Tag Archives: education

On reaching beyond the low hanging fruit in science education

Yale lowhangingfruit

I woke up this spring break morning to a bit of a buzz on twitter that seems relevant to concerns I’ve expressed here in the past, and to my job as a prof at a CSU campus (and no, it wasn’t some April Fool’s prank). Terry McGlynn (fellow ecologist from CSU-Dominguez Hills) has a new post up on his blog Small Pond Science expressing some consternation that Harvard’s 6700 undergraduates received exactly the same number of NSF’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships as did the 392,951 students in the entire CSU system this year. He then reflects on some of the challenges of helping our students succeed in science careers in the face of what appear to be larger scale institutional and systemic barriers and constraints (if not active biases).

This bit at the end of Terry’s post resonates with me:

Not that long after I started my job at CSU Dominguez Hills, a good friend of mine came to visit campus and give a talk. I was griping about a series of challenges I consistently face, like riding a bike into a very strong wind. He was telling me how he was thrilled for the potential in front of me. I remember how he said it: I had the chance to literally remake the [white] face of ecology. Every student that I send on to graduate school would have a measurable effect. If I wanted to make change, then, he argued, then this is the perfect place for it. And I’m a guy who can make that happen.

I think he’s right. As several years have passed, I draw on this conversation for inspiration. I really need that inspiration for moments like these, when I realize how hard I have to pedal into the wind, when students at more privileged institutions have the wind at their backs. If we are going to make science equitable, then it must come from institutions like mine. If opportunity continues to overpass us, then the injustice persists.

Sometimes, I really feel like I want to stop pedaling. I have that option, but my students don’t.

I know the feeling of pedaling into that strong wind. I have been pedaling into that wind for over a decade now.

Terry’s post has triggered some good (and some frustrating) discussion both on his blog, and on social media. Some agree that there is a problem, others find his analysis superficial in not really looking at the demographics of who applies for and who gets NSF’s GRFs across the board. Yes, more in depth analysis would be useful and might help us crack the tough nut of how to get more underrepresented students and groups into science. I suspect someone may be doing more of this analysis already, and will look for such. Meanwhile, there are those asserting that this is nothing but meritocracy working at its best already – or perhaps even against merit in the opposite direction, because Harvard students are, but of course, better prepared and more interested in getting into PhD programs and are therefore more likely to be applying for these fellowships. So, if anything, they are being penalized by not getting way more GRFs than the CSU students. Must be nice up in that meritocracy.

Meanwhile, in our world, as Terry notes in a comment under his post:

Of course there are deeper problems that cause students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply for grad school and graduate fellowships in lower numbers.

Allow me to add to that broader context, about the deeper problems faced by our students. Such has having a full belly while attending college. Which makes this nut just a bit harder to crack.

Last fall, as we were heading into the holiday feasting season, I wrote a commentary about the problem of hunger on our campus which was broadcast on Valley Public Radio, as part of the series The Moral Is (for which I am a regular contributor). You can listen to me reading the commentary through the audio link on their website. Or read this slightly more expanded (and hyperlinked) text here:


Educating The Poor And The Hungry

by Dr. Madhusudan Katti, Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Fresno
November 2014. 

What is the value of a university education? What is the price of a university education? How much does society value education as a public good?

We must pause to ponder these questions as we head into another holiday season, when we gather to give thanks for what we have, and are urged to share with those less fortunate. As a professor at a public university, I have a vested interest in how we answer these questions. For I am appalled by the fact that more and more of my students are among those less fortunate in today’s society, and yet we are not doing enough to help them.

A recent survey at Fresno State tells me that one in three of the students looking up at me in my classroom faces food insecurity: they are literally hungry, not just for knowledge. Another 20% are close to that brink if not over it quite yet. Most will stagger to the finish line still hungry, graduating under a life sentence of crushing debt.

It is hard not to find the student debt burden immoral when the Congressional Budget Office announces that the US Department of Education profited to the tune of $51 billion on student loans. (The actual profit margin has been debated, for the accounting may be complex, and most of the profit may be based on penalizing graduate students more than undergrads, but nevertheless, the CBO projects healthy profits from student loans.) Meanwhile, we keep telling kids that they must go to college if they want to be ready for a career, taking on loans to invest in their future. 

Even as developed nations like Germany offer free university education, American public universities remain underfunded. So they keep hiking tuition, hire more low-wage adjunct faculty, and keep salaries for tenured professors (but not administrators) stagnant. Some campuses, like my own, even charge hidden “success fees“, tacitly acknowledging that normal fees are not nearly enough to ensure our students succeed through an undergraduate degree any more. 

We might as well ask students to plop down their credit cards when they arrive, as we put their diploma on layaway to be collected after they’ve paid the full price of tuition over 4-6 years. How much can or should they care about actually learning anything, on an often empty belly, given the high price-tag on that diploma? We have let education become a commodity transaction between overworked, underpaid, insecure faculty teaching overloaded classes full of hungry, indebted students facing uncertain futures.

Agricultural universities like Fresno State might offer food pantries to help students, although charity is the last thing they need. The federal government may lower interest rates on student loans. Real lasting solutions, though, require fundamental changes in how we fund and run universities, to empower students. American society must do some soul searching to decide what the real value of education is, not just for the individual student seeking a job, but for a once advanced nation that has lost its way. Lady liberty may hold a beacon welcoming the hungry, tired, huddled masses to America. In my university classroom though, I urge you to send me eager well-fed students, hungry only for knowledge.


That is the broader context within which we must try to prepare our students for careers in science, encouraging underrepresented minority students with no cultural inheritance of science (or even university education at all) in their familial backgrounds to get into science PhD programs at a time when we also lament the overproduction of PhDs in the sciences! That is the context within which we must recognize the place of science/STEM education, and figure out how we can make science more representative and inclusive.

That is the wind into which we must keep pedaling our bicycles so we might help more of our students (and not just the “low-hanging fruit”) get up on that shiny hill of meritocracy.

On the curse of cursive handwriting in homework

Is it really such a terrible curse if people stop writing in cursive? Or is this just one more attempt to hold on to a declining element of a rapidly chaining culture, mere nostalgia for a fading way of life?

I’m inclined to think it is the latter, and am generally impatient with nostalgia, but I know Kaberi completely disagrees with me. Our daughters are split too in the middle of this cursed cursive war (which has been known to raise decibels, yes!) right in our home! The older one writes in cursive beautifully and loves it. It was the bane of the younger one’s existence throughout a painful 3rd grade last year.

Of course she also had a largely undiagnosed stomach pain that had her doubled over in agony on many a school day and night, forcing us to even withdraw her from school on medical grounds for a couple of months this past spring. She was eventually diagnosed with lactose intolerance and fructose malabsorption, which only added to her misery as she has to learn to cut out her two most favorite sweet food groups from her diet: fruits and milk products! It is not easy for a 9yo to maintain dietary discipline, especially in a culture steeped in cheese and high-fructose corn syrup! 

Of course cursive didn’t give her her stomach ache – but it sure didn’t help to have 4 pages of cursive writing as part of her homework every week. And that was just a small part of a weekly homework packet that had us all stressing out at home. I’m not a fan of homework to begin with, especially in the younger grades. Having to force one’s child to do pages and pages of rote work she hated was agonizing for me. How could I add to her stress by insisting on cursive and timed arithmetic (the other bane of homework, but I’ll save that rant for another day) when it undoubtedly played a part in her stomach pain? And when she would rather be learning about dinosaurs or singing or learning to play an instrument, or play, or do anything but write cursive?

It didn’t help that her teacher took a more hardline approach to her homework, getting stressed out herself at our child’s inability to complete parts of her homework. It didn’t help when I told her that I didn’t particularly care about grades (this was 3rd grade, after all!) as I was more focused on her health. How could it help to add layers of guilt over incomplete arithmetic homework or poor motivation to learn cursive, of all things, when anyone could see the child was in agony (and not faking it as was initially implied by her teacher and others in her school – until we got a doctor’s letter indicating otherwise). It also didn’t help Kaberi who herself has been stressed out caught between the stern teacher and our daughter’s pain – especially because she herself believes in the power of cursive! And it definitely does not help that the child in question has a stubborn streak of defiance that matches the fire in her mother’s belly – and I’m called in to act as a buffer and have to coax her to do as much of that blessed homework as possible.

Kaberi writes in cursive quite well and believes it is a crucial part of education. I wouldn’t be surprised if she agrees wholeheartedly with the argument in the Chronicle of Higher Education article which set off this blog post. She learned to write in cursive in school, even though English was a foreign language to her, with the mother tongue Bangla being the main medium of instruction all the way into college. So maybe learning cursive was part of the package of learning a foreign language for her, and maybe she was naturally inclined to master the dexterity of pen everyone insists is such a massive benefit of cursive writing.

I, on the other hand, never learned to write cursive, even though I went to an English-medium school and have ended up with this foreign tongue as my main language practically since kindergarten. Somehow, I don’t remember cursive writing being such a big part of the curriculum there – although I may be mis-remembering. Perhaps I was allowed to get away with not learning cursive because I was such a high-scoring student in everything else. I can read cursive fine, and never felt that my inability to write in cursive has held me back in any way (but maybe that’s why I’m here and not in some more prestigious university?). I’m ready to go to bat for the younger child given how much the cursive homework adds to her already physically painful level of stress. Kaberi is convinced of the developmental benefits of cursive.

Back to the CHE article, I am baffled by the author picking on one student who doesn’t “do cursive” as an example of the failings of an entire generation and an indictment of a shift in the larger education system. I have not read much of the rationale used to drop cursive from the new Common Core, but am curious now to find out if it was driven by someone’s technocratic bias in favor of computer keyboard skills, or is grounded in some other cognitive/educational arguments. In any case, lamenting the decline of cursive because it makes it harder for some students to read historical documents does not strike me as a wrong argument for making cursive mandatory for all students. Historical research requires a variety of specialized skills which students of history must master – but not everybody is setting out to become a historian. After all people made similar arguments in favor of teaching Latin and Sanskrit, but society has not collapsed since we stopped making those mandatory in schools. Students of history continue to learn ancient foreign languages to decipher old manuscripts and letters, and will continue to do so with or without cursive writing being a mandatory part of the grade school curriculum, I dare say. 

I also have to call bullshit on the alleged neurological benefits of cursive inferred in this article. I don’t doubt that cursive writing strengthens certain neural circuits in the brain, possibly involving both fine motor skills and cognition. Any repetitive task is bound to induce some hard-wiring in the brain, some of which is no doubt useful for survival in a given civilization. But sweeping statements like this raise all kinds of red flags for me:

Neuroscientists have found that the act of writing by hand builds neural pathways that directly affect a wide range of development, including language fluency, memory, physical coordination, and socialization.

Really? Sorry, but if you claim that something is crucial to such a wide range of things, I’d like to see a bit more evidence than this bold inference:

Since connecting letters increases the speed at which one writes, we can infer that cursive note taking would be most beneficial for academic success.

Writing was invented as a means of communication, and has been key to our success, no doubt, and no doubt learning to do it well has cognitive and social benefits. But don’t tell me that entire disciplines will disappear or civilization will collapse because some people cannot write in cursive. As for academic success, tell me: which profession has the reputation for the worst handwriting? And towards which profession do we encourage our most academically successful students? And in which profession could legible handwriting be considered literally a matter of life or death? The answer to all three: medicine! Doctors are allowed to have the worst handwriting on their prescriptions, ostensibly because having to learn so much doesn’t leave them time to hone their writing skills as well. So tell me again how lack of facility with cursive has held back the medical profession in this declining civilization?

I think our brains are far more flexible than many of us recognize, and it can develop and maintain wiring appropriate to a variety of tasks that are relevant to one’s life. Studies touting the cognitive benefits of handwriting being superior to keyboard use will, I suspect, be replaced by future studies that find similar benefits to other, perhaps not yet invented ways of inputting text. As I’m sure nostalgists of previous generations would have claimed similar scientific support for teaching their favorite neuromotor skills had neurologists been available to conduct similar studies in the past.

Isn’t there also often a not-so-faint whiff of cultural and linguistic elitism in this argument for cursive? At a time when more first-generation and low-income students than ever are being encouraged to get into higher education, is cursive writing the skill we want to emphasize so much? Isn’t cursive elitism just a bit reminiscent of the elitism of other cultural skills to which are ascribed all kinds of unfounded cognitive and neurological benefits, like classical music and that Baby Mozart effect? Besides, as a friend just pointed out on Facebook, cursive writing (especially as lamented by the author of the CHE article) is rather tied to English and related languages sharing this alphabet, is it not? Of course, other languages too have their own traditions of elegant handwriting and calligraphy – but they are often treated as special skills for the artistically inclined; not required skills without which someone’s entire cognitive and social development would be stalled! 

All that said, I say more power to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Illinois for starting a “Camp Cursive”, and may they help preserve this precious skill. And good on them for encouraging children to come up with creative Shakespearean curses to write in cursive! But pardon me if I do a quiet dance if the cursive requirement disappears from my daughter’s homework in the coming year under the new Common Core curriculum. Then again, maybe I am the one who is already cognitively impaired from never having learned cursive and therefore fail to see something apparently obvious to others on this issue.

Do you know more about ants than a second-grader?

Perhaps not as much as these second graders, who asked some great questions of the good folks over at Your Wild Life who visited their classroom recently:

Over the last couple years, we’ve worked with outstanding K-12 educators on a number of projects, including Belly Button Biodiversity and School of Ants. We enjoy collaborating with teachers on curriculum modules, and then actually visiting students in classrooms when we can. Last week, Lauren Nichols, De Anna Beasley, and Mack Pridgen of Tar Heel Ants joined me on a visit to to the bustling second-grade classroom at the Central Park School for Children in Durham, North Carolina.

Prior to our visit, these curious students submitted some hard-hitting, dare I say philosophical, questions about ants and their biology: “How did ants exist before we did?” and “What is a colony?” We had a blast answering the students’ questions and sharing live ant colonies with them. So much so that we made a little video so you could check out the second-grader-inspired ant Q & A for yourself — Enjoy!

via Ant Questions Answered!

And here’s a bonus ant doing a kamikaze attack on a spider… FOR THE QUEEN??!!!

For the Queen!



Inventing novel food webs for a brave new world

Professor Michael Rosenzweig, who coined the term Reconciliation Ecology, defines it thus in his book Win-Win Ecology:

Reconciliation Ecology is the science of inventing, establishing and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work or play.

It starts in part with the recognition of the fact that humans are and have been inventing, establishing, and maintaining new habitats for our own benefit, and such habitats where we live, work or play now overwhelm most of planet Earth. The key to conserving species diversity then is figuring out how to transform our invented habitats into ones where other species can also thrive – and this is where the science bit comes in. This blog (and my research) take inspiration from this to explore what science says about our ability to reconcile our civilization with the diversity of the rest of life on earth, and how other species respond to what we do.

I’m sure though, that Prof. Rosenzweig, who has studied species interactions and communities in wild and human-dominated places throughout his career, never imagined a food web quite like this one:

Vandalur Zoo Food Web“Clearly the lion is the king of the jungle!” –  observes Abi Tamim Vanak.

My friend Abi Tamim Vanak shared the above astonishing image of a billboard he found in Arignar Anna Zoological Park—locally known as Vandalur Zooin the Indian megacity of Chennai. Abi adds:

It’s just a random signboard at the Vandalur zoo along one of the walking trails. They should have also included bread in the food web, as thats what they feed the LTMs [Lion Tailed Macaques].

How about adding a baby in the chain leading up to the “eagle”?

Vandalur Zoo happens to be the first public zoo to open in post-colonial India, in 1955, and remains one of the premier zoos in a nation that wants to be a global leader in wildlife conservation, as in everything else. A nation that is proud of its national parks and sanctuaries which have managed to hold on to the last viable populations of tigers, and other charismatic megafauna, amid a bustling population of over 1.3 billion people. And a park that is officially run by the same Forest Department in charge of running all of the country’s famous protected areas.

Ponder all that as you try to unravel this food web. Imagine yourself as a 7-year-old, on a family or class trip to the famous zoo, staring up at this fantastic diagram depicting something you may never have heard about before: a food web! How much would you, could you, learn about the natural world in this place? The zoo—any zoo—is at the top of my 7-yo daughter’s list of places to visit in any new town, as I’m sure it is for many other children. Oh the things they can learn and take away from the famous Arignar Anna Zoological Park!

Vandalur Zoo is not too far from Pondicherry, the location of the fictional zoo that is the springboard of a fantastical tale you can now see in your local cinema multiplex in 3D glory, The Life of Pi. That tale starts in a similar zoo (with the cinematic one located in Taipei) but ends up (I’m told, because I never could read the novel past the first scenes set in that zoo) with a different sort of food web:

The hyena eats the zebra and the ape. Parker [the tiger] eats the hyena. That leaves Parker and Pi. If they are to survive, there must be a god.

While critics were perplexed, readers felt differently.

I too am perplexed—by the popularity of that tale, and how god enters into that food web—and now even more by the Vandalur zoo’s food web. But maybe there is a different lesson in both that I am missing.

If they are to survive, there must be a god.

When more and more of our children are growing up starved of access to nature in our cities, the zoo may be one of the few places to offer some sort of connection to the diversity of species who share our planet with us. Our re-engineering of earth’s habitats has already torn apart many a natural food web, as we continue to play god. In severing our connections with natural food webs, we have also lost our knowledge of natural history. In this brave new urban world, does it really matter what we call any of these species, or how we arrange them into fanciful food webs?

When computer generated 3D tigers take your breath away on giant screens.

…and film students can fool the world’s top newspapers (and even some naturalists) with a CGI video of an eagle snatching up a baby in an urban park in Montreal,

…what is a real species anymore, and how do we know what other species it may or may not eat?

Maybe I’m looking at this Reconciliation Ecology thing, with its goal to invent, establish, and maintain new habitats, all wrong…

If they are to survive, there must be a god. m

I don’t believe in an external supernatural god who may or may not manifest himself on lifeboats inhabited by curious food webs, but here on earth, If the diversity of species on this planet are to survive, we must be the gods, and we will arrange them as we please.


Why teach kids to walk when we have invented the wheel?

“Is it still necessary for kids to learn their times table when they can pick up their iPhone and ask Siri what is 20 times 2?” asked Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

A new set of national standards, called the Common Core, has sought to answer that, offering states a guide for what skills and knowledge children should have at the end of each grade level.

The ultimate goal is to get every child college and career ready. That means, cursive is out and keyboarding is in. Repetition and rote learning are passe while critical thinking is, well, critical.

Literature and novels see less class time than literary nonfiction and informational texts, including essays and speeches. Spelling gets a cursory nod, with the caveat that kids can consult “references.”

via New education standards end rote learning, cursive.

Oh boy… I’m not really looking forward to the next generation(s) of unimaginative students who will come to college ostensibly able to ‘think critically’, but unable to solve “20 times 2” in their heads, or spell anything correctly (or even write by hand) without looking up “references”, nor have even read any good works of fiction!

Now I’m all for moving away from rote memorization and towards critical thinking and information processing skills, don’t get me wrong. But doing the times tables in our heads, or spelling words correctly, ought to be like breathing and walking, really. Its been some millennia since we invented the wheel and a century since we even motorized them – but we haven’t given up on walking yet, have we? So why do these school administrators think we don’t need to use our brains for basic tasks like arithmetic and language, which are among our unique abilities as a species?

“You kind of make choices on what you’re going to spend significant time on,” said Maria Santos, Oakland Unified deputy superintendent.

In sixth grade, for example, that means “draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research,” or “use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.”

That sounds reasonable enough, and can build skills my students rely on considerably as I make them read, research, reflect, and write (both technical papers, and less technical blogs) a lot in my ecology and evolution classes. But let’s hear what that school administrator has to say again:

In other words, the new system focuses less on learning facts and more on using that information to synthesize and create new ideas, said Domenech, a supporter of the national standards.

“What we’re trying to do is to take the level of learning to the higher levels of cognitive development,” Domenech said. “What (students) have to learn now is not how to get the data, but what to do with it when you have it.”

Whoa – come again? Students don’t have to learn “how to get the data“, other than from the internet and “references”? Are you serious? Say goodbye to preparing them for careers in science then, because here it is all about how to get the data. But then again, the Governor of California is ready scratch a whole year of high school science requirements in this state, so I guess the whole point is moot anyway. Let us prepare, instead, a new priesthood that will only sit around interpreting already published information rather than gathering any new data, because that’s all been done, apparently, in this pinnacle of human civilization we now occupy.

Can the human brain even build or maintain the capacity for “higher levels of cognitive development” without the solid foundation of basic numeracy and literacy? Yet this is in the new national Core Standards, this lack of “dwelling” on the basics?!

But the Common Core doesn’t skip over the basics, such as multiplication tables or spelling, it just doesn’t dwell on them, Domenech said.

“We cannot lose sight of the basic skills,” he said. “On the other hand, we shouldn’t spend 12 years teaching basic skills.”

Oh – so you do think the basics might be important – but just not enough for teachers to “dwell on them” all that much in class. We already get students coming to college utterly lacking in basic writing and maths skills, so how is not dwelling on these basic skills going to “get every child college and career ready“, exactly?

At least some of the local teachers are finding ways to “adapt” to these new standards without losing sight of the basic skills, which I guess is a strength of the American school system with its varied local control. Then again, its this same local control which allows many teachers to “adapt” to science standards requiring the teaching of evolution while actually teaching creation myths in the biology classroom. So there is that.

Perhaps I am overreacting, based on the reporting in just one article. If so, I sure hope some teachers will stop by to tell me if there is more to these new national common core standards that actually address the existing holes in how and what kids are taught, than simply getting rid of some basics to replace them with an over-reliance on technology and the internet. Please, tell me there is more…

How the athletic tail wags the academic dog at the new “Fresno State”

As of yesterday, I no longer work for California State University, Fresno. I got my tenure at that institution almost two years ago and have been an Associate Professor in the Biology Department ever since. I still have my lab and office in the same Biology building, and I still have that view from my window of the Sierras, currently hiding under ominous dark clouds as the state reels under today’s rainstorm. But our campus too is under some dark clouds these days. So I’m still here. But I’m not at California State University, Fresno any more.

You see, amid continuing budgetary woes, fee hikes, classes being cut, labs straining to accommodate too many students desperate to graduate, understaffed offices, faculty unrest over stalled labor negotiations… a whole litany of troubles, the powers that be on our campus decided that what we really needed was a makeover!! Who doesn’t feel better after getting a fresh haircut, a snazzy dress, and some makeup, right? Maybe a spa treatment (and a colonic cleansing… nah, scratch that) too? What better way to cheer oneself up? So, while we faculty have been struggling to maintain the quality of education in our overcrowded classrooms (e.g., I’ve currently got 72 students in my upper division writing- and experimental-labs-intensive Ecology course this semester – up from the normal cap of 48!), and fighting off attempts to dissolve our entire college of science and mathematics and other “reorganization” plans, those powers-that-be were working with a makeover team to cheer us all up!

Who knew?! You guys… you shouldn’t have!! 

No, really: you shouldn’t have.

But – Surprise!! – you did it anyway. And so, with much fanfare, our new face was unveiled yesterday: all tarted up in skimpy red and white (our “traditional colors”) with a bulldog’s paw (from our sports teams’ mascot, a bulldog) tattooed across our cheeks, and brand new triple-Ds sticking out beneath our chin, like the cheap cheerleaders we are now for the all important athletic brand of Fresno State! Hurray!!


Feel better now? You sure? You really should, you know! After all, they’ve been deliberating on this re-branding for three years (the same three years that the university has been sinking under the budget cuts… but don’t think about how many people were working on this makeover during that time!). Further, they reassure us, it was truly a cheap makeover too (can’t you tell?), because they couldn’t hire an outside consultant to do a professional job either! Over these years, focus groups and surveys apparently kept telling them that the brand identity people associate with this campus is “Fresno State”, which has been the brand of our athletics division, along with the bulldog as our mascot. And they really identified us with those three D’s too: “Discovery. Diversity. Distinction.” Not, as a wag has it: “Denial. Desperation. Despair.” Call it the three stages of academic grief, and we’re clearly in the desperation stage of hoping for miracles from a makeover, even if much of the faculty is already in despair. But this is the age of education as a free-market commodity, so branded we must be!

The provost does reassure us though that we haven’t officially changed our formal name – but you’ll be hard pressed to find the old formal name on the new website. And with perception governing so much of reality these days, how long before that formal name is forgotten too? Indeed, we no longer even have the word “University” in our new brand name at the top of our new website! I wonder what those focus groups thought we do around here if they no longer think “university” when they think of this campus! So, after celebrating our centennial year just recently, that word doesn’t even fit in our new “brand identity” any more. 

Last November, during one of the series of open forums we had on campus over the proposal to dissolve the College of Science & Mathematics (among other colleges/departments also under similar axes), when someone on the Budget Task Force said that the reorganization plans under discussion only affected the “instructional side of the university”, one of my senior colleagues in the college stood up to remind the provost and everyone else assembled that “we are not simply the ‘instructional side of the university’ – we are the university.” Our passion managed to save the college, for now, but we may be losing the whole game. For little did we know, as we applauded that quaint sentiment that afternoon, that soon we would have to stop calling ourselves a university at all!

Why didn’t they go the whole hog though, I wonder, and actually sell out to a real brand name and bring in some real hard cash? Wouldn’t we have been better off branded as, say… the Doritos Locos Taco State? After all, Fresno was also one of the test markets that launched that exciting new product into the national fast food chain! Looks like consumer focus groups in the valley sure can pick winner brands… maybe there is hope for us after all in an exciting new world of branded drive-through fast-food style “education”! Who needs the sad old “university” any more?

Thus do we begin our second century, no more a university, but a brand, one that came branded in the minds of our sports fans, who apparently think nothing of the thousands of students we graduate from our classrooms every year, or the reams of scholarship we produce. Never mind that, during my tenure on this campus, my department alone has, under shrinking budgets, faculty attrition (down from 22 to about 16) and staff cuts, managed to not only hold the line, but raise the quality of our education. Or that my (shrinking body of) colleagues and I have produced (since 2006) with our hardworking graduate and undergraduate students: 128 peer-reviewed publications, 431 research presentations at conferences, and raised over $10 million in external grants; all while maintaining heavy and increasing class loads under a sharply higher student to faculty ratio. All this, at a non-research (non-RO1) campus where the running joke (on us, surely… hahaha…) is that research is a “required hobby” because we only get paid to teach (and serve on committees), but if we want to get tenure and promotion, why we must produce research and scholarship! Talk about an unfunded mandate. And these numbers are right at the tip of my typing fingers because just this week we had to submitt a deprtmental self-study as part of our 7-year program review where our entire department will be scrutinized to make sure we are up to snuff and maintaining standards on par with other biology programs at other universities. I wonder if the reviewers will notice that we’ve actually dropped the word “university” from our campus name, which should raise the question: what standards should we be upholding really? The normal academic ones? Or some new free-market benchmarks gleaned from some focus groups? Uh-oh… we forgot to do focus groups in our self-study! I hope we don’t get dinged because of that.

While we academics have been sweating to keep up our research productivity and make sure our students graduate successfully, the athletics guys must’ve been really burning up the tracks and fields something fierce, eh? Do tell me if that is the case, for I’ve been too busy in my classes and labs to notice the smoke. Until now… when I look up and realize that they’ve got their brand burned into our flesh now, and in the process have even burned off the word “university” from our “brand identity”. Oops!

We do get to keep the dog’s paw tattoo and the triple-Ds, though! At least Zaphod Beeblebrox may like us more now – and ain’t that something?

But I protesteth too much, for the only thing worrying local news organizations about our new branding ad logo is that Timeout, the campus mascot, isn’t featured in it more prominently! Time for mere academics like me to accept the writing on the wall, perhaps. For this is how the athletics tail wags the academic dog on our campus now. Enjoy the branding. Don’t mind me if I feel like a little flea about to be swatted off the fur of this overly-made-over bulldog.

A school in a bottle. Or many bottles, recycled.

Do your kids get whiny because you say “No” to some new toy they want or candy or soda or something they saw advertised on the telly? Do they wish you were richer so you could buy them all the stuff they want, and take them places?

Next time, show them this video about the bottle school… tell them to Hug it Forward. Watch their eyes widen and their jaws drop as they forget about their wants and start talking about these little kids. Worked wonders with ours this past weekend!

Grist has a bit more on the story.