Mills College: When the Bus Leaves the Station and You’re Not On It

credit: Chad Raymond

In May, Mills College announced that its board of trustees had declared a “financial emergency” after persistent budget deficits. The financial stabilization plan sent to the board by the college’s president in June recommended an administrative reorganization, recruitment initiatives, staff reductions that include ranked faculty, and the modification or elimination of academic programs. Five tenured faculty members have already received official notice of termination. Undergraduate majors in Latin American studies and philosophy were slated for closure, as were minors in creative writing in Spanish, Latin American studies, government, and physics. Master’s degree programs in mathematics and translation were also identified for elimination. The financial stabilization plan concluded by saying:

“After years of struggle with an intractable deficit and significant cuts, we understand now that Mills needs transformational change. We cannot build a new Mills by holding onto everything we’ve been doing in the past . . . The measures in this plan are taken because actions to date have failed to put Mills on a solid financial basis.”

Will the plan, if implemented, put Mills on the road to recovery? I think not, because the plan makes the same assumptions about market positioning that put the college in its current predicament. Mills has historically branded itself as a women’s liberal arts college, but that strategy has failed to give it an advantage in the higher education marketplace. Mills needs to abandon what isn’t working and develop a radically different model, if not an entirely new mission. Continue reading

Another Example of What You Say Is Not What They Hear

Probably how students perceive me

Back in April, I gave an example of students comprehending a question differently than I did. In that case, I identified what I thought may have caused the miscommunication — the question needed to be worded slightly differently.

I now have another example, in an online graduate course. The question was “Of the different political and religious reactions to European imperialism by Middle Eastern societies, which was the most effective? Why?” This writing prompt corresponded to chapters from No God but God by Reza Aslan and The Modern Middle East: A History by James L. Gelvin. Students referenced information from these books, something I require, so I know that they actually read the assigned material.

Instead of writing about the ways in which Middle Eastern societies responded to colonization, several students submitted answers that discussed: Continue reading

New Gerkhania Simulation

A slightly delayed report on the latest version of my Gerkhania simulation, which I abandoned back in 2015 because it wasn’t living up to expectations. Last January I wrote a brief preview about changes I had made to it before the start of my spring semester comparative politics course.

Gerkhania now has three rounds of role play: a commission to establish a representative legislature, one legislative session in which students can earn points if certain bills are passed, and a third session with no point rewards. For each session, students randomly receive a short biographical profile with an ethno-religious identity. Because of the laws of probability most students will receive a different role each time. The roles also include objectives that students should try to pursue; the objective of one student conflicts with the objectives of most of the other students.

In the first session, the class almost agreed to three separate electoral districts before settling on a single, national district to elect members of a parliament. In the debate, students quickly affiliated with each other on the basis of their newly-assigned identities. The same behavior occurred in the other two sessions, even though students had different identities . Students spontaneously changed seats to sit next to those who had the same ethnicity. They tried to maximize their own group’s influence and marginalize the influence of others. Some students tried to simultaneously engage in logrolling across ethnic boundaries to achieve their individual objectives.

In the post-simulation debriefing, I highlighted two topics. First, the results of both legislative sessions, in terms of passage or failure of the bills I supplied, were nearly identical — despite the existence of a zero-sum environment for earning individual rewards in the first session but not the second. I asked students whether this outcome could be explained by rational actor theory.

Second, I tried to get students to think about the immediacy and fervor with which they adopted rapidly changing and completely arbitrary identities. I say “tried” because I don’t think I was able to get students to adequately connect their behavior during the simulation to concepts like identity salience, deindividuation, and culture. But obviously identity had a much larger effect than it did in my South China Sea simulation, which is what I had intended. So I rate this activity as a success.

All materials needed to run New Gerkhania are available through my TeachersPayTeachers storefront.

Call for Proposals: 2018 TLC


It’s that time again . . . the next APSA Teaching and Learning Conference is going to be held February 2-4 in Baltimore, Maryland. This conference is not the standard sequence of tedious, badly-attended panel sessions. Participants can facilitate interactive workshops or engage in full-weekend working groups on particular topics. Proposals are due September 24. Full details are at the APSA’s TLC webpage.

Having been at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor for the ISA’s annual meeting earlier this year, I can tell you that it’s a good conference location with interesting food options within walking distance. These options include Faidley’s Seafood, if you’re interested in crab cakes.

Is Your Employer in Trouble? Part 4

A changing landscape

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) has reported on trends in U.S. undergraduate study. Between 2012 and 2015 (the year for which the most recent data is available), the number degrees conferred in nearly every humanities discipline has declined, with decreases of 17 to more than 20 percent in fields such as archaeology, history, classics, and English. Private, not-for-profit institutions used to award a far higher percentage of humanities bachelor’s degrees than did public universities. Now the percentages are nearly identical, and both percentages are declining in parallel. According to the AAAS, “After 10 consecutive years of declines, the humanities’ share of all new bachelor’s degrees fell below 12% in 2015 for the first time since a complete accounting of humanities degree completions became possible in 1987.”

Continue reading

Fear of Looking Stupid

Inside Higher Ed has recently published two items about faculty resistance to adopting new teaching methods. A study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University by anthropologist Lauren Herckis found that the main reason faculty members shun new and potentially more effective classroom techniques is that they fear students will think they are stupid. The stories are at these links:

Fear of Looking Stupid

The Necessity of Looking Stupid.

I must admit that I really don’t understand this behavior. To me it’s evidence that a lot of people in academia are trying to compensate for low self-esteem or suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect. I’ve never been reluctant to respond to a student’s question with “I don’t know, let’s see if we can figure out the answer.” I try to emphasize to students that while I might not remember everything I once learned, I at least know some reasonably successful strategies for finding the information I need to answer whatever question I’m faced with. To me this is a more useful skill than being able to regurgitate facts from memory.

How Much Does the Layperson Know?

Today we have another guest post by Gigi Gokcek of the Dominican University of California.

Students are often surprised to learn how little the average person knows about politics, or even current events. In response, I encourage my students to ask their friends and neighbors how much they know about government in the United States or elsewhere. Occasionally a student reports back to me about his or her conversation in the dining hall with a few friends. I decided to create an assignment to demonstrate to students how much they knew about world events relative to their peers. Continue reading