Monday, February 28, 2011

fractured nursery rhyme

Title: The Big Over Easy
Author: Jasper Fforde

Neo-noir mystery, a carefully crafted alternative world, ridiculous jokes, sight gags, and wordplay, and clever tweaking of familiar characters and elements--is it any wonder why I love Jasper Fforde?

The Nursery Crime series is a spin-off of the Thursday Next novels in which Detective Inspector Jack Spratt (his first wife died of a diet consisting only of fat) leads his own strange little team in the investigation of crimes related to nursery rhymes in the world behind books which Fforde has craftily constructed. Because they are often aware of their roles in our literature (it's their day job), the characters are also aware of some of the odd patterns that emerge. Threes crop up often in Mother Goose-style stories and nursery rhymes, and detectives often have sidekicks, drinking problems, and classic cars, no matter how incongruous it may be with the rest of their lives.

This is Spratt's debut, and while his well-meaning second wife tries to get him to apply to the Detectives' Guild (it means better pay and benefits, but it also requires many tropes--she fills out his application with lies and omits herself, listing him as divorced and bitter, not the happy family man he is, driving a wreck and drinking only socially), his new partner (Sergeant Mary Mary) tries to muddle through her assignment for a better posting with one of the more respected and influential Guild detectives, while they both try to find out whether Humpty Dumpty was killed, who might have done it, what connection there might be to the local footcare companies, and simultaneously organize the protection detail for a priceless and mysterious artifact.

It's hilarious, clever, witty, ties itself up nicely, and I finished reading it a long time ago, so while I am full of praise, I am admittedly thin on all the details. But I'd happily read it again for a refresher.

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posted by reyn at 2:05 PM


Monday, February 14, 2011

Problems in Higher Education

Title: Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids - And What We Can Do About It (find in a library)
Authors: Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

Ridiculously long title aside, this book was an interesting discussion of the problems in higher education. And there are many. Some interesting tidbits:
  • Colleges and universities are extremely administrator heavy. The authors list some administrative titles that really do make you wonder: Director of Active and Collaborative Engagement, Credential Specialist, Coordinator of Learning Immersion Experiences, among others. "Between 1976 and 2007, the ratio of college administrators to students basically doubled" (p. 30). And not particularly surprising, there was no equivalent increase in full-time faculty. In fact:
  • The number of adjunct instructors has shot up exponentially because they are cheap labor. A typical adjunct makes about $3,000/course. Teaching a course load of 5 in a year (which is what many full-time faculty teach, if that) nets an adjunct a whopping $15,000 with no benefits. And there's no real evidence that adjuncts are any less effective at teaching than full-time professors.
  • The institution of tenure should be abolished and replaced with a contract renewal system to provide some accountability.
  • Colleges and universities providing undergraduate education should de-emphasize research in favor of teaching. Harvard gets a particularly bad rap in this area as an institution with faculty who are especially poor at teaching undergrads.
  • The authors also argue that colleges should refocus on the liberal arts and less on vocational majors. They define vocational as anything intended to lead to a job - engineering, business, etc. They believe that a recent grad will mostly learn on the job and won't be expected to apply principles learned in courses.
  • Colleges should seriously reconsider athletics, or at minimum, the amount spent on them. Almost all colleges and universities (even many with big name football teams) spend far more money on athletics than those sports ever bring in. Not to mention, rigorous athletic schedules take time away from schoolwork. In addition, "An NCAA study found that half its coaches are paid at least $252,000, over twice the salary of professors at most institutions" (p.158). That really gets me. An institution of higher education, where education should be the primary concern and sports coaches make twice what professors do, on average? Ugh.
All in all, some very interesting points were made. It is clear that higher education needs to be reexamined. The cost of a bachelor's degree has increased far more rapidly than inflation would warrant. Universities claim to spend tens of thousands of dollars per student when in reality, a sizable chunk of that money goes to faculty research. Should undergraduates really be paying to support that?

And just in general, students in PhD programs that are intending to go into teaching should be required to take education courses, or at least be provided with a program that helps them learn how to teach.

I look forward to reading the latest book published on the failings of higher education next: Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.


posted by Kate at 8:36 PM