Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Gaggle of Google Books

by Tess Klingenstein, Spring 2014 Intern

Since December 2004, Google has been working to create a “comprehensive, searchable, virtual card catalog” by scanning thousands of books, converting the scans to searchable text, and uploading the content into its digital database. Many of these books are out of print, collecting dust and mold on the far shelves of libraries. It’s likely that without Google’s rehabilitating project, these books would eventually disappear. But though this description fits the majority of books that Google is cataloging, some of the books have been published only recently and belong to rightsholders who take issue with Google’s project on the grounds of copyright infringement. The Authors Guild, among others acting on behalf of rightsholders in a class action suit, sued Google for roughly three billion dollars.

In an endeavor to respect copyright law, Google shows only snippets of some texts and shows no text at all in other cases. They only show full content of texts that are in the public domain or if they’ve negotiated this option with the rightsholder, in which case Google usually provides the option of buying the book. Interestingly, the fact that the Google Books Library Project was up and running during the many years that the case was in court may have had an impact on the verdict. Judge Denny Chin, who presided over the case, remarked that even his law clerks use Google Books in their research. I can’t speak for law clerks, but as a college student, I can say that Google Books has been a helpful resource to me these past four years. (However, it’s often the case that the one page most relevant to my research is not available.)

The prosecution argued that, although Google does not benefit monetarily from the project directly (as they do not advertise on the site), the project does boost their image. Google markets itself as the place to go for information, and Google Library helps contribute to that impression. Nick Taylor, president of the Authors Guild, sums up his view when saying, “It is the appropriation of material that they don't own for a purpose that is, however altruistic and lofty and wonderful, nevertheless a commercial enterprise.”

The defense maintained that Google Library’s virtual card catalog constitutes what Copyright Law of the United States has described as “fair use.” When considering fair use, the United States Copyright Office takes into consideration “the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.”

The prosecution did its best to argue that the project is of a “commercial nature,” and the defense did its best to present the project as intended for “educational purposes.” Judge Chin did not recognize the two as mutually exclusive, arguing that though the project may be of some economical value to Google, it is most definitely educationally beneficial for Google’s users.

In November 2013, the verdict came down that the Google Books Library Project, “. . . fit the description of a ‘transformative’ purpose that US courts have determined is allowed under copyright law.” Judge Chin’s decision was dependent on a variety of factors, and perhaps “seeing it in action” was one of them. Chin explained his ruling, claiming the project “preserves books, in particular out-of-print and old books that have been forgotten in the bowels of libraries, and it gives them new life.”

Did You Know?

There have been a slew of court cases in recent years where business owners have sued customers for writing unflattering Yelp reviews. A bad review can do a lot in deterring customers from trying out that new falafel place around the corner or the old flower shop down the street. Some business owners who have lost customers due to a bad Yelp review have tried to hold reviewers accountable by asking Yelp to hand over their names so that they can take them to court.

Christopher Dietz, a Washington, DC, contractor, is suing Jane Perez for defamation and asking 750 thousand dollars in damages for her Yelp review that criticized his work and insinuated that Dietz stole a piece of jewelry from her home. He argues that her review has cost him up to 300 thousand dollars’ worth of business. Joe Hadeed, owner of Hadeed Carpet, asked Yelp to turn over the names of reviewers whom he suspects are carpet cleaning competitors, masquerading as unhappy customers for the purpose of damaging Hadeed Carpet’s reputation. The Virginia Court of Appeals recently ruled that the users were not protected under the First Amendment if they were not customers, as their reviews had claimed. Both of these cases bring up the questions of libel and freedom of speech, and how the internet may be contributing to blurring the line between them. It will be interesting to see if rulings like those in Hadeed’s favor will set a precedent, sending a clear message: The internet, once seen as a lawless frontier, will now have real-world consequences for public deception.
(DYK by Tess Klingenstein)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

College Costs Slowing (But So Is Federal Aid)

by Olivia Billbrough, Spring 2014 Intern

The Great Recession of 2008 that rocked the United States for more than a year made many aspects of life difficult for Americans, including the decision to attend a four-year college program. With college tuition prices mounting, it was helpful for many that there was also an increase in the amount of federal aid offered during the time of and right after the recession.

For the first time, though, the increase in cost in college tuition for public schools is finally slowing down after three decades of rising costs. However, despite this deceleration in college costs, there has also been stagnation in increases of federal aid, resulting in a rise in college net prices. This means that the amount of money students and their families actually pay after they receive their financial aid has increased.

With more students accruing debt, and having difficulties paying it off, there is need for a basic revision of repayment programs. In a paper for The Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project proposing to make the borrowing process better for students, authors Susan M. Dynarski and Daniel Kreisman say, “We do not have a debt crisis but rather a repayment crisis.” They point to the current system as not working for our country’s students as much as it should or could be [PDF Link]. They suggest that student loans should work similarly to the way we pay into Social Security, in that, depending on how much money they are making, a certain amount would be deducted from students’ paychecks to pay off their student loans.

While the aforementioned proposal is an option in some current loan repayment plans, it is not as widely used as it could be. Thankfully, the topic is not being ignored: The president has addressed the situation of student debt and financial aid as well. The White House budget for 2015 also indicates new measures to help make higher education more affordable and yield greater benefits.

While at the moment students are paying more than they ever had before, there is a bright spot on the horizon. A balance between the cost of tuition and the amount of aid students receive will hopefully be struck in the near future, making a college education more affordable for more people.

Did You Know?

Winning college scholarships can come from some interesting places. Fastweb is a site that helps students find colleges and scholarships. The website links students looking for college payment help to not only “normal” scholarships like the Student of the Month scholarship, but also to some less traditional scholarships. Many celebrities, for instance, give out thousands of dollars every year to students who meet their requirements.

Some other unique scholarships include ones for tall people, science fiction writers, students pursuing vacuum coating and avid recyclers. Fastweb and other sites like it illustrate that if a student is willing to do some extra legwork and get creative, there are many ways to help with paying for college.

Friday, March 21, 2014

STEM's Growing Pains

by Nick Persad, Spring 2014 Intern

Many American students are overwhelmed at the thought of education beyond the high-school level, particularly when confronted with the idea of having a STEM-based job. STEM is the acronym defined as “science, technology, engineering and math,” and majors leading to careers in these fields, despite encouragement by educators and administrators, are not seeing the growth necessary to sustain the future workforce.

In an article from The Atlantic titled “The Innovators Who Are Transforming US Education,” the theory being presented is that high-school students are not being taught the necessary skills to prepare them for higher education; therefore, they are dropping out at an increasing rate. Similarly, an article from The New York Times called “Who Says Math Has to Be Boring?” states that “nearly 90 percent of high-school graduates say they’re not interested in a career or a college major involving . . . STEM, according to a survey of more than a million students who take the ACT test.”

Even with the prospect of more STEM-based jobs in the future, students are not motivated to apply out of fear or, simply, lack of interest. According to The New York Times article, “Within five years, there will be 2.4 million STEM job openings.” The reasoning behind students’ disregard toward STEM varies, but one of the main factors is that student interest in these subjects isn’t maintained from kindergarten through high school because of “outdated curriculums” or “teachers who have no particular expertise in the subjects.”

However, there are a few educators who are trying to make the bridge between high school and college less tumultuous by creating programs dedicated to providing students—especially female students and those who are underprivileged—with STEM skills while in high school. One of these programs is called Project Lead The Way (PLTW), and it was founded by former high-school principal Vince Bertram as a method of “providing middle and high schools across the country with rigorous STEM education curriculums.”

The results speak for themselves. Programs like PLTW are lessening the education gap in the United States by prepping students with essential hands-on skills that greatly prepare them for a tertiary-level education.
While PLTW is clearly beneficial to students, the problem lies with implementation. I’m not certain that all schools will want to revamp their curriculums, especially if it continues to work “well enough” for them and produces students who are excelling post-graduation. Furthermore, schools may not have the time or resources to train teachers in this new curriculum. Although the participation fee for PLTW is waived for participating schools, it does not include “Teacher Core Training costs and related expenses; equipment and supplies, including annual consumables; unlimited print materials; [and] any outside services (e.g., fees for Industry Certification [Certiport]).”

How can programs like these be put in place without putting financial strain on schools that may already be struggling with budget issues? While the intent to better educate students is there, these programs cannot possibly be implemented into every high school in the nation that hosts an underprivileged student population.
Historically, it has been shown that the majority of underprivileged high-school students attend schools that are struggling financially. These students often aspire less to tertiary education than students who are attending a well-funded high school. “The United States is one of few advanced nations where schools serving better-off children usually have more educational resources than those serving poor students . . . ,” states The New York Times article “In Public Education, Edge Still Goes to Rich.”

Overall, these programs create a much-needed increase in STEM education . . . but how do we provide this to the students who need it most without creating a financial burden?

Did You Know?

According to David Coleman, president of the College Board, spring 2016 will welcome a modified version of the SAT. Coleman stated the standardized test, along with its main competitor, the ACT, had “become disconnected from the work of our high schools.”

Some of the changes to the SAT will include making the written essay portion—required since 2005—optional; removing the guessing penalty, which deducts points from students for incorrect answers; and returning the scoring to a 1,600-point scale that is based on math and “evidence-based reading and writing” categories, worth 800 points each. The optional essay will have a separate score.

Furthermore, Coleman plans to initiate a program to aid low-income students by providing them with waivers to apply to up to four colleges for free. He is certain that these new implementations will be beneficial, “reinforcing the skills and evidence-based thinking that students should be learning in high school, and moving away from a need for test-taking tricks and strategies.”

Teaching Patience in the Classroom

by Liz Canon, Spring 2014 Intern

The age-old adage “patience is a virtue” is becoming harder and harder for students to grasp, according to Jessica Lahey. In her article “Relearning the Lost Skill of Patience,” Lahey discusses the lack of patience among today’s youth and the need for teachers to instill this traditional quality in their students in order to strengthen their learning abilities. Today’s students are surrounded by computers, tablets and smartphones that allow them instantaneous access to information. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that teachers are finding less instances of patience in their classrooms. Patience, however, is far more than just a virtue when one examines its role in education.

Another form of patience is delayed gratification. We are all faced with the challenge of having to wait for an unknown outcome at some point in our educational journeys. I can remember waiting every summer to find out whose classroom I was going to be in for upcoming the school year, hoping that my friends would be in the same room. Or waiting for an admissions decision to come from one of the many colleges and universities I had applied to. Regardless of the circumstances, these situations require us to practice a skill that many find hard to endure: waiting.

Patience as seen in the process of learning is indispensable when practicing skills such as critical thinking or reading comprehension. Students need to take time to internalize the information they are receiving in order to successfully analyze it later. While it is indisputable that patience needs to be practiced in classrooms, how this should and can be done is up for interpretation.

The current pedagogic shift away from the traditional teacher-centered approach and toward a learner-centered or student-centered approach could be one way to address this issue. A student-centered approach to education allows students to collaborate with one another about a topic. This generally provides students with the opportunity to focus more on given topics because they have the chance to discuss it with their peers. In addition, students are allowed to direct their own learning and take active roles in group projects. Both discussion of topics and being involved with peers require patience.

Educationalist Paulo Friere would likely agree with Lahey’s statement that students need to be taught patience. He believed that education relies too much on “depositing” knowledge onto students. Education, according to Friere, should instead consist of an interactive form of education, in which it is more important to begin a dialogue with students during the learning process. In Friere’s idea of a modern classroom, there is not necessarily a right or wrong answer because education is more about the process of discovery.

Another helpful article with plenty of ideas on how to teach delayed gratification for both teachers and parents alike is Julie DeNeen’s “16 Ways to Promote ‘Grit’ and Delayed Gratification in the Classroom.” DeNeen’s recommendations for teaching patience include using educational computer games, breaking down large projects into smaller tasks, and giving assignments that aren’t meant to have perfect endings where only one answer or set of answers is correct. Perhaps the most important piece of her article, however, is a reminder for adults to introduce these activities slowly so as not to overwhelm students. After all, patience, like most qualities worth having, is achieved through practice over time.

Did You Know?

A number of schools are starting to incorporate yoga and mindfulness into their curricula in order to reduce stress and anxiety, and to increase the attention spans of their students. Organizations such as Yoga 4 Classrooms provide professional workshops for educators to learn how to incorporate mindfulness practices into their everyday routines. The Mindful Schools Program based in California has given mindfulness training to thousands of children during a five-week course that is incorporated into school curricula. According to co-founder Megan Cowan, their program is “extremely cost-effective and uses short, interactive exercises that are tailored for children.”

Some teachers have also claimed that using mindfulness in the classroom has reduced test anxiety and given students skills to cope with subjects that are difficult for them. Renee Harris, a Kindergarten Teacher who practices mindfulness exercises in her classroom, claims that “mindfulness opens the mind to noticing, without judgment, how you feel, think, and interact with the world. My students have become grounded in a way I have never seen before.” While more research [PDF link] is needed in terms of how beneficial these programs could be on a national level, initial studies have shown that students and teachers alike can benefit from using these practices in the classroom.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Study of Fiction

by Tess Klingenstein, Spring 2014 Intern

Two studies came out in 2013—one administered in the Netherlands, the other in the US—that suggest that people who read literary fiction are more skilled at reading, and consequently are more skilled at relating to others. David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, two American social psychologists from the New School for Social Research, investigated whether peoples’ Theory of Mind (ToM)—the ability to recognize that other people are thinking beings who have thoughts and feelings similar to one’s own—is improved after reading literary fiction. They found that the answer is yes: Subjects who read literary fiction just before the experiment excelled at guessing the emotions of photographed faces—more so than subjects who read nonfiction, pop fiction or nothing at all.

Mark O’Connell from Slate balks at these studies that try to quantify the benefits of reading fiction. He writes that he is “ambivalent about the question of whether reading literary fiction really does make you a better person—not just about what the answer might be, but whether the question itself is really a meaningful one to be asking at all.” What if there are no quantifiable advantages to reading? Does that make it any less worthwhile?

Lee Siegel from The New Yorker agrees that we do not need to value reading only for its measurable emotional or moral advantages. He goes so far as to question whether or not these alleged advantages are, in fact, advantages. An enhanced Theory of Mind allows people to be more empathetic, but it also, Siegel notes, allows people to be more manipulative. He cites Iago—one of literature’s most infamous sociopaths—as having an enhanced Theory of Mind, of being a great reader of people. Maybe having a more fully developed Theory of Mind isn’t such a good thing after all.

But just because certain skills can be abused for self-serving purposes doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to acquire them. Yes, the ability to read others can be used to manipulate, but it is still true that it can be used to empathize. And empathy in today’s digital world is a very important skill. Mark Zuckerberg is quoted as saying, “A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” The internet, in the way that it circumvents face-to-face interaction and barrages people with so much information and media, can allow for a callous environment. Zuckerberg’s words elucidate why empathy, the antidote to callousness, is a trait worth attaining.

As a booklover, I am happy to discover that there are positive effects to reading fiction. But O’Connell and Siegel pose interesting questions. Even if there were no positive effects connected to reading—or even if there were negative effects—that wouldn’t keep me from cracking open the spine of Jane Eyre for the thirteenth time.

Did You Know?

Jane Eyre was originally published under a male name. Charlotte Brontë and her sisters published their novels under pseudonyms that still preserved their true initials. Charlotte Brontë (a.k.a. Currer Bell), Anne Brontë (a.k.a. Acton Bell) and Emily Brontë (a.k.a. Ellis Bell) all feared that their works would be treated differently if it were known that they were written by female authors. And they weren’t the only ones. Mary Ann Evans (a.k.a. George Eliot) and Louisa May Alcott (a.k.a. A. M. Barnard) continued the tradition.

But, interestingly, this practice is not a thing of the past. Currer Bell may have written in the mid-nineteenth century, but J. D. Robb (better known as novelist Nora Roberts) published the first installment of a thriller series in 1995. J. K. Rowling (who, outside of her pen name, goes by Joanne) published Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997. Rowling also stirred the book world when she recently published a thriller under the name Robert Galbraith. Though both Rowling’s and Roberts’s identities were released, Roberts continues to publish as Robb, just as Rowling will uphold the Galbraith pseudonym, planning to release a sequel this summer. Carmela Ciuraru, author of Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, remarks on what is still quite evident: “Sadly in certain genres, it still helps to be a man—particularly in crime or science fiction.”
(DYK by Tess Klingenstein)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Kentucky Leading the Way in CCSS

by Olivia Billbrough, Spring 2014 Intern

In 2010, Kentucky was the first state to implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) into its classrooms. Since then, students have had to adapt to a new way of learning, and for some, this adaptation isn’t happening fast enough, causing some reservations and confusion about CCSS.

While CCSS does mandate a standard of education across the states that are adopting it, it is up to the teachers and administrators in local school districts to decide how the students will be learning these standards. This is where some of the confusion is coming from, as some people believe that the government is overreaching and causing unnecessary confusion for students.

Though students in Kentucky have not nearly reached the goals that educators hoped to achieve, there is still optimism that students will, in time, turn those scores around. In fact, other states’ schools have seen an increase in performance by implementing CCSS and personalizing it to their classrooms. Explorer Elementary in Kentwood, Michigan, for example, has adopted CCSS, and teachers wanted to find a way to help their kids move from memorization to a better understanding of the problem-solving methods in math that CCSS demands. They turned to a method developed in Singapore, called Singapore Math, that utilizes bar models. Already schools across Kentwood that have applied this method have seen improvements from last year.

With so many different emotions surrounding the Common Core, it is not difficult to see why states such as Kentucky are still having trouble raising their student’s scores. Some opponents to CCSS in Kentucky were vocal enough that state legislators had to revote to keep the Common Core [PDF link]. These factors, coupled with declining educational budgets, makes implementing CCSS difficult, but many believe that these short-term hiccups will, over time, be resolved in order to allow students to achieve a better education that helps them better prepare for college admission and compete effectively against their international peers.

Did You Know?

In one of our blogs published in the summer of 2013, we noted some of the major misconceptions concerning the Common Core. Among those addressed were the ideas that states with standards at a higher level than CCSS would essentially be dumbing down the curriculum, that classic literature would have no place in schools implementing CCSS and that the standards would still not allow the United States to excel as well as many foreign countries do. All of these ideas lacked—and still lack— any foundation in fact, though the latter, of course, remains to be seen—there’s no telling how well students in any country will perform regardless of standardized curriculum.

Myths, some of which are entirely misleading, continue to arise regarding the standards. The forerunner seems to involve the idea that the federal government is implementing these changes, when using CCSS is a state-specific decision. Just because 45 out of 50 states are currently choosing to use them does not make it a national mandate. (Actually, the fact that not all 50 states have opted in should give those with a critical eye the idea that it can’t be a federal mandate.) It is important to also note that the standards address simply what the students should be learning by what grade, not how. Not only are states allowed to decide how they teach to the standards, but individual schools and teachers are allowed to instruct in their own unique ways that they feel best benefit their students.

The nation has its arguments for and against the Common Core, but as with any new change, fear of what the future will bring will hopefully subside as the standards mature. Until then, we will just have to wait and see how it unfolds.
(Kate Carroll)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Is Your Writing Style the Right Style?

by Nick Persad, Spring 2014 Intern

I love food. I mean, who doesn’t?

Unfortunately, my cooking skills are limited to mac and cheese, Bagel Bites and my GrubHub app. However, I do consider myself a “foodie.” Every time I dine at a new restaurant, which is probably once every two weeks, I make a conscious effort to order the most popular or interesting item on the menu—unless they have mussels. Mussels trump all.

Once I’m enjoying the meal, I begin to ponder what goes into preparing this meal—besides the ingredients—and how I could re-create it. I would need the instructions to be as simple as possible because, when it comes to cooking, an “obvious” step isn’t so obvious for me. Let’s face it; I’m no M. F. K. Fisher.

The famed food author pioneered a change in how Americans viewed food writing in the 1940s by storytelling about her life and how food played an integral role in it rather than simply giving her readers what they had come to expect from female food writers of the time—recipes. She gave her food life by sharing her own, thus becoming a revolutionary food writer without even trying.

Discussing the author, an article from the Chicago Tribune titled “The Very Surprising M. F. K. Fisher” by Bill Daley recalls, “Fisher did not consider herself a food writer. And, she wasn't, in the context of her time. Fisher's focus, as she memorably described it in 1943's The Gastronomical Me, reached out to ‘wilder, more insistent hungers.’”

In the past few decades, this idea of authors breaking the rules of or creating new rules for certain types of writing has become known as New Journalism. Authors who used this style include Susan Orlean, Michael Lewis, Gay Talese and many more; they wrote about topics ranging from travel writing to political satire to stories of ordinary people.

In a Slate book review about M. F. K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me, Fisher is quoted as saying, “Our hunger unites us; our choices, in restaurants and life, make us individuals.” This notion, in my opinion, directly relates to the idea of New Journalism. These authors hunger to create something that will stir public reaction and generate literary praise, so they have purposely strayed from the norms of what is considered appropriate writing in their respective genres.

But is this change necessary? And if so, how can an author bring about this change?

There are countless authors who adhere to the guidelines of what has come before them and receive great success, while there are those who flop. Simultaneously, there are many authors who try to establish a new style of writing, only to have it rejected by critics and readers. So what does it take to be one of the chosen few who present a new style that is accepted by critics and readers alike? As a writer, I try to maintain my voice and style even when discussing topics that I am not heavily invested in, and I always want to review what the editor has done to make sure the piece retains that voice and style—which many writers know is a luxury that is oftentimes not afforded.

Creating an individual voice and style can be a challenge, particularly for students studying journalism. Many classes—and I can attest to this—include discussions of the prominent authors of the time. This is something I think is necessary, but it does blur the line between trying to create your own style and trying to emulate the style of an author who is doing well.

It takes confidence to be a writer, and you have to be confident in your work. When you publish an article, you need to feel like it’s the best thing you’ve ever written because, I believe, that’s the only way you’ll get readers to see that too.

Did You Know?

One characteristic of New Journalism that defined it against traditional journalism was the subjectivity of its reporting. Whereas traditional journalism strove for objectivity in its telling of the facts, New Journalism used literary techniques such as a narrative that unfolds in scenes, dialogue and strong point of view to give a more personalized account. This same tension between objectivity and subjectivity in reporting is still in the news, but there is an effort afoot to rejuvenate the New Journalism spirit. A venture recently undertaken by journalist and blogger Glenn Greenwald, with the backing of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, promises to “throw out all the old rules” and tell the news from a clearly stated viewpoint.

Whether this initiative succeeds or fails will be a test of time, but as a starting point for conversation about the virtues of objective reporting, Greenwald and New York Times Op-Ed columnist and former executive editor Bill Keller sparred on the pages of the Times. You have to give the Times credit for printing this dissent on its own pages, but the complaints raised against reporting in our time—that journalists are so intent on hiding their own perspectives that they actually connive at the reporting of falsehoods—deserve an audience. Especially in the whirlwind of Wikileaks and government scandals, how the “old” traditional journalism holds up to newer practices remains to be seen.
(DYK by Nick Perricone)