Charles Blow: Bullies on the Bus and a Changing Society!

Dear Commons Community,

Charles Blow is his New York Times column today uses the case of the grandmother being bullying on the school bus as a metaphor for American society.  By now I am sure you have seen the video that  shows Karen Klein, a 68-year-old grandmother and bus monitor in upstate New York, being relentlessly tormented by a group of young boys.  They hurl profanities. One asks for her address because he says he wants to go urinate on her door. Others are more explicit about defiling her.   One boy tells her that she doesn’t have a family because “they all killed themselves because they didn’t want to be near you.” (Her eldest son committed suicide.)

Blow makes the point that:

“Those boys are us, or at least too many of us: America at its ugliest. It is that part of society that sees the weak and vulnerable as worthy of derision and animus.

This kind of behavior is not isolated to children and school buses and suburban communities. It stretches to the upper reaches of society — our politics and our pulpits and our public squares.

Whether it is a Republican debate audience booing a gay soldier or Rush Limbaugh’s vicious attack on a female Georgetown law student or Newt Gingrich’s salvos at the poor, bullying has become boilerplate. Hiss and taunt. Tease and intimidate. Target your enemies and torture them mercilessly. Maintain primacy through predation.”

He goes on to cite statistics on minorities, women, attitudes to gays, and religion and concludes:

“The Republican-Democratic divide is increasingly becoming an all-white/multicultural divide, a male/female divide, and a more religious/less religious divide — the formers the traditional power classes, and the latters the emerging ones.

This has led to some increasingly unseemly attacks at traditionally marginalized groups, even as — and possibly particularly because — they grow more powerful.

Women are under attack. Hispanics are under attack. Minority voting rights are under attack. The poor are under attack. Unsurprisingly, those doing the attacking in every case are from the right.

I wish I could say that Blow is wrong in his conclusion but unfortunately there are elements of truth in what he says.


New Report: The Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members!

Dear Commons Community,

The Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) released a report yesterday entitled,  The Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members.  It paints a sobering picture of these pedagogues who increasingly are forming a larger percentage of the higher education academic community.  According to data from the United States Department of Education’s 2009 Fall Staff Survey, of the nearly 1.8 million faculty members and instructors who made up the 2009 instructional workforce in degree-granting two- and four-year institutions of higher education in the United States, more than 1.3 million (75.5%) were employed in contingent positions off the tenure track, either as part-time or adjunct faculty members, full-time non-tenure-track faculty members, or graduate student teaching assistants.

The CAW report was based on a survey administered in fall 2010, seeking information about the courses these part-time faculty members were teaching that term, where they were teaching them, and for what pay and benefits. The survey received close to 30,000 responses, with just over 20,000 coming from individuals who identified themselves as working in a contin­gent position at an institution or institutions of higher education in fall 2010.

The survey was open to any faculty member or instructor who wished to complete a question­naire; respondents therefore do not constitute a strictly representative sample of faculty members working in contingent positions. Nevertheless, the response provides the basis for a more detailed portrait of the work patterns, remuneration, and employment conditions for what has long been the fastest-growing and is now the largest part of the academic workforce.

The key findings of the report are as follows:

◆ The median pay per course, standardized to a three-credit course, was $2,700 in fall 2010 and ranged in the aggregate from a low of $2,235 at two-year colleges to a high of $3,400 at four-year doctoral or research universities. While compensation levels varied most consistently by type of institution, part-time faculty respondents report low compensation rates per course across all institutional categories.

◆ Part-time faculty respondents saw little, if any, wage premium based on their credentials. Their compensation lags behind professionals in other fields with similar credentials, and they experienced little in the way of a career ladder (higher wages after several years of work).

◆ Professional support for part-time faculty members’ work outside the classroom and inclusion in academic decision making was minimal.

◆ Part-time teaching is not necessarily temporary employment, and those teaching part-time do not necessarily prefer a part-time to a full-time position. Over 80% of respondents reported teaching part-time for more than three years, and over half for more than six years. Further­more, over three-quarters of respondents said they have sought, are now seeking, or will be seeking a full-time tenure-track position, and nearly three-quarters said they would definitely or probably accept a full-time tenure-track position at the institution at which they were cur­rently teaching if such a position were offered.

◆ Course loads varied significantly among respondents. Slightly more than half taught one course or two courses during the fall 2010 term, while slightly fewer than half taught three or more courses.

There is a plethora of additional data on demographics, credentials, work conditions, etc.  CAW invites researchers to contact it if they would like the datasets to pursue additional questions.


New York to Limit Disclosure of Teacher Evaluations!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times is reporting that NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo, the State Assembly and the State Senate have reached an agreement that the disclosure of teacher evaluations will be limited to parents and not to the general public.  This is a complete rebuff of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein (former NYC schools chancellor) who initiated a program of disclosing teacher evaluations to the public and media based entirely on standardized tests.  Under the plan, unveiled by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo “parents will be allowed to see the evaluations of their children’s current teachers, but the public will be allowed to see evaluation data only with the names of the teachers removed.  The article quotes the following individuals:

“What happened in New York City had a profound effect on the elected officials,” said Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers. “They said, ‘We don’t want that to happen. That’s wrong.’ The only person I knew who didn’t want it was the mayor.”

Mr. Bloomberg has repeatedly advocated the unfettered release of teacher evaluations.

“I believe that parents have a right to full disclosure when it comes to information about their child’s education, and I am disappointed that this bill falls short of that goal,” he said in a statement. He added, “However, I do appreciate the governor’s insistence that the State Education Department post school data so that parents can analyze how districts perform, and that teacher, principal and school information will be made widely available online.”

Congratulations to state leaders for seeing the damage to productive working relations that Bloomberg’s position on this issue caused last year.


Blacks Not Keeping Pace with Employment Gains in New York City!

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Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has an analysis of employment data compiled by the federal Labor Department that found that African-Americans and other non-Hispanic blacks in New York City were faring worse than residents of other races. More than half of the city’s black residents were unemployed.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other New York officials have been highlighting how the city has regained all the jobs lost during the long recession.  Unfortunately this has not trickled down to African Americans and other non-Hispanic blacks.  The article states:

“More than half of all of African-Americans and other non-Hispanic blacks in the city who were old enough to work had no job at all this year, according to an analysis of employment data compiled by the federal Labor Department. And when black New Yorkers lose their jobs, they spend a full year, on average, trying to find new jobs — far longer than New Yorkers of other races.

Nationally, the employment outlook for blacks has begun to brighten: there were about one million more black Americans with jobs in May than there were a year earlier, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But that is not the case in New York City, where the decline in employment since the recession began here, in 2008, has been much steeper for blacks than for white or Hispanic residents, said James Parrott, chief economist for the Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal research group.

One problem, said David R. Jones, the president and chief executive of the Community Service Society of New York, is that blacks were overrepresented in fields that suffered the most in the downturn, including government agencies, construction and manufacturing.

“It’s being in the wrong place in the economy, so the recovery is not trickling down to these workers,” Mr. Jones said.





Heading to London and Coming Home: Lecture on The United Kingdom and England!

Dear Commons Community,

On the last day of our cruise in Scandinavia, the Baltics, and Russia, I attend the final lecture by the historian, Charles Carlton, a professor from the University of North Carolina. He reviewed briefly the places we had been and commented mostly on where we started and where we will end – the United Kingdom.   He used the 60th Anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s reign on what has changed in the UK since she inherited the crown.    He talked a lot about the role of the UK in world affairs, but he also commented on social conditions such as the diversity of the UK’s population, the decline of organized religion, and the changes in the family, the latter three quite similar to the United States.

He also commented on the rise of nationalism among the UK states.   He specifically gave examples of the Irish in Ireland and also of the English in England.  Just a few days ago I was discussing with a young woman from the UK about the Queen’s Jubilee and the huge crowds I had witnessed.   As part of the discussion I said that as someone from the UK you have a different perspective on the monarchy than I do as an American.  She gently corrected me by saying that she was from England and that the monarchy is important but that the real reason there was such a large turnout of support for the Queen was that the day was declared a national holiday so people were off from work and children were off from school.   She went on to describe that the Queen really was of modest importance to her and many others in England.

Today, we begin our journey back home to New York, our ship having docked in Harwich, England a few minutes ago.


Tour of Northern Europe – Recap!

Dear Commons Community,

Elaine and I were fortunate over the past couple of weeks to visit a number of European cities from London to Scandinavia, to the Baltics and to St. Petersburg, Russia.  In total we traveled more than 11,000 miles by air and sea.   I have posted comments and photos of all of these great cities on this blog.   I thought it would be helpful to provide a recap of these visits in their chronological order and links to the appropriate postings.


Arriving in London Just in Time for Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee

More on the Jubilee!

At the Winston Churchill War Rooms Museum

In London Americans Always Smile

On the North Sea


On the Baltic Sea



St. Petersburg – Lenin and Peter the Great

St. Petersburg – White Nights

Tallinn, Estonia – Medieval Town

Gothenburg, Sweden

Heading to London and Coming Home


Gothenburg, Sweden: Volvo and More!

Dear Commons Community,

The last stop on our tour was Gothenburg on Sweden’s west coast.  While founded in 1621 by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, the city has lots of Dutch and Scottish influences.

The largest employer in the city is Volvo (the car division is now owned by Ford) and when you leave the ship the first thing you see is a huge Volvo manufacturing and office complex.  There is even a Volvo Museum.   Our guide mentioned that Gothenburg was one of the largest shipbuilding centers in Europe until about the 1970s when the entire industry suffered a major collapse.  The shipbuilding companies all closed and never reopened.  Volvo has replaced shipbuilding as the economic engine of this city.

Today the city is a combination of old and new, large and small.  Wide boulevards, street cars, quant side streets, canals, small boats and big boats can be seen in the main parts of the city.  Parks, a botanical garden and branches of Gothenburg University are also very visible as one walks through the city.

This is the last leg of our trip and tonight we begin our journey back to London for the flight home to New York.



Tallinn, Estonia: A “Charming” Medieval Town!

Dear Commons Community,

Yesterday we spent the day in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, a country of 1.2 million people.  Tallinn is on the Baltic Sea, in the north part of the northern most of the Baltic countries (Lithuania and Latvia being the other two).    Estonia is a small country made up of Estonians and Russians.  It was under the sphere of the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century.   Tallinn is mostly a modern city filled with several high-rise buildings, parks, museums, hotels and cafes.

The most intersting aspect of Tallinn is its “olde” town established in the 12th century which is only a short walk from the center city.  Besides churches, you can see a guild house established in 1410 and an apothecary established in 1425. In fact, most of the “olde”  town has remained remarkably unchanged for the past 600 years.  I have been to several recreations of towns and villages in the United States such as Willamsburg, Virginia and Sturbridge, Massachusetts but this something much more genuine mainly because the buildings are from the historical period.

We had lunch at the Olde Hansa, a medieval restaurant that serves wild boar, elk, bear, and assorted other meats, fowl, and fish.   All the waiters and waitresses (as well as many store owners) are dressed in folk costumes.  Wine and beer are served in hand-blown glasses and tankards.    With our grilled salmon and wild boar sausages served in clay dishes, we had pecans and barley, lentils, turnips, and sauerkraut.

We finished our day  at a concert by a string quartet in one of Tallinn’s “olde town” churches with incredible acoustics.   Well-done!

As Elaine said as we headed back to our ship:  “What a charming place”.



White Nights and Saying Good-Bye in St. Petersburg!

Dear Commons Community,

Yesterday we spent another day touring St. Petersburg with our guide Maria.  We had lots of quick visits to places like the State University of St. Petersburg, the Academy of Arts, and several cathedrals, all of which had been closed or used for other purposes during the Communist/Soviet era.  In addition to skating rinks and swimming pools which I mentioned in an earlier post, cathedrals were converted into warehouses, libraries, produce storage facilities, and in one case a morgue during and immediately after World War II.

The highlight of the tour was a visit  to the island fortress of Sts. Peter and Paul which was built by Peter I (the Great) on the Neve River.  It houses a number of buildings and facilities including a prison used to house mostly political prisoners.  Today it is a cultural center dedicated to preserving the history of its period and its founder.  The St. Peter and Paul Cathedral on the island is impressive with dozens of mosaic religious icons.  Incredibly delicate artwork!   Its significance is that it is the burial place for all of the Romanov emperors and empresses from Peter I through Nicholas II- the last Romanov emperor who abdicated during the Russian Revolution.

For the last half-hour or so of our tour, we walked with Maria along a canal talking about all we had seen during the past two days also with the knowledge that we would not likely see each other again.

In the evening, we attended a show of folk dancers, singers, and a band playing Russian instruments.  Lots of color, sound, and motion.   And well-done!

Lastly, St. Petersburg is also entering the period that Russians call “white nights’ when it is light the entire day.  Elaine and I had a nightcap listening to a Spanish guitarist playing ballads.  As it approached midnight, it was still light outside.

Tomorrow we leave for Tallin, Estonia, and start our journey west back to London.




St. Petersburg: Lenin, Peter the Great, and Much More!

Dear Commons Community,

We have arrived at our easternmost destination, St. Petersburg, the city built by Emperor Peter I (the Great) and his successors especially Empress Catherine II (the Great).   It is a city of great historical and cultural significance.  For all of our other tours on this trip, we had either joined bus tours or walked the cities on our own.  For St. Petersburg, we hired a car and a guide for the day.  Maria our guide was born, raised and completed her education in linguistics in St. Petersburg.  She knew the city inside out and was a joy to have as a guide and traveling companion.

St. Petersburg was the symbol of the opulence of Russian royalty but also was the birthplace of the Russian Revolution led by Lenin and others.   Most visitors would immediately go to the Hermitage, a magnificent art museum and the winter palace of Peter the Great located in the center of the city.  My colleague, Joel Spring of Queens College, more than a month ago suggested that we make sure we go to the apartment building where Lenin lived in the year before the Revolution.   I took Joel’s advice and asked our guide to start at what is now Lenin Street.  She seemed a bit puzzled at my request but none the less took us to a very ordinary apartment building where Lenin had a nondescript flat.  A plaque is on the outside wall of the building and there is a modest bust in a small square about 100 yards from the building .  The flats in the apartment building continue to be rented out to residents of the city.

In the late morning we drove an hour and visited Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer palace.  Words cannot describe the magnificence of the structure, the gardens, and fountains that make up this complex of white and gold.  It is also an engineering marvel where fountains rest on the side of a five-story hill and spew water in perfect cadences without any pumps.  All of the fountains in the complex are in fact controlled by gravity.

We concluded our day at the Hermitage where we saw in two hours:  26 Rembrandts, 2 Da Vincis, 4 van Goghs and a Michelangelo among a plethora of other great works by Matisse, Gauguin and Picasso. The Hermitage has over 3 million pieces and it would take years to see everything.

Without a doubt,  a special day !