A Doctoral Educational Opportunity

December 23, 2013

With the exception of a hiatus (2009-2010) in which I finished my master’s of social work degree at the University of Michigan, I spent the years from 2005 to 2011 working on a double-major PhD at Indiana University. As described in another blog, the process at IU ended when certain faculty members and administrators prevented me from graduating. The apparent reason was that I did not always say what they wanted me to say. (IU’s was the only PhD program to which I had applied, despite a competitive GPA and GRE scores well above the average in most top education and social science PhD programs: I was from Indiana, and at that point my parents were still living there.)

In fall 2011, I started over, with inquiries to other PhD programs. That process culminated in my entry into the PhD program in Educational Statistics and Research Methods (ESRM) at the University of Arkansas – Fayetteville in autumn 2012.

In the ESRM program, I had a very educational experience as an instructor in an undergraduate course covering something they called “statistics.” I phrase it that way for reasons elaborated elsewhere. Briefly, the governing concept was that we would orient students to obsolete statistical procedures, because that was the tradition and/or was the easiest option for professors and instructors in the department; and we would do so in an approach designed by mathematicians, for mathematicians – that is, for those who would be proceeding directly to more advanced statistical courses, which was true of virtually none of my students. The mathematician approach required my non-mathematician students to do manual calculations that some would never learn and most would quickly forget, when instead we could have been orienting them to more practical and relevant statistical software or spreadsheet techniques. We would not be dwelling on on the kinds of interpretive tools and exercises they would be most likely to need in their careers.

Beginning Doctoral Study in Statistics

While that rather farcical didactic enterprise unfolded, I remained a student myself. Upon arrival at the University of Arkansas, I registered for three doctoral courses. One was taught by Sean Mulvenon. Dr. Mulvenon seemed to personify (with some apparent eccentricity) the ESRM department as a whole, in the minds of administrators and faculty members from other departments. I say that because I had the recurrent experience of telling some such person that I was a PhD student in ESRM and, without my mentioning his name, their reactions were along the lines of “Oh, ESRM – Mulvenon-land” and “Mulvenon – crazy man!”

I was not sure why people had these reactions. Dr. Mulvenon chaired a research institute and, last I heard, had been promoted to some kind of administrative position. My one and only encounter with him occurred on the opening day of his multiple regression course. He said that someone had accused him of indulging in grade inflation, because he tended to give so many high grades. He said no, he graded appropriately; it was just that his course was hard and those who feared they might get a low grade would drop out. I was not a mathematician and was rusty in statistics (which, as described in the other posts linked above, certainly added adventure to the experience of teaching statistics that semester); I did not understand what he and the textbook were talking about; so I took the cue and dropped the course.

I also ran into some adversity in the second of the three courses for which I registered that semester. This course, taught by Ronna Turner, dealt with procedures for designing good questionnaires. It had mathematical elements, and those became a bit spooky by mid-semester, but so far I was doing pretty well, and it did not appear to pose an insurmountable challenge. I decided, however, that the tasks of relearning introductory statistics in sufficient detail to teach it well, and of designing my course and teaching my students (one of whom required up to three hours of individual tutoring per week, due to a mental disability), were chewing up so much time that I could not be sure of mastering the material in Ronna’s course. So I switched out of that into a sort of statistics refresher course that she taught online, taking an incomplete and wrapping it up in the spring semester.

This was not an auspicious beginning in this new PhD program. So the situation here was different from what I had encountered in the PhD programs at Indiana University. There, I had been overqualified, and they essentially got rid of me because I was too smart: in their eyes, intelligence and inquisitiveness comprised a de facto disability. Here, I was potentially underqualified. I say “potentially” because there was no actual requirement of a math degree or other comparable background, and there had been other PhD students who had no such degree. With a math GRE in the 82nd percentile, I was no Cornell engineer; then again, it did appear that I was still in the ballpark for this program.

A Department of Research Methods

My situation was complicated by what may have been a design flaw in the PhD program. While Sean Mulvenon had spoken of the decision to drop his course as though it might be no big deal, it developed that his course was actually a prerequisite for a number of advanced statistics classes that were required for the ESRM PhD, and those courses were not available every semester. An amended statement of the realities in his course may therefore have been that students fearing a bad grade would drop it, but that ESRM PhD students doing so might encounter delays in completing the PhD, running past the period of funding; that is, they might not complete the PhD. In this regard, it was once again bemusing that PhD programs at American state universities – even in a STEM field (i.e., science, technology, engineering, and math) – would be patient with and/or would provide extended funding for foreign students who might struggle with the language (including a Pakistani student who began at the same time as I), but would not do so for motivated and seemingly capable domestic students who might be fine after a bit of remedial study to overcome barriers in math or otherwise.

Obviously, certain kinds of knowledge and skill are absolutely necessary for progress in certain fields. There are things that you just cannot do well if you don’t know calculus, or Greek, or how to use a torque wrench. The question posed here is whether it makes sense to scare students out of a course, and implicitly out of a PhD program, if you don’t really mean for that course to serve a screening function. As a matter of practicality, most PhD programs don’t bring new students in, at considerable cost, with an expectation of sending them away again the following year. If something like multiple regression is absolutely pivotal, but becomes a potential killer for generally qualified PhD students, one might think that it would make more sense to divide the course into two parts, or have someone else teach it, or in some other way strive to get your PhD students past that hurdle. Since this seemed fairly obvious, it appeared that I was encountering the same departmental indifference that my own students would confront as they faced the parameters of the introductory statistics course I was teaching.

There is also a question of whether a PhD program in “educational statistics and research methods” is best conceived as a unidimensional exercise in mathematics. Its title would suggest otherwise – there is supposedly the “research methods” component – and so would its location in the University of Arkansas’s School of Education, as distinct from its mathematics or statistics departments. An excessive math orientation may make the job more fun for the department’s faculty, in their ivory tower, but I found it dismaying that one such mathematician, supposedly introducing us to research methods, had never heard of two-stage cluster sampling. Awareness of the potential existence of that technique would be virtually unavoidable for anyone who had ever tried to think about how a cluster sampling procedure might actually work – and the topic of cluster sampling itself seems to be introduced in most elementary research methods courses. Generally, the department’s overall indifference to students seemed to derive from tunnel vision rather than meanness: faculty just could not get out of their little worlds enough to see that producing a quasi-mathematician was not the same as producing an effective user of statistics and research methods.

A proper consideration of research methods can entail a variety of things. It can entail training in qualitative research, which has considerable value but was virtually nonexistent in this ESRM program. It can entail an introduction to the philosophy of science, insofar as one might want to have a sense of what counts as “evidence” or “proof” before trying to teach others how to find it. Even at the PhD level, students in that department seemed to lack training in the many ways in which one might be wrong – the sort of training that a person might get from an orientation to law or philosophy. It is not much use teaching future professors how to find the right answers if you have not first taught them how to ask the right questions. Proper consideration of research methods can also entail a reflexive component, wherein a department of this sort, housed in a school of education, might apply the very statistical methods that it was teaching, so as to determine whether its own teaching was effective. It was disappointing if not appalling that a department of this nature would not strive to excel in STEM education – exploring, for instance, the question of why the department’s own statistics courses would be so reviled by masses of undergraduates forced to take them, when the conduct of research itself can actually be very engaging.

These remarks suggest two criticisms of rigid departmentalism within the university. First, the department of Educational Statistics and Research Methods at the University of Arkansas would have been much more what its name declared if there had been a standard practice of drawing upon the expertise of faculty elsewhere (in e.g., philosophy, sociology, economics) to flesh out the foregoing gaps in its curriculum. Second, for my own purposes, it was rather absurd that progress toward the PhD would be jeopardized by a single multiple regression course, taught in what even some faculty members seemed to consider an overly ambitious or unrealistic manner, when there was so much else that I might have been doing to progress toward a valid degree. As stated in my application essay, I went there, not to become a mathematician, but to develop expertise in the study of higher education. Based on previous coursework of a much more applied nature, I believed that I would be able to develop practical expertise in statistics and research methods. I, among many students of that university, was disserved by the substantial lack of that capability.

Regrettably, the university’s rigidity and complacency precluded certain opportunities from which it and I would likely have benefited. There are probably not many statistics instructors who earned a C in high school algebra. That is, I had good math ability, evidenced by the aforementioned GRE score (which, by the way, probably would have been rather higher if I had studied for the GRE more diligently; my previous GRE math score was 780 on the 800 scale) – and yet I also had some familiarity with math phobia and with the sense of defeat that often confronts students in technical subjects. It seemed, in other words, that I brought more empathy to the table than the department’s professors did. As such, I might have made a contribution to an effort to identify and implement relevant best practices within math education.

Exclusion Redux

It developed, then, that there was a misunderstanding. The admissions committee did not take me seriously when I said that my focus was on higher education, and I was guilty of wishful thinking when I assumed, on the basis of my experience in the School of Education at Indiana University, that a program within the School of Education at Arkansas would surely have an applied emphasis. For better or worse, though, now I was their problem. The question was whether they could do something constructive with me, and the answer was decidedly no. We never had that conversation. The program chair, George Denny, did seem at least slightly motivated in that direction – he said that I was a better writer than any of the department’s faculty, and suggested that perhaps some faculty members would find it valuable to make me a coauthor, so as to convert some of their presentations into published articles. But apparently there was no interest in that: when I asked about it later, it seemed the idea had died.

On January 3, 2013, George notified me that I was not going to be allowed to continue in the program after the end of the current academic year. When I told Ronna of this, she expressed surprise and doubt. She said such a decision would have to be made by faculty as a group, not by George alone, and that the faculty had made no such decision. So it appeared that someone up the chain of command had made the decision and had conveyed it to George, and that faculty would be expected to ratify it later. Ronna, herself, did not show any signs of trying to uphold the process as she had described it to me. I had hoped she would be happy that I was in the program. She did not always reply to my emails, but otherwise she was cordial enough. But in the end, there may have been a problem: I did not show signs of agreement when she advanced fundamentalist Christian ideas (regarding e.g., creationism). It probably did not help that I was an old guy, not like the cute young people she seemed to favor.

In that conversation on January 3, George claimed that the decision was based on the fact that I had been unsuccessful as a teacher and as a student during the fall semester. These were difficult claims to defend. As a student, I had admittedly finished only two courses, but I earned grades of A in both, and by that point months had passed since we had discussed my decision to drop Mulvenon’s regression course. He had not at all treated that decision as a deal-breaker. And as a teacher, George himself had repeatedly praised my dedication and technique.

So it looked like George was inventing false rationales to mask the real reason for my expulsion. He had previously given me some clues, however, as to what that reason might be. In mid-November, as described in a separate post, I had caught students cheating on an exam and, as advised by Monica Holland, the university’s ethics officer, had reported them — only to find myself removed as an instructor and the ethics inquiry derailed. Undermining an ongoing ethics inquiry could be a way to get yourself into trouble. I don’t know; possibly Dean Smith wanted me out because my continued presence in the School of Education could lead to further discussion of his own handling of that episode.

George himself suggested another possible explanation. He said that, when the students who had cheated on the exam went to Dean Smith’s office to complain about the ethics investigation, they drew the dean’s attention to the blog that I had written about my experience as a PhD student at Indiana University. George shook his head and laughed as he related this to me. He seemed to realize that Dean Smith had done just about everything he could to create a situation that a blogger might want to write about.

And yet George himself seemed to share Dean Smith’s orientation. He appeared to have two concerns. In general terms, I was literally telling tales out of school. Whistleblowers are never beloved by the brotherhood of administrators. For George, as for any typical bureaucrat, you don’t blow the whistle, you don’t tell the tales, you don’t name names. You just go along to get along. Such behavior may have made him a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution, but I guess he felt that was for someone else to worry about.

George’s specific concern had to do with a particular post on the Indiana University blog. In that post, I described an administrator, in the IU School of Social Work, who reported me for discipline in 2008 on the basis of a nightmare that I’d had in 1983. (Yes, you may read that sentence again.) This administrator had further distinguished herself by comparing me to the mass murderer at Virginia Tech. She did that right before she went ahead and approved a renewal of my funding for the next semester, to continue to assist a professor who agreed that my act of quoting Yeats’s famous poem, “The Second Coming,” might mean that I intended to commit murder and mayhem.

Upon reading such words, most people will probably appreciate that something screwy was going on at IU. I cite this material here because George mentioned it when he discovered, in November 2012, that I had blogged the IU experience; he said that Dean Smith had found it to be a matter of concern. The sense I got was that, in the eyes of these university administrators, if you can mention something like “Virginia Tech” and a male student’s name in the same breath, he is to be presumed dangerous and, if possible, expelled. That would be an intriguing sentiment, in times when male university enrollment continues to dwindle and the field of education remains overwhelmingly female.

I suspected that Dean Smith had picked up the phone and called someone at IU. If he did, he would probably have called one of the deans there whom my blog had named as being particularly nasty and vindictive. People — deans, teachers, cops — tend to believe what they hear from others of their own kind. Often, they will do so even if what they are hearing is not supported by the available evidence.

Dean Smith did admit afterwards that he might have mishandled my situation. This would not have surprised George or other faculty in ESRM. The general impression among faculty, rather freely shared with PhD students, seemed to be that Dean Smith was just not very good at his job. Nobody was compelling him to behave as he did, but for whatever reason his decision was, in effect, to perpetuate the abuse I had experienced in my previous doctoral program.

Wrapping It Up

So the decision was made: I was not going to be allowed to continue in the Arkansas ESRM PhD program. Putting a positive face on it, I saw that this freed me to take courses of interest in other fields. So while I continued to wrap up that online course with Ronna, I turned to graduate courses in English and elsewhere in the School of Education. My experiences in these courses, and in the third course I took during fall 2012, are linked to in a separate post.

In summary, I entered the Educational Statistics and Research Methods PhD program at the University of Arkansas in order to pursue a doctoral degree focusing on research into higher education, but instead found myself in a highly mathematical program for which I was not prepared. There was no option of time in which to become prepared, but that was mooted: my effort to teach statistics in a manner that my students would find useful was terminated when I reported several for cheating on an exam, as recommended by the university’s own ethics officer, and was thereupon removed as instructor by the dean.

By springtime, it appeared that I was pretty well prepared for the program after all – the teaching, the study, and the work as a statistics tutor had put me in fairly solid form, as far as basic statistics was concerned – but by then it had already been decided that I was not going to be allowed to continue. That decision appeared to be based, not on my ability or potential, but rather upon animosity toward whistleblowers.

It was unfortunate that George did not notify me of the decision not to keep me around – that he, himself, may not have been notified of that decision – until January 3. By that point, we were past the application and/or financial aid deadlines for PhD programs at many universities, including those for relevant programs at the University of Arkansas.

I did nonetheless apply for admission to the Public Policy PhD program there at the University of Arkansas. George dumped on that, calling it a Doctorate in General Studies and telling me how much less employable its graduates were than the PhDs coming out of ESRM. I was not entirely convinced of that: various conversations suggested that ESRM graduates were hunting pretty hard too.

My application to the Public Policy program was rejected. I expressed surprise about that, in an email to Dean Michael Miller. He spoke with the administrators of that program. They then notified me that my rejection had been a clerical error, and sent me a letter accepting me. Given the expiration of the deadline for fellowship applications, of course, I would not be able to attend; accepting me would have the advantage of precluding questions as to whether an eminently qualified applicant was rejected for political rather than academic reasons. I deferred admission for a year but, sure enough, there was still no funding for me. And that was the end of my PhD studies at the U of A.

Several years later, I was pleased to see that they had finally gotten rid of Dean Smith. I emailed Dean Miller, reminding him of this episode and expressing a willingness to participate in an effort to correct the wrongs I had experienced. I did hope that he would evince greatness rather than smallness of character. This hope was not borne out: sadly, Dean Miller did not deign to reply.

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