Monthly Archives: March 2013

I’m available.

A few times this year, I’ve skyped into classrooms — both high school and college — across the country where one of my books was being discussed. I’ve really enjoyed doing this. The conversations have been lively (and about my work!), so I thought I’d mention here and now that if I can make it work with my schedule, I’ll always say yes to these sorts of requests. In other words, if you’re teaching my stuff and you want me to visit your classroom virtually, please just let me know. [makes call me sign and mouths words “call me”]

History with the bark off.

That was LBJ’s homespun rationale for deciding to tape himself in the Oval Office. And the LBJ Library has just released the final batch of those tapes, from 1968, revealing Johnson’s perspective on the Democratic National Convention that year and also on Richard Nixon’s ostensible role in scuttling ongoing negotiations to end the debacle in Vietnam.

Johnson, horrified by the unfolding violence in Chicago and worried that Hubert Humphrey wouldn’t be chosen as the Democratic nominee, apparently considered saving the day by flying from Texas to the convention and announcing himself as an eleventh-hour candidate. That plan fell apart only after the Secret Service explained that it couldn’t adequately protect the president in Chicago, which stood poised on the brink of insurrection.

Perhaps even more interesting than that, Johnson explains that the FBI had provided him with evidence that Richard Nixon had “blood on his hands,” that, in other words, Nixon had sabotaged the Paris peace talks. Nixon, the LBJ tapes reveal, had dispatched Anna Chennault, one of his campaign advisers, to conduct unauthorized, back-channel discussions with South Vietnamese negotiators. Consequently, just as Johnson prepared to announce in October 1968 that the United States would halt all bombing in North Vietnam, the South Vietnamese, having been promised by Chennault that a Nixon administration would deliver a deal much more favorable to their interests, pulled out of the talks entirely.

In a call to Senator Richard Russell, Johnson says

We have found that our friend, the Republican nominee, our California friend, has been playing on the outskirts with our enemies and our friends both, he has been doing it through rather subterranean sources. Mrs Chennault is warning the South Vietnamese not to get pulled into this Johnson move.

Nixon, meanwhile, insisted that he had no idea why the South Vietnamese had left the negotiating table and offered, out of the goodness of his heart, to travel to Saigon to set things right. Johnson, for his part, chose not to share Nixon’s perfidy with the public, because the president worried about the repercussions of revealing the extent of the FBI’s and NSA’s surveillance of American diplomats. Johnson did tell Humphrey. But by then, on the eve of the election, the vice president had closed the gap with Nixon and worried about stalling his own momentum by releasing a bombshell that might alter the trajectory of the campaign.

In the end, Nixon, Humphrey, and Johnson — at least the LBJ of 1968 — look awful: office seekers playing politics with national security, at the cost tens of thousands of lives. I suppose we should praise Johnson for laying bare such insights from the past, but I find myself thinking he should have stripped the bark away at time, revealing the rot beneath.

Rank amateurs.

The US News and World Report education issue is out! As ever, USNWR has taken on the critical task of ranking colleges and universities, including specific departments, and made a complete mess of the job. Kieran Healy has a couple of typically excellent posts on the subject (here and here). He concludes that USNWR‘s methods and conclusions are arrant nonsense and suggests that crowdsourcing the ranking of sociology departments might make more sense. Eric Rauchway, my once and future co-blogger, invites you to go here if you’re interested in doing the same for history departments.

No, UC students, at least the ones who are speaking up, apparently don’t want online education.

My dear friend Andrew Cohen wonders over at facebook if my previous post isn’t a tad self-serving, and if, perhaps, students might disagree with my skepticism about online education. Actually, the students seem to agree with me. Just watch:

Note that Jerry Brown wants the student regent to “just get real” and deal with the gap between the rising cost of education and the legislature’s unwillingness to live up to the promise of the California Master Plan. The answer, Governor Brown insists, is online education. No, that’s just a very politically convenient and pedagogically dubious answer, Governor Brown. UC students understand this.

1) Add one part internet triumphalism to two parts market fundamentalism. 2) Fleece a bunch of students and unsuspecting taxpayers. 3) ??? 4) Profit!

No, really, lots of profits. For private corporations.

If you’re in higher education and you’re not following this story, you should be. The upshot (sorry, the executive summary) is that the California legislature is about to pass a bill “requiring the state’s public colleges and universities to give credit for faculty-approved online courses taken by students unable to register for oversubscribed classes on campus.”

The devil, as ever, is in the details. What does “faculty-approved” mean here? It seems clear but isn’t, I assure you, as every campus will likely have its own mechanism for determining such things. And though it sounds benign or even benevolent that the legislature is ensuring that students will receive credit for courses that they take online because they’re shut out of brick-and-mortar classrooms, one might wonder why those classrooms are overcrowded in the first place. Could it be because of budget cuts to higher education?

The real issue, though, is that this promises to be a huge transfer of money from a public education system to a private one: online vendors that offer courses for profit. And of course the unstated funding mechanism is government-backed student loans. Also, while it’s wonderful to hear Darrell Steinberg, the president pro tem of the California Senate, say

We want to be the first state in the nation to make this promise: No college student in California will be denied the right to move through their education because they couldn’t get a seat in the course they needed. That’s the motivation for this.

I find myself thinking, first, that perhaps Mr. Steinberg should have found a way to fund higher education in the state, to live up to a promise that’s already on the books, the California Master Plan; and second, that maybe The New York Times could have done some checking into Mr. Steinberg’s donor list and his dinner party invitations.

Let me be clear about a couple of points: it’s shameful that students are shut out of required courses in public colleges and universities (although again, this is a problem with a very simple solution), but it’s still more shameful that the State of California is rushing pell-mell to embrace a new educational model that has produced dubious pedagogical results. Online education may be fantastic some day. I hope, both for the sake of access and innovation, that it lives up to its promise. But to date, the actual model looks something like this: 1) High rates of failure and attrition (pdf). 2) Relatively poor learning outcomes even for those students who persist and pass their classes. 3) Profits for private corporations!