While we’re all waiting for the University of Austin to die…

And it is fading. The early ebullience from people like Bari Weiss is diminishing, and the only news about it I can find is that Niall Ferguson seems to be frantically touring right-wing podcasts to claim it’s really going to happen, which it isn’t. But I still see the occasional lefty chortling over the ridiculous concept. Like this one:

That those too-hot ideas—among them the celebration of free-market capitalism, eugenics and white supremacy, xenophobia, and transphobia, per the résumés of some of UATX’s founding trustees and advisors—are also cultural hegemonies championed by the richest and most powerful people and institutions thriving today in the Western world does not seem to be a problem for these self-styled revolutionaries. And why should it? This dippy bunch is not actually engaging in a genuine paradigm shift in the ivory tower; think of it more like the University of Pity Party at Austin.

Of course this project is silly. It’s brought to you by a group of wealthy—some of them mind-blowingly so—elites who are mostly known for whining about “cancel culture” and being rewarded handsomely for it. The very premise of UATX is preposterous, predicated on a subset of highly successful and privileged people’s unseemly thirst to be cast as victims in a grand narrative of—hilariously enough—intellectual and economic oppression. This scrappy underdog “university’s” board of advisors includes Larry Summers, former secretary of the treasury and president emeritus of a little college in Boston called Harvard (perhaps you’ve heard of it?). Other founders and advisors are professionally affiliated with Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution, and UATX’s seed money flows forth from tech bro Joe “paternity leave is for losers” Lonsdale, a venture capitalist who co-founded the creepy surveillance/data-mining software company Palantir.

“Pity Party University”…that’s about right. But then, getting serious about it, the author says:

In contrast to the sharp rebuffs of my peers, I rarely experienced anything but the mildest pushback from left-leaning faculty. Far from being pressured to conform to left-wing groupthink by a socialist academic cabal, I got excellent grades and I was encouraged to share my ideas—offensive and ill-considered as they undoubtedly were—in class discussions. Oh, I had brilliant professors who planted seeds that would flower years later, but at the time, my own views hardly shifted. To the contrary (I was, after all, a contrarian) I dug in harder, sure that I was a powerful voice for the preservation of good old-fashioned American ideals, a bold defender of capitalism and the free market.

That’s the thing about the conservatives’ claims about those darned liberal universities. You read this blog, you know that I’m pretty fiercely partisan and that I despise Republicans with all my heart, but that doesn’t translate to how I manage a classroom. Like she says, your typical lefty professor encourages students “to share [their] ideas—offensive and ill-considered as they undoubtedly were”. We’re not interested in silencing, but in exposing.

The idea that we’d shout down conservatives and not let them speak is simply right-wing projection. That’s what they do.

Why are private schools?

You know, the word “school” (and “college” and “university”) ought to have some kind of protected status, where you can’t call your institution one of them without meeting certain rigorous standards and qualifications. Get some other word for your propaganda outlet, and if you abuse the terms and mislead the people you are trying to lure into your scheme, there ought to be some kind of legal penalty. It’s not that you can’t rent a room and offer instruction to the gullible in whatever hogwash you’re peddling, but you can’t legally claim it’s a “school”.

Case in point: religious institutions that claim to be, for instance, a university, like Patriot “University”. Or private schools in general, which seem to be set ups for charging excessive tuitions and fees for information that’s better served by a true public school (goodbye, Harvard!) (OK, some private institutions have adopted good standards for education — this is a complex problem in taxonomy, I won’t pretend it’s easily solved.)

But then, there are other situations where the boundaries have clearly been crossed. Like the Centner Academy, “the brain school”. Maybe we can get them on false advertising, since there don’t seem to be any functional brains inside.

In April, a Miami private school made national headlines for barring teachers who got a coronavirus vaccine from interacting with students. Last week, the school made another startling declaration, but this time to the parents: If you vaccinate your child, they’ll have to stay home for 30 days after each shot.

The email from Centner Academy leadership, first reported by WSVN, repeated misleading and false claims that vaccinated people could pass on so-called harmful effects of the shot and have a “potential impact” on unvaccinated students and staff.

Yeah, that’s patently false. There are no viruses in the vaccine. There might be dead fragments, but nothing that can proliferate and infect.

David Centner, one of the school’s co-founders, repeated the debunked claims in a statement to The Washington Post, saying the policy is a “precautionary measure” based on “numerous anecdotal cases that have been in circulation.”

Listen to yourself, David. Do you know what “anecdote” means? You are making a policy decision based on stories and rumor — and you’re getting it all backwards! You’re blocking the people least likely to carry the disease from your “school”, and encouraging the unprotected students to attend!

The people who do attend this “school” are selected for wealth + gullibility, I guess.

Centner Academy is in Miami’s ritzy Design District, and tuition ranges from about $15,000 to nearly $30,000 per year. The school has become a haven for anti-vaccine parents because it does not require any immunizations for enrollment, citing a parent’s “freedom of choice” and falsely claiming there are “unknown risks associated with vaccinations” that could harm children.

Apparently, you go to this “school” to get a degree in ignorance and dishonesty.

A similar sentiment was shared in an email to parents last week regarding the coronavirus vaccine. School leadership referred to the shots as “experimental,” WSVN reported, and encouraged parents considering vaccinations for their child to wait several more months until the school year ends.

“We ask that you hold off until the summer when there will be time for the potential transmission or shedding onto others to decrease,” Centner Academy leaders wrote.

The school has a history of spreading inaccurate information about the vaccine and penalizing those who choose to get the shots. In April, Centner Academy employees were told they had to notify Leila and David Centner, the married co-founders of the school, if they received a vaccine. Vaccinated school employees were told they would not be allowed any contact with students “until more information is known” about the vaccines. School leaders also told those wanting the vaccine to wait until the summer to get the shots.

About a week later, a math and science teacher told students they should not hug their vaccinated parents for more than five seconds, the New York Times reported, referencing the same falsehoods the school communicated in its email about vaccine components “shedding” onto others. Some parents threatened to pull their children out of the school over the comments.

The Centners are a pair of rich kooks with egomania. Centner is a rich entrepreneur who sold code for monitoring toll booths — he has no background in education at all. They shouldn’t be allowed to pretend to be educators.

A grading epiphany!

As has become increasingly typical, I was up late last night grading exams, rather than reading a good book or watching a movie or going for a walk, like normal people do, and I was getting a little bit frustrated. This was an exam for an introductory biology course, all first year students, and it was fairly straightforward: about 40% multiple choice questions, the rest being short “essay” style questions that had to be answered with a coherent paragraph. I had questions like, “explain the difference between methodological and philosophical materialism” (yeah, there was some baby philosophy in this course) and “summarize the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant”, all stuff that we’d discussed in class, and if they’d missed class, it was there in the lecture notes I’d posted online, and which they should have studied.

You will be shocked and surprised to learn that some of them had not studied.

What annoyed me, though, and ate up a lot of my time, was when desperate students who had not studied tried to bullshit their way through an answer, throwing out vaguely recalled terms, hoping that some of them stick. The Grants, for instance, who actually did work on finch beaks and adaptation, were assigned to have worked on Galapagos tortoises or iguanas, and seemed to have compiled a taxonomic catalog of random, memorable animals on the islands. You don’t even want to know what kind of inventions they created to explain away the philosophy or history of science, or how the Cambrian was after the Cretaceous. It was ludicrous errors of fact and random word association games, and worst of all, I had to carefully read it all to see if there was a glimmering of an echo of a shadow of comprehension in there, and give them points for it. Ick.

I think I was muttering to myself something like “why don’t you just admit you didn’t know the answer” when I had my idea. In the very first lecture in this course I had talked to them about the value of asking good questions, and how it’s acceptable for a scientist to say “I don’t know” when they don’t have a good answer, and I thought, I should encourage them to admit when they don’t know the answer, especially since I have a pretty good bullshit detector. So I’ve invented a new policy I’ll announce to them.

If you don’t know the answer to an exam question, just write “I don’t know” and I’ll give you 25% of the points. It’s that easy! It’ll save me the agony of trying to interpret word salad, which generally earns 0 points anyway, and you’ll get a few points for honesty. Everyone wins!

Of course, 25% is not adequate to pass the course — 50% earns a “D” grade — so you can’t expect to slide through by answering “I don’t know” to everything, but if you hit one or two questions you’re drawing a blank on, it’ll spare you some anxiety and suffering, and me some exasperation, if you can just dismiss the question and move on. It’s also fitting with a major theme of the course, which is about how scientists do science and how we came to understand principles of evolution, genetics, and development.

I’ve only been teaching for a few decades before I thought of this simple solution to a chronic problem.

Why academia doesn’t lean right

Dang, this is a good video, succinct and to the point.

Why are there so few conservatives in academia? Because the the things conservatives want to argue about are no longer debatable. You can’t seriously operate as a biologist, for instance, and think the Earth is less than 10,000 years old…much less put together a class within the curriculum that tries to teach that nonsensical idea. I’m not as familiar with other disciplines, but are there economics professors who aren’t fringe cranks who teach trickle-down economics, Laffer curve and all that, when the evidence makes it patently clear that it just doesn’t work?

Don’t get me wrong, I know professors who are more conservative than I am — very few of us actually go so far as to suggest that the proletariat must rise up and seize the means of production — but we do tend to exclude the extremist positions. The problem is that modern conservatism consists entirely of extremist madness. Your typical professor is not some wild-eyed radical, but a cautious, moderate advocate for incremental improvement of society, and just that level of tepid support for betterment is antithetical to conservative thought.

Today’s agenda

I slept in until 8:30. I have now lingered over my coffee for a whole hour. Time to get to work!

  • Get my shoes on. (this is a major thermodynamic hurdle — I’m hoping the coffee provided enough activation energy to get the process started.)
  • Walk out the door to the lab. Usually by this point the reaction is mildly exothermic so it should go smoothly.
  • Say hello to the grass spiders living in the shrubbery outside my lab.
  • Feed all the spiders inside my lab.
  • Walk home.
  • Stretch. Crack my knuckles. Open up all the lab reports my students submitted to Canvas last night. Stare at them, mildly stupefied.
  • Start grading them, eventually. Do that all afternoon.
  • Return to awareness. Eat dinner. Wonder where the day went.

Tomorrow they turn in a homework assignment, and I’ll do exactly the same routine on Monday.

The bee don’t care about deadlines either, she’s just doing her thing.

There’s one thing my students haven’t quite figured out yet. I do set deadlines on all the assignments, because the software requires it, but…I don’t care. I just want them to do the work so they know how to do the work, and so I can see where maybe they’re going down the wrong path, but deadlines are an invention of The Man (or maybe Satan). Try to turn things in on time so they don’t pile up on you, but if it’s a few days late, I’m OK with that.

But these are all conscientious Midwestern kids, many of them first generation college students, so I get an amazing flood of email the day of, full of apologies and reasons why they didn’t meet the deadline, which I have to read, too. I get all these panicky messages sent just before midnight, “oh no I couldn’t solve this problem, I’m struggling with it, I can’t get it done on time” followed by a 3am follow-up, “I figured it out, I submitted it a little late, I hope that’s OK”.

I just want to say…Dudes. It’s fine. The software sets this specific 11:59pm deadline minute, but I’m sleeping then. I’m not hovering over the computer, ready to dock points from anyone who turns it in at 12:01am. Or even noon the next day. The only real deadline is when I go over the answers in class a few days later, because I want you to think them through yourself, rather than getting handed them. If you turn something in a little late, well, that’s a time-management issue you should work on, but I’m going to pretend it was turned in precisely on time and give you full credit, because I don’t care. All I care about is whether you learned the subject matter.

I guess I’d have to worry if every student procrastinated and I couldn’t get the bulk of the grading done at the time I set aside for it, but that hasn’t happened yet in 40 years, and the Midwestern work ethic means it’s not going to happen in the near future. Chill. Go for a walk. Enjoy the flowers and the spiders while you can. Biology isn’t a punishment drill, it’s supposed to be something that makes you happy.

T. Ryan Gregory predicts the future!

This is my prediction, too. I have no confidence that we’ll make it through the semester without some radical revision in our plans.

I’ll testify to the burnout problem personally — the stress and uncertainty take their toll. Also, the declining confidence in university administrations is real.

Gregory, by the way, has announced that he’s on the market for a new position already, so if you’re at a university that isn’t saddled with an out-of-touch, blithering administration (are there such things) you might be able to snap him up.

Administrators are the enemy, you know

The president of Columbia University made it crystal clear. The administration is wrestling with the idea of in-person classes, which is telling in itself — the administration doesn’t give a good damn about the health and safety of faculty, staff, and students or they wouldn’t be debating how to shove their employees into milling crowds of unvaccinated students. But President Bollinger admitted something heinous in a memo to other administrators. First, though, he said this in public.

Faculty response to new models of teaching necessitated by the pandemic has been tremendous. We want to support faculty in every way we can…the University will not prescribe an approach for individual faculty members. Faculty will have leeway to teach in person, online, or some combination of the two, in consultation with their schools.

Great! That’s what I want to hear! Except…

…the instructional faculty for the Core is largely composed of non-tenure-track individuals, which means we should have greater leeway to expect in-person instruction, if that’s what we deem best.

Hey, you know that huge swarm of underpaid, untenured adjuncts we have teaching the core courses of the university? They’re expendable, they have to do what we say, we’ll just make them take all the risks! After all, we know what’s best for them.

I call on my fellow tenured faculty to show solidarity with the scholars and scientists who work side-by-side with us, with far more job insecurity and with the contempt of the administration. They are not serfs. They deserve equal respect…which, given that university administrators don’t have all that much respect for their tenured faculty, isn’t asking a lot.