I gotta say, this idea — a professor intentionally introducing a single falsehood into each of his lectures, challenging the class to find it and expose it — is pretty great for a slew of reasons. Given a sufficiently dedicated group of students (e.g., students who chose the class for a purpose, rather than those who were forced to take the class to fulfill an otherwise-meaningless requirement), it gets the class thinking about the material with a more critical mindset, it exposes areas of the material with unnecessary or unexplained ambiguity, and it serves to reinforce the fact that no teacher should be immune to having his or her lessons challenged by students.

Very smart.

It appears that a professor in one of Columbia College’s core curriculum courses (say that five times fast!) gave out the answers to the final exam during the class’s study session, something that came to light when a few questions on the test were changed and yet students still submitted the answers from the leaked version. After warning professors to watch out for the specific answer pattern that would indicate cheating students, and then asking for all the blue books to be submitted to the Core Curriculum office for central review, officials decided to nullify the exam entirely and offer students the option of dropping the test from their grades or retake the exam in the fall. The weblog of Columbia’s undergrad magazine, Bwog, has been on top of the scandal; it’s fun to read the comments on the Bwog post from students who don’t see this as cheating.

Wow, does this Washington Post article make me feel old. The premise of the piece is that colleges now find it difficult to track down or get messages to their students, since most don’t have in-dorm telephones or voicemail and don’t check their college-issued email all that much. It’s a fact that I’ve now heard in different contexts a bunch of times over the past few months, and I feel like it’s the first concrete thing that makes me feel completely separated from today’s generation of young’uns.

I graduated from college just a hair over a decade ago, and during my four years, email went from mostly inaccessible to an essential staple of every student’s life. Talking to friends a few weekends ago, Shannon and I were stunned to learn that for most of today’s students, the term “checking email” has nothing to do with college email accounts, or even Gmail or Hotmail — instead, it means logging into Facebook or MySpace and reading your incoming messages. Similarly, while my university had digital phones with campus-wide voicemail in every dorm room (and used the system regularly to push out notices and information), a not-insignificant number of students at my alma mater today have never picked up their in-room phones, and actually don’t even know their own campus phone numbers. It’s amazing how fast things change.

That being said, these changes aren’t all that surprising, given that the fundamental roles of email and telephones have changed in college today. When I was in college, getting access to an email account wasn’t trivial; the free email services didn’t exist, the internet was new enough that setting up access to an email account was anything but trivial, and it took the infrastructure of colleges and reasonable-sized corporations to get most people into the fraternity of email users. Email was also novel enough that it was instantly appealing to college students, and there weren’t really any other options for talking to friends from back home (unless you wanted to pour money into your long-distance plan). Now, with instant messaging, social networking, and SMS-enabled cellphones, email is the least convenient of all the electronic communication methods available to college students (given the crushing amount of the erectile dysfunction spam, and what I’d imagine is an equally-crushing amount of college-related spam). Likewise, a decade ago, campuses used their functional monopoly power to satiate students’ need for phones in their dorm rooms, but today that monopoly is gone, and there’s little to recommend an in-room telephone when any student can get a cellphone for a lower price with more features and a more durable phone number. The rules of communication have changed, and it’d appear that colleges haven’t kept up… but it’d also appear that I’m getting old.

In the midst of what feels like a worsening of the situation along the Gulf coast this morning, I finally saw something that put a bona fide smile on my face: a listing of all the law schools that are extending offers to accommodate the displaced law students of Loyola and Tulane. A bunch of the offers waive tuition entirely, and promise to allow the students to remain until such time as their home school returns to operation. It’s things like this that make me remember that the power of this country derives from its people; while the various levels of government continue to try to get a handle on the larger disaster, there are people who are doing what they can within their own communities (towns, universities, whatever) to help with the smaller disasters.

Update: as is usually the case, Rafe says it better.

I love it — in response to the challenge offered up by Kent Hovind, wherein he’ll give $250,000 to anyone who can empirically prove the theory of evolution, Xeni Jardin and Jason Kottke have offered up a combined half million to anyone who can prove that Jesus is not the son of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Seems reasonable.

(Oh, and you’ll note that I’ve left off the “Dr.” title for Hovind, as his claim to the title is a Ph.D. in “science education” from a known diploma mill, and apparently, a godawful thesis to go along with it.)

Since I’ve been gone for so long (almost a week!), a few quickies to get ‘em out of the ever-accumulating to-do bookmark list:

  • My parents gave Shannon and me our wedding present early — a Canon EOS 350D (also known as the Digital Rebel XT, reviewed here at Rob Galbraith’s awesome Digital Photography Review) — and this thing is just amazing. I’ve played quite a bit with digital SLRs, and this is the best of the prosumer ones I’ve used; the images (even the compressed JPEGs) are bright and crisp, it autofocuses fast even in low light, the shooting modes run the gamut from letting the camera handle everything to manually controlling every last detail, and between the in-camera memory buffer and the CompactFlash write speed, I haven’t yet found myself in a position where the camera prevents me from shooting in order to catch up. Shannon and I had a blast with it during the Fourth of July weekend, and I’ve started tagging all the Flickr photos I’ve shot using the new toy. Fun fun!
  • I’m with Jason Kottke on this one — Microsoft’s page explaining leetspeak to parents has to be a joke, or at least the result of a bet made by some Microsoft employee about whether or not he could get the article online without anyone noticing.
  • I totally dig these “Charles Darwin has a posse” stickers — they’re cool as hell, and come in a handy PDF version as well!
  • After more than a month of inundation with news about another missing American white girl, I’m pretty much on board with the sentiment behind this op-ed over at Kuro5hin. Arianna Huffington also puts it pretty well, and provides some pretty depressing observations on the media coverage of the Aruban Abomination.

Over the weekend, the Washington Post had a column about grade inflation written by Alicia Shepard, a journalism professor at American University. The piece didn’t approach the subject from the perspective of documenting the existence of grade inflation, though; that much was (and is) assumed to be true. Instead, Shepard relates how she and and other teachers regularly get harrassed (or even bribed!) by students to whom they give grades lower than an A, students who almost certainly don’t deserve As for their work but who feel that anything less is an insult to them. Similarly, she points out the growing feeling among teachers that a college education is shifting from being a privilege to being a consumer product, and that the shift is bringing with it a belief that the cost of the education alone justifies good grades, irrespective of the amount of work a student does to earn them. It’s all a bit eye-opening, and a truly sad statement about education in America.

In her latest column (addressing Ward Churchill’s firing from the University of Colorado for being a nitwit), Dahlia Lithwick has what might be my favorite opening paragraph she’s ever penned:

File Ward Churchill under “Annoying Blowhards Who Have Come To Embody Important Policy Questions.” One couldn’t unearth a less attractive poster boy for free-speech rights in academia. Churchill may be fired from his faculty position at the University of Colorado for having written and spoken some of the most moronic nonsense ever to emanate from the mouth of an alleged academic. But he shouldn’t be punished for being a hack. The folks who hired him should.

onion skin mitoses

Whoever’s responsible for the Flickr account at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Center for Distance Education has been doing cool things with microscopic photography, including a view of an onion’s outer layers that has a few actively dividing cells evident, a view of frog blood (who knew that, unlike those of mammals, reptile red blood cells have nuclei?), and a shot of a few paramecium swimming around.

And given that it’s a distance learning group that uploaded the pictures, I assume that Flickr is now being used to help provide images in an educational curriculum, which is just plain awesome.