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Archive for July, 2012

A recent article at Slate by Karla Starr has me considering the effects of order on my grading practices. The subject of the article is the question of whether Olympic gymnasts benefit from performing later in the program and the answer appears to be, “yes”. Starr writes:

Step-by-step evaluations by highly trained judges also suffer from a myriad of biases. In Olympic gymnastics, evaluators are given direct instructions by the International Gymnastics Federation to base the participants’ scores on an ideal version of a performance with the same elements. The first performances are thus typically judged against a mythic, Platonic idea of perfection. Early in competitions, judges also tend to dole out moderate scores in the event that later routines will be even more deserving of high marks.

Later performances are scored according to the judges’ revised standard of performance: namely, that established by the first performances. In addition to inadvertently lowering their standards, judges tend to focus on the unique, positive traits of the later performances—something that’s impossible for them to do for the first performers. One of Bruine de Bruin’s studies, which analyzed figure-skating results from 1994 to 2004, found that the last to perform had a 14 percent chance of winning, compared to a mere 3 percent for the first participants.

Performers also suffer or benefit from social comparison, an effect that’s been verified by researchers Lysann Damisch and Thomas Mussweiler from the University of Cologne. Their analysis of the 2004 Olympic gymnastics competition concluded that a major influence on a gymnast’s score was the performance of the previous gymnast, which can alter a score by up to two-tenths of a point. As long as your performance isn’t marred by errors, going after a skilled gymnast actually increases your score.

The paragraphs above could easily be applied to the process of grading. I wonder about the extent to which most instructors take the time to counteract these effects and whether there is a more elegant (and time-effective) solution than grading papers and exams multiple times in different orders. If not, maybe we can make the process more fun by wearing different hats on each run through and pretending that we’re graders from different nations. Then we can leave bizarre comments on student work. For example: “The French judge may have liked your paper, but the Russian judge says it stinks!”

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As we approach August and the unofficial beginning to the ’12-’13 job market at ASA, the pressure is already starting to show at the Sociology Job Market Forum, where those who are new to the market and those who have been through everything before combine to see who can worry the most. There is a lot of useful information on the forum, but it can also be a haven for showboating (“I have five single-authored papers in ASR and twenty other papers in lesser journals, do you think I will get a job?”), frustration (“I have five single-authored papers in ASR and twenty other papers in lesser journals and I didn’t get a job”), and things that make me wonder if some people slept through every sociology class they’ve ever taken (“I have five single-authored papers in ASR and twenty other papers in lesser journals but I didn’t get a job because I’m a white male.”). I think that the most dangerous aspect, though, is the potential for nitpicking every part of the process (“I prefer 12-point Times New Roman but my advisor said that he won’t even read applications that are in anything but 12.75-point Helvetica.” “What color should I wear to an interview to maximize the potential that it is similar to the favorite colors of my interviewers?”).

Beyond what I’ve written on the subject in the past (and ignoring the fact that since my department can’t even get approved to hire somebody, I really have no idea what I’m talking about), there are two major pieces of advice that I gave to a friend who is new to the job market this year: 1) try not to worry about things that you can’t control, and 2) once you apply for a job, try to forget that you sent the application! The worst part of the job market seems to be the uncertainty, so the less you can dwell on it (and the tiny details that are outside of your control), the better!

Good luck to all of you!

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Following Sunday’s post about Jason Alexander’s take on gun control laws, here are three songs by Pearl Jam related to gun violence, from their first, second, and sixth albums, respectively. All of these songs are connected to the broader theme of our society’s belief that guns solve problems, which Katherine Newman identified as one of six necessary, but not sufficient, causes of what she called “rampage” shootings.

First, and most well-known, is “Jeremy”, from Ten, which details a teenager’s suicide. It was also (coincidentally, I believe) discussed on Brad Koch’s blog Friday morning with suggested classroom connections to suicide and gun control:

Next up is “Glorified G”, from Vs., which describes the kinds of conservative attitudes that Jason Alexander takes on in his post:

Finally, the song that you’re least likely to be familiar with. “Rival” is from Binaural and was written in the wake of the Columbine shootings:

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Until today I had no idea that Jason Alexander did anything but act, but he has written some detailed thoughts on the Aurora shootings and the weapons used in them, arguing that the second amendment does not provide us with the right to easily access assault rifles. A highlight:

There is no excuse for the propagation of these weapons. They are not guaranteed or protected by our constitution. If they were, then we could all run out and purchase a tank, a grenade launcher, a bazooka, a SCUD missile and a nuclear warhead. We could stockpile napalm and chemical weapons and bomb-making materials in our cellars under our guise of being a militia.

These weapons are military weapons. They belong in accountable hands, controlled hands and trained hands. They should not be in the hands of private citizens to be used against police, neighborhood intruders or people who don’t agree with you. These are the weapons that maniacs acquire to wreak murder and mayhem on innocents. They are not the same as handguns to help homeowners protect themselves from intruders. They are not the same as hunting rifles or sporting rifles. These weapons are designed for harm and death on big scales.

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On the eve of Independence Day, the fireworks industry has either experienced unprecedented growth in the past 15 years (via Slate) or it is in its worst slump since the Vietnam era.

Unlike the recent gaffes by CNN and Fox News, I’m not sure how to explain this discrepancy.

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Every Pixar movie since Toy Story 2 has had pressure to live up to the (commercial, if not always critical – ahem, Cars 2) success of its predecessor. Pixar’s most recent release, Brave, has the added pressure of featuring – gasp! – a female protagonist. The excitement over the prospect of a strong female character lasted until it was reveled that Merida, the primary character, happens to be a princess. Slate summarizes these reactions nicely:

The general disappointment with Pixar’s new movie Brave, which opens Friday, began long before even a trailer was released. The complaint was focused on the lead character Merida, who Pixar proudly announced would be its first girl heroine. After enduring some public and critical outcry over the lack of female leads, the company, known for daring to foist extreme dystopian landscapes and despot teddy bears on the world’s children, was now making its big feminist statement with a … princess. Peggy Orenstein was already mad about it in her 2011 book Cinderella Ate My Daughter and now she is even madder: “It still irritates me that a team as creative as Pixar’s, which has imagined so many extraordinary male characters, can’t imagine a female protagonist unless she’s a bloody princess” she wrote last week.

Now that the movie has actually been released, some of the reviewers have picked up on the fact that Brave is, at heart, a story about the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters (though they could also argue convincingly that it is about the complicated relationships between teenagers and parents generally). The review at Entertainment Weekly touches on this point, as does the review at Slate. Slate‘s XXfactor blog goes further, connecting Brave to a growing list of movies that deal with cultural issues of women and power, stating:

When the Queen explains to Merida why she can’t be rebellious she lists not just generic duties to the kingdom but personality traits which a proper princess should have: compassion, patience, caution, cleanliness, a yearning for perfection. This could very well describe the average ambitious college girl. People often ask why there aren’t more women in power. The real answer is that even though women are more successful than ever these days, we hold on to a cultural ambivalence about women with real power. Women can be competent, perfect, compassionate, but not quite dominant.

I think this is partly because we associate dominance with physical force. In the hunter/gatherer origin myth, men control the resources because they have more upper body strength. And even though upper body strength is irrelevant now, we haven’t been able to let go of the myth—until now, when it seems a shift is afoot. Pop culture is reflecting our anxieties about that shift, with ever more uncomfortable roles for women who fight and kill: Hanna, Salt, The Hunger Games, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and now Brave.

Some might point to movies like these and say that they are part of a larger solution to the problem of negative gender stereotypes more generally, but these depictions also demonstrate our society’s apparent inability to accept that a woman can be strong and powerful and emotional and normal. A blog entry at Entertainment Weekly asks, for example, “Could the heroine of Pixar’s Brave be gay?” The evidence in support of this question, which Stephen Colbert and others also commented on, is as follows:

But could Merida be gay? Absolutely. She bristles at the traditional gender roles that she’s expected to play: the demure daughter, the obedient fiancée. Her love of unprincess-like hobbies, including archery and rock-climbing, is sure to strike a chord with gay viewers who felt similarly “not like the other kids” growing up. And she hates the prospect of marriage — at least, to any of the three oafish clansmen that compete for her hand — enough to run away from home and put her own mother’s life at risk. She’s certainly not a swooning, boy-crazy Disney princess like The Little Mermaid’s Ariel or Snow White. In fact, Merida may be the first in that group to be completely romantically disinclined (even cross-dressing Mulan had a soft spot for Li Shang).

I should note that Merida is basically depicted as asexual – the “romantic” interests in the movie are in support of the story about her relationship with her parents, rather than the story itself. So we have apparently reached a point as a society at which depictions of strong female characters are becoming more common but are not so common that we can see them as normal rather than a sign that the characters in question are somehow different. As a doctor, I prescribe more strong female characters in media from all backgrounds and sexualities so that we can see that strength does not depend on one’s gender, background, or sexuality.

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