently. “I am a straight-A student and can’t <insert some course failure here>.” This is truly a False Cause logical fallacy. The student was not able to perform some assignment to their perceived level of aptness not because they truly aren’t adept but because the course was too hard.

The notion a straight-A’s should infer success in every course is a problem. In college I loved literature, my literature professors appreciated my as I loved to write about what I read, loved to analyze what I read, and liked to discuss the issues and themes of what I read. I received straight-A’s in all of my English and literature courses. I received straight-A’s in all of my history and geography and political science courses for pretty much the same reasons. However, I did not receive straight-A’s in my math courses, in particular Calculus II and Matrix Algebra. Now, would I go to my math instructors and tell them, “I am a straight-A student. I am getting C’s in your math courses. Obviously, your course is the problem, not me.” Knowing my math instructors at the time, they would ask me to leave and never come back. Except for the sweet Chinese woman who taught matrix algebra. She would have smiled, apologized, offered to help tutor me. After a week or so and realizing it was my own ineptness at matrix algebra, I would have politely excused myself and withdrawn from the course. And I did. True story.

That the student needed this course for a major indicates to me the student was working on an Education degree, probably in middle school science. I’ve been around long enough to notice this pattern. The pattern troubles me. The education courses tend to be anemic in teaching true teaching skills, i.g. classroom management, dealing with visible poverty, bullying, careless parents, sniping peers, and apathetic administrations which pass kids reading at the 1st grade level into the 7th grade. But, this is a bit of hyperbole. A person going into education needs to fight against their own procrastination, take responsibility for their own learning, use their faculty as mentors, and understand they are not educating themselves for only themselves but so they can prepare themselves to educate today’s youth who will grow into tomorrow’s adults.

Thanks for reading my thoughts on student evaluations. I know my posts tend to be lengthy and appreciate the consideration of everyone.


Blizzard of January 2015

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 11.08.43 AM
The weather systems which brought rain and some snow to the U.S. Midwest and South threatened to bring record amounts of snow the U.S. Northeast. The NOAA (National Oceanic and Aeronautical Administration) provides daily images, maps, graphs, and reports for global weather systems, not merely those systems affecting the U.S. The image (above) was captured January 26th, 2015 and illustrates what a significant weather system looks like from space. From this image the major part of the weather system appears to have moved off the East Coast of the United States. I’ve noticed from following some social media weather accounts, e.g. National Weather Service (NWS), the estimates for snowfall have been cut almost in half, going from 20-30 inches to 10-20 inches. That is still a fair amount of snow to shovel.

While the full-color satellite images are pretty and carry some information, meteorologists use other forms of satellite imagery for weather analysis.

jan26-2015-visibleThis image (left) is a black-and-white image showing simply nothing other than clouds without the Earth’s surface features.

The varying shades of black, grey, and white indicate the depth and extent, or presence, of cloud cover.

Using visible light meteorologists can make an attempt to determine cloud forms. Cloud forms can help us determine what type of weather is arriving and if we might be getting precipitation and maybe some idea of how much precipitation. Thus being able to read the clouds can help us figure out what weather to prepare. Anyone who has watched “World’s Deadliest Catch” has seen evidence of how serious changes in weather can be.

Broad expanses of clouds tend to be stratiform, like those over southern Texas or over Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Changes in intensity can hint at cloud height. For instance, those clouds in Texas might be closer to the ground, while those clouds over Alabama could be more developed and higher in altitude. How can we know?

jan26-2015-infraredThe image (left) represents the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The sensor on-board the satellite is sensitive to the thermal energy being radiated back into space. The colors represent the lack of heat.

Grey clouds represent warm cloud formations. Yellow cloud formations are slightly less warm (cooler). The blue cloud formations represent the much less warm (coldest) clouds and cloud tops.

You might wonder why I would say “less warm.” Heat is energy; if something is warm that thing contains more energy. If that thing feels cool it could be due to its lack of internal energy. Cool objects are cool due to their lack of molecular energy. So, cold objects feel cold because of their lack of heat. I know that sounds sort of ridiculous, but this course has to frame topics with physics in mind. In physics, we don’t usually talk about things being cold, we talk about their lack of heat, their lack of energy.

In the case of my interpretation, I can see I got the positions of the cloud layers wrong, in fact, reversed. The clouds over south Texas are obviously colder than those over Alabama. The clouds over south Texas are probably stratocirrus, very high, cold clouds. The clouds over Alabama might be stratocumulus, lower and warmer clouds.

These images can come in handy when trying to assess regional precipitation potentials and planning for future weather. For instance, another significant weather system has formed over Alaska. We can see the system is compact with well-developed clouds. The deeper the blue the colder the clouds. The clouds are very high and most likely very thick.

Also, notice the system has a slight eyebrow shape? And, notice the dark arch of clear sky beginning off the coast of California, rising over Idaho, and sinking down over Kansas? This is evidence of a Rossby wave. We will learn about these later. Rossby waves guide and control the movement of global weather systems. By finding and analyzing a Rossby wave we can predict how weather systems will move across a region. Rossby waves are not hard to locate, but you do need a map of the upper atmosphere.

The map at left is from NOAA. NOAA provides many maps for a variety of purposes. This map is from their Aviation Weather Center [link]. Pilots have a very specific need to know about conditions aloft and at various altitudes. A pleasure craft pilot has a different need than commercial pilots. Commercial pilots will direct aircraft through many of the important atmospheric layers. A pleasure craft pilot may information to 12,000ft or so – where much of our poor weather is located.

jan26-upperair-225mbThis map illustrates a Rossby wave. The wave is colored in Valentine’s Day colors, reds and pinks, and the wave follows the pattern of a sine wave. Sometimes, Rossby waves can be shallow; other times they can be deep.

This Rossby wave coincides with our current weather system, aka The Blizzard of 2015. The little black “arrows” are station symbols indicating wind speed and direction. The arrows point in the direction the wind is moving, the “feathers” point in the direction of the wind source region. The number of feathers indicate wind speed. Each line is about 10 knots. Half a mark is 5 knots. A thick triangle is 50 knots. Add up the triangles, plus each full mark, plus any half-mark, and wind speed can be determined.

In the red areas, wind speeds are about 125-150 knots (144mph – 172mph). Commercial airlines pilots prefer west-to-east travel as passenger jets can fly more efficiently being carried along in the Jet Stream. East-to-west travel is not as efficient as the aircraft must deal with headwinds. Think of the last time you took a road trip. Much easy to drive “with the wind” than “against the wind.” Boating can have the same effect when piloting “with the current” versus “piloting against the current.”

By examining the position and characteristics of the Rossby waves meteorologist can track and predict how storm systems move. Earlier, I drew our attention to a storm system over Alaska. When we superimpose this information with the information presented on upper air maps we can predict the Alaska storm system will track down over the U.S. Midwest and then proceed over the U.S. Northeast. We also need to remember this storm system will interact with other weather systems, affect and be affected by other air masses, and so conditions may change.

Our atmosphere is not static. But, we have some wonderful tools to help track our weather.


Book Review: Kraken, by China Miéville

Kraken, by China Miéville. Ballantine Books, Del Rey Paperback, Random House Publishing. 2010. $16.

I’ll pick out some geography in a little bit. Kraken was an immensely fun and worthwhile read, one of the best reads I’ve experienced in a long time. I don’t want to sound dismissive of the good books I’ve read, crafted by fine authors. All of us who read plenty get slapped in the face by writing on rare occasions, writing so electrical our neurons go bink-bank-boink-hey-this-is-brilliant! Kraken is such a novel.

Ray Bradbury was my first brain-AED. An AED is the automated external defibrillator, and Bradbury was my brain-AED. Somehow, some writers are able to arrange normal words in such a way as to spell-bind a reader, beguiling them to forget work, school, eating, sleeping. Normal words, words used every day by normal people yet when Bradbury pens them, everyday images in my mind are over-written with new bits, new zeros and ones, and the real world my eyes capture is replaced by the virtual world of Mars, or a country fair.

For some people, Tolkien was their AED, or maybe C.S. Lewis. Or, maybe J.K. Rowling.

The inherent danger of finding a fantastic author is the danger of being off-put by the author’s mastery of language. “Wow…this is nothing short of brilliant. If I try to write, how will I ever be able to reach the bar Bradbury has set?” Or, Asimov, Piers Anthony, Clarke, Benford, Brin, and others, I’m sure. Reading a great book can be a uniquely humbling experience. Bittersweet.

China Miéville (“mee-AY-vill”) is one of those authors whose writing will connect your angular gyrus to jumper cables and turn your engine over. Miéville is the type of author whom after you read one book you’ll feel an unnatural compulsion to acquire all others. I’m suspicious writing is his knack. In fact, I tried to do such a thing today and my local Books-A-Million lived up to my continual lack of expectations. Not a single Miéville novel. Not a single Guy Gavriel Kay novel, either. Mind-boggling. But, they have millions of Patterson. Go figure.

All that being said, if you don’t like urban fantasy then forget all the above and wait for my next review, World Order, by Henry Kissinger. After that, I’m not sure. I’ve got 47 books in my “to-read” stack.

Kraken opens with the startling discovery someone has managed to nick an exhibit from the British Museum of Natural History. I’ve been to the museum and, yes, there are lots of items which might be tempting to pilfer. Small, delicate relics easily pocketed away if one were able to dodge the security counter-measures. No, the nicked relic in question is the eponymous kraken, Architeuthis dux. The giant squid. And not simply the squid, as if that endeavor in and of itself were easy, but the entire bloody formalin-filled tank plus giant squid simply disappeared. Billy Harrow, the curator of the exhibit, plus museum visitors anticipating seeing the specimen of a lifetime, enter the exhibit room as normal, only to behold the emptiness of the specimen room, home to tank and squid.

What follows next and thereafter is a really fun and complex set of events and circumstances. The police are called, but the normal police hand the investigation over to the London equivalent of Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Those of you who read Hellboy know what I’m talking about. Except in this case we have the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime (FSRC) Unit. London, it seems, is awash with sects, cults, and agencies attached to all manner of deities, both real and imagined. Telling the two apart gets confusing. Thus, the London metro police department has a special unit for when crimes seem a little knacked. While the FSRC goes about trying to determine which cult might have stolen the squid, Billy gets wrapped up in the mystery much to his own dismay.

Whoever has the squid might be using the fleshy corpse to bring about the end of the world, and London is home to untold numbers of people, agencies, and beings and entities who want that power. And, as it turns out, some are be paid by others simply to track down and locate the squid – at all costs. Billy, as curator of squid, is seen by some as the holy man of the squid, the prophet of the squid, the only person to have touched and cared for the creature during the preservation process. He really isn’t happy about this new-found attention, and the evil literally oozing from the London stonework.

As the realization builds within Billy the squid, the squid cult, and those attempting the attain the squid really could bring about the end of the world, he forms an uneasy alliance with a former squid-cult member and together they set about scouring London, hoping to be the first to find and secure the formalin-infused squid-god. In doing so they run across many of London’s magical and mercurial denizens.

And the tale of pursuit is just simply so much fun.

I’ve been describing Kraken to people, “If Douglas Adams’ and Terry Pratchett’s books had conjugal relations after the bookstore went dark, Kraken would be the literary love-child.” Miéville has his own voice to be sure but for those who have read Adams and/or Pratchett I think this comparison forms a decent baseline.

A sample:

     There was a whole slew of skill-sets in the room: miracle-sniffing, unwitchery, iron blood. Some of those present worked in teams, some alone. Some had no occult skills at all, were only extraordinarily lucky with contacts and good at everyday soldierly expertises like killing. Of the others, there were those who would disguise themselves when they left this congenial atmosphere: the miasmic entities drifting at head-height like demon-faced farts would reenter their hosts; the huge woman dressed in a reverse-polarity rainbow would reinstitute her little glamour and be a teenager in a supermarket uniform again.

from Kraken; page 182

Miéville crafts prose specific enough to guide us to the notion the room is replete with mystical forces, agencies, and entities, but vague enough to allow our imaginations to uniquely interpret and build the required imagery.

Miéville is English, writing about London as someone who not merely has their hand on the pulse of London, but as someone whom pretty much knows every other bum to bonnet detail. He is London’s dermatologist and proctologist, internist and podiatrist, perhaps shaman or even Londonmancer.

Now, let’s hit some geography.

Billy Harrow and his friend, Leon, live in the Hoxton district of Hackney, Hackney being a borough of London on the north side of the Thames.

Chapter 28 begins with a contingent of fat beetles moving from Pimlico by wall-top, sidewalks, and sewers to a workshop in Islington.

The map shows a couple different routes a person driving might take. Google Maps does not do routes for insects, so you’ll have to use your imagination.

Anyone familiar with urban fantasy knows one of the best places to find research support for the supernatural is the library. The older the library the better. Better still if the library is the British Library.

We all know for the most part law enforcement tends to deny anything having to do with magic or supernatural circumstances. Not the London Metropolitan Police. They have their own SVU-style branch. Located in Cricklewood, the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crimes (FSRC) unit has an office for handling crimes involving knacking.

Even the bad guys remember the days of taking a geography class.

Do you remember when she was in Geography with us and he kept nicking all the pens for the overhead projector?” Goss said. “I knew you liked her then. I know you did stuff for Dane, that’s why your here, where is he?”

And then awful stuff happens.

London is not the only old city with a complete compliment of citymancers. Other “psychopoli” have their own folks who look after and act as energy conduits for the urban organism. Paris, France, has Paristurges; Warsaw, Poland has Warsawtarchs; and Berlin, Germany, has the Berlinimagi. These people are as important to the function of the city as any police officer, firefighter, or rubbish collector. One would never realize who these people are; they have been around since perhaps the time when the island of Great Britain rose from the sea, the dawn of Albion, and the days of giants. But, they work as librarians, or clerks in odd shops in peculiar neighbors, or technicians in service to the water department. They could be your friends, neighbors, or post carrier.

Kraken is a marvelous novel. Don’t expect wizards or time-consuming spells resulting in cataclysmic blasts of mythic energies carving out huge tracts of pavement or destroying buildings. There are no people running around waving wands spewing rainbow sparks, reducing people to ashes or wrapping them in spidery-webs. Miéville’s London is subtle, happening right in front of you or right under you. That line of pigeons walking around in front of your favorite coffeeshop? Yeah, that is not coincidence. They are sending a message to the head barista, or the manager. Those squirrels at your office window chewing nuts? Not coincidence. They really are spying on you. That guy who is walk-skipping along the sidewalk caught in his own moment? He is on a secret mission and stepping hexes out on the sidewalk to hide traces of his passage from others who have a knack for sniffing out magic.

If you’ve read other Miéville novels and not this one, pick this one up. If you have never read Miéville and you like fantasy or are just looking for something fun and imaginative, I think Kraken would be a good start.


Email Etiquette and Higher Education

I’ve examined a number of faculty posts over the last few years, tweets and Facebook updates, blogs and essays, relating how poorly students communicate with faculty. I’ve had conversation with faculty, my peers, who have various policies for handling questionable emails. I’ve tried to examine my own email styles along the way. As our global society moves more into digital communication, electronic media becoming as important as verbal communication, there is a growing body of evidence we are becoming less nuanced about interpreting messages, and perhaps more sensitive over word choices, tone, and general content. I overheard a basketball coach state recently, “My girls will text each other all day long and never say an actual word, and when I want them to talk to each other on the basketball court, they don’t know how, or won’t.”

txtmsgElectronic communication is easy to misconstrue. Emails and text messages are not nuanced; we bring a priori knowledge to a text message email and overlay a tone biased with our own experiences. There is no body language or vocal tones to derive wit, sarcasm, anger, concern. We may read an email using an internal voice of a child, e.g. “I can’t find the syllabus – waaa!” or in the voice of a parent who spoke to us in a demeaning tone. Because we (faculty) bring a personal bias – due to life experience, honestly – to these forms of messages we erroneously infer the student is being rude or condescending without that necessarily being the case.

About two years ago, I stopped being antagonized over what could easily be taken as rude emails from students. Or, really, I mentally stepped-back and made a choice to be less antagonized by what I could easily interpret as blatantly rude emails from students. I decided I would take these emails at face value: crude emails written by a young person who has no idea how they are coming across potentially as a result of having no exposure or experience in creating professional or formal emails. With so much emphasis on testing, I’m not sure how much training or education high school students have received on something as simple yet meaningful as authoring an email.

Thus, when I get an email I don’t like I take a moment, re-write the email for the student, compare and contrast their email with mine, and then let them know their email was not acceptable for communication with a professional of any type. Below, I provide an announcement I provide to one of my online courses based on a series of recent emails.


I’ve handled a number of emails over the weekend and this morning sharing a common theme: the emails come across as rude.

An example. If your email looks like the following, don’t be surprised if you don’t get a reply back from a faculty person, or you get a reply that is … terse.

“I need the code for Pearson.”

“I want the code for Pearson.”

“i can’t find the code you are talking about.”

If your emails look like that then do not send them. Do not send them until you rewrite them. These are not appropriate emails to send to a professional person, faculty or not. Hopefully, emails like this would not be sent to a potential employer. If you wouldn’t send an email like the above to a boss, supervisor, or someone with whom you are setting up an interview, then don’t send the email to faculty.

I don’t really blame students for rude emails. I often wonder what example they are using for composing emails, or if students even have an example to work from.

When communicating with professionals – and all faculty are professionals – students need to engage faculty as such, at least until the faculty person is known well-enough to be able to send conversational emails. I’ve taught at Murray State since 1993 and one of the common complaints I hear from faculty is the increasing rudeness of students and the use of text message-style emails to communicate. 

Instead, compose emails similar to:

“Hi, Mr. Busby;

I was wondering where I might find the Pearson code. I was wondering where I might find the syllabus. I was wondering why Alpha House didn’t win a Golden Globe award. Could you assist? Thanks!”

-Bob Student”

Let’s set aside the concern the information requested is probably already available on Canvas for a moment. An email like the above is far more likely to leave a good impression with faculty and is far more polite than the initial requests which come across as demands.

Always make sure you consult all course documents before you go about asking questions. That is a huge help.

I am posting this announcement to help you, to improve the probability of getting positive feedback not only from faculty but everyone in a position of authority.


[End of Announcement]

To clarify, the three examples I open with were all real examples of emails I received – in their entirety. That’s correct; a single line. No salutation, nothing in the Subject: line, and no closing or signature. What you read above is word-for-word the complete email, including the lower-case “i” in the third example.

I have a rule in my syllabus reserving the right NOT to reply to emails that are not professional /  formal or have gross misspellings. But, here is what happens. I don’t reply to the emails, the students complain to administration, chairs, VPs of Online Learning, etc. I then get a phone call from the chair or the VP asking why I am being rude to students. Then, I have to explain myself. The other circumstance I’ve dealt with concerns course evaluations. A student may not call or email (of all things, students email to complain. I always wonder that those emails look like…) but they wait until “Evaluation of Online Course” time rolls around. I then received very low marks in areas of communication. Our evaluation system is color-coded; obviously any red is going to be eye-catching. I then get a phone or email from a chair, dean, or VP of Online Learning inquiring about the nature of personal problem with students and if I want to continue employment I need to improve my attitude.

Higher Education being turned on its head by bureaucracy so education is now sacrificed to ensure happy students and course content now falls within the domain of administrators might be a topic for a future essay. To keep things basic for this post, I’ll simply state some colleges have administrations which will advocate in favor of students, imposing the burden of proof onto faculty.

To close out this post, I’ll ask a question on your behalf: “Since you have been re-writing student emails, how have your students responded?

I’d like to say students have without a doubt, unanimously, been appreciative. I can’t say that. Sometimes, I get a “thank you. You are right; I forgot.” Sometimes, the emails improve, sometimes they don’t. The student who offered Example #3 above actually replied with, “How am I rude? My email was not rude?” I then sent another, even more detailed email than the content of the announcement above. The reply I received was, “I’ve never had a problem before. My teachers like me.” The response of this student indicates far more to me about the intellectual processing power present within the student than I really want to stop and consider.


Book Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore. Alfred A. Knopf Publisher. 2014. Hardcover. $24.

I’m not sure many people realize Wonder Woman is nearly as old as Batman and Superman. My impression is she has gotten lost in time, lost in small screen and silver screen cinema, and most importantly, has essentially been shelved by a male-dominated media culture who has historically refused to recognize the contribution of Wonder Woman to popular culture and who deny a woman can be a lead in an action movie.

Historians are charged with a critical responsibility. Historians are the referees of society. When a group or agency or person make some claim historians have the responsibility to step in and determine the veracity of stated claims. Said another way, historians should keep or maintain accuracy of events. Jill Lepore’s entry into the literature of comic book history and the influence of comic books on U.S. culture offers considerable commentary on the dominance of white males in higher education, in marketing, in publishing, and in controlling who speaks and what is spoken early in the 20th century, in a country priding itself upon “freedom of speech.”

The other dominate force in addition to white male dominance is that of religion. Together, the role of males augmented by the vociferous rhetoric of organized religion very much controlled the rights of women. Finding the proper tense for my commentary here is challenging as many of the obstacles faced by women in the early 20th century continue to thrive well into the 21st century. The United States continues to exhibit the implementation of policies to control women’s presence in certain economic government sectors, while politicians continue to try to exercise legislative pressure to control birth control, sex education, and access to family planning.

Sensation Comics (1942)

Sensation Comics (1942)

Wonder Woman is a contemporary of Batman and Superman. Published in “Sensation Comics” in 1942, perhaps I should say Diana Prince is a contemporary of Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent/Kal-el. Much has been made about Batman over the last two decades or so, and almost as much has been made over Superman over an even longer time frame. I am only using the most recent incarnations of “Batman,” circa Michael Keaton, in making that statement, and only post-Christopher Reeves “Superman.” I’m not in denial of previous manifestations of those characters, I’m simply framing them in relationship to current pop culture. I realize Batman and Superman go back to the late 1930’s.

Jill Lepore offers a very interesting examination of the many facets behind the origins of Wonder Woman. WW wasn’t simply the creation of William Marsten to develop a strong female character in the vein of Superman, or an intelligent heroine borrowed from Batman. No, the design behind WW was not initially deliberate. Later, as her character became immensely popular themes and art would certainly become exquisitely deliberate.

Wonder Woman was created by the fellow who designed and patented the world’s first “lie detector” device. And where did his inspiration arise? From his sister-in-law, Margaret Sanger, the principle person advocating women’s rights in the United States, and chiefly responsible for founding Planned Parenthood.

William Moulton Marsten was a very intrepid young man with an active mind and considerable motivation. In 1911 he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and began taking courses at Harvard University. He was fascinated by philosophy, psychology and sociology and not so enthusiastic about English and history.

Cambridge was rapidly becoming the “proving ground” for women’s suffrage and Marston was right in the thick of the controversy. Cambridge was the site of many of the early protests, campaigns, and rhetoric of the early women’s rights movement. The movement, which began in Great Britain, expanded across the pond to the U.S. East Coast. Harvard University supported women’s rights, creating the Harvard Men’s League for Women Suffrage. Harvard invited a popular speaker on women’s rights, Florence Kelley, to speak on fair wages, an 8-hr work day, and the end of child labor. One problem. In 1911, women were not allowed to speak on the campus of Harvard, or nearly every other university, not as a guest speaker. The Harvard University Corporation – something similar to a Board of Regents, I imagine – upon receiving a petition in support of Kelley from the league, stated Kelley could speak on campus but only if the speech was closed to anyone not affiliated with Harvard. (p10)

Let me break that paragraph down a little further, then add more details. In 1911, women could not vote. Women could not attend Harvard; they had their own colleges separate from men. And, let’s not forget Blacks were also segregated at this point, as well. Thus, we are really dealing with a White oligarchy and aristocracy in control not only of industry but most of education, and thus the greater part of American culture, I would argue. Kelley is invited to Harvard to advocating against work days longer than 8-hours, a minimum wage for women, and the end to child labor. As evidenced by Harvard’s reaction, we can see regardless of how progressive society believes itself to be a vast chasm exists between where society is and where it needs to be.

True, these events took place 104 years ago. But consider events and circumstances of today. We are still debating maternity leave. Legislation has been submitted to control a woman’s reproductive rights. We have legislators who posit notions like “legitimate rape,” and make such nonsense claims a woman’s body “has a way to shut the whole thing down.” In late 2014, the GamerGate controversy became headline news as males took aim at women journalists covering the video game industry. Video games and video game creators came under the scrutiny of female journalists for their unequivocally sexist themes and overt over-sexualization of women. Some of these female journalists have then be subject to death threats and harassment, with the controversy spilling over into all social media venues.

Wonder Woman, of the New 52. (2012)

Wonder Woman, of the New 52. (2012)

Few other comic book heroes are as controversial as Wonder Woman. From her warrior bands of gold worn around her wrists which some people take to imply sexual binding, to binding villains in her golden lasso, again interpreted as sexual binding and submission, the character of Wonder Woman has proven to be a lightning rod for societal issues.

If my commentary comes across as supporting feminism, you’re right. Look, society has made advances since the 1920s. However, all one must do is look at limitations in the military placed upon women, or look at limitations incorporated into school systems limiting the discussion of sex education, or look at the fights occurring in some school districts and in churches limiting the discussion of birth control, and look at the legislation of women’s clinics, and we are surrounded by evidence the grasp of conservative and religious is nearly as tight as existed in the 1920s. Furthermore, social media continues to provide platforms for people to threaten and harass women who point out misogynist themes in society.

A mature society must review itself on occasion. A mature society must step back and assess where it has been, where it is, and where it needs to go in order to progress. A mature society cannot deny rights or privileges to any proportion of its population based simply in gender or race. Yet, an honest and current assessment of our U.S society can only result in the conclusion we have a long ways to go to consider ourselves “mature.” My belief is Lepore’s book offers “Exhibit A” in an extensive litany of evidence to support the contention of many the United States needs more self-reflection and more social progress to eliminate cultural bias, racism, and sexism.

Jill Lepore’s “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is thoroughly researched. She interviewed surviving family members, former WW artists, former writers, current and former publishers of Wonder Woman. She dug deep into newspapers and university archives to support her commentary of Wonder Woman. The book is deceptively thick; 25% of Jill’s book is essentially her research notes.

Anyone who has an interest in comic book history, the history of beloved characters, needs to read this fascinating book. But, Jill Lepore’s work also provides considerable insight into the history of feminism, and the history of Planned Parenthood. All of these topics are woven together due to William Moulton Marsten being at the epicenter of the women’s rights movements. Jill’s book would make for a good addition to a college course reading list, in history, feminist or women’s literature, perhaps in graphics arts and design, or for a political science or public policy/public administration course.

Read this book. PAX

Promote Innovation in Higher Education Using a StudentStore

Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of reddit, states in his new book, Without Their Permission: The 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed, an idea “is worthless.” I agree, sort of, but in my book review I amend his statement. To me, an idea is worthless if the idea is never executed. So, let’s see if someone will execute my worthless idea.

Honestly, my idea isn’t entirely unique. In fact, I’m sure my idea has been executed at some university and I’m just ignorant of the fact. But, let me give you some background details first.

Part of my job is to promote GIS, mapping, and spatial learning on my campus. GIS, GISc, and geospatial technology are fields and disciplines recognized by the U.S. Department of Commerce as being some of the fastest growing employment areas in the United States. I get out once in while and walk about campus and try to get people interested in mapping, GIS, GPS, mobile mapping and technology.

In my role of advocating GIS and mapping science across my campus, I’ve come in contact with a wide variety of interesting people who are engaged in some really interesting stuff. Developing iOS programming apps, building sensors with Arduino, constructing animated art using RaspberryPi boards and researching swarm algorithms for use in small robots to name a few projects. In talking with faculty and staff across campus, I soon realized in spite of our cozy campus faculty and staff were not really aware of what each other were doing across campus. Computer science might not know Graphic Arts & Design was using RaspberryPi and teaching programming. Graphic Arts & Design might have no idea Engineering Physics had a 3D printer and was teaching design and programming. Within a single large department like Biology, faculty might not realize both Computer Science students and Engineering Physics students are helping develop apps for tracking water quality or building mechanisms for trapping insects.

When I realized how much stuff was going on yet how little people realized what was occurring on campus, I decided to do something about the lack of communication. I put some thought into what I wanted, did some googling of “idea labs” and “fabrication labs” and “idea sparks” and such to get a sense of what direction I might head. I settled on “RacerWerx,” a combination of our school’s mascot, plus a phonetic modification of “works,” based on some sites themed upon the notion of foundries and ironworks and making things from scratch. And, “werx” seemed to be “hip,” and “now,” and “cool” at the time.

RacerWerx is simply a blog I created to help educate people on my campus about STEM-based activities which for one reason or another never seem to have found a unified outlet for promotion. To borrow from the blog:

“RacerWerx represents like-minded faculty, staff, and students, drawn from a multitude of disciplines, working together to explore new technologies and address real-world problems. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as Aristotle is quoted as saying, and RacerWerx represents the knowledge and experience of many, brought together to explore, use, and educate others in the use of 21st century technologies, like Arduino, 3D printers, 3D scanner, mobile application development, RaspberryPi, and innovative systems.”

I don’t want you to steal my blog, RacerWerx, though. Do so would be boring and not get you anywhere. I want you to steal the idea of RacerWerx and then execute, i.e. put into action, this idea.

See, I feel some parts of our educational system need to be … disrupted; disrupted in the sense walls, obstacles, and entrenched thinking need to be torn down, the inner workings laid bare, to discriminate between what is really important and needs to be kept and what is simply “turf,” the inner politics which develop inside any system to protect positions, authority, bureaucracy, and perhaps egos. These elements among others, do a disservice to the primary goal of Education, to promote a better society through education by providing those needing knowledge and skills a means to challenge and enhance their intellect. Whether “turf” or “stove-piping” is the preferred term, the behavior is really contrary to the holistic nature of learning, fundamentally.

All learning should be holistic. A person cannot learn economics without learning geography. A person cannot learn history without learning geography. Geography is elementary to chemistry and biology. Notice a theme? I’m a professional geographer so I see everything through a geographic lens. And Mathematics underpins all. Even a geographer must admit Mathematics lies at the root of All :)

I believe colleges and universities should strive to make all disciplines interdisciplinary. Economics involves math, statistics, geography, history and any faculty economics instructor worth their salt should impress upon students these relationships. Same in biology, history, engineering. No one can say with 100% certainty they will not be impressed or influenced by something they learn in a course outside of their major or minor area of study. As educators, we are charged not with protecting our field or discipline but by illuminating to all how our field or discipline affects and is affected by all others.

With RacerWerx, the idea is breakdown barriers between fields and disciplines, colleges and departments, and advocate for more open and broader educational learning opportunities – and then see what happens, see where students take what they learn.

Specifically, I want this:

I want a single point-of-contact with faculty, staff, and students, and open laboratory 2,000-5,000 square feet. Part of the facility would include an array of computers used for faculty-run workshops. These workshops would train people on 3D printing, 3D scanning, or perhaps mobile application development. I would like an array of 3D printers and 3D scanners with suitable design software. I would like desks for students to use to collaborate on projects and research.

Furthermore, I want students to manage the facility. I want the facility operated and managed by students, students from any college or department. Assuming business students should be groomed for operating the facility is wrong, honestly. A student in design or engineering might have aspirations of running their own business. Thus, any interested student should be allowed to participate in this student-operated venture.

Additionally, I want students to make good stuff, applications, art, designs, products, and I want them to have the opportunity to sell their work. Colleges and universities are looking for ways to enhance revenue, and student are looking for way to obtain real-world experience. Open a student-operated and student-supplied “Student Store.” In the Student Store, allow the students to sell the fruits of their labors. The university keeps a fraction, say 40%, students keep 60%. Students run the store, from keeping it staffed and stocked, charting sales, promotion and marketing, the whole shebang. Faculty acts as mentors and advisers.

The store should be in a prominent location, as we all know from geography, location is everything. The student union would be a good place, or a dining hall, or a residence hall. Imagine this: parents arrive for orientation and are shown the Student Store. They learn the store is run by students representing many different fields. Parents learn the items for sale are produce on-campus, by students in Graphic Arts & Design, Engineering, Computer Science, maybe even Nursing or Agriculture. Who knows? And, why limit? When parents see students engaged in real-world activities, managing a business, managing labor, marketing, promotion – the entire ecosystem of industry – what parent in their right mind would walk their student off that campus?

In all fairness, the last bit is not entirely my idea. I spoke with a person at Makerbot, Wallace Patterson, the Makerbot Education Account Manager. We chatted on the phone about what it would take to get a Makerbot Innovation Center (MIC) at my university. As we tossed ideas around, our conversation coalesced around the idea of a student run gift shop featuring items produced directly or indirectly from the MIC as a means of cost recovery. Everything within universities today always involves a conversation about “How do we justify the cost?” or “How do we recover the cost, plus make this effort self-sustaining?” We then hit upon the notion of creating a student gift shop which might help defray some of the costs of a MIC.

My success in promoting all of the above can’t be measured at this point, unfortunately. Some faculty read the blog, on occasion. But I have to say the idea really hasn’t caught on as I hoped.

However, the idea might catch on at another college or university.

So, steal my idea!! Please!!

Then, email me and tell me about your success. Or, email me, anyway, if you already have experience with any of the above and let me know how things are working for you.




Building Consensus for an Idea Lab

I spend a considerable amount of class time each semester advocating “geography is a holistic discipline, infused in all things and in almost every action or choice made, and not merely by people but by all organisms. Geography is inescapable.”

The problem with my perspective is many other disciplines could be argued to have the degree of infusion, mathematics, chemistry, and physics, for example. I retort, “geography is the first science, being people were first interested in their surroundings. Quantification and analysis of environments would come a little later.” Knowledge of geography most likely preceded language. Etching maps in the earth with a stick can accomplish much were no common language exists.

Being a geographer, I am exposed to numerous other fields, biology, physics, chemistry, engineering, graphics arts and design, economics, history, and political science, to name only a few. Being exposed to numerous fields and disciplines does not make me an expert in those area, but it does afford me some common ground when I need to interact with others in those fields. It’s nice being able to talk to a biologists about their spatial problem in their language and help them think about the spatial components of their research.

And therein lies the premise of my efforts to establish a campus Idea Lab. I’m not calling effort, “Idea Lab,” though. I prefer, “RacerWerks,” or “RacerWorxs” or something to that effect. In my in years of working and collaborating and being exposed to a bunch of other educated people, working in various disciplines, I am frequently struck with one persistent thought: How can <discipline_group_1> be unaware of the research and project of <discipline_group_2>? For example, “Why don’t the biologist know that the engineering students are building sensors systems for monitoring water characteristics?”

Sometimes, this is simply, in the words of Led Zeppelin, a “communication break-down.” Departments within the same college, unless individuals make an effort to explore what others are doing, remain uninformed about projects and research. In my opinion, this is really bad for a variety of reasons.

Geography is inescapable.

The fundamental mission of every college and university is the education of young adults. Colleges and universities promote their unique schools and colleges and departments, selling students on the idea they will be instructed how to be critical thinkers, how they will engage in “multidisciplinary research and education,” and how they will learn and grow. Yet, students then told to “choose a major” and are then boxed into a specific field. “Here are your classes you need to take. If you are persistent and motivated, you might get done in 3-1/2 years.”

In a way, the act of choosing a major field breaks the fundamental principle of every college and university. By being boxed-in, students are almost guaranteed to develop a myopic focus related to their chosen field. Then, as they progress through their education career and into a professional career, attitudes about their field becoming calcified, ossified, resistant to new, different, and potentially better ways of doing things. And this is what Education, in general, has to fight against.

To engage and encourage students to learn outside-the-box, we have to show them what out-of-the-box is.

Touring campus for many years, introducing myself as the ESRI Campus Site License Administrator, promoting the GIS software, talking to people how the software can benefit them, and their students, has brought me vis-a-vis with many bright, interesting, cool, and energetic people. But, they all seem to share the common trait of not even seeing how geography applies in their field. “You are a geographer. You know that, right?” And, they look back at me as if I’ve just said, “You are a Smurf. You know that, right?” Then, I have to explain to them how they are demonstrating to their students the importance of understanding spatial relationships, and maps are important tools in building that knowledge. Then, depending on the person, I either get (A) “Wow, I never thought of that before. Maybe I need you to talk to my class. Would you be willing to do that? Or, (B) their face goes blank to dark to glowering, a look much like what those in the Roman Catholic church may have exhibited when Copernicus mentioned, “Hey, the Earth travels around the Sun, not the other way around!” and, then the meeting ends. Then, they avoid even looking at me at campus events, the cafeteria, as if I now have intimate knowledge of a profound secret they’ve been holding onto. Don’t worry, I won’t out you as a “closet geographer.” Yeesh.

Those invested in Education must fight to prevent their students from developing myopic attitudes which might result in later resistance in finding betters way outside their field of solving problems.

So, I guess I want to out everyone as a “geographer” and help people get over themselves, and their allegiances to whatever they feel like they must have an allegiance to, education-wise. To learn, a person has to be willing to explore outside their comfort zone. A biologist needs to know something about GPS, needs to know environmental geography, perhaps geology. A biologist needs to know something about databases, about SQL, and maybe something about programming. And, all of this is tied into geography and can be mapped.

To prevent students from developing entrenched biases – perhaps a better way to phrase this would be to say, “To encourage students to draw experience and knowledge from other fields” – we have to show them how it this is done. The “Major/Minor” model is a dated model. Perhaps I’ll leave that for another topic. To engage and encourage students to learn outside-the-box, we have to show them what out-of-the-box is.

And this is what my idea of RacerWerks will try to address.

Below, is a draft agenda for an upcoming meeting. I have invited numerous people from across campus to join me at a local cafe/deli to layout the idea, determine interest, develop some consensus and support. Then, I’ll continue the effort at various levels throughout my university.

I invite any helpful comments, insights, suggestions, or recommendations.


(*tentative title)

A STEM-based collaborative community of educators and students to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at the University, the local community, and the service region.



Purpose of “RacerWerks”(in no particular order)

  1. to promote education and research of current and emerging technologies, such as Arduino, RaspberryPi, GPS/GIS, Python, MakerBot, Linux, drones and other unmanned sensor systems (USS);
  2. to engage current of future students interested in developing experience in 21st century STEM technologies;
  3. to offer local K-20 educators opportunities to leverage current or develop new skills to implement Common Core Science Standards (CCSS);
  4. to identify a cohort of interested parties and leverage the current knowledge base with the purpose of pursuing grants, contracts, and other funding sources;
  5. to improve and expand the current knowledge base of University with regards to emerging technologies;
  6. to remain competitive among our benchmark universities, some of whom have already implemented or are in the process of developing “MakerLab”-style campus resources;
  7. to engage faculty & staff and encourage a multidisciplinary environment representing many fields, disciplines, and experiences for mentoring, supervising, reviewing, consulting, and analysing projects;
  8. to provide non-science students an opportunity to expand skill sets in emerging technologies;
  9. to collaborate with local business and industries;
  10. to foster local innovation opportunities;
  11. to augment skills and experience of current and future students;
  12. to develop and maintain a pool of skilled local talent to assist with grants and contracts requiring experience in new emerging technologies;
  13. to ensure and foster communication of research interests, current or potential projects;
  14. to anticipate, identify, and address emerging technologies as they become economically feasible;
  15. to assist the University in solving in-house technology concerns, rather than having to contract with non-local 3rd-party entities;
  16. Monies leave the University.
  17. Quality dubious
  18. Faculty, staff, and student removed from using current knowledge, experience; students removed from developing necessary employment skills.


  1. Emerging technologies are rapidly gaining ground within many communities.
  2. Georgia Tech recently created a student-run “MakerLab,” open 24hrs during the week;
  3. University of Louisville recently received a sizeable NSF grant for creating a local “MakerLab;”
  4. Many DIY-ers (do-it-yourself) are developing “gadgets” w/real & tangible benefits;
  5. Emerging technologies are very low-cost ($35-$100 for RPi & Arduino, >$1200 for a 3D printer);
  6. Emerging technologies are useful in real applications, drones, unmanned sensor systems (unmanned aerial systems, unmanned ground/terrestrial systems, unmanned aquatic systems);
  7. Emerging technologies are being employed in non-STEM disciplines, i.e. graphic arts/design, political science;
  8. Many towns and cities have their own “MakerLabs,” or “CreationStudios,” allowing people of all skills to come, learn, explore, and enhance skills;
  9. to coordinate / communicate university-wide STEM efforts;
  10. to identify needs related to training, education, skill sets and knowledge, or interest;
  11. to create a comprehensive STEM-based planned to improve knowledge base
  12. To create and maintain collaborative efforts across disciplines
  13. improve communication among different areas on campus, to plan or address emerging technologies. In other words, does anyone outside Telecommunications Systems Management know what TSM is doing? Or, Graphic Arts/Design? Or, IET?
  14. to engage other disciplines outside traditional science
  15. to encourage collaboration among university units to share knowledge, experience;
  16. Purpose of this Meeting
  17. To identify interested faculty & staff (later, students);
  18. To identify concerns or other related issues associated with this proposal;
  19. What areas, ideas, or issues has the agenda missed?

Comments / Feedback

Low-Cost Higher Education Should Be A Federal Government Priority

Some general musings about college and university costs and financial aid concerns.

President Obama is issued comments on June 9th regarding the cost of Higher Education, and since my following and readership is almost equal to his, I determined I should also release my own statements. {humor}

The costs of Higher Education have risen to public scrutiny not because the actual costs have increased drastically, but because state and federal government financial support, in essence the subsidy to higher education, has been dramatically reduced. In Kentucky, for example, higher education funding has been cut about 25% since 2008 ( The reduced funding, the reduction in higher education subsidy, requires public universities to engage in essentially two activities: cutting budgets and increasing tuition and fees.

Budget cuts reduce the ability to repair, replace, or enhance laboratory equipment, computers, and other essential components required by programs. Budget cuts reduce or eliminate maintenance of buildings and necessary infrastructure, such as improving energy savings by replacing worn windows, replacing power grids, and networking infrastructure. Budget cuts limit cost-of-living increases, merit pay, and limit the health care subsidy colleges and universities provide to employees which buffers the impact of rising health care costs. Budget cuts effectively reduce the overall competitiveness of programs, departments, colleges, and universities in hiring desired new faculty, and reduce the attractiveness of work environments to current faculty and staff. If spending is cut “all the way to the bone,” how does the university grow and adapt to rapidly changing technologies and modes of learning?

President Obama would like to offer ways to tie payback of student loans to earnings. For instance, reports indicate student loan payments should be no higher than 10% of income. Some reports suggest that this might become a de facto forgiveness of student loans. After 20 years, the student loan is forgiven under the current Obama plan. If the former student works in public service or for a non-profit, the forgiveness occurs at 10 years. (nprEd)

I would really like the citizens of the United States to consider either free or high-subsidized higher education. Much of the developed world, much of Europe, Japan, and Korea, subsidize the education of their citizens. Many countries, like Germany, France, and the United Kingdom consider education to be a basic human right, and those sentiments extend into higher education.

For some reason, the United States supports Defense and Homeland Security far more than Education. Outside of September 11th, which was a terrorist attack, the United States hasn’t suffered any foreign military attack on its soil since … ever. Even the War with Mexico took place in Mexico. Some might suggest, “Well, the Battle of the Alamo,” was on U.S. soil. Actually, no it wasn’t. The Battle of the Alamo was part of the Texan Revolution, when colonists were rebelling against the Mexican government, their actual government. The Texas War of Independence resulted in the Republic of Texas, a wholly separate North American political entity, not part of the United States. (Mexican-American War;

The United States, at the federal level, supports Defense 10:1 over Education. Another way of thinking about this is for every dollar given to Defense, the federal government provides a dime to Education. Honestly, this ratio seems disturbing to me.

The concerns over student loan debt and repayment are legitimate concerns, but unfortunate concerns due to our American society entrenched in the misbegotten belief higher education results in the idealization of socialism, communism, or at best, liberalism. Furthermore, the notion “I don’t want my taxes to go to support a factory which does nothing but create Godless Liberals,” is a false analysis of higher education and yet remains a fairly common trope among the rural and unsophisticated  populace.

Specifically, my concerns relate to a number of issues. First, I’m bothered by for-profit universities being the primary destination of education grants, and the primary source of student loan defaults. For-profit universities lead the pack of student loan default rates. The two-year default rate was 13.6%, the three-year default rate was 21.8% for for-profit universities compared to 9.6% and 13% for public schools. (2013; For-profit universities also led the way with Federal Pell Grants awarded. Seven of the top ten Pell Grant colleges and universities are for-profit schools, with University of Phoenix leading this pack. Other members of this collection of schools include Ashford University, Kaplan University, DeVry University, and Everest University.

The University of Phoenix leads all universities with 259,998 Pell Grant recipients, amounting to about $945 million dollars in federal government financial aid given to a for-profit university. Now, I did a little figuring, downloading data provided by Ed.Gov. (Distribution of Federal Pell Grant by Institution, 2011-2012) I simply sorted the data from high to low based on number of recipients. I then summed the amount of federal Pell Grant dollars awarded. The seven for-profit universities received almost $2 billion dollars ($1.909B) in Pell Grant assistance.

$2 billion dollars of federal aid for education given to for-profit colleges. Wow.

Then, couple this with the other fact that for-profit universities are responsible for about 31% of student loan originators, and almost 50% of student loan defaults, and the data seems to indicate for-profit universities have gained access to and misused tax dollars really meant for public institutions. The HomeRoom blog of details how people need to do a better job of protecting themselves from the predatory practices of some for-profit colleges and universities. (“Protecting Americans from Predatory and Poor-Performing Career Training Programs,” HomeRoom;

$2 billion dollars does not sound like much. However, when some states, like Kentucky, have experienced significant cuts in higher education over the last 7-8 years, those dollars might have been better spent in public education (they way they were meant to be spent) and not used for supporting for-profit colleges and universities.

In other words, why should taxpayer dollars be awarded to for-profit universities to the detriment of public colleges and universities, especially in light of the poor performance of student loans provided to students attending for-profit universities?

A few thoughts.

First, federal tax dollars should not be used to subsidize education at for-profit universities. If people want to attend a for-profit university, then use some other means. Private colleges and universities should also not be major beneficiaries of public dollars. Again, these are my thoughts, and given a good argument, I might be swayed. Public dollars should stay with public institutions.

Second, and really the entire premise of this post, is I truly believe higher education in the United States should be highly subsidized for people wanting to attend college, or free, in the case of First-time graduates who have no immediate family members with a college education, and free for those truly economically disadvantaged.

The general U.S. population needs to re-evaluate their attitudes towards education. Education is the cornerstone of society. Education is fundamental to employment; business and industry is completely reliant upon an educated workforce. Our society, overall, has reached its current level of achievements on the backs of engineers, chemists, physicists, and educated others, especially teachers. Specifically, our form of government, from local towns and cities, to our Congress, needs to support an educated electorate. The United States cannot afford thinking we can have white-collar wages with blue-collar effort. That sort of myopic focus will doom us to regressive economics, place us in direct competition with growing economies like India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Brazil, and we cannot afford to match ourselves against those economies, as a country. Some areas of the country may be able to compete, such as Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, but the United States must have a vision similar to that of Japan or Germany. The United States cannot be a world economic leader by competing against low-wage labor countries.

The United States could afford to double spending on education, from about $60 billion to $120 billion per year. Simply take funding from the Department of Defense and Homeland Security. The 2015 Defense budget request for the United States was $495 billion, not including allotments for Iraq and Afghanistan. Overseas operations in Iraq and Afghanistan adds $89 billion.

Put another way, doubling federal spending on education reduces our spending on defense by about 10%.

Am I the only one bothered by this?

I cannot help but think that regardless of how Congress talks about supporting education, few, if any Congresspeople, have actually made their votes and bills congruent with their speech. If the globe were invaded by Alien Accountants, I cannot help but think these aliens would automatically consider the United States an aggressor and war-like state based solely on the unbalance ratio of education spending versus military spending.

The cost of higher education is not escalating simply because the costs of education are escalating. No; the costs of higher education are escalating because state governments and Congress simply cut education and revealed the levels at which education has been subsidized. State and Federal legislators have simply reduced the subsidy and pushed the burden of the costs onto families and students. Legislators have also been manipulated to allow for-profit universities to use and misuse our tax dollars, allowing yet another financial fraud to be perpetrated upon decent people looking to make their lives better, and in doing so, make our society better.

What say you?


Higher Education is Ripe for Deconstruction

Higher education has some problems, the cost of college being only one concern. Our global model of higher education has served us well for a century or so but the time is upon us for those in higher education leadership to step back and deconstruct education.

I walk around my campus and talk to people. My job as a GIS Manager/Programmer and ESRI Higher Education Contract Representative for my campus puts me at the crossroads to meet various people, from interesting backgrounds, working in departments and offices trying to accomplish different tasks.

Sometimes, I travel to nearby public schools, other universities or community colleges. Going to a conference or a meeting exposes me further to different ideas. I also subscribe to a variety of newsletters which cover pedagogy in higher education, technology in higher education, leadership topics in higher education. I try to stay aware of what is going on in my discipline, and the greater university community.

Taking all of this in, plus the disruption of online education, I’m thinking higher education should be considering deconstruction. Regardless of how one feels about online education, whether one class at a regional university or a MOOC, higher education is ripe for some serious disruption. Here is what I mean, and bear with me, as I’ve got to build to my point.

Education is a subset of learning. Learning happens all the time, every day, and encompasses all forms of knowledge transfer, from touching a stove to learn about burns and blisters and heat transfer, to sitting a brick-and-mortar classroom listening to a lecture on the Warsaw Pact. Education is the formalized approached to learning, with textbooks, and exams, and Powerpoint, with grades, and transcripts and portfolios. But, how did we get here?

Reading some history paints an interesting picture. As with any argument, I’m going to begin with the Greeks. Look at the biographies of any Greek scholar. Examine their interests and skills. Eratosthenes, the father of geography, calculated the circumference of the Earth, developed a means of communicating the passage of time, so people could talk about “when” some event occurred. He worked on prime numbers, created maps, and wrote. Plato also studied math, writing, philosophy, and gymnastics.

I don’t want to give an extended treatise here, so let me provide a couple more anecdotes. Carl Linnaeus (18th C.)[link], the father of the modern naming system in biology, and a founder of the discipline of ecology, was interested in botany, zoology, and later became a physician. While traveling throughout Europe, he developed classification schemes for animals, plants, and minerals – making him a geologist, too. James Hutton (18th C.) was a Scot and is considered the father of modern geology. [link] Hutton’s interest was not limited to rocks, though. He also was a chemist, studied medicine, and was a farmer. Together with David Hume and Adam Smith, Hutton was an important part of the “Scottish Enlightenment.” He, Hume, Smith, along with John Playfair, Joseph Black, and Erasmus Darwin would establish the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

The idea I want to argue is people who were fascinated by the natural world gravitated towards others who also shared a similar fascination. Some universities and colleges did specialize in certain areas, like medicine, or astronomy, but by and large, students could attend a college and be exposed to the lectures of well-traveled, well-read, and well-educated instructors who were experts in a variety of fields, at least for the time. These student could drift from one lecture to another, from one instructor/lecturer to another, and learn from a wide variety of experiences.

Education was more like learning as I established by definition earlier, broad and holistic in nature with little bureaucracy and regimentation. Transcripts, letters, diplomas were hit-or-miss. Students and teachers were recognized by reputation, how well they communicated, how well they were able to convince the common people, and perhaps, how well they could read.

Education, like any other organism, evolved over time. Education organized, either by intrinsic design or by exogenous forces, into college and universities which have come to specialize in discipline-specific areas. Think about Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, Harvard, Johns Hopkins; I know the list is not exhaustive but you get the idea. Engineering, for example, brings to mind Stanford, MIT, Purdue. I’m sure I missed a few.

Today, schools have become specialized, to a degree. Young adults scrutinize reports published by U.S. News regarding, “The Best Colleges for {insert field or discipline here}.” For some, people look for, “The Top 100 Best Value Universities.”

Within schools, though, even more organization and compartmentalization has occurred. In prior years, even centuries, a student could float among philosophy, botany, or math lectures as a breadth of experience and knowledge was truly valued. Today, student must engage separately the “school of agriculture,” or the “college of science,” or  the “college of business” as if these are green beans, potatoes and gravy, and Salisbury steak which cannot touch lest the dinner be ruined.

The compartmentalization I refer to is euphemistically called, “stovepipes,” or “educational silos.” Students do not understand why they have to take a humanities course about Western Civilization, plus read a book by Jane Austin, then sit through a lecture on plate tectonics. Even some in education have lost touch with our educational ancestry, and argue for the elimination of general education requirements.

I hit upon the notion recently – and I admit, I may be late to the party – general  education, a liberal education is not a bad idea for a simple reason.

Professors are not hired to “tell” or “recite” information, really. Professors are hired to coach the uneducated among us through a process of discovery and formal education, under the umbrella of learning. We – professors, adjuncts, lecturers, we cannot ultimately prepare a student for the unknown. The idea of transferring a person 100% knowledge to make them successful is impossible. All we can do to prepare students for success is to expose uneducated or under-educated people to a variety of experiences in an intellectually safe yet challenging environment in hopes the academic hurdles we throw at them will adequately prepare them to handle what the non-academic world will throw at them.

The question, “I don’t understand why I have to learn about Western Civilization,” actually has some good responses, and one I would like to supply goes something like:

I don’t know what you will be faced with in the world you have selected to make a career in. We, faculty, have to expose you to a variety of experiences, history, culture, language, etc. This is not a vocation school, simply challenged with teaching you a skill. We are charged with helping you become a better thinker, more contemplative, more thoughtful, and have a better set of experiences to draw from than 70% of the U.S. population, and most of the world, actually.

However, what seems to be happening is universities are collapsing towards the mission of community colleges while community colleges are expanding their mission towards regional universities. Coupled with these realignments, internal changes within universities are further isolating colleges and departments as each stake out academic territories, promote reducing academic hours yet want their courses to replace the general education courses offered by other colleges and departments.

Let me see if I can clean this up by offering a few anecdotes. At my workplace, we have reduced the number of required writing courses from 2 (6 hours) to 1 (3 hours). Each department is then charged with developing more writing assignments to account for the lack of writing instruction. At my workplace, we have reduced the number of hours required for Humanities by at least 3 hours. My workplace has also reduced the number of hours required for most bachelor’s degrees, from 128 to about 120.

The effect I see occurring is singular: reducing the exposure of the uninformed, undereducated, and possibly ignorant to ideas of problem-solving, ways of thinking, and philosophies which have the potential of being life-altering. By reducing a student’s interaction across disciplines, they miss out by not being exposed to computer science, political science, history, literature, geography, biology, and all of the realms those disciplines touch. The result is learning is moving away from the roots of being holistic and into an insular realm where few people will be able to think creatively, to think not just “outside the box” but “destroy the box” and approach problems with new perspectives, new energies, and a reinvigorated vision.

Twenty-first century thinking, no; 21st century society must be one where people draw from many disciplines and experiences. I’m not suggesting people must be experts in a multitude of areas. What I am suggesting is to be aware of these disciplines and to be open and receptive to seeking out solutions beyond one’s own experience. Computer scientists must seek out biologists; biologists must seek out engineers; engineers must seek out mathematicians. Actually, everyone should seek out a mathematician – and this coming from a geographer.

Higher education, by definition, and specifically universities, must fight against those who would drag higher education into mediocrity. Those in higher education must encourage multidisciplinary efforts that refuse to build barricades against other disciplines and departments. Nothing is gained, and must is lost, by refusing to acknowledge, accept, or be dismissive of the work of other disciplines, no matter what personal attitudes might be.

How can a professor ignore the field of criminology based solely on one’s own perception? I mean, yes, technically a person can be an irrational actor and choose to be ultimately dismissive of a field or discipline. Sociology and psychology fight this battle frequently, as does geography. “You aren’t a real science because you just borrow from all the others.” The problem with this thinking is it wrong. Period. And, by wrongfully dismissing disciplines, a person, i.e. professors, wall themselves off from the potential benefits to themselves and to their students, and no one benefits from such myopia.

Learning must occur in an open, free, and safe environment, and be encourage by those unafraid to say, “I don’t know but let’s find out.” Worshipping our own hubris is essentially a means of becoming not only stagnant but is a path to becoming irrelevant. Higher education must work on preserving primary mission; to share, encourage, and promote learning across disciplines and certainly across personalities.

Racial Profiling and the FBI

NPR ran a story this morning concerning policy changes within federal law enforcement agencies pertaining to racial profiling. These new policies stipulate no federal law enforcement agency may use race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation in order to justify suspicion or open a case. of the comments caught my attention this morning. The statement dealt with complaints by the Muslim community against the FBI for “demographic mapping.” Not much detail was provided but I could make an educated guess about their concern. I lecture, teach, mentor, and provide oversight on projects dealing with demographic mapping. I, myself, perform demographic mapping frequently for a variety of topics and themes. Some of themes of interest to me include secondary and higher education, household income, poverty, employment, unemployment, and underemployment. I often consult with both public and private entities regarding the use of Census data and other demographic type data, as well as other data accumulated and processed by state and federal agencies. And, I have a hard time believing this but I’ve been doing demographic mapping in various forms for a little over 20 years. I state this only to help set the stage for proceeding comments, not to pat my own back.

Demographic mapping is not inherently evil. Mapping societal traits and characteristics is an important part of a functioning society seeking to address issues and concerns of citizens. School districts, voting districts, political districts, law enforcement districts, fire and emergency response districts are all developed from demographic data.

Demographic mapping is fundamental to site location for business and industry. Yes, we may have heard stories of Bob Evans, or Applebees, or Target using mapping to decide where to locate a new store location. However, demographic mapping is critical to economic development. Manufacturing and industry need critical information about a region’s educational attainment, age and gender characteristics, plus employment and job skill data. These are crucial inputs into the decision-making process all companies engage in when seeking to expand facilities, grow, or relocate. I have worked on numerous projects for both private, non-profit, and public utilities where demographic data was needed to enhance, expand, or to simply gain knowledge about a service region.

Several years ago, I was brought in to help in the analysis of broadband penetration throughout Kentucky. I worked extensively with both public and private internet service providers to identify Kentucky regions with broadband and without, and to classify the type of broadband, as well as consider some of the demographic characteristics of Kentucky’s broadband and potential broadband market. That work drove considerable research and investment in broadband in Kentucky, Tennessee, and help foster broadband growth in the Southeast U.S. I know my maps went to the Kentucky legislature and as far as our U.S. Congress.

Demographic mapping is a tool, nothing more. But, like I tell my students, a hammer is a tool. How many roofs are replaced each year using hammers? How many hammers are used in home construction? Bunches, I am sure. Yet, in a fit of anger a hammer makes an excellent weapon. Now, was maiming or killing someone the original intent of a hammer? Hmmm. Knowing humans, the answer is probably yes; then we decided War Hammers could also be used to build things and make reasonably sturdy homes. And, then technology developed better swords, and then arrows and longbows sort of made hammers ineffectual in battle.

But, you see my point, hopefully. Tools depend on how they are used.

Redlining in Chicago

Redlining in Chicago. Notice “best,” “desirable,” and “hazardous.”

Clearly, demographics and mapping can be grossly misused. Perhaps the most egregious use of demographic mapping is called “redlining.” Redlining is the use of demographic data to ban or restrict some service based on racial profiling. For example, before, during, and after racial segregation, redlining was used to prevent home sales to Blacks in neighborhoods across the United States. Redlining is illegal, yet still crops up as some real estate agents will steer some racial groups towards some neighborhoods and away from others. Real estate agents may not admit this, but I firmly believe this behavior still is in practice today. To be clear, I am not saying all real estate agents are racists, only some, so relax.

Another grossly negligent use of demographics comes in the form of gerrymandering. My definition of gerrymandering is “the cowardly practice of politically-motivated individuals and parties to create homogenous districts, minimizing variance and diversity, in order to achieve some sort of racial and political purity in order to stay in office in perpetuity, or to ensure one’s chosen party maintains a superior position in spite of weak socioeconomic ideas and platforms.” If you don’t like that definition, I suppose you can use the one from Wikipedia.

That the FBI uses demographic mapping is not inherently good or bad. How the FBI uses demographic mapping is more important. What services are they providing to the communities being mapped? I guarantee the Arab-Muslim community is not the only community being mapped. How do I know this? Follow major international crime. The Russian community is mapped, no doubt, because the Russian mafia is both powerful and scary. Hispanic neighborhoods are mapped due gangs, especially MS-13 and Los Zetas, again, both powerful and scary. (“25 Notoriously Dangerous Gangs“)  You don’t have to believe me when I say the FBI needs to be doing as much mapping as they can afford. Just read about the three organizations I’ve named above. If doing your own research and discovering the evidence yourself doesn’t convince you the FBI needs mapping, nothing I can say will convince you.

To be clear, I am not advocating we should say, “OK, whatever the FBI wants, the FBI gets.” Anyone who knows me or follows this blog or follows me on Twitter knows I am not in any way in favor of building the United Police States of America. The reality is, if the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 passes, well, then, we have just committed to legislation whereby all of our rights have just been subordinated by national security concerns. Law enforcement, the ATF, FBI, Secret Service, NSA, et al., will now have the right to have many legal hurdles waived simply by claiming “national security prerogative.” Maybe that is a post for another day. But, the link I provided above goes right to the legislation. The bill is in English and readable by anyone with an 8th grade education, and should be read by everyone with an 8th grade education or greater. Very ominous bit of legislation, courtesy of Congressional Warmongers.

See, the problem is not demographics nor mapping. The lack of understanding and the public misuse of data is the problem. The lack of education on behalf of the public is the problem, not the collection or mapping of the data. Think of what would happen if Congress simply decided to abolish the CIA, the NSA, and our Department of State. How would the United States know about anything, really? Not just terrorism, not just about the insanely ignorant, misogynistic, religiously radical groups who find solace in blowing themselves to bits, but how would we know anything about global economics, changing geopolitics, and concerns facing our globe? The reality is, we would become fairly blind due to our self-imposed information black-out, the proverbial “burying our head in the sand, up to our waist.”

Not a good idea, really. The world is not as evolved as Lawrence Krauss or Richard Dawkins would like to think. We have to push the world to be a better place, and not allow mayhem and chaos to prevail.

To prevent anarchy and the potential for chaos to increase, we have to organize and collect data.

Members of the GOP would really like to eliminate the U.S. Bureau of the Census and all of the data the Bureau gathers. To me, this is essentially the analog of never going to see the doctor. Never. The only health data you would collect on yourself is that which you could obtain in your bathroom, namely height and weight and if you can still see your sex organs, your gender. And that’s it! That is all conservative members of the GOP and intellectually-stunted members Tea Party want to collect. I don’t like being too disparaging but their are political leaders, platforms, and ideology which if they were to take root, and some are, are truly insidiously destructive (like the anti-intellectual movement among GOP).

I hate to use this analogy but it sort of works. The GOP essentially want to blind the America public to, well, the American public. The GOP doesn’t want American to know about America, who we are, where we live, how we get to work, how we earn money, how educated we are; the list goes on. All of this data is necessary for driving economic development, and for assessing how we are doing, in general, and for assessing what regions are doing well, thriving, and what regions need help.

In 2012, the GOP tried to kill collection of demographic data and economic data for the U.S. (BusinessWeek, NYT)

In 2013, the GOP tried to kill the collection of economic data. (WashPost)

For a political party which prides itself on being a friend to business this is a terrible idea which works against business, and pretty much everyone else, for that matter. Most businesses hate the movement within the GOP to abolish the U.S. Census, and see this movement as essentially anti-business and anti-economic development.

In closing, demographic data is a valuable tool providing significant insight into places where questions and concerns arise. Demographic data should not be used to single out in particular racial, religious, political group, or any group based on sexual orientation or gender for the express purpose of harassment under the guise of “national security prerogative.” Demographic data should be used to educate, inform, and to ensure parity or services and opportunities,



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