Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently sort of reading Two New Sciences by Galileo; I may or may not get around to blogging about it.

I'm also sort of reading From Sight to Light: The passage from ancient to modern optics by A. Mark Smith. Again, I may or may not get around to blogging about it.

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Monday, February 19, 2018

STEAM punks

Still not a lot of time for in-depth commentary, but today's Inside Higher Ed has an article on the issue of whether to classify economics as a STEM field.  I didn't realize how high the stakes are:  Normally an international student graduating from a US university only gets one year to work in the US before they need to either leave or get a work visa.  But now I have learned that if they get a STEM degree they get 3 years, and the more quantitative economics programs count.  Needless to say, all economics programs are now trying to get classified as STEM.

This adds some context to the recent buzz around "STEAM" as a replacement for STEM.

Excellent essay in Quillette

I don't have time to give an organized reflection on this essay, but I do want to link this essay in Quillette, on how diversity is an idea very strongly favored by the managerial classes.  It isn't just about regulatory compliance, or the pursuit of PR, it's a deep belief.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The common roots of PoMo and the STEM pedestal?

There's a lot to unpack in this Steven Pinker essay in the Chronicle, far more than I have time to unpack.  I certainly don't agree with all of it, and I think he is placing STEM on a pedestal, a practice that I have little patience for.  However, he is placing STEM on a slightly different pedestal than the one I usually bemoan, a pedestal of Truth.  That doesn't make it wholly defensible (STEM is great for "is", not so great for "ought", another point I've long hammered on), but it is a distinction worth noting.  Also, he is tracing today's critics of science to the same roots as the post-modernists of the 90's, a conflation that I've questioned before.

Still, despite his commission of so many sins that I've lamented so often, something in his polemic stirred up some thoughts in me.  I still don't believe that today's critics of science (particularly the critics of social science and applied science) are cast from exactly the same mold as the PoMos who spent the 90's arguing that scientific facts are "just, like, your opinion, man."  But I am starting to think that maybe they have something in common with those who want us to let every idiot out there get a STEM degree:  They both want STEM to be tamed, to be civilized into a certain set of upper-class mores.

Where STEM most offends PoMos and bleeding-hearts alike is in its stubborn insistence that you have to clear some objective hurdles:  Facts are facts, numbers are numbers, you either measured something correctly or you didn't, etc.  While I have a certain sympathy for those who would use cocktail party games of rhetoric to take down STEM egos on "ought" questions, on matters of society and applications, certainly I have no use for them when they want to argue that quantum mechanics is "just, like, your opinion, man."  Cocktail party games of rhetoric are all well and good until stubborn facts get in the way.  Likewise, our inconvenient insistence on facts and objective truth is a thorn in the side of those who want to either engage in patronage (sorry, the idiot son of a donor is still an idiot, and as long as he can't do math he can't do science) or largess (sorry, the idiot son of a pauper is still an idiot, as is the pauper's idiot daughter, and if they can't do math they can't do science).  The elites see largess as one of the things that legitimizes their status, per the observations of Jane Jacobs in Systems of Survival, but it's hard to justify dispensing that largess in the form of a physics degree for somebody who can't do algebra.

Needless to say, the people in my job who are most eager to give physics degrees to idiots who can't do math are always the children of the upper classes, and they always defend their project with bleeding-heart pleas for sympathy, i.e. invocations of largess.  But math is indifferent to both privilege and poverty, being cold and logical.  It cannot be twisted into the service of an educational agenda.  Science is nearly as inflexible, at least in its pure form.  The fruits of science can be pressed into the service of all sorts of agendas, some of them horrifying and others honorable, but scientific knowledge can only be mastered by walking inflexible paths, paths that bend neither for the high-born nor for the recipients of their largess.

This is anathema to the high-born, so they go after the culture of science from many angles.  These days they are less interested in arguing that quantum mechanics is "just, like, your opinion, man" and more interested in arguing that an insistence on the importance of mastering it is "just, like, your privileged, western, patriarchal, heteronormative opinion, man."

So while I still don't think the PoMos were the progenitors of the kool-aid drinkers who besiege STEM departments these days, I am now beginning to think that those two groups have a common ancestry.  (And, sadly, that ancestry comes with a silver spoon...)

Monday, January 15, 2018

Inequality in the trenches

I don't have a lot of time for detailed analysis, but this blog post by the Dean Dad is on to something, yet might also miss something:  Competition for top colleges is simultaneously getting more fierce, and students seem to be getting worse (as measured by need for remediation and similar things).  He analyzes it in terms of inequality hollowing out the middle so that the worst get worse while the best get better, but I'm not sure he's right.  I'm sure he's right about economic inequality driving the competition at the top, but it could easily be the case that students are simultaneously piling up more tokens of high achievement (fancier resumes and whatnot) AND are getting dumber.

The tokens of achievement are not themselves achievements.  I've seen too many students who took AP calculus AND tested into low-level math.  The institutions place an emphasis on producing students with the word "proficient" stamped on paperwork.  In 9th grade the students take a test written at whatever level and/or graded with sufficiently generous partial credit so that everyone can be deemed to have passed math.  The same happens in 10th and 11th grades, and by 12th grade they are in a class with the label "AP Calculus" stamped on it.  Now, that doesn't mean that anybody actually LEARNS calculus, but it means that just as Soviet factory managers would lie about meeting quotas, so too the educational bureaucrats can produce paperwork saying that amazing numbers of kids are taking calculus so #STEMPIPELINE!!!!  Now, of course, when they take the AP test they do terribly, but we're assured that that means they just need a calculus refresher.  Well, then they fail the remedial math placement test because there are deficits that were never plugged years earlier.

So I see no inherent contradiction between evidence of stiffer competition and evidence of less learning.  In fact, I've argued before that students might actually learn more (and you might learn more about them) if they are given the option of low achievement.

Also, they say that nowadays there are kids at top schools who basically started their own non-profits in high school, in order to build a resume for a top school.  One of them famously/infamously got into Stanford that simply consisted of the three words "Black lives matter" repeated over and over.  Even the most truthful slogan is still just a slogan, but he repeated it and got in because people liked it.  If you look at the non-profit he started, it's not clear what they actually do besides publish articles on social media.  It's not clear how many people they help.  Maybe on some level that shouldn't matter:  The kid is clearly a hard worker who knows how to communicate and network.  On that level, maybe he shouldn't have to go to college at all.  Maybe he should be deemed ready for white collar work.  I mean that quite sincerely.  On another level, maybe it means he's ready for advanced study because he can clearly excel at things that require lots of time and lots of writing and persuasion.  However, what he's really demonstrated is a set of skills for the workplace rather than real achievements that help others, because it isn't clear what he's actually done to help anyone.  That's fine, but the institutions clearly want to persuade themselves that they're admitting the kid because of his humanitarianism rather than his career skills.

And nowhere in here is any evidence that anyone cares about deep scholarship and learning.  :(

Sunday, December 31, 2017

"Based on a true story"

I recently saw "Molly's Game", a pretty entertaining movie that is based on the true story of Molly Bloom, a woman who got into big legal trouble for running high-stakes poker games.  After the movie I got into a discussion about the issues it raises, and I realized that I'd rather treat "based on a true story" as 100% fictional.  Some might attribute this entirely to concerns about accuracy, and certainly that's a factor.  But, honestly, I'd rather not let concerns about factual accuracy get in the way of lessons to be learned from a story.  I'm less interested in whether the real-life Bloom pleaded guilty for the reasons given in the movie, and more interested in the dilemmas faced by the character and the reasons why a person faced with the situation shown in the movie might make the choices that they made.  I'm less interested in whether real-life Bloom's father did everything that his movie counterpart did, and more interested in the timeless lessons of children and parents and pressures and disappointments.

We don't read great literature because we are interested in the real Scottish king who inspired Macbeth, or the details of life in Dickens-era London.  We read it because the slice of life captured has some resonance with us in the present.  We don't read the Epic of Gilgamesh in order to learn about Sumer, we read it to learn about people.  I doubt that events in space unfolded exactly as shown in Apollo 13, but I can enjoy the characters.  "Inherit the Wind" dramatizes a real and important trial, but the oratory raises points that would be of equal importance if the Scopes Trial had never happened.

At best, "inspired by a true story" means that there's a true story that I can go seek out information on if I want, but the movie itself should not be viewed with any goal of learning the story.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

I just realized that I myself am a Special Programs guy

Somebody recently pissed me off by talking about some Special Program that they read about in an article on This One Professor at This One School who's doing great work.  And I got so very, very pissed.  When pressed by my colleagues, I realized why I hate Special Programs:

Because I run a Special Program.  I just don't call it that.

Let me explain.

I invest a massive amount of time in a local professional society, one that brings together a lot of scientists and engineers working in the private sector, in a field that is relevant to my scientific research interests.  I volunteer to help with their events, I've been an officer on the Board, and I take students to events every month.  I help students network, I make contact with hiring managers who want resumes from good students, I pass along resumes, and I even redesign some of my classes in responses to things I've learned from my private sector colleagues.  It's a lot of work, but it's paid off mightily:  I have tons of stories of physics students who got their first jobs via networking in this organization, and I bring them back to give presentations to my students.

I don't have a name for this Special Program, I don't have an office or staff or letterhead, and I don't get grants, but I do spend a lot of time working with students in pursuit of some theme or goal bigger than teaching my latest assigned class.  It's way above and beyond my assigned work, it doesn't fit neatly into any part of the university flow chart, but it is most definitely relevant to my work and the success of my students.

In many ways, it's not so different from some formally-named Special Program that take in students, give them lots of individual attention, and produce well-photographed anecdotes. What I do is less formal and smaller in scale, but it's the same idea.

And these things don't come free:  Either somebody gives money so that faculty can buy out their time and/or hire staff, or they volunteer their time.  I volunteer my time for this, and rationalize it as being in the spirit of the service components of my job.  Other people get grants and formally document their time as being part of the job.  Either way, that time comes at a cost that must be borne by somebody.

Anyway, a while back, somebody in my professional organization (somebody who is NOT in academia) said that more colleges need professors who get involved in this organization, so we can have more students involved.  It's a great idea, but he offered with a side helping of "So why doesn't somebody just..."  And the answer is simple:  It's a lot of work and time is scarce.  And, even worse, getting students to network with the private sector rarely lines up directly with the agendas of people who fund Special Programs at universities.  Research funding agencies want to see people go to graduate school and publish research, organizations oriented toward social agendas usually want to hear about graduation and retention rates more than post-college employment, and companies are happy to network with students but uninterested in helping students network with their competitors.  So this is very much a volunteer thing, and volunteer work has a personal cost.

So there's nothing worse than "Hey, I heard about this Amazing Special Program; why doesn't somebody just...."

I actually gained a bit of respect for Special Programs people when I came to this realization.  I might radically dissent from their agenda of churning more kids through PhD programs, but the basic point that students only succeed at something if people invest massive amounts of time working with them is true of any endeavor.  And there's nothing worse than "Why don't we just...."  Hence I hate articles on Special Programs, because they always act like there's this silver bullet.  There isn't.  It's a shitload of time, whether that time was volunteered or paid for.  There's no magic, no silver bullet.  It's just work.  But the arbiters of respectable opinion always dress up this work as some sort of magical Best Practice that can be replicated If Everyone Would Just [fill in the blank].

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Is "The Good Person of Szechwan" racist?

In November it was reported that Knox College, a private institution in Illinois, was canceling a production of "The Good Person of Szechwan", a play by Bertolt Brecht, on the grounds that the play (which is set in China) is offensive to Chinese people.  I decided that I should read this play, so I did.  Before I weigh in on the criticism, let me acknowledge three points:

1) The play was originally written in German, and I am reading it in English.  (Specifically, I am reading a 1962 translation by John Willett.)  I cannot assume that whatever I find/don't find in this English translation would also be present/absent in the original, or in other translations.

2) There are severe limits to what you can conclude about a play from just the text.  Everything about the staging, whether the actors' mannerisms and accents and gestures and other dramatic decisions, or the set, costumes, props, lights, make-up, etc., can help convey a message. These elements of the staging can accentuate or de-emphasize something that is present on the page.  Moreover, a play could be inoffensive on the page but be offensively staged, or even be problematic on the page but be staged in a way that wrestles with the problem rather than embracing and endorsing what is problematic.  Thus, there may be good reasons to oppose a staging of a play that is inoffensive on the page, and good reasons to stage a play that is problematic on the page.

3) When I read this play, I'm seeing it through the lenses of whatever stereotypes I hold about China and Chinese people.  Those may be different from the stereotypes that Brecht and the audiences of his time brought to the play.  They may also be different from the stereotypes that other audiences in the US would bring to the play (though I have to suspect that I have a reasonable understanding of the stereotypes that people at a college in the Midwest would bring, seeing as how I'm a college professor from the Midwest). A play could be perfectly innocuous in most settings, but happen to conjure up offensive stereotypes in some other setting. That, however, raises the interesting question of whether a play should be judged on the understandings of past audiences, as opposed to the words on the page, the intent of the playwright, the intent of the present director and other artists involved in the staging, the actual work presented by performers in the present, the interpretations of a modern audience to said performance, or the interpretations of people who declined to join the audience to avoid pain.  (Or all of the above.)

Finally, in the interests of disclosure, I haven't come across much description of Brecht's views on race and Asia, but I also haven't searched very thoroughly.  Brecht was an exile from Nazi Germany, and he wrote the play in 1938-1941, while in Sweden and the US.  He cleared the minimum moral threshold of not being a Nazi, for whatever that's worth.  So, while I can't assume Brecht to be free of racist contamination, I also can't use the Nazis and their views to make any inferences about Brecht.

With all that out of the way, let's analyze the play itself:

The play reads very much as a fable, one that could have been set in almost any society.  Of course, fables often work best when set very far away, to strip away the mundane and focus on the dramatic interplay of a few key elements.  China was clearly chosen as the setting because it is a distant land, not because Brecht wanted to explore China on its own terms.  Thus, the relevant question here is not whether China is portrayed accurately, but whether it is portrayed through the lens of offensive stereotypes. 

Honestly, the generic nature of the setting, the fact that it is a fable about general human dilemmas rather than a meditation on Chinese culture, weighs against any reading in terms of offensive stereotypes.  It could have been set in any distant city instead of Sichuan, and as long as the time was in the modern world the various mentions of modern amenities (e.g. airports) would not strike the audience as strange.  It is very clearly a fable of human nature.  Indeed, one could set it in another country without even changing many of the characters' names.  A few characters have Chinese names*, but the rest have names like "The Unemployed Man" or "Mother-in-Law."

I'm actually surprised that the students were offended by the racial aspects of the play rather than the gendered aspects.  Shen Teh, the prostitute and main character, often struggles to defend herself against people trying to take advantage of her kind nature and help themselves to her money, so she often puts on a mask to pose as her invented cousin Shui Ta. Shui Ta is able to stand up to people and even prosper in business. The fact that her simple disguise is so convincing clearly shows that the play is a fable, a contemplation of how people react to other people in different stations, rather than a dramatic portrayal of plausible events and actions, which reinforces my point about how this play is not attempting to dissect Chinese culture from a Eurocentric perspective.  However, in showing how she only gets respect when posing as a man (and sometimes takes actions as a man that she regrets when reverting to feminine presentation), this play definitely takes up the topic of gender.  I will leave it to people better-versed in feminist theory to take up the question of whether Brecht treats gender with proper sensitivity, but gender is surely more salient to this fable than anything specific to China and Chinese people.

One criticism of the play, according to the article linked above, is that the main character is a prostitute, and thus the play is portraying Asian women negatively.  Honestly, though, just about everyone in the play is terrible and greedy and takes advantage of poor Shen Teh. It's hard to read the play as portraying Asian women, en masse, as being of loose** sexual morals.  Indeed, Shen Teh actually quits prostitution when she has the financial means to do so.  She's one of the few characters to try to adhere to a standard of morality that involves helping everyone no matter how outrageous their demands and how little they do to help themselves.  Were it not for the fact that Brecht was anti-capitalist (even going so far as to voluntarily live in East Germany after the war) I would read it as an allegory about the unworkability of socialism.  Instead, given that the Gods appear as a trio, I assume it's a critique of Christianity's proffered foundation for a compassionate society.  The play acknowledges the challenges of being good (according to a particular moral compass) while living in this world; if one wanted to reconcile this play with socialist sympathies I suppose the answer would be (1) even (especially?) good things can be hard to achieve in this world and (2) socialism would require a system with enforcement mechanisms rather than reliance on individual adherence to Christian ethics.

Anyway, having only read the play once, and mostly with an eye searching for racial/ethnic factors rather than matters of gender or socialism, I am loathe to delve much farther into those topics.  What I will say is that it's really hard for me to read this as anything but a fable set "far, far away" rather than some sort of attempt at portraying Chinese society as such.  I suppose that one could take offense at that indifference to setting, but then it still strikes me more as a literary device with strengths and weaknesses to be weighed, not as anything over which a reasonable person might experience pain.  Yes, the staging could still make or break this play, but isn't that in the nature of all plays?  As it stands, what's on the page is hardly worth taking offense over (at least in regards to matters of race and ethnicity).

The kids at Knox College should lighten up.

*I cannot judge whether the names are commonplace, inoffensive Chinese names, but I know a lot of Chinese people and these names don't seem terribly unusual.

**To the extent that one chooses to view this as a bad thing.  Sex work is a complicated topic, and those who have thought deeply about gender issues have come to a variety of complex conclusions on the matter.  I offer no negative judgment on Shen Teh for having worked as a prostitute, but I see why it is a delicate matter, and why some might prefer that the play not focus on a prostitute as the representative of Asian women.  However, Shen Teh does not spend most of the story as a prostitute, and there's nothing to suggest that she is offered specifically as a representative of Asian women as opposed to simply women in general.  Or, more accurately, women trying to adhere to a particular type of moral code that is very much the subject of the play's exploration.