Sunday, 28 October 2012

A few links and thoughts for managers

Now that I am School director I'm spending more time in meetings, listening to senior managers' ideas about the campus plan for 2013 and I'm reading more posts in The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed. In many ways our NWU, or South African challenges are more universal than we think. Here are three quick perspectives.

Last week Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles released their survey of faculty (academic staff members') activities and attitudes. The survey reached more than 23 000 faculty members at four-year colleges and universities in the US. The table below shows activities and time spent:

How Faculty Members Report Spending Time, in Hours per Week, 2010-11
  0 1-4 5-8 9-12 13-16 17-20 21+
Schedule teaching 5.8 15.8 34.6 28.6 9.2 3.7 2.1
Preparing for teaching (including grading) 4.9 11.5 24.4 22.4 13.9 12.1 10.7
Advising and counselling students 4.4 56.7 27.1 7.8 2.2 1.1 0.7
Committee work and meetings 7.6 58.0 23.7 6.8 2.2 1.3 0.4
Other administration 30.6 39.7 13.8 6.6 3.4 2.7 3.2
Research 13.1 30.3 19.2 12.9 6.9 6.0 11.7

The report shows that time spent on teaching is less than the years before, but time spent on research is not notably up. Many faculty members spend small but regular chunks of time each week on committee work, advising, research and other activities. I am keen to compare this to our School where most of the staff would fall in the 5-8 hours of teaching per week bracket. It is clear that the faculty members in the survey do not get close the the NWU's idea of splitting their time 40:40:20 between teaching, research and community / commercialisation.

Another interesting table shows what is happening in class:

Men, Women and Teaching Methods in Used in All or Most Courses
Method Men, 2001-2 Women, 2001-2 Men, 2010-11 Women, 2010-11
Extensive lecturing 54.6% 34.1% 52.7% 33.8%
Class discussions 68.3% 78.9% 78.3% 88.0%
Cooperative learning 32.6% 55.8% 48.5% 68.8%
Student presentations 30.4% 45.2% 36.9% 53.8%

Faculty members seem to be moving to more student-centered approaches, but the men still seem to prefer more lecturing. This is specifically the case in the so-called STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). This week our campus is hosting a conference on teaching excellence and I am excited to go and have a look at what the top lectures are doing in their courses.

Finally, the report shows that these academics are stressed. The challenge for a manager though is that "teaching load" or "committee work" are not the big stressors. Items like self-imposed high expectations, working with under-prepared students and research or publishing demands rank much higher. Empowering staff to take their teaching or research to the next level will require more than just giving them more time. I think that training is one part, but I also like the idea of nudging. Maybe exposing people to that next level quality will inspire their own efforts.

This brings me to two other interesting posts. Margaret Wente writes in the Globe and Mail that Canadian Universities will have to choose between access and quality. The problem starts with government's goals of access and mass participation. But:
Academics insist that universities must not become job factories. Their mission is to guide students to cultivate the life of the mind. But there’s a big disconnect between what academics want and what students want. For students, higher education is all about the job. Yet, they get virtually no counselling about what returns they can expect for their investment, or what their job prospects might be.
She goes on to argue that changing this will be difficult and outlines a number of points that sound familiar in SA as well: Big classes, more teaching done by part-time staff (adjuncts), all the incentives for research. Her solution is a bold one:
Give more research money to the most productive researchers, and far less to the rest. Let’s abandon our cherished egalitarianism and fund our leading research universities properly, so they can compete on the world stage. Let’s develop a tier of teaching universities that are excellent at what they do. The result would be smaller classes and lower tuition, a win-win all around.
I also do not think that universities should become job factories, and I disagree with the article's idea that there should be greater government intervention, but I agree that the system as it is set up, is a danger to undergraduate teaching and in the end post-grads and research will suffer for it as well.

Finally, the Chronicle writes about a Michael Rizzo, a full-time lecturer in economics at the University of Rochester, and argues for two tracks for faculty - teaching, or research. The idea put forward is:
But what if the academic work force were made up primarily of two types of faculty members? One, a small proportion of tenure-track professors—those who earn doctoral degrees, do research, train graduate students, teach advanced seminars, and help administrators run the university. And two, a larger portion of full-time instructors, like Mr. Rizzo, who teach undergraduates, help advise them, keep up with developments in the field by reading and attending conferences, but do no research. Instead of earning Ph.D.'s, like those on the tenure track, instructors could stop with a master's degree, as many in the adjunct teaching pool already do.
At the NWU this idea is heresy: we recently scrapped the idea of a teaching-learning associate professorship. But then management also has this idea that we can't have all these part-time lecturers on the  school's budget. Who is supposed to do the teaching then? Or the other way around, if everyone's teaching, who's supposed to do the research then? As an economist I am in favour of the idea of the division of labour and specialisation. If everyone has to do everything, there can be limited gains from trade.

In conclusion, I don't have answers to these different questions, but I do find it interesting that there are many more people out there, thinking about them.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

More on the beloved country

Yesterday I weighed in on The Economist's "Cry, the Beloved country" article on the School blog: What if leadership matters?  The point that I try to make is that that there are many different ways of reading “the evidence”. There are indicators of progress and signs of decline. The challenge is to look for clues to the long-run path of growth and development. These clues, I argue, lie in the way that we try to implement our plans, i.e. market-lead vs developmental state. I favour the pragmatic market-lead mixed-economy approach and the post goes on to explain that it requires a working relationship between government, business, labour and civil society. This, in turn, requires some leadership. Not the speechifying, big-man type of leadership. Rather, the inclusive type that can outline a vision, build trust and get disparate groups to work together. 

If we can find evidence of this, South Africa will be fine and The Economist would be wrong. At the moment though, it seems that our political institutions are extractive and the economic institutions look set to remain so as well.

Since writing the post I have stumbled across a few interesting links:
Another example was discussions on nationalisation. At the ANC’s policy conference in June, delegates queued up to voice their support for nationalisation, not wanting to be seen to speak out against the idea. "That is policy-making by vuvuzela," Mr Manuel said.
"Sloganeering around policy" was not in the interests of either the living standards of working people or industry, which would see underinvestment or excessive profit-taking by owners if they feared that nationalisation was a real possibility.
Too true. Another example to the above is President's Zuma's new 5-step land reform plan. Analysts are calling for more detail, but they forget that he is not really speaking to the farming community - the proposals are bait for those that will end up supporting him in Mangaung. What really happens with land reform we'll only learn later. Inclusive, or extractive?

Sunday, 21 October 2012

The week's best links

This past week I stumbled across a number of links to interesting stuff on the web. Here is a quick list of some of them:
  • Marc Bellemare wrote about good documentaries on cities and development.
  • Chris Blattman celebrated a 5-year blogiversary with this image to explain why the blog keeps going. I could not agree more.
  • The Atlantic Cities has two interesting posts; one on the role of place in discovery and innovation, and another asking whether your city is innovative, productive, creative, or just populated.
  • The LSE's Impact of Social Sciences blog showed the Google search results for Roth and Shapley following the Nobel Prize announcement.
  • And the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a nice article on how academics can be unnecessarily miserable. I enjoyed the paragraph: I should take joy in the Facebook posts of far-flung colleagues who travel with their families during sabbaticals. But for some reason, they worry me, especially the pictures of smiling children on beaches building sand castles. Like the Grinch on his mountain, my inner dean splutters, "Look at them, sipping wine in Paris, sailing the Aegean, and strolling through Tuscan vineyards! I wonder how that relates to their next book project?".
This week the SA economy also featured on the front page of The Economist: You can reading the longer "Briefing" article of the Cry the beloved country issue here. There was wide-ranging response. You should read Johan Fourie's Smile the beloved country response. Against this backdrop, the Minister if Finance will deliver the so-called mini-budget this week.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Writing as assessment

This weekend I helped a colleague to grade some student assignments and it got me to thinking about writing as assessment. As a manager I always say that I would rather help someone move a body in the middle of the night, than to help them with marking. I know that there is quite a discussion online about student writing and I have not read enough of it to write anything sensible, but after ploughing through those "research proposals" I do want to ask some questions.

First-off, I just want to say that I do believe that it is important to have students make their thinking and reasoning visible through writing assignments. This can be short or long essays, research papers or "articles", whatever you want to call them. It is a way to demonstrate the 4C's: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration, and Communication. Being able to write simply and clearly will benefit anyone, everywhere, always.

But how can we go about this in a undergraduate Economics course? There is no shortage of topics, my questions are about practical challenges. The groups are large, ranging from 1200 first years, 450 second years and 180 third year students. Thus writing assignments present a lot of marking. How much individual-specific feedback can you give? If you don't have more than one essay, what use is the feedback? How do you deal with plagiarism?

Maybe there is someone out there who can share some ideas?

I suppose that having a writing assignment (with all its trouble and flaws) is better than having none. Maybe it is possible to use peer-evaluation for the first essay of the semester and have the lecturer grade the second one? Or you can try and get a bunch of post-grads to help read. Or the lecturers can share the load. Turn-it-in helps a bit.

I would love to hear from other academic economists on this. Are you still giving writing assignments? How do do the grading and feedback? Has anyone tried alternative approaches? Please leave a comment...

Friday, 12 October 2012

Friday afternoon reading

I'm stuck at the office on a Friday afternoon, trapped by a light hail storm and thought to do a quick round-up of links for the week.

In the geographical economics vein The Economist's Free Exchange blog has a nice post on how cities matter for growth. It also quotes research about the importance of research even for academic work: 
when a prominent researcher moves from one city to another, his peers in the origin city are less likely to cite his patents. Innovation today requires an ever-larger crowd of experts, preferably working in the same garage.  
This nicely resonated with Johan Fourie's post on the agglomeration of top restaurants in Stellenbosch.

The New Enquiry had an interesting essay about the rise of the celebrity Economist. They are not to keen on the idea and concludes:
In the online marketplace of ideas, the influence of a few celebrity economists creates an illusion of scarcity of new, heterodox voices. Yet now more than ever, to prevent costly and irreparable policy errors, economics needs its crowded-out Cassandras.
Noah Smith Asked whether econ blogging can hurt your career? He doubts it and I agree. Blogs and working papers are ever more relevant and there are many more voices out there than just the few celebrities.

Finally, I also read a good post at Inside HigherEd on technology and education. These days terms like MOOCs, BYOD, flipping the classroom are everywhere, but in fact, the ideas about technology and education have a long history:
The sort of tools that we have needed to help students learn have been around for 100 years, albeit continuously improved. It is our job to - finally - use those tools.
Finally, finally, congrats to Economist colleagues who have new NRF ratings: Andrea Saayman (NWU), Stan du Plessis (US), Servaas vd Berg (US), Steve Koch (UP) and James Blignaut (UP). These are the ones that I have heard of, but please add a comment if there is more good news to share.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Urban farming, pimping pavements, hacking sidewalks

This weekend part of our pavement became part of a movement and the only thing that I enjoy more that writing about Economics, is an experiment.

The idea comes from a Social Anthropology colleague Andre Goodrich and his team (which includes more colleagues, friends and students). The basic idea is that it takes time and resources to maintain a manicured lawn or nice flower bed, but you can spend that effort on a vegetable garden. Since it is on the pavement, passersby may take some of your produce, but that is the point. I can go and do volunteer work, or keep busy with some community sponsoring agriculture. Our plot is quite small and unlikely to change the way that food is produced, or make a difference to hunger. But maybe it is a start to making people think differently about urban agriculture in Potchefstroom. I'm quite keen to be involved in the garden and to see where / with whom the produce ends up.

You can watch a short video of our gardening story here.

The whole initiative has already drawn some attention. The Daily Maverick's Ivo Vegter has called it a dumb idea. And Andre has responded on Facebook.

If you want to get involved check out the pavement pimping page on Facebook or follow @AnonymousAgri on Twitter.