How not to write about college students: a lesson from Slate

A popular article on Slate this week offers a nearly perfect demonstration of how not to write about college students.  The lesson is on how to pretend a small fraction of students stand in for the entire undergraduate population.

Here’s how it* works.

"cope" photo by mindbubbleThe title (“Kids of Helicopter Parents Are Sputtering Out”) and thesis (“perfectly healthy but overparented kids get to college and [suffer from an] inability to cope”) proclaim a focus on students suffering from helicopter parents – a legitimate topic, one widely discussed in education circles.  The text as published by Slate hits a nice nexus between education and parenting, solidly popular topics today.

It’s also largely about rich families.

Check out the source with which Lythcott-Haims leads, William Deresiewicz ‘s Excellent Sheep.   This book is entirely about the socio-economic and academic elite, traditional-age students at the Yale/Harvard level.  That’s a small fraction of America’s undergraduate population.  I think the book recognizes this.  Lythcott-Haims does not, instead allowing that elite to stand for the whole.

Then the article adds another elite example, students at Stanford.  (That means we’ve hit the 1st, 2nd, and 4th richest American universities so far)  Once again there’s no recognition that this sample is a small and very non-representative one.  But the author does reveal more evidence for my point, when she offers this look into her experience:

In my years as dean, I heard plenty of stories from college students who believed they had to study science (or medicine, or engineering), just as they’d had to play piano,and do community service for Africa, and, and, and.

How many community college students does that describe?  How many from public universities? Continue reading

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Some thoughts on the future of museums

From the excellent Center for the Future of Museums comes a fascinating roundtable discussion. The prompt was clear: “what is the future for museums?”

Several themes emerged from my perspective.

Air and Space Museum, the drone exhibit

From the extraordinary Air and Space Museum.

Nearly every speaker assigned a growing importance to access and engagement.  For example, Nancy Proctor forecast a time when “the museum like other civic and memory institutions is a part of [people’s] identity, and they a part of it.”

David Evans sees public engagement as central to staff hiring and, presumably, development:

[C]urators will need to be hired on the basis of both scholarly excellence and effective communication and engagement skills to maximize the relevance of museums in the future.

Evans also called out higher education on this point:

In contrast to universities, museums and their content experts are more accessible to the community, and a public-facing museum can play an important role in interpreting these complex issues to a broader audience. [emphases added]


Several foresaw increasing inter-museum collaboration.  Xerxes Mazda: “as museums become more aware of the cost of caring for collections, they will increasingly collaborate with each other, and with other types of institutions including manufacturers and retailers.” Peter Kim: “the museum of the future… will have no walls…”

And there was a fiercely anti-technological voice from Adam Rozan.

Museums of the future will fill a void in the modern, tech-saturated, digitally filtered world. .. they will also try to meet our evolving needs, which will likely revolve around physically connecting with others(a future rarity) …

My hope is that the role museums will take on in our communities will come full circle and they will become the center of people’s lives again, because people – stuck behind screens – will need a physical center.

I don’t know how widespread that anti-digital stance is in the museum world these days.  Anyone have a good read on this?

But I’m not doing the discussion or that post justice in my analysis.  Read the whole thing, as these expert practitioners hit so many more important themes: demographics, collection development, storytelling, and more.

I’m fascinated by how much these themes resonate in the education and library worlds.   Access and engagement: major themes for libraries, obviously, if somewhat controversial in post-secondary education.  Inter-institutional collaboration: clearly desired by some, especially under trying economic circumstances.  Anti-technology: we definitely experience that.  Both librarians and campus educators have expressed their desire to set themselves as an alternative to the online world.

(photo by me, of the superb Air and Space Museum’s drone exhibit)

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Why aren’t students rising up? Why would they?

“Why Aren’t Students Raising Hell?” asks David Masciotra. “Why aren’t American students out on the streets?”  Excellent questions.  And there’s no single answer.

Revolt, by downloadthisMasciotra’s article is mostly a lead-up to those queries, explaining why students might want to revolt.  First he dwells on New York University as an exemplary case, starting with a review of a recent NYU faculty report from earlier this year, “The Art of the Gouge” (which FTTE readers know well).  Next Masciotra touched on another report, “The One Percent at State U,” published this year by the Institute for Policy Studies.  The same interlinked themes appear: escalating tuition and student debt, high compensation for upper leadership, the transformation of the faculty from tenure to precarity, all topics familiar to readers of this blog, not to mention anyone paying attention to American higher education in the 21st century.

How do students react in the face of such a transformed experience, “as if Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka collaborated” on its creation?

Unfortunately, students seem like passive participants in their own liquidation. An American student protest timeline for 2014-’15, compiled by historian Angus Johnston, reveals that most demonstrations and rallies focused on police violence, and sexism. Those issues should inspire vigilance and activism, but only 10 out of 160 protests targeted tuition hikes for attack, and only two of those 10 events took place outside the state of California.

So why is this?   Continue reading

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Giving a great presentation: your body

How do you give a great presentation?

In this post I want to focus in on one key element of presenting: what you do with your body.

Statue of a groaning man under a burden, from the St. Louis City MuseumLet’s start off with the bad news.  In public speaking there are many bad habits to avoid, and we can all envision some of them by reflecting back on problem presentations we’ve endured in the past.

We’ve seen speakers hunched over their notes or laptop so protectively as to crush their voice into muttering near-silence.  Some speakers hide behind a lectern, become invisible.  Others make eye contact with anything not human and actually in the environment: furniture, the ceiling, invisible entities swirling around the audience.  I’ve seen presenters gesticulate randomly, or so it seems, twitching and lunging without reference to their content or their audience.

Some of these misbehaviors occur without our conscious awareness, because public speaking can be terrifying, and we do not always behave at our best when gripped by fear.  Alternatively, sometimes we present on stage as though we were speaking off stage, hanging out with friends.  We use postures and gestures that work well for intimate settings, but crimp a formal presentation to dozens or thousands of people.  Consider it a transcription error.

For example, consider these misuses of the body:

  • Hunching over or bowing the head.  This can be a protective move when you feel threatened, curling down to shield your chest and stomach.  In face-to-face conversation this posture can be a nice way of making a conversational partner less intimidated, especially if you’re larger than the other party.
  • Sticking hands in pockets.  This is something we do when we’re embarrassed, nervous, or just don’t know what to do with those fingers.  I find men like to jingle objects in their pockets when competing with other men.
  • Breathing shallowly.  When nervous we sometimes breathe quickly, failing to suck air down into our lungs.  Done right, this expresses excitement in person.  But in a public presentation shallow breathing cuts power to our voice.

Obviously, avoid these.  But please don’t feel that shunning these errors means you have to present as a frozen or groaning statue.  There’s good news to counteract the bad.  One secret to successful presenting is to amplify your content by using your body.  Stance, gestures, voice, movement are all ways to accentuate your points, to better connect with your audience, to more fully express your ideas – and also to have more fun while doing it.

Cartoon of Bryan gesticulating at BETT 2015, by Reitse Sybesma

Sometimes I have enough fun presenting that cartoonists get in on the action.

Consider doing some or all of these things with your body instead of being a presentational statue: Continue reading

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Six trajectories for education and technology

Malcolm Brown, ELI directorThe director of EDUCAUSE ELI describes six major trends (he calls them “trajectories”) for technology and education.  It’s a very impressive article, packing a lot of insight into a short space.

Malcolm Brown begins with three major drivers: personalization, hybrid learning, and big data.  Malcolm draws on those to illuminate the titular six:

device ownership and mobile-first; the textbook and open educational resources (OER); adaptive learning technology; learning spaces; the next-generation learning management system (LMS); and learning analytics and integrated planning and advising services (IPAS).

Read what follows carefully.  Malcolm not only grounds each in real-world examples, but gradually interconnects these movements, as we see mobile-first and changes to textbook publishers altering the LMS, for example.

He concludes with a useful metaphor, comparing the digital learning landscape to the developing enrollment world, where students increasing draw educational experiences from a number of providers.  “Swirling” enrollment means, digitally, “an individualization or fragmentation, together with a reassembly of the micro-units into new, custom configurations.”

I’d recommend this as a reading for campus leaders, especially those not connected to information services and technology.


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Reading in 2015, a personal reflection with bonus Lovecraft anecdote

I was thinking about the impact of the internet on reading this week, precisely because of what I was reading.  On the one hand, there was a pair of essays on Medium by Hugh McGuire (“Why can’t we read anymore?“) and Bob Stein (“Welcome to the Liminal Space Cafe“), where two very smart people and committed readers argued about what the digital world is doing to our reading practices.

On the other, my own reading during a few days: long form, I finished an excellent history of early nineteenth-century America, What Hath God Wrought? (my review), running 878 pages.  I relished more chapters of Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Seveneves (my notes so far), which looks to be about 880 pages.  I reread Arthur Conan Doyle’s dinosaur adventure The Lost World (no notes yet), which was very short.  And I carefully made my way through the middle of The Vorrh, an extraordinary and challenging literary fantasy novel.  Short form: I’ve listened to around a dozen short stories in podcast form (some of what I listen to), and read perhaps one hundred articles and blog posts, plus some number of social media updates (Twitter and Facebook primarily, plus Google+ and LinkedIn).

Which is to say: McGuire’s experience doesn’t apply to me at all, but Stein’s does.  I do not feel my ability to read has been impaired, but my habits have changed.

Let me explain.

Spme of my reading technologies in 2015.

Spme of my reading technologies in 2015.

Why do I still read like I used to, back in the misty age before the web?  It may be my work, which involves continuous research and environmental scanning.  My personal history clearly plays a role (crazed reader as a kid, used bookstore worker in my 20s, education through PhD in literature, about a decade teaching lit).  Statistically, I fear that I’m an outlier within the reading public. Continue reading

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Sweet Briar to have another academic year; what does it mean?

Sweet Briar CollegeSweet Briar College is not closing this year, according to an agreement brokered by Virginia’s attorney general over the weekend.  The college will operate for the 2015-2016 academic year, based on donations and some freed-up endowment funding.  This is a big story, with some great potential, but also fragility.

The agreement includes these crucial money details:

Saving Sweet Briar would commit to deliver $12 million in donations for the ongoing operation of the College for the 2015-2016 year… The Attorney General would consent to the release of restrictions on $16 million from the College’s endowment for the ongoing operation of the College. Saving Sweet Briar and the Bowyer Plaintiffs believe that these funds would be sufficient to operate the College for the 2015-16 academic year.

And a major purge of Sweet Briar leadership: “at least 13 members of the Board of Directors of the College would resign, and at least 18 new members would be elected to the College’s Board of Directors.”  And the current president will resign; “It is anticipated that the new Board will appoint Phillip Stone, who has agreed to serve as the new president.”
As the Sweet Briar announcement puts it,

the Board of Directors decided that new leadership should be allowed the opportunity to operate the College for another year with the hope it will be able to find long-term solutions for ongoing sustainability.

Then there’s this major improvement for staff: “Faculty and staff of the College will be eligible to receive certain negotiated severance benefits and may be offered employment by the College following the aforementioned change in leadership.”

The agreement still needs approvals to proceed, but there it is.

What can we learn from this? Continue reading

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