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May-June 2008

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Letters to the Editor - May/June 2008

Change welcomes letters to the editor. They should be sent to the executive editor, Margaret Miller, at

Learning Math

Kathy Witkowsky’s recent article, “Increasing Learning and Reducing Costs through Technology: The University of Alabama Story” (Change, March/April 2008), reports heartening efforts at research universities to focus on learning outcomes. It is great to see how Robert Olin, formerly at Virginia Tech, is spreading the models of teaching and learning built into Virginia Tech’s innovative math emporium to different universities and subject areas. These new approaches clearly result in increases in student success in mathematics. But those models may be more difficult for many regional comprehensive universities to adopt, since they have a larger percentage of under-prepared students, fewer large classes, less discretionary funding, less time for faculty innovation, and fewer graduate students in subject areas like mathematics.

Yet there are examples of smaller universities modifying the concept and achieving similar results.  For example, Minnesota State University at Moorhead (MSUM) has a five-year-old math learning center project that has resulted in increased student success and retention, according to the vice president for academic affairs, Bette Midgarden. At MSUM, at-risk students are required to spend time each week in the lab working on problems with senior undergraduate students as tutors. As Dean Olin pointed out in the article, students learn math by doing it. It is also critical for them to do it right and have access to immediate feedback.

Moving this into a more scalable environment involves incorporating new technologies. Generally, faculty members want software solutions, particularly software that can give immediate feedback, to fit the curriculum they have already designed for their students.  To create that capacity at smaller institutions, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) is working with Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative to develop a consortium in which faculty members from similar institutions will work together to create software that can be used and modified by colleagues from many other institutions. These AASCU campuses can then create their own math achievement centers.

These types of projects can enable colleges and universities with very real constraints to create contextually appropriate, highly effective teaching and learning environments.

—Sally Johnstone
Vice President for Academic Affairs

Winona State University
Winona, MN

History and Transformation
The project described by Leslie Harris (“From Disenchantment to Dialogue and Action: The ‘Transforming Community’ Project at Emory University,” Change, March/April 2008), touches several key points regarding race and race relations in the academy. Harris and her colleagues are to be commended for boldly taking Emory where few institutions of higher education have chosen to go:  into a substantive series of analytical discussions regarding the past and present impact of race in our society and within our colleges and universities.

As a leading university in the deep South, Emory presents the whole range of complexities and contradictions regarding race that have been such a fundamental part of the American experience. Enlightened self-interest causes most colleges and universities to ignore their own highly segregated past histories and to focus on the contemporary interest in diversity and inclusion. As at Emory, it usually takes an unfortunate and embarrassing incident for institutions to confront the continued existence of racism on their hallowed grounds. Most often, however, as soon as the particular incident fades from the press, the dialogue ceases, and institutional behavior returns to business as usual.

The experiences described in the Transforming Community Project are meaningful and substantive; the readings are solid and balanced; and the central goal, “to move from conversation to transformative action in the wider Emory community,” is particularly laudable. The significance of the project is underscored by the financial commitment from the highest levels of the University administration.

The model presented in this article explains how this particular institution demonstrated commitment to an important task that has been avoided throughout the academic community. Perhaps this example might inspire similar undertakings across the nation, each one rooted in the specific history and social development of the particular college and university in order to achieve the optimum effect and result. It would, quite obviously, be more significant for these discussions to be proactive, rather than the predictable consequence of lamentable racist behaviors. Emory has provided a useful template that can be modified and tweaked by other colleges and universities that choose to address a critical part of the American experience.  It will be interesting to see how many of them choose to follow suit.

—William B. Harvey
Vice President and Chief Officer
 for Diversity and Equity
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA

Unnecessary Precision
The article by Siegfried, Sanderson, and McHenry, “The Economic Impact of Colleges and Universities” (Change, March/April 2008), correctly points out that these impact studies are rarely done with the type of economic rigor that one would like to see. They also note that these exercises are generally     done for their PR value, not for their scientific precision.

Indeed, I remember in the 1980s, when I was president of Kalamazoo College in Michigan, receiving from the independent college association a brief template that we could use in an afternoon to derive a figure for our economic impact. Basically, one simply took the annual expenditure budget and ran it by a couple of multipliers, and voila!, one had a sizable number to tout. I can’t remember whether we actually did it or not, but if we did, I am sure the only result would have been a short news story buried on page 10 of the local newspaper. Nothing of substance hung on the calculation.

This example suggests that perhaps the authors are a bit too demanding of a practice that is generally viewed (correctly) as little but a PR exercise. When no significant decision hangs on the calculation, it seems to me that a rough and ready number may have some modest value in reminding local citizens that the university does have a sizable impact on the local economy. And if the estimate is off by a factor of two or so, I am not sure any great damage is done. In fact, for the citizens who read the story, each will apply a personal lens to evaluate the message. In Charlottesville, for example, I have no doubt that some elderly, long-time residents see the growth of the University of Virginia as doing little but adding congestion to the roads, unseemly housing development, and increased pollution—no amount of greater precision would alter that person’s view of the impact of the institution. Real estate agents, however, may see little but unbounded blessing in the constant flow of new residents who sweep up houses at inflated prices.

Situations do exist, however, where all of the lessons the authors supply should be used most diligently. For example, Southside Virginia, an economically depressed area, has been arguing for years that the answer to their woes would be creation of a new public four-year university.  In this case, the analysis should be as exacting as possible so that no one is deluded by the potential economic impact of a new institution. All of the authors’ wisdom should be brought to bear when something really hinges on the analysis.

—David W. Breneman
Newton and Rita Meyers Professor in Economics of Education
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA

Politicization on Campus
Manuel Gomez’s compelling article (“Imagining the Future: Cultivating Civility in a Field of Discontent,” Change, March/April 2008) reveals a campus where students’ increasing political involvement and politicization yielded serious conflicts. It may seem that the best way to dispel such conflicts would be to remove politics from campus—to chill political involvement among students; avoid introducing controversial political topics in classrooms or co-curricular activities; and encourage students to keep their political views outside the gates, maintaining a polite and silent distance from those with whom they are likely to disagree. UC Irvine is to be commended for adopting what is likely the more demanding and controversial approach: promoting greater and more thoughtful political engagement across the campus. While it poses its own real challenges, this approach is most consistent with the values of liberal democracy and it is likely to be most beneficial to students’ learning and their development as citizens.

As Gomez’s article demonstrates, the goals of protecting freedom of expression and cultivating civility are often in tension.  This tension can lead us to forget that a shared Latin root, “civilis”—meaning “what is of or proper to a citizen”—undergirds both the civil liberty of free speech and the civility necessary for shared community, and these values represent two core elements of democratic citizenship that do not always move in synchrony. Citizens need to learn and experience how these lines of values move in counterpoint to create the complex texture of a pluralist democracy. These lessons in counterpoint are difficult, and colleges offer some of the most valuable opportunities to convey them. If higher education shrinks from this, much will be lost.

Navigating between free speech and civility leaves many campuses fearful of shipwreck. The “difficult dialogues” and related projects UC Irvine has undertaken provide compelling models for helping students, faculty, and administrators work creatively toward a democratic course that skirts both dangers.

 —Elizabeth Beaumont
Assistant Professor of Political Science
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN

Getting Science Right
Carl Wieman’s recent article for Change on the scientific approach to science education  (“Why Not Try a Scientific Approach to Science Education,” Change, September/October 2007), considers many important issues, but some are not dealt with adequately. Hence this letter.

1. John Warren’s Report: As John Warren reported in 1971, nearly half of engineering students ignored centripetal force and thought the forward force of an engine was a resultant force, acting on the car in a circular motion. That is, “experts” gave answers like novices in high school. Similar findings were subsequently reported by many educators. So we have to consider why students give Newtonian answers in conventional examinations and non-
Newtonian answers in the questionnaires of educators. As yet, educators do not know why students are ignorant of centripetal force. But I have shown (Physics Education, March 1984) how they can effectively defend their so-called wrong answer.

2. Trouble with the Solar System: It is unfortunate that all planets of the solar system are orbiting the Sun in the same direction—that is, all are prograde rather than retrograde. But as the retrograde moons of Jupiter and Saturn were discovered about 100 years ago, physicists should have realized that it is not possible to calculate the velocity of a moon simply by using our famous assumption and disregarding the actual direction of moon’s motion.

3. George Gamow’s comment: He used to call positrons “donkey electrons” in personal discussions, in the first third of the 20th century, because of their displacement against the applied force. Is Gamow thinking like an Aristotelian here?

 4. Frank Wilczek’s feeling: According to his statement in Physics Today (October 2004), Wilczek had trouble learning classical mechanics. So I used to alert the physics community, in Indian International Year of Physics (IYP) events, that there could be ten other Franks who might have abandoned physics because of similar feelings, to physics’ great loss. But, in my opinion, the organizers did not give proper attention to this fact in the IYP events.

A thorough discussion of the above issues is essential for effective change in mechanics education.

—Dileep Sathe
Emeritus Member
American Association of Physics Teachers
Pune, India

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