Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Buzz on RateYourStudents Weblog

I first heard about the educational ratings weblog Rate Your Students back in March. The professor-operators who launched the site were responding to what they thought was the inherent unfairness of the popular teacher ratings website, One of professors at Rate Your Students, in an interview with the online magazine Inside Higher Ed, said he really disliked the unfairness of RateMyProfessors anonymity: "We love our jobs....But we are reacting to something we see as unfair." His goal with Rate Your Students was to give professors who submit posts a chance to respond to their evaluations and let off some steam: "When we have the occasional moment of vent — that makes me a better teacher."

Some of the posts at Rate Your Students are pretty unusual. One professor from Wiscosin admitted that he hated his job, and stated openly that he should be doing something else. He was stuck, though, living with the consequences of his own poor choices, including perhaps his decision to major in the liberal arts. Other posts are more upbeat though: One pragmatic professor indicated that while he'd had some problems, he loved imparting specialized knowledge and got a kick out of recruiting students into his discipline's major concentration.

I'm a pretty tough professor, so I can sympathize with other professors who are unhappy with their online reviews. RateMyProfessors' evaluation criteria are largely flawed. Students rate teachers on the basis of easiness, helpfulness, and clarity. Obviously, any average student slacker who gets a lousy grade can take it out on his professor. One twist on the RateMyProfessors site is the "hotness" index, allowing students to click a jalepeno icon if their teacher gets them going. The site can be useful. But the anonymity of the postings permits some absolutely horrible comments and attacks to be posted, and this is quite frequent, all the while largely protected by free speech guarantees.

A real problem with most types of anonymous student evaluations, especially the formal, quantitative surveys administrators use to evaluate probationary faculty, is that they force professors to fear the wrath of unhappy students. The evaluation system turns students into consumers, and grades become the currency indicating the educational "value" of their teachers, and by extenstion their college. Professors in turn learn to "game" the system, giving out grades like candy, becoming pals with their students, and (most problematically) lowering standards to appease more and more students either unwilling or unable to perform at an advanced academic level. Paul Trout, a Professor of English at Montana State University, has written a lot about this -- indeed, he's had something of a cottage industry with his criticism of students rating professors. Check out his article, "Flunking the Test: The Dismal Record of Student Evalutions."

Ronald Brownstein on Washington's Energy Policy Paralysis

I've enjoyed reading Ronald Brownstein's "Washington Outlook" column for years. I don't always agree with him, but I like his style -- particularly his vast knowledge of politics and policy, his analytical rigor, pragmatic approach, and the evenhandedness of his essays. He's got a good piece in today's Los Angeles Times, discussing the years-long Washington stalemate in energy policy reform. Says Brownstein: "The energy debate stands as a prime example of Washington's deteriorating capacity to meaningfully confront problems." He notes that reform needs a comprehensive solution focusing on increasing oil supply domestically, increasing conservation, and shifting toward more environmentally-friendly sources of (cleaner, renewable) energy. As for the parties, Brownstein says that the Democrats love attacking tax breaks to oil companies, who are swimming in corporate profits, but they won't take on the automotive unions at the Big Three auto manufacturers. Republicans, for their part, love oil and gas company campaign contributions and are ideologically opposed to raising corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. So most likely for Brownstein, "energy policy will remain stuck in neutral until both parties confront their supporters to construct a grand bargain of more domestic production, greater conservation and more focus on alternative energy."

This piece provides a great example of Theodore Lowi's "hyperpluralist" theory of American politics:

Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Coming Public Outrage Over High Gas Prices?

I paid $3.05 a gallon for gas yesterday when I filled up the tank. It was the first time I've ever paid more than three bucks a gallon, and it certainly hits the wallet hard. I'm not that upset about it, and I don't worry that it will destabilize the economy. There are, however, increasing signs of an upsurge of public anger over high gas prices, and especially the seemingly windfall corporate profits, most recently Chevron's $4 billion profit for the first quarter.

Virginia Postrel has a neat post on her blog suggesting that oil price increases come and go, and the best response to the current "oil crisis" is to let markets adjust through supply and demand forces. Check out as well U.S. News and World Report's cover story on the new frontier in petroleum markets. It turns out that Alberta, Canada's, oil sands region holds as much as 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil shale reserves, totaling more than triple of Saudi Arabia's known proven reserves. Dozens of petroleum concerns have swamped the Canadian fields in search of a new mother load. The article points out that in the U.S., Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah might possibly have as much as 2 trillion barrels of the oil shale, which is more than all the crude that's ever been produced in the history of petroleum exploration and extraction!

Power Line Blog Discusses Iraq's Progress

Check out this post on Iraq over at Power Line, which debunks defeatist interpretations of the progress of the U.S. mission there. April saw one the hightest casualty counts thus far for 2006, and naturally tough data like that feed negative assessments of the consolidation of the Iraqi democracy.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Inaugural Post

This is the inaugural post at "Burkean Reflections." The blog's title reflects my philosophical and ideological concerns regarding contemporary trends in American politics, culture, and national identity, U.S. foreign policy and international relations, and the state of education (and particularly the nature and patterns of educational attainment across racial, class, and household lines). I may delve, from time to time, into other areas as well -- such as perhaps my ongoing passion for Angel's baseball. (Go Angels!) But for the most part, I'll be writing about those things in the political, cultural, and educational realms that interest me most.

The perspective I've adopted is Burkean conservatism, although it's been just recently that I've gravitated to this outlook. I teach political science, with primary specialities in international relations and comparative politics. It turns out though that the needs of my department meant that I had the opportunity to develop and offer an introductory survey course in Western political thought. I'd studied political theory as an undergrad, both before and after Machiavelli. I was interested in offering the course for a variety of reasons, but one in particularly was attractive: by doing so I'd become that rare breed of political scientist that teaches introductory courses in all the four main classic subfields in the political science discipline -- American politics, comparative politics, international relations, and political theory (AP, CP, IR, and PT ). In short, I might become a renaissance man for the postmodern age.

In teaching political theory, I'm intrigued by the idea in classical Western thought of the ultimate good -- a cosmic principle of eternal truth or justice, which was attainable according to Plato by the acquistion of ultimate knowledge through the exercise of reason. Classical Western thought is marked pretty much by recurring debates between theorists who adopt a timeless conception of an ultimate higher good (natural law) existing in the universe (and this good may be either secular or divine, the latter conception for example found in Thomistic political thought), and those who adopt a more relativistic or conventional conception of justice (the Sophists are the classical example here, while perhaps we could characterize the modern political philosophies of Machiavelli and Hobbes in this vein, although a full elaboration of their thought would be much more complicated than is possible in a brief post).

Edmund Burke, who comes along more than two millennia after Plato, figues in this discussion because of his reverence for that which came before him. Burke's what we might call a classical conservative: He stressed preserving the best attributes of society by guarding against rapid, radical, and destabilzing change. His great work, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), is the major statement of philosophical conservatism in Western thought . Burke stressed reverence for the "wisdom of the ages." Societies should be very careful in protecting established rights and institutions, because these regimes and orders have evolved as legitimate over time. Burke argued that the French Revolution promoted extremely rapid and radical change, creating a dynamic that went way beyond reform to wipe out, root and branch, the entire edifice of the French ancien regime. The problem was that in doing so the French revolutionaries completed discarded the elemental fiber of the old moral and political order. To establish, in overthrowing the monarchy, the "natural rights" of the French people, the revolutionaries destroyed the entire social system and institutions that gave those rights a basis for existence.

Now, I'm no expert on this (and perhaps this blog will allow me to write-up some long expositions on Burkean philosophy), but my gut feeling is that Burke gets the big picture right, with reference to the accumulated heritage of a nation and a people. Americans should be careful as a society in pushing reform and establishing new rights. We are blessed with the most stable constitutional regime in the world. The U.S. Constitution has been changed only infrequently, but at the same time the political system has responded to the democratic pressures placed on it to expand rights of suffrage and inclusion to wider segments of the population, so much so that today we are, in least in a de jure sense, a nation of universal political rights. However, our system today, tragically, is threatened by some of the darkest forces of tyranny and oppression to emerge since the totalitarian era of the mid-twentieth century. I am talking of course about the 2001 terrorist attacks and the global struggle against the radical Islamist challenge to the West.

I will blog much more about this later, of course. But let me summarize the final purpose of this thread: For me, while the attacks on New York and Washington were surprising, shocking, and deeply saddening, it has been my initial ignorance of, and now my growing edification toward, the radical political left in the U.S. that has influenced this Burkean blog project. No other single topic or object of analysis in my entire career as a political scientist has worried me as has contemporary anti-Americanism. I have learned about the complex nature of the radical left in this country, and its ties to, for example, transnational movements to deligitimize the nation-state and the principle of national sovereignty, the world's anti-globalization forces, and pro-Palestian organizations bent on the destruction of Israel. Some American antiwar activists and organizations have known ties with Islamic terrorists (attorney and terrorist legal defender Lynne Stewart, who was recently convicted in New York of abetting Islamist terrorist organizations, comes to mind). In writing this, I realize either how naive or deluded I must sound, depending on whom might read this post. As I become more skilled at blogging, I'll be adding the relevant links to the sources for my ideas and claims. But make no mistake: I'm not some crackpot, paleoconservative out to reverse the gains of the civil rights movement, send women back to the kitchen, or abolish the right to an abortion. I'm a pragmatist who voted for President Clinton in both 1992 and 1996, and Al Gore in 2000. I backed G.W. Bush in 2004 though, and I often wish we didn't have the 22nd Amendment so that he could serve another term and continue the overseas battle against the Islamo-fascists, thus protecting the American homeland.

Enough for now. My hope is that this blog allows me to share my knowledge, as well as vent my concerns and frustrations, and in so doing I might contribute to positive and pragmatic political stability and moderately progressive change. Should any thoughtful readers happen upon this post, welcome to Burkean Reflections. Informed and constructive comments are (or at least, will be) welcomed.