Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Bini's birthday.

Today was Bini's birthday! We went to Eve's Restaurant for a fantastically sublime dinner. Happily, their kitchen was open after 9:30PM, since we wouldn't have been able to get to eating until then. Their birthday special is apparently a free dessert or drink. Luckily for us, when I called ahead they were willing to allow Bini to have a free appetizer instead of a choice of others. (Of course, she/we did end up having a fantastic triple chocolate dessert.)

Happy Birthday, Bini!

Shaman Drum commercial & Brown Jug

The Shaman Drum (and Amer's across the street) was having a commercial filmed. I don't know for what, but it did mean that I was not able to get a sandwich at the deli.

I guess I should have asked where the commercial was eventually going to be shown, but I was not thinking about that at the time: merely where to get myself fed for lunch.

Tuesday was the second weekday with a majority of undergraduate students off to wherever they decide to go during the U of M's incredibly early Spring Break.

Walking through campus is almost like walking through an eerie potential future world where there are large institutional buildings with very few people to fill them. Of course, all the restaurants are all well under-capacity, meaning it's easy to get a seat. On the flip side, it means that the waitstaff are really getting a short shrift, since waitstaff is one of those positions that doesn't get their base pay at the level of minimum wage. (For some reason, the federal government, way back in history, decided that waiters don't need to get the full benefits of minimum wage, and so, until this day, they are slaves of tips - and the ups and downs of the local populace who don't really want to take the time to calculate an extra 15% on top of the 6% sales tax which isn't always included in the bill that is brought to your table.)

Anyway, Menan, Morgan, and I went to the rather empty Brown Jug for some food, and got into a discussion of intra-familial relationships. In Tanzania, the words "aunt," "uncle," "nephew," and "niece" mean different things than they do in an English context. Similarly, so do "mother" and "father." Very interesting. It took me an hour to figure this out (and I'm not sure that I really did get all of it) - but I wonder how confusing it might be for visitors when someone starts calling several different people their "mother." (Btw, the pizza was standard, but pretty good.)

Friday, February 23, 2007

Start of Spring Break

Last night was a happy hour, followed by going out to Bridge to Terabithia. Turns out that we were the only ones in the theater! The film was pretty good, but I think it would have been better if the final scene wasn't so over-done. Oh, well.

So, I'm taking the bus back this evening, and I get off at my stop. Across the street, A2 Waterworks is tearing up the street. So, what else am I do do except take a photo?

I also took some time earlier today and took a photo from atop one of the rocks outside the Dana Building.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Happy (Chinese) New Year!

It's the Year of the Pig! Happy New Year!

¡Es el Año del Cerdo!

United States highway map

I saw this online the other day, and was trying to find it again. It's the link to the highway's map of the United States done in the style of a subway map. I personally really like it. However, it needs to have more color! (I'm not a big fan of the use of orange-on-white.)

Anyway, check it out here.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

They're back.

Robins. They have been sighted. (By me.) Apparently I was the only one who saw them without having to have it pointed out. Robins are back, and its the 15th of February. They were pretty much the only bird flying (perching on branches, eating dessicated berries, pooping, etc) about whilst I was walking back to the Dana building earlier today.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Role of Universities

One very interesting lecture presented was Jim Duderstadt’s presentation on the history of the institution of “the university,” the university in Britain, the early United States, and The University of Michigan. The concluding remarks about the future of higher education, as well as the Spellings Commission were also very elucidating.

A couple of points of interest that came up for me were:

· the continued desire of higher education to continue to require a liberal arts education;

· research universities teaching basic classes; and

· an (apparent) lack of connection between secondary and higher education.

With regard to the first point – the continued desire to teach a liberal arts education – is, I believe, one of the major points of weakness in the US higher education system. While this is usually seen as a major strength of the US system, I am cognizant of the continually quickening pace of the world’s economies. Students in US higher education are waiting two years – half of their potential time of training at university – to decide their major field of study. This is compared to students in the UK who are admitted directly into their majors, and take courses almost exclusively within it. In Taiwan – as far as I understand their curriculum – all students are required to take a series of “core” courses (“colloquia”), but then stay pretty confined to their disciplines.

The idea that the US-educated university graduate knows a little about everything, and more about their topic is a good thing to have, but I believe that there are enough students who are in the system that have little desire to learn outside their field. This leaves me at an intellectual fork-in-the-road situation: should students be forced to take courses they do not want to (and professors and lecturers teach courses to these students who do all wish to learn) in order to have a liberal education, or should the requirements of education be changed to be more in line with a different goal?

I feel that a student body should not be forced to take courses for the sake of broadening their education – that is what personal development (for which everyone has a whole lifetime) is for. Instead, the US university system should use the first two years of each students’ academic tenure to try and instill the traits they desire in their graduates. Hopefully, these would include a strong basis in ethics, as well as training in thoughtful reasoning, leadership, and cooperation, as well as the basic tools each student would need in continuing within their chosen field.

This last point brings me to my second point of interest: research universities teaching basic classes. Should UofM be offering classes in basic algebra, biology, chemistry, etc? What difference does it make for a student to take such courses at an expensive research university, as opposed to a community college? A lecturer at a community college should have as much knowledge with such foundational material as any professor, lecturer, or graduate student at a research university. Indeed, I would make the argument that a professor at a research university who is interested in the cutting-edge of science might be less inclined to be interested in re-hashing the basics of his or her field every four months. If this is the case, it makes little sense that such a professor would teach such a class, leaving it (or as much of the running of it as possible) to his or her graduate students – which is what happens in many of these introductory 100-level courses around campus. So why should a student (or the parents of a student) pay thousands or tens-of-thousands of dollars to learn material from a graduate student when they can pay a fraction of the cost to learn the same material at a community college? Although Jim didn’t go into it very much in his presentation, I subsequently learned from him that the original setup of the University of California system was set up to focus only on upper-level and graduate courses, but was eventually scrapped due to recruitment concerns.

Of course, this could potentially all be solved by having a much-improved secondary education system in the United States. The major gap was one of the major findings of the Spellings Commission (barring the meta-findings of political “tampering”). In the UK, there is a Department for Education and Skills which can set teaching (and presumably learning) requirements nationwide, and although many debates occurred in the UK about the benefits and pitfalls surrounding teaching to tests, during my time living there, I felt that those students coming into universities were of a greater level of academic maturity than many of the Junior Year Abroad (JYA) students from the United States. While there are definite problems with the British education system, there should be a greater emphasis on connecting the skills learned in secondary education with those of university. Potentially having upper-tier universities require certain prerequisites for entry, or have a “catch-up” year or semester for students who need one before starting in on their actual degree.

And this leads me back, full-circle, to the questionable insistence by United States universities to stick to a liberal arts education. I feel that the problems with holding onto this commodity – decreased specialization, recalcitrant students being taught by disinterested lecturers/professors, high financial costs to learn basic subject matter, etc – will outweigh the benefits of a broader education. A breadth of education should be encouraged throughout a person’s schooling and life, and not forced upon those individuals who choose to be specialists. At the same time, universities should strive to teach all their students a set of tools – thoughtful reasoning, leadership, cooperation, etc – to help study and solve field-spanning problems that we are beginning to see today.