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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Chapter Seven Shuffle

I haven't done a mix-tape post in ages, and I've posted a lot of tiresomely political stuff recently, so I might as well do something frivolous. This one is a companion of sorts to "Excalibur 2.5.1": I made both of them one weekend back in 1999, because I needed something to listen to during the long hours I was spending in front of the computer writing my thesis. These are even more random than usual, because I didn't want to spend much time changing tapes, and as a result, they remain some of my favorite mixes.

Side One:

Side Two:

As I said at the beginning, this is very much a companion to the "Excalibur 2.5.1" mix. So much so that I have trouble remembering which songs are on which tape (it doesn't help that I never got around to labeling the cases). They've each got a few slow stretches, and I could probably come up with an absolutely killer mix tape by swapping songs around between the two, but that would be cheating...

Posted at 9:27 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Friday, February 20, 2004

In Which the Author Applies Recently-Acquired Knowledge Regarding the Theory and Analysis of Literary Works to Significant Works of History

In my earlier post about Boskone, I forgot to mention that, in the course of the Mary Sue panel, Teresa Nielsen Hayden mentioned that, in slash fiction, there's an inverse proportion between "the amount of actual fucking and the need for characters to die." She attributed this to Joanna Russ (if memory serves), who apparently went on to observe that The Left Hand of Darkness might also be analyzed in this manner.

I realized this morning (prompted by an off-hand remark of Kate's) that Sethra Lavode is another work that could be said to fit this pattern. I just thought I'd share that.

Posted at 6:44 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Squeaky Environmentalism

Last night, I went to a talk on campus by Robert F Kennedy Jr. (the bio used for his introduction is here), who came to campus as part of a seminar series on environmental science and policy. When he first got to the podium, I thought we were in for a long night, as he turned out to be suffering from a bit of laryngitis, which prompted many pauses for sips of water, and more than a few stretches where he had a voice like a duck. After a rocky (and squeaky) beginning, though, he gave a good if not particularly focused talk, speaking for over an hour with a good deal of passion about the topic.

He didn't formally break the talk down into a particular structure (at one point, he remarked "This whole talk has turned into a digression," which was pretty accurate), but it could reasonably be divided into three parts, each presenting a different argument in favor of environmental laws and environmentalism in general. The first half-hour or so dealt with environmentalism as democracy-- returning power to individuals and communities, to assert their ownership over public resources. Most of this was taken up with a detailed history of the Riverkeeper organization, which grew out of a fisherman's organization on the Hudson river, and is devoted to seeking out and suing polluters.

After that, he changed gears fairly abruptly, and talked about environmentalism as "restoring the free market." I'm not sure what kicked this off-- maybe he spotted an economics professor in the crowd-- but he went on for a good fifteen minutes or so about how most environmental troubles are actually distortions of the free market. If large corporations were forced to actually pay the full cost of their businesses, including clean-up and disposal of waste products, he claimed, the free market would take care of almost everything. I'm not sure I really buy this logic, but he did a good job of pointing out that companies arguing against environmental regulation on free market grounds while receiving gigantic government subsidies don't really have their free market principles down.

The final bit took a weird turn into spiritual arguments for environmentalism. This was probably the weakest section in terms of actual argument (his claim that the frequent appearance of wilderness in religious texts (Buddha under the tree, Mohammed meeting an angel in the wilderness, Jesus in the desert, and the Jews wandering for forty years) demonstrates the deep spiritual importance of pristine natural areas struck me as a bit of a stretch), but the strongest for flowery rhetoric. The line about how "we know Michelangelo not through reading his biography, but through looking at the Sistine Chapel," and that the best way to know God is to look at the natural world was very nice.

He hammered on the Bush administration throughout, citing numerous environmental laws that have been rolled back, and predicting catastrophe if the current administration and Congress continue. The high point of the evening probably came during the question and answer period, when an audience member launched into a weird question-free monologue about how Kennedy was being too harsh on Bush, because there's a war on and all. The response slid off into Howard Dean "Angry Democrat" territory a little ("They sell these books, Fifty Things You Can Do for the Environments. Don't buy the books-- if you want to do something for the environment, get rid of George Bush!"), and I think the claim that our current Middle East problems could've been avoided entirely if we'd kept the original Carter era CAFE standards was hopelessly naive, but it was definitely an impassioned critique of current policy, and it got a huge ovation from everybody other than the original monologist.

All in all, it was a pretty good talk, as such things go. It was maybe a bit long on talk of his own achievements, but then that's why we bring famous people in. He also kept the family stuff to a minimum-- a couple of mentions of going to visit "my uncle in the White House" during a story about peregrine falcons at the Old Post Office (which led him to become a licensed master falconer), and how they were wiped out by DDT. He had a good number of sound-bite lines ("pollution-based prosperity" was a favorite), but he delivered them in a plausibly natural way, and was quite a good speaker.

Really, the duck voice was the only problem.

Posted at 6:54 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

What I Learned at the SF Convention

With the Tenure Wars having ground down into a stalemate, and bored most of the readership away, I should really comment about my weekend. Kate has already posted a detailed report of what she did at Boskone, and she has links to some other reports. I'm not conscientious enough to give as detailed a wrap-up as Kate did, but I'll post a few comments while I complete my morning re-caffeination.

Things I learned at Boskone 41:

Posted at 9:11 AM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

Monday, February 16, 2004

Tenure: Threat or Menace? (The Saga Continues...)

Commenters to the previous post about teachers' unions have inevitably brought up the "Why do teachers have tenure, anyway?" question. I've talked about this before, back in the early days of this blog, but it's worth a few more comments.

As with the "Unions are Eeeevil" attitude mentioned in the previous post, the problem largely stems from a misunderstanding of how education works. To steal a phrase from a recent (contentious) campus debate, it's not like we're filling buckets with nails, here. Education, and teaching in particular, is not something you can evaluate by the same means you use to evaluate consumer goods.

For one thing, there's no generally agreed upon objective standard for good teaching. If you're working as a design engineer, it's easy to measure performance: either you deliver a working design, or you don't. If you don't, you're incompetent, and should be fired. If you're working as a computer programmer, it's easy to measure performance: either you deliver working computer code, or you don't. If you don't, you're incompetent, and apparently deserve to be paid huge sums of money to write everything that ends up on my computer.

With teaching, it's hard to even come up with a criterion for success that everybody will agree upon. Standardized tests for students are a common suggestion, and probably the most efficient way to attempt to measure teaching performance (either you deliver students who can pass the test, or you don't), but they're rife with problems. For one thing, the existence of operations like the Princeton Review should serve to demonstrate that it's possible to train students to pass standardized tests without teaching them anything. And there are decades worth of papers in physics education circles demonstrating that it's entirely possible to teach students to solve Halliday and Resnick type problems without actually teaching them anything about physics. In fact, it's probably easier to teach students to score well by doing a bad job of teaching the subject than it is to actually educate them.

(The problem here stems in part from a lack of agreement about what public education is supposed to accomplish. If you want to train students to be able to regurgitate memorized facts, standardized tests are a fine way to go about it. If you'd like to teach them to think for themselves, standardized tests are a lousy evaluation tool. Many of the problems facing education could be made to go away (I wouldn't say "solved") by reaching some sort of agreement on what, exactly, we'd like the schools to be doing.)

Standardized tests are a major problem, even before you get into questions about who gets to write the tests, what goes on them, how they're administered, and all the rest. And you can just forget about using local exams as an evaluation tool...

On top of that, it's also hard to use subjective criteria to evaluate teaching. Again, this is an area where education is fundamentally different from other businesses. If you're producing some sort of deliverable good, the happiness of your customers is a reasonably good gauge of your base competence. If your customers are basically happy, you're at least not doing a bad job. If they're unhappy, there's a problem. If you're in a service industry position, the happiness of your customers is really the only way you have to evaluate performance.

Subjective criteria ("Are the customers happy?") work for most businesses, because there are basically no jobs in the manufacturing or service sectors where pissing off your customers is an essential part of the process. You're supposed to be delivering what they want, and keeping them happy along the way is part of your job.

Unfortunately, teaching is the rare example of a field where you're often required to upset the customers in order to do your job well. Students come into classrooms believing all sorts of stupid things, and frequently, the first step to teaching them is to expose and break down their pre-existing misconceptions. Only after the wrong ideas have been beaten out of them can they begin to learn the concepts correctly. This happens all the time in physics-- students entering intro physics classes frequently have a very Aristotelian view of motion ("Moving objects stop because it is in their nature to be stationary."), which has to be demonstrated to be false before you can proceed with Newtonian physics.

Some people find this very upsetting. It's especially bad when the pre-existing misconceptions stem from deeply held religious or cultural beliefs. Still, if you want to teach science (or subjects touching on issues of class, race, and gender), there's no way to proceed without upsetting those beliefs. Which leads to the odd situation where the teacher who has his or her students' parents the most outraged with his performance may actually be the one who's doing the best job.

And this doesn't even touch the issues of different learning and teaching styles (sometimes a particular teacher may just be a "bad fit" for a given student), and the huge variability in raw materials (student performance in a given class can depend very strongly on factors completely outside a teacher's control) and available resources.

All of this means that evaluating the performance of teachers is an extremely muddy business. Standardized tests don't necessarily work, student evaluations are dicey at best, parental feedback sometimes has a negative correlation with classroom performance, and so on.

There's a rough consensus, among people I've talked to at work, that the tenure review committees here do a reasonably good job of evaluating teaching. (Of course, many of them have tenure, so what else would they say?) Unfortunately, that process is incredibly cumbersome, involving classroom observation, interviews with a large number of randomly selected students, and several years worth of teaching evaluation numbers. This isn't a process you can go through on an annual basis, but anything short of that starts to be problematic.

This murkiness leaves thing open to abuse. If there's no simple way of evaluating teaching that is generally agreed to be effective, the process becomes very subjective. Just about anyone can be made to look like a bad teacher by careful application of one inadequate standard or another, which means that an unscrupulous principal could easily doctor up a way to make troublesome teachers look bad (some parental complaints here, some bad classroom evaluations there), and then fire them for "incompetence." The same problem holds with "merit pay" schemes: it's very difficult to determine "merit" in a way that everyone will agree on, leaving the system open to abuse.

That's (part of) why we have tenure. The system is set up to make it hard to fire someone for incompetence because it's hard to prove that they're incompetent in a way that everyone will agree on. If you delve into the requirements of the firing process for tenured faculty, you find things that look an awful lot like the tenure review evaluations here-- lots of classroom observations, student and parent interviews, years worth of evaluation numbers. That's the only way we've got to effectively assess teaching performance in a manner that's fair and generally accepted. It's not a matter of counting how many nails there are in a bucket at the end of the day-- it's a complicated and difficult process.

And, again, tenure is not a blessing that is magically conferred upon teachers the instant they sign the papers accepting their pitifully inadequate starting salary. It's awarded after an evaluation process that stretches over several years. If people get tenure, it means that the best available methods have shown them to be competent at what they do. And if incompetent people are being granted tenure, it means that somebody else in the chain wasn't doing their job.

Posted at 9:13 AM | link | follow-ups | 30 comments

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