_Will College Pay Off?_, a review

"Will College Pay Off?" Peter CappelliA very useful, hard-headed, and focused book, Will College Pay Off? (publisher, Amazon) covers exactly what that title promises. Peter Cappelli looks deeply into higher education as an economic proposition for would-be students. As such, this should be handy for a lot of people, at least in the United States.

The answer to that titular question is: it depends (that’s actually the subtitle for chapter 3). Cappelli is serious enough and well grounded in the literature to not offer flip answers. “[C]ollege per se isn’t a clear pathway to a good job.” (172) To an extent it depends on major, but also on the job market following graduation. Liberal arts degrees (as in well-rounded and interdisciplinary, not necessarily humanities degrees) are one good way to maximize value, he argues, since they often lead to higher lifetime earnings (lower in the first job, but better in the second and following).

One major theme of the book is that many of our discussions about college’s benefits stem from a specific historical moment, whose time is now passing. Cappelli notes that the idea of companies hiring graduates for the skills they learned in college is really a post-WWII development (12-15), depending on the huge postwar expansion of higher ed, and its relatively low cost. High ed has ballooned since then into something much larger, and is now increasingly expensive. This observation helps explain a lot of intergenerational tension over higher education, by the way.
when I was in college my summer job paid the tuition; tuition was $400
“We can understand why politicians don’t want to say it, but unfortunately, education is just not a panacea for the difficulties that individuals now face in the job market.” (187; emphasis added)

Another, wonkier theme is that the college premium may not be all it’s cranked up to be. That term refers to the likely lifelong earnings boost one gets from having completed colleges (as opposed to sticking with, say, a high school diploma). Some studies find this premium to add up to a half million dollars for men, which makes even high student debt seem like a good deal. But Capelli thinks the premium is inflated, especially because of a recent development, whereby college grads compete with non-college grads for jobs that don’t require a BA/BS (93). Moreover, the types of people who tend to achieve an undergraduate degree often have “advantages before he or she even starts college as compared to the average high school graduate” (93) – i.e., they have better K-12 schooling and/or more social capital and/or are wealthy or otherwise privileged. On top of that, the college premium research is based on a different historical moment (see preceding paragraph). Continue reading

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First thoughts on watching _The Martian_

My son and I went to see The Martian tonight, along with a lot of other people.  Owain’s a big fan of the novel, and is also an engineering and space maven.  I liked the book, too (short review).  Overall we were very impressed.

Quick plot summary: a human expedition successfully lands on Mars, but has to leave in a hurry due to a dangerous storm.  They leave behind (by mistake) botanist Mark Watney, who now has to figure out how to survive and get back home.  Meanwhile NASA discovers Watney’s survival, and scrambles to help him from 50 million miles away.

The film manages to pull off a nice balance between hard science fiction and a speedy plot. A great deal of the story involves identifying and solving chemistry, engineering, communication, computing, agronomy, physics, and math problems.  Weir’s novel made this accessible by good description and a persistent sense of often self-abnegating humor.  Ridley Scott’s movie largely follows suit, often using visual storytelling in place of nonfiction text.  A high point involves a young scientist (grad student?) explaining his solution to a problem by drafting NASA leaders as visual aids, then goofily flying a stapler around a meeting room.  Each minute interaction with those administrators touches their characters (authoritative, confused by geeks) while showing us a complex idea clearly.

Stapler scene from the Martian

The visual are gorgeous, when Scott opens up the screen.  Jordanian deserts make for staggering Martian landscapes.  Fine CGI shows the lovely interplanetary craft Hermes and the surfaces of Earth and Mars.  I wanted the movie to linger at those moments, letting us savor the eye candy, but it raced onwards.

The plot works like a thriller, as IO9 explains, with a series of crises that build on and escalate from each other.  The movie begins by leaping onto Mars, allowing a brief scene-setting before kicking off disaster.  It never lets up from there, racing ahead into a spectacular orbital dynamics climax, until a brief epilogue (not in the novel) serves as an airlock back to our lives.

Once back in our lives, we are meant to desire more space exploration.  As I noted with Interstellar (2014), this is a movie that’s unabashedly pro-space.  Unlike Gravity (2013), which emphasizes space as a zone of terror, sees the physical destruction  of most of humanity’s space presence, and celebrates not exploration but a return to a womb-like home, The Martian exhorts us to return to space.  It’s a fierce challenge, but one we can meet with optimism and the scientific method.  The last image of the movie is of the Earth receding below us, as we move away, presumably towards Mars and beyond.  I’m biased in favor of the cause, and found it inspiring.

Not all of the science is sublime.  There’s a lot of duct-taping, tossing stuff out of windows, some DIY surgery, stirring human feces in a bucket, accidentally burning oneself, and jumping on a roof to knock a big hole in it.  That’s a nice balance, actually, giving us both types of science: low-rent, accessible, home experiment style, along with Big Science of the NASA and 2001 sort.  This strategy makes the film less intimidating than a science lecture, while offering lyrical beauty.

A film like this has a hard time avoiding cinematic echoes.  The most resonant one is to Apollo 13 (1995), with its extensive depiction of space science problem solving, slide rules, horn-rimmed glasses, and all.  I think The Martian has a little call-back to Scott’s very great Alien (1979), as the opening titles look similar, and occur over a related background of a looming planet backed by ominous music.  Scott backs away from the tone right away, though, as Ars Technica observes.  At least one reviewer noted that Matt Damon starred in another movie where his character had to be epically rescued at great expense, Saving Private Ryan (1998), but that doesn’t add much to this film.  I was reminded of Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), which contains a surprising amount of science for a movie with Adam West and a cute monkey, and is also about surviving on that red planet.

Owain and I posing before The Martian poster

I have enjoyed some of the bad reviews, because they illustrate how not to watch this movie.  The Christian Science Monitor claims the film lacks a sense of awe, which either means they weren’t paying attention to the sublime scenes, or that today’s audience is even more ADHD-afflicted than I thought. Slate decided to just wave at the science, and ignore the science fiction, in favor of focusing on the actors and their careers.  The review damns the movie with faint praise, cheerily and disdainfully calling it “hokum.”  The reviewer even offers up this gem:

Kristen Wiig [plays] NASA’s snippy director of PR (who, confusingly, has the same first name as her Bridesmaids character, making you wonder how she went from cupcake entrepreneur to aerospace bureaucrat).

Some serious cinematic insight there.  (These days I tend to hate-read Slate.  Also hate-listen to some of its podcasts. )  Science just doesn’t do it for some reviewers… and that makes this film’s focus on science a risky move for the American market.

A friend who saw the movie with us offered a different critique.  She found the humor off-putting, not credible for people in such situations.  I wonder if other audiences will have a similar reaction.  I believed the tone because I’d read the book and also know something of gallows humor, but maybe the total effect is too flippant.

What I’d like to do now is watch the movie again, but with a pause button so I can ogle the glorious landscapes and spacecraft.  Perhaps Owain and I will built a Hermes from Legos, when he isn’t studying to get into engineering school.

Overall, I recommend the film.  See it on a big screen.

PS: we didn’t have a 3d option, so can’t speak to that.

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Starting a month of malevolent frights

Let me take a break, just for this post, from my usual focus on education and technology.  Today is the first of October, and I’d like to do something different in honor of this Halloween-tailed month.

So here’s my plan for the rest of October:

  • to read no fiction but scary stories
  • to see as many unseen-by-me horror movies as possible
  • to play scary computer games

So, dear readers, what scary fictions would you recommend to me?
misty woods

I should have good access to most materials, even from my remote home in Vermont, thanks to Netflix (DVD and streaming), Amazon (streaming video, Kindle books), a friendly public library, friends, RSS (for podcasts), and the internet in general.  Gaming platforms include PC, Android, and Xbox.

Are there horror novels from the past 15 or so years that stood out for you?  Have you found fine creepiness on Netflix, or even in the theater?  Gamers, anything made you turn on all the lights?  I’ll be traveling to Indianapolis and upstate New York; any recommendations for horror from those locales?
Pacman pumpkins, Quinn Norton

I don’t know if I’ll follow up on this blog with more horrific posts.  Perhaps that’s better suited for my long-running Gothic site Infocult.  Book reviews should end up on my Goodreads, at least.

(PacMan photo by Quinn Dombrowski; misty woods is by me)

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The problem with the problem with students today

Are today’s students becoming too fragile for higher education?  A former student of mine somehow managed to get up the grit and gumption to share this Psychology Today story. on that topic.  After I awarded the student her mandatory trophy and coupon for 20 hours of trauma recovery therapy, I found Gray’s article to be very useful, in that it points out the many challenges and problems involved in approaching this issue.

Resilience, photo by Alan Levine

Gray’s thesis is simple.  Kids, er, students these days have been brought up to be too fragile for higher education, much less adult life.  He offers several colorful anecdotes, like these:

[A] student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a “bitch” and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment. The latter two also called the police, who kindly arrived and set a mousetrap for them.

Gray quotes a counselor from his institution (remember, these count as administrators), who warned the community thusly:

“[T]here has also been a decrease in the ability of many young people to manage the everyday bumps in the road of life. Whether we want it or not, these students are bringing their struggles to their teachers and others on campus who deal with students on a day-to-day basis. The lack of resilience is interfering with the academic mission of the University and is thwarting the emotional and personal development of students.”

To his enormous credit, Gray identifies one source of this problem as… a lack of fun in the lives of youngsters: “the dramatic decline, over the past few decades, in children’s opportunities to play, explore, and pursue their own interests away from adults.”  I have lots of sympathy for this on a variety of levels: as a father, a teacher, a citizen, a writer, an observer.

(For more on fun and play, please see the great guru Bernie Dekoven)

I’m also delighted to learn that Gray works on unschooling.  This gratifies my home-schooling, independent, and skeptical-of-authority heart.

So what’s wrong with this picture?  Let me count the ways. Continue reading

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Great wealth: the privilege academia really doesn’t want to discuss

Having enormous amounts of money changes how a school does education, but it’s something we really don’t want to discuss in higher education.  Being well-endowed, or just rich, is definitely a form of privilege, and yet we try not to talk about it.  It’s education’s unspoken, unacknowledged, unchecked privilege in an era of ever-increasing educational oligarchy.

"Education in Privilege", Paul BrookerI’ve  noticed this over the past few years in my work.  Visiting campuses, consulting with organizations, and reading academics’ work, I see academics (professors,librarians, technologists, upper administrators) blithely describe projects they’ve implemented, without any sign of awareness that they could only do that work the way they did thanks to their institution’s privilege.  They commend methods and practices to an audience that might not be able to afford them.  They describe challenges that many in education would love to be able to face.

Item: Harvard staff complaining at a NERCOMP event a few years back that they couldn’t afford to do something.  Because they had tight budgets, you see.  Yes, Harvard.  They actually solicited the audience’s sympathy.

Item: a teacher from a private high school in Massachusetts costing $41,000/year on average describing a digital storytelling effort based on every student having their own new Macbook Pro.  And class sizes of around 8.

(To this presenter’s credit, when I asked her how other, less rich schools could implement this practice, she frowned and admitted it would be difficult.  She recommended relying on students’ iPhones, because, I suppose, all students have iPhones in her world. I feared my question would be seen as hostile.)

Item: tenured faculty complaining about a local administration that doesn’t listen to them as they’d like, without mentioning that adjuncts – who can be hired and fired at will by those less than perfectly collegial administrators, on a semester basis – even exist.  It literally goes without saying that adjuncts have no voice whatsoever in campus governance.

Item: Slate and a Stanford provost asserting that very rich students = typical students.

Item: faculty, staff, and journalists treating William Deresiewicz’s ur-Ivy League screed Excellent Sheep (2014) as if it was about the typical American college student.  Or the typical American campus.

Item: the headmaster of an Austin, Texas private high school costing roughly $50,000/year exhorting teachers to set up lavish maker spaces, reboot curricula, and establish deep, individual relationships with students. Continue reading

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More humanities seminars online, and they’re not MOOCs

CIC logo
Starting this January forty (40) humanities seminars will kick into action, online.  Twenty-one American colleges and universities are offering these classes for students on each others’ campuses, through an innovative project coordinated by the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC).

These classes cover an impressive area of subjects, from Magic and Witchcraft in British Literature to Ways of Seeing Byzantium.  Some are very specific (the Future of Reading), while others are broader (modern European history, American literature).

Some students will experience these entirely online, while those taking classes at the same institution where the professor works will have a blended learning combination.

The advantages for faculty and their campuses are important.  Professors get to teach classes in their specialties, while enjoying a broader group of students (remember that this is a national effort).  Campuses get to see higher numbers in upper-level humanities seminars, while at the same time expanding the curriculum they present to students.

Note, too, that the teaching methods are not uniform.  Each professor selects from a wide range of online approaches, suiting them to their particular style and subject.

Profs and local support staff created these courses over a two-year process.  Indeed, this is the second round of classes, as the first one occurred earlier this year (2015).  Convened by the CIC, participants met face-to-face and worked online to brainstorm, develop, then offer these classes.  In full disclosure, I helped with some of these meetings, and was delighted at how they went.  Faculty and staff from across the country met each other for the first time, then compared notes and pooled resources to learn from their collective experience.

As a humanist, I’m thrilled to see humanists – my people! – striding into the online world with such a solid program.  It reminds me of the Sunoikisis program, which constitutes something like a virtual classics department.  Indeed, I’ve joked that the CIC consortium classes represent a mini-campus in their breadth, diversity, and seriousness.

I’m looking forward to seeing these 21st-century classes in action in just a few months.

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Talking about the future of education and technology on Milwaukee public radio

WUWM logoEarlier this week I was interviewed on Milwaukee public radio.  Mitch Teich asked good questions, and we covered a lot of ground in just under 20 minutes.

We discuss queen sacrifices, the recent Japanese move against the humanities and social sciences, demographics, enrollment trends, technology gaps between K-12 and tertiary education, MOOCs, STEM, computational thinking, gender balance in STEM, the Homeland generation, distance learning, classrooms of the future, disintegrated computing, multitasking, humanities computing. automation, the feelings of parents sending children to school, and the reactions of cats.

Thanks to Mitch for fine interviewing (and a sense of humor), and to Marquette University for the opportunity.

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