As Close At It Gets

December 29, 2011

Via About

The Chronicle Of Higher Education:

The best way to eliminate grade inflation is to take professors out of the grading process: Replace them with professional evaluators who never meet the students, and who don’t worry that students will punish harsh grades with poor reviews. That’s the argument made by leaders of Western Governors University, which has hired 300 adjunct professors who do nothing but grade student work.

“They think like assessors, not professors,” says Diane Johnson, who is in charge of the university’s cadre of graders. “The evaluators have no contact with the students at all. They don’t know them. They don’t know what color they are, what they look like, or where they live. Because of that, there is no temptation to skew results in any way other than to judge the students’ work.”

Western Governors is not the only institution reassessing grading. A few others, including the University of Central Florida, now outsource the scoring of some essay tests to computers. Their software can grade essays thanks to improvements in artificial-intelligence techniques. Software has no emotional biases, either, and one Florida instructor says machines have proved more fair and balanced in grading than humans have.

These efforts raise the question: What if professors aren’t that good at grading? What if the model of giving instructors full control over grades is fundamentally flawed? As more observers call for evidence of college value in an era of ever-rising tuition costs, game-changing models like these are getting serious consideration.

Professors do score poorly when it comes to fair grading, according to a study published in July in the journal Teachers College Record. After crunching the numbers on decades’ worth of grade reports from about 135 colleges, the researchers found that average grades have risen for 30 years, and that A is now the most common grade given at most colleges. The authors, Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, argue that a “consumer-based approach” to higher education has created subtle incentives for professors to give higher marks than deserved. “The standard practice of allowing professors free rein in grading has resulted in grades that bear little relation to actual performance,” the two professors concluded.

Naturally, the standard grading model has plenty of defenders, including some who argue that claims of grade inflation are exaggerated—students could, after all, really be earning those higher grades. The current system forges a nurturing relationship between instructor and student and gives individualized attention that no robot or stranger could give, this argument goes.

But the efforts at Western Governors and Central Florida could change that relationship, and point to ways to pop any grade-inflation bubble.

An Army of Graders

To understand Western Governors’ approach, it’s worth a reminder that the entire institution is an experiment that turns the typical university structure on its head. Western Governors is entirely online, for one thing. Technically it doesn’t offer courses; instead it provides mentors who help students prepare for a series of high-stakes homework assignments. Those assignments are designed by a team of professional test-makers to prove competence in various subject areas.

The idea is that as long as students can leap all of those hurdles, they deserve degrees, whether or not they’ve ever entered a classroom, watched a lecture video, or participated in any other traditional teaching experience. The model is called “competency-based education.”

Designers of Western Governors do not intend to compete with Harvard or any other traditional institution. The online university throws a lifeline to nontraditional students who can’t make it to those campuses.

Ms. Johnson explains that Western Governors essentially splits the role of the traditional professor into two jobs. Instructional duties fall to a group the university calls “course mentors,” who help students master material. The graders, or evaluators, step in once the homework is filed, with the mind-set of, “OK, the teaching’s done, now our job is to find out how much you know,” says Ms. Johnson. They log on to a Web site called TaskStream and pluck the first assignment they see. The institution promises that every assignment will be graded within two days of submission.

Emily L. Child is one of the evaluators. She’s a stay-at-home mother of three who lives near Salt Lake City. Her kitchen table is her faculty office. She grades 10 to 15 assignments per day, six days a week, working early in the morning, before her kids are up, or in the afternoon, while they nap. She estimates that she has graded 14,400 assignments in the six years she has worked for the university.

Western Governors requires all evaluators to hold at least a master’s degree in the subject they’re grading. Ms. Child, a former teacher, grades assignments only in the education major. A typical assignment (the university calls it a “task”), she says, involves a student’s submitting a sample lesson plan or classroom strategies. “I enjoy that it allows me to stay current as a teacher,” she says.

Evaluators are required to write extensive comments on each task, explaining why the student passed or failed to prove competence in the requisite skill. No letter grades are given—students either pass or fail each task. Officials say a pass in a Western Governors course amounts to a B at a traditional university.

All evaluators initially receive a month of training, conducted online, about how to follow each task’s grading guidelines, which lay out characteristics of a passing score.

The identities of the evaluators are kept hidden from students, and even from the mentors. The goal is to protect the graders from students nagging them about grades, or from mentors who might lobby to pass a borderline student to better reflect on their teaching.

The graders must regularly participate in “calibration exercises,” in which they grade a simulated assignment to make sure they are all scoring consistently. As the phrase suggests, the process is designed to run like a well-oiled machine.

Some evaluators have objected to the system at first, says Ms. Johnson, especially professors who have come from traditional higher education. Some insist that they don’t need to justify each grade they give, arguing that they know a passing assignment when they see it. “That’s hogwash,” she says. “If you know it when you see it, then tell us what it is you see.”

Other evaluators want to push talented students to do more than the university’s requirements for a task, or to allow a struggling student to pass if he or she is just under the bar. “Some people just can’t acclimate to a competency-based environment,” says Ms. Johnson. “I tell them, If they don’t buy this, they need to not be here.”

Even Ms. Johnson had to be convinced when she started out at Western Governors, after having taught school and helped to develop instructional standards for the Utah State Office of Education. “I was an academic snob,” she says, noting that she took a position at the university because she needed a job. “As I was going through their training, I began to think, Oh, my gosh I think they have something here.”…

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New Scientist:

IN OCTOBER 1991, astrophysicists observed something incredible in the skies above Dugway Proving Ground, a former weapons-testing facility in a remote corner of Utah. It was a cosmic ray with an enormous amount of energy – equivalent to the kinetic energy of a baseball travelling at 100 kilometres per hour, but compressed into a subatomic particle. It came to be known as the oh-my-god-particle, and though similar events have been recorded at least 15 times since, mainstream physicists remain baffled by them.

To Jim Carter, a trailer-park owner in Enumclaw, Washington, ultra-high-energy cosmic rays pose no problem. They offer proof of a radical theory of the universe he has been developing for 50 years.

In Carter’s theory, these rays are photons left over from the earliest stage of cosmic evolution. He calls them “apocalyptic photons” and believes that one of them was responsible for the Tunguska event in 1908, in which a mysterious something from outer space flattened 2100 square kilometres of Siberian forest.

Carter’s ideas are not taken seriously by the physics mainstream. He does not have a PhD and has never had any of his work published in a scientific journal. He has just a single semester of university education, which was enough to convince him that what was being taught in physics departments was an offence to common sense.

In response, Carter went off and developed his own ideas. Five decades on he has his very own theory of everything, an idiosyncratic alternative to quantum mechanics and general relativity, based on the idea that all matter is composed of doughnut-shaped particles called circlons. Since the 1970s he has articulated his ideas in a series of self-published books, including his magnum opus, The Other Theory of Physics.

For the past 18 years I have been collecting the works of what I have come to call “outsider physicists”. I now have more than 100 such theories on my shelves. Most of them are single papers, but a number are fully fledged books, often filled with equations and technical diagrams (though I do have one that is couched as a series of poems and another that is written as a fairy tale). Carter’s is by far the most elaborate work I have encountered.

The mainstream science world has a way of dealing with people like this – dismiss them as cranks and dump their letters in the bin. While I do not believe any outsider I have encountered has done any work that challenges mainstream physics, I have come to believe that they should not be so summarily ignored.

Consider the sheer numbers. Outsider physicists have their own organisation, the Natural Philosophy Alliance, whose database lists more than 2100 theorists, 5800 papers and over 1300 books worldwide. They have annual conferences, with this year’s proceedings running to 735 pages. In the time I have been observing the organisation, the NPA has grown from a tiny seed whose founder photocopied his newsletter onto pastel-coloured paper to a thriving international association with video-streamed events…

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The Philosophy of Food

December 29, 2011

Food:

Philosophers have a long but scattered history of analyzing food. Plato famously details an appropriate diet in Book II of the Republic. The Roman Stoics, Epicurus and Seneca, as well as Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, Marx, and Nietzsche, all discuss various aspects of food production and consumption. In the twentieth century, philosophers considered such issues as vegetarianism, agricultural ethics, food rights, biotechnology, and gustatory aesthetics. In the twenty-first century, philosophers continue to address these issues and new ones concerning the globalization of food, the role of technology, and the rights and responsibilities of consumers and producers. Typically, these philosophers call their work “food ethics” or “agricultural ethics.” But I think they sell themselves short. Philosophers do more than treat food as a branch of ethical theory. They also examine how it relates to the fundamental areas of philosophical inquiry: metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, political theory, and, of course, ethics. The phrase “philosophy of food” is more accurate. We might eventually come to think of the philosophy of food as a perfectly ordinary “philosophy of” if more philosophers address food issues and more colleges offer courses on the subject—or at least that is my hope.

But why is this subject – a footnote to Plato just like the rest of the philosophy – not yet fully entrenched as a standard philosophical subject?  Why do philosophers only occasionally address questions concerning food?  The subject is obviously important and the scholarship on food has real pedigree.  Some have argued that food is eschewed because of the perception that it is too physical and transient to deserve serious consideration (Telfer, 1996).  Others have argued that food production and preparation have conventionally been regarded as women’s work and, therefore, viewed as an unworthy topic for a male-dominated profession (Heldke, 1992).  Still others argue that the senses and activities associated with food (taste, eating, and drinking) have traditionally been seen as “lower senses” and are too primitive and instinctual to be analyzed philosophically (Korsemeyer, 2002).  These are all plausible explanations.

But perhaps the real reason why relatively few philosophers analyze food is because it’s too difficult.  Food is vexing.  It is not even clear what it is.  It belongs simultaneously to the worlds of economics, ecology, and culture.  It involves vegetables, chemists, and wholesalers; livestock, refrigerators, and cooks; fertilizer, fish, and grocers.  The subject quickly becomes tied up in countless empirical and practical matters that frustrate attempts to think about its essential properties.  It is very difficult to disentangle food from its web of production, distribution, and consumption.  Or when it is considered in its various use and meaning contexts, it is too often stripped of its unique food qualities and instead seen as, for example, any contextualized object, social good, or part of nature.  It is much easier to treat food as a mere case study of applied ethics than to analyze it as something that poses unique philosophical challenges.

But things are starting to change.  The level of public discourse about diet, health, and agriculture in the US is remarkably more sophisticated than it was only ten years ago.  Food books are bestsellers, cooking shows are ubiquitous, and the public is more informed about food safety and food politics.  The mainstream media no longer tends to blame malnutrition and food insecurity on overpopulation but on poverty and poor governance.  And most people, I suspect, regardless of one’s take on animal ethics, would be sickened to learn that a staggering 56 billion land animals are slaughtered each year for food.  Philosophers are not immune from these facts and trends.  We are increasingly joining other academics, journalists, and citizens who take food very seriously.  More philosophical work has been done on food and agriculture in the last five years than the previous thirty.  Hopefully, we are not just following a trend but helping to steer it in a more intelligent and responsible direction.

The role of philosophy is to cut through the morass of contingent facts and conceptual muddle to tackle the most basic questions about food:  What is it exactly?  How do we know it is safe?  What should we eat?  How should food be distributed?  What is good food?  These are simple yet difficult questions because they involve philosophical questions about metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics.  Other disciplinary approaches may touch on these questions concerning food but only philosophy addresses them explicitly.  Once we have a clear understanding of philosophy’s unique role, we’ll all be in a better position to engage in dialogue aimed at improving our knowledge, practices, and laws.  We should also gain a renewed appreciation for the scope and relevance of the discipline of philosophy itself…

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Transition Of Power

December 29, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

North Korea, Explained

December 29, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

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