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.

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Political correctness flatters the elite

I am too tired to comment on this, but I very much enjoyed this National Review article (did I really just type that?) about class, political correctness, and college.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Don't fall for the hype

Yesterday I attended another university's graduation ceremony, for a friend's son.  While walking across the campus I passed by this:
(The street and trees are not on the other side of the window; they're reflected in the window.)

It's the Hyperstruction Studio.  As near as I can tell, it's a special classroom for interactive teaching.  That's nice as far as it goes, but another page suggests that it's a single room with a lot of staff and technology support.  That's going to be a hard thing to scale up to some sort of "Systemic Transformation" or whatever, seeing as how you can't set up every room in every building to have a special layout and intense support.

The fact that academics feel a need for such special things, with buzzword names, talking about transformation and change in the context of something that is way too expensive to scale, it all speaks to the restlessness that seems to have gripped academia.  It's sad that we are so restless when we have the treasures of ages of knowledge, the tools to double that knowledge in short time, and a generation of students to pass those things along to.  Why so restless?

Incidentally, the home page for the Hyperstruction Studio has no links to the pages I linked above.  I found all of those links via Google.  There is something richly amusing about techno-hype types having such useless home pages.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Authority and character vs. process and markets

Working in a non-profit setting with a union and a tenure system, you learn certain things about character and its importance, largely because the motivating "sticks" of authority, process, and market forces are all removed from the equation.  There are processes to deal with poor performance, but they are slow and weak, market forces (if they motivate people at all) mostly only motivate them to build themselves up for jobs elsewhere, and arbitrary authority is somewhere between non-existent and plausibly deniable.  Without those sticks, only a sense of duty will push people to do more than the most minimal. (Some readers might think they know which situation or situations I'm referring to, but I might be referring to other situations as well, and I might even have a different take on the particulars than you realize.) There are good things that come with that academic freedom, of course, not the least of which is the safety to take risks, but there

A commonplace observation is that process or market incentives do not suffer from those defects, and to a large extent that is true.  However, it only goes so far.  In a process-oriented institution, the person who's willing to rules-lawyer things can always find a way to get away with the minimum.  You can make the process stricter, but at best that just defines the minimum upward.  It might get more out of people than you were getting before, but in a dynamic setting, the high minimum of one year is neither high nor low but rather irrelevant in another year, because needs have changed.  So then you're back to "Where does it say that I have to..."

The threat to fire is only effective to the extent that it is a feasible decision, and the transaction costs of replacing a person are real.  Some of it can be chalked up to bureaucracy and regulation and litigation risks and all that, but even in the least-regulated "at will" environments the cost of bringing a new person up to speed is real.  The nature of the labor market will determine how easy it is to get someone who requires only minimal time to become productive.

Of course, people can rationally decide to bear a high transaction cost and endure a period of lost productivity because they don't want "the minimum", but that is only rational if you think on a long enough timeline where the message you're sending reaps long-term rewards.  Ultimately, it's rational at one discount rate but not rational at another discount rate.

But real people are not computers.  They can make good decisions, but they can also choose to  incur costs that were ill-advised in hindsight, or luck out and make better decisions than they had any foreseeable odds of making with the available resources.  And that's OK, because we're human.  Process can only take you so far before choking on its own transaction costs, markets can only tell you "Well, it depends on your risk tolerance", and not-strictly-rational "because I said so" decisions carry potential costs (via morale).  Culture and character matter, and when they fail, and when processes and markets fail, "because I said so" is necessary.

We try to avoid that conclusion in the modern world.  To a large extent that's a good thing:  Process in many settings is known as "the rule of law" and it's a very, very good thing.  A reasonable amount of legal process avoids bloodshed, as history shows up.  Too much gums up the gears, creating a space for people to do the minimum. And Arrow's Theorem, Sen's Theorem, and related insights show us that political process isn't much better.

Markets are very good things, as the failures of command economies teach us.  But Coase's Theorem only applies when you have zero transaction costs, complete information, and well-defined property rights.  To the extent that those assumptions fail, room is carved out for people to do the minimum and get away with it. Holmstrom's Theorem bears that out. And with arbitrary exercise of authority comes the opportunity to suck up to the boss and get on the right side.

So we're back to the fact that character and culture matter.

We try to deny that, and as I said it's largely for good reason.  We try to seek the "win-win" solutions.  We try to insist that we're doing things for purely rational reasons, not just because we want to.  But in the end, character and culture matter.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The two cultures on display: Gender studies

In the past few weeks two articles from gender studies have gotten some attention.  The first was not actually from gender studies as such, but was from two people attempting a hoax against the field of gender studies.  Whatever you think of the hoax and what it does or doesn't teach us, it certainly put gender studies in the spotlight.  The second one, "Assembled Bodies: Reconfiguring Quantum Identities" got less attention outside of physics, but is arguably more significant because it was offered sincerely.

I tried reading the second one.  I gather that it is using quantum mechanics as a metaphor for ideas in feminist theory, but I lack the background to put it in context.  It is a very, very dense read, impenetrable to an outsider.  That is not necessarily an unforgivable sin for a scholarly work; much of scientific writing is impenetrable to the non-expert.  However, C.P. Snow offered a partial defense of the impenetrable nature of scientific writing, arguing that science is the more cumulative of our "Two Cultures", and hence it is impossible to make scientific progress (or understand such progress) without understanding a body of existing knowledge.  On the other hand, he also noted that a scientist need not have a detailed knowledge of literature from the distant past, as long as the scientist knows which specific ideas from the past remain valid after replication efforts from the past.  In humanities, conversely, engagement with the primary text is everything, but the nature of innovation is such that new ideas and new works of art and literature can be generated without reference to prior work.  Engagement with a primary text written yesterday can be as intellectually satisfying as engagement with a primary text written in 4,000 years ago.  In light of that, I've argued that social science sits somewhere between humanities and natural science, being akin to natural science in many of its goals and standards, but engaging with human issues like humanities and re-fighting many battles in each generation (not always for ill).

So, where does gender studies sit?

An exhaustive answer to that question would require far more engagement with the field than I can lay claim to, but I can examine the article on "Quantum Identities" and ask where it sits in terms of requiring a reader with cumulative knowledge.  In that respect, gender studies sits quite far along the cumulative end of the spectrum.

I then decided to do comparisons with other fields.  I first picked two very recent articles from two respected psychology journals, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (whose editor seems to be a reasonably productive academic) and Psychological Science (which also seems to have a pretty respectable editorial board).  I can't claim to understand the full context, import, or meaning of the work in either article as well as a psychologist would, but I can certainly get an idea of what they're  trying to do.  They are much easier on the reader than the gender studies article.  I can come away with some idea of what I get and what I'm unsure about and questions beyond "Um, wtf are they saying?"

Of course, I'm a natural scientist, which means I understand statistics and am accustomed to reading experimental articles, and I have done a fair amount of reading of educational literature, which has some overlap with the psychological literature.  Perhaps "harder on this reader than an experimental psychology article" is an unfair standard for me to use in evaluating gender studies.  With that in mind, I googled for "top journals in history" and all of the links sent me to American Historical Review.  I picked an article from a little more than a year ago (since my institution does not have access to the most recent year) with a title that is not particularly interesting to me.   Again, I can read it.  It is accessible.

Gender studies thus seems to make more demands on the reader than many humanities and social science fields.  The exceptions that come most immediately to mind are philosophy (generally considered a humanities field, though formal logic overlaps strongly with mathematics and computer science) and economics (definitely a social science field, but strongly influenced by mathematics).  Given the leaning of gender studies literature towards ideas and experience rather than statistics (that is not meant as a criticism), I think we'd have to situate it in the humanities, while acknowledging areas of interest shared with social science.

It's worth asking is what purpose dense jargon serves.  In the natural sciences it enables us to speak with precision, both so that we can make claims that are testable in quantitative experiments and so that we can reference specific elements from a large body of cumulative knowledge.  In philosophy, my understanding is that the purpose of dense jargon is precision in the drawing of fine distinctions.  It doesn't lend itself to clarity of exposition for the non-expert, but it does lend itself to clarity of distinctions for insiders.

In light of these considerations, my conclusion is that gender studies presents itself in a manner most similar to philosophy.  If other academics wish to critique the field, it would be most reasonable to do so in comparison to philosophy.

Monday, June 5, 2017

A few links: There must be some way out of here

I'm still trying to work up a post on Dewey, but Dewey is a heavy read and finishing up the academic year is absorbing all of my mental energy.  In the meantime, a few links on the general sense that something is wrong in the world.

1) From The American Conservative, Is The West Spiritually Impoverished?

2) Writer Jacob Siegel, whom I'd not encountered previously, takes up the issue of how hollow the modern left and right are.  Being an academic I of course like what he says about Evergreen State, but that's not all that I like. Something is hollow and the center cannot hold.

3) Michael Lind wrote this article last year on the realignments taking place in our political parties.  I must quibble with this part:
From the Reagan era until recently, the GOP’s economic policies have been formulated by libertarians, whose views are at odds with those of most Republican voters.
GOP economic policies were not always formulated by libertarians.  Libertarians (or facsimiles thereof) formulated GOP economic rhetoric.  There's a difference.

4) From The Hedgehog Review: I want to agree with this lament about the fall of general education, but then I get to this part:
In that first meeting, my colleagues and I from the School of Arts and Sciences quickly came to the same conclusion as my class. Our students shared less a curricular life than an extracurricular one. What bound them together was not their classroom experiences, their chemistry labs, or the books they read, but, rather, the clubs they led, the basketball games they worshipfully attended, and the parties for which they diligently planned.
I'm not much of a fan of NCAA Division 1 football and basketball, but I'm a huge fan of extracurricular activities, and I think that college sports other than D1 football and basketball are excellent for developing character and teamwork.  In fact, I think that half of what I got from my university was a culture of networking and extracurricular activities that has served me well in my career.

Also, the author makes a point about research universities eclipsing colleges as the crown jewels of US higher education:
To answer that question, we must go back to the late nineteenth century, when the research university eclipsed the college as the most important institution of higher learning in the United States. Throughout the 1880s and ’90s, as research universities such as the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Cornell grew in national and international prominence, their critics and advocates alike began to worry that a coherent and morally edifying body of knowledge was missing from American higher education.
While his point is factually correct, it's worth noting that the universities in Europe and other industrialized countries are even less undergraduate-focused than US institutions, and have even fewer (if any) general education requirements than US institutions.  If we've lost something, we've at least retained more than anyone else.

5) Also from The Hedgehog Review, a nice article on guilt in our modern secular world.  I like this part:
Notwithstanding all claims about our living in a post-Christian world devoid of censorious public morality, we in fact live in a world that carries around an enormous and growing burden of guilt, and yearns—sometimes even demands—to be free of it. About this, Bruckner could not have been more right. And that burden is always looking for an opportunity to discharge itself. Indeed, it is impossible to exaggerate how many of the deeds of individual men and women can be traced back to the powerful and inextinguishable need of human beings to feel morally justified, to feel themselves to be “right with the world.” One would be right to expect that such a powerful need, nearly as powerful as the merely physical ones, would continue to find ways to manifest itself, even if it had to do so in odd and perverse ways.
Much of what maddens me about the modern academy could probably be traced to modern secularists lacking traditional outlets for guilt.  Interestingly, a colleague recently accused me of posing as a saint when I invoked the Parable of the Talents to explain some of my views on academic work and duty.

I also like this bit, regarding people who posed as victims of the Holocaust or other tragic events:
What these authors have appropriated is suffering, and the identification they pursue is an identification not with certifiable heroes but with certifiable victims. It is a particular and peculiar kind of identity theft. How do we account for it? What motivates it? Why would comfortable and privileged people want to identify with victims? And why would their efforts appeal to a substantial reading public? 
Or, to pose the question even more generally, in a way that I think goes straight to the heart of our dilemma: How can one account for the rise of the extraordinary prestige of victims, as a category, in the contemporary world? 
I believe that the explanation can be traced back to the extraordinary weight of guilt in our time, the pervasive need to find innocence through moral absolution and somehow discharge one’s moral burden, and the fact that the conventional means of finding that absolution—or even of keeping the range of one’s responsibility for one’s sins within some kind of reasonable boundaries—are no longer generally available. Making a claim to the status of certified victim, or identifying with victims, however, offers itself as a substitute means by which the moral burden of sin can be shifted, and one’s innocence affirmed. Recognition of this substitution may operate with particular strength in certain individuals, such as De Wael and her fellow hoaxing memoirists. But the strangeness of the phenomenon suggests a larger shift of sensibility, which represents a change in the moral economy of sin. And almost none of it has occurred consciously. It is not something as simple as hypocrisy that we are seeing. Instead, it is a story of people working out their salvation in fear and trembling.
Yep.  But I would go farther and offer that offering oneself as a victim in need of sympathy also provides a service to those who are looking for an outlet for their own guilt.  One person shifts the burden of guilt and in the process provides another person with a means of discharging their own burden.  If we don't need to actually work to improve the material conditions of others, but only express the right sympathies and throw administrative budgets (which never come out of our own pockets) at the proper events and displays, then sins can be forgiven on the cheap.

So what's to be done?  Well, science offers no hope:
Where then does this analysis of our broken moral economy leave us? The progress of our scientific and technological knowledge in the West, and of the culture of mastery that has come along with it, has worked to displace the cultural centrality of Christianity and Judaism, the great historical religions of the West. But it has not been able to replace them. For all its achievements, modern science has left us with at least two overwhelmingly important, and seemingly insoluble, problems for the conduct of human life. First, modern science cannot instruct us in how to live, since it cannot provide us with the ordering ends according to which our human strivings should be oriented. In a word, it cannot tell us what we should live for, let alone what we should be willing to sacrifice for, or die for. 
And second, science cannot do anything to relieve the guilt weighing down our souls, a weight to which it has added appreciably, precisely by rendering us able to be in control of, and therefore accountable for, more and more elements in our lives—responsibility being the fertile seedbed of guilt. That growing weight seeks opportunities for release, seeks transactional outlets, but finds no obvious or straightforward ones in the secular dispensation. Instead, more often than not we are left to flail about, seeking some semblance of absolution in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy that has not entirely abandoned the concept of sin but lacks the transactional power of absolution or expiation without which no moral system can be bearable.
Science has done so much for us but we remain who and what we are and were.

All of this has happened before and will happen again.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Finally, some sanity on privilege, college, and jobs

I'm not predisposed to agree with a professor of work-life law about, well, anything.  However, Joan Williams has a great article in the NYT that practically reads like a synopsis of the things I blog about.  To wit, class matters as much as race:
But something is seriously off when privileged whites dismiss the economic pain of less privileged whites on grounds that those other whites have white privilege. Everyone should have access to good housing and good jobs. That’s the point.
Indeed.

And some sanity on college and the job prospects of people who don't go to college:
The second [step] is for Democrats to advocate an agenda attractive to low-income and working-class Americans of all races: creating good jobs for high school graduates. The college-for-all experiment did not work. Two-thirds of Americans are not college graduates. We need to continue to make college more accessible, but we also need to improve the economic prospects of Americans without college degrees.
Accepted wisdom that decent nonprofessional jobs are gone for good lets elites off the hook. In fact, the United States has a well-documented dearth of workers qualified for middle-skill jobs that pay $40,000 or more a year and require some postsecondary education but not a college degree. A 2014 report by Accenture, Burning Glass Technologies and Harvard Business School found that a lack of adequate middle-skills talent affects the productivity of “47 percent of manufacturing companies, 35 percent of health care and social assistance companies, and 21 percent of retail companies.” Middle-skill jobs are important jobs: radiology technician, electrician, modern robot-heavy factory worker, emergency medical technician, wind turbine technician. In some cities, a construction boom is hobbled by a lack of plumbers. We might ameliorate this problem if we stopped talking about plumber’s butt.
I'm just baffled that something this sensible could be published in an elite outlet like the NYT.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Two quick links

One of my themes here is that liberal establishment ideas are rooted in unexamined assumptions and privileges.  So, two relevant links:

1) From Quillette, an article arguing that the difference between Eastern and Western Europe on the issue of Muslims refugees is that Eastern Europeans have been the conquered rather than the conquerors. I personally support taking in refugees, but I think the mindset of those who disagree is worth understanding rather than dismissing.  However, I think the biggest error in this piece is exaggerating Western European openness to refugees.

2) Timothy Burke uses the example of Donald Trump to dispute Jonathan Haidt's claim that liberals don't have a sense of sacred vs. profane.  Burke argues that liberals simply hold sacred very different things than what conservatives hold sacred.  Here I strongly agree with Burke.  Liberalism has plenty of religious aspects.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

In which I quote the Gospels

In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus tells the story of people who are given bundles of money ("talents", from an old Greek word) by their master; some invest it and make more and give their master the profit, while others simply save it away and when their master returns they give back what they were given without increase.  The master is angry at the one who did nothing with what he was given, and is pleased at the ones who made much of what they were given.  This is not a parable about stock markets (Jesus wasn't a fan of the moneylenders) but rather a parable about the duty to use what you are given. But progressive education is based on the idea that the most important thing we can do is lower the bar to admit everyone, which essentially demands that the best students twiddle their thumbs for the benefit of their less-advantaged peers.  Their talents are not to be developed.

Now, that idea is not without defensible motivations, even if they are mistaken motivations.  The following section of the Gospel of Matthew is about those who serve the least of Christ's people; you are blessed when you help them, because by helping them you help Him.  It is believed among those who teach in non-elite institutions that we are doing what Christ commanded, but I do not believe that collecting tuition checks in furtherance of credential inflation serves the disadvantaged, and I do not believe that it dignifies the less intellectually gifted to water down a Bachelor's degree.  What is wrong with getting vocational training and then getting a productive job? I would rather dignify the work that they can do, and embrace the ethos that all productive work is noble, than hold up a particular credential as the most respectable path for everyone.  At the same time, I would rather empower those who have talent, and help them make the most of what they have.

Of course, there is nothing worse than hypocrisy, and I do put my actions where my words are.  I've invested quite a bit of time in helping students network for jobs, including students who are not necessarily from the most privileged backgrounds.  I have done a lot of resume critiques and spent a lot of time helping students prepare for interviews and career fairs.  Indeed, this week I will be helping somebody go over a presentation for a technical interview.  So I do act as I speak.  And I believe that if I can empower disadvantaged but talented students to get jobs, I can help them to help the communities from which they hail.  But this requires recognizing that human variability is a thing, and that we must develop those who have talents rather than expecting them to sit back while we focus on those who are least-prepared for what we have to offer.

As an aside, an interesting thing about the word "talent" is that the modern English usage (meaning "ability" or "aptitude") is derived from the Parable of the Talents.  In older language it referred to a unit of weight used in regard to money (i.e. the money that the Master gave in the parable).

Awesome quote from The American Conservative

Not much time, but I must share this quote from an article in The American Conservative:
Administrators aren’t particularly loyal to the core higher-ed mission of discovering and disseminating knowledge. Many are failed academics whose only talents are regurgitating on cue vacuous corporate jargon—“innovating in strategic processes,” “developing new thought leadership platforms,” and so on—and attending conferences with each other. And in student grievance, they have found an endlessly renewable energy supply.
....
This is an unlikely alliance between corporate middle-management and self-styled student radicals, adolescent zealotry getting pimped by bureaucrats. And it’s playing out all over higher ed. Over the last two years, usually in response to some rash of undergrad intolerance, colleges and universities have hired about 75 new “diversity” administrators.
Indeed. The fact that identity politics is so compatible with administrative interests should be setting off warning lights in the minds of liberals, but elite liberals have no concept of how co-opted they already are.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

We broke our postmodern cage and ran

We're revisiting the 90's right now, partly because Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell just died and partly because some people attempted to replicate the Sokal hoax, publishing a nonsense article full of dense gender studies jargon.  For those too young to remember the glories of the 90's, Sokal published an article full of incomprehensible postmodernist jargon, making some sort of pretentious claim about physics being just, like, your opinion, man.  Or something.  It wasn't really supposed to make sense.  Anyway, these authors published an article arguing that the whole concept of a penis is just an invented concept, or something.  Then they published an article revealing that their first article was never meant seriously, and the fact that it nonetheless got published proves that the field of gender studies is bunk.  Or something.

Now, whether these authors have really taught us anything about alleged problems in the field of gender studies is very much a contested claim, not the least because the article was turned down by an undistinguished journal before being accepted by an even less distinguished journal.  But I'm not interested in dissecting alleged problems in the field of gender studies.  Rather, I want to note a different point, about the contrasts between the fashionable postmodernism of the 90's and the fashionable identity politics of today.

On the surface there are similarities.  The identity studies and identity activist types of today and the postmodern literary theorists and Science Wars types of the 90's both agreed that you can dismiss an idea if it is Western, patriarchal, colonialist, yadda yadda.  Both are ultimately signaling games for people with a certain type of education.  And both are largely rubbish from an intellectual perspective.

Still, there are two key differences:
1) The PoMo guys didn't seem to believe in truth.  OK, they probably believed that Western, male, yadda yadda ideas were even less true than others, but ultimately they seemed to think that everything is just, like, subjective, man.  So, yes, they would reject Western, patriarchal, yadda yadda ideas, but they'd also reject any other idea if you got too enamored of it.

The modern identity politics types, OTOH, seem to believe that they have access to truth.  They don't just want to tell everyone that stuff is complicated and depends on your point of view.  They want to claim that truth comes from the margins and so while my white, Western, male, yadda yadda opinion might be wrong, theirs is right.  There are problems with claiming moral authority on the grounds that truth can only come from the margins, as I've noted before, but they certainly make that claim.

2) The PoMo guys had hard reads.  Foucault is not for the faint of heart. Marx (not PoMo but nonetheless appreciated by a certain type of humanities scholar) can only be read with a lot of caffeine and cigarettes. OTOH, I am pretty sure that you could do just fine with the modern politically correct types if you read a few privilege think-pieces and just nodded along with whatever they said.  They have truth, and as long as you acknowledge that it's good.  There's no intellectual game to be played, no idea to be skewered, just a "yes-and" discussion.  Remember your victim hierarchy, defer to others* the loudest when in doubt, and it will be fine.  You don't need thick books or nuanced arguments, just rhetorical cudgels.

So, as much as I like the 1990's, and as much as I would like to return to them, we aren't there.  We're in a different era.  The PoMos read thick books, and as much as they annoyed me back then I would gladly take them over the current wave of identity politics.

Mind you, the 90's did have political correctness, but that was a different beast, an angrier one than the PoMo types.  And I never had to encounter much of the PC because it had already self-discredited by the time I entered a pretty Republican-heavy college.  It didn't disappear but it dial back a notch.  PoMo was a lesser evil, in retrospect, because it was always just a game, a game that ended the second that we got a Republican in the White House and (more importantly) the EPA.  Science is only a social construct until somebody tries to ignore it.  Then every liberal turns into a raging technocrat.  But while "That's just, like, your opinion, man" gets tossed aside when practical considerations dictate so, identity politics shows little sign of abating.  Alas.

Anyway, the post title comes from a song that was written by Chris Cornell (who died this week) and was covered by Johnny Cash in 1996 (the year of the Sokal hoax).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nehoakn-LbE


*My apologies for Othering people :)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Back to book blogging: The Philosophy of John Dewey

I'm reading a collection of essays by John Dewey.  About 2/3 of the volume is on philosophy, and largely out of my depth, so I've just skimmed those parts.  But now I'm at a 1931 essay titled "Science and Society."  The editor of the volume indicates that this essay deviates somewhat from Dewey's usual views on the nature of knowledge--he treats science as impersonal, objective knowledge, whereas usually he stressed the contextual nature of knowledge and learning.  That is actually unsurprising to me, because the second half of this essay reads as technocratic, and technocrats have a soft spot for the opportunities offered by objective knowledge.  Of course, he spends the first half of the essay urging would-be technocrats to be less smug (and good for that!) but Dewey was neither the first nor last technocrat to think that if they just rethought the project they could totes make it work.

He starts by noting that the societal changes wrought by technology had not actually changed human nature:
In its effect upon men's external habits, dominant interests, the conditions under which they work and associate, whether in the family, the factory, the state, or internationally, science is by far the most potent social factor in the modern world. It operates, however, through its undesigned effects rather than as a transforming influence of men's thoughts and purposes. This contrast between outer and inner operation is the great contradiction in our lives. Habits of thought and desire remain in substance what they were before the rise of science, while the conditions under which they take effect have been radically altered by science.
Maybe that's because technology isn't actually new to human beings.  Indeed, we control the planet precisely because we are the best tool-users on the planet.  So a technology-reliant existence isn't a new existence for humans, it's actually all that humans have known for at least a few tens of thousands of years.  We fought off predators by using spears rather than superior muscles and speed, we survived the ice age with fire and blankets rather than fur and insulating fat, and we acquired food with tools rather than claws.  And while I freely concede that the pace of technological change today is greater than in ancient times, when I read the classics I do not notice any substantial differences in human nature.  The Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Greek philosophers, the scribes of ancient Egypt, they all show people who are remarkably similar to today's people.  The educated classes of today feel compelled to visibly celebrate diversity, but similarity is a much bigger fact of human existence.

Having just conceded that humans of 1931 are remarkably similar to those of the past, Dewey goes on to note that information technology has not transformed society:
No sooner do we begin to understand the meaning of one such change than another comes and displaces the former. Our minds are dulled by the sudden and repeated impacts. Externally, science through its applications is manufacturing the conditions of our institutions at such a speed that we are too bewildered to know what sort of civilization is in process of making.
Because of this confusion, we cannot even draw up a ledger account of social gains and losses due to the operation of science. But at least we know that the earlier optimism which thought that the advance of natural science was to dispel superstition, ignorance, and oppression, by placing reason on the throne, was unjustified. Some superstitions have given way, but the mechanical devices due to science have made it possible to spread new kinds of error and delusion among a larger multitude.
... 
The airplane binds men at a distance in closer bonds of intercourse and understanding, or it rains missiles of death upon hapless populations.
Honestly, this reads like an account of the hopes and subsequent disappointments among those who envisioned the internet as transforming society and freeing people.  Yes, the internet has enabled great things, and spread information to be used for good, but it has also been used for dull entertainment and malignant propaganda.  Let us remember that Wikileaks was originally founded as a site for undermining totalitarian regimes via the cleansing light of truth, but in 2016 it was used to advance the political machinations of a Russian dictator and his billionaire puppet.

Also, if we were to change the dated term "mechanical devices due to science" to "information technologies enabled by science" we would have something that any reader in 2017 would think is a critique of the internet.  It's been noted before that the rise of cinema was accompanied by predictions of the demise of universities (classes would be delivered on film reels), as was the rise of television.  It seems that every new information technology elicits the exact same cycle of euphoria and frustration.  All of this has happened before and will happen again.

Beyond information technology, Dewey's basic point is not so different from Kentaro Toyama's Law of Amplification: Technology doesn't so much level or transform human society as allow us to do what we were doing before only moreso.  The advantaged can derive more advantages from technology (though they can also fall if they don't keep up with competitors), the disadvantaged can be left behind in the new economy as they were in the old (though some can also discover a new path forward), people who seek to do good with technology can do more good with new technology, and people who seek to do ill with technology can do the same.

Having noted the ways that science has enabled both good and evil, merely amplifying on human nature rather than transforming it, Dewey goes on to note a point that has my most enthusiastic agreement (though not his):
Shall we try to improve the hearts of men regard without to the new methods which science puts at our disposal? There are those, men in position in church and state, who urge this course. They trust to a transforming influence of a morals and religion which have not been affected by science to change human desire and purpose so that they will employ science and machine technology for beneficent social ends. The recent Encyclical of the Pope is a classic document in expression of a point of view which would rely wholly upon inner regeneration to protect society from the injurious uses to which science may be put. Quite apart from any ecclesiastical connection, there are many "intellectuals" who appeal to inner "spiritual" concepts, totally divorced from scientific intelligence, to effect the needed work.
Indeed, my own belief is that character matters in every age.  Dewey will go on to urge that we apply the methods of social science to solve the problems of human society.  However, the 20th century saw the formulation of theorems (e.g. Holmstrom's Theorem, Sen's Theorem) that demonstrated the limits of what can be accomplished via institutional designs.  There's no way to totally automate decision-making.  And central planning failed.  In my own job I am seeing more and more evidence that "best practices" only take you so far, and in the end you need to hire and retain people with character and values that drive them to do the job within a reasonable incentive structure; process only gets you so far.

Anyway, Dewey does name two areas where the application of science to social problems has been beneficial:  Insurance (where we use statistics to price and mitigate risk, so that people can take the risks that inevitably accompany attempts at great things) and the germ theory of disease/hygiene.  However, the first example involves something that people can choose to buy, and that can be priced without subjective value judgments, and the second ties quite closely to facts of the natural world.  Neither relies too much on the steering of behavior.

He goes on to consider education as an arena for the application of science to social problems.  Despite the exasperation I often display with educational fads, I actually have a lot of sympathy for the idea of applying science to educational problems.  However, I believe that the passions aroused by the cultural, ethical, and political dimensions of education often leak into educational studies, and people believe that their subjective choices about which question to ask shape the answers that they get and (more importantly) the ways in which those answers are applied.  For instance, it is only very recently that people looked at whether "reformed" physics classes were as good as "traditional" classes for improving student understanding of the topics and skills that get greater emphasis in "traditional" classes (since "reformed" classes often emphasis different aspects of the subject).  For decades, many researchers were emphasizing "conceptual understanding" over quantitative problem-solving, for a number of reasons.  I have argued before that this is in part because of the cultural baggage that gets attached to mathematical reasoning (at least in the US), but most of the people who study physics education in the US are natural scientists who have not done a lot of reading on American cultural history, so they are blind to their own assumptions.  It is interesting that the lead author in the study I linked here is a psychologist, not a physicist, and is probably better-trained at unpacking cultural baggage and accompanying assumptions than most physicists would be.

(Then again, Dewey was trained as a philosopher, a field that specializes in skewering assumptions since at least the days of Socrates, yet he also fell into the technocrats' trap.)

So, as far as my own views go, I'm a big fan of social science as science, but skeptical of social engineering.  It's the difference between pure and applied science.  As far as Dewey, I find it fascinating that he could start an essay by noting the ways in which the technological environment experienced by humans has failed to change thought and behavior, but then express great confidence that science can be used to shape social environments in such a way as to steer human behavior.  In that sense the essay falls flat.  On the other hand, I give him full marks for understanding the distinction between changes in the technological environment and changes in human nature.  He even managed to note ways in which the information technology of his era failed to live up to hype about transforming society.  Too bad he didn't carry that humility forward in thinking about social engineering.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Common People

I have the song "Common People" by Pulp in my head.  Time to parody it and rant about the anti-intellectualism of the upper classes:
They're from back east,
They have no thirst for knowledge.
But they want to sculpt the kids in college,
That's where I
Caught their eye. 
They told me that their grant was funded,
I said "In that case we'll bring you to our department."
They said "Fine"
And then in thirty seconds' time
They said: 
"I want to teach the common people,
I want to help the common people learn,
I want to teach with common people,
I want to teach with common people
Like you."
Well, what else could I do?
I said "Huh.  I'll see what I can do." 
I took them to a freshman classroom,
I don't know why but I had to start it somewhere,
So it started there.
I said "Pretend your grants aren't funded."
They just laughed and said
"You're so funny!"
I said "Yeah?
I can't see anyone else smiling here." 
Are you sure
You want to teach the common people?
You want to teach whatever common people need?
You want to teach with common people?
You want to teach with common people like me?
But they didn't understand. 
They just smiled and spent their grant.  
Teach a class at six o'clock,
Thank your chair you have a job,
Grade some labs written by fools,
Pretend you liked to go to school,
Still you'll never get it right,
Cuz when you're working late at night,
Writing lecture notes for fall,
If you called your Dean they could stop it all, yeah,
You'll never teach like common people,
You'll never teach whatever common people need,
You'll never fail the common people,
You'll never watch your career slide out of view,
And then rant and drink
Because there's nothing else to do.

I need to add more.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Lies, damned lies, and education research

As profiled today in Inside Higher Ed, the Center for Community College Student Engagement (a research center at UT Austin) released a study which shows that students who take full loads at least some semesters (preferably early on) are more likely to graduate than students who are always/mostly part-time. There are at least three plausible reasons why this might be true:
1) The more units you take the closer you are to finishing.
2) Attending full-time produces benefits beyond the accumulated credits, e.g. more interaction with faculty and classmates.  They provide data in support of that.
3) People who attend full-time have the advantage of some amount of financial security and stability in their personal lives, so they can focus on school.

 It appears that they did indeed ask students if they received Pell grants, i.e. they did ask about personal financial situations, but the summary that they provide says nothing about the analysis of that data, and simply says that everyone should attend full-time as much as possible.  When the summary and recommendations say nothing about the analysis of financial information, it's hard to know whether they controlled for the third possibility, so it's hard to know if full-time attendance for all is a good recommendation or not.  But they don't dwell on that.  They just tell everyone to go as much as possible.

Sadly, this is par for the course in much of educational research.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Inclusivity and the legitimacy of class privilege

I've said before that the way academics talk about inclusion feels like a desperate bid for legitimacy.  The Chronicle has a review of a book about the switch to co-education in the Ivy League, and while I don't have time to summarize the entire review (and even if I had the time I wouldn't summarize it; I'd rather read the whole book than summarize a review) I think this line is worth quoting:
Skillful presidents and wardens, she argues, managed to convince skeptical alumni that their all-male alma maters must admit women or forfeit their elite status. Coeducation was necessary to shore up class privilege.
This is consistent with things I've noted in other contexts.  Interestingly, it's not just the elites that see diversity as the guarantor of legitimacy; people in non-elite educational institutions talk about their diversity as a way of deflecting questions about whether they are providing a meaningful educational experience for their students.  Personally, I think that the disadvantaged need their education to be even better, but what do I know?

To be clear, I think that going coed has been a hugely positive thing for higher education, and diversity and inclusion (when honestly pursued, rather than pursued cosmetically for the purpose of feeling good about one's own benevolence) are great things.  However, I think it's also clear that these things get viewed through the lens of preserving one's own status rather than sincere care for others.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Thought Leaders vs Public Intellectuals

I like this article  in the Chronicle:  Public intellectuals, people who know a lot, are on the decline, while "thought leaders", who have one Big New Idea (that might not actually be new at all) and they evangelize for it.

I think this explains a lot.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Politically incorrect

America doesn't have a problem with political correctness.  America's tribes have a problem with political correctness.

You can say anything you want in America.  You can't say anything that you want and still remain respectable in the eyes of various cultural groupings.

In America you can say that institutionalized racism and police brutality are so ingrained in our law enforcement services that it's impossible for the community to maintain confidence in the police.  If you say that in my academic circles you'll be regarded as speaking a common-sense truth that too many people deny.  If you say that in front of some of my non-academic Facebook friends they'll see you as Part Of The Problem.

In America you can dispute the claim that 1 in 4 female college students will be raped, and suggest that it's an exaggeration proffered to score political points.  You can't say that and retain credibility in certain academic circles.  You can say that and gain credibility in certain conservative circles.

In America you can say that abortion kills children.  You can say that and retain credibility in many religious communities.  You can't say that and remain respectable in a lot of liberal circles.

In America you can say that signing up for military service is morally questionable when America's wars for the past generation (or longer) have been so morally questionable and so remote from the stated purpose of defending freedom.  You can't say that and be electable, or be respectable in the eyes of a lot of my Facebook friends.  You can say that and be credible in certain left-wing circles (not to be confused with centrist liberalism).

In America you can say that America's gun obsession is irrational and primitive.  You can say that and be credible in many cultural and political contexts.  You cannot say that and be seen as credible in many other situations.

Finally, in America you can say that there is no God and religion is a lie.  You can say that and be credible in many cultural groupings.  You cannot say that and be elected to statewide office, let alone US Congress or the Presidency.  And depending on which (if any) Abrahamic faith you do or don't single out, you might get people to change their reaction from sympathetic to wary or vice versa.

Now, I happen to agree (at least to some extent) with some of the things that I wrote above.  I dissent from some of them.  Others I view as dramatic over-simplifications to the point where agreement and disagreement are equally meaningless. There's no need for me to demarcate for the reader which ones I agree or disagree with. But all of these are examples of protected speech that simultaneously get a lot of heads nodding while getting other people to reach for the torches and pitchforks.  Switch some of the statements and some people will switch sides.  Consequently, whether or not political correctness is a problem, whether or not orthodoxy is enforced, and whether or not a topic is radioactive, is a highly contextual matter.  Complaints about political correctness are almost as dubious as dismissals of those complaints.

I was thinking of this in the context of the Timothy Burke essay that I blogged a couple months ago.  If claims to truth are strengthened by being on the margin, then academics have a two-fold reason to contest complaints about political correctness and deny that it exist.  There's the obvious one: We academics have a genuine interest in ideas and debate, so we certainly don't want to admit it to ourselves if there are times when we stifle the exchange of ideas.  People can simultaneously hold a value in their hearts but also fall short of the ideal embodied in that value, but who wants to admit it?

Then there's the less obvious one:  If the marginality of the speaker is relevant to the truth value of their statements then enforcement of orthodoxy is self-defeating, and if somebody were to prove to us that we are enforcing an orthodoxy they would have taken a step to refuting the truth value of our claims.  We thus have to push back and deny that this is what we're doing, because otherwise we lose intellectual credibility both on our own terms (we've just loss our claim to the high ground of the margins!) and the terms of more rational people.

People are strange.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The other thing that the factories did

I think the nostalgia for the Good Factory Jobs is as much about the anxieties of A Certain Professional Class as it is about the anxieties of those in genuinely precarious positions.  You see, nobody in my professional class knows "what to do about" people who don't go to college.  We know that America can only be a stable, prosperous country if opportunities to contribute to and benefit from that prosperity are broadly-distributed, but none among us actually know what a person can do for a decent living without a college degree.  OK, we know that there are plumbers who make good money, and a number of other highly specific occupations that can lead to a comfortable middle-class life without a college degree.  But beyond that, most of us (me included) aren't entirely sure what else can be done.

I think we have the vague sense that success in a lot of the better manual/mechanical jobs requires the right combo of mechanical aptitude, general people skills, and business sense.  We aren't entirely sure how people develop these skills; we assume it's in a vocational track at the right high school or community college.  We also have the vague sense that some kids get that from their upbringing, from parents who had those things and imparted them.  However, the continued existence of an underclass tells us that there are plenty of kids who aren't being raised by/for that kind of middle class.  So we aren't entirely sure what should be done by/for/with/about the kids who aren't college material.

Well, we tell ourselves that we'll just send more people to college and adopt some sort of Best Practice to promote their success, but we aren't entirely sure what that means (and privately we sort of realize that it's a foolhardy idea, even though we'll never say it in front of policymakers).

Now, it is an empirical fact that while we do indeed have an underclass, we also have a working class that sits above the desperate underclass but below the guy who owns a highly successful plumbing business.  They are doing something, but people in my professional class don't really know what it is.  The truth is that it's thousands of different things, with varying levels of compensation, varying prospects for advancement, varying degrees of steadiness or precariousness, varying amounts of physical strain on the body, etc.  From the dentist's assistant to the guy who fixes your tire to any number of other people, these jobs are out there.  They aren't a perfect solution to anyone's problems in life, they don't always spread around prosperity and opportunity as broadly as one might hope, but they're out there and people do these jobs.  Some of these jobs are better than others, but people like me don't necessarily know which ones are better.

Also, we don't know how people get these jobs, how they prepare.  And, of course, there isn't one single answer.

But people in my professional class need A Single Answer.  We write Strategic Plans.  We draft Mission Statements.  We work in institutions charged with Training The Workforce and Providing Opportunity.  How can we do that if the world doesn't have An Answer?

Now we get to The Good Factory Jobs.

The Good Factory Jobs told older versions of me exactly where working-class kids went after high school.  The factory was there.  It was very visible.  You could see it from the road on your morning commute to the corporate office or government bureau or academic institution where people like me work.  We might not have ever set foot in those places, but they were right there, so we assumed that that was What Was Being Done About It.

But then The Good Factory Jobs left.  That was a genuine setback for a lot of people. At the same time, they didn't all go on welfare; many of them found jobs of numerous sorts. But we don't see those jobs.  Mind you, I'm not trying to minimize that by making this all about me and my colleagues.  I'm just trying to explain how little my colleagues and I understand this.

So even though people in my professional class would never (openly) vote for Trump, we all secretly hope that he brings those factories back.  Partly because, hey, however unrealistic it might be, wouldn't it be nice if it worked?  (Yeah, I'm not holding my breath either.  I'm just saying.)  And partly because then the factory would be The Answer.  We would know where the working class kids go.

But we don't know.  So we flounder on about how Higher Education Will Fix All.  Even though it won't.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The hand-wringer test

I have a casual interest in linguistics--I enjoy browsing an Indo-European dictionary and occasionally tweet about what I learn.  I thus came across this discussion of whether linguistics qualifies as a STEM field.  If the question is whether linguists approach questions in their field with a scientific mindset, or draw upon approaches akin to those in the natural sciences, the answer is an unambiguous yes.  Moreover, if that is enough to qualify a field as STEM then most/all social science fields are either STEM fields or at least have sub-fields that count as STEM.  Linguistics may have elements that are more akin to humanities (qualitative and descriptive analysis of texts and behavior), but it also has social science and even natural science (e.g. neuroscience) components.  It is, a minimum, a good fit for the stated description of STEAM, if not STEM.

However, I mostly approach the definitions of words from a descriptivist perspective, not a prescriptivist perspective.  STEM sits on a pedestal, and the descriptivist's question is not whether linguistics belongs on the pedestal but whether the gatekeepers will recognize its right to stand on the pedestal.  Linguistics may fit the gatekeepers' stated criteria for inclusion in STEM, but people are rarely honest about the criteria that they actually employ to determine admission to a pedestal.  You have to watch their actions, not just listen to their words.  And from my experience in a university where the local culture perceives its moral legitimacy as deriving from our work on bringing students into STEM, social science is only STEM when we're trying to be collegial with social science faculty, or when a social scientist is studying issues of STEM equity and the STEM workforce.

As I said in my post about STEAM, the way to figure out if a field is STEM is to do a though experiment involving students changing majors.  Suppose that two twins, Alice and Bob, start off as electrical engineering majors.  Alice then changes majors to physics, while Bob changes to a social science field.  Which decision would elicit more hand-wringing among the people who worry about the STEM Pipeline?

A tempting rejoinder is that we shouldn't care about the hand-wringers, we should just look at the intellectual rigor of the field, and we'd have to agree that there are plenty of things in linguistics that qualify as science.  I don't deny that, but I would note that (1) there are plenty of people whose work is definitely not science but is nonetheless intellectually rigorous (e.g. good scholars in the humanities) so why is intellectual rigor a sufficient criterion for inclusion in STEM? and (2) if we go down that road then most departments on a university campus would have STEM components (e.g. there's plenty of chemistry in art, plenty of acoustic science and technology in music, plenty of behavioral science in marketing, etc.) and STEM becomes so broad that it papers over the distinctions that make for intellectual diversity.  If STEM is the arbiter of good then everything is STEM and everything is good and everything belongs on campus, but we already agreed that the art and literature and business faculty should work on the same campus as the physicists and biologists and mathematicians, so what was the point of this label again?  Oh, right, STEM is on the pedestal.  Well, maybe instead of putting everything onto the pedestal we should point out how silly the pedestal is, and how ultimately destructive it is to the notion of intellectual diversity.

Anyway, I have a casual hobbyist interest in linguistics, and I certainly respect the rigor and value of the field, but I think that instead of including everything in STEM we should question why inclusion in STEM is considered so valuable.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The lie that my high school teacher told me

In my previous post I blogged about how there's no real mystery to academic achievement, how my teachers told me I'd be on my own in college so I studied accordingly.  Now I want to talk about a lie that they told me:

One of my high school English teachers said that in college you're expected to read books that aren't explicitly assigned.  She said that if a literature professor assigned a novel it was understood that besides reading the assigned novel you should be independently scouring the library for critiques of the novel and background on the writer, so that you could come to class prepared to contribute to the discussion.

I took that to heart.  The summer before my freshman year of college I was given the reading list for the humanities class that I would take that fall.  The class had a pretty long list of classic works, and I decided that I would read the thickest book on that list during the summer, so that when all hell broke loose in fall I would have the worst assignment out of the way.  So I read The Brothers Karamazov.  And then I did one better: I read a biography of Dostoyevsky, because my teacher said that you're supposed to be proactive like that.

Well, in the middle of that first semester we were reading Dostoyevsky (and chemistry was hard as hell and sucking up all my attention, so I was very glad that I was ahead in my humanities class), and during one of the discussions a classmate started offering assertions about the author's life and views and how they related to whatever scene in the novel.  I honestly don't remember what her point was, but I do remember that her assertion about Dostoyevsky's life was 100% wrong (remember, I'd actually read a biography of him, though I don't remember much of it 23 years later), and when I pointed that out the professor and class were rather uninterested.

So much for the idea that you have to be on top of things in college.  Mrs. Sadowsky lied to me!

Why I am what I am

I went to a decent high school.  Not fancy, not lousy.  Science labs were OK but we weren't putting out national science fair competitors.  Most kids weren't poor but most weren't upper-middle-class either.  Not particularly disadvantaged but not a lot of affluent kids either.  Pretty much in the middle.  Which is fine.  We had college-prep classes but we also had a lot of vocational classes.  It was a decent school in the middle of the class hierarchy.  I was more privileged than a lot of the US but less privileged than a lot of the people I later met in college.

One thing that was repeatedly driven home to me by my teachers was that we would be on our own in college, and that there would be no hand-holding.  It was repeatedly said that we would have to figure it out, that they wouldn't patiently explain to us how much we should be reading and reminding us to study and reminding us to do our homework and turn it in on time.  It would be hard and we would be on our own.  This was repeatedly said to me and my middle-class friends.

And, to a large extent, that was true.  College was a bit more structured and supportive than my high school teachers made it sound, but only a bit.  Ultimately, it was on me.  I accepted that from day one, and it felt utterly unsurprising to me that I was doing well because I studied all the time.  It felt utterly unsurprising when friends and dorm-mates who studied less didn't do as well.  It's the natural order of the world.  Likewise, in grad school I felt a bit more burned out, a bit more interested in my own life, and I didn't do as well as I did in college.  I still got through, but I was not on top, and that was no surprise to me because I didn't put as much in.  Then I became a professor and buckled down more and published more and got decent student evaluations because I put in a ton of prep and none of this seemed at all surprising to me.

So you can imagine how strange it seems to me when people keep saying that we need to do more for students who don't know how to study, how to take notes, how to manage their time, etc.  It baffles me that we are supposed to be responsible for their success.  Why would we be?  Why would it be my problem that people who never put much effort into mastering freshman material are now doing poorly with advanced material?  Why is it my duty to fix this?  It's not like I could actually do anything about it (you only get the benefit of years of effort by putting in years of effort--there are no secret tricks), so why is it my responsibility?

Likewise, it seems strange to me when people say that it's so unfair that we attach weight to grades and test scores.  I got into a college with people who were way above me in the class hierarchy, people whose parents had more money and more degrees, people who had attended prep schools and magnet schools.  I was there because I had done at least as well as they had done on the SAT (among other things).  I got better grades than them in college.  I out-studied them, out-performed them in the academic arena, and moved ahead academically.  Isn't that how it's supposed to be?

I've spent more than two years reading and blogging about the cultural currents that underlie the notions that seem so strange to me, but I'll be honest:  To this day there's still a part of me that thinks "Well, duh, I studied my ass off because my teachers all told me that that's what I'd have to do to succeed in college.  What else were you expecting?"

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Project idea: Incentives, measurement, and fairness

Among the problems that I find most fascinating and most frustrating is the that of people who want to systematize education and incentives.  We all agree that what we really want is meaningful, intensive, in-depth discussion of important topics, creative assignments, and lots of attention to students as individuals.  We all agree that this is hard to systematize and measure, even if some approaches are clearly less bad than others.  We all agree that the things that are easiest to measure are not quite what we desire. We all agree that the more you incentivize something the more that people will focus on hitting the metric rather than doing what the metric is supposed to be a proxy for (sometimes called Campbell's Law).  And we all agree that without incentives of SOME sort people will get lazy.  So we have a hard problem.

My thought is that if a simple metric isn't TOO distant from what you really want, and if the competition isn't TOO intense, then being measured will keep people from being lazy, but because you still have some flexibility (the competition isn't so intense as to push you into a single-minded focus on that metric) and because you yourself actually value the thing that REALLY matters (and the metric isn't completely decoupled from it) then you'll show up to work and split your effort between hitting the metric and doing the more meaningful thing that everyone REALLY values.

But if the competition is more intense then you have to hit that number no matter what.

As to the people measuring you, on some level they know that the simple metric is flawed, but they face two other pressures;
1) Measuring something closer to what they want would be more expensive.
2) Because those measurements are of limited precision and may be subjective, it would be seen as unfair to focus so much on them.  Indeed, I sometimes think that the current focus on the findings of bias research plays into this:  The output of the bias research community has demonstrated that everything we do can be unfairly biased.  It's thus tempting to seek simpler and more transparent technical evaluations instead of subjective appraisals of nebulous quality.

So here's my idea for a model:

An administrator has a pot of money to allocate and people.  The funder assigns money based on two measures, and easy one and a hard one.

The researchers getting the money have to allocate their efforts among three things: Leisure (bad!), hitting an easy target (which generates some utility, but quickly reaches the point of diminishing marginal returns), and hitting a hard target (which takes more effort but yields more satisfaction).  

The administrator's utility payoff is based on 3 things:
1) How much effort people allocate to doing hard things.  The payoffs here are huge, because the administrator gets to take credit for good things that happen in the system that he/she oversees.
2) How fair and transparent the administrator is.  The more the administrator rewards easy things, the more that political bosses and/or the public will perceive him/her as fair and transparent.
3) How much time the administrator invests in measuring the hard thing.  The payoffs here are negative because it's hard to measure.

The researchers' utility payoff is based on 3 things:
1) How much time they spend on leisure.  There are diminishing marginal returns here.  Zero vacation days will kill a person, but after too much vacation they want to get back to the lab.
2) How much time they spend on hard things.  There are increasing returns on scale here, because you don't get anywhere until you've invested a lot of effort.
3) How much money they get from the administrator.

What can we say about the Nash Equilibria of this problem?  It strikes me as posing issues similar to Holmstrom's Theorem.

On some level I've basically outlined the issue to the point where a key idea can be presented:  The easy measure is useful to the extent that it satisfies the public's need to see that the system is honest, and also keeps researchers from being lazy.  The easy measure is parasitic to the extent that it diverts time away from what is meaningful.  You can say "Just improve the easy measure so it's more aligned with what you value!" but the key points are:
1) Measuring valuable things is hard (by assumption).
2) Aligning the easy measure more closely with what you really value is great, but if the competitive pressures are high enough you'll eventually see the difference between the easy measure and what  you really value.  When competitive effects are weak then people will still allocate a lot of time to hard but satisfying efforts.  When competitive effects are strong then people will devote much more time to easy things.

Of course, it's nice to make these points, but the system that I work in doesn't reward blog posts.  The system that I work in rewards peer-reviewed journal articles, and journals reward mathematical formalism.  I could just sit down and do it but I have lots of other projects on my plate, so I need a collaborator to prod me.  If anyone wants to help please let me know!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Myths about learning styles and digital natives

Inside Higher Ed has a nice essay on the helplessness of students, the most extreme example being a student who emailed a professor to ask for the name of the author of a book.  (The student had a copy of the book, and the author's name was on the front cover.)  In the comments section we got to talking about how this helplessness contrasts with the myth of the "Digital Native", the information-savvy student who doesn't need anything traditional in education because they have the world's information at their fingertips.  One commenter pointed me to an article titled Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education.

I don't have time to give a detailed response to the many excellent points in that article, but I will note that it is basically a literature survey that debunks the myth that today's students are information-savvy, great at multi-tasking, and attuned to their own unique learning styles.  I particularly appreciated this cynical observation:
Thousands of articles and books have been written on learning styles and their application in education. Furthermore, a lucrative commercial industry has been set up around (a) selling measurement instruments meant to help teachers diagnose their students’ learning styles and (b) holding workshops and conferences meant to provide information and training to teachers on how to align their teaching to the learning styles of their students. Yet there are fundamental problems with regard to both the diagnosis of learning styles and the alignment of instruction to these styles.
Yep.  The more hype and enthusiasm you see around something in education, the more likely that there's a vendor or workshop presenter hunting for cash.

Interestingly, one of the authors of this article (Kirschner) is also an author on a lovely piece of heresy from the previous decade.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

One more thing from the Deresiewicz essay

I forgot to quote this part:
I had a third student, a junior, who wrote about a friend whom she had known since the beginning of college and who, she’d just discovered, went to church every Sunday. My student hadn’t even been aware that her friend was religious. When she asked her why she had concealed this essential fact about herself, her friend replied, “Because I don’t feel comfortable being out as a religious person here.”
...
When my student wrote about her churchgoing friend, she said that she couldn’t understand why anyone would feel uncomfortable being out as a religious person at a place as diverse as Scripps.
There's a belief that tolerance is about bringing together people whose identities are different, not people whose beliefs (or lack thereof) and practices are different.  There's an idea that diversity of the first sort--a diversity achieved through presence, not practice--not only confers moral legitimacy but also automatically exudes a sense of comfort.

I remember encountering bits of this in college in the 90's.  It was different from intellectual relativism, postmodernism, etc.  Those ideas involved hard reading and mental challenges that went deeper than smiling and saying "Thank you for sharing that."  It was not as developed as what's going on now, but the stirrings were there.  Contra Deresiewicz, it didn't come from Foucault or the humanities faculty, it came from Student Affairs.  It is the process of academia replacing academics with administration.  Academic work should exhaust the mind when it's done right, not make everyone feel happy-shiny and smug.

Make a whole new religion, a falling star that you cannot live without

William Deresiewicz just published a nice essay on political correctness. It is longer than it needed to be, but it still has plenty of good stuff.  I don't have time to frame a single, cohere response, so I'll just address it in bits and pieces.
Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.
...
What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern.
This seems accurate, though I think it's important to emphasize (as he does later) that this is to a large extent an elite phenomenon.  The viewpoints he describes go beyond the most elite institutions, but the rigidity of the code, and particularly its power over the wider student body, is not as bad everywhere as it is in the places that he's talking about.

As to this:

The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude.
The first sentence seems wildly inaccurate.  I can't speak to humanities, but I haven't heard anyone mention Foucault (outside of a few libertarian friends with decidedly non-leftist views on power) since the 1990's.  Frankly, if today's campus identity liberalism were rooted in Foucault it would be a step up--at least Foucault is a hard read!  The writings that matter in identity liberalism on today's campuses seem to be shallow think-pieces at the level of Slate and Huffpo, emotional personal accounts, and egregiously misapplied/misinformed social science, not French intellectuals.  Indeed, the last sentence notes the unscholarly attitude of identity liberalism, further casting doubt on the assertion that it's rooted in thinkers like Foucault.  They don't want thick treatises, they want 3 Quick Tips For Implementing Best Practices!

Also, French postmodernists would have cast a disparaging eye on claims to objective truth, whereas today's identity liberalism holds that privilege blinds one to truth and oppression opens one to it.  There is an objective moral code, an idea of settled questions, as Deresiewicz notes.  French postmodernists would laugh at the idea of settled truths, let alone settled moral truths.

But of course, Scripps and its ilk are only diverse in terms of identity. In terms of ideology, they are all but homogeneous. You don’t have “different voices” on campus, as these institutions like to boast; you have different bodies, speaking with the same voice.
...
 Elite private colleges are ideologically homogenous because they are socially homogeneous, or close to it. Their student populations largely come from the liberal upper and upper-middle classes, multiracial but predominantly white, with an admixture of students from poor communities of color—two demographics with broadly similar political beliefs, as evidenced by the fact that they together constitute a large proportion of the Democratic Party base. As for faculty and managerial staff, they are even more homogenous than their students, both in their social origins and in their present milieu, which tends to be composed exclusively of other liberal professionals—if not, indeed, of other liberal academics. Unlike the campus protesters of the 1960s, today’s student activists are not expressing countercultural views. They are expressing the exact views of the culture in which they find themselves (a reason that administrators prove so ready to accede to their demands). If you want to find the counterculture on today’s elite college campuses, you need to look for the conservative students.

This I agree with 100%.

And this:

There is one category that the religion of the liberal elite does not recognize—that its purpose, one might almost conclude, is to conceal: class. Class at fancy colleges, as throughout American society, has been the unspeakable word, the great forbidden truth. And the exclusion of class on selective college campuses enables the exclusion of a class. It has long struck me in leftist or PC rhetoric how often “white” is conflated with “wealthy,” as if all white people were wealthy and all wealthy people were white. In fact, more than 40 percent of poor Americans are white. Roughly 60 percent of working-class Americans are white. Almost two-thirds of white Americans are poor or working-class. Altogether, lower-income whites make up about 40 percent of the country, yet they are almost entirely absent on elite college campuses, where they amount, at most, to a few percent and constitute, by a wide margin, the single most underrepresented group. 
We don’t acknowledge class, so there are few affirmative-action programs based on class. Not coincidentally, lower-income whites belong disproportionately to precisely those groups whom it is acceptable and even desirable, in the religion of the colleges, to demonize: conservatives, Christians, people from red states. Selective private colleges are produced by the liberal elite and reproduce it in turn. If it took an electoral catastrophe to remind this elite of the existence (and ultimately, one hopes, the humanity) of the white working class, the fact should come as no surprise. They’ve never met them, so they neither know nor care about them. In the psychic economy of the liberal elite, the white working class plays the role of the repressed. The recent presidential campaign may be understood as the return of that repressed—and the repressed, when it returns, is always monstrous. 
The exclusion of class also enables the concealment of the role that elite colleges play in perpetuating class, which they do through a system that pretends to accomplish the opposite, our so-called meritocracy. Students have as much merit, in general, as their parents can purchase (which, for example, is the reason SAT scores correlate closely with family income). The college admissions process is, as Mitchell L. Stevens writes in Creating a Class, a way of “laundering privilege.”

Here's the most important part:
The culture of political correctness, the religion of the fancy private colleges, provides the affluent white and Asian students who make up the preponderant majority of their student bodies, and the affluent white and Asian professionals who make up the preponderant majority of their tenured faculty and managerial staffs, with the ideological resources to alibi or erase their privilege. It enables them to tell themselves that they are children of the light—part of the solution to our social ills, not an integral component of the problem. It may speak about dismantling the elite, but its real purpose is to flatter it. [Emphasis added]
Exactly.  That's why people eat that shit up like pita chips and humus from Trader Joe's.

Later in the essay, Deresiewicz acknowledges the role that class plays, and the difference between elite private and non-elite public institutions:
But public schools are very different places from private ones. Their student bodies, for the most part, are far more diverse, economically and in every other way, which means these institutions do not have to deal with a large bolus of affluent, sheltered white and Asian kids who don’t know how to talk to black and brown people and need to be “educated” into “awareness” by the presence of African-American and Latino students (who are, in turn, expected to “represent” their communities). When different kinds of people grow up together, rather than being introduced to one another under artificial conditions in young adulthood, they learn to talk and play and study together honestly and unselfconsciously—which means, for adolescents, often frankly and roughly—without feeling that they have to tiptoe around sensitivities that are frequently created by the situation itself.
I'm at a non-elite public institution, and while few of the faculty were first-generation students, some definitely came from more privileged backgrounds than others.  The politics correlate pretty well with the level of parental privilege.

Post title explained:

Sunday, March 5, 2017

How narratives are formed

One should always take it with a grain of salt when CEOs complain about skill shortages (maybe they'd get more skilled people if they offered more money), but here I'm less interested in the CEOs' claims than in the response to them.

Here's what CEOs said about the challenge of filling jobs:
One executive said in discussions with White House officials that his company has 50 participants in a factory apprenticeship program, but could take 500 if enough were qualified. But he said that in his experience, most students coming out of high school lack the math and English skills to absorb technical manuals.
That certainly accords with my experience.

Here's what the sub-headline says:
Manufacturing leaders urge President Trump to encourage high-tech skills training.
Basic math and English skills are not high-tech.  They're essential to a high-tech job, but they themselves are not high-tech.  And that's the problem: People want the hot and new, not the fundamentals.  CEOs say that they will train people for high-tech manufacturing if they have basic math and reading skills, journalists translate that into high-tech skills, and no doubt some shill in higher ed is busy explaining that this is why we need people with advanced degrees in STEM...because a CEO wants a reasonably competent high school grad who can be trained to work on the production floor.

On the other hand, I find it fascinating that the CEOs are talking about technical manuals.  Normally we assume that it's higher ed that's stodgy and unable to Get With The Times, but here we see business executives saying that they need people who can read manuals while the most progressive kool-aid drinkers in higher ed all say that we need to embrace the post-literate society and de-emphasize books in favor of videos.  I find this amusingly ironic.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

A fun little argument in relativity

Confession:  I know next to nothing about general relativity.  My graduate work was in materials and optics.  My current research is mostly on optics and biophysics.  I enjoy the elegance of special relativity, but I never studied general relativity.

In a couple weeks I'm teaching students about Newtonian mechanics in non-inertial reference frames, and I felt like I should try to learn at least a few tidbits of general relativity.  I wanted to understand gravitational time dilation, so I came up with a nice little argument that I'm quite proud of.

Suppose that a pair of particles collide and produce two photons.  One photon goes left, the other goes right.  We use mirrors to send them upward (i.e. to a place to higher gravitational potential) and then recombine them.  The photons collide and produce a pair of particles of the same type as the original particles.  (Such things can happen, though the cross-sections are small.)  If the photons did not change their frequencies, i.e. did not lose some energy, then we have a new pair of particles at higher gravitational potential energy but with the same kinetic energy. We have gained energy. We can let those particles fall and extract energy from the system to power machines...for free.  We have thus produced energy from nothing, and that's not allowed.

The photons must thus lose some energy, i.e. must change their frequencies. Say that the kinetic energy of the new particles is zero, i.e. mgy(final)=KE(initial)

The frequency shift can be found via:

KE(initial) + 2m = 2*omega (initial) = 2m + 2mgy

And 2m must also equal 2*omega(final), since the two photons have just enough energy to produce the particles, so we get that 2*omega(initial) = 2*omega(final) + 2*omega(final)*gy

omega(final)*(1+gy) = omega(initial)

omega(final) = omega(initial)/(1+gy) or approximately omega(initial)*(1-gy) (to first order)

(We are working in units where hbar and c are equal to 1.)

So the fractional frequency shift has to be of order gy/c^2.  Once we have the frequency shift, we can argue that clocks based on oscillations of EM fields must run slower lower in the gravitational field, since the people above them are receiving consecutive ticks at longer intervals.

I will present this at the end of my lecture on Newtonian mechanics in non-inertial frames, along with the argument that a guy in a falling elevator sees light curve.