- downwithtyranny's diary :: ::
February 28, 2007
Human Subjects Review Boards gone mad?
I ran into this kind of ridiculousness in grad school as well. The thing is, my study was massively attentive to research ethics, and I went far beyond whatever ethical requirements a review board might make, because the theoretical frame of my study took a strong position against the exploitation that comes with colonialist thinking, even with scholarly "territories."
But even so, I ducked out on the Human Subjects review with one quick trick. It may not have been the best solution, and, as the absurd issues pointed up in the article below highlight, the Review Board probably could have still taken an insanity pill and come after me.
Basically, even though I was technically conducting an ethnography in cyberspace, I chose to ONLY collect texts that would have otherwise existed in the public domain, a linguistic fiction that worked because communication in cyberspace domains is a hybrid of both published texts and live communication.
The article below accurately points out, such restrictions certainly limit the kinds of findings that can come from any research. To my end, I still did "informal" research, and just removed it from any connection to my formal data-gathering process, through forming personal and private relationships in the group I was studying, but keeping them out of the study. But they surely did inform my larger breadth of knowledge on my subject.
Another reason why this is just nuts occurred to me when working back in the field of journalism the last five years.
Since the journalistic enterprise is not constructed as formal "research," journalists can do many more things to gather information from human subjects than academic researchers can. How does this affect how knowledge is made, how truths are constructed, when academic censorship becomes a major influence in the social construction of that knowledge?
Journalists operate with a Jeffersonian epistemology of sorts, where the supposedly free flow of ideas helps them arrive at the best-guess contingent truths. Yet, by default, because academics stay in their disciplinary walled gardens and rarely participate in public knowledge-making as public intellectuals, the journalistic research methods construct more of our common truths than anything else, simply because academics have ceded the Commons to them.
Meanwhile, Human Subjects Review Boards seem to have morphed into Cotton Mather and the good folk of Salem, Massachusetts, seeing evil lurking in every nuance and human interaction, every specter, every hint of a specter.
And do you know why? It's because I've been coming into their homes in the night, during their dreams, and pinching them, over and over. Pinch, pinch.
As Ethics Panels Expand Grip, No Field Is Off Limits
By PATRICIA COHEN
Photo by Marko Georgiev for The New York Times
The panels, known as Institutional Review Boards, are required at all institutions that receive research money from any one of 17 federal agencies and are charged with signing off in advance on almost all studies that involve a living person, whether a former president of the United States or your own grandmother. This results, critics say, in unnecessary and sometimes absurd demands.
Among the incidents cited in recent report by the American Association of University Professors are a review board asking a linguist studying a preliterate tribe to “have the subjects read and sign a consent form,” and a board forbidding a white student studying ethnicity to interview African-American Ph.D. students “because it might be traumatic for them.”
“It drives historians crazy,” said Joshua Freeman, the director of the City University’s graduate history program. “It’s a medical model, it’s inappropriate and ignorant.” One student currently waiting for a board to approve his study of a strike in the 1970s, Mr. Freeman said, had to submit a list of questions he was going to ask workers and union officials, file signed consent forms, describe the locked location where he would keep all his notes, take a test to certify he understood the standards.
Review boards, first created in 1974, were initially restricted to biomedical research. In 1981 the regulations were revised to cover all research that involves “human subjects” and is designed to contribute to “generalizable knowledge.”
Yet precisely how to interpret these rules has largely been left to each review board — 5,564 in all. And while the regulations apply specifically to research that gets federal dollars, many colleges use Institutional Review Boards to monitor all research, no matter where the funds come from. This system of helter-skelter enforcement, critics say, has no meaningful oversight and no appeal process.
But to many faculty and graduate students, review boards are like a blister that gets worse with every step. Those outside of the hard sciences say the legitimate concerns over ethics and safety are largely irrelevant to most of their research.
According to a stack of reports, symposiums and studies by academic associations and scholars, the system’s “mission creep” is having a pernicious and widespread effect on humanities and social science research. Legal scholars also argue the boards violate the First Amendment.
The growing number of complaints in recent years apparently stems from an overall crackdown after a series of medical-research blunders beginning with the death of an 18-year-old in a gene-therapy trial at the University of Pennsylvania in 1999.
In the past year, discussions about what some call the “I.R.B. wars” have sprung up in specialty publications like The Chronicle of Higher Education, conferences, scholarly journals and blogs. Although research proposals are rarely rejected, scholars argue that the requested changes in the wording of questions and consent forms can alter the nature of the study and scare off participants.
Bernadette McCauley, a historian at Hunter College, said she ran into trouble a couple of years ago when she tried to help students working with the Museum of the City of New York on an exhibition about Washington Heights. She asked if a few nuns who had grown up in that neighborhood and whom she knew from her research would talk to the students. And that, Ms. McCauley said, was “when things went haywire.”
The review board discovered the request and lambasted Ms. McCauley for failing to consult with it, she said. The board also demanded proof that previous research for a completed book did not use any archival material involving living people and banned her from doing any research.
Michael Arena, the director of communications at City University, said in an e-mail message that Ms. McCauley initially refused to send in a “brief description” of her research so that board members could determine whether federal regulations covered her work. Ms. McCauley hired a lawyer and after six months of negotiations, the board agreed that her research was exempt.
Ms. Dougherty, an associate professor of communications at Missouri, said review boards were needed because “historically, social science has done things abhorrent to human subjects.” Unfortunately the current process “obliterates a lot of research,” she said, because untenured faculty and graduate students on a timetable cannot afford to spend months waiting for approval. So, for example, “instead of talking to people who are victims of violence, you might look at newspaper articles,” she said, echoing a common complaint that the requirements cause academics to steer clear of controversial topics. Research decisions “should be guided by science,” she said, “not whether or not it’s going to get through the board.”
Ms. Dougherty said she was willing to speak openly, unlike many graduate students and faculty, because she had tenure.
Mr. Schwetz said there was no chance that some subjects like oral history and journalism would be altogether excluded from review, as some academic organizations have urged. “If we were just to say, ‘Assume you don’t have to take them before an I.R.B.,’ I think we would regret that,” he said. But he said the new guidelines “will give a lot of examples and will give more guidance on how to make the decision on what is research and what is not.”
Some critics fault the universities, placing blame either with overzealous panels or with university administrations that have not done enough to differentiate between research that receives federal money and research that does not.
Mr. Freeman of City University said that within the humanities “most faculty members don’t know these rules exist.” He added, “If they in fact followed these rules, the whole I.R.B. system would grind to a halt.”
February 28, 2007 in Academia, Art, Books, Feminisms, Games, Journalism, Literacies, Oral Cultures, Postmodernity, Public Intellectuals, Research Access, Science, Service Learning, Stories of Favorite Teachers, Teaching, Writing 101 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
December 14, 2006
Radical Geological Survey Scientists?
Those USGS folks. Wild-eyed nutjobs, you know? Keen on rocks and all that. Earthquakes, faultlines, platetechtonics. Oh yeah, and probably minerals, fossil fuels, stuff like that. Earth scientists. Gotta keep a tight rein on them.
What do they do at those geology conferences, anyway? Plot sedition with rocks? Don't they need physicists do that?
Election? What election?
Published on Thursday, December 14, 2006 by the Associated Press
Scientists Worried about Bush Clampdown at Publication
by John Heilprin
The U.S. administration is clamping down on scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, who study everything from caribou mating to global warming, subjecting them to controls on research that might go against official policy.
New rules require screening of all facts and interpretations by agency scientists. The rules apply to all scientific papers and other public documents, even minor reports or prepared talks, documents show.
Top officials at the Interior Department's scientific arm said the rules only standardize what scientists must do to ensure the quality of their work and give a heads-up to the agency's public relations staff.
"This is not about stifling or suppressing our science, or politicizing our science in any way," Barbara Wainman, the agency's director of communications, said Wednesday.
"I don't have approval authority. What it was designed to do is to improve our product flow."
Some agency scientists, who until now have felt free from any political interference, worry the objectivity of their work could be compromised.
"I feel as though we've got someone looking over our shoulder at every damn thing we do," said Jim Estes, an internationally recognized marine biologist who works for the geological unit.
"And to me that's a very scary thing. I worry that it borders on censorship."
The changes amount to an overhaul of commonly accepted procedures for all scientists, not just those in government, based on anonymous peer reviews. In that process, scientists critique each other's findings to determine whether they deserve to be published.
From now on, USGS supervisors will demand to see the comments of outside peer reviewers' as well any exchanges between the scientists who are seeking to publish their findings and the reviewers.
President George W. Bush's administration has been criticized for scientific integrity issues. In 2002, the USGS was forced to reverse course after warning oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would harm the Porcupine caribou herd. One week later a new report followed, this time saying the caribou would not be affected.
November 09, 2006
Having some fun with Stanley Fish on the NYTimes Blog
I must confess: an evil streak came over me just the other day. Maybe it was all those planets in Scorpio, Mars in Scorpio, and then Mercury rolling retrograde.
The real reason is that the New York Times left the barn door open and the cows got out.
I am vehemently boycotting all the content on TimesSelect, you see. I hate that firewall and the price, and what it does to the quality of the debate in the public commons of the Internet. I ranted on this topic a bit in a recent post on my other blog. I mean, truly, I can't live without Frank Rich, and if I could have Frank, I'd want Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert too. My life is messed up without them in it, and it is all the Times's fault.
So, the Times offered me a free week to play in the TimesSelect playground, that walled garden that I find to be a purely evil place where Rich and Herbert and Krugman are being held prisoner, and there's no one to rescue them. (Thank goodness they didn't trap David Pogue, or I might have to storm the castle!)
I knew I should never have entered the rich kids' private playground, but I couldn't resist. And wouldn't you know it, they're keeping Stanley Fish in there too! You know, the noted academic and dean and distinguished professor? His provocative writings have shaped a great deal of recent theory in academia. He's associated with reader-response theories, interpretive communities, and anti-foundationalism.
Which is why, in private company, over a few beers, I like to pick on him. That's a safe thing to do, usually. Anti-foundationalism is such an easy target, sort of like the Star Trek time-travel paradoxes. Just a few quick moves, and everyone is all tied in knots.
Turns out there are some other academics, or former academics, or academic defenders, playing in TimesSelect too, either because they got a free week like I did, or maybe they like that elitist feeling of being a paid subscriber to TimesSelect. Pooh on that. E-vile, I'm telling you. TimesSelect is a sign of the apocalypse!
So it doesn't do me much good to quote too much of Stanley Fish's blog post, "Always Academicize," spinning off Frederick Jameson's "Always Historicize" maxim of a number of years ago. There's really no comparison between the two, because Jameson was making an academic argument, and Fish is just throwing out a quick hit blog post to the pseudo-masses behind the TimesSelect firewall.
He's also jumping off another post he did on a related topic in October, which I guess generated a bunch of sound and fury from pointy-headed people in the comments area as well. I wouldn't know about that, because technically, TimesSelect wasn't free to me at the time he wrote that piece, so I shouldn't be responsible for taking those argument threads into full consideration anyway, right?
Right now there are 104 comments on this Stanley Fish post. My anonymous comment is #39. I posted semi-anonymously because grad school conditioned me well. I figured I'd come off as a Fish dilettante, and some real Fish scholar would show up and wipe the floor with me.
Looks like some of them showed up and half-way liked what I had to say, tho. I had too much fun writing it to let the little piece rot in some secret TimeSelect walled garden blog comments field, so I've got a wild hair to share it, along with a few of the other commenters I admire. I also save it here for no other reason than because I don't know when my free week runs out, and I won't be able to access my own writing. Oh dear.
It raises some fun issues to think about, even if there is no way I can take Fish's thesis in the main blog text seriously, ever. It's just absurd, on the face of it. But that's OK, because there isn't a text in this class.
I'll just quote a bit of it here, to give you the gist, and then put my rant down below. I mean, how often do you get to do an academic-style flame on Stanley Fish, you know? It was just too much fun, and maybe I didn't embarrass myself after all.
Ah hell, I probably did.
November 5, 2006, 10:00 pm
By Stanley Fish
In my post of October 22, I argued that college and university teachers should not take it upon themselves to cure the ills of the world, but should instead do the job they are trained and paid to do — the job, first, of introducing students to areas of knowledge they were not acquainted with before, and second, of equipping those same students with the analytic skills that will enable them to assess and evaluate the materials they are asked to read. I made the further point that the moment an instructor tries to do something more, he or she has crossed a line and ventured into territory that belongs properly to some other enterprise. It doesn’t matter whether the line is crossed by someone on the left who wants to enroll students in a progressive agenda dedicated to the redress of injustice, or by someone on the right who is concerned that students be taught to be patriotic, God-fearing, family oriented, and respectful of tradition. To be sure, the redress of injustice and the inculcation of patriotic and family values are worthy activities, but they are not academic activities, and they are not activities academics have the credentials to perform. Academics are not legislators, or political leaders or therapists or ministers; they are academics, and as academics they have contracted to do only one thing – to discuss whatever subject is introduced into the classroom in academic terms.
And what are academic terms? The list is long and includes looking into a history of a topic, studying and mastering the technical language that comes along with it, examining the controversies that have grown up around it and surveying the most significant contributions to its development. The list of academic terms would, however, not include coming to a resolution about a political or moral issue raised by the materials under discussion. This does not mean that political and moral questions are banned from the classroom, but that they should be regarded as objects of study – Where did they come from? How have they been answered at different times in different cultures? – rather than as invitations to take a vote (that’s what you do at the ballot box) or make a life decision (that’s what you do in the private recesses of your heart). No subject is out of bounds; what is out of bounds is using it as an occasion to move students in some political or ideological direction. The imperative, as I said in the earlier post, is to “academicize” the subject; that is, to remove it from whatever context of urgency it inhabits in the world and insert it into a context of academic urgency where the question being asked is not “What is the right thing to do?” but “Is this account of the matter attentive to the complexity of the issue?” [emphasis mine...cb]
Those who commented on the post raised many sharp and helpful objections to it. Some of those objections give me the opportunity to make my point again. I happily plead guilty to not asking the question Dr. James Cook would have me (and all teachers) ask when a “social/political” issue comes up in the classroom: “Does silence contribute to the victory of people who espouse values akin to those of Hitler?” The question confuses and conflates political silence – you decide not to speak up as a citizen against what you consider an outrage – with an academic silence that is neither culpable nor praiseworthy because it goes without saying if you understand the nature of academic work. When, as a teacher, you are silent about your ethical and political commitments, you are not making a positive choice – Should I or shouldn’t I? is not an academic question — but simply performing your pedagogical role.
In fact, my stance is aggressively ethical: it demands that we take the ethics of the classroom – everything that belongs to pedagogy including preparation, giving assignments, grading papers, keeping discussions on point, etc.– seriously and not allow the scene of instruction to become a scene of indoctrination. Were the ethics appropriate to the classroom no different from the ethics appropriate to the arena of political action or the ethics of democratic citizenry, there would be nothing distinctive about the academic experience – it would be politics by another name – and no reason for anyone to support the enterprise. For if its politics you want, you might as well get right to it and skip the entire academic apparatus entirely.
My argument, then, rests on the conviction that academic work is unlike other forms of work — if it isn’t, it has no shape of its own and no claim on our attention — and that fidelity to it demands respect for its difference, a difference defined by its removal from the decision-making pressures of the larger world. And that finally may be the point underlying the objections to my position: in a world so beset with problems, some of my critics seem to be asking, is it either possible or desirable to remain aloof from the fray? Thus Fred Moramarco declares, “It’s clearly not easy to ‘just do your job’ where genocide, aggression, moral superiority, and hatred of opposing views are ordinary, everyday occurrences.”
Of course, there will also be excitement in your class if you give it over to a discussion of what your students think about this or that hot-button issue. Lots of people will talk, and the talk will be heated, and everyone will go away feeling satisfied. But the satisfaction will be temporary as will its effects, for the long-lasting pleasure of learning something will have been sacrificed to the ephemeral pleasure of exchanging uninformed opinions. You can glorify that exercise in self-indulgence by calling it interactive learning or engaged learning or ethical learning, but in the end it will be nothing more than a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
And here is my response to Dr Fish:
(I call him Mr. Fish in my post because that was NYTimes style, or appeared so. Later I realized I was speaking in affected Times Stylebook style, and he should have been Dr. My apologies, Dr. Fish.)
And here are a few pithy and valuable bits that were also posted by other commenters, which will soon be lost to posterity forever so long as TimesSelect is restricted access.
You know, as I go through and re-read these (and you will see a theme emerging, as I picked along my favorite angle), I was just struck by how many smart people are out there running around, thinking wonderful thoughts, and expressing them with eloquence and creativity, with no apparent reward or reason, just for the joy of doing it (I am struck too by De Certeau's "la perrique," "the wig," which I've written of before).
But most importantly, what I see in the comments below, what stirs me about the comments below to the point that I want to SAVE these words, these thoughts, this dialogue, is that they are thrashing around with an idea that is about as close to first principles (or foundations) as things get for committed teachers and scholars, people who are driven to do this work for reasons other than professional and career advancement. People who are passionately "other-directed" and can't live in a world where these humanistic (and to some extent Enlightenment) values cut through artificial surfaces and spin, through disciplinary boundaries and institutionalized social constructs, not because there's a capital "T" Truth we're seeking, but precisely because there isn't, and it's still a Grail Quest anyway.
Most of the commenters below are so riled up (like myself as well) because they're really close to where Dr. Fish is coming from, but his conclusions seem so utterly wrong for our common starting point that it appears he is deliberately ignoring the fact that he's doing the very thing he's condemning, out of a lack of self-reflexivity. It feels almost maddening.
But the comments below say it far better than I could. I'll put my favorite bits in bold. More than anything, I love the passion with which they speak. We're drinking this Kool-Aid together, we all are. Kumbayah.
November 9, 2006 in Academia, Art, Books, Feminisms, Fiction, Games, Literacies, Postmodernity, Public Intellectuals, Research Access, Science, Service Learning, Stories of Favorite Teachers, Teaching, Voice | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
September 18, 2006
Breaking the silence on discrimination against women in academic science and engineering
An interesting report out today from the National Academies, and it's a terrific counter to that odious garbage spewed by the former president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers. (Hey, Derek Bok's been doing some cool things since coming in in the interim! I didn't get a chance to post about it, but it is worth watching, his getting rid of Harvard's Early Admissions bias to the hoity toity set)
I'll offer the National Academies Press a kick in the slats for charging $44 to get a copy of the super secret elitist report, however!
Such a radical idea, criticizing the "depriving the U.S. of an important source of talent." I went to an engineering school and have taught at what was largely an engineering school, and I know my fellow women colleagues in science and engineering faced a TON of discrimination, and they told me so many horror stories.
At least with my own specialty in technology and interactive media, things are far more open and interdisciplinary than in the more established fields, even if women still are vastly underrepresented. I'm afraid to admit too much of that is self-selection, even with prominent women represented in so many areas of cybercultures, from Mena Trott to Donna Haraway.
But since being outside of that environment, an environment that at least paid lip service to the idea that talent should be rewarded, used as a valuable resource, I've been out in the corporate world, where the Peter Principle is in active force and people who "know too much" are considered trouble-makers who run the risk of commiting the cardinal sin, actually knowing more in their areas of specialty than their bosses do (the horror, the horror!). So interesting it is, to watch a reverse merit system in force, one that seeks out and tries to promote those who strive for greater and greater mediocrity.
Institutions Hinder Female Academics, Panel Says
Women in science and engineering are hindered not by lack of ability but by bias and “outmoded institutional structures” in academia, an expert panel reported today.
The panel, convened by the National Academy of Sciences, said that in an era of global competition the nation could not afford “such underuse of precious human capital.” Among other steps, the report recommends that universities alter procedures for hiring and evaluation, change typical timetables for tenure and promotion, and provide more support for working parents.
“Unless a deeper talent pool is tapped, it will be difficult for our country to maintain our competitiveness in science and engineering,” the panel’s chairwoman, Donna E. Shalala, said at a news conference at which the report, “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering,” was made public.
Dr. Shalala, a former secretary of health and human services who is now president of the University of Miami, said part of the problem was insufficient effort on the part of college and university administrators. “Many of us spend more energy enforcing the law on our sports teams than we have in have in our academic halls,” she said.
The panel dismissed the idea, notably advanced last year by Lawrence H. Summers, then the president of Harvard, that the relative dearth of women in the upper ranks of science might be the result of “innate” intellectual deficiencies, particularly in mathematics.
If there are any cognitive differences, the report says, they are small and irrelevant. In any event, the much-studied gender gap in math performance has all but disappeared as more and more girls enroll in demanding classes. Even among very high achievers, the gap is narrowing, the panelists said.
Nor is the problem a lack of women in the academic pipeline, the report says. Though women leave science and engineering more often than men “at every educational transition” from high school through college professorships, the number of women studying science and engineering has sharply increased at all levels.
For 30 years, the report says, women have earned at least 30 percent of the nation’s doctorates in social and behavioral sciences, and at least 20 percent of the doctorates in life sciences. Yet they appear among full professors in those fields at less than half those levels. Women from minorities are “virtually absent,” it adds.
The report also dismissed other commonly held beliefs — that women are uncompetitive or less productive, that they take too much time off for their families, and so on. Their real problems, it says, are unconscious but pervasive bias, “arbitrary and subjective” evaluation processes, and a work environment in which “anyone lacking the work and family support traditionally provided by a ‘wife’ is at a serious disadvantage.”
Along with Dr. Shalala, the panel included Elizabeth Spelke, a professor of psychology at Harvard who has long challenged the “innate differences” view, and Ruth Simmons, the president of Brown University, who established a widely praised program for aspiring engineers when she was president of the all-female Smith College.
The report was dedicated to another panelist, Denice Denton, an electrical engineer who until her suicide this summer was chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a forceful advocate for women, gays and minority members in science and engineering.
The 18-member panel had only one man: Robert J. Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. But Dr. Shalala noted that the National Academy of Sciences committee that reviewed the report had 10 men.
August 27, 2006
Are Public Intellectuals finally stepping up?
I've been writing and thinking a lot about the need for public intellectuals as a counter to disciplinary isolationism and specialization, and I went to a terrific Future of the Book session on this topic at USC Annenberg last November, mostly to think and talk about the role of expert blogs and crediblity.
Now the folks at Future of the Book are working on an open peer review process (MediaCommons) that I have been meaning to sit down and write about (and I will), but before I could get to that, I was struck by another thing that could relate to other public intellectuals responding to a vacuum in public policy decisions (and perhaps a trend toward shutting experts and independent research out of public policy decision-making process under the current Bush administration, where scientists are only tolerated if they toe the party line).
This diary on Daily Kos below highlights a new venue for newly-disempowered intellectuals and experts, who have been shut out of administration policy-making duties by career politicians and political appointees, so instead, they are choosing to step up and run their expertise AGAINST politicians. Now isn't that an interesting development?
Our Burden/Our Joy/Our Beloved Country-- Live Jerry McNerney Blog Session Tomorrow
Fri Aug 25, 2006 at 04:18:58 PM PDT
I was up writing today before 6 and by 7 I was on the phone with an incredible American, Jay Fawcett, who is running for Congress in Colorado, in the home district of the odious James Dobson. Jay isn't a politician. He's a pragmatic everyday American-- although we should all be as brilliant as he is-- who retired from the Air Force, after 20 years of service, as a Lt. Colonel in 1998. A couple weeks ago I interviewed Dr. Victoria Wulsin, a public health policy expert running in OH-02 against Mean Jean Schmidt and I was as blown away by her as I was by Jay. But this diary is neither about Victoria nor Jay. It's about Jerry McNerney. But there are several things that these 3 candidates have in common that I want to talk about.
None are politicians. All are experts. All are outside the box, analytic thinkers. If you want a solution to a matter of military policy you go to someone, like Jay Fawcett or like Wes Clark, who has used his brilliant mind sorting it out for decades. You don't go to grubby, slimy political hacks like George Bush, Dick Cheney or Karl Rove who have only thought of the military as something to be avoided and then as something to help enrich themselves and their cronies. If you want to start a discussion about reforming our broken health care system, you turn to a real expert like Vic Wulsin, who led the effort to rebuild Rwanda's health care system, not to someone like Bill Frist who has pushed through "health care" legislation designed primarily to enrich his family (whose medical businesses have made them billionaires-- with a "b"-- since the highly unscrupulous Frist became Bush's chief rubber stamp in the Senate).
And that brings us to Jerry McNerney. If you live in California, there's a good chance you've seen either of the giant wind farms outside of L.A. (near Palm Springs) or San Francisco (near Livermore). Jerry worked on both. A brilliant mathematician, he has become one of the country's recognized experts in wind energy technology. If you want a rational and sustainable energy policy for America's future, do you go to greedy, avaricious oil companies and to their paid harlots-- like McNerney's crooked opponent in CA-11, Dirty Dick Pombo-- or do you go to someone who recognizes the importance of being proactive and coming up with real life solutions?
Congress has been in the hands of corrupt political hacks eager to feather their own nests for too long now. America can't afford it anymore. McNerney, like Wulsin and Fawcett, wants to go to Congress to take on real problems and help solve them.
August 15, 2006
Homeland Security declares an entire state of matter a security risk
Oh, Sean at Cosmic Variance has me ROFLOL at this one. I had to steal this picture, which is just TOO precious!
You know, given the relatively easy shifts between states of matter, could solids and gases be far behind? Could we soon see a day where ALL OF MATTER (but not energy, which, though conserved, is still a more significant phase shift) is listed as a security risk?
But given the extreme sensitivity of "energy" companies (read oil companies), I can imagine that energy may not be far behind, once the threshold of all matter is broken.
Link: Liquid | Cosmic Variance.
... for the first time, the Department of Homeland Security has deemed an entire state of matter to be a national security risk.
April 26, 2006
Marshall McLuhan would like this article
New technology may be changing the human brain
We need to listen to the expert warnings about the potential impact of digital communication on how people think and learn
Monday April 24, 2006
Sometimes the House of Lords throws out speeches so interesting and radical, that you simply cannot imagine them being made in the Commons. One such came this week from the neuro-biologist Susan Greenfield. She asked a question that affects all of us, yet which I have never heard discussed by mainstream politicians: is technology changing our brains?
The context is the clicking, bleeping, flashing world of screens. There has been a change in our environment that is so all-embracing and in a way so banal that we barely notice it. In just a couple of decades, we have slipped away from a culture based essentially on words to one based essentially on images, or pictures. This is probably one of the great shifts in the story of modern humans but we take it almost for granted.
There are the "icons" (a word to dwell on) of the iPod or Windows, those cute and reassuring little pictures that perform the role of Chinese ideograms rather than western culture's words. Then there are the winking corporate mini-logos, which are more familiar to children than national flags or famous authors. Just watch a teenager navigate, with thumbs or fingertips, a world of instructions, suggestions, offers and threats, scrolling through songs, adverts, film clips and software.
The brilliance of Baroness Greenfield's speech is that she wades straight into the dangers posed by this culture. A recent survey of eight-to 18-year-olds, she says, suggests they are spending 6.5 hours a day using electronic media, and multi-tasking (using different devices in parallel) is rocketing. Could this be having an impact on thinking and learning?
She begins by analysing the process of traditional book-reading, which involves following an author through a series of interconnected steps in a logical fashion. We read other narratives and compare them, and so "build up a conceptual framework that enables us to evaluate further journeys... One might argue that this is the basis of education ... It is the building up of a personalised conceptual framework, where we can relate incoming information to what we know already. We can place an isolated fact in a context that gives it significance." Traditional education, she says, enables us to "turn information into knowledge."
Put like that, it is obvious where her worries lie. The flickering up and flashing away again of multimedia images do not allow those connections, and therefore the context, to build up. Instant yuk or wow factors take over. Memory, once built up in a verbal and reading culture, matters less when everything can be summoned at the touch of a button (or, soon, with voice recognition, by merely speaking). In a short attention-span world, fed with pictures, the habit of contemplation and the patient acquisition of knowledge are in retreat.
Is this, perhaps, the source of the hyperactivity and attention deficit malaise now being treated with industrial quantities of Ritalin, Prozac and other drugs to help sustain attention in the classroom? If so, what will these drugs do in turn to the brain? Greenfield points out, in some of the most chilling words heard in the Lords, that "the human brain is exquisitely sensitive to any and every event: we cannot complacently take it as an article of faith that it will remain inviolate, and that consequently human nature and ways of learning and thinking will remain consistent".
While not suggesting a revolt by mere democracies against the corporate power of the IT industries, Greenfield suggests this is an idea that should at least be investigated further. She wants more government funding for the scientists and educators trying to understand the impact of the digital-picture world on how children learn to think - surely a more important area for state-backed research than endless lifestyle or obesity surveys.
Politicians should be seriously concerned. Parliamentary democracy has depended on a citizenry prepared to think logically about policies, to remember promises and to follow arguments. Greenfield's feared world without context is therefore also a world more prone to political illogic and fad. At the memorial service last week for Lord Merlyn-Rees - a politician of integrity and decency - I was surrounded by many great political figures of the 70s and 80s. But I wondered how many of their patiently made arguments would be given house room in the exciting digital wasteland.
Over dinner tonight I was just reading Frederic Jameson's Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (dinnertime is the best time to give books like this the concentration they require, I think). Anyway, historicizing things is his ballywick, and in the introduction to this edition (2003) he notes that this ahistorical disjunctive is a key characteristic of the postmodern, so while some may bemoan it, others may say this is simply a characteristic of our age.
On the other hand, I think the topic needs a great deal more debate, especially since it was an issue I took on in my dissertation, an attempt to defend (and enact) nonlinear arguments (and narratives) as a more DEEPLY CONTEXTUALIZED experience than linear argument or narrative.
That claim is still not definitively proven, but I'd hoped I opened the door to different ways to thinking about it. My basic concept was that nonlinear thinking (hypertextual, interactive, exploratory thinking) is not floating in space unconnected to anything, simply because it is absent a direct linear line.
My "slogan" for understanding this is this: "Why not get to know a subject the way a kid gets to know the woods?" with the woods being that sort of idealized play space I enjoyed as a kid, although few kids these days have the run of a neighborhood woods to build forts, climb trees, dam cricks, etc. as I did.
Anyway, I won't belabor the point here (heh, I got to in the dissertation), except to point out that nonlinear or disjunctive does not necessarily mean decontextualized, as much as it may be simply a different kind of contextualization, one where a person's own mind forms the basis for context, instead of having it handed to you, constructed by someone else in a more authoritative fashion.
April 14, 2006
Should journalists learn (and apply) the tools of formal rhetorical criticism?
My friend at the Kansas University put me on to these two stories. Very intriguing! I'm liking the analysis of the San Francisco Chronicle piece, although wouldn't it be cool if it were a formal rhetorical analysis examining these very questions? Any grad students out there looking for seminar paper ideas? Anyone, anyone, Bueller...?
This first Chronicle below is the Chronicle of Higher Ed.'s Wired Campus Blog.
April 12, 2006
Is It Too Late for the Fourth Estate?
With the merging and closing of newspapers and the emphasis on advertising and marketing, some journalism schools must be looking for a reason to exist. Perhaps it’s time to focus on small-scale, Internet journalism -- journalism for the masses. Dan Gillmor, founder of the Center for Citizen Media (affiliated with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University), posits that online citizen journalism is not ruining the Fourth Estate but adding to it and improving it.
According to an article in a Vermont alternative newsweekly, Gillmor says that tomorrow’s news machine “will be more of a conversation, or a seminar” and that “the lines will blur between producers and consumers.” Given that, some might think that j-schools should take a more active role in educating the general public, not just current and future reporters, about how journalism works.
To add to this whole discussion, the San Francisco Chronicle recently assessed the role that amateur online journalists have had in scrutinizing the Iraq War, the Bush White House, and the Congress. The article suggests that bloggers have been tougher and more perceptive on the issues than professional journalists have. Because of the financial pressures on newspapers and the poor reputation that journalists have among some Americans, it would seem that journalism in general is in trouble. Or maybe blogs like this one represent the future of news?
See what I mean? Wouldn't there be a value to being able to SAY definitively that bloggers have been tougher than professional journalists, OR that professional journalists have been tougher than bloggers?
Rhetorical analysis would be a good tool to evaluate communicative artifacts from a well-selected representative pool of dual coverage. You'd need to operationalize your research question a bit more, but the real key, I think, is making sure that bloggers' journalistic rhetoric is examined in terms of its larger, dialogic ecosystem, rather than as isolated communication acts outside of the larger field of the ongoing conversation. As Gillmor says, "news should be a conversation." Blogs most certainly are.
Another challenge for the kind of research I'm proposing would be to find a dialogic frame for looking at conventional journalism across its larger field of ongoing conversation. I'm in the middle of reading Pierre Bourdieu's short lecture "On Television" right now, and it's interesting to see his attempt to do just that.
So often I hear or feel the frustration of professional journalists who can only throw marshmallows at larger issues that beg for more definitive answers than the admirable but limited effort to skim out an answer with tools of journalism research, as in the San Francisco Chronicle article below. While it's stimulating, it doesn't MAKE KNOWLEDGE or ADD TO THE GREATER POOL OF KNOWLEDGE IN THE WORLD.
Most journalists I've met (who've never been to grad school, and even some who have) don't know that one need not be a specialist or a wonky pointy-headed professor to appropriate and USE professional tools of knowledge-making, such as rhetorical analysis, to arrive at real answers to questions, instead of just gathering a collection of quotes and talking heads to impotently spout off about a larger question.
Journalists defeat themselves before they've started by only allowing themselves to be a shallow channel for thin pronouncements made by other people. And they really only do this on certain topics that pertain to social issues. Most professional journalistic endeavors will have people who use professional tools to analyze an annual report or balance sheet of a company, people with math analysis skills, for instance, or skills for sophisticated database massage. Why shouldn't rhetorical analysis of texts be another skill journalists (or bloggers) can use to hold sources more accountable for their communicative actions on bigger questions about things that really matter?
You KNOW the PR industry has people who are able to do very sophisticated textual analysis as a way to gauge the success and effectiveness of their message campaigns. They don't publish their findings, but they most definitely have them in internal documents. Why should the PR industry be more sophisticated at analysis than the journalists they're trying to manipulate?
Anyway, let's take a look at what the SF Chronicle reporter "suggests," but is unable to make a definitive analysis or argument about.
New media are the message
'Journalism by other means' makes its mark
Matthew B. Stannard, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, April 9, 2006
The invasion of Iraq and the three years of war that followed it seem unlikely to go down in history as a proud era for American journalism.
Critics on the political left and right, journalism professors and even many reporters agree that the media -- print and electronic alike -- failed to provide accurate, unbiased or complete coverage of the past three years and particularly the run-up to the war.
But while critics often blame that failure on factors unique to the Iraq war or the Bush White House, some experts say journalism's current crisis has less to do with the conduct of the Iraq war and more to do with its timing -- smack in the middle of the biggest technological revolution journalism has seen in years, "probably not since Gutenberg," in the words of Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.
That revolution -- combining expectations from the journalistic quake that was Watergate, the corporate merging and downsizing of media and, most importantly, the new technologies of the Internet -- has placed journalism at the precipice of a paradigm shift. Covering the Iraq war, and the public response to that coverage, may just push it over the edge.
"I think the business of journalism is in a very desperate strait right now," said Thomas Kunkel, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. "And that might be the best thing for it."
Some of the most common complaints about the way the American press covered the war come from the political left. Anti-war activists have accused journalists of failing to look skeptically at White House claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, claims that did not prove to be true.
"The press treated the war at the beginning the way the press treated other wars at the beginning, and that was: There's nothing to discuss. We're off to war," said Theodore Glasser, of Stanford University's Graduate School of Journalism.
"There was no debate among Democrats and Republicans (about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq), therefore there was no debate in the press. The press has always had a hard time covering debate outside the mainstream."
"This administration really has been better at keeping people on the reservation generally ... but they've all tried," he said. Nevertheless, the most recent report on the State of the News Media by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that most people see the press as slanted and more concerned with the bottom line than informing the public. The same survey found that a majority of national reporters feel that the press is too easy on the White House and that journalism is being hurt by bottom-line pressures.
"To some degree, journalists are berating themselves for not living up to their own mythology ... (But) it's not as if the good old days were always there and we've suddenly lost them."
But there is one area of change in the past few years on which almost all experts, critics and academics agree: the rise of what Lichter called "journalism by other means."
The Internet has given readers unprecedented access to overseas newspapers, original transcripts of White House briefings, videos of executions posted by the insurgents who committed the deeds, and blogs written by American soldiers, amateur journalists, armchair critics, Iraqi citizens and the next-door neighbor.
Even Rendall and Aronoff agreed that blogs have offered a new outlet for people disaffected with mainstream news coverage of Iraq and other issues, a defection to which mainstream news media has yet to fully adapt.
The technology behind "journalism by other means" was developing before the war and could have arrived without the invasion of Iraq, as would the economic pressures on mainstream news prompted in part by that new technology.
"What the war has done is hurled kerosene onto the fire. It provided the passion, and when people are passionate about things, they get active about things."
So instead of creating a ripple of letters to the editor, canceled subscriptions and advertiser boycotts, those unhappy with the mainstream media were able to create vocal displeasure through their own media -- media that grew larger each day, feeding on itself and on traditional media for content.
Soon, the blogs demonstrated an ability to make, or remake, news overlooked or handled differently by the mainstream, from analyzing a Wall Street Journal reporter's downbeat letter home from Baghdad to sharing a list of accomplishments purportedly made by the U.S. military since the end of major combat, and from the questionable Bush National Guard memos to Trent Lott's poorly received birthday comments.The result: lots of energetic criticism of the mainstream media, and the budding of a new alternative media, arriving just when traditional media is under enormous financial pressures from corporate mergers and downsizing.
"The media is financially off balance, and then you bombard it with all these political assaults from right and left, and you have an absolutely critical societal function that has no terra firma under it," Schell said. "That's not good for a society that depends on its public to be well-informed." [emphasis mine]
But others see the gloves-off treatment as healthy.
"The democratization of journalism has really been a phenomenal thing to watch," Maryland professor Kunkel said. "The journalism industry might actually resort to doing better journalism as a way out. If that's what it took to get them to do the right thing, God bless them."
Yup, just bless 'em. Bloggers are out there appropriating tools that are just lying around because journalists won't pick them up, tools of analysis and criticism, of making arguments, debating, evaluating the comparative strengths of various arguments, their persuasive value, and making truths, making new knowledge through dialogue and consensus, as well as dissent and dialectics.
I could take it a step further and berate academics who want to claim these tools as their exclusive domain, speaking in closed groups only to other members of strictly defined disciplines.
Once upon a time there was such a thing as a "public intellectual," but with the great gaping hole in the public commons left by the disengagement of academic intellectuals, the hall monitors of public discourse became the journalists, by default. And they, in the name of populism and accessibility, refuse to use the tools at their disposal, and instead dumb down the public discourse to an intellectually silly relativism where all viewpoints are treated interchangeably as are the talking heads that spout them, to be plugged into a simplistic formula where each issue has two sides and only two, summarized into a thin gruel with no intellectual engagement at all.
Thank goodness bloggers found a way to rush into that airless vacuum left by the abdication of the commons by intellectuals and critical thinkers, and the journalists who fill their thin gruel with factory-farmed high-fructose corn syrup at the behest of "wag the dog" market-driven mass media corporations.
If blogging and the citizen journalism movement hadn't suddenly appeared at this moment in history, would anybody have thought to invent it? Or would we have just chugged along, obese on our overly-sweetened thin gruel and none the wiser to what we were lacking in the empty calories?
April 14, 2006 in Academia, Books, Journalism, Literacies, Oral Cultures, Photography, Postmodernity, Research Access, Science, Technical Writing, Television, Voice, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
March 18, 2006
Social network theory has far-reaching ramifications
Who would have thought that Vannevar Bush's 1945 Atlantic Monthly article "As We May Think" and hypertext theory could take us so far? I love sitting and thinking about these ideas, even tho I don't do algorithms at all. I understand what they do, but don't ask my to actually look at their guts. I mean, I can understand a colonoscopy too, but I don't want to see the video of the inside of my colon.
This stuff is just fascinating to me, tho. It's from the New York Times Magazine.
Can Network Theory Thwart Terrorists?
By PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE
Recent debates about the National Security Agency's warrantless-eavesdropping program have produced two very different pictures of the operation. Whereas administration officials describe a carefully aimed "terrorist surveillance program," press reports depict a pervasive electronic net ensnaring thousands of innocent people and few actual terrorists. Could it be that both the administration and its critics are right? One way to reconcile these divergent accounts — and explain the administration's decision not to seek warrants for the surveillance — is to examine a new conceptual paradigm that is changing how America's spies pursue terrorists: network theory.
During the last decade, mathematicians, physicists and sociologists have advanced the scientific study of networks, identifying surprising commonalities among the ways airlines route their flights, people interact at cocktail parties and crickets synchronize their chirps. In the increasingly popular language of network theory, individuals are "nodes," and relationships and interactions form the "links" binding them together; by mapping those connections, network scientists try to expose patterns that might not otherwise be apparent. Researchers are applying newly devised algorithms to vast databases — one academic team recently examined the e-mail traffic of 43,000 people at a large university and mapped their social ties. Given the difficulty of identifying elusive terror cells, it was only a matter of time before this new science was discovered by America's spies.
In its simplest form, network theory is about connecting the dots. Stanley Milgram's finding that any two Americans are connected by a mere six intermediaries — or "degrees of separation" — is one of the animating ideas behind the science of networks; the Notre Dame physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi studied one obvious network — the Internet — and found that any two unrelated Web pages are separated by only 19 links.
Announced in 2002, Adm. John Poindexter's controversial Total Information Awareness program was an early effort to mine large volumes of data for hidden connections. But even before 9/11, an Army project called Able Danger sought to map Al Qaeda by "identifying linkages and patterns in large volumes of data," and may have succeeded in identifying Atta as a suspect. As if to underline the project's social-network principles, Able Danger analysts called it "the Kevin Bacon game."
Given that the N.S.A. intercepts some 650 million communications worldwide every day, it's not surprising that its analysts focus on a question well suited to network theory: whom should we listen to in the first place? Russell Tice, a former N.S.A. employee who worked on highly classified Special Access Programs, says that analysts start with a suspect and "spider-web" outward, looking at everyone he contacts, and everyone those people contact, until the list includes thousands of names. Officials familiar with the program have said that before individuals are actually wiretapped, computers sort through flows of metadata — information about who is contacting whom by phone or e-mail. An unclassified National Science Foundation report says that one tool analysts use to sort through all that data is link analysis.
The use of such network-based analysis may explain the administration's decision, shortly after 9/11, to circumvent the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The court grants warrants on a case-by-case basis, authorizing comprehensive surveillance of specific individuals. The N.S.A. program, which enjoys backdoor access to America's major communications switches, appears to do just the opposite: the surveillance is typically much less intrusive than what a FISA warrant would permit, but it involves vast numbers of people.
In some ways, this is much less alarming than old-fashioned wiretapping. A computer that monitors the metadata of your phone calls and e-mail to see if you talk to terrorists will learn less about you than a government agent listening in to the words you speak. The problem is that most of us are connected by two degrees of separation to thousands of people, and by three degrees to hundreds of thousands. This explains reports that the overwhelming number of leads generated by the N.S.A. program have been false positives — innocent civilians implicated in an ever-expanding associational web.
One way to make sense of these volumes of information is to look for network hubs. When Barabasi mapped the Internet, he found that sites like Google and Yahoo operate as hubs — much like an airline hub at Newark or O'Hare — maintaining exponentially more links than the average. The question is how to identify the hubs in an endless flow of records and intercepted communications. Scientists are using algorithms that can determine the "role structure" within a network: what are the logistical and hierarchical relationships, who are the hubs? The process involves more than just tallying links. If you examined the metadata for all e-mail traffic at a university, for instance, you might find an individual who e-mailed almost everyone else every day. But rather than being an especially connected or charismatic leader, this individual could turn out to be an administrator in charge of distributing announcements. Another important concept in network theory is the "strength of weak ties": the most valuable information may be exchanged by actors from otherwise unrelated social networks.
[this "strength of weak ties" stuff is going to be key in the development of the theory, just as The Long Tail is turning out to be key in thinking about how interactivity works. (Mark Granovetter's American Journal of Sociology article, The Strength of Weak Ties) ]
There is also some doubt that identifying hubs will do much good. Networks are by their very nature robust and resistant to attack. After all, while numerous high ranking Qaeda leaders have been captured or killed in the years since Sept. 11, the network still appears to be functioning. "If you shoot the C.E.O., they'll hire another one," Duncan Watts says. "The job will still get done."
January 21, 2006
Fascinating development: Higher Ed as snake oil?
What's up with this? Suddenly post-secondary schools are falling all over themselves to take the money of bad students (should we also read between the lines, the laid-off and unemployed?). Are these substandard and fly-by-night "colleges" and "trade schools" partaking of any of the federal government's relatively new money targeted at retraining people affected by the recession of the early 2000s? Or are they just parasites looking to grab a piece of the Sallie Mae et. al's guaranteed student loan/usury racket?
Did the door open to these new developments when education started looking at online courses, distance learning, and "interactivity"? (University of Phoenix is one mentioned below that isn't allowed into New York state) I have a friend in South Carolina who took the "option" of taking some of her vo-tech courses "online" (and this is an area I've worked in and supported over many years, e-learning and courseware, but not as part of this more recent stampede by school administrators to move courses online so as to maximize profits and reduce physical plant expenses).
My friend's online course was well below the standards you'd find in an average correspondence course by mail. Read that again. Meditate on it. That is about the most serious indictment I can make regarding the rush for "brick" institutions to become "brick and click" or simply just "click." It should give us all pause.
But we should also pause to think about the Pew study out yesterday, which finds 50 percent of college and 75 percent of two-year school GRADUATES unable to complete tasks requiring basic literacy and math, such as reading a credit card offer, analyzing a news story, or balancing their checkbook.
No wonder there's a feeding frenzy to exploit these poor students pushed along by a travesty of a standardized-test-driven education system (it is the narrow standardized test focus that is leaving them behind, pathetically).
Not only is their need for a good education very great, but because they are so poorly educated, perhaps they are also gullible for fraudulent and exploitative fake schools, the kind of person a capitalist system might consider the ideal consumer. Will there next be a rush to sell them swamp land in Florida? Will the telemarketers who prey on the elderly find a new fertile field to plow? They can enter into binding financial contracts, but they don't have the literacy or critical thinking skills to be able to evaluate and discover fraud or even simply LEGAL exploitation and bad deals.
New York Moves to Limit Colleges That Seek Profit
By KAREN W. ARENSON
The New York State Board of Regents has imposed a moratorium on new commercial colleges in the state, in the face of explosive growth in their enrollments and increasing reports of problems.
The freeze comes as state education officials, the governor and lawmakers are examining ways to tighten regulations or financing of this fast-growing sector of higher education, which is consuming more than $100 million in state aid.
This week, Gov. George E. Pataki proposed that the state withhold financial aid from college students who had not graduated from high school; many of them attend profit-making schools.
"This is a cottage industry that needs to be better regulated, and more attention must be paid to it," said Merryl H. Tisch, a regent.
New York is not alone in trying to clamp down. Commercial schools, which often advertise heavily, promising quick career training to poorly educated students, are booming around the country. Increasingly, they are drawing the attention of federal and state law enforcement officials.
Corinthian Colleges Inc. disclosed in November that the attorney general in Florida was investigating sales practices at some of its campuses there. Decker College in Kentucky, where William F. Weld, a candidate for governor in New York, was chief executive, went bankrupt in the fall after federal agents raided the campus and the federal government cut off its student aid.
California recently charged the Brooks Institute of Photography with misleading recruitment practices and made correcting the problems a condition of keeping its license. Brooks is contesting the action.
The State Education Department recently ordered the Interboro Institute, based in New York City, to halve the number of new students it enrolls in the coming year. The department acted after finding that the commercial college, one of the fastest-growing in the state, was cheating in certifying student eligibility for aid and was not providing enough academic support for its students.
The department is also trying to close Taylor Business Institute, also in New York City, saying it has made "unsatisfactory movement" to improve academic quality. Donald Kinsella, a lawyer representing Taylor, said it had filed an appeal.
Just this week, the New York State comptroller's office released an audit showing that nearly a fifth of the students it had scrutinized at the ASA Institute of Business and Computer Technology in New York City were accepted solely on the basis of their own notarized statements that they had graduated from high schools in other countries but had difficulties getting their records. The auditors found that some of the students who claimed to be high school graduates were not.
Alex Shchegol, ASA's president, said his school stopped using affidavits after receiving the audit results. "We are trying very hard to help people to change their lives," he said. "We cannot accept students who will not benefit from instruction."
There are 41 commercial degree-granting colleges in New York and about 400 commercial career schools that do not grant degrees. Many charge tuition of about $9,000, the amount that can be covered by federal and state financial aid grants.
The flow of public money to such schools is one reason they are drawing scrutiny. A recurring question is whether some schools are enrolling students who have little hope of graduating simply to capture the financial aid. In New York, their students drew $136 million in state tuition assistance grants in 2003-4 - 17 percent of the those grants - even though they accounted for about 7 percent of the undergraduates.
State officials said that the moratorium on approving new colleges, enacted last week, could last months and lead to tougher regulations. Officials said that six schools have applications pending that would be frozen by the moratorium, but declined to name them. The University of Phoenix, the industry giant, has been trying for years to enter New York.
Saul B. Cohen, a regent, said he would press to stiffen the regulations on a number of fronts. He wants the schools to raise admissions requirements and use outside testing companies to conduct the testing used for financial aid eligibility. He said he also wanted the state to impose penalties more severe than "an admonition" for school practices like changing students' test answers to make them eligible for financial aid.
The department started trying to monitor the commercial colleges more closely about three years ago, and watches for signals like rapid expansion to flag potential problems. Last summer, it uncovered deceptions at Interboro when it sent undercover agents to the school, a technique it said it planned to use at other schools as well.
Bruce Leftwich, vice president for government relations at the Career College Association, an industry trade group based in Washington, said his group believed that if there are any institutions "defrauding the system, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
But, he said, "there is fraud and abuse in all sectors of higher education." He added, "If states are looking at proprietary schools and colleges, they should also be looking at all institutions."
Here's some key bits from that Pew study on college literacy levels, from the AP story:
Study: College students lack literacy for complex tasks
Friday, January 20, 2006 Posted: 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
WASHINGTON (AP) -- More than half of students at four-year colleges -- and at least 75 percent at two-year colleges -- lack the literacy to handle complex, real-life tasks suchas understanding credit card offers, a study found.
The literacy study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the first to target the skills of graduating students, finds that students fail to lock in key skills -- no matter their field of study.
The results cut across three types of literacy: analyzing news stories and other prose, understanding documents and having math skills needed for checkbooks or restaurant tips.
Without "proficient" skills, or those needed to perform more complex tasks, students fall behind. They cannot interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees or summarize results of a survey about parental involvement in school.
There was brighter news.
Overall, the average literacy of college students is significantly higher than that of adults across the nation. Study leaders said that was encouraging but not surprising, given that the spectrum of adults includes those with much less education.
[THIS is BRIGHTER news?! Maybe for the students, but not for our society as a whole.]
Also, compared with all adults with similar levels of education, college students had superior skills in searching and using information from texts and documents.
"But do they do well enough for a highly educated population? For a knowledge-based economy? The answer is no," said Joni Finney, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, an independent and nonpartisan group.
"This sends a message that we should be monitoring this as a nation, and we don't do it," Finney said. "States have no idea about the knowledge and skills of their college graduates."
The survey examined college students nearing the end of their degree programs.
On campus, the tests were given in 2003 to a representative sample of 1,827 students at public and private schools.
It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.