On instructional design

On Wednesday morning, I’m interviewing for a director-level position that bridges academic technology, instructional design, and faculty development. As a result, I’ve been even more reflective than usual about the choices I’ve made regarding teaching and technology.


This semester, in addition to continuing to build or maintain a slate of existing projects, I’ve tackled two additional experiments. First, I’m part of a pilot cohort of faculty experimenting with building e-books for our courses; as I build an interactive book using iBooks Author for my graduate public history course, I’m drawing on Creative Commons-licensed and public domain material, as well as my own commentary. (More on that in another post.)

Second, I completely blew up my digital history course a few weeks into the semester. I began the course with a traditional syllabus packed with readings and marked by some practice, but on student request, I changed the course so that 85% of the work—and thus of students’ grades—is connected to a single large project. You can check out the new syllabus, but you’ll find most of the course now consists of in-class work days for the 11 undergraduate and 5 graduate students in the course.

In the summer, a resident of Boise’s Central Rim neighborhood approached me about helping her and her neighbors better understand the history of their irrigation system, the Lindsey Lateral. The neighbors believed some residents hadn’t been getting all the water to which they are entitled, while other yards in the neighborhood were completely waterlogged and some basements flooded. The neighbors wanted an historian to trace the history of their water rights so they could make a case for various agencies or individuals to fund repairs to the ditches and canals that run through and under the subdivisions that constitute the Central Rim.

I admitted I’m no legal expert and instead offered to use the neighborhood as a subject in my Digital History course.

That course introduces students to the digital humanities and asks them to consider the various issues and potential opportunities at the intersection of digital technologies and our understanding of the past. In a previous iteration of the course, I had students interview digital humanists, explore exactly how far they could get with their research if they used only digital primary sources, build augmented reality tours, and write grants.

This semester, students have elected to focus almost entirely on the Central Rim Neighborhood project. That meant exchanging a lot of great course content and additional topics for hands-on skill-building, but I’m fine with that. Now students are working in teams to interview neighbors (with some of these captured on video as mini oral histories), document the history of irrigation, trace the development of the neighborhood from the first irrigated orchards to suburban subdivisions, and explore the evolution of the neighborhood into a particularly close-knit community where neighbors not only know each others’ names, but also know a lot about one another.

I’ve largely left the design and development of the website up to the students, providing them with suggestions and advice when they ask for it and inviting guest speakers to help them understand both the neighborhood and project management. I’m uncertain what form the project website will take on December 15 when we unveil it to the neighbors, but I know it will include roughly three roughly 1,500-word essays on irrigation and what it has allowed to flourish, the neighborhood’s suburban development and architecture, and the Central Rim’s sense of community. There likely will be several interview videos edited down from an hour to ten minutes or so. I hope there will be maps, historical images collected from neighbors, “then and now” photos and maps that can be revealed and compared with sliders, and more.

While building this website, students are, depending on which teams they choose to join or assist, learning

  • how to find primary-source documents in municipal, county, state, university, and public library archives, as well as how to access information in digital databases;

  • how to navigate the U.S.’s complex system of copyright and permissions for images and documents;

  • how to craft good interview questions and keep interviewees focused;

  • all kinds of video production skills;

  • web design and development;

  • how to read and interpret a variety of maps;

  • some basic GIS skills;

  • photography;

  • project management;

  • collaboration across media;

  • how to interpret local history for a public audience;

  • how to read historic photographs;

  • how to make sense of secondary sources that frequently disagree with one another;

  • how to design an efficient and effective editorial workflow;

  • how to identify, research the potential of, and employ or implement various multimedia platforms, software, plugins, etc.;

  • and more.

Meanwhile, I’m continuing to implement the skills I myself have learned since first standing in front of a college classroom in 1999. I feel all my pedagogical work—in literature, composition, American studies, museum studies, education, and finally history classrooms, and through my professional work as academic technology and faculty development staff—has led me to this pedagogical moment when I turn over the class to my students, when I become the ultimate guide on the side—not the instructor who directs activities minute-to-minute during the hour and fifteen minutes of class, but the consultant to whom students often turn (though increasingly less frequently as the project develops) when they want advice.

The course complements and builds on the research and writing skills students learn in their lower-division history courses. Through teaching courses at all levels, I have developed a very clear sense of what students can and will do, as well as learned how to write an assignment that allows for students to successfully meet a challenge. Because I can design assignments that match—and increase—students’ motivation and ability to learn, I can trust my students in fairly radical ways.

It’s completely liberating. I set course-level learning objectives and ensure the assignment allows for students to achieve them. Students keep me informed of their progress by reporting on their work to date, but also through the questions they ask. Students get a learning experience—I’m loath to call it “authentic,” as I know there are countless forms of authentic learning, and I don’t want to claim this experience as more so than others—that stretches both their knowledge of the past and their skill sets (“competencies,” if we’re going to use trendy terminology), and I have far fewer individual student assignments to grade—though I do give students feedback whenever they request it.


In addition to reflecting on my own teaching, I’ve been reading up on instructional design, as I realized that while I develop learning experiences all the time, I likely did not know the terminology of the field.

What I discovered was a bit astonishing.

Freely available and easily found resources online—the kind of resources I’m guessing most entry-level instructional designers access to learn the discipline—are often horrifying. There’s far too much information online about how to turn a PowerPoint into “computer-based training” or “web-based training,” or how to create “instructor-led training.” Terminology is revealing, and talking about learning as “training,” or about a learning experience as “computer-based,” “web-based,” or “instructor-led” completely erases the student-centered nature of the best learning experiences. Much of the “training” instructional designers receive apparently centers on delivering content or creating “performance-based training” in which students learn, for example, how to complete small tasks such as entering metadata into a database or creating an invoice.

I gleaned a lot about what employers—primarily corporate employers—might expect from instructional designers by looking at this list of interview questions, which is excerpted or adapted in multiple places and held up as a good, representative list. Many of the questions can be answered with a quick Google search; far fewer get at an instructional designer’s philosophy, engagement with “subject-matter experts,” or reflective practice.

And yet in working with some talented instructional designers here at Boise State, it’s clear instructional designers, at least in an academic setting, do so much more. When they are given the time and space to undertake research on what’s going on in the field, allocated funds to attend conferences and workshops for professional development and cross-pollination, and encouraged to have genuine conversations with faculty about teaching and learning, instructional designers can help faculty advance student learning in really interesting ways.

In recent years, I’ve identified three species of instructional designers in higher education. The first of these emerges from, or adheres to, a corporate ethos: content should be delivered efficiently and cost-effectively, and learning must be measurable. You might have encountered this species of instructional designer in your campus’s extension or dedicated online learning office. Their job is to help faculty move face-to-face courses online in such a way that a course might be taught using the exact same materials, activities, and tests for several semesters (because it’s expensive to redesign activities) and by any number of relatively interchangeable instructors. In this species’s ethos, learning experiences should be standardized and replicable. Changing a syllabus, activities, assignments, and assessments mid-semester, as I have done with my Digital History course, is nigh impossible and certainly frowned upon. (I know because I asked one of these instructional designers about this very contingency.)

The second species of instructional designer is more likely to be affiliated with a university’s “Center for Excellence in Teaching,” a language lab, or similar department where good pedagogy, rather than efficiency and low cost, is (in theory or practice) the primary concern. They read academic journals and higher ed publications. These instructional designers run programs in which small cohorts of faculty pilot emerging technologies in the classroom—mobile learning or ebooks, for example. While the first species of designers works on an assembly line, building widgets and assembling them into courses, this second species observes how faculty think, synthesizes these observations with deep knowledge of how students learn, and makes recommendations about how the entire higher ed factory might retool to increase student learning, graduation rates, and employability.

The third species of instructional designer—though individuals of this species might not even identify themselves as such (they may, for example, be programmers, faculty, or “technologists”)—questions the factory as a model for learning, throws spanners in the works, and argues that a public playground, with its sandbox and free-form play structures, is a better environment for learning and collaboration. These designers coax faculty into this space, wait for their eyes to adjust to all the sunlight, and encourage them to get their hands dirty in the sandbox or rebuilding the jungle gyms. From these people emerge such well-regarded initiatives as A Domain of One’s Own, Reclaim Hosting, Connected Courses, and the cMOOC.

The first species of instructional designer is likely to turn faculty away from teaching with technology, or at the very least leave a bad taste in the instructor’s mouth because this kind of work decreases faculty autonomy and flexibility and promotes a corporate ethos in higher education.

The second species may get faculty interested in one or two technologies, but the technology an instructor pilots may either quickly fade from the instructor’s courses (e.g., mobile learning) or become the instructor’s one go-to use of technology (e.g., clickers). These faculty may still see technology as a way of delivering content and checking for student comprehension, rather than as a transformative teaching tool.

The third species doesn’t necessarily make it easy for faculty to adopt new technologies, but these designers appeal to professors’ natural curiosity, desire for intellectual challenge, and propensity for problem-solving. These designers introduce faculty to an entirely new way of seeing technology as a teaching and learning tool.

I admire, and I’m most comfortable working with, the second and third species. I enjoy interacting with both of them tremendously.


But the third species? They’re my people.

They’re student-centered, faculty-understanding, institution-transforming. Administrators often see them, at least at first, as guerrillas or unnecessarily radical. But as their successes pile up, and as people from other colleges and universities take notice of their work, a grudging admiration builds, as does trust.

That’s not an easy chasm to cross, however—it takes a patient and perceptive administrator to see someone whose work looks potentially institution-undermining as someone who deeply loves seeing students succeed and who puts their needs first, often in unconventional ways. Instead of asking students to use the enterprise LMS and e-portfolio, the third species gives them free hosting and a makerspace. At first it’s not clear the students can—or even will try to—build anything with server space, a 3D printer, a Raspberry Pi, or access to the full Adobe Creative Suite.

But then suddenly your campus becomes an internet of things, a playground hacked by students to meet their own needs and those of their peers. Your students’ amazing work, instead of being a series of documents and images awkwardly stuffed into the class-by-class structure of that expensive e-portfolio system, shines on an amazing, responsive multimedia site they built themselves. Even if they don’t program themselves, your faculty learn to speak the language of the web developers they hire with small grants or borrow from an academic technology department.

The transformation is there, waiting to happen, if we hire the right instructional designers and give them free rein.

And, of course, if we hire leaders who will both help them and get out of their way.

All I have are bullets (many of them literal)

  •  You may recall I fought very, very hard to keep guns off of Idaho’s college campuses. On day 6 of the semester, a gun went off in the middle of a class at a public university classroom on the other side of the state; a professor was negligent with his concealed firearm. Honestly, my money was on a student, later in the semester.
  • I hope the students in that class are allowed to drop the class without penalty, transfer to another section, and sue the state. (I know for a fact there is pro bono legal assistance available; if you’re one of those students or another who was impacted by this crime, you can get in touch with me and I’ll put you in contact with the right people.)
  • The concealed carry permit holders I spoke with who wanted this law passed all emphasized how highly trained they are before being issued this particular license. I was skeptical then, and I’m even more skeptical now.
  • A nine year-old with an Uzi. A 5-year-old with a shotgun. An 8-year-old boy with an Uzi. Why do people give guns to children? Why is it legal for children to use firearms?
  • I’ve seen people I admire post photos of their kids–some younger than Lucas–firing weapons. It chills me to the bone, and saddens me, too because both common sense and extensive research suggest this is not a good idea.
  • I’m sad so many of my friends, both male and female, live in fear at a time when crime rates are at historic lows.
  • In talking about recent incidents of gun violence, my mom and her sisters recalled my grandfather, a police officer who never really enjoyed being a police officer, told his daughters that “If you decide to carry a gun, do so knowing you likely will be killed by a gun.” (Research bears this out, by the way.) I’d extend his caution to family members: if you carry a gun, your family members are in jeopardy, too. (Especially in Idaho, which is second only to Kentucky in the number of domestic homicides committed with a gun.)
  • It frustrates me when proponents of less restrictive gun laws claim the statistics, and researchers’ interpretation of them, are not objective. As a professional researcher, I can assure you they are.
  • Here in Idaho, more of my friends own guns than don’t. They see guns as a solution to a problem that I see as improbable based on crime stats: the likely sudden outbreak of armed violence on a personal or community scale. And when there is an identified threat, the solution is always to be armed. Right now, there’s a lot of talk about a prowler breaking into homes in northwest Boise and its neighboring city, Meridian. I see locked windows and doors, good relationships among neighbors, a deep-barked dog, an alarm system, and neighbors’ willingness to call police as reasonable solutions. My friends suggest that a gun is solution #1.
  • It makes me profoundly sad to know that the odds are good that I will lose at least one of these friends to gun violence or negligence. I adore many of these people, and I know not all of them keep their guns stored in safes or with trigger locks. (One study showed that 43 percent of gun-owning households had at least one improperly stored weapon, and others demonstrate that firearms are not used in successfully in self-defense as often as people claim they are–in fact, they’re more likely to be used to escalate an argument or in ways that are illegal.)
  • It makes me sadder to hear, on many occasions, that my gun-owning friends have felt threatened by the mere presence of men who are not white—even, in one case, when being passed repeatedly by them on the highway.
  • I don’t mean to belittle these concerns—not at all. Rather, I’m profoundly saddened a (our?) culture has inspired these concerns.
  • I don’t know what the solution is, other than ending racism and increasing restrictions on gun ownership and access. Since ending racism is nigh impossible, I continue to work for the latter.
  • Some people think my sentiments here arise from a hatred of guns. Really, though, I feel as I do because of my deep love for people.

Everyday liberal arts

For more reasons than I could adequately explain here, I’ve been thinking even more often than usual about the value of a liberal arts education in our understanding of the world and the ways we ought to engage with it. As Jeremy Hunsinger has written,

Coming to know, as the primary process of knowledge, is a mobile, communal and material effort, and it engages people, places, and things, through our memories and practices tied to the histories of knowledges, its fluxes, and its futures.

The liberal arts are about engagement with ideas, places, and people. To be frank, in my experience, people educated in the liberal arts tend to be more interesting than those with a more vocational education, and they take delight in details and phenomena that others might not even notice.

What does a liberal arts understanding look like when deployed in our everyday lives? Here are a few examples from my experience.

  • Understanding that landscape architecture transcends Sunset magazine. It’s being able to look at a public space and ascertain for whom it was designed and why, how it might have changed over time, and whose values it represents. . .and both taking pleasure in this analysis and knowing such interpretation is important for all kinds of reasons.

  • Looking at a chart published by a major news organization and redesigning it so it conveys information more clearly and to less partisan ends.

  • Pawing through the medical artifact collections at the Idaho State Historical Museum, making connections between practices a century ago and those today–and realizing that in many cases, practices persist but values shift, while in other cases values persist but the practices around them have changed. And then formulating arguments as to why those shifts and continuities matter to Idahoans’ beliefs about health and wellness, then and now.
  • After seeing someone on Facebook mention being able to hold two opposing thoughts in her mind at the same time, musing on Keats and negative capability and wondering how the concept might be useful in understanding Idaho politics.

  • Seeing an allusion to the “Draw a Scientist” activity and understanding the confluence of historical events and cultural beliefs and values that has led to our narrow understanding of who qualifies as a scientist—and knowing where to find and how to interpret the research being done on the best ways to combat this stereotype.

  • When besieged by an enthusiastic evangelical Christian who kept stuffing tiny comic-panel tracts into my hand, I used my understanding of the culture and geography from which she emerged to steer her away from proselytizing to me and toward mutual understanding. Whenever I run into her now, she seems genuinely happy to see me and doesn’t try to save my soul in any explicit way.

  • Watching pretty much any segment of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report, and being at once dismayed and delighted by what I see and hear in its coverage of the countless hypocrisies in U.S. political life and media representations.

  • Watching, as I am now from my perch on the fourth floor of the university library, a Canada goose floating on the moderately swift current of a river that flows between the university and a large public park, and mentally mapping the confluence of events that made the moment possible, the mind piecing together a quilt whose pieces include but are not limited to the Army Corps of Engineers, water rights legislation in the western U.S., climate change, treaties governing migratory wildlife, the pastoral aesthetic, and municipal recreation priorities. . . but also having empathy for the goose, for it must be a fun ride.

I’ve found that people with a quality liberal arts education tend to be lifelong learners, participating in both formal and informal learning opportunities and indulging in a good deal of autodidactism.

In short, viewing the world through a liberal arts lens is delightful, and I’m so grateful for my time at Grinnell College, which informed my years afterward studying literature, writing, and culture.

Of course, one need not attend an elite liberal arts college to acquire one, but it’s clear it’s getting harder to pursue the liberal arts at regional public universities.

What about you? If you have a broad-based liberal arts education in the humanities, arts, and sciences, how do you find it influencing the way you view or experience the world?

Things I’m thinking about these days

As, of course, a random bulleted list:

  • My fellowship research on how Idahoans have understood health and wellness, as represented by (sometimes very weird) artifacts in a museum’s collection. Found thus far: various fraudulent “cures” for gynecological ills, countless jars containing Chinese apothecary treatments (including shriveled animal testicles, starfish, sea horses, and paper wasps’ nests), Sudafed from the 1960s, cigarettes that claim to ease asthma, a humidifier for the bronchially compromised that appears to have burned a smoky coal tar, and all kinds of fun quack “medical” devices.
  • Idahoans can now legally carry concealed weapons almost anywhere on campus, including the classroom, despite overwhelming opposition to the bill that made such a situation come to pass.
  • Boise State is going through program prioritization, which means ranking every program on campus.  It’s interesting to see how particular characteristics and practices of the History department are perceived by others, for good or ill.
  • Related to above: My history department doesn’t have issues with quality or substance, but it does have a few marketing problems.  I’m trying to puzzle through these challenges and identify solutions by writing about them, and I hope to publish a blog post about it soon. As part of that effort, I revisited my notes from this past summer’s internship with Seth Godin and basked in the warmth of my memories of the great group of people I met last year.
  • I’m reflecting on Seth’s new ebooklet on the placebo effect. Lots of food for thought there with regards to teaching.
  • Also related to program prioritization: I find myself returning frequently to Bryan Alexander’s thoughtful and terrifying posts about the queen sacrifice.
  • Lucas is going to be eligible for his black belt in Taekwondo in September. Time flies!
  • I’m eligible to apply for tenure in the fall.  Time flies!
  • I recently returned from a conference in Monterey and visiting family in Long Beach and Palm Springs. The weather is far better in California right now than here in Boise. I’m craving sunshine and warmth.
  • Thanks to a lively Facebook group, I’ve reconnected with lots of Grinnell alumni who graduated circa 1980-2000, and their humor and thoughtfulness reminds me I ended up in the right collegiate community for me. I was fortunate to spend most of my undergraduate career there, and I’m very lucky to have this online community. The group reinforces for me the importance of undergraduate community, and I’m wondering how to strengthen it among students at my regional, mostly commuter university.
  • Fang is beginning to gain traction in his reinvention of himself as a portrait and event photographer.  This makes me very happy for all kinds of reasons.
  • I’m grateful for really sharp local friends who linger over lunches with me and who play laptop battleship during epic writing sessions.

What’s on your mind these days?

Concealed carry culture is antithetical to higher education’s mission

(written in response to Idaho Senate Bill 1254, which would allow concealed weapons on campus)

Idaho has long nurtured what some have termed “a gun culture.”  Hunters and ranchers reasonably see rifles as necessary tools. Families pass treasured rifles from grandparent to parent to child and educate the youngest members of the family about gun safety. Such responsible gun ownership is to be admired.

However, recent discussions about guns make clear this traditional gun culture is being co-opted by a newer, disturbing one marked by the language of distrust and threat. This new culture, one of whose primary features is the concealed carrying of handguns, uses a different rhetoric and logic—and this way of thinking and speaking is at odds not only with the entire mission of the university, but also with a just, democratic civic life.

In the culture of concealed carry, enthusiasts speak of “good guys with guns” and “bad guys with guns,” as if the language of preschoolers could adequately capture the complexity of negotiating our increasingly diverse society. Worse, these same people speak of “gun-free zones” as if such spaces are and should be an aberration.  In the perspective of concealed carry culture, “gun-free zones” are described as an inviting target for “bad guys.” Such talk reveals not only a surface-level paranoia, but also deeper, more malevolent meditations on the mass murder, with an implication that mass shootings are inevitable, particularly at schools. Even worse, in concealed carry culture, the solution for such mass-shooting scenarios is more guns and more bullets flying, not fewer.

It’s not surprising, then, that this culture also embraces “stand your ground,” the legal right to shoot and kill someone if one feels threatened.  As we have seen in the national news recently—most visibly in the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis cases, but certainly not limited to these incidents—many gun-carrying white men feel threatened by aspects of cultures that are not their own. These aspects include, but again are not limited to, clothing, music, and darker skin, and, taken collectively, might in the case of African-American men be viewed as “thug culture” or, in the case of Muslim attire or practice, a harbinger of terrorism. The perception is that other cultures are intruding into the space rightfully occupied by WASPs, and the solution to this “problem” or “threat” is violence.

The “stand your ground” ethos is antithetical to that of the university. Higher education is about intellectual growth and nuance; it’s about negotiation rather than standing one’s ground.  It’s about considering new ideas and learning about new ways of being in an ever-changing world.  Higher education embraces civility in the face of unfamiliar or uncomfortable ideas—it’s about civic discourse.

This insistence on civic discourse and global engagement is one factor driving Boise State’s recruitment of both out-of-state and international students, as well as its desire to draw the best faculty in the nation and world. Many of these students and faculty grew up in cultural contexts very different from those of students from Idaho. I, for example, grew up in a gay neighborhood and attended a high school that was only 20 percent white.  For me, then, teaching at Boise State involves a good deal of listening to Idaho students’ experiences—many of which are foreign to me—and understanding their perspectives while simultaneously challenging them to broaden their views on any number of politically-tinged historical issues.  Of course, they rightfully challenge my beliefs, too.

I worry the knowledge that there may be students concealing weapons in the classroom will quash this civic discourse, and that students and faculty will be hesitant to take the intellectual risks that allow all of us to connect and grow as human beings.  Frankly, I am especially worried about students of color and international students, as those perceived to be of a different culture from the “norm” WASP culture are often the victims of misunderstanding and gun violence.

I encourage our legislators to vote no on S 1254, and I exhort everyone to elevate the dialogue about guns on campus and in our society. In particular, in a state whose residents cherish their history and heritage, we need to carefully differentiate what is part of the traditional gun culture, and what is part of the concealed carry culture that breeds paranoia and glorifies violence in the name of self-defense.

DIY College Metrics

The headline at the NPR site says it all: “Idaho Universities Must Decide Which Programs Matter Most.”  Not surprisingly, then, at this year’s welcome address, Boise State President Bob Kustra emphasized the role of analytics in the process of program prioritization. My college’s dean also emphasized metrics and analytics in the college-wide meeting that week.

My head began to hurt.  I’m a humanist.  I’m not terribly comfortable with numbers, and I don’t like it when things that should be evaluated qualitatively are transformed into numbers.

Still, I felt I needed to educate myself about university metrics, and particularly about my university’s metrics.  I went digging.  I found, once again, that numbers are slippery, particularly when we’re talking about “costs” (what counts toward the cost? what doesn’t?), and not at all easy to interpret. Despite these liabilities, numbers are persuasive, and they can be marshaled to tell stories, factual or not, true or not.  Often they are, to borrow a word from Stephen Colbert, truthy, in that they “cherry pick” numbers that seem to back up our gut feelings.

I know many of my fellow public university faculty are, like me, in an allegedly data-driven boat navigating the waters of a (real or fabricated) budget crisis. I’ve also discovered, locally and elsewhere, that despite a plethora of internal and external sources that provide university data, many faculty and even administrators remain unaware of the actual metrics of their universities; they’re believing spin and myth rather than looking at the data themselves.

I thought, then, I would highlight a few of the places where faculty, staff, students, and other stakeholders can find university metrics.  Chances are your university has a data warehouse for employees, but even if you don’t have access to it, there are plenty of external places to find data.

As a model, I’ll share some metrics and findings from my own university that I think are important, but that may get overlooked in our discussions during program prioritization. I’m sharing these numbers because they emerge from a familiar context for me. While some of them may seem damning, I’m not highlighting them to reveal corruption or the failure of any one individual, office, or program.

That said, taken collectively, as you will see, these data can tell a story about priorities—if you’re open to hearing that kind of narrative.

I encourage you to follow along with my steps and discover some information about the colleges or universities of which you are an employee, student, parent or spouse of a student, donor, or community member.

But first, three caveats:

1. I’m a humanist, not a social scientist or mathematician, so I won’t be doing any fancy statistical analysis—rather, we’ll be relying on some basic arithmetic.

2. I know all institutions and organizations “cherry pick” data to tell a particular story, and I suspect that some universities go through the program prioritization process with an end goal in mind.  They collect only the data that matter to the story they want to tell, manipulate the data, and interpret it in ways that confirm their top administrators’ perspective. I, of course, have my biases and priorities, too.

3. In every case here, I’m working with the latest reported data rather than the raw data or queries from an internal data warehouse.  Some numbers may be slightly out of date, and of course a university’s self-reported data, as one reader reminds me, must be taken with a grain of salt, but I’m unaware of any major shifts locally in the numbers I’m discussing, though I have heard rumors our six-year graduation rate is on the rise.

Undergraduate education

Governing bodies in higher ed, as well as state funding agencies, are, of course, all about graduation rates, retention rates, and career outcomes.  The last of these is perhaps hardest to capture, though student loan default rates can give us a glimpse of success or failure in the workforce. Fortunately, the first two are relatively easy to track, especially if you adhere to a relatively narrow definition of “graduation rate.” Let’s take a look at them.

Graduation rates

One goldmine of student information is the IPEDS Data Center, which anyone can access at the National Center for Education Statistics website. IPEDS allows you to examine individual institutions’ metrics, as well as compare institutions. If you poke around the site for a while, you’ll also find some interesting projections, like this one estimating the numbers of U.S. high school graduates, by race/ethnicity, through 2021, and some useful tables and figures, including this list of tables about financial aid.  If you’re more stats-savvy than I am, you can download data sets and play with them in the software of your choice.  (Prospective students looking for the right college “fit” should access the data via the NCES College Navigator.)

I’m always surprised that more faculty at my institution are unaware of Boise State’s four-year graduation rate. Here’s Boise State’s graduation rate data from IPEDS:


That’s a screen capture I took when I first conceived of this post a few months ago.  Sadly, the most recent data available shows a 3% decline in the overall graduation rate, and a decline in the 4-year graduation rate:


Blink as much as you must—your eyes don’t deceive you. Boise State’s most recently-reported four-year graduation rate is 7 percent.  Now, administrators everywhere will tell you that graduation rates are calculated unfairly, in particular because transfer students aren’t included—only “full-time, first-time, degree/certificate-seeking undergraduates.” That’s a fair criticism. However, it’s not fair to ignore entirely the 7 percent figure, as it indicates that for every 100 first-time, degree-seeking undergraduates that begin their college careers at Boise State, 93 won’t graduate from that university in four years–and 71 won’t graduate within six. That’s deeply troubling.  (The national 6-year graduation rate is 59 percent, and 57 percent at public institutions—considerably higher than Boise State’s 29 percent.)

Funding undergraduate education

Let’s move on to funding for undergraduate education. I’ve observed some of Boise State’s administrators like to use the term “lean” rather than “underfunded” to describe the university’s programs. “Lean” not only suggests an efficient use of muscle/resources, but it also evokes the “lean start-up” paradigm so beloved by many business schools at the moment. I’m using “underfunded” instead of “lean” because I want to emphasize not how programs are performing with few resources, but rather make clear how little the state and university are investing in our students.

Unfortunately, the only current Boise State budget I was able to find is broken down by major categories; we can’t learn much from it. (Worse, it collapses student loans into the category “Scholarships & Fellowships.” Gah!) Fortunately, we aren’t constrained by the university’s lack of budgetary transparency online.  (Update: a friendly Boise State librarian tells me paper copies of the budget can be checked out for two hours at a time, so check to see if your university’s library keeps a copy of the budget available.)

Thanks to the site College Measures, we can discover, to the dollar, how much the university declares it spends educating each undergraduate student per year: $9,571, which puts it in the 7th percentile overall among all colleges and the 11th percentile among public institutions.  I’m glad to see the university ranks in the 36th percentile in instructional spending per student among all colleges, and 38th in academic support—not great numbers, but far better than its overall ranking.

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A year’s in-state fees (charged in lieu of tuition) cost each undergraduate $6,292.  (A brochure released yesterday by the university includes an asterisk that explains students are also charged $2,088 in “health insurance fees” (see page 10), but we won’t include those in our analysis.)

Here’s where I’ll refer you to a post about colleges’ discount rates I wrote on my admissions blog.  To sum up: the discount rate is typically calculated as the difference between the full-fare cost of enrollment and what the average student and his or her family actually pay.  The New York Times recently reported that small colleges are trying to get out of the discounting game, but I don’t think any institution will ever escape it, as there will always be a difference between what the student pays and the true cost of educating a student.  I call this the “actual discount rate.” So, as I explain in my post at the admissions blog:

Just how generous is the actual tuition discounting at some colleges?  Here’s a slide from a 2011 presentation Grinnell College made to its alumni and other stakeholders:


 click to enlarge image

 The chart reveals the college’s actual per-student costs varied from $50,600 to more than $58,000 per year, while the comprehensive fee hovered under $40,000.  Even if all students paid the full fee, Grinnell was eating up to $20,000 per year per student!  Even more astonishing, very few students pay the full fare at Grinnell, so the college was “losing” even more revenue per student.  If you look at the blue portion of the bars, you’ll discover that revenue from students and their families covered on average only 36.5 to 38.5 percent of the college’s total cost. (Currently, about 85 percent of Grinnell’s students receive financial aid.)

Of course, $40,000 a year is still a lot of money for most families, but if you click through to that post, you’ll discover that the typical Grinnell student is expected to contribute $7,500 out of her own pocket and racks up only $12,350 in loans, meaning that, not counting student loan interest, she gets a college education worth at least $224,000 for less than $20,000. And that amount includes not only tuition and fees, but also room and board.

Now, you may think it unfair to compare an elite liberal arts college’s real discount rate with a practically open-admissions regional public university, but I’m going to do so anyway, as I’ve made the comparison for some of my students, and they find it enlightening. (They also often regret their choice of institution because they find themselves with a lot of debt.) If an in-state traditional student is one of the lucky ones who graduates from Boise State within six years, and she lives in the cheapest on-campus residence for two of those and uses her parents’ health insurance, according to Boise State’s own cost attendance calculator, her tuition, fees, room and board would look like this (if costs remain stable, which of course they won’t):

  • First year, living on campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $6064 room and board = $12,356
  • Second year, living on campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + 5000 room and board = $11,292
  • Third year, living off campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $7,616 room and board = $13,908
  • Fourth year, living off campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $7,616 room and board = $13,908
  • Fifth year, living off campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $7,616 room and board = $13,908
  • Sixth year, living off campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $7,616 room and board = $13,908

The total the student pays, then, is $79,280 for an education that costs the state $57,426.  That means Boise State students don’t actually get a discount rate if we count off-campus room and board.  We’ll no longer be comparing apples to apples, as Grinnell students tend to live on campus for four years, but let’s subtract the off-campus room and board from that figure because the university isn’t seeing any of that money.  Even then, the total the student pays to the university is $48,816, though the student of course still has to pay to live somewhere.  If we remove this amount, then the student does indeed get a discount—$48,816 for a $57,426 education. (Of course, this is a hypothetical ideal; I’ve met Boise State graduates with $100,000 in student loan debt.)

Of course, I’m using a mishmash of Boise State’s and Grinnell’s own data, along with data from College Measures, in these examples.  Let’s compare the cost of an undergraduate education at each institution using only College Measures data.

Here’s Grinnell’s:

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And Boise State’s:
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Click either image to enlarge it.

But wait–here the Boise State cost-per-degree is lower than I’ve estimated it to be–but that’s because the College Measures site assumes a five-year graduation rate, but as we’ve learned, the typical student, if she’s lucky, will graduate from Boise State in six years, whereas almost all Grinnell students graduate in four.  Yes, Grinnell’s students are significantly different from Boise State’s students, but the question remains: what would happen if the university invested more per year in each student; would the four-year graduation rate increase? Would the six-year? What about the attrition rate, and, post-graduation, the student loan default rate? It’s worth investigating.

And what of retention, attrition, and the cost to the university of losing students? Thanks also to College Measures, we discover that in 2011, 31 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates did not return to the university for their sophomore year.  The university spent $6.8 million educating students it did not retain.

Again, I want to emphasize that I know it’s not entirely fair to compare an elite private college with a regional public university; doing so, however, allows us to see the kind of choices universities make, or are forced to make, based on their funding models. Everyone, including state legislators who set higher ed budgets, should be aware of the repercussions of these choices.  And remember, once we have a sense the spectrum of choices, we can perhaps better begin to understand the choices being made at “peer institutions”—and we’ll look at those in the next section.

Faculty compensation

Maybe improving faculty morale might help retain faculty and therefore students? Many of my teaching readers have undoubtedly had the experience where a student (for me it’s usually a graduate student) admits she is returning the following year just because you’re there to support her. Few faculty are truly irreplaceable, but often students view individual faculty as essential to their success.

Of course, one great way to improve faculty morale (or at least retain some faculty) is to pay faculty fairly. We know about the adjunct crisis, and it needs to be addressed in a huge way, and quickly.  (Although, oddly, Boise State’s pay rate for full-time, non-tenure-line instructors is above average, though  I suspect there may be a few fantastically paid outliers who are messing up that particular curve.  The state salary database shows that one of our local celebrities, for example, gets paid $150,000 per year despite the title “adjunct faculty” and a highest degree of B.A.)  The size of the adjunct issue—76 percent of faculty nationwide are now contingent—can easily obscure the fact that tenure-line faculty income has been stagnating.

In a previous post, I compared my own salary, as well as my take-home pay, to the cost of living in Boise.  You can use the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator to determine the cost of living in your city or town.

This year, our dean announced the college would make one-time salary adjustments, so that full profs would earn 84.5 percent of the median CUPA salaries for their rank—so, they’re still 15.5% below median, but, hey, it’s an improvement.  Still, faculty in our History department make far less than those in, say, the business school.

If you’re not sure what your colleagues make, you can ask them if you’re comfortable doing so (yes, I know most people aren’t, and in higher ed we need to get over this etiquette roadblock for the sake of solidarity), or, if you’re at a public institution, chances are the salaries are already available online; simply search for the name of your state plus “state employee salaries.” Sometimes this information is made available by the state itself; other times, newspapers have made it available. Idaho’s state salary database, for example, is hosted by the Idaho Statesman, and California’s can be found at the Sacramento Bee.  You can, of course, look up the average salaries for your discipline at the CUPA site.

To find out the average faculty salaries from your institution, use the Chronicle’s faculty salary tool.  Here’s where Boise State stands:


The Chronicle tool also allows you to compare data across institutions.  It autofills the comparison fields with “several similar institutions.”


I suggest you take a look at that data, but then also look at your college’s peer institutions. Some colleges post this information on their own websites—here’s Boise State’s list—but if that’s not the case for your institution, you can find the colleges and universities your institution considers its peer using this slick peer institution tool at the Chronicle.  (It also lets you see which schools believe your institution to be their peer; in Boise State’s case, that list includes a variety of public universities around the U.S., as well as one DeVry and three University of Phoenix campuses.)



And here are Boise State’s “aspirational” peers:


The tl;dr version of those tables: Boise State pays its faculty less—in some cases significantly less—than its peer institutions, regardless of whether they’re current or aspirational peers.  Yesterday the governor’s state-of-the-state address for 2014 made clear there won’t be any pay raises for state employees this year, unless someone is being promoted. In my time at Boise State—this is my fourth year—faculty have received one raise of 2 percent.  If this pattern persists, I know many of us will be unable to afford to keep our jobs, as cost of living has already outpaced our salaries. Perhaps you have observed this to be the case at your institution as well.

As the Chronicle explains below the tables, these figures represent only “full-time staff whose primary role is instruction, regardless of whether they have formal ‘faculty status.’ That includes tenured, tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty. Left out are any part-time instructional staff, which can include adjunct faculty.”

To see, then, how many teaching faculty are made invisible by this survey, return to the IPEDS Data Center, find your institution, and then click on “Financial and Human Resources.” Finally, click on the + next to the items “Number of staff by primary function” and “number of full-time instruction/research/public service staff.”  Here’s Boise State’s information:

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Even more information from IPEDS

Note that you can also look at data from previous years by searching for your institution, then clicking on “Reported Data”:

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There’s a lot of relatively fine-grained information in that archived data about various aspects of the university.  I find the student financial aid info particularly interesting.  You can also download any of this reported data as a PDF. For example, here is the PDF I downloaded about 2011-12 financial aid at Boise State. It’s not the easiest thing to decipher, especially because the formatting of the reported data has changed over the years, but if you’re an inquisitive or investigative type, you’ll probably find it’s worth poring over.

Administration and athletics

It’s common for columnists and other armchair accountants outside of higher ed to blame faculty salaries for the quickly rising costs of a college education. Chances are very good that the data you’ve found about your college or university shows faculty salaries aren’t driving increasing costs.

If we aren’t investing a ton of money into student and faculty retention, then where are we spending it?  All over, really. But two places where costs have been rising in the past decade or two are athletics and administration.  In fact, according to a brochure released this week, Boise State employs 260 more full-time “professional staff” than it does full-time faculty.  (That speaks volumes about faculty, or even shared, governance, doesn’t it?) The “professional staff” category, which typically includes salaried, non-academic staff exempt from overtime laws, does not include classified staff; there are an additional 529 full-time classified employees at Boise State.

The university pays its vice presidents between $206,000 and $220,000 per year, and its president roughly $400,000. For comparison, that’s in line with recent salaries for chancellors at the University of California—campuses I’m guessing most faculty would consider far more successful as research and teaching institutions. Some people might point out that university presidents make far less than CEOs of comparably-sized private-sector companies, so the salary is reasonable. I might point out that faculty—yea, even in the arts and humanities—also make less than they would as employees in the private sector.

But what of athletics? What kind of money is your institution spending there? Here you might have to do some digging in your local newspaper’s online archives.

The football coach who left Boise State at the end of this season made $1,898,000 per year and licensed his likeness to the university for a quarter million dollars per year.

Some of you will say I’m comparing apples to oranges with the next comparison, but it’s important to look at these two numbers together, as once again, the difference in the numbers throws institutional priorities into high relief.

The football coach made more than $2 million per year, plus myriad benefits. Discussion leaders for courses in the university’s new general ed/core Foundations program are paid only $1,000 per semester.

But let’s look beyond employees. What does the university say it spends on student athletes?

In 2010, Boise State spent $13,018 in operating expenses per football player.  This is lower than the NCAA Division I average, but it’s also just slightly less than half of my take-home salary each year. It’s also $3,500 higher than the university spends educating an undergraduate for a year. The university spends 27 percent more on outfitting and training its football players than it does supporting students’ education.

You can find a thumbnail of major college athletic teams’ financial information at USA Today.  Here’s what the site shares about Boise State; I encourage you to see if your institution is on this list and take a hard look at its figures as well.




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Be sure to check out the report authors’ methodology and category definitions.  Pay particular attention to the definition of “subsidy”—”the sum of students fees, direct and indirect institutional support and state money”—as in the main list of universities, you can see that Boise State athletics are subsidized by this kind of support—again, these are state appropriations and student fees—at 24.96 percent.

According to the Idaho Statesman, the Boise State athletics budget for this past year was $33.4 million, which represents a $1 million shortfall from its projected revenues.  According to NCAA figures, the university actually spent $43,172,225 on athletics, with $43,440,905  in revenue–nearly $11 million of which was subsidized by the state or student fees.  Despite what is suggested by the “total revenue” vs. “total expenses” numbers in the charts above, athletics are a long, long way from paying for themselves because they are subsidized.

 . . .which is funny, because we’re always hearing about how important it is for academic programs to be self-supporting.

(And even if they once were on a trajectory to increase revenue, football ticket sales are declining.)


One of the liabilities of having researchers and teachers as employees is that we undertake research, investigating the subjects and following the leads that most interest us, and then share our findings with students and the public. That’s what I’ve done in this post. And yes, I’m cherry-picking from the available data in choosing what to share here, but it’s the data that concerns what matters most to me: the undergraduate educational experience and its outcomes.

I’m sure some university officials are going to contest the data I have shared, suggesting I’ve crunched it wrong or used out-of-date information. Perhaps I have. Yet by highlighting this reported data, asking some questions, and encouraging my readers to mine the data themselves, I’m trying to start a broader and deeper conversation among faculty, students, staff, and other stakeholders.

State governments and universities talk a good deal about transparency, and this post is offered in that spirit.

That said, I try to include in all my teaching and public outreach a critical thinking activity, and this post will not be an exception.

Let’s think critically for a moment

To be honest, it’s very difficult for me to look at these figures and not editorialize extensively about campus and state priorities, and I worry more than a little bit that even highlighting the straight numbers for the public will make me unpopular on campus and elsewhere.  I’m going to let you, therefore, construct various narratives around the data I’ve presented.

I can’t, however, finish this post without asking a few pointed, leading questions.

1. Why is a purportedly academic, intellectual institution investing so much money in a sport that does this to its players’ brains? Beyond brand awareness for admissions—the benefit faculty and administrators alike cite to me as the major benefit of the football program—what does the university get from placing students in danger of lifelong brain injury? And, as a faculty member, to what extent am I complicit in the destruction of these students’ futures?


Guess which brain belonged to a football player, aged only 42?

2. What if we invested into student and faculty retention the $11 million of state appropriations and student fees currently going to athletic subsidies, plus some of the inflated salaries of the ever-proliferating associate vice presidents?  Our football players’ graduation rate over six years—67 or 91 percent, depending on how you calculate it (see info below from the NCAA graduation rate tool)—is far better than the overall university’s, so why not offer non-athletes the same kinds of academic support athletes receive?

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3. Why is there only one tenure-line faculty member on the program prioritization committee that will be making important decisions about how the university invests its resources?

We often hear that universities should be run “like businesses,” and indeed, faculty have noted the business-speak (strategic dynamism!) and capitalist imperatives (disguised as an embrace of entrepreneurial thinking and institutional efficiency, e.g., MOOCs) that have seeped into the rhetoric and decision-making at the university in recent decades. I’d argue that universities have been trying for some time to become more like businesses—behavior driven not just by trends, but by declining state revenues—and they’re failing pretty miserably. Perhaps they’re not running the right cost-benefit scenarios or SWOT analyses, so I encourage you to undertake your own for those institutions that matter to you.

Still, let’s play along for a minute, and consider students as the university’s “customers” or its “products”:

4. How might we shift our investment of limited resources so that we can increase both retention and graduation rates for our student “customers”? Should we be investing in instruction, academic support, student life, academic technology, or upper administration to produce better “products” for our communities and economy?

5. How will these metrics be translated into analytics for the purposes of program prioritization, at Boise State or elsewhere? That process has not been as transparent as it might be here. (In case this is all mumbo-jumbo to you, as it was to me, here are metrics vs. analytics, explained.)

These questions have no easy answers, and probably not comfortable or comforting ones, either. The data itself is complicated, and determining cause-and-effect even more so.

Please use this information

My challenge to you: Using the resources to which I’ve linked here, as well as others available to you locally, go through the exercise of finding the data that matters to you, share it publicly, and, if you’re comfortable with it, offer your interpretation of it—or ask questions about how we might use it, as I’ve done.  If you’re a faculty member, this kind of research, driven by you or by students, also might form the base of an activity or assignment  in some undergraduate or graduate courses.

If readers are interested, I’d be happy to create and share a downloadable list of data sources and other resources for this kind of research.  Let me know if you’d find that useful.

Idaho is waiting. . .

The Boise Convention and Visitors’ Bureau recently commissioned a video about Boise:

When I first saw it posted by a friend on Facebook, I commented, “This has not been my experience of Boise.”  The response was basically, “You should get out more.”

Ah, I would. . . if only I could afford skiing, snowboarding, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, a nice road bike, hanging out in wine bars. . .or even tickets to cultural or athletic events.  (A bit of good news: the Boise Art Museum is excellent and affordable, and BSU faculty have been admitted free for the past couple of years.)

But the truth is, even as a professor, I can’t.  (Spoiler alert: My neighborhood and its environs aren’t featured anywhere in that video.)

I joined the professoriate not just because I love ideas and teaching, but because I had seen the comfortable lives my undergraduate professors led, and the relatively comfortable socioeconomics of my grad school profs.  My parents were high school teachers, and I figured I could take a step up from there.

I know it’s gauche to talk specifics about income, but it’s important here, and my salary is public information anyway, so I’m laying it all out on the table.

My salary is $50,000 a year, plus usually a stipend of $3,000 in recognition of overload work I’ve undertaken (managing the department’s internships), which sounds comfortable, especially in Idaho, where the median household income is $45,500.  In fact, my income is close to the average per capita income in Idaho’s wealthiest enclave, Sun Valley.   And in fact, when you look at the median income numbers on that Wikipedia page, things don’t seem that bad in terms of income inequality.

After taxes and various deductions from my paycheck, I bring home about $31,000.  The basic cost of living for a family of four in Boise is $56,491 per year. (Note: I used that site’s number-cruncher and discovered it calculates the cost of living for a family of two parents and one child to be $49,000, but it doesn’t include student loan payments.) When we moved here, Fang had to become a contractor and freelancer instead of an employee for the primary company he works for; the company cut back his hours, and now, of course, he has to pay self-employment taxes on that lowered income.  He ended up working as the front-desk person in the History department for a couple of months, but he was working almost full-time and bringing home around $600 a month; he decided to find additional freelance work instead.

Fang’s experience with low-wage work in Idaho is not unusual.  Idaho’s wages are the worst in the nation; the Spokesman-Review reports that “The Famous Potatoes state ranks 50th for average annual wage, per-capita income, and for wage increases since 2007. It also has the greatest percentage of minimum-wage workers in America.” Amen to the wage increases; this is my fourth year here, and my salary has increased a whopping 2 percent.

So yes, when I see the video “Boise is Waiting,” I’m thinking it’s waiting for people with far more disposable income than what I have, even though I’m clearly the demographic the video targets: a white, 30-something, culturally literate person, with kids, who has some leisure time.  All those lists that suggest Boise is a great place to live typically only discuss the amenities in a part of Boise that constitutes less than 20 percent of the city’s area. Worse, urban planners here don’t talk about the rest of the city when they write articles about the city’s future; the vast majority of us, those who live in unfashionable neighborhoods, are largely invisible in city boosterism.

I shared my concerns with another junior faculty member at Boise State, and ze confessed ze had to go into forbearance because ze couldn’t pay hir student loans. Worse, ze has a serious, costly medical condition that isn’t adequately covered by the state employee insurance plan. Last year, Fang and I spent more than $10,000 on healthcare costs—only a small part of that total constitutes pre-tax employer-subsidized premiums—and we’re pretty healthy.

It’s not just junior faculty thusly challenged: I have a full professor colleague who can’t afford any internet but dial-up because hir partner can’t find a job—and hir partner doesn’t qualify for benefits at the university because theirs is not a “traditional” marriage. To use the iPad the university gave hir, my colleague has to go to McDonald’s to use the wifi.

I had to explain to a classified employee on campus today, someone new to higher ed, that while faculty spend our summers undertaking research and writing, which is required for our jobs, we don’t actually get paid for those three months.  She looked at me as if I was crazy.  Maybe I am.

It’s not as if the state and university don’t have the funds to compensate faculty appropriately.  Like every other university, we have a recent proliferation of pricey vice presidents. Plus, look at these NCAA stats from USA Today: In 2012, Boise State spent $11 million in state appropriations and student tuition on athletics.  Bonus: even with all this money, athletics doesn’t break even at Boise State, with a shortfall in 2012 of $1 million.

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As you can imagine, it’s pretty demoralizing, especially considering we faculty are always hearing about how important it is for academic programs to be self-supporting.

It’s not just hurting Fang and me, of course; we send our kid to school in a state that ranks 50th in per-pupil spending. We’re definitely seeing the effects of that—and not just academically. Today, when I dropped the boy off at school, because it was 20°F or above (it was 21°), the kids had to stay outside.  That’s school district policy, and our school has decided not to institute a more compassionate policy, even though children don’t thermoregulate well, and after a few minutes on the playground, the children become wan kidsicles. I’m guessing this decision to keep the kids outside stems partly from the school’s and district’s insufficient funds to hire child-minders for densely populated indoor play.

And yes, I understand these are all First World problems, and I’m luckier than most. (After all, I won the tenure-track lottery after only five years on the job market. And no, I’m not being sarcastic when I say that.) Still, within the U.S. and academic context, these remain problems that need to be addressed. We’re not just hurting faculty and students; we’re causing long-term damage to the state’s culture and economy.

But I’m confounded at the particular perfect storm of politics and culture that has engendered the situation here in Idaho.  Lots of people are hurting, in the academy and beyond.  Today I’m depressed because it’s the first day of the state’s legislative session, and I don’t expect anything to change this year.

Comment Zen

I know some of my readers are going to have anecdotes of being outside at colder temperatures (as do I), and stories of working for lower wages (as have I), and tales of their partners struggling to find meaningful or reasonably remunerated work (waves hand). I, too, have adjuncted, and I, too, have worked with my hands and body, and I know first-hand the financial struggles of contingent academic labor and minimum-wage work. I sympathize—nay, empathize—with all these experiences. I read the higher-ed horror stories on blogs and in IHE and the Chronicle.

Some who read this will undoubtedly call me a complainer, but I offer up this information in the spirit of critique and hope that people will realize the myths they cling to—that there’s a low cost of living in Idaho, and that the BSU football team generates revenue, for example—are in need of some serious reappraisal.  We must reconsider where we’re putting our resources.

If you leave a comment, then, I’d like to hear not just how well I have it relative to others—I already know that, and I’m grateful for what I do have, though I also know things could be much, much better for me and for others.  Rather, I’d like to hear your experiences, particularly similar ones, and ideas for better investing our resources in Idaho and elsewhere.

Some serious Dorothy Wordsworth shit


To make it clear that Lucas is not their cause, Fang and I try to explain our occasional bouts of depression to him as “bad brain chemicals.”

It’s been a week of bad brain chemicals for me, with the situation becoming critical on Friday, Saturday, and today. I alternated rest with long walks, conversation with inner monologues. These things usually help, but the bad chemicals persisted.

A revelation startled me from my nap this afternoon; I fetched the pill bottle from the bathroom and realized I had accidentally consolidated two different kinds of visually similar pills into the same bottle.  I typed the imprint number of one of them into a web-based pill identifier and realized I’d been taking an anti-nausea drug (prescribed to me during my epic bout with pneumonia early this year) instead of an antidepressant.  Worse, the anti-nausea pills tempered the first and most obvious withdrawal symptom I experience when I forget to take an antidepressant: nausea.

I popped a generic Prozac into my mouth at 3 p.m. today, my first dose in two weeks.


Tonight I began reading, for the first time—I begin teaching it in my history survey tomorrow—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale.  Ulrich interprets the life of Martha Ballard, a New England midwife who kept a journal from 1789 to 1812.  Ulrich uses additional sources to enrich and extrapolate from Ballard’s journal.

It’s one thing, I imagine, to read Ulrich’s book, and Ballard’s entries quoted within it, when one is healthy.

It’s another experience entirely when one is ill.  I’ve been feeling quiet gratitude all evening for the accident of being born into an era of antibiotics, vaccines, and—yes—pharmacological mental health care.


Ballard’s diary features an extensive cast of characters, but we only ever get fleeting glimpses of them. Undoubtedly Ballard knew her neighbors well—she delivered more than 800 of their children—but I can’t claim the same about my own neighborhood.  A casual 21st-century reader of Ballard’s diary probably learns more about her neighbors than I know of mine.


One of the things I worried about when I first started taking antidepressants more than a dozen years ago was that the remnant darknesses in my brain were the source of my creative writing.  I worried that if I messed with the serotonin bouncing between receptors, I’d be disinclined to write.  My therapist poo-pooed this fear.

But I was correct.  My creative output dropped immediately and precipitously when I started taking the pills.

I’m amused, therefore, that despite the irritability and impaired function that marked the past several days, while I’ve been off my prescription my brain has, unbidden by any conscious desire on my part, been formulating scraps of poetry, little scenes, and character sketches.


When alienated suburbanites discover their neighbors have committed some horrifying crime, a common response is, “but he seemed like such a nice man, quiet. . .kept to himself.”  If such were the case with one of my neighbors—he keeps to himself, so I don’t know his name, but let’s go with John—my reaction would be different.

Perhaps: He seemed like such a fastidious man. Not only did he mow his lawn more than once each week, but he used a leaf blower to chase off any stray cut blades that hid in the monotonous green expanse.  When he finally committed to the potential messiness of a narrow garden along the foundation of the house, he spent four days arranging and rearranging topiary and potted ornamental grasses before planting them in the completely level ground.

It would be easy to dismiss him, I suppose, as a shallow suburbanite.  After all, John looks the part; at a glance, he reminds me of one of the brunette men Fang found interchangeable on Battlestar Gallactica. And his choice of plantings is predictable.

Still, I’m sure the other neighbors appreciate his zen-like dedication to removing the tiniest weeds from the sidewalk cracks, his careful stacking of gray pavers to create a tiny retaining wall at the corner of his yard.

I pretend that because of my generosity of interpretation—John’s behavior is zen, not obsessive-compulsive; he is fastidious rather than shallow—he looks across the street at our yard, shakes his head, and instead of calling our lawn—uneven in grass color, species, and length, and bordered by an untamed profusion of perennials of questionable appeal—trashy, he mutters, That is some serious Dorothy Wordsworth shit.

On professional development

In my post earlier this week, I wrote,

Recently, my university revised its general ed requirements, and in order for a course to count toward those requirements, we had to send department faculty to a course design institute to ensure the courses met university-wide learning outcomes. I was actually fine with that, as we were allowed to be pretty damn vague about what would go on in each section of a course–e.g., “assessments may include, but are not limited to, essays, exams, and group presentations.”

Jonathan Rees commented,

I find mandatory administration-imposed course design institutes absolutely terrifying. You’re the expert on how to design a successful history course, not some “learning scientist” or, even worse, a Deanlet. Professors are trained professionals. We should be allowed to do our jobs however we see fit. Allowing vagueness is just the first salvo in a campaign that will end with complete deprofessionalization if all of us aren’t careful.

I have mixed feelings about mandatory professional development exercises around teaching.

On the one hand, I certainly don’t like being told I have to go to them.  Like most faculty, I chafe at the idea of any kind of mandatory “training,” especially since so much training at universities leaves something to be desired.

On the other hand, having worked in a teaching center, I definitely see the utility to some faculty of course design tutorials.  While those of us in the humanities usually have had plenty of hands-on experience in teaching and even course development by the time we hit the post-Ph.D. adjunct or tenure-track (I designed and taught my first course in 1999, and started on the tenure track in 2010, for example), faculty in the sciences often have had no experience in the classroom.  Junior science faculty often arrive on campus after years of lab- or fieldwork, and they were hired—at least at universities with particular kinds of aspirations—because of their research experience.  At UC Davis, I regularly had tenure-line science faculty approach me in their third quarter (after two quarters of course releases), asking me how to teach all kinds of courses or manage TAs.  Our semester-long Seminar in College Teaching was always packed with science grad students and postdocs.

However, we weren’t reaching all the science faculty with our various offerings, and I know there were many who would have benefited from even the briefest orientation to college teaching.

So do I think teaching workshops should be required for some faculty?  Yes.  (In an ideal world, departments would be the ones insisting on such training and ensuring people are teaching well.) I think faculty who haven’t acquired teaching experience during grad school, when they have access to mentors or supervisors, need to be introduced to basic concepts in teaching, such as the relationship of course objectives to activities to assessment. Should the university be deciding for faculty what those objectives, activities, and assessments should be?  No.  But from talking to new science faculty and interviewing their undergraduate students (at the faculty’s request), I learned there needs to be some kind of professional development for teaching.  I’m sure there are some social scientists, artists, and humanists who have also managed to dodge teaching prior to being hired to a full-time job.

I’ve noticed that at many campuses, there’s a good deal of ill will toward the “center for excellence in teaching and learning” or whatever the fashionable name for such centers is these days.  I think a lot of that ill will comes from the teaching centers colluding with administrators on professional development opportunities that are mandatory for all faculty regardless of the individual instructors’ experiences.  At UC Davis, we tried to steer clear of such mandates, and we tried our damnedest to make ourselves useful to the local faculty rather than just preach best practices based on what we read in some journal.

A survey of what?

As my university goes through program prioritization and redesigns its undergraduate core curriculum to feature all the right buzzwords, I’m once again reminded of how broken the history survey course has become.  I’m not the first to say it, nor will I be the last, but the thought woke me up again at 3:30 this morning, so I’m writing about it here.

English departments figured this out a while ago.  They wrestled with the canon, yet–in my experience at least, as an English major and a former lit and comp instructor–they settled on a wide variety of representative works in their lower-division survey courses rather than pretending to cover literature comprehensively. In the broadest surveys that serve more non-majors than majors, there’s some poetry, drama (often Shakespeare), short fiction, and a novel or two.  Maybe some creative nonfiction.  But no one is pretending to offer any kind of coverage beyond “hey, here are some samples of a few genres that have proven particularly significant over time.”

I’m noticing the opposite is the case in many history surveys.  Textbooks purport to share a comprehensive narrative. Publishers’ supplementary materials (ugh) offer quizzes that are more about fact acquisition than any skills listed on the top half of Bloom’s taxonomy–as if the point of the history survey is to ensure students know what caused the Panic of 1837, or what happened during the Salem witch trials, or that Gettysburg is often seen as the turning point of the Civil War.

Recently, my university revised its general ed requirements, and in order for a course to count toward those requirements, we had to send department faculty to a course design institute to ensure the courses met university-wide learning outcomes. I was actually fine with that, as we were allowed to be pretty damn vague about what would go on in each section of a course–e.g., “assessments may include, but are not limited to, essays, exams, and group presentations.” Recently, however, the people who run that program appear to have added another wrinkle: formative and summative assessments.  Quantitative formative and summative assessments, across course sections.

And so one of my colleagues took the initiative to develop a proposed assessment for one of the survey courses we moved into the new core.  It was a 10- to 15-question quiz that asked students to demonstrate some basic knowledge that any eighth grader who has just finished a (very) traditional Western Civ class should be able to pass.  The idea is that students would take the exact same multiple-choice quiz at the beginning and end of the course, and voilà! We can measure and document learning with the quiz scores.


The gap between the university’s assumptions about teaching and what I think works grows ever wider.

I’m teaching the first “half” (Pleistocene to 1877) of the U.S. history survey this semester.  It’s my third time teaching this course, and I struggle with it every damn time, particularly in the first six weeks or so of the semester, when I’m trying to adjust students’ expectations of what a history course is and their understanding of what a history course does.

The course schedule looks fairly traditional: readings from a textbook (I know, I know–I vacillate on this; I didn’t use one last time, and next time I’ll drop it again), punctuated by fairly formal writing assignments, a midterm (an in-class essay), and final exam (also an essay).  But a glance at the syllabus does not reveal at all–at all–what happens in class.

So, for example, for yesterday’s class, we read Chapter 5 of Foner’s Give Me Liberty.  It’s dry, it’s boring–think Stamp Act–but when I ask students here what most interests them about history, the Revolutionary War ranks right up there with the Civil War, so I feel compelled to give a nominal nod toward coverage of the subject.

Once we were in class, I asked students to summarize what the colonists who were protesting the various British acts wanted.  After the students discussed this briefly in small groups, we made a list on the board.

I passed out a press release on the current-day Tea Party’s platform, and I thumbnailed for students Tea Party demographics.

I then asked students if today’s Tea Party adherents, who claim the Revolutionary era as their intellectual and political legacy, are actually in line, ideologically speaking, with the original Tea Party.  My students agreed that, at first glance and even with some reflection, they did, if we’re looking at their political planks. We also discussed what today’s Tea Partiers find attractive, politically and culturally, in that historical moment, at least as it’s traditionally chronicled.

But, as I said to my students, “If there’s one thing you take away from this course, I hope it’s that when someone is drawing conclusions from history for political ends, you say, ‘It’s actually more complicated than that.'”

So, my next question for students was, “How does today’s Tea Party perceive and use Revolutionary-era history? And why does it matter how Tea Partiers represent history?”

We watched two videos that feature history as told by Tea Party darlings Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck:


The first is an easy one for students to analyze, Colbert’s enjoyable theatrics aside: Sarah Palin is a big Second Amendment rights advocate, and she tells a popular story in a way that emphasizes her concerns and inflates their importance.

The second is more complicated. Glenn Beck talking about black history in early America? And taking a vaguely art historical approach?  What the hell rabbit hole have we fallen into here? On the surface, he’s asking for the same thing Clarence Walker does in Mongrel Nation, which we read last week: that Africans and African Americans be fully integrated into our stories of the founding of the American republic because it will change how we understand American history and race relations.

I encourage you to watch the video; it’s a very rich text that, on close reading, yields all kinds of insights into the hopes and fears–but mostly fears–of the Tea Party.

The first thing I highlight for students is that Beck is arguing for less emphasis on slavery as central to the black experience in the United States. As he explicates various paintings, Beck (along with everyone’s favorite early American historian, David Barton) names the African-American men depicted in them, then asks why we focus so much on slavery in telling the stories of black lives.

(Hint: Every single African American Beck names in that clip was a slave.)

My students and I talked about why Beck wants to downplay slavery, why Beck might believe the Tea Party should take an interest in black history at this time, and why this black history instead of the history Beck dismisses rather casually (Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement). It was a lively discussion among students from a broad political spectrum.

If this course were in the university’s new core–which many are arguing it should be, if only to keep enrollment up–how would we assess these students, formatively and summatively, in a quantitative way?  Hell, I struggle to assess such learning qualitatively.

I feel just as some of us were beginning to push back successfully against the content coverage model that keeps student learning low–very low–on Bloom’s taxonomy, university administrators and the state board of ed (which, alas, controls all public education in Idaho, not just K-12) once again demonstrate they have no idea whatsoever what the humanities are or what they do for students.

Idaho in particular needs students who can engage in informed, reflective civic discourse, not students who can parrot information from a textbook or lecture. (Our statehouse is filled with party-line parrots.) My students would do miserably on formative and summative assessments like those proposed by my colleague.  But which kind of person would you rather have participating in our democracy–a student who shows one-semester improvement on a quiz, or one who can thoughtfully evaluate politicians’ and pundits’ motivations for deploying history in political discourse?