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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Paging Steven Pinker

Like most dogs, there's a level of stimulation at which Emmy begins to "orbit." Exactly what will set this off is a little hard to say-- sometimes, it takes chasing her around the room for a while, sometimes it just takes petting her in a certain way.

Whatever the trigger, the behavior is always basically the same. She runs a figure-eight loop through the house, at full speed. Around the dining room table (weaving her way around the chairs, if necessary), across the living room to the foot of the stairs, back across the living room to the table, and repeat. Sometimes, she'll attempt to pick up a toy during the course of one of the loops, but even when she succeeds (which isn't often-- life is difficult without opposable thumbs) she usually drops it. She'll also sometimes add a side trip through the kitchen to the back door, before coming all the way back around.

If we're outside, the loop is from the backyard gate around one side of the shed to the foot of the big oak tree, then back. Sometimes, she'll pick up sticks during this process, but mostly it's just a full-out sprint, with all four legs leaving the ground at times.

It's really incredibly cute, in a frantic-dog sort of way (which, admittedly, may be an acquired taste). And I think every real dog I've known has done this at some point or another. But I have absolutely no idea what it's good for.

I'd really love to hear some bio or evolutionary psychology type explain what purpose this is supposed to serve. What set of conditions in the proto-dog world made this an evolutionarily favorable behavior?

(Feel free to use this as an excuse to just make up outlandish explanations, or write satirical essays using this behavior to prove that evolution is all a crock.)

Posted at 9:20 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Friday, March 04, 2005

Links Dump

I've come down with a nasty head cold, just in time for the last week of the term. Also, I have rec letters to write, quizzes to grade, and a paper for a conference proceeding that needs to be sent off today. So you get half-assed blogging only.

I marked this Scalzi post about a study on gender bias last week, before I realized I'm completely sick of that topic. If you never get tired of that sort of thing, well, good for you.

On a political note, I've told several people that I really think Fred Clark at Slacktivist needs to get more play in the lefty blogosphere. He writes really well, and does an excellent job of fighting the Religious Right on their own ground, which is something we need more of. I'm not going to turn this into SlacktivistWatch, but I'm going to try to be better about linking his best posts (thus bringing him to the attention of my dozen-odd readers). Such as this one about Antonin Scalia:

Scalia is, famously, a practicing Roman Catholic. Yet here he finds himself unambiguously on the opposite side of unambiguous church teaching.

So, can we expect the kind of media circus we saw last year regarding John Kerry's weekly attendance at mass? This is, after all, a prominent public official, who is Catholic, taking a very public stance in direct opposition to church teaching. Will publicity hungry bishops elbow their way to the microphone to declare that they will refuse Scalia communion in their parishes? Will cable news networks follow the justice to church each week?

Don't bet on it. That would only happen if the bishops and reporters so allegedly concerned with Kerry's Catholicism last year had been acting honestly out of principle, and not just out of partisan hackery.

Can I get an "Amen" from the choir?

On a more practical note, via PZ Myers, the solution to every academic's chief concern at the end of the every term is at Learning Curves:

One of the grad students who was there is well-known for always getting good evaluations. We asked him what his secret is.


His secret, he told us, is the Jedi Mind Trick.

He will say, in class, things like:

"I'm explaining this very clearly."

It seems as likely to work as anything else, and is less ethically troubling than bringing cookies or donuts on student evaluation day.

Finally, in my continuing quixotic quest to get somebody, anybody reading this to care about basketball, let me note that Kyle at the Mid-Majority is embarking on even more wackiness in his quest to attend 100 games. It's copyright-safe wackiness, too.

And that's about it for the moment. Pseudoephedrine, take me away...

Posted at 7:12 AM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Grade Compression

So, the big story in college sports at the moment is that the NCAA has released new standards for academic performance, and 410 teams are below the cut-off at which sanctions will be applied in the future. If you're worried about your favorite team, you can look them up here, and for the ACC specifically, you can find the data in a readable format here (via Dave Sez).

I don't really have a comment on the standards themselves, but I want to comment on the scale. They assign points for athletes remaining academically eligible, and for staying in school, and then divide by the total points possible for each team (because the number of players varies from sport to sport), and multiply by 1,000 because decimals are scary. This gives each team a score on a scale from 0 to 1,000.

The sanctions cut-off point? 925.

Genius. Pure genius. The NFL quarterback rating people have nothing on the NCAA.

Posted at 8:47 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Caveat Emptor

Big Media Matt links a Bitch, Ph.D. post, which includes (among other, more interesting things, that are picked up by PZ Myers and the new blog Mind of Winter) a complaint about student evaluations:

Is anyone else bothered that our primary feedback on our work comes from children? I'm talking, of course, about course evaluations. But if you think about it for a minute, it's true: most jobs, you complete a project, someone tells you good job (or should). Moreover, the people who observe and evaluate your work are peers and superiors. In academia, the people who observe and evaluate you on a day-to-day basis are distracted 18-year olds who don't understand what your job actually is.

Matt replies:

The flipside of this, of course, is that when some of us were college students we found it a bit troubling that the people who were supposed to be teaching us are distracted people of various ages who don't regard teaching undergraduates as their real job. An awful lot about the American system of higher education is, in fact, mighty odd and tends to just go unquestioned because that's the way it's done. But why should students (and their parents) pay good money to be taught by people who were not hired on the basis of their teaching skills and who don't primarily seek professional fulfillment through teaching well?

Now, of course, this partakes rather heavily of the idea that a university should be thought of as a business like any other, which is a problematic analogy at best (thanks, Brian). But running with the students-as-customers model just for a second, there's really only one response possible to Matt's comment:

Dude, you went to Harvard. It's not like it's some gigantic state secret that Harvard is primarily a research institution, with sidelines in networking for wealthy people and undergraduate education. People have been bitching about the fact that many Harvard professors don't care about teaching students for longer than I've been alive. This somehow comes as a surprise to you?

To drag in a sports analogy, this is like going Texas Tech to play basketball, and then complaining that Bobby Knight yells a lot. Well, yeah, he does. You'd have to be living in a cave to not know that. If you go play for him, you should know what you're going to get.

Way back in the Dark Ages when I was doing my own college search, I visited Princeton with my parents, and took the tour. One of the other people on the tour was a professor at Stanford, killing time waiting for his daughter (who was a student), and my parents asked him what his advice was.

"Don't go to one of the Ivy League schools as an undergraduate," was his reply. He said that, if you really want the Ivy League degree on your resume, you could always go there for grad school, but that you would have a better undergraduate experience at a smaller place that was more focused on undergraduates. Such as my alma mater, or my current employer. And I tend to agree with him-- if you go to one of the many fine small liberal arts colleges in this country, you're guaranteed to be taught by an actual faculty member, not a bored grad student, and you can be assured that the faculty are evaluated on their teaching, not just their ability to bring in research funding.

Now, to be sure, there are systemic problems with the American academy that affect even those institutions that have undergraduate education as a primary goal. But, really, Harvard isn't one of those, and it shouldn't really surprise anyone that it's not.

(I don't want to slander Harvard too badly here (especially after praising Brad DeLong for saying nice things about them). They've got people who care deeply about educating young people, and they certainly make it possible for a motivated student to learn an awful lot (and Matt did well for himself there). But it's not like the problems with the major research university aren't well-documented and widely known, and Harvard isn't immune from those.)

Posted at 8:03 AM | link | follow-ups | 10 comments

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

What I Learned from the Liberal Arts (part 3)

At this point, having posted two long, rambling entries about classes I took back in the day (one, two), I'm more or less obligated to try to draw some sort of sweeping conclusions from these anecdotes. I suppose it's too late to just yell "Look, the winged victory of Samothrace!" and post a bunch of song lyrics instead.

So what do the various groups of classes have in common? Are there any features that clearly distinguish between good and bad liberal arts classes, in my limited experience?

The weakest of the lot were the medieval literature and European history classes, and the problems with the two were fairly distinct. In the literature class, I enjoyed the actual texts, but hated the critical theories we were supposed to apply to them. The history class, on the other hand, suffered from a focus on material that I didn't find all that compelling, compared to some of the things we could've been studying.

Despite the different root causes, the end result was pretty similar for the two classes: I wound up treating the whole class as something less than a serious scholarly enterprise. Writing papers became something of a game, in which I attempted to come up with an argument that sounded reasonably similar to what we read for class, while not really believing any of it. It was a sort of low-level Sokal hoax, with less thought put into it.

In the end, I left those classes with no greater appreciation of the discipline, and not a great deal more knowledge of the subject matter. The lit class actually lowered my respect for the field in question, which is a shame.

The best classes, on the other hand, both provided new information, and also got me to look at the subject matter in a different way. The philsophy and literature class I took got me to read some authors I wouldn't've read otherwise (Pushkin, Melville), and take another look at some I'd read before (Fitzgerald, Hemingway). I didn't necessarily like the reading, but I did have to take it seriously, and think about it and how it connected to other things.

The Vietnam class was probably the best of the lot. I left that class feeling that I had read and seen enough to be able to express an opinion on the subject and not worry that I'd be just talking out my ass. It also provided a context for new information-- when I hear people writing and talking about Vietnam, I feel like I have a reasonable base of information that I can use to determine whether they're full of it. I'm not qualified to speak as an expert on those issues, but when I think someone in the media is talking nonsense, I don't worry that I don't know enough to make that call.

The classes in between those extremes were, well, somewhere in the middle. The Comedy class got me to read some books and watch some films that I wouldn't've looked at otherwise, but didn't really fundamentally change my approach to anything. The critical theory we read about comedy struck me as a more general attempt to explain why jokes are funny, and fell about as flat as any other such attempt. I could manipulate it well enough to get decent grades, but it didn't stick with me. On the other hand, it didn't swamp the actual literature.

So, what does all this mean in terms of my original purpose? Does this exercise provide any useful information as to what we ought to be trying to accomplish with GenEd science classes?

I think it does, in a fairly general sense. If you look at the outcome of the really successful classes, I think that's exactly the sort of thing we ought to be striving for in GenEd science: students should leave the class with enough knowledge about the facts of some situation to be able to speak intelligently on the topic, and enough of a grounding in the topic to be able to make judgements about new information. A class on climate change, for example, should cover the reasearch on the topic in enough detail for students to be able to make some sort of decision as to what they think is going on, and it should cover enough of the scientific method to allow them to make a preliminary judgement about new claims or new evidence.

That's a model I can support for what we ought to be trying to accomplish.

Sadly, there's not that much information to be gained about how to accomplish that goal. The successful and unsuccessful classes were not terribly different in their approach-- both the Vietnam class and the European history class came at their respective topics from a couple of different directions. Both classes had some straight factual readings, some primary source documents, and some works of fiction to get at the cultural effects of the events they were discussing. And one worked for me, while the other didn't.

The difference between the two ended up being a matter of the particular emphasis, and the personal qualities of the professors involved. Which isn't exactly helpful-- "Pick exactly the right topic, and do an excellent job of presenting it" is a foolproof solution to any problem in education, but the implementation details are a killer.

Posted at 2:11 PM | link | follow-ups | 12 comments

Monday, February 28, 2005

What I Learned from the Liberal Arts (part 2)

In the last post, I dealt with the literature classes I took in my long-ago undergraduate days. The other significant group of liberal arts classes I took was in the History department (I'm never sure whether History counts as "Humanities" or "Social Sciences," so I'm going with "liberal arts"). Again, it's kind of a mixed bag.

I took a class on modern European history my sophomore year, largely because it sounded not too different than a class I took in high school, and I was looking for an easy class. It should come as no real surprise, given that beginning, that I don't feel like I got much out of it.

The problem I had with the class was that it wound up being more of a cultural history sort of thing than I was looking for. I was hoping for something that would kind of pick up where my high school history class left off-- that class sort of petered out right around WWII, and barely touched on the Cold War (which, to be fair, was still ongoing at the time). The title of the class was "Europe in the Twentieth Century," so I was hoping for a bit more detail on that period, bringing it up through the Sixties and Seventies, and providing some more context for the collapse of the USSR, which was in full swing at that point.

The problem was, the class didn't really spend very much time dealing with actual events, but focussed more on the attitudes and cultural reflections of what was going on at the time. There was a great deal of time devoted to how people felt about the rise of the welfare state, and very little on, the whole Cold War, fate-of-humankind-in-the-balance thing. In a truly stunning move, World War Two was more or less completely blown off-- we spent a bunch of time talking about how WWI led to the collapse of the existing social order in Britain, and how the aftermath led to the rise of Communism and Fascism, but the 1940's were skipped over in favor of discussions of the rise of the post-war social order.

That struck me at the time as skipping over the most interesting material in favor of a bunch of touchy-feely crap. That was almost certainly unfair, but I'm still not happy with that.

The only texts I really remember from the class were a movie about a British soldier in WWI being shot for desertion (the name of which escapes me), and a really dreadful Brecht opera. I had to write a paper about the latter, which I recall mainly because I managed to bang out ten pages in two and a half hours, so I could get to a party I wanted to go to that night. I read it over before handing it in, and there was stuff in there I don't recall writing.

In contrast to that, the other two history classes I took were arguably the best classes I took as an undergraduate. The first was "Modern Japan," my sophomore year, and I liked it enough that I went out of my way to take the same professor's class on Vietnam my junior year. The Japan class almost certainly played a role in my trip to Japan when I was in grad school.

The things I remember most vividly about the classes mostly have to do with the professor, who was a little on the eccentric side (a couple of people who read this probably know who I'm referring to), but did a fantastic job with those two classes. What I particularly remember was his lecture style. He would come in before the class got there, and cover the blackboard with a seemingly random assortment of words and phrases, some in English, some in other languages, and when I got there, I'd look at it and say "What a mess..." And then, slowly, over the course of the lecture, he would tie the whole thing together-- the foreign words would be defined, and related to the other terms on the board, and it would turn out that not only did all of the pieces make sense, there was even a logical pattern in the way they'd been scribbled up there. It was really impressive to watch, and I wish I could reproduce it.

The other impressive thing was that the readings were remarkably indirect, but effective because of that. The best example was from the Vietnam class, where he assigned two readings from a Chinese historical journal in the 1970's. One was an article talking about the wisdom of an ancient Emperor who did a bunch of work on building up infrastructure to prevent barbarian invasions, while the other talked about a different Emperor who had taken advantage of squabbles between some other group of barbarians to seize a great swath of territory. Other than the publication dates, there didn't seem to be any conceivable connection to Vietnam, and I went to class half convinced that the library had made some sort of bizarre error in the reading packets, as did most of my classmates.

When we got there, he asked if we understood what the readings had to do with Vietnam, and nobody had a clue. He then asked if it would make any more sense if we knew that, six months after the articles appeared, the author of the second article was stripped of his position, imprisoned, and eventually executed on Mao's orders. We were all completely baffled as to why that would've happened, and he used that as a springboard to explain how political disputes in Mao's China had to be wrapped up and hidden in discussions about other things. The real point of the articles, he explained, was that one author (the one who got executed) was arguing that China ought to get involved in the war in Vietnam, while the other was saying that China should sit tight, and concentrate on building up its own strength. When Mao came down on the side of non-intervention, it touched off the Cultural Revolution, and even clandestine dissenters were rounded up and killed.

Had we just read an article describing that process, I would've completely forgotten it by now. Because of the way it was handled, I still remember it today (though I've probably got some of the details wrong).

His classes were extremely popular-- the Japan class was in one of the big lecture halls, and probably had eighty students in it, which is a huge class in a school of 2,000. He went to great lengths to keep it from feeling impersonal, though-- he cancelled the lectures in two or three weeks in favor of smaller discussion sections (which means that he ran the same discussion eight or ten times that week), and at the end of every class, he would invite something like ten students (he went through the class alphabetically) to lunch afterwards. I wasn't a particularly distinguished student in that class (my sophomore year involved a lot more drinking than studying), but over a year later, in the Vietnam class, he remembered who I was.

(Of course, my favorite story about him has nothing to do with the class. Sometime in my junior or senior year, an alumnus from the mid-1950's sent an irate letter to the school paper and a bunch of other people, denouncing the decline in standards since his day. He singled out all sorts of "area studies" programs as being "soft" majors (also on the list, weirdly, was Computer Science), and basically stated that no-one currently at the school was fit to carry water for anyone of his era.

(There was a completely predictable firestorm of responses, the best of which came from my history professor, who had been a student at the same time as the disgruntled alumnus. He wrote a letter of his own, saying, essentially, "I remember you. You were a jackass," and went on to say that the current crop of students were ten times smarter than anyone who went there in the 50's.

(I'm not sure that was actually true, but it was far and away my favorite response to that whole thing.)

In a weird way, I think those classes may be the most influential of the classes I took as an undergraduate, in terms of how I try to approach being a faculty member at a small liberal arts school. I don't have to contend with the really big classes, but in terms of trying to get to know the students, and trying to be available for extra help and questions and the like, those classes are the example I'm working from. Which is a little silly, because he was really going above and beyond the call for the Japan class in particular, but there you go.

Of course, it wasn't all about the lectures-- there were a bunch of interesting texts and films and the like as well. The Japan class involved a number of deeply weird movies (I've forgotten the names, of course, but there was one about a famous set of "love suicides" (probably this story, but I'm not sure), and a really strange one about an abusive exam tutor), and the Vietnam class stands as one of the few classes I've ever taken that got me to read other works by an assigned author (Tim O'Brien, via The Things They Carried). Plus, we got to watch Apocalypse Now for credit...

So what does all this mean? I'd still like to think about it a bit more before attempting to post anything coherent. But feel free to offer suggestions in the comments.

Posted at 8:58 PM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Sunday, February 27, 2005

What I Learned from the Liberal Arts (part 1)

In the comment thread about my post on GenEd science classes, a number of people asked the perfectly legitimate question "What do you want these classes to accomplish, anyway?"

It's a good question, and a tough one to answer. I've been asked it before, by a number of different people, and I've given a number of different answers. If you ask me again tomorrow, I might have yet another answer, but for the moment, I think the most important role of GenEd science is to show people that science is not just a collection of facts, but a process for figuring out how the world works. And that there are rules for how you determine what's science and what isn't, and those really aren't open to interpretation.

But again, it's a tough question, and my answer changes from one asking to the next.

It occurs to me, though, that an interesting way to approach the question would be to turn it around. After all, you might hope that, whatever the purpose of making English majors take science classes may be, it should be somewhat analogous to the purpose of English classes for Physics majors. Of course, I can't really address the intent of the liberal arts classes I took, but I can offer some reflections on what I learned.

This is not an exhaustive survey, by any means. For one thing, I took several Political Science classes during my college career, which were generally of the "Let's spend three hours a week arguing about stuff" form. This was quite deliberate, but I can't really claim to have learned much from them, other than that I will sometimes argue positions that I don't believe in, just because I hate to see a one-sided argument. I'm not going to talk about those.

There were also a few intro-level classes, mostly early on, in which whatever I learned was pretty much tangential to the actual material of the course. One example would be Philosophy 101, which taught me that I really dislike professors who try to use the Socratic method. Another would be Religion 101, the enduring lesson of which is that Carlos Castaneda's books are steaming piles of crap. (The only other book I remember clearly from that class was Zen and the Art of Archery, which seems a lot cooler now that I've actually seen what Zen archery looks like. The class would've benefitted greatly from some demonstrations.)

I'm talking about classes above the freshman level, where there was some attempt made to actually engage with the subject matter at a level beyond "Read this, because it's essential background for later classes." I took a bunch of these, and I thought it might be sort of interesting to look at them and see if there's any clear lesson that emerges.

The best literature class I took was actually in the Philosophy department, of all places. It was called something like "Ethics and Literature," and mostly dealt with codes of honor in works of fiction of various eras. I took it as a senior, looking for something that would be a good blow-off class while working on my thesis, but it was a much better experience than that. We read a bunch of good books (and also Melville's Billy Budd, which was dreadful), and watched some good movies, and talked about how they interacted, and how they reflected various principles of philosophy.

The most interesting connection made in the class was the comparison between Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin" and John Singleton's movie Boyz N the Hood, which turn out to have more in common than you might think. Other books that I particularly remember were The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby, both of which I had read in high school, but appreciated more the second time around. I liked the class enough that I took another from the same professor, this one something like "Moral Issues in Politics," which was a more focussed argue-about-politics class, and also a lot of fun.

The worst literature class I took was an introduction to medieval literature in the English department, and I'm not saying that just because it produced the harshest comment I ever received on a paper ("This would've been a good first draft had you put any thought into it at all."). It was far and away the most theory-heavy (in the humanities sense of "theory") class that I took, and is probably the biggest single factor in my low opinion of formal literary criticism. I threw more than a couple of reading packets across the room saying "This is a load of crap." I've forgotten most of the details, but the one image that is seared in my memory was a feminist reading of The Romance of the Rose, which interpreted pretty much the entire thing as an allegory for various bits of the female genitalia. And really, sometimes a princess in a tower is just a princess in a tower, OK?

I actually ended up with a decent grade in the class, because after that first, disastrous paper, I just looked at the whole thing as a game, and figured I could spout nonsense as well as anyone else. I don't recall what I did for the second paper (something having to do with Marxist interpretations of one of the Canterbury Tales), and my memories of the exam have more to do with bad time management problems than the course content. I stayed clear of the English department for a while after that.

Somewhere between those two extremes were a class on Comedy, and a Winter Study class on Science Fiction. The theory readings in both cases were pretty hard to take (there are few things in this world less amusing than a scholar holding forth at great length on the nature of comedy), but they didn't overwhelm the books and movies. And some of the stuff we watched and read in those classes was pretty good-- the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Forbidden Planet; Wodehouse, LeGuin, Nancy Kress's "Out of All Them Bright Stars."

The comedy class was the more theory-heavy of the two, and some of the later works got a little hard to take. One of Jarry's Ubu plays is the one that sticks in my mind, mostly because a senior in the class did a hilarious dramatic reading of it before class one day. Outside of Sean's performance, it seemed much more concerned with making a theoretical point of some sort than being an actual, you know, play, and I don't have much patience for that.

I wrote the final paper on Chaplin's The Great Dictator, though I no longer recall what I wrote. It's a fine movie, though.

That's about it for literature-related classes during my college career, other than a survey of Greek literature from the Classics department my freshman year. I also took a bunch of history classes, which I'll save for a later post, because this has gotten a bit long. I'll save the summing-up for later as well, because I want to think more about what, if anything, this proves. If you'd care to speculate, or call me a cretin, you know where to find the comments.

Posted at 10:44 PM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

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