Florida’s proposal to set tuition by major: crazy, yes, but also too close to home

At The Atlantic this week, Jordan Weissmann posted a story about a proposal in Florida to set tuition at state institutions according to major, with students choosing “high demand” fields earning a discount, while those choosing majors less in demand would pay more.

This is the kind of proposal that is easy to scoff at, and to write off as being the product of one place’s peculiar politics, but, in truth, the underlying logic is one I see at work everyday at my institution and in the Oregon University System more broadly.

Currently, for example, there are clear mandates to direct scarce resources for faculty hires towards departments with professional or pre-professional, or even just practical-sounding, majors. Meanwhile, faculty in departments with more traditional academic majors are forced to fight just to keep existing tenure lines, or to hire adjuncts to cover course releases and leave, let alone to supplement regular course offerings.

In considering the Florida proposal, Weissmann notes the difficulty in trying to peg what constitutes a “high demand” field and how to keep up with ongoing changes in labor markets. Whether setting student tuition or constructing programs and hiring faculty, playing the market seems like a foolish risk for colleges and universities, no matter how appealing it may sound to state legislators and governing boards. Systems risk sinking investments into fields of study that may or not be relevant a few years down the road, if they were ever relevant to begin with.

Like Weissmann, I can imagine a system of data collection to try to make these kinds of decisions be as economically rational as possible, but it seems equally likely that these decisions are or would be made for less grounded reasons, such as what appeals politically or some vague sense of what an employable major does or does not look like.

Taking faculty hires at Western as a case in point, I haven’t seen any indication that decisions about new programs and allocation of resources are being made with clear data on employer demand or the likelihood of finding employment after graduation. For the most part, these decisions seem to be driven by legislative mandates, which, as Weissmann puts it, are just as likely to be based on assumptions of, “Science: Good! English: Bad!”, as they are to be founded on thoughtful study, by what sounds career-oriented, or fits in with some influential person’s general picture of the economy.

In each of these cases, what I see is an expansion of one of the central myths of higher ed in America, namely that the purpose of choosing a major is to secure a specific job or to get started on a particular career path.

This is nonsense.

For starters, and to state what should be obvious, but apparently isn’t, choice of major doesn’t guarantee any form of employment. A student can make all the “right”choices and still end up working in some other field or in jobs that don’t appear to make direct use of the content of their college major, or not able to find work at all. Simply majoring in a STEM field or in some narrowly drawn program like Heath Care Management (or whatever) doesn’t guarantee specific or gainful employment anymore than majoring in a “loser” academic field in the social sciences, arts or humanities fates one to a life of drawing espresso.

Increasing one’s prospects for decent employment is a perfectly fine reason to go to college, and there is certainly no shortage of studies and data about employment, unemployment, and earnings to demonstrate the economic value of having an undergraduate degree. The misapprehension that springs from this general point, for students, for parents, for legislators, for members of boards, for, even, administrators, is that if it’s better to have a degree than not it must be even better to study something “practical”.

One obvious risk to Florida’s proposal that Weissmann notes in his article is that many students will be tempted to declare majors for which they may not have a true aptitude or passion. Those students are likely to either fail out of their programs or end up being less competitive in the job market in comparison to those who are better prepared and more talented.

When it comes to actual funding decisions, little value is assigned to what a college education can do for students beyond the promise of specific employment. Very few people have aspirations that stop at their job. In our lives as friends, neighbors, members of families, and citizens, and in our non-employment related pursuits, there is value in having had breadth built into our higher educations. There is value in cultivating broader habits of the mind that make us better thinkers, readers, information-seekers, and communicators. Even in the context of economistic arguments about higher ed, it is worth noting that these qualities are also useful in seeking employment, and, over the course of a lifetime, likely more useful than any specific career-related or technical knowledge one may have acquired in a particular moment, e.g., when one was an undergrad.

The danger inherent in a proposal like the Florida tuition scheme or the current approach to hiring at my institutions is that, over time, “low demand” programs will die on the vine. If that happens, institutions will be left with the problem of how to actually educate, as well as train, all of those scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. There would also be the question of what to do with students who, despite all the incentives, choose to major in fields outside of the STEM or professional and pre-professional areas. I don’t think it can be overstated that there will always be students for whom science, math, engineering, and related fields, will not be good or viable options. And yet if the general economic case for a college degree holds true, state systems should have an interest in ensuring adequate alternatives for students choosing to pursue higher education, and, at some level, that means supporting academic majors in the humanities, arts, and social sciences alongside those in the STEM fields and in explicitly career-oriented programs.

One thing that I’ve noticed lately about how my institution works is while the largest majors do tend to be in professional, pre-professional, or explicitly career-focused, in the main, these programs only serve their majors. While departments in the traditional liberal arts and sciences may not have that many majors in comparison, in any given graduating class, more students will have taken courses from faculty in those programs than in the aforementioned majors, which are found in Business, Criminal Justice, Education, and Computer Science.

I don’t have a problem with this, nor would I disagree that a department with tens or hundreds of majors merits a faculty adequate to serve their students, but what I do object to is the manner in which demand seems to only be assessed in terms of markets, whether at the university or in the larger economy*. Yes, many of the social sciences, arts and humanities may have small majors, but faculty in those programs teach a lot of students from across the university. That service, that kind of “demand”, is routinely discounted, I think, because it is primarily the result of how the general education curriculum is designed.

But here’s the thing. I don’t think this is some accident or quirk of history. Disciplines like mine, geography, are meant to provide generally useful knowledge about the world. Modern professional fields are primarily intended to educate students with specific job and career aspirations. While I would not want to suggest that there is no value in, say, non-business majors or minors taking Business courses, in my experience, faculty in fields like that are primarily interested in teaching students who are looking for preparation in that field. The fact that Business, etc. are not explicitly represented in the general education curriculum, especially at the lower division, is because faculty in those programs have opted out of participation, and not because they have been excluded.

At the same time, most faculty in the professional and pre-professional areas rely on faculty in other departments to provide breadth and fundamentals to their students. Most faculty in those areas realize that their students are better off for having taken courses in the traditional liberal arts and sciences. And yet proposals like Florida’s, or decisions like those being made around hiring at my institution, seem to be made with little understanding or appreciation of how higher education actually works in practice for faculty and students.

*I also think it should be noted that “demand” is a slippery concept in these discussions. Majors like Criminal Justice or Business often do show high levels of demand on many campuses in terms of enrollment, and they do guide students into specific jobs or careers, but students with degrees in those areas largely do not command the same kind of demand in the job market that majors in the STEM fields do. So, in some ways apples and oranges are being lumped together in this blog post, but that’s largely because they do in practice, too. On many campuses, the STEM fields are likely small in terms of enrollment, but are supported because of apparent demand in the job market. Many professional, pre-professional, and career-oriented fields are supported because students want to major in those areas. In either case, departments in the middle are left to fight over whatever crumbs are dropped on the campus floor.

My tumblr: small city graffiti and street art

I’ve been meaning to mention here that I’ve started a blog on tumblr, Small City Bomb Report, dedicated to documenting graffiti and street art in smaller cities and towns. Most of the images are from Corvallis, but I’ve also reblogged some pictures from other tumblrs, notably snappingthewalls’ blog, and streets.

A few of the photos you can see with more information at Small City Bomb Report (all graffiti & street art from Corvallis, Oregon, photos by me):

“This is what a house looks like”: contesting the neighborhood

Last week these signs started showing up in our neighborhood, "This is What a House Looks Like"and specifically one block over from where our house is located, across from and adjacent to new housing being built on the site of a tear-down. Since then, the campaign has migrated to other blocks and streets.

Anne-Marie and I have talked on and off about the signs since noticing them last weekend. Lately we have mostly been making jokes about expanding the scope of the effort, putting up signs that say, “This is what a tree looks like”, “This is what a car looks like”, “This is what a dog looks like”; you get the idea.

Those jokes stem from the unease that I, and I think Anne-Marie, have about this campaign. There are a number of possible subtexts to the message on the sign that I am reluctant to support even as I am sympathetic to other purposes embedded in the idea.

As our playing around with alternatives implies, my main concern has to do with the implication that there is only one acceptable way for a house to look, and that look conforms to American white and middle class ideals around the family.

On Corvallis TidBits, an online “community newspaper”, you can view a statement of purpose about the sign campaign. There are two salient points.

One is that the new development contravenes public testimony in opposition to the units, which, according to the statement, takes advantage of a quirk in city law that allows for ‘single attached’ housing to be built across property lines, even where multi-unit housing would be disallowed if built on a single lot.

This is where I am in sympathy with the aims of the campaign. In a city with a reported vacancy rate of less than 1%, and high demand for student housing in particular, developers have substantial leverage to shape development in ways that are expedient for profit-making, but maybe not in the best long-term interests of neighbors, or for the quality of the city’s housing stock. American landscapes are rife with structures built without regard to context, and that can be alienating.

The houses in question appear to be a large in relation to those immediately adjacent, but, as Anne-Marie has observed, the real concern about many of the newest developments in the neighborhood, and nearby, is the layouts, which are maximized for individual living space while minimizing shared living area. The concern here, and as expressed in the TidBits article, is the new housing will only be attractive to students. From a market perspective, that’s where the easy to assess demand lies. Our neighborhood, which today is called “Avery Addition”, is just a few blocks from Oregon State University and a short walk to downtown (from our house we can get to the other side of either campus or downtown in about twenty minutes on foot). As the new 300-unit complex going in behind us suggests, market incentives in this area clearly break in favor of catering to students.

So, yes, the development under dispute does raise questions about democracy and sustainability, and the nature of ownership, or the intersection of private rights and public goods. It is hard for me to argue with the case for a more open and dialogic process where individual, community, city, and developer interests are all given comparable weights and room for articulation.

On the other hand, the statement of purpose for the “This is what a house looks like” signs also claims that Avery Addition is, “a traditional housing neighborhood”.

In one sense, I guess that is another way of making the point about design and layouts, but in another sense that statement encapsulates my uneasiness with the implication of the campaign that only single-family housing is acceptable. Taken in context, I’m not sure that the statement holds up to scrutiny, underscoring my sense that there is a kind of class privilege being exercised through the signs, and underneath the rhetoric and concern for democracy and sustainability.

The neighborhood we live in dates to the 1850s. There is a history here, but the area is not historic in the sense that term is usually used in battles over preservation, which is to signify that a neighborhood has an identifiable and consistent character. There have clearly been distinct periods of development and redevelopment continuing to the present. If you were to take a walk through Avery Addition you would see a variety of house styles – cottages, bungalows, ranches, split-levels – from a variety of eras – nineteenth to twenty-first centuries – and sizes – one, two, and three story. There’s no standard lot size. Some houses have been kept and maintained as single-family structures, while others have been divided into apartments or otherwise adapted for the rental market. Some have been carefully renovated, while others haven’t seen significant work in decades. Even before the new development, the neighborhood was ringed by apartment complexes dating to the 70s, 80s, and 90s (judging by appearances). I think, but have not confirmed, that there are one or two houses near us that are active communes of some kind. Avery Addition is one of the denser and more eclectic neighborhoods in Corvallis in terms of its housing and its residents.

“This is what a house looks like” seems to fly in the face of the area’s history and the neighborhood’s actually existing housing stock. Students are already here in significant numbers, and likely have been for decades. In this light, the sign campaign feels not just conservative but reactionary.

And yet it I also wish that developers would take, or could be compelled to take, a different approach to what is currently being built. The new complex behind us is, essentially, a dorm, even offering individual leases on shared apartments. There is little reason, beyond profiting from the current student-driven housing shortage, for the developments to be so narrowly tailored to one group of market participants.

I am not, however, in principle, opposed to multi-unit housing or density; we chose to move here in part because of the close-in location and the density that implies. I expect to be living next to students and other renters, to people sharing housing, as well as to single-family homeowners, not to mention urban farmers, other academics and white collar professionals, writers and artists, retirees – Avery Addition seems like it has a diversity of housing for people of different needs and backgrounds. I think that’s good and all too rare in the U.S. I don’t think this neighborhood actually does have one kind of house and it certainly has more than one kind of home.

I’d review THE BOURNE LEGACY, but I didn’t see the movie I was meant to see

It is easy, maybe even fair, to see The Bourne Legacy as cynical, as superfluous, or as a sign of ‘what’s wrong with Hollywood’, but, equally, I think that writer-director Tony Gilroy, who also scripted the films in the original trilogy, had a clear sense of what he wanted to do with this extension of the franchise: dig deeper into the intertwining of science, the state, and private enterprise, explore certain aspects of the risk society as experienced by many in post 9/11 America, trace the lines of economic globalization through one particular industry. However, I feel ill-equipped to move beyond these initial thematic observations because the film that I saw at the Regal Cinemas on ninth street in Corvallis this past weekend was so poorly projected that it is impossible to separate my response from the problems with the image.

The flaws in projection were noticeable from the first preview and advertisement: text and background elements were blurry, giving a fuzzy impression to the whole. In addition, the image was small, with empty screen space along both axes. It seemed as if everyone in the theater was taking note of these problems, and one patron in front of us eventually got up to complain to theater staff. When s/he came back, they told their companion that they had been informed that there are different projectors for previews and the film. So, we waited.

When the movie proper started, nothing changed. The same patron got up to point this out to staff and after a few minutes, someone did enter the projection booth. The size of the image was adjusted to fill the width of the screen, but not the length. The problems with image quality also remained. Eventually, I went out to the lobby to talk to someone about this problem and the manager went into the theater with me. We watched for a few minutes, and while s/he acknowledged that s/he could see the blurriness, s/he also told me that the there was nothing anyone on staff could do about the problem. An outside tech would be needed to make the necessary fixes. S/he also told me that the empty screen space at the top and bottom was left to preserve the wide screen presentation.

One thought that I shared with Anne-Marie was that the image looked how a 3-D film looks when you remove your glasses. After doing some research on this topic, it appears that there may be a reason for this.

Last year, Ty Burr, film critic at The Boston Globe, conducted an investigation into reports of overly dim projection in area theaters and discovered that in many places the problem was use of 3-D hardware configurations for 2-D movies. While dimness is the predominant issue when this happens, in a follow-up piece by Roger Ebert, the word “muddy” is also used to describe the effect, and this is a perfect word for what we were viewing on Saturday.

One of the hints that Burr gives for determining whether a theater you are in is using the 3-D set-up for a 2-D film is to look for two beams of light coming from the projection room, which there was during our screening of The Bourne Legacy.

According to Burr and Ebert, the powers that be at many theater chains have determined that changing the projection hardware is not worth the time and effort between films or screenings. And in the broader picture, the shift to digital has accelerated the de-skilling of film projection. Indeed, I have my doubts that the theater manager had any clue as to the nature of the problem, nor any sense of urgency about correcting the issue. After the film, the patron who made the original complaint advised the manager to look at the film during the closing credits where the flaws in the image were most visible. S/he nodded and proceeded to sell popcorn to the next group of customers.

It seems likely that the issue of image quality and that of image size were unrelated, unless the muddiness was more an artifact of compression than hardware configuration (or some other bug in either hardware or software). But assume that what the manager told me is true, and that the unused screen space was the result of, essentially, letterboxing to preserve the original aspect ratio of the film. The entire time I felt as if I was watching a really big television, and not a movie in a theater. The unused space made me conscious of the screen in a way that the makers of films like The Bourne Legacy undoubtedly do not want for viewers. If this kind of presentation is going to be a feature of digital projection, that would seem to have profound implications for how movies are seen and read. The immersive experience that defines mainstream Hollywood filmmaking and moviegoing will become more elusive, and the separation between home viewing and theatrical presentation will narrow even further, and not because of an increase in the quality of what can be viewed at home, but from making the theater experience more like being at home.

The irony here is that Regal has started to run this promo during previews, the main point of which is to see movies in the theater because watching them at home diminishes the work.

We were shown this promo not once, but twice before The Bourne Legacy.

Later that night, feeling like more of the same, we watched The Peacemaker (1997) via Netflix streaming. Image quality was better and, in context, the blank spaces on the screen made sense and are a welcome adaptation to smaller screens. I do believe that even the most small scale and intimate of films made for the big screen are ideally seen in the theater, but that ideal is undermined when exhibitors don’t take their responsibilities seriously.

Growing up free in PDX: the power of public transit

Last week, when I read this report from Joseph Rose at OregonLive about the recent – heavily attended and raucous – TriMet board meeting, I was prompted to reflect on my own growing up in Portland and on the significance of public transit to my mobility, independence and sense of place in the city. The decision to eliminate the Free Rail Zone, in particular, got me thinking about my reliance on TriMet buses, and later Max, for getting around the city as a teen, and how less accessible the system is becoming with each round of service cuts and fare changes.

For me, learning to navigate the bus system was an important coming of age moment. The first time I went downtown on the bus without adult supervision stands out in my memory more vividly than getting my driver’s license.

I began using TriMet in middle school, but it was in high school that using the bus became an everyday part of my life. I lived in north Portland, on the east side of the Willamette River, but attended school downtown, on the west side, and the city bus is how I got to school each day.

More than that, the bus was freedom. Freedom from having to rely on my parents to get places. Freedom from feeling like I needed a car of my own. Freedom to explore downtown after school (and sometimes during). Fareless Square (later the Free Rail Zone) was an important adjunct to that freedom because I, and my friends, could traverse the free ride area together before heading off to our respective homes. I have no doubt that this sense of freedom is one reason why I delayed getting my driver’s license. I was already mobile and I am sure now that my years using TriMet are why I can still navigate the city with ease even though it has been almost ten years since I last lived in Portland.

It is tempting to see the current retrenchment by the transit agency as an artifact of the recession, but the roots go deeper than that.

High school was not only when I was getting around the city by foot, bus, and train, but also when anti-tax activism was coming to be expressed in property tax limitation measures modeled after California’s Prop 13. I graduated high school in 1987, and the first state property tax limitation, Measure 5, did not pass until 1990, but my high school years were marked by earlier, unsuccessful, attempts to pass such legislation by referendum.

One effect of 1990s-era tax limitation in Oregon was to shift the burden of funding local services from cities and counties to the state general fund, which is dependent on income tax. Even leaving aside irrationalities in that system, like the kicker, Oregon’s economy just isn’t that big. There is no way that an income-tax fueled state general fund was or is going to make up for shortfalls at the city and county scale. As a result, local services have been degraded over the course of the last couple of decades, and would have been with or without the current financial crisis and recession.

I also think that there has been an important cultural effect to property tax limitation, and resulting increase in demands on state revenues: many voting adults have come to believe that even basic services are too costly, never mind that many of those services, like, say, accessible and reliable public transit, are things that many could, and did, take for granted as kids and young adults. The fact that we can’t pay for them now is, yes, partly the result of a declining economy, but more significantly is the result of setting arbitrary limits on the ability to pay for services.

Oregon in the 1980s, when I was an adolescent and teen, was a place of moderate population growth, particularly as compared to the next two decades. So, to the extent that I enjoyed the benefits of services like a robust transit system, and extracurricular activities like drama, Model U.N. and speech and debate without having to pay substantial costs above and beyond what my parents were already paying in taxes, was not due to some quirky prosperity, but to a tax system that allowed services to be paid for as deemed necessary by voters and their representatives.

The paradox here is that property tax limitation finally succeeded at the ballot box during a period of relatively high prosperity for the state, and for the Portland metro area in particular. Arguably, that prosperity worked to mask what was happening at the local level because gaps could be filled through a combination of state money and institutional efforts (e.g., teachers bringing in their own supplies). Today, of course, the state money part of that equation has been in decline. More critically, public scarcity is seen as a natural condition.

But public scarcity isn’t a natural condition.  In Oregon, specifically, it stems from political choices made in the 90s, choices that previously had been resisted by voters.

When I see reports like the one I started with, about TriMet, I think of how different the political culture is in Oregon now as compared to when I was a teen and how life at the same age for me today would be materially different than it actually was as a consequence.

Maybe I would have biked more. Or maybe I would have felt a stronger push to have a car. In any case, my sense of independence and my relationship to the city would not have been what it was without TriMet. And while the current round of cuts and hikes are hardly tantamount to eliminating transit in Portland, these changes do make the service less effective and less accessible. And I can’t help but think that the place is a little less free than it used to be.

Questions about place and the interpretation of MEEK’S CUTOFF

It’s been a few weeks since we saw Meek’s Cutoff, but one question I keep thinking about is the difference that place, or the context for viewing, might affect how people read the film.

I assume that most people who go to see Meek’s will have some vague notion of “Oregon” and “the Oregon Trail”, or at least “pioneers”, but I think it’s also safe to assume that the high desert landscape and region in which the characters get lost and disoriented will not be familiar to many (it’s interesting to me that even the official summary of the film has only a general description of where it takes place, referring to the setting as “high plain desert”, an oddly imprecise turn of phrase). I also assume that many viewers will have, at most, a fuzzy sense of “the Willamette Valley”, the “Eden” towards which the families are all heading.

I live in the Willamette Valley, and for most of my life I have lived here and in Portland. I saw Meek’s at Salem Cinema right in the middle of the Valley. I see the green and fertile lands promised by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) weekly along 99W and the country roads between Monmouth and Corvallis. I learned Oregon history as a kid, and as an adult I’ve taught courses on Western, Pacific Northwest and Oregon geography. I have a specific frame of reference for understanding where and why the Tetherows, the Gatelys, and the Whites are taking the risks they are in traversing the desert to get over the Cascades. Most importantly, I have a frame for reference for the myths that come from Meek’s mouth when assuring Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan) that their fortune lies just over the mountains.

Meek’s promises of easy and instant wealth are exaggerations and propaganda, but I also know that the landscape he references encourages such mythologizing, makes it persuasive. Settlers like the families in the film would have seen a lush, green lowland seemingly made by God for farming (in fact, it was the Native American use of fire that shaped the landscape in that way, but most white Americans did not comprehend that. David Douglas, for example, was likely typical in seeing Native burning as a sign of savagery on the part of indigenous people). You can still get that impression today, due in part to Oregon’s land use laws which are used to control urban and suburban growth.

(Without digressing into a theoretical discussion of landscape, one way to read the fact that the state’s land use system remains largely unique in the U.S. is as another instance where the land has played a role in how it gets seen. The same qualities that made white settlers in the 19th century see an agricultural Eden worked in the 20th century to persuade people to enact barriers to urban sprawl).

It is easy to see Meek as nothing more than a charlatan, putting on a performance for the Tetherows et al. And no doubt he is, but I wonder how much more complex he seems as a character if you have a specific knowledge of western Oregon and an understanding of the plausibilities in his mythopoetic utterances, and whether that bolsters your impression of other moments of truth from him. For example, I think that there is truth in his rueful account of slaughtering Native Americans. I can see Meek as someone who has just enough real knowledge, even if only about the rhetoric of the Westward journey or the landscape in general, to persuade level-headed people like Emily and Solomon Tetherow (Michelle Williams and Will Patton) that he has a shortcut over the mountains. But maybe viewers without a more detailed frame of reference for the history and geography of the film are more likely to see him as pure con artist, or to think that the families are entirely deluded about what they will find at the end of the Oregon Trail.

The ending of Meek’s Cutoff is notable for its abruptness and deliberate ambiguity. There are a number of ways to read the film’s final shots. A colleague of mine from the history department, who teaches and researches on the Pacific Northwest and American West, and who has a familiarity with the locations of the film, is able to give a compelling reading to aspects of the ending that would be difficult to make without his particular knowledge of place. Of course, maybe Kelly Reichardt and Jon Raymond made the film without meaning for audiences to specifically locate the closing shots, but they did make the film with a pronounced open-endedness, one that invites the multiple interpretations.

In a broader sense, I left the theater thinking about how connected I felt to the characters, from knowing, for example, how oppressive northeastern Oregon can seem even when in a car on the freeway and only a matter of hours from home in the Willamette Valley. Or feeling a kind of kinship with the families for having chosen to live in exactly the place that they are risking life and limb to reach. Oregon is not one of those places, like Los Angeles or Paris or New York, that moviegoers, globally, have some concept of. Meek’s Cutoff reads like a deeply place-based text, but maybe that very assumption is driven by my own experiences. In either case, I am curious as to how people without my connections understand the film, its locations, and characters.

Video from live preview

Last week I attended the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington. In a Geographies of Media paper session, I presented a live preview of about twelve minutes from the end of the documentary. This section features interviews with Dylan Meconis and Graham Annable, and a reflection on race in Portland that includes Meconis, the previously previewed Kevin Moore and Sarah Oleksyk, and Sara Ryan, as well as Carl Abbott, a professor of urban studies at Portland State University.

You can view the footage on blip.tv.