Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Review: Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College CampusesAcademically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is interesting material here with lots of data, but in the end it is utterly unsurprising. Students by and large learn very little in college (except good students, they tend to learn a lot). This can vary across some demographics and different institutions, but still not a lot of learning going on. Partly this is because the students come in quite unprepared for academically rigorous college courses, but also because the college teachers are either more concerned with their own research or overwhelmed by larger and larger classes. Add to this administrators who have little incentive to focus on improving undergraduate education (I’d add as well that they also don’t know how to do this) and you get the situation we have: Students pretend to learn and teachers pretend to teach.

The authors offer reform proposals in the last chapter. Most of these amount to calls to teach undergraduates more rigorously and for the institutions to support that. Noble as that sounds, it seems to miss the core issues. (1) There is little incentive for any of the parties to do this. For students, the credential more than learning matters more (See The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money). For professors, by and large it doesn’t makes sense to engage all that much in improving teaching since the money and prestige is all in publication. And for instructional faculty, there is not a lot of room for career growth so little incentive to invest in improving. And these faculty are teaching such high loads, they have little time or capacity to do so even when they want to. For administration, they have a little to gain from investing in undergraduate education. Like professors, the status and prestige comes from other parts of the university (graduate programs, athletics). As long as students persist and pay tuition, they seem happy. (2) No one really knows how to improve teaching – or to measure how effective teaching is. Each teacher, in each classroom, dealing with different students calls forth many different ways to go about teaching. Each new teaching proposal and technique holds promise and can work--with some teachers, some students, some subjects, some of the time. In many ways, it is a very local problem to solve and no amount of grand reform program is likely to work.

For those really interested in digging into the data, this book could be useful. Otherwise, reading the introduction/summary is all that is really necessary.

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Sunday, April 25, 2021

Review: Trunk Music

Trunk Music (Harry Bosch, #5; Harry Bosch Universe, #6)Trunk Music by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this one. Even though the general plot line was familiar to me since it was adapted for the Bosch TV show, it was interesting to see the changes the show made. Billets and J Edgar are great. In particular, I liked the development of the relationship with Billets. The character of Eleanor strikes me as different from the TV show. Some of that has to do with the different relationship Bosch and she have in the books, but the character herself is somewhat different.

It's hard not to go right onto the next Bosch book!

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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Review: Play Ball!: The Rise of Baseball as America's Pastime

Play Ball!: The Rise of Baseball as America's PastimePlay Ball!: The Rise of Baseball as America's Pastime by Bruce Markuson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a great course. Wonderfully delivered by Bruce Markuson of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the course covers the early years of baseball. From the early beginnings to 1920, the course looks at rules changes, equipment changes, field changes, as well as many of the social and culture changes that impacted baseball. As an overview course, it doesn't go into as great detail as one might want for some topics, for example, the history of the Negro Leagues. While this is discussed, the history of these leagues is much richer (as admitted by Markuson) than could be covered here.

Markuson examines the different theories of where baseball comes from: the different pre-baseball ball games that were played widely in America and England in the 18th century and how they may have influenced the development of what become known as baseball. He covers how the professional leagues developed in the second half of the 19th century. He discusses how the baseball itself changed the game as the baseball changed. It even goes into how baseball fields themselves changed and developed as baseball evolved (and the changing fields drove some of the changes in the game as well).

If there is one thing you can take away from this course is that Terrance Mann in Field of Dreams was wrong. I love the movie and the speech Mann makes, but he was wrong. He says: "The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time." Sorry, but the history of baseball shows that it has changed again and again just like America. As America rebuilt and reinvented itself through the decades, baseball has changed right along with it, reflecting America's greatness and her worst faults.

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Monday, April 12, 2021

Review: Big-Time Sports in American Universities

Big-Time Sports in American UniversitiesBig-Time Sports in American Universities by Charles T. Clotfelter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Clotfelter’s examination of big-time college sports aims to do several things: first, demonstrate that commercial sport is one of the core functions of American universities. Second, explore how big-time college sport figures in the outcomes of the university (both of the negative and positive variety). Third, make use of recent data and statistical studies to support the previous two points. Lastly, Clotfelter makes some recommendations for reforms.

The book starts with an examination of how sports fit into the university. The American system of commercial sport within universities is unique and part of what Clotfelter wants to do is sort out why and how we end up with the system we have. This helps set up some of his main questions: why, given the many problems that seem to come with commercialized college sport, do universities keep these programs and seek to grow them? Where do (and do) these programs fit into the mission of the university? His conclusion is that commercial sport play important and crucial roles in the modern American university and these shouldn’t be ignored or downplayed. Part of his diagnosis for some of the problems of big-time sports is precisely because the centrality of college sports has not been fully and honestly acknowledged.

Clotfelter then turns to teasing out the consequences for the university of having college sports. He explores, using some clever statistical studies, the impact that college sports have on the academic outcomes, social and community outcomes, and financial outcomes of the university. Some of these are concerning (the negative impact on academic standards and progress) and some of these are positive (the entertainment and happiness produced for the broad community of fans). But in the end, not much of what he finds is all that surprising but seeing it connected to data helps sort out the various ways high-level commercialized sport can impact the university and what it does.
Lastly, he looks at some possible reforms. Some of these are likely to happen soon(ish) though with unknown consequences (such a name, likeness, and image reform). Others are more radical and unlikely to move beyond the pages of academic works.

One of the more interesting conclusions Clotfelter suggests is that while money drives a lot of what goes on in college sport, it doesn’t seem to be the ultimate end or purpose. That is, what he finds is that university leaders and stakeholders that support big-time college sports are ultimately doing it because they want to win. Money is essential to building successful programs, but the end goal is not profit, it is wins: “Despite the palpable commercial value of college athletics, however, it bears repeating that the primary objective of athletic departments is not to make for its own sake. Rather, it is to produce winning teams, for which money is virtually an ironclad necessity” (153).

I appreciate that Clotfelter walks a balanced line. He is quite critical of many aspects of big-time college sports, but also notes the value it brings to the university and society more generally. He brings forward data to help figure out both the harm and the value so that we can better evaluate college sport, but also to more helpfully target criticism and reform. Those looking for either a morbid focus on salacious scandals or enthusiastic cheerleading of the wonders of college sport will need to look elsewhere.

This is an important and helpful work for those interested in understanding the context of big-time college sports. It is not overly technical or mathematical, but it does rely on statistics and other tools of the social scientist. It’s not a casual, beach read, but it’s not a difficult read either. I could also see pulling specific chapters out for assignment in a course. With a little context, many of them can stand alone. In the final analysis, I do not think one walks away with a clear path to realistic reform or even definitive answers to the main questions about college sports, but the book, just as the title indicates, provides a solid foundation for understanding the relationship of big-time college sports to American universities.

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Sunday, April 04, 2021

Review: Abaddon's Gate

Abaddon's Gate (The Expanse, #3)Abaddon's Gate by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The series continues to be exciting and thrilling. Each installation introduces new and interesting characters while also pushing the boundaries of the universe the authors are creating.

I do worry a little bit that the main characters are getting a bit flat in their growth; in many ways, though they help to save the day of course, Holden and Co are not really the main drivers of the story. Anna, Bull, and Clarissa are. Much like I guess Bobbie and Avasarala were in the Book 2.

It's fun, thrilling sci-fi that explores questions about humanity, relationships, and existence. Highly recommend.

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