21 September 2014

CFP: Critical Institutional Research: Analysis, Methods, Theories

Proposed Call for Proposals
Critical Institutional Research: Analysis, Methods, Theories

Association for Institutional Research Pre-conference Workshop
May 25/26, 2015, Denver, Colorado, USA

In spite of a long tradition of critical approaches to both the study and practice of education, institutional research is dominated by very much traditional approaches to inquiry. Positivism, behavioralism, managerialism, and rationalism remain key—and usually unexamined—substantive and methodological commitments in IR, and opportunities to pursue alternatives are limited by both the immediate demands of the decision-makers to whom IR professionals are accountable and the conflation of these values with scholarly rigor. Critical approaches to IR offer the opportunity to better understand and perhaps improve existing practice, to open new directions for inquiry, to broaden the groups represented in IR analyses, and when necessary to challenge problematic practices in IR and in higher education more broadly.

To address these issues, I propose that interested institutional researchers organize a mini-conference on critical approaches to institutional research as a pre-conference workshop at the Association for Institutional Research conference.

14 May 2014

On Free Speech and Social Justice, or, Just Who Should Speak at Commencement

Oh, dear. The Establishment media has ratcheted up the hand-wringing machine again. Those pesky kids are creating a ruckus, and It Needs to Stop.

This time it’s over commencement speakers. This morning, both Vox and The Christian Science Monitor ran stories about college students opposing controversial commencement speakers. (Interestingly, both describe the same incidents and both lead with pictures of IMF Director Christine Lagarde—Vox’s Libby Nelson wins with the facepalm pic—which makes me wonder who pitched the story to begin with. But that’s another lecture.) They have been successful, forcing at least five speakers and one honorary degree recipient to withdraw or have invitations rescinded.
Update, May 14, 15:52: My colleague Quinn Koller pointed out that Slate was also in on the issue last night, and takes first prize in the headline division: “Elite College Students Protest Their Elite Commencement Speakers.” Seems like plenty of others jumped on the story at some point today, led largely by the Legarde withdrawal at Smith College.
This is, of course, a dire threat to the future of the Republic. In Vox, The Nation’s Michelle Goldberg argues that this represents a return of an “anti-liberal left” that is [GASP!] more concerned with social justice than with free speech. CSM trots out Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (an organization deeply concerned with the rights of conservatives students) to bandy about the “right to not be offended” trope. Both agree that these trends are deeply, deeply distressing to those concerned with academia as a place for the free exchange of ideas.

I call bullshit. (This is getting to be a habit.)

12 May 2014

Coming to UVU Peace and Justice Studies this Fall: Information and Social Justice

I'm excited to be joining the UVU Peace and Justice Studies program as an adjunct instructor this fall. I'll be offering a special topics course on Information and Social Justice based on my current research. The class is limited to 24 students, so it will operate more as a seminar than a lecture. That's especially good since there really is very little work done in this area; students in the class will be building concepts and practices rather than just studying them.

Here's what we're tentatively taking on in the course.

As information has become more ubiquitous, it has also become more contentious. Issues such as privacy and control have long been recognized. Recently, however, the question of how information and the technologies that create it affect groups in society differently has begun to challenge both activists and information technologists. This course explores the ways in which information presents concerns about social justice: the distribution of resources among and power relationships between social groups. We will study particularly how surveillance and big data challenge social justice, then consider whether open data, privacy, civil rights, hacking, and citizen data science can contribute to more just data practices. Hands-on work in the course will include using Structured Query Language to build a database (you will learn to code in this course!), blogging and other participation in social media, and a major project analyzing a data system of your choice from the perspective of social justice.

If you're interested in the course, feel free to email (jeffrey.johnson@uvu.edu), tweet (@the_other_jeff, call (801.863.8993), or drop by my office (BA203f) and we can talk about the course. If you have any suggestions for topics or readings, I'd love to see them in the comments section.

Details follow after the jump.

23 April 2014

On Climbing Walls and "Class" Warfare

Enough already with the amenities!

No, no. Not like that. That's been beaten to death. I'm all right with student amenities. I'm just tired of hearing about them.

One of the popular villians for those critical of the increasing costs of higher education are student amenities. The climbing wall seems to be the primus inter pares here, the Skeletor ruling over the Castle Greyskull that the student union has become. But "gourmet" dining options (which, judging by what I've seen, are an improvement over the classic school cafeteria but are on par with your local Golden Trough Buffet) also come up a lot, and every once in a while I hear of that most egregious fault: maid service in dorms (gasp!).

No one is (openly) criticizing these in themselves. The criticism seems to be that these costly (we presume; I haven't seen anyone actually provide numbers) amenities are taking money away from academics, costing departments full-time faculty positions and exacerbating the casualization of teaching.

I call bullshit.

25 February 2014

Data as Reality Made Legible

A fragment written for an upcoming paper on the construction of student data in higher education.

The ubiquity of data in contemporary society hides its peculiarity. Data is a very specific form of information, one in which the subject is broken down atomistically, measured precisely (in the sense of being measured to quite specific standards that may or may not involve a high level of quantitative precision), and represented consistently so that it can be compared to and aggregated with other cases. That this form of knowledge is more common in highly structured institutions and rose to ubiquity with the modern, bureaucratic state and the capitalist enterprise should surprise no one. Creating data should be regarded as a social process in which reality is made legible to the authorities of an institutional structure.

10 January 2014

On (Failed) Satire and Shitty Frat Boy Humor

I have a satire problem. Not a problem with satire, mind you. My Twitter avatar has a poster from Dr. Strangelove in the background, in German, no less. Clearly I appreciate good satire. It’s actually the opposite problem: I see satire whether it is there or not.

Part of that is simply due to the fact that I want to see satire. I really do believe that it is one of the most effective tools against the powerful. So much of power is the belief among the powerless in power’s legitimacy. Satire undermines that legitimacy, and lays bare the exercise of authority and force.

Contrast, for example, Dr. Strangelove with its contemporary, Fail-Safe. As frightening as the scenario is, as brilliant as Henry Fonda is as the President, as compelling a case for nuclear disarmament as it made, Fail-Safe still legitimates the President, the military leadership, and intellectuals as the ones to decide on the policy issues. That legitimates the decision itself even when those leaders reach the opposite conclusion. “Gentlemen, Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” undermined any claim the Washington establishment had that its decision was the right one.

What passes for satire gets dicey, though, because the subject of the satire and its object are potentially different. When the subject of a joke is the oppressed, the challenge is to identify whether the object is the oppressor or the oppressed. In the former case, satire retains its power for the weak, as in Mel Brooks’ treatment of racism in Blazing Saddles. In the latter case, the joke is not a satirical tool against the powerful but rather a way of perpetuating domination. Identifying whether a joke is satirical or oppressive is a true challenge, important as it is difficult.

Last night, for example, Rhonda Ragsdale retweeted:
First, a bit of advice: if @profragsdale is calling something out, she’s probably right; save yourself the trouble, take her word for it, and learn something.

16 September 2013

Rendering Students Legible: Translation Processes in Private, Institutional, and Government Higher Educational Data Systems

This is an extended version of the proposal I submitted to the 2014 WPSA conference today. It builds on, and contributes to, the general ideas of my information justice paper from the 2013 MPSA conference.
To say that data is constructed seems trivially true; data architecture is a basic competency of data scientists and database design a core concern of information technology staffs. But embedded in this conventional view is an understanding of data consistent with scientific realism: the data that is available to us may be limited, but it nonetheless objectively represents the reality of a datized moment, interaction, or condition. In this view, the choices made in data architecture have at most minor substantive influence on the data itself.

This paper subjects educational data to a constructivist analysis that goes much further than the mechanics of database design. Students’ interactions with the institution, the state, and private actors present a problem of legibility for those actors, which is solved by datizing those interactions through a series of translations in the data process. The information that student databases contain is structured primarily by transformations in the data process and not the datized moment itself. I show how data is substantively constructed through its collection and management by conducting structural analyses of the data systems commonly used at Utah Valley University: Canvas, Banner, the Utah System of Higher Education reporting process, and IPEDS. I describe a series of characteristic transformations that take place in the collection, storage, and retrieval of data in these systems:
  1. from relevance to existence,
  2. from contingent to essential,
  3. from narrative to nominal,
  4. from complex to categorical (or plural to monistic), and
from diversity to normalcy. These transformations reduce the many ways of understanding reality to a single interpretation embodied in the data. Though reality does both provide inputs into the transformational process and constrains the ways that the process can transform those inputs into outputs, the choices made in developing data processes make impossible a database in which there is a one-to-one correspondence between reality and data. The information output is underdetermined by the datized moment itself, resulting in a Rashomon-like one-to-many correspondence that is reduced to a single output only with the conclusion of the data process.

This is more than merely suggesting that there are errors or biases in the data. In a realist view of data, errors and biases can be corrected by validating the data against itself or the reality it purports to represent. But the self-correcting process of scientific realism cannot do so within the kinds of transformations described in this paper. The transformations are consistent with reality because they follow the rules chosen for a specific data process. Actions are consistent with the conclusions drawn from that data because the data process has legitimized that data as the only acceptable representation of reality; all else can be dismissed as anecdote. Constructive data can only be challenged in confrontation with other constructions that may have been possible given alternative data processes.

Policymakers can gain much from understanding the transformations that govern the data that they use. Understanding them helps, first and foremost, determine the extent to which a data point--or combination of points--is an appropriate operationalization of a concept of concern, for example, when analyzing along a combined race-gender classification is more useful than analyzing by race and the gender sequentially. Such understanding also makes us aware of blind spots in our data where deviation or perceived irrelevance has been excluded. Finally, understanding the constructive nature of data is an antidote to a number of scientistic fallacies that can undermine data analysis and action.

But the deeper concern is for the injustices that can enter higher education through these translations. These translations exercise and distribute power between students and institutions, between institutions and the state, and among institutions by creating privileged representations and embedding both new and existing such representations in the data that is used in decisionmaking.