Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Jan-and-Dean surfer solution

What is wrong with this picture?

The Forest Grove News-Times reports that at Pacific University, women students outnumber men nearly two to one...and the admissions department is having trouble attracting male applicants.

How’s that?

In my pre-feminist youth, we belted out a surfer song, “Surf City,” which extolled the virtues of “two girls for every boy.”

The refrain went: “You know we're goin' to Surf City, gonna have some fun, now — Two girls for every boy!”

But for some odd reason, Pacific University, named after the very same ocean whose surf inspired that youth culture of yore, has decided the way to attract young men to its campus is to revive …



And these folks are supposed to be smart.

No need to get on my soapbox about “clock-ringing” head injuries, later-life dementia and "career-ending" torn ligaments. Besides being dangerous, competitive collegiate football is not known for attracting the best and the brightest — at least to the classroom.

Still, as follow-up story in yesterday’s Oregonian pointed out, small liberal arts colleges “have enjoyed up-ticks in mile enrollment — or at least stabilized it — after starting football programs and have reaped revenue gains from tuition, ticket sales and concessions.”

Ah, revenue gains. It’s about the money. Bring in the jocks and we can pay the professors.

Pacific University administrators might want to talk to the faculty at the University of Oregon about its salaries. They are notoriously less competitive even as the university’s nationally-ranked football team becomes more so.

Could there be some connection here?

The Pacific University story raises all kinds of issues and questions: about the soaring cost of education (Could that be why men aren’t going to expensive liberal arts schools?), the poor academic performance of young males in general (Are young men increasingly modeling themselves after their moronic media stereotypes? Are they living in a virtual world of fantasy?), the priorities of post-adolescent males who choose a college for its football program and not for its academics, the muddled mindset of administrators who promote athletics over academics, the libido of young males (Why does “two girls for every boy” no longer work? Too sexist perhaps? Could suppressed libidos result from too many Budweisers in high school?), the impact on women students of having a dating pool full of tackles, tight ends and tailgaters.

No, if I were marketing Pacific University to young men, I’d turn back the clock and crank up those musical surfers Jan and Dean on behalf of the college.

You know we're goin' to Pacific University, gonna have some fun, now — Two girls for every boy!”

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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

A lesson in "outcomes"

Sometime in this technological era the word “outcomes” (the strange-sounding plural of the perfectly respectable “outcome”) crept into the language.

I’ve never encountered it in casual conversation. I do, however, become entangled with it while wrestling academic bureaucrats fixated on results. Except that they call “results” “outcomes.”

I suppose the word “results” would be just too common. To justify one’s rank (and salary scale) in the bureaucracy one must use “outcomes.”

“Outcomes” seems so scientific, so precise, so antiseptic — like its sister “inputs.”

You know, you put something “in” (usually a precisely measured quantity) and “out” it comes (usually a new, transformed, precisely measured quantity). I suppose that’s OK if you are making hamburger (cattle in, hamburger out), but what does it mean for a teacher to list educational “outcomes.”

As a teacher, I’m not sure — or wasn’t until recently.

The higher authorities at the community college wanted a description for a proposed course. I was to use the standard template, which asks for “intended outcomes.”

I paused. Might it be that UNintended “outcomes” are more important than “intended” ones? Perhaps I should throw in some of those. Something along the lines of “sex appeal,” “a Ferrari” or "bliss."

Instead, just to play it safe, I stuck with the “intended outcomes” and listed three.

• Ability to write clearly and concisely in an appropriate journalistic style
• Experience with editorial process and the demands of evolving journalism formats
• Awareness of various audiences and their needs

As “outcomes” go, I thought those were pretty good, but oh no….

My department chair informed me that the curriculum committee wants outcomes to be something “outside class and not something testable in the class.”

Ah soooo. . . .

Note the OUTside (not “in”). OUTside—OUTcomes. Get it? (also, grok outlaws, outdoors, outhouse, outsource, outsmart — but I digress.)

But what if, as in my short list, the outcomes are both outside and inside the class? And what if it is obvious how the “outcomes” I listed are useful in the world beyond the campus. It was obvious to me.

I ask you, have you ever been called on to write clearly and concisely outside the class room? Following graduation? Beyond the confines of a campus? Indeed, your employment, friendships and marriage may depend on it. Isn’t that obvious?

Apparently not to the curriculum committee, confined to campus as its members are. I got the sense that “outcomes” to them meant “economically useful.” It all comes down to money and being fit for employment.

Mercifully I wasn’t proposing a course on 19th Century poetry.

So I caved and embellished my original “outcomes” thus:

• Write clearly and concisely in an appropriate journalistic style to meet the demands of the journalism and public relations professions
• Experience with editorial process and the demands of evolving journalism formats to prepare for the requirements of the communications industry.
• Awareness of various audiences and their needs in order to communicate effectively.

Bingo! My department chair deemed my revised “outcomes” bulls-eyes.

As for me, the best part of this little dance was secretly transforming unintended “outcomes” into overt, intended ones.

One new “outcome” is to make sure that my students never, EVER, write “outcomes” when they mean “results.”

PS. The inevitable next step in the demise of “outcome” will be turning it into a verb. “How did you outcome with that class?” Yikes! That’s a mere word inversion away from “How did you come out with that class?” The outcome is near.

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Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Truest Story

In the silence of this morning’s Quaker meeting, it occurred to me that I wouldn’t be sitting in this spartan sanctuary if it weren’t for the literal version of the New Testament story.

I’ve always tried to see through that over-the-top story to the historical Jesus. The Jesus who didn’t walk on water and feed the multitude. The Jesus who wasn’t resurrected. (Thomas Jefferson set out to tell the unadorned story in his “Jefferson’s Bible,” which I highly recommend.)

But the historical Jesus, the mere human being, wouldn’t have had anywhere near the same impact as the mythological Christ. He would have been, well, just another historical figure, or, worse, he might have been utterly forgotten.

In short, the story as it has come to be told (for whatever reasons) — not the historical events — had delivered me to a Quaker Meeting House, just as it has shaped the actions of millions of others, Christian and non-Christian alike. One of those Christians was George Fox, the most influential and fervent of the early Quakers. Without his responding to the story, there would be no Quakers, no meeting house in Portland Oregon.

And without those, I would be home nursing my third cup of coffee and reading the Sunday New York Times.

Such is the power of one story among billions of stories.

All events become some kind of story, be it gossip or gospel. Because of the distortions of perspective, time and memory, those narratives become half truths and — should they survive — myth.

We are guided by distorted narratives of events — large and small.

That may sound like a bad thing. In many cases it is. But in many instances, the truth may simply be too hard to take. Think of the Jesus on the cross who is not resurrected. The tragedy cries out for Christ's resurrection. The story tellers provided it as a triumph and a powerful story that survived.

Limited human perception and self-serving selection are filters for a reason. Without our ability to exclude we would suffer overload and even tragedy. Today we might call it post-traumatic stress.

So our stories are heavily edited. And, like the Biblical story, they are blatantly embellished.

For that reason, our "back story" should be one of caution, even scepticism.

Still, stories, for all their fabrication, undeniably motivate us, set our course and deliver us to our destinations.

Today, as I thought of the compelling Biblical story, I was reminded of dozens of other stories (about confusion, war, excess, greed, isolation, love, charity, joy and fulfillment) that had lead me to the silence at our meeting house.

Silence, I decided, tells the truest story.

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