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The Weekly Blab

The Weekly Blab

Volume 6, Issue 14—November 28, 2011


Thanksgiving Break

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving break.  Thanksgiving is a great holiday, both for what it represents and when it comes in the semester—it’s just in time for when you need that last bit of oomph to carry you through to the end.  Here’s hoping that everyone has gotten the energy lift that they need.

We were thinking of going to Myrtle Beach for the holidays, but in the end, Jill (my wife) didn’t want to go that far so we just stayed home and had fun here.  No turkey for us—we had chicken cacciatore instead, which is Jill’s specialty.  Mark (my son) had a fine time buying up every DVD in the state.  If you can’t find any now, you know who’s to blame.  We sat around and watched old movies (several starring Alice Faye—look her up if you’ve never heard of her.  She was a great singer and actress), and some old TV shows (about which, more below). 

I also finally installed Skype on my computer, and bought a webcam.  This is one of those things I had meant to do for several years, but have never gotten around to.  When I saw my parents using Skype on their laptop when we were on vacation together last month, I decided I couldn’t have my parents being more up to date than me, so I had to finally get going and do it.  Skype is great—for those who have never used it, it allows you to make a video phone call to anyone else on Skype on the web.  In the past day, I’ve called my sister in Houston, my parents, an aunt in Las Vegas, and an aunt in Israel.  The picture is a little jerky at times but basically not bad, and it’s nice to be able to see them as we talk.  Of course you have to remember that they can see you too, so be careful of how you look!


More On Old TV

I really like early television shows, though I can’t really explain why.  Since I had finished all the episodes of Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (see a previous BLAB for details), I had to go out and get some DVD’s of another old television show.  This time, it was The Goldbergs, a program on TV from 1949 to 1956 that has just had its surviving episodes restored by the UCLA film and television archives.  It’s amazing that any of these survived, since they were broadcast live in those days, and all that’s left are kinescopes of some of the earlier episodes.  Back in the early days of TV, shows often focused on various ethnic groups and included I Remember Mama (Norwegian), Life with Luigi (Italian), The Goldbergs (Jewish), and even shows starring black actresses and entertainers (Beulah; The Nat King Cole Show).  All of these faded out by the middle to late of ‘50’s, being replaced by more homogenized suburban sitcoms like Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It To Beaver, and Father Knows Best. 

The Goldbergs was a real trailblazing program.  It started on radio in 1929 and moved to TV in 1949.  Gertrude Berg was the writer, director, and starred in the show as Molly Goldberg.  It was the first show written, directed by, and starring a woman.  Gertrude Berg was also the first winner of the “Best Actress” Academy Award (Emmy).  The Goldbergs was the first TV domestic sitcom, preceding I Love Lucy by several years.  The show was also turned into a movie and a successful Broadway show. 

So why haven’t you heard of Gertrude Berg?  Part of the reason is that she stood up against the anti-communist blacklist, when she was told to fire Philip Loeb who played her husband in the series and was accused of being a communist (which he denied).  She fought the blacklist for several months, but in the end was unsuccessful and General Foods (the sponsor) pulled out and CBS cancelled the show in 1951.  Loeb committed suicide in 1955 (he was played by Zero Mostel in the movie The Front, which also starred Woody Allen). 

The show came back in 1952 on NBC with a new actor playing her husband, and in 1954 Berg moved the show to the DuMont network (which went out of business a few years later and was unable to pay her what they owed).  In 1955, she filmed 39 additional episodes on film for syndication. She returned to television one more time in 1961, in a CBS show called Mrs. G. Goes to College, about a 62 year old widow who (obviously) returns to college.  An interesting history that is amazingly unknown.


That STEM Is Just So Darned Hard leads to Grade Forgiveness

George Stickel forwarded me an article that appeared in the New York Times that has some bearing on the grade forgiveness policy issue being discussed in the Faculty Senate.  The article is called “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)”.  

The article starts by stating that President Obama has called on American universities to graduate 10,000 additional engineers each year, as well as 100,000 new teachers with majors in STEM, and the actual number of students entering university in these fields has begun rising again.  That’s where the problems begin, though.  While kids in elementary and high school learn science and engineering in fun ways, in college “the excitement quickly fades as students brush up against the reality of what David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor, calls “the math-science death march.”  Freshmen in college wade through a blizzard of calculus, physics and chemistry in lecture halls with hundreds of other students.  And then many wash out.”  The wash out rate reported is 40% (60% when pre-meds are included). 

This happens even at the best universities.  Michael Chang, an Education professor at UCLA has studied this phenomenon. “You’d like to think that since these institutions are getting the best students, the students who go there would have the best chances to succeed,” he says. “But if you take two students who have the same high school grade-point average and SAT scores, and you put one in a highly selective school like Berkeley and the other in a school with lower average scores like Cal State, that Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a STEM degree.

There are several proposed solutions.  One is using more interactive teaching techniques.  Another is to build in more curricular opportunities for project work.  The engineering dean at Notre Dame, Peter Kilpatrick, reported that their graduation rate had increased from 50-55% to 75% because of efforts to add project work. “We’re two years into that experiment and, quite honestly, it’s probably going to take 5 to 10 years before we’re really able to inflesh the whole curriculum with this project-based learning,” he said.

The NSF has funded many pilot courses based on project work, but when funding dried up, most of the courses disappeared.  The National Academy of Engineering concluded that these “scattered interventions” didn’t result in any widespread change. “Treating the freshman year as a ‘sink or swim’ experience and accepting attrition as inevitable,” it said, “is both unfair to students and wasteful of resources and faculty time.

The article then looks at two universities that have focused on project work: MIT and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI).  That definitely caught my attention, because WPI is my undergraduate alma mater, and I’m quite familiar with their project-based curriculum.  For those who don’t know, WPI and MIT are both universities that focus almost exclusively on STEM, so what goes on there has much relevance to us.  The article states (about WPI): “While it still expects students to push their way through standard engineering and science classes, it ripped up its traditional curriculum in the 1970s to make room for extensive research, design and social-service projects by juniors and seniors, including many conducted on trips with professors overseas. In 2007, it added optional first-year projects — which a quarter of its freshmen do — focused on world problems like hunger or disease.”  This curriculum is called the WPI PLAN, and was adopted a year or two before I enrolled in 1973, and is still in place.

The article concludes with something that MIT and WPI do to help STEM graduation rates.  It says:  “Some private schools have also adjusted their grading policies to ease some of the pressure on STEM students. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has long given freshmen only “pass” or “no record” grades in the first half of the year while they get used to the workload. W.P.I. lets undergraduates take up to three classes for which no grade is recorded if they would have received less than a C. Any required courses would have to be repeated.

That also got my attention, because while the statement is correct in that both universities do have grade forgiveness policies, the details are not what I remembered to be true.  My memory said that both had policies that were even more forgiving than what was written. 

So, I went to the MIT website to check.  Sure enough, at MIT all courses are graded pass-no record in the first semester, but what the article didn’t mention is that courses are graded A, B, C, or no record in the second semester.   For those who don’t know, a “no record” means literally that—if you get a D or an F, there is no record of it on your transcript or in your GPA.  It’s as if you never took the course at all.  This is a more extreme version of grade forgiveness than we have at SPSU, where the original grade remains on your transcript, and only the most recent grade counts in the University GPA.  Why does MIT do this?  Quoting from their website, “Freshman grading is designed to ease the transition from high school by giving students time to adjust to factors like increased workloads and variations in academic preparation. A, B, and C grades are used during the second semester so that freshmen can begin the progression to regular A-F grading in the sophomore year.”  After the freshman year, there is no further grade forgiveness at MIT.

I also went to the WPI website to check, because there wasn’t any limit on the number of “no record” grades when I was there.  Unless something has happened recently that hasn’t made their website yet, the Times got this wrong—there is no limit on the number of “no record” grades.  Quoting from their website for undergraduate course grades: “Courses: The following grades are possible: A, B, C, NR, and I (Incomplete). An instructor may also assign an "I" in an Independent Study course. AT (attended) is used to denote participation in seminars or college-sponsored programs…The NR (No Record) grade is assigned by a faculty member for course or project work for which credit has not been earned. This grade applies to PLAN students (admitted, degree-seeking) only. The NR grade does not appear on the students' transcripts or grade reports, nor is it used in the calculation of satisfactory academic progress.”  No limit is mentioned, and since there are no undergraduate course grades of “D” or “F”, I don’t see how there could be a limit.  So, how does WPI keep failing students from hanging around indefinitely?  By using “satisfactory academic progress” as a criterion—students must successfully pass 2/3 of the courses they attempt.  Also, if a new student gets only “no record” grades for their first two terms, they are suspended.

Some people have argued that grade forgiveness makes students less likely to try hard, and less likely to do well in their classes.  Since WPI’s grade forgiveness policy is more extreme than ours, you would expect (if that argument holds) that WPI students would be dropping courses right and left, and the 4- and 6-year graduation rates would therefore be low.  Not true—the current 4-year graduation rate at WPI is 72%, and the 6-year rate is 80%, numbers that most universities would kill for.  At SPSU, our 6-year graduation rate has risen since we instituted grade forgiveness (though our numbers still need much improvement) from 23% in 2005 [1999 entering cohort] to 33% today [2005 cohort].

Of course, one could argue that graduation rates are high because WPI is giving away the store—something that would surely ultimately destroy its reputation.  Back in the day, WPI used to be rated among the top regional universities in New England, often #1 on the list.  I looked on this year’s US News and World Report regional universities list, and it’s true that WPI wasn’t there any longer—but that’s because it has been moved up to the national universities list, where it is tied for #62 with a few other universities you may have heard of:  Northeastern, Purdue, SMU, Syracuse, and the University of Georgia; and ahead of Clemson (#68).  So, no apparent harm to WPI’s reputation.

Another argument that has been raised is that grade forgiveness is bad because it is a “do-over”, and where in real life does one get a do-over?  Actually, I’m hard pressed to think of any place where you don’t get a do-over.  Let’s see now:  engineering licensure exams?  Medical boards? Bar exams?  All give unlimited do-overs, and the license, once you pass, does not mention the times that you failed in any way.   Closer to home, we allow do-overs for faculty going up for early action for tenure, for promotion, and for post-tenure review.  We don’t state in our materials that Dr. Whomever only got promoted (or tenured) on the second try.

Another argument that has turned up is that some students are using grade forgiveness to repeat courses in which they earned a C, to get a better grade and to get honors.  For reasons that elude me, some folks see this as a bad thing.  To me, it’s a good thing—the student wants to learn more and/or to strive for higher results.  Why is this bad?  A variant on the argument is that there’s a difference between the student who gets honors using their first-time grades and a student who gets honors using repeated grades.  Again, I don’t get it—why shouldn’t both be given honors?  There are lots of ways students get honors-level GPAs that are functions of differences—some students go full time, some part time.  Some work while going to college, some don’t.  Some are raising children, some aren’t.  Some are majoring in a STEM discipline, some in [fill in an easier major yourself].  Some have parents or siblings who can help or tutor them, others don’t.  I’m sure you can think of many more.  All these things affect the difficulty level, but we don’t argue that students having the “easier” version of any of these shouldn’t get honors. 

There is another place where you get do-overs, and where early failures don’t count.  That’s in many individual Olympic sports—the pole vault, the long jump, and so on.  You get three tries in each round, and it doesn’t matter whether your top vault or jump was your first, second, or last try—you get the gold medal if any of them was the highest or longest.  And no one remembers afterwards if the winning performance was the first, second, or third attempt.

I could only think of one place where an honors-level performance was downgraded in any way because of how it was accomplished, and that was also in sports.  That was with the Season Home Run record, when Babe Ruth (60 homers) was passed by Roger Maris (61 homers) fifty years ago in 1961.  Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled that Maris hadn’t broken Ruth’s record, and that they both held the record, because the 1961 season had more games in it (162 vs. 154) compared to when Ruth hit 60 in 1927.  At the 1980 All-Star Game, Maris said: “They acted as though I was doing something wrong, poisoning the record books or something. Do you know what I have to show for 61 home runs? Nothing. Exactly nothing.” Only thirty years later, in 1991, did the Major League Baseball Committee for Statistical Accuracy conclude that Roger Maris was treated unfairly, ruling that no asterisk or other special designation should be used to qualify Maris’ accomplishment.


Trivia Contest!

Last Week’s Contest

Last week’s contest is about Thanksgiving.  The winner and only entrant was Scott Larisch (ECET), who therefore takes the prize.  Here are the answers:

  1. Who were the first group to celebrate Thanksgiving?  The Pilgrims
  2. In what location was the first Thanksgiving held?  Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay Colony
  3. What was the name of the Indian tribe that was invited to the original feast? The Wampanoag
  4. What president gave the first Thanksgiving proclamation, and what president established Thanksgiving as a permanent holiday in November? George Washington, Abraham Lincoln
  5. What president moved Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday of November, and why?  Franklin Roosevelt, in 1939, to lengthen the shopping season and help the economy during the Great Depression.  This was met with some derision, and some called the holiday “Franksgiving”.  FDR moved it back in 1941.


This Week’s Challenge

Today’s contest focuses on children on old TV shows.  The first with the most gets the swag.  No looking up the answers, now!  In all cases, we’re looking for the TV character’s name, not the actor’s name.

  1. The son on the Andy Griffith Show.
  2. The two sons on Leave it to Beaver.
  3. The two sons on Ozzie and Harriet.
  4. The son and daughter on Bewitched.
  5. The son and two daughters on The Danny Thomas Show (Make Room for Daddy).