Monday, 31 January 2011

An Informative Unicorn Chaser

After that rant I felt the need to post something pleasant, so here it is: a lovely five-minute explanation of the peculiarities of The United Kingdom, Great Britain, and the former colonies.

How polite!

Why Evolution Can Be A Deal Breaker, And Why It's Not About Belief.

Over at Historiann there's an epic comment thread in which netizens far and wide have been bringing to light their most catastrophic interview experiences, and it's really worth the read if you have the time. But one thread of the discussion has prompted me to write this. The issue of the diverse beliefs of job candidates came up, and one commenter suggested that discussions of "belief" in evolution should be avoided.

Well, if you don't "believe in" evolution (and I'll explain the scare quotes in a minute), I'd strongly advise that you keep that to yourself during any kind of interaction that may affect your hiring. I know that I am not the only person in academia for whom that could be a deal breaker, and here's why:

Depending on your variety of skepticism, I might not be able to trust you to teach.

Modern academia rests squarely on the shoulders of a rational process: hypothesis, evidence, examination, conclusion, repeat (with occasional switch-ups, like new evidence, new hypothesis, new examination, new.. uhm.. repetition, I guess, too. Anyway.). The only way to rationally reach the conclusion that evolution is an invalid theory is to present scientific evidence which indicates that that is the case.

And let's be clear: you don't get to be a part of the debate if you haven't studied evolution. If you can't state how the theory of evolution accounts for the present-day existence of both humans and monkeys, you don't get to be a part of the debate. If you confuse abiogenesis with evolutionary theory (this isn't about the spontaneous generation of life, it's about evolution) you don't get to be a part of the debate. These are the absolute basics of the theory, and if you're not familiar with them, you haven't done any research or critical analysis.

And that's the point: this isn't about freedom of/from religion, it's about critical thinking. Analysis, the ability to think critically about evidence, is the single most important skill an academic possesses. If you said something, anything, that led me to believe that your critical thinking skills were in question, then I couldn't in good conscience recommend you to a hiring committee.

Evolution does not require belief. Scientists don't "believe in" evolution, to them it is the process that best fits the evidence that has been amassed (and yes, there is a Metric F**kton of evidence). Scientists don't "believe in" evolution any more than they "believe in" gravity, atoms, magnetic fields, or any of a hundred other not readily visible things you need to rely on evidence to prove. If good, solid evidence surfaced tomorrow that atoms didn't exist, and that rather than atoms we were composed instead of tiny, tiny cheesecakes, scientists would reassess their theories and come up with new ones. That's what it's about.

If you refused to accept the existence of the process of evolution in totality, then no, I couldn't recommend you. If you understood how the theory of evolution works, but took issue with some minutiae of the theory, I'd suggest writing a paper and entering the academic discussion.

Otherwise, here's the deal: if you will accept that, based on the evidence, evolution is a currently existing and ongoing phenomenon, and that, again according to all evidence, homo sapiens (a misnomer if I ever heard one) shares a common ancestor with other primates, then I will consider it a possibility -- however unlikely -- that the world is in fact only 6,000 years old, and its accompanying understanding that there exists a god with one weird as hell sense of humour.

The reason this isn't about belief is this: if your response is "current scientific consensus is that evolution is the best fit for the evidence" then I don't give a damn what you believe. If you accept that all the evidence seems to point to evolution, but think there's some very powerful being or beings who are pulling the strings to make it just seem to any rational human being that that's the case, then who am I to judge? So long as you accept that there is evidence and that for the time being it points in one very specific direction, you could believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and all His Noodley Appendages for all I care.

But if your response, on the other hand, is that you "didn't come from monkeys," then Houston, we're going to have a problem.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Wherever will we find the cash? Oh wait.

So I just read this lovely piece by Philip Pullman about the approaching closures of libraries and social services all across England because the British government is being run by a whole host of burkes. He says it much more politely, but I have to admit, every time I hear about the cuts to education, public welfare, LIBRARIES for Chrissakes, it makes me just a little more incensed.

They keep maintaining that there just isn't enough to go around. "We're sorry," they say, "but we can't afford to subsidize education/community/society."

Meanwhile, they have increased spending on "defense" by One And A Half Billion Dollars.

Let me just say that again: in the midst of huge government cuts to things that affect the daily lives and future careers of millions of UK citizens, not to mention the future structure of British society, they have increased government spending on the military from £35,165,000,000 to £36,702,000,000. This is, as far as I can tell, after the 8% cut announced last October. I'm not really sure where that 8% is coming out of (perhaps that was originally going to be a bigger increase?), but you'd think that three months would be enough for them to update their website, so I can only assume that these are the right numbers. (God, they're good at squirrelling away funds for the military, though -- did you know that an additional £9.5Billion has been spent since 2001 in Afghanistan that isn't recorded as a part of the defense budget? It just comes from the Treasury Reserve. Can we get a billion to fight the war on ignorance, TR?).

Thing is, I have a lot of respect for the military. I think they do a good job. One that I couldn't do. My question is, how can it cost so much? Military spending is the most incredible thing. For the same amount of money as it costs to buy 16 fancy fighter jets (which they were, before the cuts, scheduled to buy over 130 from the US, at around £75million each) the UK could provide £9,000 tuition to 170,777 university students.

Thing is, the £3.25 billion shortfall they expect in the budget this year that they're taking out of public services like libraries, tuition subsidies, the AHRC, arts funding, and so forth, is chump change when you think about the costs of waging war.

The US does the same thing, probably worse. They just never really funded education in the first place, so people are used to it. You just can't question the spending on the military, because that would be un-Amurrican. Socialist, even.

...You know I was right-wing in the country I'm from.

So I guess what I'm saying is, I don't get it. I don't understand the priorities. I don't understand the costs. I don't get it, but it leaves me with a strong feeling of unease, that my education (undergrad, masters and doctorate, including tuition remission) costs about as much as a well-aimed missile. That it costs $80,000 in bullets alone to kill one Taliban fighter in Afghanistan. That an unmanned Predator drone costs the same as sending over 300 students to undergrad for a year.

But the UK can't afford to keep its libraries open.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Impolite things.

An open letter to Routledge, and secondary sellers of the book I want:

Dear Routledge,

I realize that the book I want from you was published all of nine years ago, and perhaps the price that you charge for it was just as high then. Perhaps that's why not enough people expressed enough interest in it for you to bother publishing a cheaper, paperback copy. But here's something I have to tell you, Routledge:

Unless that collection of essays LAYS BIG SHINY GOLDEN EGGS, I WILL NOT PAY $125 FOR IT.

That is all.




Tuesday, 18 January 2011

"Academically Adrift" or Just Learning to Swim?

In an article published today in the New York Times, under "The Choice: Demystifying College Admissions and Aid" is an article titled "How Much Do College Students Learn, and Study?". It's about a new book and study being published by professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, called "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses." Now I can't speak to the quality of the book, but the content of this article does raise, for me, some cause for concern -- and not concern about the quality of education the students are receiving.

Instead, my concern is for the alarm-ringing, flag-waving, media-friendly BS that passes for scholarship these days.

The study, as you might guess from the title, purports to be about the "fact" that in their study of "undergraduates at two dozen universities, [they] concluded that 45 percent “demonstrated no significant gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and written communications during the first two years of college.” "

I kid you not.

Why isn't this cause for concern, you may ask? Why am I not worried that nearly half of undergrads aren't improving "significantly" (whatever that means) their "broad analytic and problem-solving skills" in the first two years of undergraduate study?

You're here reading, so I'll assume you want me to tell you.

First, the study was done on 2300 undergrads at 24 institutions. Let's round that up to 2400 to be generous, and to make the math easier. That means that on average, at each of two dozen campuses, they studied 100 students. Not a bad sample size, all things considered. Except that at my undergraduate institution, that would be 0.2% of the population. I don't know if they take into account the differences between type of institutions (Community Colleges, R1s, SLACs, etc.) but I should like to know what statistical differences they found between them, as well.

Second, the study was done using the "Collegiate Learning Assessment":

...a standardized test that is essay-based and open-ended. (It is worth noting that in measuring broad analytic and problem-solving skills, the exam does not assess how much students concentrating in particular majors — physics or psychology, for example — have learned in their respective fields of study.)

It's a standardized test. Standardized tests do not, in fact, measure anything except the ability of a given student to take that particular standardized test. As far as I'm concerned, the sooner this country learns that, the better. Moving on, that little caveat (you know, that minor bit about not measuring the development of field-specific skills?) isn't so little.

One of the hardest parts of undergraduate learning is the steep difference in standards between even well-performing high schools and first-year university classes. There's a reason that most students can expect to have their marks drop by a full letter grade when they first enter undergraduate study: it's harder. That the first two years are spent trying to get up to speed in a new environment (both academic and social) alone would be enough to account for the fact that the lower-performing 45% of the students taking a standardized test don't show "significant" improvement in broad analytical skills.

That doesn't even take into account that a huge number of undergraduate programs are specialized from the get-go, meaning that the first two years are the first two years of a psychology program, or of a business program, or of an electrical engineering program -- where those years are spent, specifically, on learning to operate in a specific discipline.

Maybe a student in second-year economics won't see much improvement in broad analytical skills just yet, but I'll bet s/he'll see a pretty major improvement in her/his ability to understand economic systems.

The study purports to address this problem that "almost no one asks the fundamental question posed by Academically Adrift: are undergraduates really learning anything once they get [to college]? For a large proportion of students, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s answer to that question is a definitive no." (From the University of Chicago Press site)

Are they learning anything? Well, they aren't getting better on this one standardized test. In the first two years. Well, a little under half of them aren't. And we didn't take into account the time it takes to adapt to a new learning environment, or that what they might be working hardest on isn't broad analytical skills, but rather discipline-specific skills we don't measure. So I guess our answer is no, they aren't learning anything.

Face, meet palm.

Of course, this can all be fixed (because it's broken, don't you see?) by having students do more work:

for example, they found that 32 percent of the students whom they followed did not, in a typical semester, take “any courses with more than 40 pages of reading per week” and that 50 percent “did not take a single course in which they wrote more than 20 pages over the course of the semester.”

My God, a third of students don't take courses that require more than 40 pages of reading a week? And fully half didn't write more then twenty pages in a single class in a single semester? Sacre Dieu! It's like half of the students they polled are in the sciences or something.

Of course it's the institutions' fault. The study asks "What if at the beginning of the 21st century many colleges and universities were not focused primarily on undergraduate learning, but instead had become distracted by other institutional functions and goals?"

Yes. What if.

I have another "what if" -- what if, at the beginning of the 21st century, academics were given financial incentives to pass off this kind of alarmist pap as significant research?

This is, from what I can tell, a poorly put-together argument that loosely associates poor research findings with scapegoating accusations. It begins, like all bad science, with an intended outcome and a reason for it (read: our schools are failing us and it's Your Fault) and then uses water-thin evidence to attempt to substantiate its grand sweeping claims.

If I'm completely off-base about this book, then I wholeheartedly apologize. At this point I can only operate based on the claims made about the book by the NYT and UCP. But if I'm wrong in my assessment, and, in fact, this is a well-written study whose authors understand all of the above and have included caveats throughout explaining such... well, if I were professors Arum and Roksa, then I would be positively livid -- not only with the New York Times for painting my study in such a ridiculous light, but also with the University of Chicago Press for the patently absurd copy accompanying the book.

Why do we need to always be alarmed by the state of education today?

Monday, 10 January 2011

Linkspam Monday!

Not that this is going to be a regular occurrence, but I felt the need to share a few links, so...

Dr. Crazy defends the MLA, Dissent Magazine asks the ludicrous question "Are English Departments Killing the Humanities?", Keith Olbermann issues a Special Comment about violent rhetoric (via HuffPo), and so too does our own Matthew Gabriele.

Happy Monday everybody :)

Thursday, 6 January 2011

AHA Meet-up?

Any readers interested in meeting up for drinks sometime during the AHA? It's not every day that thousands of historians descend on (something that is close to) your hometown. Leave suggestions for where/when in the comments :)