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 reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Saturday, February 6, 2016

A WrongThink Think Piece is still a Think Piece.

I'm 8 chapters into The State of the American Mind, a collection of essays on anti-intellectualism in the modern era.  It's full of things that would be considered WrongThink in my professional setting, so I ought to be primed to like it.  Alas, it's a book of 240 pages and 17 chapters (counting the intro and afterword), so each chapter is approximately 15 pages.  This is the same format that plenty of breezy and unchallenging books take.

Alas, the introduction and the second chapter both amount to "Most people don't know what they ought to know."  I agree with that, but I already know it, and there's nothing really new added.  The third chapter is a too-short and too-broad critique of writing pedagogy, something that has me walking away saying "OK, something is wrong" but as a person who assigns and grades project reports and lab reports I still feel like I need to know more before this chapter would be useful.  Chapter 4 is a synopsis of Academically Adrift, a book that I like, but I already read it.  Chapter 5 is a critique of psychiatry that elides the fact that plenty of psychiatric illnesses are in fact real illnesses.  Chapter 6 is a short rant about how people don't pay enough attention to the news, and its chief saving grace is that they don't try to blame late-night comedians; indeed, the author recognizes that jokes about current events only work for an informed audience.

Chapter 7 is the most abominable of all.  The basic message is fair enough:  Slowing down and observing closely is often better than quick, superficial glances.  Great.  Unfortunately, the chapter spends a lot of time on This One Intervention, where a single afternoon of activities to promote close observation habits led to great outcomes.  I'm sorry, but I don't believe it.  If This One Intervention worked, it worked because somebody cared enough to send students to the program and follow up, not because that one afternoon was so great.  Alas, I could easily see a colleague showing up at lunch and talking about how they read an article about This One Intervention and going on about how We Should Do This Too because it's so easy.

Saving graces:  The first chapter, by Mark Bauerlein, delves into the Flynn Effect, the trend of rising IQ over time.  He looks at how some skills have improved more than others.  I respect that nuance.  Also, Chapter 8, which claims that Kids These Days are different, does more than just repeat the same old complaint; it also critiques the modern zeitgeist that promotes the alleged differences.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Vanity of vanity! All is vanity!

I didn't write this article...but I could have.  The whole thing is worth reading, but a few choice quotes:
The communities where such universities exist, like jars of pickled eggs themselves, tend to be on the margins and therefore poorer and less resourced than their urban counterparts. A common refrain often heard in these communities is that, because their kids are poorer, we shouldn’t expect too much from them. It’s not fair to them because of where they came from.
Though this is always presented as compassion, it’s not. It’s contempt. It amounts to saying, “Because these kids are poor it’s all right if we also let them be illiterate.” That to me simply adds insult to injury. Intelligence is and always has been a great leveler. It roams the world freely, flagrantly disregarding its divisions and classes. But it’ll settle in and make itself at home anywhere it receives an honest welcome.
The ones who want to dumb it down will ALWAYS talk about disadvantage and diversity.  ALWAYS.  Just by typing the previous sentence I am exiling myself from polite company, but I am beyond caring.

Or, regarding what I suspect is a "flipped" class:
If you’d like a sense of how contentless it can get, I have heard of an instructor, one without a PhD, who assigned his students videos of himself talking about this or that subject as their class text. A digital lecture is assigned as preparation for a live lecture that will be about a digital lecture.
God help us.
The anecdotal evidence I’ve been able to gather tells me that students do not read anymore. In one course I co-taught with several other faculty members, the readings were posted online, which allowed us to map access patterns. In that course, readings were accessed — not necessarily read — by between 5 and 15 percent of the students in the class. The same pattern was confirmed by the textbook sales in a course from the previous year. There were roughly 230 students in that class. I was teaching George Orwell’s 1984 and I had ordered 230 copies based on enrollments. At the end of term, the bookstore informed me that it had sold only 18 copies of the book, a hit rate of about 8 percent. It may be that some students already had the book, or had purchased it from another source. But the quality of essays and midterm exams suggested a very different story, as did students’ own explanations of their actions. If you only remove your professor hat for a moment and allow them to speak frankly, they will tell you that they don’t read because they don’t have to. They can get an 80 without ever opening a book.
It used to be believed that tyrants would ban books that threaten them, but they did us one better:  They trained the public to not want to read the books.  You don't have to ban the book if nobody will read it.  So now nobody reads 1984.

Of course, I have a colleague who has gone on the public record as saying that he does not assign ANY reading in his upper-division "GE Synthesis" course, i.e. an advanced course that is supposed to include substantial reading and writing.  Nonetheless, he has published an article in an education journal in which he BRAGS that students do not need to read to pass his (100% multiple-choice) tests, and his publicly-available syllabi back this up. He's a veritable Frito Pendejo. It is only the thinnest pretext of civility that keeps me from naming names, but maybe one of these days...

Oh, and our masters are sorely lacking in the critical thinking that we all claim to inculcate in our students:
I recall a meeting in which an administrator asserted enthusiastically that the university’s online teaching platform demonstrably improves student performance because one of his tech staff had discovered a correlation between more frequent usage of the platform and higher grades. Never mind that course materials are delivered through the platform and that better students tend to pay more attention to (I don’t say read) such materials; in flagrant disregard of such obvious considerations, this administrator credited a rather pedestrian technical device with the ability to make students significantly smarter and thereby to justify the pressure the institution wished to exert on faculty to deliver ever greater portions of their courses electronically. The fact that such things can be said in public without those who say them being laughed out the room is an indication of how desperate the situation has become.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The trouble with 200 page books

I'm already close to finishing The Trouble With Diversity.  The problem with this book is that the author decided to write in the breezy genre of 200 page books with contrarian ideas.  It's a Slate column expanded to 200 pages but with a viewpoint that would rattle most Slate readers.  I basically agree with him when he critiques our fetishization of identity, and our conflation of identity with culture.  When you have a roomful of students wearing similar clothes, listening to similar pop music, majoring in the same subject (especially if that subject tends to attract or instill a certain point of view), eating at the same food trucks after class, and apparently following the same opaque mating rituals as everyone else in their generation*, I question how much diversity of culture there is in that room.  There may very well be cultural differences between their parents, but the kids resemble each other more than they resemble their parents (which is a fine thing).

So I'm with the author when he questions both the existence and the value of diversity of identity, or the conflation of ancestry and culture.  I'm definitely not on his side when he questions the value of cultural diversity.  I like living in a world with opera and rap and rock and Broadway show tunes and Mariachi music and Gospel and pop crap and everything else.  However, I suspect that if he had another 100 pages he would have conceded that point.

Where I'm definitely not with him is his last chapter, in which he argues that bias against religions is different from cultural/racial bias.  He says (correctly) that all cultures and races are equal, so bias against them is wrong, but since religions make truth claims it follows that taking issue with them is simply disagreement, not irrational prejudice.  He has a point, but he's pushing too hard on it.  The American truce over religion is one of our greatest social achievements, right up there with (and directly connected with) the way that we made English and Irish and Italian and Norwegian and Hungarian and Serbian and Croatian and (to a certain extent) Ashkenazi Jewish people into the same undifferentiated "White" people.  OK, we didn't work out all of the kinks with accepting the Jews, and somehow Spaniards got partially excluded from our giant paella of identity, but still.**

Anyway, when he says on page 179 that religious beliefs should be fair game in Supreme Court nomination hearings I have to disagree.  As long as a judge's rulings are articulated in a framework that can be delineated and critiqued separate from religion, we are all better off respecting the truce.  We Americans have only had one Civil War (hence we capitalize it), which is way better than Europe's track record, and a lot of Europe's internal conflicts coincided with religious lines.

Anyway, this reads to me like a book that went contrarian in too few pages.

*This grumpy old man still doesn't quite get how the youth have apparently done away with the formal concept of a date, a ritual that was dying even in my day, despite my adherence to it.
**We have A LOT of other things to answer for when it comes to race, but the fact that Serbs and Croats, and Irishmen and Englishmen, and Germans and Frenchmen, and Russians and Ukrainians, can all live peaceably in the US is something to be damn proud of.  If you don't believe me, take a vacation in Crimea.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Oh, there you go, bringing class into it again!

I'm currently reading The Trouble With Diversity by Walter Benn Michaels, an English Professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC).  The basic thesis of the book is that the American left (such as it is) ignores class in favor of race.  I'm in chapter 3, and I guess my main observation on the first two chapters is that, like any author trying to sell a 200 page book to a general audience, he goes a bit too far with his thesis, trying to argue a bit too hard against including race in the analysis.  I think he would agree that race does certainly matter in many contexts and for many purposes, but he isn't communicating that balanced view as well as he should, because he's trying to push back on something and he only has 200 pages in which to push back.  If he had another 100 pages I think he'd caveat it more.

However, I think he's on fire in the first couple pages of Chapter 3, when he writes:
As almost every piece of literature that UIC distributes about itself announces, we are ranked among the top ten universities in the country for the diversity of our student body.  And that diversity, the literature goes on to point out, "is one of the greatest aspects of our campus."  The bad news about our current condition is that you may be jammed into a classroom so full that you can't find a place to sit.  But the good news is that 45 percent of the people jammed in there with you will be Caucasian, 21 percent of them will be Asian, 13 percent of them will be Hispanic, and 9 percent will be African-American.
(Emphasis added)

Now, it is quite plausible race has something to do with why state politicians under-fund his campus.  At the same time, class surely also has something to do with it.  They are not a flagship campus, and they get a lot of working-class students.  Race needs to examined, and class does as well, and leaving either one out means that you miss part of the picture.

ADDENDUM:  Here's a great quote on page 108:
The true victims of the injustice in our educational system are not the students who have been made to feel uncomfortable on the campuses of Duke, Northwestern and Harvard but the ones who have never set foot on these campuses or on any other.  What is surprising is that the battles over social justice in the university have taken the form of battles over cultural diversity, which is to say, of battles over what color skin the rich kids should have.  If you belong economically to the bottom half of American families (or even to the bottom three quarters), you will not benefit from having your ethnicity respected by the other students at Northwestern, you will not suffer by being made to feel uncomfortable by the partners in [law firm] Dewey Ballantine.  Diversity, like gout, is a rich people's problem.  And it is also a rich people's solution, as attractive to rich people on the left as it is (or ought to be) to rich people on the right.  For as long as we're committed to thinking of difference as something that should be respected, we don't have to worry about it as something that should be eliminated.
This was written in 2006.  If somebody read it to a campus protester today there would probably be a call for his resignation.