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2016 August 11

Email to professors

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:37
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This is the time of year when many semester-based colleges are starting classes again, so there are the usual spate of blog posts from faculty trying to orient the new students.  On perennial theme is on how to communicate with faculty, since so many students seem clueless about it.  (Two years ago, I plugged the book Say This, NOT That to your Professor, which I still recommend.)

Today, I happened to see the post How to Email Your Professor (without being annoying AF), in which Laura Portwood-Stacer provides a template and explanations:

10 Elements of an Effective, Non-Annoying Email

Here’s a template you can follow in constructing your email to a professor. Each element is explained further below.

Dear [1] Professor [2] Last-Name [3],

This is a line that recognizes our common humanity [4].

I’m in your Class Name, Section Number that meets on This Day [5]. This is the question I have or the help I need [6]. I’ve looked in the syllabus and at my notes from class and online and I asked someone else from the class [7], and I think This Is The Answer [8], but I’m still not sure. This is the action I would like you to take [9].

Signing off with a Thank You is always a good idea [10],
Favorite Student

Element #1: Salutation …

Element #2: Honorific 

Element #3: Name …

Element #4: Meaningless Nicety…

Element #5: Reminder of how they know you …

Element #6: The real reason for your email …

Elements #7 and 8: This is where you prove you’re a wonderful person …

Element #9: Super polite restatement of your request …

Element #10: Sign-off …

The hidden Element #11: The follow-up …

I don’t think that Ms. Portwood-Stacer is a professor, as her advice seems more appropriate for freelance writers than for students.  It isn’t bad advice, but I’d recommend something slightly different.

First, I don’t care much whether students include elements #1, #2, and #3, though I agree with her that “Hey!” is offensive. I don’t mind students using my first name, and I tell them so, but I agree that it is probably safer to use “Professor X” if you don’t know the person’s preferences.  In a formal business letter, the proper salutation is important, but in an e-mail without CCs it can be omitted.  (In an email with CCs, it is important to indicate who is being addressed.)

I disagree strongly about #4. I read a lot of email every day, and don’t want to have to wade through meaningless noise.  Skip the chitchat and get to the point—don’t waste my time.

Along the same lines, move #6 to the front. Ask your question or make your request directly, don’t bury the lede. After you’ve made a clear request, then provide the background information: who you are and what you’ve already done to try to get an answer. Make this more complete—if you are asking for something in my role as undergraduate director, for example, I need to know your major, your concentration, and which year’s catalog you are following.

The “thank you” at the end is nice, but a followup thank you message after my reply is appreciated more—the extra trouble taken makes the thanks seem more sincere.

One missed point—provide your full name and your nickname if you go by that in class right at the beginning of the message: This is Ridiculous Name Overly-Hyphenated, who goes by “Rid Overly” in class. I have to read my university e-mail with Google, which does an absolutely horrendous job of showing me who messages are from (there are probably 40 people it identifies to me as just “David”).

Use the official University e-mail address, as FERPA rules require me not to discuss your academic record with anyone but you (unless you’ve given explicit permission otherwise). We’ve had incidents of people pretending to be students to get information they had no right to, so I’m trying to be careful to respond only to the official email addresses. Remember to edit your campus directory entry, so that your email is associated with your real name, and not just your userid (I have no idea who “alkim345” is).

So rewriting her example for a classroom question:

This is Ridiculous Name Overly-Hyphenated, who goes by “Rid Overly” in Class Number. 

This is the question I have or the help I need.

I’ve looked in the syllabus and at my notes from class and online and I asked someone else from the class, and I think This Is The Answer, but I’m still not sure.

This is the action I would like you to take.

Thank you.

For an advising question:

This is Ridiculous Name Overly-Hyphenated, who goes by “Rid Overly”. 

This is the question I have or the help I need.

I’m a bioengineering major in the bioelectronics concentration, following the 2013–14 curriculum. I plan to graduate in Spring 2017.

I’ve looked at the curriculum charts, in the online catalog, and at the online advising web pages; I asked the professional advising staff; and I was directed to ask you.

This is the action I would like you to take.

Thank you.

If you need to meet with me, which is not needed for a lot of routine things, but is sometimes quite useful, add

May I come to your office hours next week at 3:15 p.m.?

Technically, you don’t need an appointment for open office hours, but those who have reserved slots ahead of time take priority over those who drop in. If you can’t make scheduled office hours and want to meet in person, say something like

I have a conflict during your office hours, but am free at the following five times …, would any of those times work for you?

2015 November 1

Yet another pair of overly narrow college ratings

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:14
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In the past week two more college ratings have been released, both based on the highly questionable assumption that the way to rate colleges is by how much money their alumni make.

The Economist‘s ratings are based on the difference between the average salary reported and the salary expected from a regression that contains a huge number of predictors (some of which strike me as rather dubious in their data quality).

The Brookings Institution’s ratings  are calculated in a similar way, but with a much smaller number of predictors, omitting some of the most important ones.

Both ratings are trying to look for “value added”—a difference between how much the alumni make and how much the same cohort would have been expected to make based on their socioeconomic status, GPA, SAT, and other characteristics.

The data seems to be very noisy and subject to all sorts of weird biases, so that the rankings have little to do with each other, even though both are using the same underlying data set (the Department of Education’s  “college scorecard” website). The Economist admits to some serious limitations:

First, the scorecard data suffer from limitations. They only include individuals who applied for federal financial aid, restricting the sample to a highly unrepresentative subset of students that leaves out the children of most well-off parents. And they only track students’ salaries for ten years after they start college, cutting off their trajectory at an age when many eventual high earners are still in graduate school and thus excluded from the sample of incomes. A college that produces hordes of future doctors will have far lower listed earnings in the database than one that generates throngs of, say, financial advisors, even though the two groups’ incomes are likely to converge in their 30s.

Second, although we hope that our numbers do in fact represent the economic value added by each institution, there is no guarantee that this is true. Colleges whose alumni earnings differ vastly from the model’s expectations might be benefiting or suffering from some other characteristic of their students that we neglected to include in our regression: for example, Gallaudet University, which ranks third-to-last, is a college for the deaf (which is why we excluded it from our table in print). It is also possible that highly ranked colleges simply got lucky, and that their future graduates are unlikely to make as much money as the entering class of 2001 did.

Finally, maximising alumni earnings is not the only goal of a college, and probably not even the primary one. In fact, you could easily argue that “underperforming” universities like Yale and Swarthmore are actually making a far greater contribution to American society than overperformers like Washington & Lee, if they tend to channel their supremely talented graduates towards public service rather than Wall Street. For students who want to know which colleges are likely to boost their future salaries by the greatest amount, given their qualifications and preferences regarding career and location, we hope these rankings prove helpful. They should not be used for any other purpose.

I don’t like either rating scheme, reducing college education to just an income enhancer, but of the two terrible schemes, The Economist‘s is slightly less terrible.  (Note: UCSC does not come off well in either rating scheme, though I’m not sure why—could it be that we send too many on to grad school?)  On the Economist’s rating, UCB is below UCSC, but on the Brookings rating, UCB is quite high—probably reflecting the number of engineering students at UCB, since major choices are treated very differently between the rating schemes.

2015 March 15

Bruni opinion column on college admissions

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:58
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In How to Survive the College Admissions Madness, Frank Bruni writes consoling advice for parents and high school seniors wrapped up in college admissions and set on going to elite colleges. Although the obsession with elite-or-nothing is more a New York thing than the American universal he treats it as, it is common enough to be worth an opinion column, and he does as nice job of providing a couple of stories that counter the obsession. (No data though—his column is strictly anecdotal, with 5 anecdotes.)

He recognizes that he is really talking to a small segment of the population:

I’m describing the psychology of a minority of American families; a majority are focused on making sure that their kids simply attend a decent college—any decent college—and on finding a way to help them pay for it. Tuition has skyrocketed, forcing many students to think not in terms of dream schools but in terms of those that won’t leave them saddled with debt.

But the core of the advice he gives is applicable to anyone going to college, not just to those seeking elite admission:

… the admissions game is too flawed to be given so much credit. For another, the nature of a student’s college experience—the work that he or she puts into it, the self-examination that’s undertaken, the resourcefulness that’s honed—matters more than the name of the institution attended. In fact students at institutions with less hallowed names sometimes demand more of those places and of themselves. Freed from a focus on the packaging of their education, they get to the meat of it.

In any case, there’s only so much living and learning that take place inside a lecture hall, a science lab or a dormitory. Education happens across a spectrum of settings and in infinite ways, and college has no monopoly on the ingredients for professional achievement or a life well lived.

The elites have some resources to offer that colleges with lesser financial endowments find difficult to match, but any good enough college can provide opportunities to those who look for them.  For some students, being one of the best at a slightly “lesser” institution may result in more opportunities, more faculty attention, and more learning than being just above average in an elite school.  (And, vice versa, of course—moving from being the best in high school to run-of-the-mill at an elite college can also be an important wake-up call.)

Currently, the American college landscape is very broad, offering a lot of different choices with different prices and different strengths.  Unfortunately, many of our state legislatures and governors have decided that only one model should be allowed—the fully private, job-training institution—and are doing everything they can to kill off the public colleges and universities that have been the backbone of US post-secondary education since the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890.

The colleges established by the land grant acts were intended as practical places, not primarily social polish for the rich (as most private colleges were then, and most of the elites are now).  The purpose of these public colleges was

without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.[7 U.S.C. § 304, as quoted in Wikipedia]

Although agriculture is no longer as large an employer as it was in the 19th century, research in agriculture at the land-grant universities is still driving a major part of the US economy, and engineering (quaintly referred to as “the mechanic arts”) is still a major employer and a primary route for upward social mobility in the US.  The land-grant colleges were explicitly not intended as bastions for the rich to defend their privilege (as our legislators want to make them, by raising tuition to stratospheric levels), but for “liberal and practical education of the industrial classes”—colleges for working-class people.

I think that it would benefit the US for legislatures to once again invest in the “education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life” and for parents and students to look seriously at the state-supported colleges, before the madness of privatization wipes them out.

(Disclaimer: I teach at one campus of the University of California, and my son attends another—neither of them land-grant colleges, but both imperiled by the austerity politics of the California legislature, who see their legacy in building prisons and making sure the rich don’t pay taxes, not in providing education for the working class.)

2015 January 19

Community colleges as farm teams

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:55
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In Confessions of a Community College Dean: Farm Teams, “Dean Dad” responds to an article in Inside Higher Education, describing a program at Western Governors University (a private, non-profit, online college) that hands off weaker students to the StraighterLine (a cheaper, unaccredited program of online college courses that does not lead to a degree, but which are accepted for transfer by WGU and a few other colleges).  Dean Dad does not talk about this specific program, but writes,

But the basic idea makes sense. When selective institutions—especially public ones—are physically close to community colleges, sending “near-miss” applicants to the community college to prove themselves and get up to speed offers a smart answer for everyone involved. The elite public institution gets to manage the difficult trick of maintaining both standards and openness to the public at the same time. The near-miss student gets a chance to prove herself, and at lower cost. And the community college gets a pipeline of strong students with something to prove.

It’s especially smart for students who have a distinct, isolated area of need, such as English language learners or students with math gaps. In those cases, students would benefit from the relative specialization that community colleges offer. For the strong-ish student who just needs a little more time to get to the next level, a setting with small introductory classes taught by faculty hired to do exactly that is probably better than a 300-student auditorium lecture in which the main interaction is with a t.a. And I say that having been one of those t.a.’s.

A farm system is different from the “transfer” system we have now. In the usual “transfer” system, a student applies first (or simultaneously) to the community college, and moves on when ready. (Ideally, that’s at the point of graduation, though many students leave earlier and hurt our “performance” numbers even as they succeed at the next level. But that’s another post.) In a farm system, the student applies initially to the elite institution and is referred to the community college. I see no reason the two systems should be mutually exclusive.

I see a lot to like in the “farm team” system that he proposes. We certainly get a fair number of students at UC who are not ready for UC-level work (thanks to the “eligibility in the local context” admission policy, which admits students even if their high school teaches only to grade-school levels of competence). It would be useful to be able to encourage some of these students to do remedial courses in the community colleges first, since UC does not do a very good job of remediation, and the community colleges do much better.  And it isn’t just the weakest students who could benefit from taking some community college courses—there are plenty of standard courses (calculus, physics, intro to programming, chemistry, … ) that are taught as well or better at the local community college.  According to the undergrad assistant dean for the School of Engineering, our transfer students do slightly better in courses that depend on these as prerequisites than the students who took the corresponding lower-division courses at UC.

The current system is set up to discourage students from taking community college classes once they are admitted to UC, making the transfer paperwork far more onerous after admission than before, both for the student and for the advising office. Perhaps this is a practice that needs to be rethought by the UC faculty and administrators.

2014 December 28

Public univerisities as mass quality

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:55
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Chris Newfield, in Trends we can work with: Higher Ed in 2015 ~ Remaking the University, wrote

I never tire of pointing out that the only reason for the existence of public universities is mass quality—mass access to top-quality teaching and cutting-edge research—that puts regular folks on the level where they can genuinely match elites. It’s not too soon for faculty to join students in putting the quality back in mass quality, while creating new kinds of quality to reflect on current conditions. The success students had this year in holding off major politicians like Jerry Brown—and in getting cited in revenue arguments by governing boards—signaled to at least some faculty that it’s time to step up.

Chris Newfield, like me, teaches at the University of California (though he is on a different campus). I think we both see the University of California as having a combined mission: teaching and research at a very high level of quality and at a low price to the students. Unfortunately, high quality does not come at low cost, so the only way to achieve a low price is through subsidies. Because the public universities do not have the massive endowments and enormous philanthropic contributions that schools like Stanford get, the subsidies have to come from the state.

Unfortunately, our state politicians have been fooled into thinking that the University of California can be simultaneously controlled by the legislature and paid for by the students—thanks in large part to Regents who sincerely believe that unregulated markets are the best way to achieve everything.  As a result, the University of California has become much more expensive for students while having a lot less money for instructional purposes.  It’s been a slow process, played out over the past 20 years, but the UC educational experience has gradually been cheapened while becoming pricier.

The problem is not inefficiency on the part of the University or spiraling costs (see Cost of college remarkably stable), but simple cost shifting from public funding to student loans.  The legislature and the governors have given up education as a public good and decided to slowly privatize higher education in California. This is not a popular position with the people of California, so they disguise the moves and find ways to make the University look like the bad guys in raising tuition.

The University administration has been aiding and abetting this political movement to privatize the University, by raising tuition every opportunity they get and by paying their top executives ridiculously large salaries, while simultaneously treating the faculty and unionized workers worse and worse (health benefits are much worse now than when I joined UC 28 years ago; salaries are about the same, after correcting for inflation; and workloads are higher).  I think the UCOP (University of California Office of the President) made a particularly bad mis-step this year in the way that they raised tuition right after giving top executives pay raises—it made it look like they were just interested in lining their own pockets.  It would have been better to come out with a plan for lowering tuition while raising state contributions—then the legislature would be properly seen as the ones causing the problem, rather than offering the legislature an opportunity to look virtuous while cutting funding for the University.

Quite frankly, I’m not convinced that the UCOP executives have any interest in the University as a university—they certainly seem to pay much more attention to ways that they can extract money from it (like using the retirement funds for speculation on UC venture capital projects) than on education or research.  Neither UCOP nor the Regents listen to the faculty or the students, and I think that they have no idea what damage their self-centered decisions have already done to the University, much less what damage their most recent decisions will do.

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