Paperwork makes bureaucracy go, for better or for worse

Max Weber would be interested: here is a review of a new book that explains how paperwork both enables and hinders bureaucracy.

Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (the abbé Sieyès), one of the principal theorists of the revolution, had thought that the resolution of this riddle would be achieved by combining a division of governmental labor into numerous areas of narrowly demarcated responsibility, together with scrupulous attention to recordkeeping—which is to say, paperwork. As Kafka notes, however, its praxis in the revolutionary period involved an intrinsic contradiction: The greater the revolutionary regime’s attempts to wield its power, the more impeded it was in the exercise of that power by the need to precisely document its every deed with the requisite paperwork…

Paperwork presented a means of resistance to the power of the state, while remaining the means of the state’s assertion of that very power.

The refractory power of paperwork drew the serious attention of Tocqueville, Marx, and Freud, each of whom receives Kafka’s extended attention. Tocqueville struggled with the contradictions of bureaucracy to the point of eschewing the very use of the word, though not its substantive import. He asks: “How to reconcile the extreme centralization that [the bureaucratic regime] consecrates with the reality and morality of representative government?” Tocqueville’s comments on the relative absence of paperwork in America—and on the greater appeal to ambitious Americans of trade and industry over service in “official appointments”—are timely, and Kafka’s discussion of the evolution of Tocqueville’s thoughts on bureaucracy makes for fascinating reading.

From a lesser-known early work of Marx concerning a dispute between the Prussian tax authorities and winemakers of the Mosel region—a dispute that was to generate innumerable notes, dossiers, and reports, but no just resolution of the winemakers’ claims—Kafka educes a theory of the praxis of paperwork. Here, we have Karl Marx as media theorist, propounding a conception of paperwork as “a refractive medium [in which] power and knowledge inevitably change their speed and shape when they enter it.” In its unpredictability, paperwork “accelerates and decelerates power [and] syncopates its rhythms, disrupts its cycles, which is why paperwork always seems to be either overdue or underdone.”

This is enough to give one pause when waiting in line to fill out forms of any kind. It is very difficult to imagine just how much paperwork is generated within bureaucracies today, even in the age of computers: think of the local hospital, the city clerk’s office, the local university. From my own limited experience in a few universities, paperwork makes the whole college system work. Actually, if you think about it, much of the modern world is made possible because of paperwork we all (from individuals to groups to corporations to governments) fill out and file….

The Common Core and college instruction

Here is a nice overview of how the new national Common Core standards for K-12 might intersect with college instruction and learning. Here are a brief overview:

Those adjustments, if the Common Core vision is realized, could transform dual enrollment programs, placement tests, and remediation. They could force colleges within state systems, and even across states, to agree on what it means to be “college ready,” and to work alongside K-12 to help students who are unprepared for college before they graduate from high school. In the long run, it could force changes in credit-bearing courses too, to better align with what students are supposed to have mastered by high school graduation. While the effects will be most obvious at public institutions of higher education, private colleges, particularly those with broad access missions, will feel the effects as well.

Still, although a few states have seized the standards to develop “P-20” systems — stretching from pre-kindergarten through graduate school — progress has been slow in many others. In 2010, as the standards were being developed, policy makers touted the effect they could have in bringing together K-12 and higher education. And they pointed out that the ultimate success of the standards, particularly beyond K-12, will depend on whether colleges are willing to change placement and remediation criteria and work together to determine what “readiness” really means.

In some cases, that’s coming to pass. Three years later, proponents for the standards are arguing that they have already changed the way K-12 and postsecondary education interact — at least by putting the leaders of each system in the same room together and forcing states to collaborate.

And there is a little bit of a disconnect between what high school teachers say they are doing and what college educators perceive:

ACT’s most recent survey, released last week, looked at the gap between high school and college expectations for students. It found that only 26 percent of college faculty thought that students entered their classrooms prepared for college-level work. High school teachers gave themselves much higher marks. Nearly all — 89 percent — said they had prepared their students well for college.

There is going to be a lot more discussion about this in the years ahead.

How does the rise in non-tenured college faculty affect education?

There has been much conversation about this in academia lately but here are some actual numbers about the percentages of tenured and non-tenured faculty:

Once, being a college professor was a career. Today, it’s a gig.

That, broadly speaking, is the transformation captured in the graph below from a new report by the American Association of University Professors. Since 1975, tenure and tenure-track professors have gone from roughly 45 percent of all teaching staff to less than a quarter. Meanwhile, part-time faculty are now more than 40 percent of college instructors, as shown by the line soaring towards the top of the graph.

This doesn’t actually mean that there are fewer full-time professors today than four-decades ago. College faculties have grown considerably over the years, and as the AAUP notes, the ranks of the tenured and tenure-track professoriate are up 26 percent since 1975. Part-time appointments, however, have exploded by 300 percent. The proportions vary depending on the kind of school you’re talking about. At public four-year colleges, about 64 percent of teaching staff were full-time as of 2009. At private four-year schools, about 49 percent were, and at community colleges, only about 30 percent were. But the big story across academia is broadly the same: if it were a move, it’d be called “Rise of the Adjuncts.”

This is quite a shift over several decades. While there is a lot to explore here about economic life in colleges and universities, there is another question we could ask about how this affects the college experience: how does this change educational experiences and outcomes? Are students learning more or less depending on what kind of faculty in the classroom? Does it matter?

Walmart opens stores on college campuses

Walmarts are everywhere in the United States – but only recently have they opened on college campuses.

In January 2011, Walmart opened its first location on a university campus at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, a half-hour drive from its corporate headquarters. Now, Walmart has announced that it will be opening a second campus location, at Arizona State University, with luck by May, according to Delia Garcia, a Walmart spokeswoman. A third location, at Georgia Tech, is slated to open at a to-be-determined time next year. “Walmart on campus is an opportunity to bring low prices to students, reach new customers and serve our on-campus customers in a convenient way,” Garcia said in an interview.

Garcia said that the products sold by the university stores would be “tailored to the on-campus customer, providing general merchandise, convenience items [and] pharmacy services,” as well as the store’s $4 generic prescription drug program. Garcia emphasized that the company was still “testing this format,” and as such there are no concrete plans beyond the Georgia Tech location. While the Arkansas location is 2,500 square feet, the Arizona location as planned will be 5,000 square feet. The ASU location will also offer financial and bill-paying services, and will employ 10 associates…

As has often been the case with Walmart, the expansion is not free of controversy. In an e-mailed statement, the labor group Making Change at Walmart criticized the company for paying what it says are insufficient wages, “while public institutions like ASU have faced painful budget cuts.”…

In addition, according to a spokeswoman for Making Change at Walmart, the University of Arkansas (via the university’s Applied Sustainability Center) and Arizona State (via the university’s Global Institute of Sustainability) are “the two universities Walmart picked to create its ‘Sustainability Index,’ which has been criticized for lacking meaningful standards and appears to have had little to no effect on suppliers’ product manufacturing processes.” Rob Walton, Walmart founder Sam Walton’s eldest son and current company chairman, is also co-chair of the Board of Directors for Sustainability at Arizona State.

So what is the deal behind the scenes between the colleges and Walmart? The colleges would want Walmart on campus because it can bring in money. Walmart wants to be close to a base of customers who want cheap goods.

How does this change life on campus? It could make it easier for students to remain on or around campus if they can buy things nearby. However, it could also change local town life.

Do the Walmarts have to follow the architectural rules or styles of the campuses to fit in? It would be kind of amusing to have a typical big box Walmart near traditional college buildings dignified in their brick and ivy.

Argument: elite colleges offer MOOCs because they can afford to

Here is an interesting argument about MOOCs, massive open online courses, that a hot topic of discussion these days: elite colleges can offer them because they accrue status and can afford the financial losses.

Millions of people were already taking online courses in 2011, when The New York Times noticed that thousands were taking a Stanford course online. The MOOC surge has been driven by the warm feelings associated with elite American colleges. Brand equity is obviously the principal admissions criterion for edX and Coursera, and for Udacity by implication, with its pedigree of Stanford origination and Silicon Valley cool.

Ideally, this will allow elite colleges to profit from and enhance their brands at once. Penn can’t ever be Coca-Cola. Its brand is tied to the noble purpose of higher learning. If it’s seen as a crass profit-taker, the whole thing falls apart. Many observers have asked where the “business plan” is for Harvard, MIT, and other institutions leading MOOCs. That misses the point.

Elite colleges are ultimately in the business of maximizing status, not revenue. Spending a lot of money on things that return a lot of status isn’t just feasible for these institutions—it’s their basic operating principle. It’s not hard to make money when you’re already wealthy—witness the performance of the Harvard Management Company over the past 20 years. The difficult maneuver is converting money into status of the rarefied sort that elite institutions crave.

MOOCs offer that opportunity. Elite colleges are willing to run them at a loss forever, because of the good will—and thus status—they create. Free online courses whose quality matches their institutional reputation (a tall order, to be sure, but MOOC providers have strong incentives to get there) could ultimately become as important to institutional status as the traditional markers of exclusivity and scholarly prestige.

In other words, MOOCs offered by elite colleges can reinforce existing status structures where these elite schools can continue to amass resources, financial, knowledge-wise, and social status and still claim they are helping the masses. On the other hand, can takers of MOOCs use them as real stepping stones to move up in society?

Looking at the data behind the claim that more black men are in jail than college

A scholar looks at his own usage of a statistic and where it came from:

About six years ago I wrote, “In 2000, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) found evidence that more black men are in prison than in college,” in my first “Breaking Barriers” (pdf) report. At the time, I did not question the veracity of this statement. The statement fit well among other stats that I used to establish the need for more solution-focused research on black male achievement…

Today there are approximately 600,000 more black men in college than in jail, and the best research evidence suggests that the line was never true to begin with. In this two-part entry in Show Me the Numbers, the Journal of Negro Education’s monthly series for The Root, I examine the dubious origins, widespread use and harmful effects of what is arguably the most frequently quoted statistic about black men in the United States…

In September 2012, in response to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s screening of the film Hoodwinked, directed by Janks Morton, JPI issued a press release titled, “JPI Stands by Data in 2002 on Education and Incarceration.” However, if one examines the IPEDS data from 2001 to 2011, it is clear that many colleges and universities were not reporting JPI’s data 10 years ago.

In 2011, 4,503 colleges and universities across the United States reported having at least one black male student. In 2001, only 2,734 colleges and universities reported having at least one black male student, with more than 1,000 not reporting any data at all. When perusing the IPEDS list of colleges with significant black male populations today but none reported in 2001, I noticed several historically black colleges and universities, including Bowie State University, and my own alma mater, Temple University. Ironically, I was enrolled at Temple as a doctoral candidate in 2001.

When I first saw this, I first thought it might be an example of what sociologist Joel Best calls a “mutant statistic.” This is a statistic that might originally be based in fact but at some point undergoes a transformation and keeps getting repeated until it seems unchallengeable.

There might be some mutant statistic going here but it also appears to be an issue of methodology. As Toldson points out, it looks like this was a missing data issue: the 2001 survey did not include data from over 1,000 colleges. When more colleges were counted in 2011, the findings changed. If it is a methodological issue, then this issue should have been caught at the beginning.

As Best notes, it can take some time for bad statistics to be reversed. It will be interesting to see how long this particular “fact” continues to be repeated.

Trying to ensure more accountability in US News & World Report college ranking data

The US News & World Report college rankings are big business but also a big headache in data collection. The company is looking into ways to ensure more trustworthy data:

A new report from The Washington Post‘s Nick Anderson explores the increasingly common problem, in which universities submit inflated standardized test scores and class rankings for members of their incoming classes to U.S. News, which doesn’t independently verify the information. Tulane University, Bucknell University, Claremont McKenna College, Emory University, and George Washington University have all been implicated in the past year alone. And those are just the schools that got caught:

A survey of 576 college admissions officers conducted by Gallup last summer for the online news outlet Inside Higher Ed found that 91 percent believe other colleges had falsely reported standardized test scores and other admissions data. A few said their own college had done so.

For such a trusted report, the U.S. News rankings don’t have many safeguards ensuring that their data is accurate. Schools self-report these statistics on the honor system, essentially. U.S. News editor Brian Kelly told Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik, “The integrity of data is important to everybody … I find it incredible to contemplate that institutions based on ethical behavior would be doing this.” But plenty of institutions are doing this, as we noted back in November 2012 when GWU was unranked after being caught submitting juiced stats. 

At this point, U.S. News shouldn’t be surprised by acknowledgment like those from Tulane and Bucknell. It turns out that if you let schools misreport the numbers — especially in a field of fierce academic competition and increasingly budgetary hardship — they’ll take you up on the offer. Kelly could’ve learned that by reading U.S. News‘ own blog, Morse Code. Written by data researcher Bob Morse, almost half of the recent posts have been about fraud. To keep schools more honest, the magazine is considering requiring university officials outside of enrollment offices to sign a statement vouching for submitted numbers. But still, no third party accountability would be in place, and many higher ed experts are already saying that the credibility of the U.S. News college rankings is shot.

Three quick thoughts:

1. With the amount of money involved in the entire process, this should not be a surprise. Colleges want to project the best image they can so having a weakly regulated system (and also a suspect methodology and set of factors to start with) can lead to abuses.

2. If the USNWR rankings can’t be trusted, isn’t there someone who could provide a more honest system? This sounds like an opportunity for someone.

3. I wonder if there are parallels to PED use in baseball. To some degree, it doesn’t matter if lots of schools are gaming the system as long as the perception among schools is that everyone else is doing it. With this perception, it is easier to justify one’s own cheating because colleges need to catch up or compete with each other.

College freshman more confident than ever about their abilities compared to their peers

Data from the American Freshman Survey suggests new college freshman are more confident about their abilities than before:

Pyschologist Jean Twenge and her colleagues compiled the data and found that over the last four decades there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being ‘above average’ in the areas of academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability, and self-confidence.

But in appraising the traits that are considered less individualistic – co-operativeness, understanding others, and spirituality – the numbers either stayed at slightly decreased over the same period.

Researchers also found a disconnect between the student’s opinions of themselves and actual ability.

While students are much more likely to call themselves gifted in writing abilities, objective test scores actually show that their writing abilities are far less than those of their 1960s counterparts.

Also on the decline is the amount of time spent studying, with little more than a third of students saying they study for six or more hours a week compared to almost half of all students claiming the same in the late 1980s.

It is also interesting to look at these individual questions over time:

A few thoughts about this chart and the findings:

1. The drive to achieve has always been high in this survey compared to peers but social self-confidence and writing ability look to be around 50% today, which would reflect accurate comparisons to the average (or the median: half above, half below).

2. Across these five categories, it looks like there is a consistent uptick of about 15-20%. It is not as if all students are more confident but this is a sizable group of roughly 1 in 6 or 1 in 5.

3. Twenge suggests there is not the same uptick in confidence in less individualistic traits.  While this might be due to lesser emphasis on social traits, might it also suggest college freshmen think less highly of or trust their peers less over time?

4. It is less clear from these articles about how colleges should respond to this, particularly in an era where big money is spent on college degrees. Are results better by the time students graduate and beyond? Do colleges encourage students to think less individualistically?

Website of the day: gradeinflation.com

Perhaps it is finals week that piqued my interest in this particular website: gradeinflation.com. There is a lot of fascinating information on this site about college grading trends in recent decades. Yes, my own institution is represented on the site.

If this puts you in the grading spirit, you can try out The Grading Game app which one Wired reviewer liked:

I’m frankly surprised by how much I like The Grading Game. It is ultimately about grading papers and looking for spelling errors, but somehow the intense time limit, scoring mechanics and various modes wrapped around that seemingly bland premise make the game super addictive. And, as someone who does a great degree of text-editing, I suspect that this simple iPhone app is making me better at my job.

Not quite the same experience but it is an attempt to put grading through the gamification process.

TV shows for teenagers show professors as “old, boring, white, and mean”

Here is how college professors are portrayed on television shows for teenagers: “old, boring, white, and mean.”

They may be fictional characters, but their small-screen images may affect students in big ways, says one researcher. Barbara F. Tobolowsky, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Texas at Arlington, found that television’s image of the professor is intimidating, uninterested, and generally old, boring, and white. She is scheduled to present a working paper on her research, “The Primetime Professoriate: Representations of Faculty on Television,” this week at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education…

While previous studies of television have focused on how much time students spend watching TV and not studying, Ms. Tobolowsky looked at the content of those television shows. In her study, Ms. Tobolowsky, who has a master’s degree in film history and criticism and who previously worked in the film industry, analyzed 10 shows that aired from 1998 to 2010 and were geared toward the 12-to-18-year-old demographic group in the Nielsen ratings.

Scrutinizing professors in those shows, she examined characters’ clothing and ways of talking, camera angles and background music, and a variety of other film nuances to break down how enthusiastic the faculty were and how they interacted with students, along with other criteria.

On the whole, she says, professors on the television shows tended to be relatively old, white, and traditional, wearing sweater-vests and sporting graying hair. Young, female, and minority professors on the shows tended to teach only at arts-oriented institutions or community colleges. Most were intimidating or, at the very least, distant, throwing a scare into characters like Matt on 7th Heaven, who worried he’d seem weak if he asked a question in class.

This study seems to suggest that shows for teenagers depict professors as the enemy. While not all teenagers love school, I wonder if this is part of a larger message on television and in movies that the learning part of school isn’t that important while the social aspects, think of the message in Mean Girls, is what really matters. Of course, there is a genre of movies that depicts heroic teachers but these are formulaic in their own ways.

It would be interesting to compare these depictions to how professors are portrayed on shows aimed at adults. I’m reminded of the TNT show Perception that features Eric McCormarck playing a neuroscientist at a Chicago area university. (Disclosure: I know about this show because I tend to catch a few minutes of its opening after watching Major Crimes which I watch because of The Closer.) The show tends to open in this way: McCormack is at the front of the classroom that is full of eager students who are hanging on his every word. At the side of the room is his trusty graduate student TA who occasionally chimes in. McCormack has scribbled all sorts of profound things on the board and then he ends class with a deep question or a witty joke. When the class ends, he quickly leaves the classroom and gets wrapped up in some fascinating case. Sound like a typical college classroom? While the professor here is depicted as a cool young guy, it is not exactly realistic to most college classrooms.

I realize what takes place day in and day out in a college classroom likely does not make scintillating television. Indeed, have you watched DVDs of The Great Courses? Yet, this doesn’t mean there isn’t something worthwhile going on in that classroom that doesn’t require severely stereotyping professors one way or the other depending on the audience.