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Newsletter AF: Volume 1 - Issue 1

September 18, 2018


The first newsletter from the Aydelotte Foundation at Swarthmore College.

Inside: AF public writing programs, college rankings, FREE POSTERS, new interpretations of humanities decline data, the AACU issues a report, the Global Swarthmore lecture series, and much more.

Connect with us: Stop by the office to chat or grab one of our first two AF posters; both beautiful and educational, they make excellent décor for the office or dormitory. AF drop-in office hours this semester will be Mondays 1-3.


On Our Minds in the Last Few Weeks

Rankings! Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Though what an experiment that would make, huh? What if we made students go somewhere for four years with a bag over their heads and then surprise them at the end with the name on their degree? What if we randomized admissions? What if - hear us out - institutions just decided to stop paying attention to a ranking system that has very little relation to the things that most of us agree matter about education, and that that is more or less a laundered representation of per-capita endowment?

That last idea is sort of like single-payer health care: wildly popular and yet never adopted. In this Politico article from last year’s USNWR ranking release day, many higher ed administrators emphasized the extent to which the reports are engines of inequality. Carol Christ, chancellor of the high-ranked University of California, Berkeley called “the extent to which U.S. News motivates schools to pick wealthier students” “‘mind-boggling’,” while others quoted in the article had even stronger words: “If some foreign power wanted to diminish higher education in America, they would have created the U.S. News and World Report rankings,” [Brit Kirwan, former chancellor of the University of Maryland system] said. “You need both more college graduates in the economy and you need many more low-income students getting the benefit of higher education — and U.S. News and World Report has metrics that work directly in opposition to accomplishing those two things that our nation so badly needs.”

We get why these rankings are popular, though. You can’t get away from two things: it’s a momentous and consequential decision for students and their families, and there’s really no way to know what’s best for you until after you’ve done it. The information that really might matter isn’t available. How can you decide clearly what it is you want to become when becoming is a product of experiences you can’t fully predict? It’s like trying to choose the life you’ll have--which is exactly what most of us promise we offer at our colleges and universities, the life you’ll have. Rankings help some students and families feel like they’ve leveraged that impossible challenge.

The radical unknowability of the outcomes of college for any given individual is probably a good part of the reason that we are so obsessed with stories and statistics - even (especially?) wrong or misleading ones - that make us feel like we can determine our post-college lives by what we do in college. The idea that choice of major = future income is probably at the top of that list. Ben Schmidt’s recent article  on the sharp decline in humanities majors makes a convincing argument about why we are so attached to the idea that majoring in particular fields will lead to higher incomes; Schmidt also asks whether received ideas about major-income links are rational. (Spoiler: for the most part, no – read the article to learn why.)

Faculty often focus on student perceptions of the curriculum. Policy makers and administrators sometimes focus on deeper and seemingly more trivial infrastructures. This recent NPR story about Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ current policy direction says that, unsurprisingly, DeVos aims to invite for-profit education deeper into the higher education pool (thereby increasing its swampiness). DeVos is fiddling around with credit hours, what counts as “gainful employment”, and so on; her critics behave as though this is the terrain on which the future of academia will be decided. And certainly the changes may do real damage. But in other ways the damage to public discourse about higher education is already done: debating credit hours versus competency-based testing is a hopelessly indirect way to have a difficult conversation about what we value in higher education.

Never fear, you might reply, there are other places where these discussion are happening - look at all the mission statements, value declarations, strategic plans, and earnest white papers out there written within higher education! Higher ed is on the case! The AACU just put out a report on Liberal Education and the Future of Work, for example. Alluringly subtitled “Selected Findings from Online Surveys of Business Executives and Hiring Managers” (you could almost mistake it for an eighteenth-century treatise), the report includes some useful data - plunge your hands deep into its guts and you might note the uncomfortable fact that employers judge that only 23% of graduates are prepared to speak a language other than English in their workplace--but that only 25% of employers say they value this skill. At the other end, you might note that employers judge a very large number of graduates “unprepared to apply their skills to the real world” but be left puzzling over exactly what it is that’s being judged in that assessment. And you would definitely notice that, according to the report, what employers value seems to have little to do with specific majors or disciplines.

But mostly--and trust us, we’ve actually been part of strategic plan-writing--this genre of report rarely makes for animated public conversation. Written as a soothing balm that can smooth over the interests of a hundred fractious constituencies, they are rarely read, let alone vigorously discussed. So maybe the most interesting thing about the AACU report is less what it says and more who linked to it. Watching the links light up acts as a kind of radioactive trace dye of anxiety and affinity - anxiety from institutions that need these findings to be true, and friendliness from institutions that want to signal support for education’s status quo. Conversely, the lack of engagement from people who are committed to “disrupting” higher education, or delivering the message that it has failed, is failing, will soon fail, is telling. There’s a sense in which reports like this - despite being full of interesting, carefully-gathered evidence - are released into troubled sea where no float is a secure buoy, but no undertow is strong enough to pull swimmers under.

Speaking of reports, though, we were struck by Katherine Mangan’s Chronicle of HIgher Education story about Harvey Mudd College’s attempts to reconcile its curriculum and pedagogy with a shift in its admissions policies. The report that kicked off a year of tumult at Harvey Mudd was prepared by Wabash College’s Center of Inquiry and it is a genuinely interesting read for faculty and administrators at other institutions. We were especially struck by the authors’ call at the end: “we hope that Harvey Mudd faculty think of deep student engagement as a limited resource—an intellectual commons, like common grazing land—that has to be shared among all of the departments if Harvey Mudd is to fully meet its unique and important mission”. This collective action problem is everywhere in higher ed. What the Wabash authors see as a dangerous drift towards zero-sum competitions between departments seeking exclusive ownership of student attention is familiar to us at Swarthmore, and we suspect is familiar to readers at many different kinds of institutions. We wonder if maybe this drift is at least partly a consequence of asymmetric information--it’s easy to accidentally graze your curricular sheep across the whole commons if it’s perpetually cloaked in fog.


That's Education

“‘I graduated with honors, top five percent of my class. I loved college nearly as much as I did an ice-cold beer. Am I going to bore you with this?’ ‘No’, she said, her eyes on his. ‘You’re not.’”--Nora Roberts, Black Rose

“It is not tragic, even if undesirable, for a person to leave a liberal arts education not having read major works from this canon. Their lives are not ending.”--bell hooks, Outlaw Culture

“Professor Wogglebug had invented an assortment of Tablets of Learning. One of these tablets, eaten by a scholar after breakfast, would instantly enable him to understand arithmetic or algebra of any other branch of mathematics. Another tablet eaten after lunch gave a student a complete knowledge of geography...This method...saves paper and books, as well as all the tedious hours devoted to study in some of our less favored schools, and it also allows the students to devote all their time to racing, base-ball, tennis and other manly and womanly sports which are greatly interfered with by study in those Temples of Learning where Tablets of Learning are unknown.” --L.Frank Baum, The Magic of Oz


New and Upcoming at AF

Applications are due October 10th for our second class of Aydelotte Research fellows, open to sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Fellows will work to support the ongoing research projects of the Foundation and will also undertake a guided independent research project of their own. Apply! Tell your students to apply!

Our public writing program is growing: we’re planning another public writing workshop for faculty and staff December 12-13 led by the Op Ed Project. Applications due October 1. Our spring facilitator, Deborah Douglas, was one of the most impressive teachers we’ve ever seen in action, and we look forward to repeating the workshop. Next month we will announce dates for a new series of workshops for faculty, staff, and students by New Inquiry and Popula editor Aaron Bady and Slate’s Lili Loofbourow on how to write and pitch longer-form features. Future workshops will be announced here.

Global Swarthmore is the Aydelotte’s Second Tuesday Café theme this year; presented by Ayse Kaya and Carina Yervasi, the series kicked off to a packed house with a presentation from President Val Smith this past Tuesday, September 11th. Our next presenters on October 9th will be Christopher Fraga and Tristan Smith.

Our second year’s worth of Frank 5 Fellows  are coming to campus on September 27th to help us think about how (and if) concepts of liberal learning circulate in their own working lives and in the lives of people in their own social networks.



We’re reading Kij Johnson’s Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe right now, and it’s making us think that we’d love to see something on the campus novel as a genre that included speculative fiction. (For the same reason, we really enjoy Lev Grossman’s version of a magical liberal arts college in his trilogy that begins with The Magicians.)

Is there anybody more liberal-artsy than J. Kenji Lopez-Alt? We like cooking anything he’s worked through, but lately we find his Detroit Pizza particularly necessary to making it through a semester.

We often find ourselves wishing that talks on campus were more like a Reddit AMA, or like the subreddit AskHistorians. It’s another kind of public writing that often matters a great deal to the people who encounter it.

We read Natalia Cecire writing about formal education and emergency learning at the start of the semester, and we think her account of the many and varied ways we learn within institutions and outside them will stay with us for a long time.

Speaking of formal and education and emergency learning, we at AF are also reading Tommy Orange’s new novel There There, which is about - among other things - how we learn about our ourselves from the internet.