Archive for May, 2013

As I’ve previously discussed, I don’t like honorary degrees, especially in the case of honorary Ph.D.s from non-Ph.D.-granting schools. They are even more problematic when given to dogs:

Doggie DegreeAlthough this dog reportedly sat through all of its owner’s classes as a service dog, simply being in the room does not mean that you are participating (or learning). Also, I wonder how this dog’s degree made the other honorary degree recipients feel!

Despite the ridiculousness of the situation, I do realize that the dog is cute in its cap and gown. I hereby deem him “Doggie Howser,” with all of the rights, privileges, and responsibilities associated with that title.

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As many of you know, once you start committing sociology it is hard to stop. It is so hard to stop that Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias was able to find sociological relevance in Fast and Furious 6, which was last weekend’s number one movie an improbable 12 years after the release of the original. Beyond muscles, cars, explosions, and tanks, though, Yglesias makes a compelling argument for the continued success of the franchise: loyalty to family in a world of increasing inequality and decreasing trust of social institutions. As Yglesias writes:

Sociologically speaking, this is a classic moral outlook of a low-trust society well-captured by the allegedly Bedouin phrase “I against my brother, my brothers and I against my cousins, then my cousins and I against strangers.”

The problem, of course, is that this sort of particularistic outlook is very dysfunctional on a social level. You can’t have a prosperous and secure society unless the law is enforced. But how can the law be enforced when the prison guards are massively corrupt? Ultimately a functioning economy depends on functional politics, and functional politics depend not just on monitoring and incentives but on esprit de corps and a willingness to make abstract ideals a priority.

It would be comforting to simply dismiss the Fast and Furious franchise as an ethically unfortunate series of movies about illegal street racing. But as David Madland has written, the low-trust ethics it embodies are in fact typical of societies featuring a high and growing level of income inequality

In a world where the system increasingly seems to be rigged, it’s natural to turn to the Dominic Toretto’s of the world as heroes. Yet Dom, for all his hard work, ingenuity, and undeniable skill doesn’t really do anything useful or productive. He’s a nice guy who’s loyal to his friends and family. He lives by a code. And his outlook is increasingly appealing in an increasingly unequal America. But it’s ultimately destructively of the social institutions needed to generate prosperity. And yet at a time when elites long ago stopped caring whether the gains of economic growth would be widely shared, and in recent years seem to have turned their backs on the unemployed altogether then these are the heroes we’ll turn to.

Also working in its favor is another sociological factor: diversity. As Gitesh Pandya at Box Office Guru  notes, “From day one in June 2001, the series has invested in ethnically diverse casts which has broadened the consumer base. Sales from urban youth have always been key. And appeal has been strong with women too. This weekend’s audience breakdown showed a 49% female crowd which is incredibly high for a macho action sequel. 40% is common. 57% were age 25 or older and 32% were Latino.”

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Just the Facts:

  • News articles on Edmunds.com feature a “Just the Facts” section that typically repeats the information in the first few sentences of the story.
  • This is stupid.
  • For this exercise in stupidity, and the commitment to keep it up for over a year, I have awarded Edmonds.com the Memoirs of a SLACer Award for Unnecessarily Dumbing Things Down.

Quite a while ago (over a year, as far as I can tell, which is forever in internet time), Edmunds.com adopted a new format for its articles about car news. The “car news” section should not be confused with their car reviews or long-term road tests, where various editors comment on a car over the course of a year, both of which are written in a different style. Articles in Edmunds news section are often little more than reworded press releases, which is problematic its own right. Not content to simply feed readers language crafted by the PR representatives of automakers, however, Edmunds also includes a section at the top of their articles labeled “Just the Facts” with a summary of the key points and a section at the bottom labeled “Edmunds says” where they editorialize about the content with a one-line statement.

The problem with this approach can be seen in a recent story about the possibility that Tesla Motors will repay its government loan this week (which, I admit, is based on a tweet, not a press release).  I have linked to the story in the previous sentence but you should only click on the link if you want to see a picture of Tesla’s Model S electric car, which is admittedly very nice looking, because the article is so short that I will include the whole thing here (and here’s a direct link to the picture of the car!):

Just the Facts:

  • In yet another milestone for the electric start-up, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk said the company may repay its U.S. Department of Energy loan as early as Wednesday.
  • Musk made the announcement in a Twitter message on Monday.
  • Musk also said another announcement about its Supercharger network would be coming next week.

 PALO ALTO, California — In yet another milestone for the electric start-up, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk said the company may repay its U.S. Department of Energy loan as early as Wednesday.

Musk made the announcement in a Twitter message on Monday.

Musk also said another announcement about its Supercharger network would be coming next week.

“Given govt loan repayment this week (prob Wed), Supercharger update will be next week,” Musk tweeted. “Work continuing independent of announcement.”

Musk’s tweets include official company announcements and what essentially are personal journal postings.

He also recently posted: “Petting zoo left a chicken behind at the park. Now we have a pet chicken.”

Tesla has been on a winning streak as of late. Last week, the automaker said it would use $452.4 million from a bond and stock offering to repay the balance of the federal loan with interest. The loan helped to cover the cost of building the Tesla Model S.

Edmunds says: Tesla is on the brink of a major moment in its history.

You may notice from the story itself is short – 157 total words. You may also notice that the “Just the Facts” section is simply the first three lines of the story. The facts then, included at the beginning of a very short story (as journalists have a tendency of doing) are apparently some sort of summary for people who have been watching cable news all day and cannot understand anything that is not preceded by a bullet point. The “facts” themselves are 55 words, or over a third of the entire article!

For its efforts in this area, I hereby award Edmonds.com the Memoirs of a SLACer Award for Unnecessarily Dumbing Things Down. Congratulations, Edmunds!

John says: When visiting Edmunds.com, stick to the reviews and long-term road tests. Get your car news from a source that doesn’t think you’re a complete idiot.

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In addition to the stupidity of honorary degrees, another aspect of commencement and the events leading up to it that I despise is the practice of asking graduating seniors for money. During the president’s comments at commencement and both of the awards ceremonies I attended, he reminded students of the importance of “giving back” to their alma mater. (A similar parallel is the practice of asking faculty and staff to donate to a school’s yearly fundraising campaign.) I don’t care if these statements are gentle, joking, or desperate. They should not be made.

Beyond the fact that a (mythical) student paying full price would have just dropped upwards of $150,000 on a college education and the more realistic students who pay substantially less are typically financially strapped as it is, my view of comments like these is that they are much more likely to provoke bitterness among students and their parents than they are to highlight how important donations are to the school’s bottom line. My own approach would be to focus on giving students an exceptional college experience that they will look back on fondly, keep them connected to the college community after graduation through newsletters, alumni magazines, and social media, and wait a while before asking for money. Maybe the alumni newsletters and magazines can occasionally feature stories about the contributions of others to deliver the message that I watched my own school’s president deliver awkwardly on numerous occasions.

If we give students a positive experience and make them feel welcome and connected after graduation, they will want to donate. I’m sure that schools have data on when students start donating and how that is related to total donations over time, but I wonder how many people simply never donate because they were turned off by the force with which their alma mater asked for donations before they had even had a chance to get a job.

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At the end of every spring semester, along with final exams and class evaluations, is commencement. The purpose of commencement, as I see it, is to commend students on their accomplishments and send them into the world to do good things. As such, I get frustrated by the aspects of commencement that do not support these goals. Among the most ridiculous of these is the awarding of honorary degrees. At my school’s most recent commencement, the president stated that one of the purposes of honorary degrees is to show students what it is possible to accomplish, but they often seem more like an attempt by colleges and universities to align themselves with people who have done great things, as if this alignment will help with fundraising.

I have always thought that honorary degrees were somewhat ridiculous, but they seem even more ridiculous when given by a small liberal arts school. Why, I have wondered, does a school with no Ph.D. programs have the ability to give honorary doctorates in seemingly any area. And how do the recipients of these degrees feel about them? For those who already have Ph.D.s I assume they feel unnecessary, while for those without Ph.D.s it seems more likely to be a reminder of what they haven’t accomplished. Worst of all, when granting these degrees the president says that they are awarded with all of the associated rights, privileges, and responsibilities. Of course, an honorary degree provides one with no rights, privileges, or responsibilities. They are essentially academic masturbation, and nobody wants to see somebody masturbating at commencement!

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Speaking of stupid ideas, the full functionality of the ASA’s website was restored yesterday after its database upgrade. To their credit, this only took one more day than they estimated. Of course, the fact that this work only took one extra day does not excuse the fact that it was poorly scheduled. I guess that we can all resume committing sociology now!

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In the grand scheme of things, keeping your computer passwords in a notebook near your computer is probably not the stupidest thing you can do. Trying to sell a $10 notebook in which people can write their passwords is probably more stupid. As a result, it was not a huge surprise to read on Ars Technica that Password Minder appears to have come and gone. Actually, it is unclear whether Password Minder ever really existed:

Yes, the idea was real. So was the infomercial. One of the ways Telebrands tests its products is by generating a commercial to gauge interest, a Telebrands PR representative told Ars. “In this case, the company created a test infomercial to determine interest in the product,” the rep said. “Since there was minimal interest, the product was not produced for public distribution.”

If this is the case, there are probably a few people out there who are really disappointed that they have never received their Password Minders! I guess that they will just have to watch this clip from Ellen and dream about what might have been:

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Recently, Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half returned after a long absence, first with a warning that she would be posting again, and then with an actual post about her depression, which she previously described here. As many around the internet have noted (it seems they like it, alot), the post as a whole is a great description of what depression is like but I want to focus on the part where she discusses the experience of others trying to help her and the reasons that their help failed. I think that she does an excellent job at capturing both the desire of others to help and the frustration that arises on both sides from the lack of intersubjectivity. I imagine that this is how a lot of the advice we give our students comes across, as well. I have excerpted this section below, but you really should read the whole thing.

And that’s the most frustrating thing about depression. It isn’t always something you can fight back against with hope. It isn’t even something — it’s nothing. And you can’t combat nothing. You can’t fill it up. You can’t cover it. It’s just there, pulling the meaning out of everything. That being the case, all the hopeful, proactive solutions start to sound completely insane in contrast to the scope of the problem.

It would be like having a bunch of dead fish, but no one around you will acknowledge that the fish are dead. Instead, they offer to help you look for the fish or try to help you figure out why they disappeared.

The problem might not even have a solution. But you aren’t necessarily looking for solutions. You’re maybe just looking for someone to say “sorry about how dead your fish are” or “wow, those are super dead. I still like you, though.”

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For the last few months, an anonymous professor (named “professor-anonymous” – I would have preferred a generic pseudonym!) has been posting animated gifs on Tumblr. It is not clear if this person creates the gifs him or herself, but I assume that he or she finds them on the internet (Tumblr is overrun with gifs) and then appends professor-centric titles to them. Check it out. It may help you recover from grading.

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Other than grading, I associate the end of the semester with complaining, mostly about grading, but also about students and their complaints. The other day I was talking to a colleague who remarked that a student had recently asked why he didn’t get an A when his paper had all of the required parts. I noted that I include statements at the end of my syllabi about what each grade means in an attempt to inform students that simply meeting the requirements will not earn them an A. Of course, the fact that this statement is made of words and placed at the end of the syllabus probably means that few students are aware of it. During our discussion I started contemplating more effective ways of delivering this message. One way goes something like this:

Simply having all of the required parts of an assignment will not earn you an A. Think of the parts of a paper like the parts of a car. Just because you have all of the parts doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to drive anywhere, as this example shows:

You're not driving anywhere in this

You’re not driving anywhere in this

Simply having all of the parts might earn you a C. I hope that you’re not okay with a C. You can do better than that! Like writing a good paper, assembling a car takes a lot of work. Luckily for you, writing a good paper is actually much easier for most people than assembling a car. Of course, having all of the parts and connecting them is also not necessarily enough for an A, as this example shows:

2 - Prius Assembled

That’s good, but I still think you can do better!

Having all of the parts and assembling them in a way that resembles a paper might earn you a B. There are some obvious flaws here! There are grammatical errors all over the doors of this car! How, then, can you earn an A? An A paper should be more like this:

3 - Prius Complete

I bet Toyota proofread this before turning it in!

An A paper not only has all of the parts assembled in a way that resembles a finished product, it reflects the effort that went into creating it. An A paper does not have any glaring flaws (like, you know, a charred interior) and its appearance reveals that it has been well-maintained. It is clean and polished and hopefully even original. An A paper is not the result of somebody starting to write with the first sentence, stopping when he or she has fulfilled the requirements, and submitting the paper without proofreading. An A paper takes work. When you earn it, I will be happy to give you an A.

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