VP of Academic Affairs

» SPSU Home / Vice President Academic Affairs / The Weekly Blab / The Weekly Blab

The Weekly Blab

The Weekly Blab

Volume 6, Issue 6—September 18, 2011


Why September Stinks

As mentioned in an earlier BLAB, Boston Red Sox Fans always dread this month, when the inevitable September Swoon sets in.  This year seems to be no exception, as the Sox have dropped 8 of their last 10, have fallen 4.5 games (as of this writing) behind the Yankees, and only 2 games ahead of Tampa Bay for the wild card slot.  Will they make it into the playoffs?  Not the way they’ve been playing lately.

Meanwhile, Sunday’s big game between Manchester United and Chelsea turned out to be both a pretty good game on one level and a total fright-fest on another.  Manchester United won 3-1 with the final score being fair enough, but it just as easily could have been anything between 3-1 Chelsea and 6-0 Manchester United, given the number of missed attempts and improper off-side calls.  There were several spectacularly blown scoring opportunities, including a penalty kick by Wayne Rooney (ManU’s top striker) where he slipped, fell on his tuchas and missed the goal entirely; and an even more spectacular blunder by Chelsea’s Fernando Torres, where he got the ball, spun brilliantly around a defenseman, tapped the ball to the left past the oncoming goalie, and then didn’t score from five yards out even though the goal was totally undefended.  Sports sometimes feature spectacularly good plays, but seldom do you see two such horrible errors in the same game.  Only the fact that this wasn’t a championship game saves Torres from having the error of the century.


Changes in Promotion and Tenure Requirements

By now, you should all have received an email talking about changes in promotion and tenure requirement.  We recently became aware that the BoR, in a meeting in 2008, changed some of the requirements, the ones with the most impact being related to now needing a doctorate (or its equivalent in training, ability, and/or experience) to become tenured or to be promoted to associate professor.  As a result, we had to adjust the language in P&P 803.09 to bring it into conformity with the new requirements, and decide what a reasonable interpretation of the language was.  This interpretation is summarized in the “Implementation of Changes in Board of Regents Promotion and Tenure Policies” document attached to that email.

An open forum will tentatively be held Thursday at noon, and I know there will be some questions, since I’ve already received a few.  The first question was: are the current faculty “grandfathered” from the new requirements?  While the general answer is “no” (since Board of Regents requirements apply to everyone immediately, unless otherwise stated), we will of course provide some flexibility for faculty who are caught in the middle.  Faculty coming up for promotion and tenure this year who have already submitted their applications (and whose committees are already meeting) will be allowed to submit additional materials addressing the new requirements if they need (or wish) to, and the committees will be asked to allow them a reasonable amount of time to do so.   Another person asked if the J.D. was considered a terminal degree (yes, for persons teaching in the area of legal issues).  The latter question shows how the open forum should be useful—you can’t think of everything when you prepare an implementation document, and the questions that will be asked at the forum will undoubtedly identify some issues that have been missed so that they can be addressed.  My office stands ready to work with any faculty member impacted by these changes, to try to find an acceptable way forward.


Speaking of Changes…

There have also been some changes in benefits rules, most notably the change in workload percentage in order to be eligible to receive them.  Some of this is a bit ironic—just last year, we were told that part-time faculty teaching more than half-load were now to receive benefits, and now we’re being told that those teaching less than 75% load will now lose their benefits.  This applies to ongoing faculty as well, which raises some questions relative to faculty who go on educational leave or who “buy themselves out” of part of their teaching loads through a research grant.  We’re getting clarification on these issues, and will report back when we have some definitive information.


Self Esteem Isn’t Always Good

Just about every faculty member has encountered the proverbial helicopter parent that whirrs in when their son or daughter encounters the first sign of trouble in the classroom.  While an involved parent is certainly better than an indifferent one, we all know that there’s a red line that shouldn’t be crossed, but often is.  The so-called self-esteem movement in parenting has played a role in this—parents have become extremely reactive to anything that might negatively affect their child’s self-esteem, leading to some unusual adaptations (soccer games where the score isn’t kept being a popularly cited example).  Ultimately, when children don’t learn that failure happens and that they can overcome it using their own abilities, they become fearful that they won’t be able to overcome failure.

Several articles have appeared lately on this subject, making the argument that children (students) who are not allowed to fail or whose parents swoop in at the first sign of difficulty show less perseverance and are less prepared to succeed.  The July/August 2011 issue of the Atlantic had a version of this, entitled “How the Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining Our Kids” on the cover, and “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” inside, by Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist.  I couldn’t find an online link to the full article (though there are a ton of articles online commenting on it), but I have a copy in my office.  I usually turn away from psychological studies of this sort (being a snobbish chemist, don’tcha know), but this one drew me in and makes a lot of sense.  Gottlieb describes a rise in the number of a particular type of patient:

MY FIRST SEVERAL patients were what you might call textbook. As they shared their histories, I had no trouble making connections between their grievances and their upbringings. But soon I met a patient I’ll call Lizzie. Imagine a bright, attractive 20-something woman with strong friendships, a close family, and a deep sense of emptiness. She had come in, she told me, because she was “just not happy.” And what was so upsetting, she continued, was that she felt she had nothing to be unhappy about. She reported that she had “awesome” parents, two fabulous siblings, supportive friends, an excellent education, a cool job, good health, and a nice apartment. She had no family history of depression or anxiety. So why did she have trouble sleeping at night? Why was she so indecisive, afraid of making a mistake, unable to trust her instincts and stick to her choices? Why did she feel “less amazing” than her parents had always told her she was? Why did she feel “like there’s this hole inside” her? Why did she describe herself as feeling “adrift”?

She goes on to quote Jean Twenge, co-author of the book The Narcissism Epidemic and a professor of Psychology at San Diego State, who describes the result of this self-esteem focused upbringing:

People who feel like they’re unusually special end up alienating those around them…They don’t know how to work on teams as well or deal with limits.  They get into the workplace and expect to be stimulated all the time, because their worlds were so structured with activities.  They don’t like being told by a boss that their work might need improvement, and they feel insecure if they don’t get a constant stream of praise.  They grow up in a culture where everyone gets a trophy just for participating, which is ludicrous and makes no sense when you apply it to actual sports games or work performance.  Who would watch an NBA game with no winners or losers? Should everyone get paid the same amount, or get promoted, when some people have superior performance?  They grew up in a bubble, so they get out into the real world and they start to feel lost and helpless.  Kids who always have problems solved for them believe that they don’t know how to solve problems.  And they’re right—they don’t.

Change the word “workplace” to “college” and the situation seems quite familiar. 

Sunday’s New York Times had a similar article, entitled “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” by Paul Tough (author of the forthcoming book The Success Equation).  Among other things, the article describes the KIPP Academy charter school in New York City, founded by David Levin.  KIPP Academy was focused on helping low-income and minority students in middle school to prepare for and to ultimately graduate from college.  The first stage went well—the school’s graduates got the highest scores in the Bronx on the city-wide achievement tests, and the 5th highest scores in the whole city.  Most “also won admission to highly selective private and Catholic schools, often with full scholarships.”  Then things began to turn—while almost all finished high school, 80% entered college and only 33% graduated college after 10 years.  These numbers are good compared to national averages for low-income students, and are about equal to national averages for all students, but nowhere near good enough for a school that had college graduation as its major focus.

More interesting was that the students who did graduate from college weren’t the students who had the best academic records—they were the ones who were able to bounce back after encountering difficulty and recover.  This was an indispensable skill for students who didn’t have a safety net of parental wealth or experience.  So how does one teach students the “character” skills of persistence and single-mindedness—“grit” as psychologist Angela Duckworth called it?  Duckworth developed a short test of 12 questions, and was able to out-predict West Point’s Whole Candidate Score on who would be able to successfully complete their summer training Beast Barracks course.  She found that IQ was the better predictor of scores on statewide achievement tests (which presumably measure academic potential), but “grit” was the better indicator of report-card grades (which measure what the student actually does with that potential).  Grit, zest for learning, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity were ultimately chosen as the necessary “character skills” for success, as opposed to the more traditional measures of character of honesty, fairness, respect, etc.  The article goes on: “For KIPP students, learning these strengths is partly about trying to demystify what makes other people successful — kind of like, ‘We’re letting you in on the secret of what successful people are like.’ ”

A problem that turns up in trying to implement a character skills focused education is that some parents see it as a criticism of their own parenting skills.  “If your premise is that your students are lacking in deep traits like grit and gratitude and self-control, you’re implicitly criticizing the parenting they’ve received — which [at a private school] means you’re implicitly criticizing your employers.

The article concluded with the concern that despite the academic and character training that the students are getting at the elite Riverdale School in New York City, their headmaster Dominic Randolph isn’t convinced they have the necessary skills for success.  What’s missing?  Randolph believes they need to know how to fail, which comes from taking chances and living without a safety net.  “And it is precisely those kinds of experiences that he worries that his students aren’t having.

Trivia Contest!

Last Week’s Winner

Last week’s contest focused on the television show The Addams Family.  First with all the correct answers was Mark Vickrey, who wins a DVD of the 1943 Movie Serial “Batman”.

  1. Who were the two children on the Addams Family?  Wednesday and Pugsley
  2. The theme song for the Addams Family was written by Vic Mizzy, who also wrote the theme song for another well-known 1960’s sitcom set in Hooterville.  Which one? Green Acres (think of how similar the two theme songs are!)
  3. What was Morticia’s maiden name?  Frump
  4. Morticia had a twin sister, also played by Carolyn Jones.  What was her name? Ophelia
  5. Who played “Thing” on the show? In the credits, it said “Itself”.   The actual hand was most often that of Ted Cassidy (who plaid Lurch), but sometimes it was other people if Lurch was in the scene.


This Week’s Challenge

This week’s contest focuses on famous cats.  First with all the correct answers wins a Pretenders “Loose in L.A.” DVD.  No looking up the answers now!

  1. What is the name of the cat in the 1st grade reader “Dick and Jane” series?
  2. What does Felix the Cat do whenever he gets in a fix?
  3. What is the name of Supergirl’s cat in the comic books?
  4. What is the name of Freida’s cat in the comic strip Peanuts, and what is the cat’s most distinguishing feature?
  5. What are the lyrics to the song “Soft Kitty” on The Big Bang Theory?