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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, March 12, 2004

The Starving Children Fallacy

The topic of the moment in the academic blogging world is this piece in the Chronicle by David Lester, which comes under heavy fire from the Invisible Adjunct and Crooked Timber. There are two parts to his argument: the second, in which he brags about avoiding many academic responsibilities (he writes, "I went to the first graduation ceremony at the college in 1973, but I have never attended one since. I have not attended a faculty meeting since 1972." This leads to some speculation that this might be a Good Thing) has attracted most of the criticism, but I'd like to address the first, on which most people have given him a pass.

Lester opens his article with the Dale Carnegie-esque observation that academics are a bunch of whiners, and that there are worse ways to earn a living:

As a college student, I worked five days a week in a factory in the summers and delivered parcels for the Postal Service at Christmas. That work was stressful. I also spent a full day down a coal mine, being choked by dust and trying to avoid having my legs gashed by the speeding conveyer belts. That was truly hell. Compared to lives in those jobs, academe is a good place to work.

Coal miners have it much worse than academics, you see, so everybody should just stop complaining. Also, there are children starving in Africa, so eat your vegetables, you ungrateful little snots.

This is a class of argument with a long and distinguished history (in satire and elsewhere), and I'm always puzzled to see it advanced by people who otherwise appear to be smart. Gregg Easterbrook struggles with essentially the same problem in a recent book (though one could raise valid questions about whether he can still be counted as "smart"), and I can't figure that out, either.

The fundamental problem here is a misunderstanding about what people are doing when they complain. The complaints of tenured faculty aren't claims that their lives are objectively awful in an absolute sense. That would be ludicrous-- there are lots of people who have harder lives than academics, starting with academic support staff, and ending with subsistence farmers. The complaints are relative: they're not saying that life as a professor is worse than life as a dirt farmer in Africa, they're saying that given what they do, their lives are harder than they need to be. It's certainly true that academia is an easier life than coal mining, but it's not especially relevant, except as a rhetorical dodge.

Complaints about the stresses of academic life are generally not about things that are an intrinsic part of the job, but rather about those foolish inefficiencies and unreasonable demands that add to the difficulty of the job with no clear purpose. A running joke in academia says that tenure-track faculty are expected to spend 75% of their time on research, 75% on teaching, and the other 75% on campus service, and it's funny because it's true. Worse yet, the requirements for tenure tend to be somewhat nebulous, and often seem like a moving target from the junior faculty perspective. And the advice we get from senior colleagues and administrators is often contradictory-- I've had colleagues tell me that I should do absolutely no committee service before tenure, and focus entirely on research. I've had other people tell me that there's no chance of getting tenure without doing some committee service, and that the best thing I could possibly do for myself would be to spend a year on the most important and time-consuming committee on campus. And I've heard everything in between those extremes at one time or another.

That's something that adds to my stress level for no good reason. And that's something that I ought to be able to complain about without needing to rhetorically genuflect to all the coal miners and subsistence farmers who have it worse than I do.

Posted at 9:05 AM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

All Progress is Made by Unreasonable Men

There's another far more fundamental reason why I think that the arguments advanced by David Lester and Gregg Easterbrook are ultimately foolish, and that is that the complaints that they object to are actually the basis for their counterarguments.

Easterbrook's thesis, as far as I understand it from reviews of the book, is that people today objectively have life much better than earlier generations had it, but aren't actually any happier. He finds something paradoxical in this, and argues that we need to do something to change it, but I think this is just a deep misunderstanding of how things work.

After all, the same argument could've been made fifty years ago, and a hundred years ago, and probably two hundred years ago (and it probably was made in all those eras). The life of the average citizen has been slowly improving for some time. At any point in that progress, you could easily argue that all the complainers in society should take a moment to appreciate how much better they had it than their subsistence-farming parents and grandparents, and stop their griping.

But the fact that people are never happy with what they've got is the very reason for the improvement in people's lives. It's a rare device that improves somebody's life without opening their eyes to the possibility of further improvement, and a rarer human who can truly be happy with the status quo, without thinking of some way that things could be made just a little bit better. That's what we do as a species, it seems.

Complaints and gripes about small things are something to be encouraged, not condemned. The whole reason that academics have better lives than coal miners is that some people weren't happy being coal miners, and bitched about it, and worked to get themselves a better deal.

Stasis is a problem. Apathy is a problem. Complaints are the beginning of a solution.

Posted at 9:00 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

The Door Into Winter

I'm frequently amused by the dog's insistence that things she sniffed twenty minutes earlier absolutely must be sniffed again right now, because they may have changed completely since that last sniff. I can't imagine that the bushes on the side of the house really smell any different after a half-hour absence, but she needs to keep checking all the time.

Today, though, she must feel vinidcated. We let her out in the morning, and the back yard was empty and dry. Half an hour later, we set off for our morning walk with a half-inch of sticky wet snow on the grounds, and a driving snowstorm underway. Everything really was completely different.

Now she's lying next to my chair with a smug look that says "See. I told you so!" Also, "Give me a biscuit!"

Posted at 8:31 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Thursday, March 11, 2004

In Which Chad Learns That the Love of a Good Woman Can Fix Any Number of Typographical Errors

Worthwhile blogging has been all but nonexistent lately because I have my reappointment review coming up (the first step in the tenure process), and I've been working to prepare the various statements and materials that I need to provide to the review committee. Which process is slowly causing my brain to turn to cheese, as demonstated by this actual sentence from the first draft of one of my research statements:

Science is one of the premier journals in all of science.

I'm not quite punchy enough to include "Got two students hooked on the novels of Steven Brust by loaning out my spare copy of Jhereg" in my statement on service to the College, but it was close. I hate to think what sort of nonsense I'll be spouting when it comes time for the full tenure review...

On the bright side, I'm done with this tomorrow. The giant box of review materials will be handed off to my chair tomorrow afternoon, and then it's all over but the nervous pacing around wondering if they'll fire my ass.

Also, tomorrow is the last day of class here, so there will be much rejoicing this weekend. And more blogging next week.

Posted at 10:44 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

What Has it Got in its Pocketssss?

Is it my lab reports, Precious? Reports are late, yes they are, Precious...


It's sort of contagious...

Posted at 7:44 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

The Ephs Shall Inherit the Earth

Having called attention to the writings of one classmate from Williams, I should note another classmate's entry into the blogosphere. Derek Catsam has joined Cliopatria (one of those academic group blogs that are all the rage these days), with a post on Bob Jones University. Derek's a pretty sharp guy, for a Red Sox fan, and the whole site is worth a read.

At this rate, in another 642 years, Williams alumni will have complete control of the Internet...

Posted at 9:02 PM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

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