A VORTEX OF SHIT, PART II

Posted in Rants on May 21st, 2015 by Ed

(Check in with Part I here)

So does Scott County really have to be as bad as it is? Realistically, yes. Its fate is sealed. Here's why.

There is no reason to stay in Scott County, Indiana. There's nothing to do there, no economic opportunities. It's ugly. The weather sucks. It has a lot of crime. Its only real asset – low cost of living – is a direct function of its status as a void in the universe and therefore not worth much. So like any half-rational person, you leave. You find the nearest big city or make the big move out to New York or whatever. You leave just like everybody leaves.

Well, not everybody. The people who are capable of leaving – young, not tied down, not incarcerated or on probation, not dirt poor – leave. So who's left behind? Old people who refuse to leave. Young people counting down the minutes until they can leave. People who can't pay their bills let alone the cost of moving. People with life-obliterating problems (with drugs, with booze, with gambling). People who have no skills or education that might be salable elsewhere. People who are barely adults and have four kids. People who don't have a parole officer. People who don't think that (insert name of essentially city anywhere) is better than Scott County. People who can't get their shit together even if they have the means. People who either had their asses kicked by life or are losers, basically.

So who ends up in charge? Who makes the decisions that make the Scott Counties of the world so spectacularly and consistently backward? Well. The idiots elect a handful of other idiots, who hire their idiot relatives to perform important jobs very badly. The Chief of Police in Scott County is behaving like some kind of reactionary, pitiably stupid backcountry hick because he is a reactionary, pitiably stupid backcountry hick. We know that with certainty because if he were any good at his job or had marketable skills he would move 25 miles away to work in the safe, fancy suburbs of Louisville, KY and do the same job only easier and at double the salary. And that's the reason communities like these are in a death spiral – anyone good enough to do the job(s) of running the place well is good enough to get a better job in a better place at a better salary. If a few capable people do stick around, they'll find it impossible to accomplish anything against the tendencies of the elderly, the ignorant, and the ignorant elderly.

How do we fix it? We don't. Communities need people with a mix of skills in order to prosper, and short of handing out Ferraris and a blowjob to anyone who agrees to move there it is not going to get a mix. It is going to get people for whom getting through one day is a struggle and therefore unwilling to focus on anything other than their own lives. It is going to get knuckleheads and miserable old people. It's going to get a lot of people caught up in the justice system or on meth. And they're going to be on the school board, in the police force, teaching in the schools, and raising their inevitably terrible children.

They will try to fix the local economy with ideas that were stale 20 years ago. They'll take ineffective, counterproductive, and punitive approaches to dealing with social problems like drugs, poverty, and crime. They'll teach their kids that the Earth is 6,000 years old and girls all want to be raped and The Messicans are comin' to take their part-time job at Casey's General Store. The courts, justice system, and law enforcement will be corrupt, petty, and inept. And that's just the way everything will be, and everyone will be used to it, and everyone will accept it as their lot in life and that will be that.

The only hope is that a higher level of government – particularly the state legislature – is run by less incompetent people who can enforce some half-decent choices on rural and failing urban areas. Good thing Scott County has Mike Pence and the Indiana Legislature handling the really important things in the State Capitol.

A VORTEX OF SHIT, PART I

Posted in Rants on May 19th, 2015 by Ed

For the last several months, one of the worst places I have ever been in the United States has been in the news. Not surprisingly the reason isn't positive. Scott County in southern Indiana (anchored by the metropolises of Austin and Scottsburg) was the site of a rapid spike in HIV infections from prescription opiate addicts sharing needles in that little slice of Real America. If you've never been to Scott County, you've been to Scott County. Just think of whatever nearby dilapidated, tumbleweed-strewn rural dump is nearby and you're there. Think of a big trailer park, but dirtier and poorer. Think of small towns that have no reason for existing anymore. That's Scott County. Everything necessary to create an HIV outbreak is there in spades: lack of healthcare, lack of public health services, lack of education, lack of employment, lack of money, and lack of anything to do but make and shoot the kind of drugs that destroy people from the inside out.

After some of his trademark waffling between right wing talking points and massive public and Federal pressure, Indiana Governor Mike Pence recently approved a temporary needle exchange program for Scott County. Then after he swore repeatedly he would veto it, he signed a law to the same effect. For a moment it seemed like a rare example of Republican lawmakers making a decision based on evidence rather than ideology. Not to oversimplify the issue, but everyone who isn't weapons-grade stupid or steeped too thoroughly in War on Drugs propaganda to see over the edge of their paranoia understands that things like needle exchanges are sensible policy. People addicted to things like heroin and meth are going to do things like heroin or meth every day regardless of whether they have proper sterile paraphernalia available. There is no opiate addict on the planet who ever said "Looks like I'm out of clean needles. Guess I have to quit using." Until some kind of treatment program intervenes (which in the United States usually takes the form of getting incarcerated, at least for poor people) to break people from addiction, addicts use drugs regardless of any externalities. Even anti-drug crusaders are capable of understanding that things like HIV and Hepatitis outbreaks are expensive public health problems that cost far more in the long term than a bulk-bought $0.49 syringe.

Don't worry, though. The yokels of Scott County have found a way to fuck it up. Even when events conspire to accidentally produce good public policy from the Governor and state legislature, leave it to the ingenuity of the kind of people in positions of power in America's rural sinkholes to ensure that no sensible ideas are enacted on the ground.

Why does it always have to turn out this way? Aside from the obvious lack of a stable economic base, why must places like Scott County suck so completely and consistently? Many Americans insist that not terribly long ago small town America was actually a fairly pleasant place to live. The same is said about any number of medium sized Rust Belt cities that have been on the decline since the 1950s. Obviously these places are poor and that's a big problem. But lacking great wealth doesn't mean everything has to be terrible. Your school district might not be rich, for example, but it doesn't cost anything to teach students that the Earth is not 6,000 years old. It costs nothing to teach real Sex Education rather than abstinence-only detritus.

I have been thinking about this a great deal lately, and I have an idea that doesn't invoke religion, the Culture Wars, or the Republican Party's messy divorce from reality. But that will have to wait 24 hours.

ALLEN WEST WOULD GET THE FJM TREATMENT IF HE WASN'T SUCH A TERRIBLE AND UNFOCUSED WRITER

Posted in Rants on May 13th, 2015 by Ed

Did you guys know that Allen West is still alive? True story, he is. He has the world's worst website and he has just used it to share with the world one of the most amazing things you'll ever see. It bears the title, just in case you're afraid that the preceding description isn't going to deliver, "More Ominous Signs of Christian Persecution." I considered giving this an FJM but after about the first three paragraphs it turns into such a cornucopia of non sequiturs that I couldn't even make anything coherent out of it (see for yourself and count the number of random right wing talking point Obama-related issues he throws in by the end). So here is the only relevant or salvageable part, the titular OMINOUS SIGN.

Aubrey, a very organized young lady, began the initial arranging of her room. And then came the request — “Dad, I know you haven’t been eating well here, so we need to go grocery shopping.” Dang it! This is what happens when your daughter is pursuing a Masters in Molecular/Cellular Biology. So we were off to the local Walmart Superstore just up the road. We gathered up her desired foodstuffs and headed to the checkout — and then this happened.

There was a young man doing the checkout and another Walmart employee came over and put up a sign, “No alcohol products in this lane.” So being the inquisitive fella I am, I used my additional set of eyes — glasses — to see the young checkout man’s name. Let me just say it was NOT “Steve.”

I pointed the sign out to Aubrey and her response was a simple question, how is it that this Muslim employee could refuse service to customers based on his religious beliefs, but Christians are being forced to participate in specific events contrary to their religious beliefs?

Boy howdy, that is one astute young lady.

Imagine that, this employee at Walmart refused to just scan a bottle or container of an alcoholic beverage — and that is acceptable. A Christian business owner declines to participate or provide service to a specific event — a gay wedding — which contradicts their faith, and the State crushes them.

Jeez, that IS pretty alarming. There are some rather clear parallels between a Muslim employee refusing to handle alcohol and a Christian employee who, for example, didn't want to handle birth control. For the first time, Allen West seems to have a point. This is a double standard.

EDITOR’S UPDATE: We spoke to the Walmart store, and apparently employees under 21 years old are prohibited from selling cigarettes and alcohol.

Oh. OH. Oh you mean that like literally every other business on the planet, Walmart does not allow minor employees to handle alcohol? You mean "No Alcohol" wasn't really a sign of impending Sharia Law?

The best part is not that Allen West is a very stupid person who jumps to insane conclusions based on his paranoid fantasies. We already knew that. The best part is that Allen West doubles down and just keeps plowing along as if nothing changed. The basis of his piece having been made irrelevant is not nearly enough to stop Allen West from making a point. He does offer up this weak tea in an effort to save some face:

However, that isn’t to say Walmart isn’t selectively caving to Muslim demands, such as this case regarding Halal meat in Ohio.

Ah, the classic Megan McArdle "I may be wrong but I'm still right."

Hey Allen, do any major grocery store chains already sell food designed for a specific religious market? Oh that's right, literally every single place that sells food in this country has kosher stuff. But other than that, it's an excellent grasping-at-straws example here. Grocery stores in places where there are a lot of Muslims deciding to sell Halal meat is creeping Sharia Law. What other explanation could there be?

And then he plows on for more than 500 additional idiotic words as if nothing happened. Since the last 75% of the column had so little to do with his supposed topic anyway, it almost works. Sort of like how the Hindenburg almost made it.

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COLLECTIVE INACTION PROBLEM

Posted in Rants on May 12th, 2015 by Ed

What follows is an outline of a conversation I have had repeatedly throughout my academic career. It is a representation of no individual or institution in particular, as I have had it with people at all stages of their career and at all types of post-secondary institutions from community colleges up to major research universities.

As a preface, everybody must know that educators spend a tremendous amount of time complaining about the students. I imagine doctors and nurses complain about their patients, and that people in retail and service complain about customers. Well, I can promise you that teachers are no different. If you know any teachers, you probably know this firsthand. If not, well…your suspicions are true. We complain.

Some colleague will spend a variable amount of time – years on end, or a single conversation – complaining about some aspect of his/her students. Usually it is their complete lack of effort or their utter lack of preparation / skills necessary to succeed in a university environment. My experiences have led me to believe what they tell me without being terribly skeptical. At some point I will ask a question like, "So did you end up failing a lot of people? Was that an issue?" or "What did your grade distribution look like?" Since I do not record these conversations and keep them as evidence you will have to take my word for this part, but I'd estimate that about 75% of the time my fellow educator reports that the grades were all A or B. Maybe, if he or she is a real ball-breaker, they give grades all the way down to C.

This is not universally true. Sometimes other professors tell me they fail a lot, or they pride themselves on being a tough grader who does not simply hand out A's like candy. There are some of us out there. But take a look at the statistics on grade inflation. Not only is A the modal grade in college courses now but the average GPA at any campus in the country has increased steadily since the 1990s. Maybe the students are just getting smarter. I kid, I kid.

I don't understand how people who have a Ph.D., not to mention considerable college teaching experience, cannot put two and two together. The students are terrible, yet somehow giving them all passing grades (and in some cases B or higher) isn't making them less terrible. Shocking, isn't it? It's almost as if the students can glean information online or from the campus grapevine about which faculty members are creampuff graders and take their classes with the confidence that if they don't feel like putting in the effort necessary to get an A they can do absolutely nothing and walk out with the B. Someone should do some research to study the question of how hard people will work above and beyond what is necessary to accomplish a well-defined goal.

That leaves the question: Why? Why do some faculty do this?

We don't lack for theories. Some people believe that giving high grades buys positive teaching evaluations, while others insist that no such relationship exists. Others argue that faculty, particularly at smaller and more teaching-intensive schools, grow to like their students to the point that they will not grade them harshly. Others blame parents and administrators for emphasizing grades above learning and retention above quality, respectively. Students who fail out of school don't write tuition checks, after all.

I have a simpler theory: laziness. It's rare that I don't side with academics, for obvious reasons. But I really think this one is largely our fault. Faculty give out inflated grades because it's easier. It's easier than working hard to improve a student's performance when said student simply does not care, and it's easier than giving out D and F grades and having to deal with students complaining about their grades and trying to negotiate higher ones. That's really all there is to it. Passing the students along, as America's high schools figured out long ago, is the easiest way to avoid making their problems your own. Just give them a C so they won't take your class again, or a B so you won't have to watch them cry in your office about how dad is going to take the SUV away.

Ironically, the perception of how much work is involved with giving out real, uninflated grades is…inflated. Being a Dick Grader is not nearly as much work as most faculty seem to think. If you lay out clear expectations and let the students know up front that you're not going to tolerate negotiations and that anyone looking for a course that can be passed with no effort should look elsewhere, it turns out that you don't have to spend hours and hours at the end of the semester in pained negotiations with aggrieved students.

It is not our job to hand out an A to anyone who enrolls in the course. When we choose to do so, however, we shouldn't be surprised that the students adjust their approach to our courses accordingly. If I could get my paycheck without having to put any effort into the job you can be certain that I would. Why would the students, grade-oriented as our system has become, do any differently?

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REVENGE FANTASY

Posted in Rants on May 11th, 2015 by Ed

I know that it's not very Progressive to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others, nor to believe that the socioeconomic equivalent of corporal punishment is the only way that the brainwashed white trash base of the Republican Party will ever learn. To do that would be mean. Instead I'll just say that I would love to see the looks on some of these rural Pennsylvanians' faces the first time they see opaque amber sludge in place of what should be tap water. Shockingly, it turns out that fracking happens almost entirely in dirt poor rural areas – the same kind that have voted in droves for every crypto-fascist bag man, harebrained religious fanatic, and snake-eyed Job Creator that has crawled from the toxic sludge of the GOP in the past thirty years.

I'd like to see the looks on their faces as the reality sinks in that maybe – just maybe – all those people who promised to hand environmental regulatory power over to the energy industry if not eliminate it altogether didn't have the best interests of the Common Man at heart after all. Maybe the GOP and its media arm are not a grassroots populist movement organized to protect the little guy, that it is in fact an elaborate racket that exists solely to siphon wealth upward.

I'd like to tell them: At least you voted repeatedly to protect yourself from the non-existent threats to your guns. Maybe you can shoot the contaminants out of the water.

I'd like to tell them: Thank god there are no Homos around to contaminate the water, right? Just benzene and ethylene glycol.

I'd like to tell them: Thank god you vote for whoever waves around the Bible most enthusiastically. No doubt the hydrocarbons can be prayed out of the water.

I'd like to tell them: At least you can afford some nice medical care when this gives you cancer thanks to those lucrative jobs that the oil companies promised would flock to your decrepit community, even though most of them never materialized or were ephemeral.

Most of all, I'd like to congratulate them for being perceptive enough to recognize the real enemy all along: the government. The welfare state. Teen moms. Saddam Hussein. Common Core. Death panels. The UN. Sex education. Saul Alinsky. Water fluoridation. Literally anyone and anything other than that man behind the curtain, who probably doesn't even exist but if he did exist he's certainly harmless and if he's not harmless it's only because he's actively looking out for the interests of white trash everywhere.

Sometimes you get what you vote for, and if you're willfully ignorant (and proud of it) what you think you voted for and what you end up getting are unlikely to have much in common. Congratulations, people who vote for the likes of Pat Toomey and Rick Santorum. I'm supposed to feel bad for you, but I'm not terribly moved to see you forced to live, literally, in a mess of your own making.

COST-BENEFIT

Posted in Rants on May 7th, 2015 by Ed

Across the pond, the Italian government is paying Lamborghini (a subsidiary of the German Volkswagen-Audi group) 100 million Euros (approx. $112,000,000) to hire 300 new workers to begin production of a monstrously ugly SUV called the Urus. As Lamborghini's products are sold exclusively to young people who have incredible amounts of money and absolutely no taste, I'm sure this thing that looks like a Decepticon and sounds like a bladder disorder will do fine at the $250,000+ they plan to charge for each one.

On the surface this looks like the classic example of European Socialism and in fact I have seen a few commentaries that describe it as such. Another European socialist nightmare state clinging to the failed theories of the past and effectively nationalizing a company that can't survive in the Free Market. In practice, though, this type of policy has far more in common with the "cutting edge" (try saying it, it sounds so ridiculous) of right wing economics today: take public money, slop it in a trough, and invite private enterprise to waddle up and eat their fill. Lamborghini, like the Volkswagen Group as a whole, makes shitloads of money. This isn't British Leyland in the mid-70s desperately asking the government for enough cash to keep them alive. It's a company playing jurisdictions against one another to loot the public coffers and get concessions far beyond any that common sense or economic wisdom would dictate. In this case, Lamborghini's threat to manufacture elsewhere in the EU – no doubt the low-wage countries of Eastern Europe in which Volkswagen is increasingly shifting its labor – was enough to get Italian politicians to abandon even the pretense of making rational decisions.

The government is giving the company $112 million (US) to hire 300 people for a production run of one vehicle. In the auto industry a typical production run (the lifespan of one model with only minor changes from year to year) is usually six years. If you do the math, that equates to $55,000 per job per year, or $330,000 per job over the six year period. That is considerably more than Lamborghini will pay them in salary and benefits. How can anyone making a rational case for this investment believe that employing 300 people for six years is really worth $112 million to the state? Obviously not, but apparently enough influence has been bought to make such a financial non-starter happen. The decision has nothing to do with making a rational case; Italy has moved beyond the torpor of 1970s socialism and embraced the glories of 21st Century crony capitalism.

We see a lot of this in Southern states in the US, where state legislatures slop out billions in tax breaks, infrastructure improvements, and outright cash giveaways to lure in factories that will employ at best one or two thousand people (many of whom will end up being temp hires at or near minimum wage). Like cutting taxes for the wealthy has nothing to do with a sincere belief that it will increase tax revenues – that is merely a rationale for public consumption and the edification of gullible rubes – the real purpose of giving away money in this fashion is simply to those well connected players in the private sector who, having paid the piper, fully expect to call the tune.

Socialism? No, this is where neoliberalism got us. A socialist government would drive a harder bargain before pissing away this much money. Giving it away on the flimsiest of pretenses is more indicative of the urge to serve Big Business than of the urge to control it.

A NOVEL IDEA

Posted in Rants on May 4th, 2015 by Ed

I did my best to try to subject David Brooks' latest to a proper FJM Treatment, but I couldn't. I've done Brooks too many times (phrasing) and his column is too mean, condescending, and deceptive to be a source of any real humor. This kind of shit just isn't funny anymore. If you're interested you can read up on how every number he cites in his piece is either distorted or flat-out fabricated, but I just couldn't get past this paragraph. It killed all the funny. I don't like to be Brooks' favorite creature – the Very Serious Person – but I did a serious face and it ruined any attempt to make this enjoyable.

Despite all these efforts, there are too many young men leading lives like the one Gray led. He was apparently a kind-hearted, respectful, popular man, but he was not on the path to upward mobility. He won a settlement for lead paint poisoning. According to The Washington Post, his mother was a heroin addict who, in a deposition, said she couldn’t read. In one court filing, it was reported that Gray was four grade levels behind in reading. He was arrested more than a dozen times.

Here is where we introduce David Brooks to the novel idea that even people who are not on the path to upward mobility deserve to not be killed by the police.

Look, this is how poverty works. That's why anyone who knows their ass from the Grand Canyon calls it a "cycle." Freddie Gray, like 9 out of 10 males growing up in a shit neighborhood have, had a criminal record. Petty drug stuff for the most part, which is to be expected once young men realize that selling weed / making meth / etc is about 1000% more lucrative than any other financial opportunity available to them. It's not, as an old white person like David Brooks might say, like Freddie Gray was slitting old ladies' throats in alleys for thrills. There is nothing to suggest that he was a Bad Person, just another person who had to raise himself predictably taking to a life in the gray market economy.

But here's the thing: none of that matters. Poverty – and say this part as Tim Curry's character in Clue talking about Communism – is just David Brooks' red herring. It doesn't matter if Freddie Gray was an altar boy who spent his spare time saving endangered owls or the second coming of the Boston Strangler. There is no excuse for him dying in police custody. Wonderful, rich, upwardly mobile people don't deserve that. Poor, evil people wallowing in the underclass don't deserve it either. That's what someone like Brooks can't grasp, the idea that a person's social status and life experience should not dictate the kind of treatment afforded them by a system that is supposedly blind, impartial, and fair.

MATTER OF TIME

Posted in Rants on May 3rd, 2015 by Ed

The first lecture I ever gave in a college classroom was about the Electoral College, and every time that topic comes up in various courses I feel a bit sentimental. If I may say so, I'm a pretty good repository of information about this arcane and ridiculous system. It's far more intricate than most people realize, although there is a very good reason most people don't realize it: none of the technicalities ever matter. In practice we go to bed on Election Night (or wake up the next morning) knowing the next president despite the fact that the actual Electors are unknown and the Electoral Votes won't be cast for more than a month. Everything after Election Day happens behind the curtain.

There are a lot of strange things that could happen under the rules of the Electoral College; they could, but they never do. An Elector could go "faithless." A state legislature could change its rules for selecting Electors. A tycoon could, in my view, offer an Elector a billion dollar check to change his vote with no legal ramifications for either party (Electors are neither elected officials nor appointed civil servants). For all its what-ifs, however, in practice the process is as dull as dishwater. Candidates and state party organizations choose electors based on unquestioned loyalty to the party and demonstrated willingness to be a good soldier.

There is one big glaring loophole, though. A fatal design flaw. And for years I've resisted writing about it because I feel like if we say its name aloud it will make it more likely to happen. But I'm sure that plenty of Republican strategists, lawyers, and conspiracy theorists have already thought of this in what could be either their finest or their darkest hour.

Here's a quick rundown on how the system unfolds. American voters don't vote for presidential candidates; they vote for a slate of Electors committed to support a candidate. A handful of states print the name of these Electors on the ballot but most do not. We vote on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November (don't ask). Immediately thereafter, each state submits a formal list to Congress of the Electors chosen – whichever set represents the candidate who won the state's popular vote. Five or six weeks later, on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December (really, don't ask) the Electors meet in their state capitol to cast their votes formally. These are recorded by the Archivist and reported to Congress. OK. All clear so far.

The final step occurs in the first week of January, when the new Congress is sworn in and opens its session. On its first day, Congress must certify the Electoral Votes submitted by the states. This, like most parts of the process, is a rubber stamp in the modern era. Any objections made to the Electoral Vote must be in writing and signed by one Senator and one Representative. This is where everything could go to shit. As long as the Republicans have a majority in both chambers, there's no real reason they couldn't just refuse to certify the Electoral Vote. If you think that's too far-fetched I'd suggest you have not been paying close enough attention. How would they justify it? Who knows what Bircher-derived nonsense they would concoct. Texans are currently convinced that the Army is about to come and take their guns; I'm not sure there's a practical limit to their ability to delude themselves when it is to their benefit.

Objections occur rarely and are dealt with quickly. In theory, though, there is no reason either of those statements must hold in the future. A valid (signed) objection results in an immediate suspension of Congress while each chamber convenes separately to resolve the objection. I can find no evidence – certainly none in the 12th Amendment, and none in subsequent acts of Congress – that this suspension could not continue indefinitely. There's no procedure, no contingency plan, for a deadlock that cannot be resolved. It is implied that the members of Congress will come to some sort of reasonable compromise quickly.

Yeah. They wouldn't even need to dig in their heels on all 50 states in a close election, just the one or two that put the Democratic candidate over the top. Close your eyes and tell me that you can't picture it happening; that you can't see Lindsey Graham gravely telling the cameras that California's votes must be rejected because the UN and FEMA and illegal immigrants and teen welfare moms and al Qaeda and whatever other nonsense they can dream up. And tell me that you can't see half of this country buying it hook, line, and sinker.

I am a person of no particular intellectual gifts; if I could figure this out then god knows the lawyers and Dark Artists of the Beltway can figure it out. The only thing stopping anyone from trying this is common sense, restraint, and shame. Take a look at today's Congressional Republicans and let me know how much of that you see. It may not happen soon but at some point, I can guarantee you that someone will try this. If I'm not here to say I told you so, this post will have to do it for me.

PUNTING

Posted in Rants on April 27th, 2015 by Ed

Everyone loves a good Take This Job and Shove It story, and the collective catharsis we feel when reading about a flight attendant getting fed up, activating the emergency slide, and walking away with both middle fingers skyward is palpable. That could be me someday, we think. Maybe one day I will have the balls…because god knows I feel like doing this approximately every third day.

It was not difficult to get my attention, in that spirit, with the story of one Irwin Horwitz. A professor at a branch campus of Texas A&M University in Galveston, Horwitz got so fed up with a spectacularly bad class that he sent them an email informing them that he is walking away and they are all receiving an F. To wit:

"Since teaching this course, I have caught and seen cheating, been told to 'chill out,' 'get out of my space,' 'go back and teach,' [been] called a 'fucking moron' to my face, [had] one student cheat by signing in for another, one student not showing up but claiming they did, listened to many hurtful and untrue rumors about myself and others, been caught between fights between students."

Horwitz said he would fail every single student. "None of you, in my opinion, given the behavior in this class, deserve to pass, or graduate to become an Aggie, as you do not in any way embody the honor that the university holds graduates should have within their personal character. It is thus for these reasons why I am officially walking away from this course. I am frankly and completely disgusted. You all lack the honor and maturity to live up to the standards that Texas A&M holds, and the competence and/or desire to do the quality work necessary to pass the course just on a grade level…I will no longer be teaching the course, and all are being awarded a failing grade."

This is the waking fantasy of every teacher or professor who has dealt with a miserable class, the educational equivalent of dumping a plate of food on an asshole diner and walking out of the restaurant straight to the nearest bar. Obviously the university administration will engineer some outcome other than automatic failing grades for the students enrolled in the course, and Horwitz is likely to be (and no doubt expects to be) disciplined. Even if tenured, non-performance is one of the few open-and-shut ways that a faculty member can be fired for cause. My guess is he will be punished short of that, if for no reason other than the administration's desperation to keep him from telling the world everything he knows about just how dog shit the university and its students are.

I'm sure there are some good students at the Texas A&M-Galvestons of the world, but when a university isn't even in the top 25 or 30 in the pecking order of public institutions in a state there is an outstanding chance that phrases like "feeder" and "open enrollment" and "of last resort" are applied and not without justification. This is to say that I have taught at three different four-year universities and I am extremely privileged to have taught at three universities much closer to the top of the pile than the bottom. It's not like I taught at Stanford or Oxford, but all have been good, selective (on paper) institutions that generally limited the pool of students to those who might reasonably be expected to succeed in college if they care to do so. I cannot imagine how challenging it must be to teach at a place like Dr. Horwitz teaches; I say that with both admiration and elitism. I am glad I don't teach at such a place, because it sounds horrible in every way that the job could be horrible. Yes, there are good students there. They are massively outnumbered.

Bearing in mind that I have taught exclusively at Good Schools, in some cases expensive and in all cases prestigious, it is shocking to many people to hear my tales of some of the students I have dealt with. I've had students with behavioral problems so severe that they could not live or function without assistance. I've had two students I know for a fact could not read, and several others that I've suspected. I've had students with scores like 15 on the ACT or the 25th percentile of the SAT, scores that suggest either that the exam taker filled out the answers at random or lacks the most fundamental high school level academic skills.

And here's the part of Horwitz's story that will get no attention but is truly beautiful: "The same day Horwitz sent a similar email to the senior administrators of the university telling them what he had done, and predicting (correctly) that students would protest and claim he was being unfair. The students are "your problem now," Horwitz wrote."

That is his point. This isn't about the students; it's about the administrators who decided that these were college students. On the (thankfully limited) instances that I have had to deal with students like those I described just above, my urge has not been in any way to punish the student. It has been to take the student gently by the hand, walk down to the Dean of Admissions or whichever apparatchik was responsible for admitting him, and announce, "You let him in here, you fucking deal with him." It is not about lashing out at students but about returning the problems dumped into our laps to the responsible party. Horwitz has effectively made his problem the administration's problem, and I understand that impulse completely. Because the administrative mindset is to take anyone who can pay the tuition or qualify for Federal loans/grants, even students that they know beyond any shadow of doubt cannot succeed in college. Once that financial transaction takes place, the admissions folks are happy and that millstone of a student now becomes the faculty's collective problem.

It is a very clear and persistent case of "Oh well, I won't have to deal with it!" and "You're someone else's problem now!" frosted with a nauseating layer of pap about how we're doing something noble because doesn't every student deserve a chance? Yes, educational opportunities should exist for everyone. But I am not a high school Special Education teacher. I am neither trained nor prepared to deal with students who literally cannot stop themselves from singing and throwing things throughout class. I am not prepared to teach a college course that both challenges the best students and accommodates those who can barely read. That is why universities are not one size fits all, why Harvard accepts people who have a fighting chance at succeeding at Harvard and rejects those who probably (although not definitely) do not. At a place like TAMU-Galveston, where the school by design and necessity accepts essentially anyone who submits an application, the task given to professors there is unrealistic and unethical at best, professionally negligent at worst.

So, congratulations to Dr. Horwitz. Not because this stunt will work or because he Showed Those Darn Kids. The dynamic in which clueless MBA types walled off from student contact and from reality make decisions without having to deal with the consequences needs to be dismantled. If the admissions process is going to involve no standards beyond the ability to pay, then the faculty (and the students who are actually hoping to learn something) should not bear the entire burden of dealing with what follows.

THE ICEBERG

Posted in Rants on April 26th, 2015 by Ed

I've said plenty here over the years about online education, and plummeting enrollments at for-profit (and almost entirely online-based) universities suggest that the pool of potential student/customers is starting to see through the scam. Having an online Bachelor's degree is worse than having no college degree at all on the job market, with the added bonus of saddling you with a six-figure student loan debt for all of that non-education.

One of the largest players in the industry / racket, Corinthian Colleges, officially went belly-up on Sunday. This is not a surprise; the company has been staggering along as the Sick Man of online education for years as the investigations and financial issues mounted. Frankly it's a small miracle that they lasted as long as they did. The LA Times story on the closure notes that this strands CC's currently 78,000 students and potentially makes them eligible for Federal student loan forgiveness. And my strongest reaction to this story was the realization that, holy crap, this dying mess of an institution (in an industry in overall decline) with ten solid years of horrible publicity still has 78,000 students somehow. Who in the hell are these people?

My guess is that any "real" students in that number are either people who need a degree to qualify for a higher salary level (as in civil service) and don't really care about quality, or people whose employer/etc pays for the courses and thus "Fuck it, it's free" is the dominant mindset. For the most part, though, as the California Attorney General stated:

The state’s lawsuit claims that Corinthian—which charges more than $40,000 for tuition and related fees—targets single parents who are close to the poverty level, a demographic that its internal documents describe as “composed of ‘isolated,’ ‘impatient,’ individuals with ‘low self-esteem,’ who have ‘few people in their lives who care about them’ and who are ‘stuck’ and ‘unable to see and plan well for future,’ through aggressive and persistent internet and telemarketing campaigns and through television ads on daytime shows like Jerry Springer and Maury Povich.’ ”

In other words, online degrees are marketed to the same segment of the population as payday loans and cash advances, with the most obvious difference being that a payday lender won't let you go $150,000 in the hole. Of course, the school (or "school") isn't the one fronting the cash, and that gets to the heart of what the entire business model of for-profit education is all about. It is nothing more than a conduit for shifting government money to a private business and risk and responsibility to private individuals. That's why the admissions criteria are limited to an exclusive class of potential students consisting of anyone capable of qualifying for a Federal student loan or grant. It's not difficult to see that any individual who doesn't understand that a degree from "Everest University Online" is not worth the $40,000/year Corinthian charges is, in the immortal words of Nigel Tufnel, not exactly university material.

Most of these students would be better served at a community or technical college, institutions designed to offer cheap, flexibly scheduled classes to working adults and younger people for whom traditional 4-year colleges don't make sense. Online schools are simply parasites, attaching themselves to an industry and a population of students that don't need them. That the primary expense for these companies is advertising – University of Phoenix spent nearly three quarters of a billion dollars on advertising last year – underscores how much more similar to retail and service industry firms they are than to any educational institution.

This is the tip of an iceberg, a bubble poised to burst. We will be seeing more of this in the near future, not only among online schlock merchants but also among smaller brick-and-mortar colleges. With the skyrocketing cost of college tuition and the vast numbers of marginal students being enticed to sign contracts they don't fully understand, it would take a great deal of willful blindness to fail to see the similarities to the housing market of the last decade.