Misc

I prefer to use Tinderbox due to its flexibility and search capabilities. However, as I'm planning on writing a course called The Digital Writer, I need to think about using the same blog platform as my students so that I'm more than just a little bit famlliar with it. So, for a while, perhaps longer, my posts will move there: http://charlespnelson.com/blog/.



Sana Saeed (The Islamic Monthly writes about "The Shaykh and the F Word." It's a response to the Internet backlash "over sexist comments made by UK-based Shaykh Abu Eesa Niamatullah, affiliated with the Al Maghrib Institute." (His response to the backlash is here.) She writes

Instead of taking this opportunity to get in line and bash the Shaykh- who I do respect otherwise and who actually has done great work in his community – I want to take this opportunity to navigate the underlying, insidious problem that makes it okay for Niamatullah to get away with saying what he said about Feminists.

She writes a balanced critique of the situation, worth reading, and her conclusion is on target:

We have a real problem of sexism and misogyny within and outside our communities – social media chants can be cathartic (and I do love them) and yes we have a right to be angry, but we have an even greater responsibility to be productive in finding the solutions to our ailments.

And to our Shayukh – especially those who have lessened the seriousness of the impact of Shaykh Niamatullah’s ‘jokes’: you have a responsibility to promote that which is good and forbid that which is evil. When you have a segment of your community, of this Ummah, which is constantly under a barrage of hatred and suspicion, constantly have their bodies used as cultural warfare fronts – those jokes that you may see as misunderstood playful banter become daggers in the back.

UPDATE (March 12):

Since yesterday, I've read more posts, and Abu Eesa has issued a clear apology. Reactions are still raging, going from outrage to unconditional support, with a few, very few that are balanced and thoughtful. It reminds me of Doris Lessing's comment,

for every woman or man who is quietly and sensibly using the idea to look carefully at our assumptions, there are twenty rabble-rousers whose real motive is a desire for power.

The "idea" was that of feminism, but can be applied to any idea. Comparing "political correctness" to "progressive thinking" and "communism," Doris Lessing talked about "attitudes of mind" in an interview with Dwight Garner, in which people have

A need to oversimplify. To control. And an enormous distrust of the innovative, of new ideas. All political movements are like this — we are in the right, everyone else is in the wrong. The people on our own side who disagree with us are heretics, and they start becoming enemies. With it comes an absolute conviction of your own moral superiority. There’s oversimplification in everything, and a terror of flexibility. This characterizes political correctness.

Political correctness, feminist correctness, religious correctness, .... Nothing is new.

UPDATE (March 14)

As I've continued to read articles on this topic, I've moved the ones I had previously mentioned above to here so I can continue to add without needing to update this post.



Scientific American reports on how Equations Are Art Inside a Mathematician’s Brain.

When mathematicians describe equations as beautiful, they are not lying. Brain scans show that their minds respond to beautiful equations in the same way other people respond to great paintings or masterful music.

And more than that, most mathematicians agree on which equations are ugly and which are beautiful. The most beautiful was Euler's identity:

Why is it the most beautiful?

"Here are these three fundamental numbers, e, pi and i," Adams says, "all defined independently and all critically important in their own way, and suddenly you have this relationship between them encompassed in this equation that has a grand total of seven symbols in it? It is dumbfounding."





Weizhong Zhang gives ten practical rules about "about the principles and attitude that can help guide the process of writing in particular and research in general" (see the paper for the explanation of the rules):

  1. Make It a Driving Force
  2. Less Is More
  3. Pick the Right Audience
  4. Be Logical
  5. Be Thorough and Make It Complete
  6. Be Concise
  7. Be Artistic
  8. Be Your Own Judge
  9. Test the Water in Your Own Backyard
  10. Build a Virtual Team of Collaborators



Perception and memory are shaped by what people want to believe. Idries Shah (Seekers After Truth, page 117) wrote about a spoof documentary in 1969:

The BBC 2 television man Tony Bilbow hoaxed viewers by saying that he had obtained film clips of 'The Great Pismo' and showed forgeries of the film. Then:

'Everybody began to remember The Great Pismo when he made his television debut. Letters piled into the BBC praising the 1920's comedian.

'A woman wrote enthusiastically: "My aunt was a great fan of the Great Pismo - she saw him at a show in Hastings." She added: "What a pity he was not recognized on television before she died in 1957." One man even sent in photographs of The Great Pismo's father.' (Daily Sketch, June 26, 1969, page 9.)

Click to go to the documentary on YouTube.



The Daily Kos has published the "Testimony of Pete Seeger before the House Un-American Activities Committee, August 18, 1955." Below are a few excerpts:

I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.

I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.

I feel these questions are improper, sir, and I feel they are immoral to ask any American this kind of question.

I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. That is the only answer I can give along that line.

I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them. . . .



Doris Lessing, Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature (2007) has died. I enjoyed her books and her bluntness in saying what she thought. Surrounded by reporters and learning she had won the Nobel Prize, she responded, "Oh Christ."



This post expands on the list in the previous post on the demise of clear thinking, which for many is associated with the demise (or not) of English departments and majors.

Arum, Richard, and Josipa Roksa (2010). Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. The University of Chicago Press.
Beecroft, Alexander (July 3, 2013). The Humanities: What Went Right? The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Bérubé, Michael (November 10, 2010). Breaking News: Humanities in Decline! Film at 11.
Berkenkotter, Carol, Thomas Huckin, and John Ackerman (1988). Conventions, Conversations, and the Writer: Case Study of a Student in a Rhetoric Ph.D. Program. Research in the Teaching of English, 22(1), 9-44.
Briggs, John C. (n.d.). Writing Without Reading: The Decline of Literature in the Composition Classroom.
Brooks, David (June 21, 2013). The Humanist Vocation. The New York Times.
Butler, Judith (March 20, 1999). A 'Bad Writer' Bites Back.
Chace, William M. (2009). The Decline of the English Department. The American Scholar.
Cohen, Paula Marantz (n.d.). Mission Impossible. The American Scholar.
Crichton, Danny (January 31, 2011). Humanities: Decline or Rebirth? The Stanford Review.
Delbanco, Andrew (November 4, 1999). The Decline and Fall of Literature. The New York Review of Books.
Grafton, Anthony T. and James Grossman (July 1, 2013). The Humanities in Dubious Battle. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Duke, Robert A., Amy L. Simmons, Amy L., & Carla Davis (2009). It's Not How Much; It's How. Journal of Research in Music Education, 56(4), 310-321.
Ericsson, K. Anders, Ralf T. Krampe, & Clemens Tesch-Römer (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.
Fish, Stanley (January 6, 2008). Will the Humanities Save Us? The New York Times.
Fish, Stanley (January 13, 2008). The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two. The New York Times.
The Heart of the Matter (2013). American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Klinkenborg, Verlyn (June 22, 2013). The Rise and Fall of the English Major. The New York Times.
Marks, Jonathan (June 13, 2013). Fight Fiercely Harvard (for the Humanities). Commentary Magazine.
Maurer, Karl (n.d.) Why Study Classics?
Nussbaum, Martha (November 28, 2000). The Professor of Parody.
Our Arts Critic Responds to the 'Useless Majors' List. (April 23, 2012). Newsweek.
Paul, Annie Murphy (January 25, 2012). The Myth of ‘Practice Makes Perfect’. The New York Times.
Reid, Alex (June 25, 2013). The Rise and Fall of the English Major Editorial.
Reid, Alex (June 29, 2013). What Counts When Counting English Majors.
Saul, Scott (July 3, 2013). The Humanities in Crisis: Not at Most Schools. The New York Times.
Schmidt, Ben (June 26, 2013). Gender and the Long-Term Decline in Humanities Enrollment.
Scholes, Robert (1999). The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline. Yale University Press.
Schramm, Margaret, J. Lawrence Mitchell, Delores Stephens, and David Laurence (2003). The Undergraduate English Major. Report of the 2001-2 ADE ad hoc Committee on the English Major. ADE Bulletin.
Schuessler, Jennifer (June 18, 2013). Humanities Committee Sounds Alarm. The New York Times.
Schuessler, Jennifer (June 27, 2013). Quants ask: What Crisis in Humanities? The New York Times.
Schmidt, Ben (June 10, 2013). A Crisis in the Humanities? The Chronicle.
Silver, Nate (June 25, 2013). As More Attend College, Careers Become More Focused. The New York Times.
Smith, Dinitia (February 27, 1999). When Ideas Get Lost in Bad Writing.
Strauss, Steve (June 23, 2013). Why I Hire English Majors. The Huffington Post.
The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future (Fall 2012 & Spring 2013).
Weismann, Jordan (June 24, 2013). Actually, the Humanities Aren't in Crisis. The Atlantic.
Weismann, Jordan (June 25, 2013). The Best Argument for Studying English? The Employment Numbers. The Atlantic.
The 13 Most Useful Majors (as Determined by Science) (April 25, 2012). Newsweek.
The 13 Most Useless Majors (as Determined by Science) (April 23, 2012). Newsweek.



Alex Reid responds the rise and fall of the English major articles written recently by Verlyn Klinkenborg, David Brooks, and Steve Strauss.

All three articles talk about the value of an education based in the humanities and English, and as Reid comments, it's a myth. Take, for example, Klinkenborg's assertion:

What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.

That's odd: Professors unable to tell their students how valuable the humanities are? Still let's look at this "gift."

Lifelong engagement with literature? The humanities include not only literature but also religion, philosophy, languages, history, and so on. How did "the most fundamental gift of the humanities" get narrowed down to literature?

Clear thinking? Remember Alan Sokal's hoax?

Clear writing? Back in the 90s, Denis Hutton established the Bad Writing Contest because, as he writes,

Pick up an academic book, and there’s no reason to expect the writing to be graceful or elegant. Many factors attract people to the scholarly life, but an appealing prose style was never a requirement for the job.

Having spent the past 23 years editing a scholarly journal, Philosophy and Literature, I have come to know many lucid and lively academic writers. But for every superb stylist there are a hundred whose writing is no better than adequate — or just plain awful.

Even if literature were to facilitate clear writing, that writing would be limited to a specific form of writing as writing varies across disciplines. In the well-known study of Berkenkotter, Huckin, and Ackerman, "Nate", a first-year doctoral student in a rhetoric program who wrote with a journalistic prose style, had difficulty adapting to the writing style expected in his new disciplinary community. In other words, "good" and "clear" writing (and clear thinking) is disciplinary and context specific.

These arguments aren't new. James Jay Greenough, mathematician and scientist, wrote 100 years ago that a liberal education should include not only literature, but also languages, math, science, history, and geography. As he writes,

In short, every subject enlarges the student's mind, and stores this enlarged mind with knowledge. Such a requirement of a broad range of subjects seems to be a good foundation for a liberal education.

Yet, Greenough's position on learning Latin and Greek is similar to Klinkenborg's on literature:

The desire to banish all studies which are not to be of immediate money value to the student, which has given rise to the discussion of the comparative usefulness of ancient and modern languages, has caused many persons to overlook the true value of a right study of Latin and Greek. The study of them is valuable to every man for the mental training which they give much more than for the knowledge of ancient life and literature which is obtained through them. This knowledge can be and often is obtained by reading English translations of the classics, and modern works on ancient art, life, and literature; but this training can be got only by the study of the languages themselves. The man who says his Greek or Latin is of no use to him in business or elsewhere does not realize that if he really studied either language his powers of thinking were increased, even though he has forgotten every fact learned about the language itself.

While Klinkenborg asserts that clear thinking comes through the study of literature, Greenough says that "powers of thinking" come only through the study of Latin and Greek. Schopenhauer goes further, asserting,

If the threatened calamity should ever come, and the ancient languages cease to be taught, a new literature shall arise, of such barbarous, shallow and worthless stuff as never was seen before.

One myth has supplanted another, but they are the same in that a disappearing study is essential for developing the mind. I wonder what Klinkenborg would say if she knew that the new literature of English was "barbarous, shallow and worthless." I also wonder what sort of "clear thinking" is involved when myths are proclaimed without examining their assumptions.

Associated Readings
The Heart of the Matter (2013). American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Bérubé, Michael (November 10, 2010). Breaking News: Humanities in Decline! Film at 11.
Berkenkotter, Carol, Thomas Huckin, and John Ackerman (1988). Conventions, Conversations, and the Writer: Case Study of a Student in a Rhetoric Ph.D. Program. Research in the Teaching of English, 22(1), 9-44.
Brooks, David (June 21, 2013). The Humanist Vocation. The New York Times
Butler, Judith (March 20, 1999). A 'Bad Writer' Bites Back.
Chace, William M. (2009). The Decline of the English Department. The American Scholar.
Fish, Stanley (January 6, 2008). Will the Humanities Save Us?. The New York Times
Fish, Stanley (January 13, 2008). The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two. The New York Times
Klinkenborg, Verlyn. The Rise and Fall of the English Major. The New York Times
Marks, Jonathan (June 13, 2013). Fight Fiercely Harvard (for the Humanities). Commentary Magazine.
Maurer, Karl (n.d.) Why Study Classics?.
Nussbaum, Martha (November 28, 2000). The Professor of Parody.
Our Arts Critic Responds to the 'Useless Majors' List. (April 23, 2012).
Reid, Alex. (June 25, 2013). The Rise and Fall of the English Major Editorial.
Schmidt, Ben (June 26, 2013). Gender and the Long-Term Decline in Humanities Enrollment.
Schuessler, Jennifer (June 18, 2013). Humanities Committee Sounds Alarm. The New York Times.
Schuessler, Jennifer (June 27, 2013). Quants ask: What Crisis in Humanities?. The New York Times.
Silbey, Dave (June 10, 2013). A Crisis in the Humanities?. The Chronicle.
Silver, Nate (June 25, 2013). As More Attend College, Careers Become More Focused. The New York Times.
Smith, Dinitia (February 27, 1999). When Ideas Get Lost in Bad Writing.
Strauss, Steve (June 23, 2013). Why I Hire English Majors. The Huffington Post.
The 13 Most Useful Majors (as Determined by Science) (April 25, 2012). Newsweek.
The 13 Most Useless Majors (as Determined by Science) (April 23, 2012). Newsweek.
Weismann, Jordan (June 24, 2013). Actually, the Humanities Aren't in Crisis. The Atlantic.
Weismann, Jordan (June 25, 2013). The Best Argument for Studying English? The Employment Numbers. The Atlantic.



Students are always wondering, actually worrying, about what they should major in. They've heard the mindless mantra that they should pursue their passion. Actually, I think having a "passion," if someone actually has one, is an illness, or at best an unsustainable goal. As I wrote in Passion vs. self-motivation (See also Creating passionate learners" and Passion: A deceptive concept.)

Passion is like candy: Momentarily pleasurable, but unable to sustain one's endeavor for any length of time.

For most, worrying about finding "the major" and "the career" is a waste of time because they're not going to figure it out. (What they might do in hindsight is to consider that the grass was greener in other disciplines.) My own career path, if you can call it that, exemplifies this. That is, although I enjoy my present job, I never knew what I wanted to do. Well, perhaps, I didn't. When I was 18, I was considering majoring in physical education as I did enjoy sports and exercise. However, my favorite high school teacher, who meant well, said, "you can do better than that." This was in the days when physical education majors were stereotyped as dumb jocks. Who knows? Perhaps if I had gone into physical education, I might have branched off into sports training or professional coaching.

Anyway, I got a degree in secondary education with teaching fields in biology and science. (My favorite teacher had taught biology and science.) Yet I really had no desire to teach at that time. However, I had always wanted to know how to fix my car. So, I joined the army and entered a 17-week course in automotive maintenance. (If I hadn't joined, my number was coming up and I would have been drafted into the infantry.) After training, I went to Wiesbaden, Germany, where I became the company clerk (a secretary), which I actually enjoyed. However, as I never applied my automotive training, I quickly forgot it.

After that, I tried college again, this time for computer science. I stayed a year, but somewhat discontent, I considered the military again as it was all that I knew. However, the army said this time I would have to go infantry. So, I turned to the navy, which trained me to become a Russian linguist.

Seven years later, becoming somewhat discontent again, I went back to college, this time majoring in electrical engineering at UT Austin. It was sort of interesting, but a year later, I signed up for a summer class of classical Greek (5 hours a day of class time over the summer for 12 credits). It was more than challenging, but it was also more interesting than EE, so I changed my major to classical Greek (along with studying Latin and Hebrew). I enjoyed learning dead languages. Still, it wasn't interesting enough to continue at the graduate level.

So, I switched to TESL (teaching English as a second language), got my master's, and taught for four years at the English Preparatory Department of Marmara University in Istanbul. The students worked hard, and they were a delight to teach.

Eventually, however, I wanted a change, so I returned to UT to pursue a PhD in TESL simply because I didn't know what else to do. After a year-and-a-half of that, I considered going to medical school and took biology and chemistry courses for a year, but soon realized that I didn't want to continue to memorize massive amounts of facts for the next six years, then have years of sleep loss as a medical intern, and more loss of sleep when being on call as a doctor. (I also considered getting a degree in accounting, but after one class, decided not to.)

So, I switched back to my PhD program, finished it, and finally arrived at Kean University where I've been since 2002. It's a good job, and I like it. But I've enjoyed all of my jobs (and majors). Sometimes I wish I'd taught or stayed an extra ten years in the military or finished computer science or become an accountant because in each of those possibilities, I could have retired some time ago. No doubt, I would have continued working in some other job, but I would have had the freedom of not having to do so.

What's clear from my own path is that I have never found a "passion" for anything. Rather, I enjoy what I'm doing at the moment for a period of time and then want to try something different. In a related article about not having a passion, Chana Joffe-Walt concludes:

Pursuing a passion — especially if it's a popular passion — often doesn't pay very well.

In other words, forget about having a passion, but be practical. Perhaps, if you do have or develop a passion, then do it in your spare time unless it can pay the bills. Instead, focus on enjoying what you're doing at the time and becoming absorbed in it, which itself leads to satisfaction (read Flow). Then, if something interesting opens up (as long as it can pay the bills), try it out.



From Funk's Word Origins,

The Greek word gramma, meaning a "letter," is the foundation of the Greek grammatike techne, the "art of letters." This passed into the Latin language as grammatica, into Old French as grammaire, and so into English as grammar. For several centuries in England, Latin was the language of culture. The educated classes conversed in Latin and their social correspondence was carried on in that language. The word grammar during that period meant nothing but Latin grammer [sic], which was regarded as the most important of all the subjects in the curriculum. Our own grammar schools were so named because one of their chief aims was the teaching of Latin grammar.



Mark Bernstein reviews notes he wrote last June while at an ELO conference for Robert Coover. My favorites are the two on English professors:

These English professors have remarkable faith in the wisdom of crowds for refining critical categories. This faith seems strangely placed. If crowd-sourced categories are so good, who needs English Professors? What we want from a critic is exceptional insight: we want to see why the work that everyone adores is really dross, and things that nobody pays any attention to are really important. (As it happened, those crowds that were going to crowd-source haven’t materialized, anyway.)

The English professors also have a charming faith in open source as a repository of virtue, and some still think that universal standardization — everyone writing with the Official Approved Standard Tool — would make the art world richer. They’re advocates of beaux-arts new media – or would be if such a thing existed – while pretending to despise the salon and its masters. These are revolutionaries who long for state-subsidized art based on state-subsidized and state-approved software.



One goal of education is critical thinking, part of which is challenging assumptions. A recent example of challenging assumptions is NPR's investigation of GOP claims that raising taxes will stifle hiring by small businesses.

"It's just intuitive that, you know, if you're somebody who's in business and you get hit with a tax increase, it's going to be that much harder, I think, to make investments that are going to lead to job creation," says Thune.

That intuition apparently isn't matched by reality. Although not a randomized study, NPR found the opposite. Here are two small business owners' responses:

"It's not in the top 20 things that we think about when we're making a business hire," said Ian Yankwitt, who owns Tortoise Investment Management.

Tortoise is a boutique investment firm in White Plains, N.Y. Yankwitt has 10 employees and in recent years has done a lot of hiring.

As a result, Yankwitt says he's had many conversations about hiring, "both with respect to specific people, with respect to whether we should hire one junior person or two, whether we should hire a senior person."

He says his ultimate marginal tax rate "didn't even make it on the agenda."

Yankwitt says deciding to bring on another employee is all about return on investment. Will adding another person to the payroll make his company more successful?

For Jason Burger, the motivation is similar.

"If my taxes go up, I have slightly less disposable income, yes," said Burger, co-owner of CSS International Holdings, a global infrastructure contractor. "But that has nothing to do with what my business does. What my business does is based on the contracts that it wins and the demand for its services."

Burger says his Michigan-based company is hiring like crazy, and he'd be perfectly willing to pay the surtax.



Shift Jelley writes about being an independent developer of applications (via John Gruber). Here are a few excerpts:

People will spend hours researching a $2 purchase, browsing reviews, emailing the developer, checking online forums. Then they will go to a coffee shop they’ve never been before and buy a $4 coffee. From the developer they expect unlimited support, unlimited free updates. From the coffee shop they expect nothing except mediocre coffee.

So true, and yet, so strange.

Piracy?

It’s a problem, always has been in the software industry. As a kid I pirated all my software, because I felt like these were giant, faceless corporations that didn’t need my money, and I had no money to give them anyway. I pirated operating systems, I pirated apps, I pirated games. Then one day I got a job, and learnt just how hard it is to make good software, and a switch went off in my head. Now I pay for every piece of software I have, sometimes I buy apps I don’t even need, just because I appreciate the level of crafts(wo)manship and care that went into them. If it’s too expensive and I can’t afford it, I just don’t use it.

I remember the cassette days when people would give others free copies of music, which continued into the CD days. And although you might expect "religious people to be more honest, I didn't see any difference. I suppose people never change. Honesty is a rare quality that we like in others.



Liz Robbins (New York Times) reports on the problems involved in the New York City's school choice maze:

The Department of Education’s dizzying, byzantine system for students to select a public high school left a total of 8,239 — about 10 percent of the city’s eighth graders — shut out of all their choices, and their parents feeling inadequate, frustrated and angry.

They were told to ponder “What next?” — with just two weeks to research and apply to a new set of schools — even as the bitter question “Why?” still lingered.

The answer is more complicated than the toughest word problem in any high school math class.

A major part of the problem was that the information needed to make a choice is simply not available to parents. However, the information available does correlate to socioeconomic class:

Information drives any choice system in the marketplace, said Henry M. Levin, a professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. In the high school admissions process, information really is power.

“The upper-middle-class families have more of it; they can look at mavens who have gone through the process and can tell others how to game the system,” Dr. Levin said.

Another problem is that competition does not make all schools better as evidenced by the New York City system. Boudreaux concluded in his article:

In reality, of course, groceries and many other staples of daily life are distributed with extraordinary effectiveness by competitive markets responding to consumer choice.

However, distribution does not guarantee quality. And as long as parents are un-informed, schools that are less than competitive do not have sufficient stimulus to improve.



Donald J Boudreaux on The Wall Street Journal has a provocative article, If Supermarkets Were Like Public Schools. He begins:

Teachers unions and their political allies argue that market forces can't supply quality education. According to them, only our existing system—politicized and monopolistic—will do the trick. Yet Americans would find that approach ludicrous if applied to other vital goods or services.

And then he does a step-by-step illustration of running supermarkets like public schools. And he ends with:

In reality, of course, groceries and many other staples of daily life are distributed with extraordinary effectiveness by competitive markets responding to consumer choice. The same could be true of education—the unions' self-serving protestations notwithstanding.

Although his illustration is well worth considering, where it falls down is the ability of consumers to evaluate goods. With respect to food, I buy according to cost and taste value. Cost is in plain sight, and I conduct my own taste experiements on different brands. There is no spin factor involved. However, what would be the evaluation criteria by which to evaluate education? If cost, does that mean that families with less income would choose to less-cost schools? That might be okay for food, but would it work well for education? What equivalent to taste is there for schools? I suppose test scores could be used, but would poor-performing private schools release test score results? And although I know quite definitely what I like with respect to taste, understanding test scores and other metrics is not as straightforward.

In fact, test scores are not the only factors influencing parental choice. For example, Lynn Bosetti (see references below) surveyed parents from 29 elementary schools in Alberta and found a variety of factors, such as Academic Reputation or Excellence, The Teachers, The Principal, Teaching Style, Good Work Habits, Self-Discipline, Critical Thinking Skills, Building Self-Esteem, Shared Values and Beliefs, Smaller Class Size, Special Programmes, Proximity to Home, and so on.

Obviously, such a variety and number of factors is more complicated than the two of cost and taste—three factors if you add in customer service. I'm not against parental choice, but the comparison between schools and supermarkets doesn't do justice to the difference in the complexity of choosing a supermarket and that of a school.

Perhaps more important than the number of factors is the lack of information for parents to make choices. According to Buckley and Schneider,

Despite the argument that if given choice parents will become more informed about the schools, critics of choice argue that education is a complex good, that it is difficult to describe in a way people understand, and that less educated parents (who can probably benefit most from any system of expanded choice) are the least able to access and analyze information. Seizing on this disjuncture of theory and reality, critics argue that given the lack of good information among “parent/ consumers” the success of choice reforms is unlikely (see e.g., Ascher, Fruchter, & Berne, 1996; Bridge, 1978; Public Agenda, 1999).

The empirical evidence shows that, in fact, parents on average have little information about their schools, and even parents residing in districts with choice programs do not have the level of information that the demand-side arguments of choice proponents would predict (Public Agenda, 1999; Schneider et al., 2000).

Schools are more difficult to evaluate, and the information in evaluating them is more difficult to find. Yet, the consequences of misevaluating a school is considerably greater than those of misevaluating supermarkets. Although there's no question that education in the U.S. needs to be improved, it's unlikely that a supermarket choice approach will actually create the market conditions necessary for improving schools.

Reference:

Bosetti, Lynn (2005). Determinants of school choice: understanding how parents choose elementary schools in Alberta. Journal of Education Policy , 19, 387-405.

Buckley, Jack, and Mark Schneider (2003). Shopping for Schools: How Do Marginal Consumers Gather Information About Schools? Policy Studies Journal, 31, .



In response to the settlement giving the NJ Transit worker who burned the Quran his job back (see the Star-Ledger), the Council on American-Islamic Relations approved the settlement and stated,

"Our question was always, was his action in any way related to his duties on the job? Apparently it wasn't," spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said today. "What he did, however reprehensible, should not impact on his employment."

Their position is commendable.



Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper coined the terms bug and debugging. From Britannica's article on women mathematicians:

In 1944, after becoming a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve, she was assigned to a project at Harvard University, where she worked on the protocomputer Mark I. When a moth infiltrated Mark I’s circuits, causing failures, she came up with the term bug to describe such unexplained computer problems.



Christina Taylor GreeneIt is tragic enough when hate takes the form of violence, but when it kills a 9-year-old child ....

(See Donna Trussell at Politics Daily.)



In quite a few posts, I've commented on poverty being the number one factor in academic underachievement. But High school teacher Patrick Welsh in his article Making the Grade Isn't About Race. It's About Parents takes a closer look at it and comes up the importance of parents in academic achievement:

"Why don't you guys study like the kids from Africa?"

In a moment of exasperation last spring, I asked that question to a virtually all-black class of 12th-graders who had done horribly on a test I had just given. A kid who seldom came to class -- and was constantly distracting other students when he did -- shot back: "It's because they have fathers who kick their butts and make them study."

Another student angrily challenged me: "You ask the class, just ask how many of us have our fathers living with us." When I did, not one hand went up.

Welsh is arguing against the simplistic racial explanations for academic achievement and for the importance of parenting in academic achievement.

Four years ago, William Raspberry, Pulitzer Prize recipient and retired Washington Post columnist, also commented on the importance of fathers in his article "A Better Cure than Abortion", connecting it to this story:

Some years ago, South Africa's game managers had to figure out what to do about the elephant herd at Kruger National Park. The herd was growing well beyond the ability of the park to sustain it.

The two-phase solution: transport some of the herd to the Pilanesberg game park and kill off some of those that were too big to transport. And so they did.

A dozen years later, several of the transported young males (now teenagers) started attacking Pilanesberg's herd of white rhinos, an endangered species. They used their trunks to throw sticks at the rhinos, chased them over long hours and great distances, and stomped to death a tenth of the herd -- all for no discernible reason.

Park managers decided they had no choice but to kill some of the worst juvenile offenders. They had killed five of them when someone came up with another bright idea: Bring in some of the mature males from Kruger -- there was by then the technology to transport the larger animals -- and hope that the bigger, stronger males could bring the adolescents under control.

To the delight of the park officials, it worked. The big bulls, quickly establishing the natural hierarchy, became the dominant sexual partners of the females, and the reduction in sexual activity among the juveniles lowered their soaring testosterone levels and reduced their violent behavior.

The new discipline, it turned out, was not just a matter of size intimidation. The young bulls actually started following the Big Daddies around, enjoying the association with the adults, yielding to their authority and learning from them proper elephant conduct. The assaults on the white rhinos ended abruptly.

Raspberry is arguing against long legal sentences for non-violent offences that results in "fatherless communities."

Naturally, there are other contributing and overlapping factors, such as poverty, that exacerbates the problems many students have in succeeding academically. There are also curriculum effects and teacher quality effects, at least in mathematics. Even so, the family factor is arguably a, if not the, major one. And this is true in other arenas, too. For instance, the National Institutes of Health reported that "Family Characteristics Have More Influence On Child Development Than Does Experience In Child Care". This governmental review of the literature shows the importance of family influences in problem behaviors of children. And some research shows the effects of divorce on children.

We need to reconsider, as Raspberry argues, legal policy effects on communities and families. We need to rethink the effects of our social policy effects on communities and families. Children are our future, and we need to invest in them. We need to rethink our priorities.



Reading the different points of view on the arrest of Harvard professor Gates reminds me of this anecdote:

Saadi of Shiraz, in his Bostan, stated an important truth when he told this miniature tale :

A man met another, who was handsome, intelligent and elegant. He asked him who he was. The other said : 'I am the Devil.'

'But you cannot be,' said the first man, 'for the devil is evil and ugly.'

'My friend,' said Satan, 'you have been listening to my detractors.'

Source of anecdote: Idries Shah. Reflections. London: Octogon Press, 1968.



It seems that both President Truman and modern CEOs have a similar saying: "The Buck Stops Here". In the case of Truman, it meant that he accepted responsibility for the decisions he made. In the case of CEOs, it apparently means to get as big a golden parachute possible regardless of the financial decisions they made. Do you remember Stan O'Neal, the CEO of Merrill Lynch, who was expected to receive $160,000,000.00 despite Merrill Lynch writing up 7.9 billion dollars in losses (AFP), and in January up to 15 billion dollars (Huffington Post), and finally "crippled", bought by Bank of America. Apparently, economic reality is not "trickle down" but "flood up."



We rely on research to support us in improving our pedagogy, but what if we can't trust research due to misconduct, bias, or simply being wrong?

Misconduct
A little less than two years ago, I posted on Philip Langlais, vice provost for graduate studies and research at Old Dominion University, ("Ethics for the Next Generation",The Chronicle of Higher Education), who talked about academic misconduct:

Troubling reports about the ethics and professional conduct of university presidents, faculty members in fields as diverse as history and the sciences, and biomedical researchers have been sharing space in news columns recently with accounts of the greedy misdeeds of business and political leaders. The scrutiny has begun to reveal such gross misconduct as plagiarism and the falsification and fabrication of data in the hallowed halls of academe and research laboratories. Indeed, the Department of Health and Human Services reported in July that allegations of misconduct by scientific researchers in the United States hit an all-time high in 2004.

Bias
In addition to misconduct, bias can skew the findings of research, too. In medical research, money favors positive results, according to the AMA's Council of Science Affairs (Psychiatric News):

No one will be surprised to learn one of the conclusions in a report on scientific publication bias by the AMA's Council on Scientific Affairs: money matters in research.

The report, issued at last month's House of Delegates meeting in Chicago, states that "studies with positive findings are more likely to be published than studies with negative or null results, and an association exists between pharmaceutical industry sponsorship of clinical research and publication of results favoring the sponsor's products."

Bias can also occur through researchers' beliefs. Brian Switek reported on the bias in research on monogamy in gibbons:

Part of the reason we're recognizing this now is because of narrow-sighted research design, but also the desire that we may have for nature to vindicate our own social opinions and values, especially when it comes to primates.

Gibbons were formerly thought to be monogamous but apparently they may not always be.

Simply Wrong
How Science is Rewriting the Book on Genes points out that much of our knowledge on genetics has been overturned with recent new findings.

More imortantly, John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece (Kurt Kleiner, New Scientist), claims:

Most published scientific research papers are wrong, according to a new analysis. Assuming that the new paper is itself correct, problems with experimental and statistical methods mean that there is less than a 50% chance that the results of any randomly chosen scientific paper are true.

John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece, says that small sample sizes, poor study design, researcher bias, and selective reporting and other problems combine to make most research findings false. But even large, well-designed studies are not always right, meaning that scientists and the public have to be wary of reported findings.

Now you'd expect that medical research, with its potential for litigation, would have a better chance of being correct than a coin toss. And if such a "concrete" field has problems in being correct, I imagine that the percentage in less concrete fields like education, sociology, and English would be even less correct.

In the same article, Solomon Snyder, senior editor at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins Medical School, states,

most working scientists understand the limitations of published research.

"When I read the literature, I'm not reading it to find proof like a textbook. I'm reading to get ideas. So even if something is wrong with the paper, if they have the kernel of a novel idea, that's something to think about," he says.

Hmm, research is something to think about, but not something to trust. I suppose that it should be expected that researchers tend to see what they want, just like politicians (see Emotion overrules reason), experts who predict politics (see Experts predict no better than non-experts), and wine tasters.

On wine tasters having problems, Jonah Lehrer posted on the subjectivity of wine, writing:

In 2001, Frederic Brochet, of the University of Bordeaux, conducted two separate and very mischievous experiments. In the first test, Brochet invited 57 wine experts and asked them to give their impressions of what looked like two glasses of red and white wine. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with food coloring. But that didn't stop the experts from describing the "red" wine in language typically used to describe red wines. One expert praised its "jamminess," while another enjoyed its "crushed red fruit." Not a single one noticed it was actually a white wine.

The second test Brochet conducted was even more damning. He took a middling Bordeaux and served it in two different bottles. One bottle was a fancy grand-cru. The other bottle was an ordinary vin du table. Despite the fact that they were actually being served the exact same wine, the experts gave the differently labeled bottles nearly opposite ratings. The grand cru was "agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded," while the vin du table was "weak, short, light, flat and faulty". Forty experts said the wine with the fancy label was worth drinking, while only 12 said the cheap wine was.

I'm not quite sure where to take this, but it does make me wonder about how to trust any research, including mine, to guide my pedagogy. Academics and their supporters, as Ludwik Fleck would say, create a "harmony of illusions." Just look at the phonics vs. whole language reading wars. Perhaps we're just wine tasters in disguise.

Update 1:
For a new spin on bias preventing negative results, the New York Times has an editorial on "Virginia Commonwealth's Secret Deal" with the tobacco company Philip Morris. The university

has signed a contract to do research for Philip Morris that gives the company the final say over what results, if any, can be published.

The contract also stipulates that the university cannot respond to any news media inquiries about the deal and must promptly notify Philip Morris.

Update 2:
Robert Hughes reports on medical research fraud:

This week the editors of the Journal of the American Medical Assn. published an editorial criticizing the influence of the pharmaceutical and medical devices industries on research.

In an article this month, Catherine D. DeAngelis and Phil B. Fontanarosa write:

The profession of medicine, in every aspect—clinical, education, and research—has been inundated with profound influence from the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. This has occurred because physicians have allowed it to happen, and it is time to stop.
Two articles in this issue of JAMA provide a glimpse of one company's apparent misrepresentation of research data and its manipulation of clinical research articles and clinical reviews; such information and articles influence the education and clinical practice of physicians and other health professionals.

This editorial and the specific research studies reported in the April 16, 2008 issue of JAMAfunders, scientists and perhaps scientific journal editors have worked together to report favorable scientific findings that distort the real scientific evidence for the effectiveness of drugs and other medical devices.

OMB Watch reports on how the White House interferes with Smog Rule, and the Union of Concerned Scientists found in a survey that Hundreds of EPA Scientists Report Political Interference Over Last Five Years. In particular,

– 889 scientists (60 percent) said they had personally experienced at least one instance of political interference in their work over the last five years.

– 394 scientists (31 percent) personally experienced frequent or occasional "statements by EPA officials that misrepresent scientists' findings."

– 285 scientists (22 percent) said they frequently or occasionally personally experienced "selective or incomplete use of data to justify a specific regulatory outcome."

– 224 scientists (17 percent) said they had been "directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from an EPA scientific document."

– Of the 969 agency veterans with more than 10 years of EPA experience, 409 scientists (43 percent) said interference has occurred more often in the past five years than in the previous five-year period. Only 43 scientists (4 percent) said interference occurred less often.

– Hundreds of scientists reported being unable to openly express concerns about the EPA's work without fear of retaliation; 492 (31 percent) felt they could not speak candidly within the agency and 382 (24 percent) felt they could not do so outside the agency.

Update 3:
Researchers Fail to Reveal Full Drug Pay:

A world-renowned Harvard child psychiatrist whose work has helped fuel an explosion in the use of powerful antipsychotic medicines in children earned at least $1.6 million in consulting fees from drug makers from 2000 to 2007 but for years did not report much of this income to university officials, according to information given Congressional investigators.

By failing to report income, the psychiatrist, Dr. Joseph Biederman, and a colleague in the psychiatry department at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Timothy E. Wilens, may have violated federal and university research rules designed to police potential conflicts of interest, according to Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa. Some of their research is financed by government grants.

Like Dr. Biederman, Dr. Wilens belatedly reported earning at least $1.6 million from 2000 to 2007, and another Harvard colleague, Dr. Thomas Spencer, reported earning at least $1 million after being pressed by Mr. Grassley’s investigators. But even these amended disclosures may understate the researchers’ outside income because some entries contradict payment information from drug makers, Mr. Grassley found.

In short, a conflict of interest existed: These researchers were receiving federal grant money to do research on drugs for kids, but did not report that they were at the same time receiving consulting fees from pharmaceutical companies.



I'll be taking a break from posting for about three weeks. This week is the last one in the semester, and I need to grade my classes final essays and turn in the semester grades in before taking off the following week to visit family in Texas--the first holiday I've had in 5 1/2 years.



Who does English belong to? In the article "Whose language?" (Financial Times, via EFL Geek via TESOL's In the News), Michael Skapinker covers quite a few items, including

  • the spread of English (supposedly about 1.5 billion people),
  • the issues this spreading raises (who decides which English dialect is correct), and
  • the language(s) that may supplant it some day (Chinese, Arabic, or Spanish).

Here are two excerpts:

The issue is: whose English will it be? Non-native speakers now outnumber native English-speakers by three to one. As hundreds of millions more learn the language, that imbalance will grow. Mr Graddol says the majority of encounters in English today take place between non-native speakers. Indeed, he adds, many business meetings held in English appear to run more smoothly when there are no native English-speakers present.

Why should non-native speakers bother with what native speakers regard as correct? Their main aim, after all, is to be understood by one another. As Mr Graddol says, in most cases there is no native speaker present.

Prof Seidlhofer says that the English spoken by non-native speakers “is a natural language, and natural languages are difficult to control by ‘legislation’.

As a teacher of English, I can only teach the English I know, but it's fascinating that some day what is proper "global English" may be decided by "non-native" speakers due to their greater numbers and perhaps greater economic power.

The article is a very interesting read, and so are the comments at EFL Geek that elaborate on and challenge parts of the article.



Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard and author of quite a few books on language and mind, has a fascinating essay on cursing and taboo words in the New Yorker (via John Gruber): "Why we curse: What the F***?". He writes:

THE STRANGE EMOTIONAL power of swearing--as well as the presence of linguistic taboos in all cultures-- suggests that taboo words tap into deep and ancient parts of the brain. In general, words have not just a denotation but a connotation: an emotional coloring distinct from what the word literally refers to, as in principled versus stubborn and slender versus scrawny. The difference between a taboo word and its genteel synonyms, such as shit and feces, cunt and vagina, or fucking and making love, is an extreme example of the distinction. Curses provoke a different response than their synonyms in part because connotations and denotations are stored in different parts of the brain.

The mammalian brain contains, among other things, the limbic system, an ancient network that regulates motivation and emotion, and the neocortex, the crinkled surface of the brain that ballooned in human evolution and which is the seat of perception, knowledge, reason, and planning. The two systems are interconnected and work together, but it seems likely that words' denotations are concentrated in the neocortex, especially in the left hemisphere, whereas their connotations are spread across connections between the neocortex and the limbic system, especially in the right hemisphere.

A likely suspect within the limbic system is the amygdala, an almond-shaped organ buried at the front of the temporal lobe of the brain (one on each side) that helps invest memories with emotion. A monkey whose amygdalas have been removed can learn to recognize a new shape, like a striped triangle, but has trouble learning that the shape foreshadows an unpleasant event like an electric shock. In humans, the amygdala "lights up"--it shows greater metabolic activity in brain scans--when the person sees an angry face or an unpleasant word, especially a taboo word.

The response is not only emotional but involuntary. It's not just that we don't have earlids to shut out unwanted sounds. Once a word is seen or heard, we are incapable of treating it as a squiggle or noise; we reflexively look it up in memory and respond to its meaning, including its connotation.

So, words are not just words. Our responses to words are emotional and involuntary, and thus they have consequences. This explains why language learners are not affected by curse words the same way as native speakers of the target language: They don't have the same emotional connotations established with the target language word as they do with their native equivalent.

It's a long essay (over 5000 words), but well worth reading.



illusionFrom the Sun Herald (via Mark Bernstein) is this neat animated gif. If you see it turning clockwise, you're right-brained (meaning you use more of the right brain than the left), and if counterclockwise, left-brained. Weird, isn't it?

This illusion definitely fits with my experience, according to the Sun Herald's list of differences below: That is, I'm oriented toward logic, details, facts, words and language, math and science, practicality, and playing it safe. I seldom take risks or act impetuously. I was 48 before I got married! And although I'm good in math, geometry was my weakest area in math. I'm not quite so sure about lacking imagination, however. Of course, these are tendencies, not absolutes, but still, it's weird to me that one's brain-side dominance affects how you see this figure turn. I wonder how this might affect learning.

LEFT BRAIN FUNCTIONS
uses logic
detail oriented
facts rule
words and language
present and past
math and science
can comprehend
knowing
acknowledges
order/pattern perception
knows object name
reality based
forms strategies
practical
safe

RIGHT BRAIN FUNCTIONS
uses feeling
"big picture" oriented
imagination rules
symbols and images
present and future
philosophy & religion
can "get it" (i.e. meaning)
believes
appreciates
spatial perception
knows object function
fantasy based
presents possibilities
impetuous
risk taking

Update: Stephen Downes says that it's not a matter of right- or left-brain dominance because

You can learn to see the dancer spin both ways - it has to do with where you focus your attention.

I've asked in a comment on how that works. Let's see if he will respond. Even so, if one has to learn how to do something to go against the brain's natural preference, then apparently something brain-related is occurring whether or not it's a brain hemisphere dominance. Perhaps, Stephen can comment on that, too. For right now, I tried looking in different ways but could only see it going counterclockwise, and Mark Bernstein could only see it going clockwise. It's still a fascinating illusion, and brains are still weird!

Update 2: Stephen Downes responded on where to focus: Focusing on the feet turns the dancer counterclockwise while focusing on the shoulders makes her appear to go clockwise. Sometimes that works for me, sometimes not. Mark Bernstein's site has two dancers turning, and sometimes, I can get them going opposite directions by focusing on the shoulders, and sometimes not. It does seem to be a matter of focusing, then. Thanks to Steve for clarifying this illusion.



As you can see, I've changed the design of this site. Being colorblind, it's not easy, and I have to keep checking with others on how it looks. I've run out of time for now on the color scheme.

If you have Internet Explorer 6 or older (I'm not sure about version 7), the site is off-centered and the links on the sidebar are double spaced. This does not happen on any other browser that I'm aware of. Download Firefox, Flock, Opera, or anything besides Internet Explorer to see this site correctly. They're all free.



Liviu Librescu

To Liviu Librescu, a true human being:

Liviu Librescu, an Israeli engineering and math lecturer, was killed after he was said to have protected his students' lives by blocking the doorway of his classroom from the gunman. (Matt Apuzzo (AP), "Va. Tech gunman writings raised concerns")

Virginia Tech University Prof. Liviu Librescu, described as a family man who once did research for NASA, sacrificed his life to save his students in the shooting rampage yesterday. (Oren Yaniv and Leo Standora, "Courageous final act of professor: Fatally shot as he protects students")

A 76-year-old professor who survived the Holocaust was shot to death while saving his students from the Virginia Tech assailant, students said.

Liviu Librescu, an internationally respected aeronautics engineer who taught at Virginia Tech for 20 years, saved the lives of several students by barricading his classroom door before he was gunned down in the massacre, according to e-mail accounts sent by students to his wife. ... (Holocaust survivor, professor killed helping students escape")

Liviu Librescu a 75-year-old Israeli professor is one of the people who died in Monday's Virginia Tech shooting. The professor saved several students before got shot, witnesses said, quoted by DPA news agency.

Librescu was teaching his class in Norris Hall when the killer entered the building randomly unloading his gun in class rooms. The Mechanics and Aeronautics professor stayed behind to stop the shooter from opening the door. When the attacker finally got into the classroom, threw himself in front of the gunman, a student told Israel's Army Radio.

‘He himself was killed but thanks to him his students stayed alive’, the student who survived the massacre said.

Librescu, a Holocaust survivor, was born in Romania, he has Israeli nationality but had lived in the US with his wife for the past two decades while both his sons live in Israel.

Librescu and his wife moved to Israel from Romania in 1978 and then moved to Virginia in 1986 for his sabbatical but decided to stay, their son told Army Radio. (Cristina Ersen, Liviu Librescu, A Holocaust Survivor Killed At Virginia Tech")



HonestyHonesty

These posters are the work of J. Nathan Mathias with the help of Hannah Scott. Along with the other ones they created for Elizabethtown College, they are the most original and beautiful academic integrity posters I have ever seen.



Mixing the traditional with the modern can yield fascinating products. Lynn Arditi, in the Providence Journal (via EdNews.org), writes about a Muslim woman pursuing her dream to become a doctor in Educating Rula, an interesting story that shows the diversity of perspectives within the Islamic world, the diversity of life in the U.S., and the commonality of human beings seeking to better themselves. Doing a medical intership,

Rula is exhausted. She attends classes three days a week; the other two days, she does her training on the radiology ward of Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence. In her kitchen, she stands at the granite counter and grinds Starbucks coffee beans, scooping the grounds into a Krups coffee maker.

Rula's story is one worth reading.



Do you sometimes wonder about the original meaning of words? For instance, why do many people say "as cold as hell" on a freezingly cold day when most of us today consider hell to be hot? That's for another day, but here are some words derived from the navy (verbatim from Navy Federal Credit Union's newsletter Homeport, Fall 2006, page 18):

Bamboozle: In the days of sailing, this modern term for deception meant disguising your ship's nationality by flying colors that were not your own--a practice common among pirates. Today, an intentional deception among frineds, usually mean as a joke, is said to be bamboozling.

Devil to pay: Although now used primarily to warn of an unpleasant consequence, this phrase described a grueling job--caulking the longest seam, or "devil," of a wooden ship. A sailor would use a pitch, known as a "pay," to do the caulking.

Figurehead: This carved wooden figure placed at the bow had no function but to "see the way." The term now denotes a person appointed to a leadership position, but with no real responsibilities.

Long shot: Here's a modern gambling term that has nautical origins. Because the guns on early ships were inaccurate except when fired at close range, it was an extremely lucky "long shot" that would find its target at a great distance.

Slush fund: Slush, a watery mixture of fats made from scraping empty meat-storage barrels, was often sold ashore by the ship's cook, who would pocket the profit. This money became known as a slush fund.

Squared away: This term for being finished with one task and ready for a new one came from a square-rigged ship with her yards braced so the ship was said to run "squarely" ahead of the wind.

Three sheets to the wind: If the "sheets" (the rope lines used to control the sails) are loose on a fully rigged ship, the sails flap and flutter in the breeze--and are said to be "in the wind." A ship in this condition appears "drunk" because it shudders and staggers in the water, aimlessly floating.

Under the weather: The bow of a ship that comes under the constant beating of the sea, or "under the weather," is where sailors below deck were most likely to become seasick. The phrase evolved to indicate feeling ill in today's lingo.

Wallop: Admiral Wallop of King Henry VIII's navy gained notoriety after he and his ships were sent to the French coast to retaliate for the burning of the town of Brighton, England. He so thoroughly destroyed his enemies that his name now indicates a might blow.



Marvin Minsky, professor of media arts and sciences at MIT (from an interview in Technology Review via elearnspace), stated:

What surprises me is how few people have been working on higher-level theories of how thinking works. That's been a big disappointment. ... I think people look around to see what field is currently popular, and then waste their lives on that. If it's popular, then to my mind you don't want to work on it. ... The main idea ... [is] resourcefulness. Unless you understand something in several different ways, you are likely to get stuck. So the first thing ... is that you have got to have different ways of describing things. I made up a word for it: "panalogy." When you represent something, you should represent it in several different ways, so that you can switch from one to another without thinking.

Higher-level theories of cognition, especially in artificial intelligence, is not an area I'm familiar with. Even so, the notion of not jumping on the popular bandwagon seems to be a good one if we wish to advance in our understanding of pedagogy and learning. Right now, web 2.0 is popular, but for about six months, I haven't read much that is pedagogically new in this area. One exception is that of Dave (Academhack) and Jenn (Expos-i-story), who have introduced the browser Flock (with Wordpress) as the key element for bringing blogging into Jenn's composition course. Students will load Flock onto a flash drive and thus be able to blog from any computer using Flock and also through its RSS capabilities be connected to one another. The idea of a flash drive carrying one's blogging and RSS tools around is a good one and freeing oneself from one's one computer is a good one in some respects.

Most innovation, like that of Dave and Jenn's, is the remixing of already present ideas and practices, small ripples upon the surface of pedagogy and learning. Small as they may be, they're still an improvement upon our present practices. So, what ripples are you and I creating in our teaching that differ from what's popular with the web 2.0 crowd or elsewhere? And how can we represent it in more than one way?



What do you think? Should schools have codes of ethics or not?

David Warlick does and has posted an attempt at a Code of Ethics in "Getting Right Down to It". The four basic principles (expanded with subprinciples) are:

  • Seek truth and express it
  • Minimize harm
  • Be accountable
  • Respect information and its infrastructure

One wouldn't think that these principles would be controversial. However, Stephen Downes disagrees with codifying them. Let's look at his main points:

Yes, they can, but what is it that distinguishes a code of ethics from, say, instruction from a teacher or parent? It is one thing to tell people what they ought or ought not do - even I do that. And quite another to codify that. When something like ethics is codified, then this gives people room to be 'ethical' by watching for loopholes or playing legal games. It is better to adhere to the spirit of an ethic rather than the letter, to be ethical by holding your behaviour accountable to your own sense of good and right, not some arbitrary third party construction.

This is setting up a false dichotomy. Yes, "It is better to adhere to the spirit of an ethic," but that doesn't mean that should be no letter. I would prefer to see the possibility of the spirit informing the letter, and the letter informing the spirit, with each mutually reinforcing the other.

Also, as far as codes leading people to watch for loopholes as distinct from telling people to do, you should meet my seven-year-old son. He remembers everything I tell him to do and not to do, and is constantly formulating exceptions. So, we might consider codes simply as the pragmatic recognition of the fact that not everyone possesses or "adhere[s] to the spirit of an ethic." Thus, rather than being "arbitrary," they often are evolving adaptations by a concerned party to historical evasions of ethics. Having said that, it would be appropriate to bring the other concerned party, the students, into the writing (and ongoing re-writing) of a code of ethics.

Because the rules will never be complete. Freedman writes, "Surely the starting point is to instil the ethical value of citing sources with permission, before bringing in the obvious exceptions?" But if the rule has exceptions, then the rule, as stated, is wrong. Shall we start listing exceptions? No, because then we could never stop? Another rule, then? No, because it, too, will have exceptions.

Why should rules be complete in order to be valuable? Rules should be considered as prototypes that offer guidance rather than perfect completeness. In fact, we should consider exceptions not as endless problems, but as endless opportunities for learning. When an apparent exception arises, we can question the rule and the exception: Is this action really an exception? Why? In what ways does this exception inform our understanding of the rule? Should we change the rule or simply, noting the exception, complexify our understanding of the rule?

There is a reason we leave application of the law to the discretion of judges and not merely to adjudication of fact. The interpretation of referees and umpires rather than electronic sensors. Why we often appeal to the 'spirit of the law' rather than the letter. Why we think sticking to 'the letter of the law' is cheating.

This example of judges contradicts Stephen's position. Without laws, there would be no need for judges to interpret their application. Following this logic, there would be no need for laws. Conversely, with laws and rules, we and our students have the opportunity to interpret them, reflect on them, and grow in our understanding of the principles involved in their formulation.

The only 'morality' a person follows is his or her own, a feeling that this or that is right or wrong. Any appeal to an external sourse changes the definition from 'morality' to 'authority'.

This is a red herring. No one creates their own morality de novo. Morality is constructed on the basis of interactions with external sources, such as family, community, social institutions, and culture. (Consider the Vygotskian perspective that the social plane exists before the psychological plane.) In addition, morality is not static but changes over time with experience, that is, with interactions with external others. When people perceive an external source as having legitimate authority and persuasive reasoning, over time they may come to integrate the external position as part of their identity and thus their own morality (see self-determination theory).

Rules are normal, and so are exceptions. Consider rules for writing. When a paper is important, I go back through my paper with one rule (e.g., topic sentences and coherence) at a time looking for how well I have followed it. This practice of following rules helps my writing become clearer and more persuasive. Yet sometimes I see a need to break the rules. Life and writing are too complex to understand in their entirety. That's why we reduce the complexity down to manageable prototypes, or rules. So, of course, rules have exceptions. But until the "incomplete" rules have become automatic, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to understand where the exceptions exist. Learning is a matter of complexifying one's understanding of prototypes, and external guidelines can help scaffold the process.

Still, we might ask whether rules (with their exceptions) are sufficient for all contexts. Perhaps, for some purposes and contexts, stories might work better. I'm reminded of Shell's Global Scenarios:

The Shell Scenarios are carefully crafted views of the future. They provide a tool to explore the many complex business environments in which companies work and will be working. During the last 30 years our Scenarios have helped us and others to link the uncertainties we hold about the future to the decisions we must make today.

Along these lines, The Farmer’s Wife a children's story by Idries Shah, exemplifies the potential of stories for teaching ethics. In this story, a farmer’s wife drops her apple, which rolls into a hole. Unable to get it out, she asks a series of animals and objects (bird, cat, dog, bee, beekeeper, rope, fire, water, cow) to help her. However, each one in turn refuses and is called “naughty.” Finally, she asks the bird to peck the cow. Being naughty, the bird obliges and sets off a cascade of actions in reverse order of animals and objects, returning to the bird again, building up to the point at which it is expected that the last (and first) animal, the bird, will retrieve the apple. However, instead, at the last second, a wind blows the apple out of the hole, “And everyone lived happily ever after.” This short story juxtaposes (1) asking according to one’s own interest with asking according to the recipient’s interest (or nature), (2) allegedly naughty beings (and the good farmer’s wife) with living happily ever after and (3) an expected outcome from a linear cascade of causes with unexpected chance.

Stories like this one hold our interest better than rules, stay in our minds longer, and, when well-crafted, contain contradictions that exemplify the complexity of ethics.

Still, neither stories nor rules are sufficient. A spirit of morality in the schools and communities is crucial. Without it, people will, as Stephen wrote, look for loopholes, because in such a case, the stories and rules do not reflect students' environment, which seems to be the case in general, at least in the U.S. From Thomas Lickona's book Character Matters, the "2002 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth" reports that in high school, 75% of students cheat on at least one exam; 40% steal from a store; and 40% will "lie to get a good job." Jeffrey Selingo in his article "The Cheating Culture" (Prism Magazine), reported that in the mid-nineties, cheating at least once was around 82% for engineering students and that it has been rising since then.

So, despite laws and existing rules, students are, as Stephen wrote, following their "own" morality. And as I wrote above, an individual's morality is not created de novo; it's the result of interaction with others and environmental pressures. So, what are schools and universities to do? Speaking on character education, Dwayne Huebner (curriculum theorist and Professor Emeritus, Teachers College) is worth citing at length on this point:

First, recent discourse about moral and spiritual values in the classroom is incorrectly focused. That discourse assumes that there is something special that can be identified as moral or spiritual. This assumption is false. Everything that is done in schools, and in preparation for school activity, is already infused with the spiritual. All activity in school has moral consequences. The very highlighting of the need to teach moral and spiritual values in schools implies a breakdown not in the spirituality and morality of the student, but a breakdown in the moral activity and spirituality of the school itself, and of the people in control of the school. Those in control of the schools cover their own complicity in the domination system by urging the teaching of moral and spiritual values. They do not urge that the moral and spiritual climate of the schools, which they control, be changed. That teachers do not feel the freedom to be critical and creative is a sign of their enslavement to other principalities and powers. The need is not to see moral and spiritual values as something outside the normal curriculum and school activity, but to probe deeper into the educational landscape to reveal how the spiritual and moral is being denied in everything. The problem in schools is not that kids are not being taught moral and spiritual values, the problem is—the schools are not places where the moral and spiritual life is lived with any kind of intentionality. (The Lure of the Transcendent, pp. 414-15)

I'm not quite sure what Huebner's perspective is on intentionality, but Alicia Juarrero in her book Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System defines actions as "behavioral trajectories constrained top-down by an intention." Behavior—the enactment of meaning, moral values, and beliefs—results from a self-organizing process of a person’s history of reciprocal interactions with his/her environment, a process in which interdependencies between intentions and actions, individual and society, are entrained. If intentions are not regulated and are not followed by action, people will follow the thoughts, intentions and actions of others. In other words, people conform to their social environment unless they intentionally, and persistently, will to do otherwise. That's all that students are doing, conforming to their environment.

So, again, what are schools to do? Although schools, too, have interdependencies between themselves and their communities, they must take the initiative in entraining their intentions and actions to match the ethics they wish their students to embody. That's not easy to do. Most learning is unconscious. Thus, when breaking old habits to form new ones, it's helpful to structure support into the environment that promotes conscious intention and reflection. Rules and stories can be two such types of support. They remind us of prototypical actions that we wish to emulate, as in the case of David Warlick's principles. Thus, there is no essential dichotomy between ethics and rules or stories. All are useful, in fact, necessary: The spirit provides the motivation to act ethically, and stories and rules (along with experience) provide the support and knowledge to do so.

For other links on this topic, see David Warlick's response to Stephen Continuing the conversation on ethics, and also via Stephen Downes, see Terry Freedman's response to Stephen and Susan van Gelder's post.



Earlier I commented on two reports, both of which indicated an effect of poverty on academic success with one stating that "the strongest predictor of academic underperformance is poverty." Because I had just read the same day William Raspberry's Attitude Gap, I wondered about a possible connection between poverty and attitude. Raspberry wrote:

Speaking frankly and helpfully about the academic achievement gap between black and white students is a lot harder than it ought to be.

It is particularly hard if it is true -- as I believe -- that the gap has less and less to do with racism and more and more to do with the habits and attitudes we inculcate among our children.

Raspberry wasn't referring to poverty but to racism, saying that although racism still plays a role, attitude and habits were more important. That comment led me to wonder briefly how poverty might be "linked to attitude."

A response:
However, Stephen Downes, whose posts I appreciate and respect quite a bit, fired a shot across my bow:

In case we forgot, "the strongest predictor of academic underperformance is poverty." Whe the reminder? Because the denial is so strong. As in this post, where the very next line is "I wonder how poverty is linked to attitude" and where the author then quotes William Raspberry saying "the gap has less and less to do with racism and more and more to do with the habits and attitudes we inculcate among our children." Except that it doesn't. This sort of attitude suggests that poor children would learn better if only their parents were better parents. But if this were the case, then parenting - and not poverty - would be the strongest indicator of academic underperformance. In the same way, the improvement of children in military families is far more likly to have to do with the regular paycheque, not the military discipline (which doesn't even apply to the kids). Why the denial? Because it allows people to rationalize leaving children in poverty?

I almost stopped dead in water. I wasn't quite sure how Stephen jumped from "linked" to blaming parents and "denial." Setting up either-or fallacies of parenting vs. poverty and denial vs. acceptance dichotomies did not do justice to the complexity of interactions between poverty, families, communities, schools, attitudes, and academic success.

Theoretical possibilities:
Quite a few theories would support the notion that poverty would interact with attitude. From Bandura's self-efficacy perspective, people who believe they have control over their circumstances are more motivated to take action. It seems likely that a pervasive poverty could affect one's attitude negatively, lower one's sense of self-efficacy, and thus, also, one's academic achievement. (Also compare self-determination theory and "learned helplessness".) Or from a different perspective, could cultural attitudes, such as the "acting white" phenomenon posited by Fordham and Ogdu, intertwine with the effects of poverty?

Complex vs. simple analysis:
It would seem odd to suggest that wealth, or poverty, doesn't influence (not determine) one's attitude towards life and a variety of other factors. Focusing on "the strongest predictor" as if there were no other factors treats academic achievement as a linear, money input, success output model. If that were the case, we would have a linear graph mapping economic status to academic output: A's would go to the super rich, C's to the middle class, and F's to the super poor--without exceptions. Obviously, that's not the case. In attempting to help all students achieve academically, we have to consider education (and academic success) as embedded in nested and interacting levels of different ecologies. Stephen himself, commenting on a post by Miguel Guhlin on Data Analysis (which happens to include attitude), suggests tongue-in-cheek that many factors interact in affecting learning:

Be sure to have a look at the 'multiple measures of data' graphic in this post. It is a four-circle Venn Diagram identifying four corresponding measurement metrics and how they interact. Of course, once you admit these dimensions of measurement, what is to argue against a variety of other measurements - nutrition intake, for example, local crime rate, perhaps, or per-student computer budget - into the same sort of calculation. Of course, if you do that, then you have made a mash of the idea that you can nicely and neatly measure school achievement - and you can't have that, can you?

Povety's intertangling with other factors:
But let me back up a little. The quotation about poverty being the number one predictor of academic underperformance was in reference to English language (EL) learners in the California report, which also noted the low literacy skills even in the EL learners' native language:

Principals from participating schools frequently pointed out that, even apart from their EL status, the majority of their high-poverty EL population has low literacy in their home language as well. As one remarked, “What we now understand is that the kids really do not have the language to address much of the curriculum. [They] are not coming to us with the pre-knowledge that they need.” Another principal pointed out that “the awareness that some ELs are also English-only speakers is critical – they don’t have literacy in their home language either.” (IV-36)

It seems more than likely that their parents also have low literacy skills, and socioeconomic status has been linked to vocabulary, a relationship that also affects native English speakers (see Ten Hypotheses about Socioeconomic Gradients and Community Differences in Children's Developmental Outcomes). And, of course, Shirley Brice Heath's Ways with Words showed how cultural similarities/differences between school and home explained how children succeeded in school or didn't.

Statistical averages vs. interesting anomalies:
However, these points refer to statistical averages for groups. Poverty cannot predict for a specific student. Otherwise, no poor person would become academically successful, and that's obviously not true. Poverty can influence academic achievement, but it cannot determine it. Consequently, studies that report findings that are not average are more interesting. Consider this study by Jewel Evans Hairston on "How Parents Influence African American Students' Decisions to Prepare for Vocational Teaching Careers" in the Journal of Career and Technical Education. Hairston stated:

In summary, all parental influences derived from this study have implications for vocational education. These influences, which include parents serving as role models of altruism, parental support for career goal achievement, high grade expectations, introductions to the positive aspects of teaching and vocational subject matter, parents involving children in hands-on learning experiences, and the creation of environments that nurture the discovery of vocational content are all important in creating interest in vocational education and vocational teaching. Each factor serves as a necessary element that creates excitement in vocational subject matter and incites desires to be a part of vocational teaching.

Once again we see that (1) positive attitude from parents is important and that (2) each factor is important. The California report also looked at schools with achieving students in high-poverty areas, finding that vision and attitude were important:

“We need to prepare our children to go out and compete with everyone else,” states Hobart Elementary Principal Mercedes Santoyo-Villavazo when questioned about her school’s transition from a bilingual to an SEI model post-Proposition 227. With 81 percent of the student population designated as English learners, Santoyo-Villavazo felt it was a major problem “that the children were spending way too much time in primary language reading and writing and were not transferring the skills into English.” This emphasis on English language development, along with high expectations, extra time, and data-driven instruction, has earned Hobart Elementary recognition as a school with high achievement despite a near 100 percent poverty level.. [bold mine]

According to leadership, high expectations and hard work drive student achievement. While some feel that society at large has watered-down expectations for low-income urban schools, this attitude is not tolerated at Hobart. “Our children might be poor,” states Principal Santoyo-Villavazo, “but they’re not brain dead. They have just as much brainpower as anyone else, and they can do it. They will achieve and they will meet our expectations.” (IV-47)

This vision and attitude of high expectations were held by school staff, which brings us back to interactive effects. When all--students, parents, schools, and communities--hold the attitude that academic success is expected, then, for the most part, it apparently will follow.

Teacher quality:
One can imagine that attitude interacts with teacher quality. Claire Campbell writes about a recent report that finds,

The Illinois research also demonstrates the clear link between teacher quality and student achievement. In the highest-poverty high schools with high teacher-quality indices, twice as many students met state standards as did students in other similarly high-poverty high schools with low teacher-quality indices. ...

“Rather, we take the children who come to us with less and give them less in school, too--including less of the very resource they need the most: high-quality teachers," Haycock said.

These results are related to poverty in that schools with more money can attract more than their share of quality teachers and administrators. The report recommends distributing teachers more equitably through schools.

Measuring attitude:
Back to the 227 Report: Although attitude was mentioned with respect to staff, it did not seem to be measured. It would be interesting to see how attitude compares with poverty (or teacher quality) as a predictor. If attitude were a better predictor, that result wouldn't let poverty off the hook. Again, factors do not act in isolation but in interaction with one another. However, while poverty is outside of a school's control, attitude and vision are not.

Teacher attitude:
As one who teaches first-year composition to ESL students, I'm constantly reminded of the importance of attitude, including my own. Many of my students work full time and have families, and they have first-hand experience in the frustration of learning to write in a second language, facing one "error" after another. Attitudes of mistakes as a normal part of learning, attitudes of respect, and a vision of high expectations help motivate students to keep learning more than an attitude of "Why can't you get this right?" and "Don't bother me, I'm busy."

Ideology vs. common sense:
I doubt that Stephen would disagree with that. Instead, he knows that people are often ruled by ideology instead of common sense (see Emotion Overrules Reason). Diano Schemo (It takes more than schools to close achievement gap, NY Times) writes:

In 1966, Prof. James S. Coleman published a Congressionally mandated study on why schoolchildren in minority neighborhoods performed at far lower levels than children in white areas.

To the surprise of many, his landmark study concluded that although the quality of schools in minority neighborhoods mattered, the main cause of the achievement gap was in the backgrounds and resources of families.

For years, education researchers have argued over his findings. Conservatives used them to say that the quality of schools did not matter, so why bother offering more than the bare necessities? Others, including some educators, used them essentially to write off children who were harder to educate.

Knowing that ideologues easily find excuses to justify their own agendas can make it difficult at times to allow for complexity. Raspberry commented on that point:

Does giving voice to this message amount to "giving racists a stick to beat us with"? It's an interesting question. Here's a better one: How do we best use our intellectual, political and moral capital -- priming our children for success, or merely supplying them with excuses for failure?

The complexity of the interactions between poverty and other factors requires a systemic approach to dealing with them. Neither should we excuse ourselves from attending to poverty's effects on learning and life, nor should we turn away from considering other factors that may interact with poverty, exacerbating the problem. Thus, in "priming our children for success," shouldn't we consider attitude?



The Chronicle of Higher Education has opened a forum "Can Blogging Derail Your Career" (via Brian Lamb via Stephen Downes) on why Juan Cole, Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan, wasn't granted a position at Yale University, the main suspicion being that it was related to his blogging. So far, there are eight, all interesting, posts, including a response by Juan Cole:

The question is whether Web-log commentary helps or damages an academic's career. It is a shameful question. Intellectuals should not be worrying about "careers," the tenured among us least of all. Despite the First Amendment, which only really protects one from the government, most Americans who speak out can face sanctions from other institutions in society. Journalists are fired all the time for taking the wrong political stance. That is why most bloggers employed in the private sector are anonymous or started out trying to be so.

Academics cannot easily be handed a pink slip, but they can be punished in other ways. The issues facing academics who dissent in public and in clear prose are the same today as they have always been. Maintaining a Web log now is no different in principle from writing a newsletter or publishing sharp opinion in popular magazines in the 1950s. ...

I am a Middle East expert. I lived in the area for nearly 10 years, speak several of its languages, and have given my life to understanding its history and culture. Since September 11, 2001, my country has been profoundly involved with the region, both negatively and positively. Powerful economic and political forces in American society would like to monopolize the discourse on these matters for the sake of their own interests, which may not be the same as the interests of those of us in the general public. Obviously, such forces will attempt to smear and marginalize those with whom they disagree. Before the Internet, they might have had an easier time of it. Being in the middle of all this, trying to help mutual understanding, is what I trained for. Should I have been silent, published only years later in stolid academic prose in journals locked up in a handful of research libraries? And this for the sake of a "career"? The role of the public intellectual is my career. And it is a hell of a career. I recommend it.

If all could learn to have this attitude, the world would be a much better place.



Andrea Elliott (New York Times, "A Muslim leader in Brooklyn, reconciling 2 worlds") reports at length on an immigrant imam who attempts to reconcile Islamic tradition with the American lifestyle, to answer questions never asked in Egypt, quesions such as:

A teenage girl wants to know: Is it halal, or lawful, to eat a Big Mac? Can alcohol be served, a waiter wonders, if it is prohibited by the Koran? Is it wrong to take out a mortgage, young Muslim professionals ask, when Islam frowns upon monetary interest?

In attempting to answer the never-ending flow of questions, he suffered a physical breakdown, but he also has become a flexible thinker:

"America transformed me from a person of rigidity to flexibility," said Mr. Shata, speaking through an Arabic translator. "I went from a country where a sheik would speak and the people listened to one where the sheik talks and the people talk back."

He has also become creative in resolving his congregant's problems. As he says,

"Here you don't know what will solve a problem," he said. "It's about looking for a key."

I think we can learn from him. In education, we often believe we know what will solve a problem, that we must stick to our "principles," as in the case of adherents of bilingual education and English immersion. But as noticed in earlier postings, such "sticking" can blind us to potential keys that fit local conditions.

Part of his ability to begin to see was moving to a foreign land in which the new land clearly contradicted the old ways, a land in which the old ways obviously did not apply. I wonder how we can create our classrooms and schools so that they become strange to us, contradicting our previous understandings, facilitating our seeing anew.

Another part was his compassion for his congregants. When he fainted during the service, he had to stay in the hospital for a week. Ali Gheith, the counselor who treated him, "called it 'compassion fatigue,' an ailment that commonly affects disaster-relief workers." Although it was recommended that he distance himself emotionally from his congregants, the imam replied,

"I did not permit these problems to enter my heart," said Mr. Shata, "nor can I permit them to leave."

Compassion for students can help us see past our traditional theories of learning to the living complexities of human beings in our classrooms.



I'll be taking about a month break in posting here. I just presented at a conference yesterday on integrating grammar into writing, but have two more conferences to prepare for in the upcoming 4 weeks.



Jim of the Humlab summarizes a lecture given by Erik Stolterman on "philosophical aspects of collaborative intuitive design." I generally dislike criticizing, preferring to synthesize what I find useful in others' work. And I wasn't there, so perhaps conversing face-to-face with Jim or Erik would add the context and nuance that I do not see in this summary. However, from what I do see, much of this "philosophizing" is merely oversimplification to the point of being almost useless. He gives, for example, a table contrasting design and science tools in terms of dichotomies, such as meaning-value, judgment-logic, competence-knowledge, and others. These dichotomies rely upon idealized (and false) representations of design and science. And it's difficult to know how to respond to someone who says, "The ability to make judgments distinguishes a designer from a researcher and distinguishes a good designer." Researchers don't design their experiments? They don't use judgment based upon past experience? Also, Jim records, "judgment is knowing based on knowledge that is inseparable from the knower." Is there any knowledge that is separable from the knower?

Still, this summary is instructive. Being specialists in the currency of knowledge, we can't be aware of, much less know, all the manifold disciplines that touch upon our interests, so we're likely to be "wrong" much of the time.



According to John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece (in New Scientist via Zonk of Slashdot),

Most published scientific research papers are wrong, according to a new analysis. Assuming that the new paper is itself correct, problems with experimental and statistical methods mean that there is less than a 50% chance that the results of any randomly chosen scientific paper are true.

Ioannidis is speaking of medical research, but if something so "concrete" can be so often wrong, then by extrapolating to "fuzzier" fields (i.e., history, linguistics, education, sociology), I imagine that the percentage of "wrongness" should rise. What does this say about the academic endeavor?