Friday, February 18, 2011

Obligatory Texas History Lesson

Prompted by TPM, who almost gets the whole story. True, when the Texas Senators (no, not a baseball team) fled in 2003 to thwart DeLay's mid-cycle redistricting plan, one Dem returned to Texas and the law finally went through. But they knew to flee to Oklahoma (basically the closest state from Austin, and still quite a distance) because of the Killer Bees in 1979.

And, as the story at Time notes, that time the tactic worked, even though the Senators holed up in a house in Austin not far from the Capitol. So while I sometimes think the entire country wants to be too much like Texas (a right to work state with almost no union representation, and right-wing politics that would make a Neanderthal think twice), in this case the Senators from Wisconsin clearly learned something from the Senators from Texas. Here's hoping they learned it from the Killer Bees.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011



Some frequent visitors to the Texas Capitol in Austin are obtaining concealed handgun licenses in order to gain quicker access through the building's security screening, Reuters reports.

Concealed handgun license holders can enter the Capitol via an expedited "CHL access" line, while "schoolchildren and tourists" have to pass through metal detectors, according to the report.

The metal detectors were installed last year, after a gun was fired on the Capitol's steps. State troopers are stationed in the "CHL Access" line to ensure the licenses are valid.


Carrie Kroll, director of advocacy and health policy for the Texas Pediatric Society, recently got her concealed handgun license in order to gain quicker access.

"Do I think it's silly?" she said. "Yes."

Some lobbyists and even journalists have also applied for the licenses, despite having no intention to carry a gun.

State Sen. Dan Patrick (R) said he carries a handgun with him at the Capitol at almost all times.

"I don't ever want to be in a situation where I don't have the chance to defend myself, my family or my friends," he said. "We live in a world where you can encounter danger at home or work or on the street."

The gunman from last year, Fausto Cardenas, visited Patrick's office before firing shots on the Capitol steps, according to the report. No one was injured.

"Around here, it's not that big of a deal (to have a gun at the Capitol)," said Richard Robertson, who visited the Capitol over the weekend. "Someone from out of state may think we're a bunch of yahoos."
Born here, raised here, lived here almost all my life (including a very long stint in Austin, where I never worried about someone pulling a gun on me.) And based on this story, I think you're a bunch of yahoos.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Waiting for the Big One....

NPR this morning:

In Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, two authors present a study that followed 2,300 students at 24 universities over the course of four years. The study measured both the amount that students improved in terms of critical thinking and writing skills, in addition to how much they studied and how many papers they wrote for their courses.
I would like to say my educational experience doesn't bear this out; but it does.

I'm not sure how much "critical thinking" education has ever encouraged. It was fairly well encouraged in my pre-college experience, but not so much that I learned early on to challenge too many prevailing opinions. I seem to have done that on my own, through a peculiarly hard-headed notion that anything I didn't agree with and couldn't discard out of hand, I had to face head on and either accept as valid, or find a good reason to reject. Somebody must have taught me that at some point, because I'm sure I didn't spring sui generis from the brow of Zeus, much less my father. Still, "critical thinking" means, well, being critical; and it's a classic anecdote of college students that they come back home having learned to denounce everything their parents raised them to believe was true.

An exaggerated anecdote, but one with some connection to reality nonetheless. The seminary version of that is the student who comes into seminary a devoted Christian, and leaves a committed atheist. The UCC variant on that at my UCC seminary was that such a student was still ordained into the UCC ministry.* Such stories tell more about the experience of a truly rigorous education where critical thinking is not only encouraged but required, than it does about critical thinking. But try to imagine that outcome in any college today.

The anti-war movement of the '60's was prompted as much by professors challenging the accepted reasoning of the "Best and the Brightest" and the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit as it was a reaction to the horrors of war (because most people experiencing those horrors, or likely to experience them, were not in college). If there is a reason we don't have another '60's generation among us today, it's because no one is emphasizing the kind of critical thinking that should be basic to education. Then again, it's hard to build bricks without straw.

I taught English briefly, in the late '70's when I was a graduate student. I have noticed, in the interim, some decline in the quality of college students, but to be fair I'm now teaching at a community college, not a university. And while the university I taught at was hardly Ivy League, it's possible a slightly better caliber of student attended then than I see now. On the other hand, I'm constantly amazed at instructors whom I see assigning no more than 6 papers in a Freshman English class in a semester, and then requiring each paper be submitted in multiple drafts for review and approval before final grading takes place. I understand the theory of improving composition by editorial review, but can't help thinking it sounds far too much like middle school, and far too little like college-level work.

"If you go out and talk to college freshmen today, they tell you something very interesting," Arum says. "Many of them will say the following: 'I thought college and university was going to be harder than high school, and my gosh, it turned out it's easier.' "
On the other hand, and before you decide I am upholding the standards of academic rigor while my peers collapse into appeasement, consider how many students come to community colleges and need to take Developmental English before they can take Freshman English. I still remember my professors in the '70s', telling me how English majors were once the brightest, most capable students on campus, the most academically gifted and driven among the enrolled. They lamented that, 40 years ago, many students, English majors and non-English majors, needed remedial English classes on grammar and basic sentence structure, before they were ready for Freshman English. This decline has been going on for over a generation now. But if you take students with little preparation and subject them to college standards, you might as well toss them out of school and save everybody the time and effort. The sad fact is, far too many students simply aren't ready to do college work. I understand why my peers assign only 6 papers and then review those extensively before accepting them for grading. They are simply trying to teach people who have not yet been taught.

One of the critiques mentioned in the audio version of that story is that few students report having taken any one class which required them to write 20 pages over one semester. If you assign only 6 papers, and don't assign anything over 3 pages, it's easy not to make that mark. On the other hand, if you assign 6 papers and make each at least 5 pages long, one of two things will likely happen: students will drop your course, or they will turn in papers well under the minimum length. And, most likely, the ones turned in will mostly be garbage. I know some of the problem is motivation: that is, they won't do it. But a large part of the problem is ability: they can't do it. And why not? Because they don't have the apparatus to do the critical thinking necessary to generate enough content to fill 5 double-spaced pages.

5 pages, by the way, is about the minimum length of the research paper I assign every semester; and at the end of the semester I always have students who cannot make that much progress, despite having all semester to work on the paper and presumably having done the research which will pretty much generate the content. They don't do the research, of course, or don't do it very well, because they lack the critical thinking skills necessary to assess and evaluate data, much less to seek it out or to know what to do with it when they get it.

I teach in high school as well, and I can tell you the daily schedule is a crucial difference between high school and college. Meeting the same class 5 days a week gives the teacher ample time to guide the students, or even drill them, on the fundamentals they need to learn (yes, I know some high schools work on a schedule that doesn't require meeting the same class 5 days a week; but the total immersion in school, being on that campus for 8+ hours a day, is the crucial factor). A college schedule assumes the student already knows how to learn, and will attend class having done the work beforehand. Think of it as sharpening a knife edge until it is a razor's edge. You can't do that if the knife is just a blunt piece of steel; or if there isn't a knife there at all.

And yes, I think it will get worse before it gets better; in no small part because of the "consumer culture," the idea that colleges should advertise and entice and serve students the way Wal-Mart is supposed to do:

According to the study, one possible reason for a decline in academic rigor and, consequentially, in writing and reasoning skills, is that the principle evaluation of faculty performance comes from student evaluations at the end of the semester. Those evaluations, Arum says, tend to coincide with the expected grade that the student thinks he or she will receive from the instructor.

"There's a huge incentive set up in the system [for] asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high," Arum says.
I've been berated for poor course evaluations. It always struck me as odd that you would go to someone because you want to learn from them (i.e., they know something you don't), and simultaneously you could know what they needed to teach you (because you know what you need to learn). I've also been critiqued because my students' grades over several semesters didn't meet the averages of other instructors. Is this evidence I am a poor teacher? Or is it evidence my standards are too high, my expectations too rigorous? Both and a little bit of neither, I'm sure; but drawing too firm a conclusion from such data is a dangerous thing, indeed. And drawing conclusions from such evidence encourages what Arum identifies: pass your students, make them like you, and all will be well; for you as the teacher, anyway. If the students don't actually learn, or more importantly learn to think, well....

They'll be in good company, eh?

*UCC pastors still love to explain "UCC" as: "Unitarians Considering Christ." But we do so cautiously.

Addendum: And yeah, maybe it's just where I live:

Despite significant improvements in test scores both for math and reading, the portion of Texas' adult population with at least a high school education has gotten even worse than it was ten years ago. The percentage of Texas' population with a white collar job has decreased more than 3% between 2000 and 2009, the fourth worst performance by any state. Texas also experienced one of the smallest increases in higher education, ranking 45th in bachelor's degrees and 42nd in advanced degrees.

Population Change (2000-2009): 2,967,222 (14.2%)
Bachelor's Degree or Higher: 25.5% (30th)
Population With White Collar Careers: 12.5% (32nd)
NAEP Math: 18th
NAEP Reading: 34th

Friday, February 04, 2011

Regarding the Suffering of Others

Stay with me, this gets complicated fast.

On Tuesday, Texas started experiencing "rolling blackouts," planned power outages, across the state, due, we were told, to cold weather. Hmmmm....

Texans faced eight hours of rolling electrical blackouts Wednesday and could see more outages Thursday as the coldest weather in 15 years caused power plants to break down.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas called off the longest period of planned outages in state history Wednesday afternoon. But the state grid operator warned it could initiate outages again Thursday morning if power plants, including three new coal plants owned by Energy Future Holdings, don’t get fixed.

The situation outraged some electricity customers, who overwhelmed call centers. Several top lawmakers said they would hold hearings on the incident and urged Texans to conserve.
I do like how "conserve" is the solution when the power system fails; but seldom otherwise. This isn't the coldest Texas has ever been, nor the first time Texas has ever had winter weather. Conspiracy theories abound, of course:

In the mean time, the average consumers will be screwed (with the blessing of their state government) by what appears to be a psychological operation and a massive electrical grid test. If you live in Texas, don’t be surprised if your electric bill goes up (so they can supposedly build more distribution lines and ‘upgrade’ the grid). After all, you want to avoid experiencing more power outages, don’t you?

Enron was notorious for engaging in this practice in order to increase profits during the ‘California rolling blackouts’ in the late 1990′s, for which the company was investigated by congress. Today, in Texas, electrical power companies engage in the same scam. Furthermore, they do it openly and nothing happens to them. What does that say about the state of affairs in this country? Did we really sink this low in our own complacence and ignorance in just one decade?
But that's mostly because ERCOT (the agency charged with regulating electricity in Texas) has done such a poor job of explaining what's going on:

The blackouts were widely blamed on the cold. This strikes me as preposterous. Yes it’s cold, for Texas. Houston got down into the 20s Wednesday morning, with single digits up in Abilene, but I have a hard time believing that power plants aren’t more robust than that.

But that’s what we’re being told. Apparently 50 out of Texas’ 550 power plants went down Wednesday morning, knocking off 8,000 mw, or about 12% of demand. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said the problem appeared be inadequate winterization and that the trouble centered on two new coal-fired plants owned by Luminant (a subsidiary of Energy Future Holdings, formerly TXU) which suffered a broken pipe and a frozen pipe. What about the other 48? Still unclear.

Also compounding troubles: another 12,000 mw worth of plants were offline with scheduled maintenance. As of Thursday morning 3,000 mw of plants were reportedly still offline because of the cold.

Texas needs to know why this is happening and who is responsible for allowing this weakness in our power grid. If Wisconsin can keep the lights when temperatures drop to -30, Texas ought to be able to deal with temps in the teens.

It really is a matter of life and death. Cutting the power to important hospitals is irresponsible, and Oncor, the north Texas power distributor has apologized. While in Houston the death of Stephen Caldwell is blamed on the outages. Caldwell, 29, reportedly required an oxygen machine to help him breathe. When the power went out he called his family for help, but by the time they got there he was dead.

So far the grid-managers at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, haven’t given an adequate explanation of what happened and how to fix it. Lawmakers say they’ll get to the bottom of it. The last time Texas faced rolling blackout was during a 100-degree heatwave in 2006. Finger-pointing after that one caused the head of ERCOT to step down.
I've produced all this by simple Google searches. What I haven't produced is any better explanation than I've found in that quote. I do have to note the forcing the head of ERCOT to step down in 2008 didn't really fix the problems in 2011....

Nor has the situation improved today; and note what is meant by "conserve", at least in El Paso:

Due to the extreme weather conditions over the past several days, El Paso Electric has not been able to restore a significant amount of its local power generation.

El Paso Electric continues to operate under a curtailment plan and we are asking all customers, business and residential, to immediately reduce as much electrical usage as they can.

El Paso Electric is asking businesses to curtail their usage except in situations of critical needs.

El Paso Electric is also asking customers to curtail usage in their homes.
Do not use appliances such as the washing machine, dishwasher, or electric clothes dryer Turn off extra lights, electric water heater and other electric appliances that you do not absolutely need. Minimize the use of your electric range or oven when preparing meals.
As I write, the temperature in El Paso is 34F.

I said this gets complicated; following the bouncing ball:

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, a Republican, declared a state of emergency due to gas shortages, closing government offices not providing essential services, according to a statement posting on her website. New Mexico Gas Co. said rolling blackouts in West Texas and “other problems” had cut gas deliveries to the state, forcing supply interruptions to customers in several towns, according to a statement posted yesterday on its website.

El Paso Corp., owner of a gas pipeline in the state, said in a statement on its website that demand is unusually high due to cold weather. Additionally, blackouts in Texas shut down processing plants and well freeze-offs slowed supply.

“We’re seeing situations where company X or company Y scheduled a certain quantity of gas and may be taking more off the system than their nominations,” said Richard Wheatley, a spokesman for Houston-based El Paso Corp. "Normally we have enough gas in the pipeline system to counteract that kind of situation; we can move gas around."
I know about the natural gas shortage in New Mexico because I have family and friends living there. What happened? The rolling blackouts in Texas:

Some 25,000 New Mexicans were without natural gas after a freeze in west Texas led to rolling power outages that interrupted electricity to natural-gas compressor stations.

"We had natural-gas supplies," said Monica Hussey, spokeswoman for New Mexico Gas Company. "But we couldn't get the supply on hand out of storage and to customers because it needs to go through compressor stations."
Which is ironic, since:

New Mexico is a prime natural-gas producer and is ranked fourth nationally.
But they didn't count on Texas not being able to generate electricity during a cold snap. And this is one of the coldest winters on record in New Mexico. So this isn't an inconvenience; it's life threatening.

This may be, despite conspiracy theories, an infrastructure problem. It is in Mexico, anyway:

Mexico said Thursday it was temporarily suspending an offer to provide electricity to Texas to help the U.S. state weather an ice storm that forced rolling blackouts, because of severe cold in Mexico's own territory.

Mexico's Federal Electricity Commission had said Wednesday it had agreed to transmit 280 megawatts of electricity to Texas.

But on Thursday, the commission said it was temporarily suspending the transfer because below-freezing temperatures in northern Mexico have caused some damage to the generating capacity of its own plants, causing some power outages in several parts of Chihuahua state and a reduction of about 3,800 megawatts in generation.

The commission also said Mexico needed to ensure there was enough electricity to meet domestic demand, in the face of a severe cold snap that dumped snow on the border city of Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas.
Is this due to Texas' population growth, up over 20% since 2000? Maybe. What's really interesting is the interconnectedness of us all, connections our public discourse pays no attention to. Had you heard New Mexico was without heat? The entire state? I haven't found any reporting on the blackouts in Texas that mention how we've harmed New Mexico and even California. This isn't a story out of New York, or the East Coast, or California, or even the second most populous state in the Union (which would barely be noticed this winter were it not for Super Bowl XLV in Dallas), so it isn't a story at all.

Are we connected when we pay no attention to the connections?

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Regarding King Canute....

So, Egypt is in revolt because of Tunisia, and Tunisia is in revolt because George W. Bush spread the seeds of democracy. Right?

Or is Egypt in revolt because of Obama? Both David Axelrod and the right wing say so, for very different reasons.

Or is Egypt in revolt because Mubarak is a dictator the U.S. backed for 30 years because of Israel and Camp David (and fear of the Muslim Brotherhood), and because of the example of Tunisia, and the uprisings in Tunisia and Jordan are because of unemployment and rising food prices? That seems much more likely.

Which, oddly enough, sort of makes it our fault, doesn't it? Funny how thinking everything revolves around you, obscures the fact that you are involved in everything. Whether you like it or not.