… I do not know you, will not know you and have no real affinity or animosity for you. You are an anonymous student who is now regretting the send button on his laptop. It’s with this context I hope you register pause…REAL pause xxxx and take to heart what I am about to tell you:
xxxx, get your shit together.
Getting a good job, working long hours, keeping your skills relevant, navigating the politics of an organization, finding a live/work balance…these are all really hard, xxxx. In contrast, respecting institutions, having manners, demonstrating a level of humility…these are all (relatively) easy. Get the easy stuff right xxxx. In and of themselves they will not make you successful. However, not possessing them will hold you back and you will not achieve your potential …
Read the whole thing (now with almost 1K comments).
I teach in a public university that’s … hmmm … third rate. My colleague Dave Berri notes, and I agree, that the great thing about a place like this is that you’re actually teaching students things they need to know, and that they won’t get them otherwise.
Reading the original letter reminds me that: 1) I was fired from my first job when I was 16, 2) I’d gone through 50% of my firings before I turned 18, and 3) I haven’t been fired since I was 21. Now I’m regarded as the hardass that’s too tough on students. Perhaps we all need to learn the message of this letter.
She paraphrases Sagan to give a list of 9 things to do:
Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.
And she paraphrases Sagan to give a list of 20 pitfalls to watch out for:
ad hominem — Latin for “to the man,” attacking the arguer and not the argument (e.g., The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously)
argument from authority (e.g., President Richard Nixon should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war in Southeast Asia — but because it was secret, there was no way for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument amounted to trusting him because he was President: a mistake, as it turned out)
argument from adverse consequences (e.g., A God meting out punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn’t, society would be much more lawless and dangerous — perhaps even ungovernable. Or: The defendant in a widely publicized murder trial must be found guilty; otherwise, it will be an encouragement for other men to murder their wives)
appeal to ignorance — the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g., There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist — and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we’re still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble (e.g., How can a merciful God condemn future generations to torment because, against orders, one woman induced one man to eat an apple? Special plead: you don’t understand the subtle Doctrine of Free Will. Or: How can there be an equally godlike Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the same Person? Special plead: You don’t understand the Divine Mystery of the Trinity. Or: How could God permit the followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — each in their own way enjoined to heroic measures of loving kindness and compassion — to have perpetrated so much cruelty for so long? Special plead: You don’t understand Free Will again. And anyway, God moves in mysterious ways.)
begging the question, also called assuming the answer (e.g., We must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime. But does the violent crime rate in fact fall when the death penalty is imposed? Or: The stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors — but is there any independent evidence for the causal role of “adjustment” and profit-taking; have we learned anything at all from this purported explanation?)
observational selection, also called the enumeration of favorable circumstances, or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses (e.g., A state boasts of the Presidents it has produced, but is silent on its serial killers)
statistics of small numbers — a close relative of observational selection (e.g., “They say 1 out of every 5 people is Chinese. How is this possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese. Yours truly.” Or: “I’ve thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can’t lose.”)
misunderstanding of the nature of statistics (e.g., President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence);
inconsistency (e.g., Prudently plan for the worst of which a potential military adversary is capable, but thriftily ignore scientific projections on environmental dangers because they’re not “proved.” Or: Attribute the declining life expectancy in the former Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States (now highest of the major industrial nations) to the failures of capitalism. Or: Consider it reasonable for the Universe to continue to exist forever into the future, but judge absurd the possibility that it has infinite duration into the past);
non sequitur — Latin for “It doesn’t follow” (e.g., Our nation will prevail because God is great. But nearly every nation pretends this to be true; the German formulation was “Gott mit uns”). Often those falling into the non sequitur fallacy have simply failed to recognize alternative possibilities;
post hoc, ergo propter hoc — Latin for “It happened after, so it was caused by” (e.g., Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila: “I know of … a 26-year-old who looks 60 because she takes [contraceptive] pills.” Or: Before women got the vote, there were no nuclear weapons)
meaningless question (e.g., What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and vice versa)
excluded middle, or false dichotomy — considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities (e.g., “Sure, take his side; my husband’s perfect; I’m always wrong.” Or: “Either you love your country or you hate it.” Or: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”)
short-term vs. long-term — a subset of the excluded middle, but so important I’ve pulled it out for special attention (e.g., We can’t afford programs to feed malnourished children and educate pre-school kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets. Or: Why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?);
slippery slope, related to excluded middle (e.g., If we allow abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy, it will be impossible to prevent the killing of a full-term infant. Or, conversely: If the state prohibits abortion even in the ninth month, it will soon be telling us what to do with our bodies around the time of conception);
confusion of correlation and causation (e.g., A survey shows that more college graduates are homosexual than those with lesser education; therefore education makes people gay. Or: Andean earthquakes are correlated with closest approaches of the planet Uranus; therefore — despite the absence of any such correlation for the nearer, more massive planet Jupiter — the latter causes the former)
straw man — caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack (e.g., Scientists suppose that living things simply fell together by chance — a formulation that willfully ignores the central Darwinian insight, that Nature ratchets up by saving what works and discarding what doesn’t. Or — this is also a short-term/long-term fallacy — environmentalists care more for snail darters and spotted owls than they do for people)
suppressed evidence, or half-truths (e.g., An amazingly accurate and widely quoted “prophecy” of the assassination attempt on President Reagan is shown on television; but — an important detail — was it recorded before or after the event? Or: These government abuses demand revolution, even if you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Yes, but is this likely to be a revolution in which far more people are killed than under the previous regime? What does the experience of other revolutions suggest? Are all revolutions against oppressive regimes desirable and in the interests of the people?)
weasel words (e.g., The separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a war without a declaration by Congress. On the other hand, Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and calling the wars something else — “police actions,” “armed incursions,” “protective reaction strikes,” “pacification,” “safeguarding American interests,” and a wide variety of “operations,” such as “Operation Just Cause.” Euphemisms for war are one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political purposes. Talleyrand said, “An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public”)
A few years ago I suffered a professional attack, that was then accepted by others. In retrospect, I see that it worked because the initiator used numbers 2, 7, 8, 9, 11, 18, 19, and 20 from the bad list, and its readers didn’t follow through with 1, 3, 7, and 9 from the good list.
derived from the Greek … often translated as "craftsmanship", "craft", or "art"
I find this useful. I teach a class on spreadsheets for MBAs that has little to do with technique, and a lot to do with craftsmanship.
Perhaps I should change its name from “Spreadsheet Engineering Craft” (aack – insert feather into throat) to “Spreadsheet Techne”.
Of course, I found out about a year ago that our lone classics professor here knows less Greek than I do*, so this title will just be seen as pretentious.
* She introduced me to a rhetorical idea from Greeks, but mispronounced it, so that when I went to look it up with my limited Greek I couldn’t find it … until it dawned on me to do the meta-thing and spell it incorrectly in the hopes that someone else had made the same mistake. Bingo.
Both are intended to give K-12 teachers more time out of the classroom … for all things they do outside the classroom that are more important than the kids in the classroom: “… Because there is so much pressure placed on educators as the result of legislative mandates and board rules”.
This new policy was passed at a little-attended school board meeting over the summer. I’ve yet to meet a single person not on the board who knew this was coming (including more than one principal).
vX acquaintance Pete Akins makes an excellent point:
[Superintendant] Dulaney said the school day for the district’s high schools and middle schools would begin later every Wednesday to make time for the teachers to have their collaboration time in professional learning communities. …
Dulaney said in schools with high-functioning professional learning communities, policies and decisions are made mutually by all stakeholders, which includes students, teachers, paraprofessionals and families. …
After providing a brief outline of the plans for implementing late-start days at each secondary school in the district, parents and teachers weighed in on the subject.
Parent Pete Akins shared his concerns on how the proposed schedule changes could impact families.
He cited Dulaney’s statement that in high-functioning professional learning communities, all decisions and policies are made by stakeholders.
“If this decision has already been made, but has not been made with all of the stakeholders … it’s difficult to believe that all further policies would include all the stakeholders,” Akins said. [emphasis added]
Pete should take a run around the bases for that one … although its pithiness will matter little to the bureaucracy.
Of course, as I re-read this, it occurs to me that perhaps the superintendent doesn’t really intend her professional learning communities to be “high-functioning” at all. If she was just talking figuratively about the abstract, then she’s in the clear not to consult stakeholders at all … which is pretty much what they did this past summer.
When my twin nieces were toddlers (they turned 26 yesterday), they’d pretend they were Cinderella, and ask “Mommy, Mommy: Be mean to me.”
Today we have lots of adults who have the same desire; Stanley Kurtz calls the the “The Wannabe Oppressed”.
… A surprising number of students at America’s finest colleges and universities wish to appear as victims — to themselves, as well as to others — without the discomfort of actually experiencing victimization.
This is an amazing thing to witness when teaching macroeconomics: half the class comes in convinced that all wealth is obtained by theft (and I teach in Utah)!
And why should the privileged wish to become victims? To alleviate guilt and to appropriate the victim’s superior prestige. In the neo-Marxist dispensation now regnant on our college campuses, after all, the advantaged are ignorant and guilty while the oppressed are innocent and wise.
He forgot “noble”: innocent, wise, and noble.
Today’s climate protesters, Stephenson writes,“feel themselves oppressed by powerful, corrupt forces beyond their control.” And they fight “not only for people in faraway places but, increasingly, for themselves.”
… Climate activists see themselves as privileged … and treat the climate apocalypse as their personal admissions pass to the sacred circle of the oppressed.
… These students could easily be laid low by an economic crisis brought on by demographic decline and the strains of baby-boomer retirement on our entitlement system. Yet marriage and children aren’t a priority, although they could help solve the problem. Why? …
… The wish to be oppressed turns into the wish to be morally superior, which turns into the pleasure of silencing alleged oppressors, which turns into its own sort of hatred and oppression.
Crooked Timber relates stuff about how administrators attempt to run other universities, and I’m left (almost) speechless:
… administration was trying to undermine the speech rights of the faculty by inserting a so-called “civility” clause in the contract.
This is from the University of Oregon.
Here at SUU we put in a collegiality component into our LRT process about 10 years ago. It took less time than that for my provost to inform me in writing that my complains weren’t collegial.
Here’s more from Oregon:
Emails sent on a bargaining unit faculty member’snon-university email account and information created or stored on non-university computer systems belong to the bargaining unit member except to the extent that they address work-related subjects.
Read that last sentence carefully. Not only is the administration demanding the right to monitor and review the faculty’s UO email accounts, but it also arrogates to itself the right to monitor any emails on the faculty’s non-UO accounts (and computers) so long as those emails or documents “address work-related subjects.” So if I email my wife on my Gmail account, complaining about the action of a university administrator, or if I keep a diary on my home computer in which I talk about what that administrator did, that very same administrator can demand to read and review that email or document.
I am not even sure if we have a policy like that here. I do know I’ve crossed this line already.
Here’s Alan from the comments on the policy in the Wisconsin system:
I can verify that the state has not only said–but warned–that any political-activity use of university email is forbidden as subject to FOIA inquiry for misuse of publicly-funded property …
I wonder to what extent the reasonable work product of a macroeconomist like myself will quickly qualify as political activity?
And here’s Astroprof from an unknown school:
We have been informed by legal counsel that any emails mentioning individual students are educational records as defined by FERPA, and must be disclosed to the students upon request.
Oy vey. Here’s my FERPA story. I took over a class for a colleague who had a cardiac event. His class materials are stored on Canvas (our distance education software). Distance education software is not particularly cutting edge, so I wanted to download that material as backup. This is RA and/or secretary work. I was informed that they would have to go through FERPA training before they could get access to the class files for download, even though they’d never see any student records, and this was all before the students had done anything for a grade.
Experiences on controversies such as these brings out the impossibility of learning anything from facts till they are examined and interpreted by reason; and teaches that the most reckless and treacherous of all theorists is he who professes to let facts and figures speak for themselves, who keeps in the background the part he has played, perhaps unconsciously, in selecting and grouping them, and in suggesting the argument post hoc ergo propter hoc. [italics are original, bold is my emphasis]
A similar idea was given to me almost 25 years ago by faculty members at The University of Alabama (Don Hooks I believe, but I’m not quite sure). He said you shouldn’t just give them facts, but also the ruler to measure them with. He was referring to the promotion and tenure process.
Freud is the classic rent-seeking expert. You are sick because of X, Y, and Z — and if you pay me for my time week after week, I will cure you, said Freud. Curiously no treatment that did not involve paying people like Freud would work. Curiously psychoanalytic patients never got better. Therapy lasted forever. You might think this is transparently ridiculous …
I loved this bit:
Evidence-based medicine advocates are among the newest rent-seeking experts. Like Freud, they focus on process (you must follow a certain process) rather than results. (What they call process in other contexts is called ritual. Rituals always empower experts.) Rather than trying to learn from all the evidence — which might seem like a good idea, and a simple one — evidence-based medicine advocates preach that only a tiny fraction of the evidence (which you need a Cochrane expert to select and analyze) can actually tell us anything. Again, this might seem transparently ridiculous …
Off I go to the orthopedic surgeon tomorrow. His recommendation of ibuprofen and specific exercises helped, but didn’t eliminate my problem. He refused to consult with me over the phone about whether I should try cortisone: I have to pay for an office visit to get the advice and shot.
The workhorses of the rent-seeking expert ecology — the ones that extract the most rent — are doctors. They are incapable of giving inexpensive advice ...
What should be your first clue?
One clue that you are dealing with a rent-seeking expert is that they literally ask for something like rent. Religious experts tell you to attend church week after week. Psychotherapists want you to attend therapy week after week … [emphasis added]
This got me thinking about academics. By this definition, clearly universities, colleges and departments are rent seekers.
But many professors are not: they’ll happily solve your problem once and for all, and be happy to send you on your way.
Ah … but then there are the professors who are rent seekers. You know the ones … with the pile of students outside their door every day, often the same students. These are the people who often get the stellar teaching evaluations.
But think about that a bit. Think about the professors you had that you always needed to scramble to see, because there was competition. Did you really learn more from them? Gosh no … the ones I actually learned a lot from I was terrified to talk to at all. I’m talking about you Jim Holmes (my dissertation advisor), and you Mr. Schanzer (11th grade English).
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