Sunday, February 26, 2012

How to Spot a Slow News Day

When the AP runs stories like this:

DENVER - Two senior officials at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., were negligent in statements they made about credentials of the school's faculty, Air Force investigators said.

Now, it strikes me as a vital bit of background to know what were the statements. Yet it isn't until the very last sentence of the article that we read this:

[Former USAFA economics associate professor David] Mullin's original complaint alleged that about 60 percent of academy cadets who took introductory calculus classes between 1996 and 2006 were taught by instructors who did not have master's degrees in mathematics, statistics or mathematics education.

Substantively, this complaint is nonsense. I know for a fact that ALL active-duty faculty at USAFA have at least a Master's degree, and all civilian faculty I know about have a Ph.D. Why an econ professor is concerned that physicists and engineers are teaching first-year calculus (a subject that all cadets are required to take) is something of a mystery. But nothing about having an MS in statistics makes an instructor a better calculus teacher than one with an MS in, say, EE.

But that's just my (and the USAFA math department's) opinion. Did somebody claim that all math instructors have MS degrees in math?

The letter [to Mullin from the IG investigators] said Brig. Gen. Dana Born, the dean of faculty, was negligent in a statement she made to a newspaper. The letter didn't identify the newspaper, but the statement by Born cited in the complaint appeared in the Colorado Springs Independent.

That's all the AP gives us. The Independent, as you might imagine, is more lively, and informative:

Among active-duty military faculty, only 40 percent have doctoral degrees, compared to 80 percent of civilian faculty. Yet Born denies allegations that military instructors are less educated than their civilian counterparts. One reason for the disparity is the academy's practice of having captains and majors with master's degrees teach low-level courses. Born asserts that all AFA instructors have graduate degrees in the areas they teach, or related areas.

So basically, Mullins (and the IG, AP, and Independent) want to quibble about whether or not physics and engineering are math "related" fields. Seriously? I took this as self-evident last summer when I was applying to the math department of our local community college for an instructor position that asked for degrees in "related areas".

What's this about, really?

Mullin seems to be engaging in a bit of trade unionism. As the Independent implies, USAFA makes a point of rotating Air Force officers through three-year instructor assignments so they can serve as roll models for the cadets. This may or may not be worthwhile, but the AF has vastly more engineers and physicists with graduate degrees than it does mathematicians proper, and more business management majors than economics majors. Mullin, whilst at USAFA, didn't like the competition from military officers, and ran to the media with his non-story.

The rest of them are just doing what they do: attempting to embarrass USAFA, no matter how thin the facts.

No comments: