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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Contorted airspace

It is 650 AM Sunday according to my body clock (which is set to EST US), 840 PM officially Pacific (Korea) time as I complete my journey to Seoul. I am typing this post in a “crunched” position with the laptop in a V-angle between my lap and the seatback in front of me. Very awkward, but I am so bored and tired after 18 hours of flight time (that doesn't count the delayed hour or three at various locations for a variety of reasons) that I am willing to engage in this contortionist'’s pursuit. I know that I'’ve lost a day when crossing international timeline somewhere along the way, but this is one case where I would not have minded really being unconscious for the entire time.

To make matters worse, a head cold is festering and I am miserable physically as well as mentally. Northwest is not a bad airline -- or perhaps not any better or worse than most. But I have to admit that I am surprised that the seating on international flights is no different than on domestic--– I somehow had the impression it would be otherwise, especially on these long haul routes where 747s are the most common aircraft. But that is not the case, and so many hours in a small seat sitting three or four abreast actually borders on torture.

I hear tell that is not the case with Qantas, which is the carrier I am using to Australia in a couple of weeks -- if I survive this trek.

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Friday, February 24, 2006


I am in packing mode as I prepare for trek to Seoul where I will engage some University of Oklahoma students in the study of bureaucratic politics (hey, this is globalization -- what can I tell you...). I'm also looking forward to seeing some of my former students who now, with PhDs in hand (well, almost in one case), work as teachers and researchers in South Korea. They are arranging for some seminars and lectures which should keep me busy....

But as I go, I will also keep an eye out for Dennett's response to the NYT review -- there are already reactions and comments from others, including a quote from a Dennett email that indicates he is taking all this in stride.....

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

High Hopes -- or Once there was this little ol' ant....

This past week I was taken aback by an attack by Leon Wieseltier on Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell, in the New York Times Book Review Section. While it was not of the readable quality of Keillor's critique of the Levy book (described several posts earlier), it was clearly aimed at undermining Dennett's alleged "scientism" perspective and would have made me reluctant to go out of my way to purchase the book were I not such a "fan" of Dennett's earlier works.

So purchase it I did -- and got my hands on it last night.

And it is pure and wonderful Dennett all the way -- or at least so far (I am only in the first chapter) he has made his point loud and clear. The subtitle of the work gives away his major theme ("Religion as a Natural Phenomenon"), and in the first few pages -- hell, in the first paragraph -- he grabs your attention. In fact, there is nothing about religion in the opening paragraph -- it is a description of a parasite , a "little brain worm", that enters the head of ants and makes them engage in an ongoing sisyphusian effort to climb to the top of grass blades. The parasite's goal is the enter the stomach of some unsuspecting grazing cattle, and it cares not a bit about its use of the ant as its mode for transporting itself therein.

And so it is with ideas -- religious ideas, as we learn -- that parasitically embed themselves in the heads of humans and use them for their purposes....

At least that is the theme established as Dennett launches into what promises to be a terrific read. I think I am going to have fun with this, and I just get the feeling that there will be more posts as I get past the first chapter.

As for Mr. Wieseltier, whatever his agenda, it certainly wasn't to give this book a good read. Dennett clearly has an agenda -- this is a work that is putting forward an argument that deserves to be confronted as such. Wieseltier fails to do so, taking the approach instead of labelling Dennett as a mere follower of "scientism"" and then engaging in ad hominem attacks that are better left for street fights than book reviews.

I read on!

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Email in the classroom

A front page article in Tuesday's New York Times made the rounds on campus, and generating some interesting reactions. It focused on the increasing role of email in student-faculty relations, and I think it hit on a relatively sensitive issue -- what is happening in faculty-student relations given the increased use of email and related systems in our teaching.

I've tended to experiment with the use of online technology for the past few years, and now I am committed to it. Systems like Blackboard, eCollege, D2L, etc. have made it easier, although they vary in feel and function. We use Blackboard at the University of New Hampshire, and my intensive use of it seems to being going well with my undergraduate class. I apply a very elaborate approach to grading and evaluation in my undergraduate courses, and I am always surprised how well the students take to the complexities and demands of my course. Interestingly, I find the more elaborate and demanding I become, the more they seem to like it.

But for me one of the most positive outcomes of this approach is the breaking down of communication barriers -- or at least I sense that my students are less reluctant to let me know if they are having problems. It isn't that I am now on a constant "chat" basis with my students, but I fell pretty confident that if there is a problem or issue, they will feel comfortable letting me know. This is especially helpful this semester since I am "on the road" a good deal of the time....

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Contrasting styles....

The Fog of War, the 2003 documentary offering the reflections of former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, is perhaps among the best teaching tools I have put to use in a long time. I used it in my administrative and policy ethics course last semester to deal specifically with the ethics of war, but it is relevant to a great deal more. This semester I used it for my undergraduate "Bureaucracy in America" course, following its screening up with a "discussion forum" session that is now in its fifth day. Yes, participation is required, but I remain impressed with the quality of the posts. The film raised many significant issues, and the students seem to be getting it.

As a contrast, I am contemplating having them watch Charlie Rose's interview with the current Secretary,Donald Rumsfeld. I don't know whether to scream or cry when I hear the "straight talk" rationalizing that Rumsfeld engages in, and one can only wonder whether he would ever be capable of the kind of reflection we now see in McNamara....

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Clarifying my agenda

My recent scholarly excursion into school accountability was long overdue -- although I was well aware of all the talk and activity surrounding the use of accountability in the education field, I generally avoided looking into the work in that area (which the exception of Kenneth Meier's "Texas school studies"). Now that I have (thanks to the invitation to address a group of European education professors on my more generic approach to accountability), I am impressed by both the complexities and relevance of that work to the questions raised by the ever expanding fascination with accountability. It probably the best possible "testing ground" for theoretical work like mine.

A couple of themes I have been working with were strengthened by the experience. School accountability, especially where it stress "performance," clearly reflects the four characteristics of the current trends in accountable governance reform -- it is promising (the answer to every problem), pervasive (found everywhere), obsessive (desired by everyone), and perversive (dysfunctional and distorting of all it touches). There is probably no better general comparative case study to test my observations that education, and there is probably no arena where both the interest and data are global.

What is as important, there is probably no other area where there is access to studying what I regard as the true essence (for lack of a better phrase) of accountability-as-governmentality. I believe my attacks on the current accountability reforms efforts are beginning to give the impression that I somehow do not "believe" in accountability and its role in governance. But as I point out in earlier work, I see my purpose as drawing attention to the abuse of the concept and improving our understanding of the central (I would argue "defining") role accountability has played in modern governance. It is that core function of accountability that I think is at risk with the current reform movements....

Over the next few days I plan to post both the initial draft of the paper I presented in Vienna as well as the powerpoint presentation (which stressed additional points I had not put in paper).

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Votiv Church

I have just returned from a trip to Vienna where I made a presentation on accountability to a group of education professors from Austria, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. More on that later.

While there I took a couple of phonecam shots of the area in the University Quarter, just around Sigmund Freud Park. I sent them off to Randi, who worked her magic on this shot of the Votiv Church to make it quite a bit better than the original.

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