Saturday, May 29, 2010

In Memorium of Body and Soul

Memorial Day always makes me think of my grandfather who served during World War II. He had stories about the war that were curious, funny, sad, shocking, mysterious, and telling of the human condition. My sense of war comes in large part from the man, many tales he wove from his Lazy-Boy as I sat on the couch.

He had lived a full life: raising a family, running a business, raising orchids and making bonsai trees, kibitzing with everyone he met. But the defining time of his life had been World War II, during which he had been a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, jumping behind the enemy lines before D-Day. As a teenager, I would mow my grandparents lawn and then sit with him for hours listening to old Yiddish jokes, arguing politics, and hearing the war stories. He always made sure that I knew that it was the convicts, colorful criminals with off-color pasts, let out of jail so they could serve in this unit that brought him home alive. And though it remained unsaid, it was always clear that in some indirect way I owed my existence to these people I was very lucky not to have had to associate with. Big Boy Buchanon, Jimmy D, the whole cast of them led to stories that might have been left on the editing room floor after shooting the Dirty Dozen. They were exciting, they were funny, they were poignant. Those were Pop Pop's stories and I heard them all countless times.

I was very fortunate that he and my grandmother lived only minutes from Johns Hopkins, where I was finishing my dissertation, so I could be close by. His last couple of weeks were clearly his last couple of weeks, so that I and the family as a whole could be with him. In the end, it was the cigars, not the Nazis, that finally got him.

But one thing about my grandfather's death that will haunt me until mine, was the way the war would not let him go. Even though he was surrounded by the people he loved most in the world, the war commanded his soul with an frightening ferocity. We all sat with him up in his bedroom; but in his last two days he drifted back to Europe and north Africa during the war. Sometimes it was hallucinatory, other times he knew he was in his bedroom, but he couldn't pull his mind off of the war. I saw in my grandfather's face something I had never seen before, it was beyond fear, it was true horror. And he would not talk about it. I tried for two days, hoping that describing it would exorcise it from his spirit. His agony was not from the disease of his body, but something in his mind. It was so painful to see my beloved Pop Pop in this anguish that I gladly would have taken the burden. But he would not speak. He would not dare expose me to whatever it was. His last act on Earth would be to protect his loved ones from his deepest demons the way he had protected the country decades before.

I will never know the particulars of it, but I know full well what it was. It was post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. With the advances in medical technology and so many returning from Iraq with grave injuries that would have killed them in wars past, we are all too easily turned to the body in thinking about permanent disfiguration. The loss of limbs or paralysis will be this generation's version of the homeless Viet Nam vet muttering to himself. But it is the psychic injury that will linger. Some will not recover from it, others will go on to be able to lives lives that seem normal and productive from the outside. But the effects of war on the mind will linger dormant. But they will be there.

And not for soldiers only. Indeed everyone who lives in the affected area will themselves be touched in a way that will never allow for life to be completely normal. We have entire nations now full of children whose brains have been altered by exposure to what we are capable of doing to one another.

So, on Memorial Day, when we think of those who have sacrificed their lives, we think not only of those who never came home, but also those who did, forced to leave part of their soul behind.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Food Facts

General Tso's chicken is named after Zuo Zontang, a Chinese commander who put down the Taipeng rebellion in 1860. The dish is most likely North American in origin, since such a dish is not part of traditional Chinese cuisine. It is hypothesized that it was named after him by a Hunan restaurant in his honor.

The chocolate chip cookie was invented before the chocolate chip. Ruth Wakefield, the owner of the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts, was running late making her chocolate cookies and figured that instead of melting the baking chocolate and mixing it into the batter, she'd just put it in in little chucks and let it melt and mix in while the cookies baked. Of course, it didn't mix in, but she served them anyway to a rousing reception. The cookies at the Toll House Inn became well known and when The Boston Globe printed the recipe, Nestle's baking chocolate started flying off the shelves. Puzzled about the sudden spike in sales in the northeast, Nestle's investigated, found the cookies, and created pre-broken bars of semi-sweet baking chocolate with the recipe on the package.

Other good food stories?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Superbowl, Fair Play, and Moral Luck

The NFL announced the location of the 2014 Superbowl. It will be in the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey. It will be the first time the Superbowl was played someplace that is not warm or a domed stadium. Is this a good idea? On the one hand, football is a game where teams need to play through the elements. On the other hand, if the intent is to create a game where the best team will most likely emerge, shouldn't they try to control for contingent factors like the weather? Bad weather gives an advantage to running teams over those with a passing-based offense. Was this a good or bad decision?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Art and Bias

Last weekend was Richard Wagner's birthday. Wagner not only wrote some of the most well-known operas, but also articles in which he condemned Jewish artists, especially musicians.

The Jew, who is innately incapable of enouncing himself to us artistically through either his outward appearance or his speech, and least of all through his singing. has nevertheless been able in the widest-spread of modern art-varieties, to wit in Music, to reach the rulership of public taste.
Does this change how we understand or appreciate his art? How much does the artist affect the artwork? Do you see O.J. Simpson or Mel Gibson's films differently? A classic Woody Allen stand-up album has him introduced as "author, actor, comedian, and despoiler of women." When he was doing his skinny Jewish nebbish routine in the 60s this was a funny line, but in light of events in the last decade one cannot hear that joke and not cringe.

How much does the life and views of the artist change how we understand his or her work?

Monday, May 24, 2010

RIP Martin Gardner

Sad news today, Martin Gardner died. He is best remembered for his "Mathematical Games" column in Scientific American which ran from the mid-1950s until the early 1980s. Few people know that his formal training was in philosophy and while at the University of Chicago he studied under Rudolf Carnap, the driving force in the Logical Positivist movement who fled Nazism with a fellowship that led him to the U.S. I teach Gardner's magnificent The Annotated Alice in my first year seminar, "Einstein in Wonderland: Physics, Philosophy, and Other Nonsense" which is the single best source for understanding everything Lewis Carroll was up to in his two Alice books. (To be honest, I used to have the students buy a cheaper non-annotated version which allowed me to sit there with my Gardner version and seem like the world's foremost expert on every line of the text...)

Gardner was the Will Shortz of mathematics, someone who left you with the sense that mathematics is enjoyable, playful, and something you wanted to be a part of your daily life. This is no small feat in a culture full of math-phobes where even Ph.D.'s will proudly say "I can't do mathematics." No doubt this is due in part to the way we teach math and to the broad scale anti-intellectualism in the larger culture, but whatever the cause, it is sad and problematic.

His writings blazed a trail for pop math writers who followed: Douglas Hofstadter, Rudy Rucker, Ian Stewart, Amir Aczel, and John Allen Paulos, among them. Sadly, popular math books have rarely had the readership of popular science despite high quality writing and an utterly fascinating subject matter. So this then will be the question for today. How do we get recreational mathematics to become more mainstream? how do we get mathematical questions into the public consciousness? We have sudoku puzzles next to the crossword and jumble, but how do we take the next step to making mathematics games something common? How do we get the history of mathematics and the stories of mathematicians into our collective consciousness? How do we make mathematics more a part of our culture?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Why Is Failure So Funny?

One of my favorite books is Stephen Pile's The Book of Heroic Failures which is itself magnificently funny, but made even more so by the fact that this title is the one given by its American publisher who changed the name from the infinitely better British version, The Incomplete Book of Failures. It reminds one that the British definition of irony is when a proposition impies the opposite of its literal meaning, whereas the American definition of irony is the property of being like iron.

What makes this book great is that it chronicles human failures. Some small, some magnificent in their scale, others as the result of arrogance in the face of challenge, and still others that you only see once you turn the corner. But one and all these tales are deeply satisfying. In his introduction, Pile gets it right, to fail is to be human. Everyone once in a while, he says, a Segovia does slip through the cracks and we all make sandwiches and sit and listen to him, but the rest of us are the ones who could never quite get that G chord right and spend our time trying to shake the pick out of that little hole. Humans are wired to optimists. We irrationally believe more positive outcomes to be more likely than they are. And as a result, while this leads to advancements that otherwise would not be made, it also means that we fail, flub, and flounder more often.

And, in a way, we appreciate it. The most memorable softball team I ever played on lost our first game 42-0. It was that last touchdown that really killed us. Losing a close ballgame is a heart-breaker, but losing 42-0 is actually fun in a strange way. Possibly the funniest radio moment ever is this one from This American Life chronicling the way a production of Peter Pan turned into a fiasco. If you've never heard it, do yourself a favor.

But they come in smaller varieties as well. As YKW will refer to, after a Dead show in the mid-80s, we all filtered through the chaos of the parking lot and getting in my car to go home I started it up. But something was wrong. The headlights were much dimmer than they should have been. Was there a problem with my battery? Were we going to get stuck in the line trying to leave the venue, holding up everyone? Would it conk out on the highway leaving us stranded? I had a car full of friends and it was late. This wasn't good. After vocally wringing my hands for a good five minutes about the problem, I realized it wasn't the lights that were dim. We arrived at the show early in the day and had never taken off my sunglasses. Trying to subtly change back into my regular spectacles, I was caught and thoroughly embarrassed.

So, what was your funniest worst moment?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, May 21, 2010

Homo Economus

Just back from a whirlwind trip to Louisiana to give a series of talks to middle and high school students about the history of science and traveling always makes me realize exactly how much we are exposed to adverising. You are captive in the airport and on the plane and there is not a single opportunity missed to market something to you.

But, this is not an exception. Marketing has become ubiquitous. Elementary schools are being sponsored. Communities have lost the ability to name their stadiums. Screens playing nothing but commercials are installed in elevators. Everywhere you go, someone is trying to sell you something and the line is that if the school can make some needed money or if it means the team can afford to pay a better first baseman, then it is a good thing. The company gets a chance to do more business, you get better services -- eveyrone wins.

But the cost is to our humanity. We have been reduced seemingly everywhere and at all times to consumer selves, mere economic entities. The proliferation of advertising "forces your values to become monetary" (extra credit for the first one to identify the source). And, no, it ain't necessary, but it is happening.

So, here's the question. Where in this culture can you escape being marketed to? What public spaces are commercial-free? Inside the stalls in most public restrooms is the only one I can think of. Before we start seeing corporate grafitti (Here I sit broken hearted, came to buy a smart phone with the best 3G network but only got AT&T), where else are you safe, where else are you permitted to be something other than a wallet-carrier?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Seemingly Trivial Unanswered Problems In Discourse: Smart Edition

"Seemingly Trivial Unanswered Problems In Discourse," which goes by the acronym D.U.C.K., is an exercise in which we take a question that should not be asked, a question that seems to have no answer or a perfectly trivial answer and actually have a discussion about it for no good reason.

Who is smarter, brain surgeons or rocket scientists?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Honorary Degrees

Every year at commencement I listen as dignitaries are given honorary degrees that our undergraduate only insitution does not grant in real life. The little routine has the President granting them the degree "along with all the rights and privileges that pertain therwwith." It always leaves me wondering, WHAT rights and privileges? If you get an honorary degree, what exactly have you received?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What Is Sexual Orientation?

The George Rekers situation is good for more than just snark. His hiring of a male prostitute for massage purposes with no intercourse was meant to satisfy his urges while granting him plausible deniability that he is gay, after all, he would argue, he never had gay sex and that is a necessary condition for being homosexual.

It is much like the line that Bill Clinton and Newt Gingerich took in contending that being on the receiving end of an admirer's oral pleasures was not sex since they didn't do anything. the flaw here is that sexual relations are just that relations and if one is n any way part of the relation, then once has had sex.

But Rekers' approach leads to a more interesting question. We have three distinct elements:

(1) There is the felt desire or urge to have sexual relations with (a) a sort of person or (b) a particular person.

(2) There is the forming of an intent to seek sexual relations with (a) a sort of person or (b) a particular person.

(3) There is the act of having sexual relations with a particular person.

Does sexual orientation reside in (1), (2), or (3)?

The Rekers contention is that sexual orientation resides in the action, that is, (3). If I want to paint, but never try then surely I could not be called a painter no matter how deep the desire to someday take up painting. in the same way, if I don't have gay sex, I cannot be called gay.

But surely if one tried constantly to find a partner, say, of the opposite sex, and continually failed, one would say that this person was heterosexual, despite his or her failures. This seems to point to (2) as the important condition.

But one might object that it is (1) that is important. This would be the line that considers Rekers to be a closeted or repressed homosexual. Being gay is something you feel, not something you decide or something you do. Sexual orientation is something that happens to you as you are not in control of desires. You don't choose to want something, you just find yourself wanting it.

If one were to have the urge to be with someone of the same sex, but never formed the intent to act on it and didn't, would that person be gay? Suppose one had no desire, but only sought and succeeded in having sex with someone of the same sex for other reasons, would that person be gay? If not, how do we make the determination if all we can observe are behaviors?

Monday, May 17, 2010

What Is a Criminal?

I was talking with an acquaintance the other day who is a police captain in a near-by county. He was relating a frustration from work. His people were conducting prostitution stings based on Craig's List ads. The johns who were busted included some well-respected members of the community and he received flack from above for wasting the force's time and resources busting people who were not really criminals. His contention was that a criminal is anyone who commits a crime and these people did, making them every bit a criminal. Surely, there is some element of class and race here, but it seems a fair question, what do we mean by "criminal"?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Commencement Speeches

My Fellow Comedists,

This is graduation weekend for us and that means commencement speeches. Usually the epitome of boring, they can be funny. Here is Sascha Baron Cohen giving the commencement address at Harvard:

What's the best or worse commencement address you've seen?

Congrats 2010 grads.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Is Mandatory Language Study Valuable?

The one curricular requirement that my advisees complain about most vocally (in English) is the language requirement. The argument in favor of it is that to be a full person today, you must be a citizen of the world and that means being able to speak a language other than English. Language is pregnant with culture and you cannot really understand the worldview but through the mother tongue. Additionally, it is the only way that you really understand how much of your own assumptions are not objective reality, but based upon cultural baggage you inherited. In a country that occupies a singular place in the world and is geographically quite isolated linguistically, it is our responsibility to broaden ourselves and reach out.

The argument on the other side is that a couple semester of grudgingly conjugating the irregular verbs "to be" and "to have" don't get you anywhere near the fluency that would generate the condition for cultural enlightenment. It is time that could be better spent on concerns of personal interest for students. Language study is hard and takes a lot of time and practice, time and effort that could be redirected.

Is mandatory language study valuable?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Some Are Mathematicians, Some Are Carpenters' Wives

One of the myths of our country is the Horatio Alger, rags to riches, anyone can become anything if they only work hard enough story. But I think back to a good friend of mine who quit one job on the East Coast to take a new job in the Bay area, leaving behind a life well constructed. Whenever she got overwhelmed with the "How am I going to start from scratch?" questions, she would tell herself, "Hey, I'm white and middle class in America, everything will be fine." Do we have a de facto caste system? I look at the distribution of education, the segregated way we live, and it certainly seems like we are stuck within our socio-economic pigeon holes. Is social mobility in America real?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Empty Bed

Going out to work in the garden, today. I've got a bed that I've not yet planted. Right now, I've got Brandywine toms, cukes, peppers, peas, lettuce, spinach, cilantro, basil, green beans, and rhubarb. What should I do with the extra bed?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Who Is Hawking Really Worried About?

Stephen Hawking has been warning us lately that it might be a bad idea to risk contact with extraterrestrials because they might be malicious. There is no reason, he argues, to think that an advanced race of beings who could come this far would be friendly and not have colonial impulses.

At the risk of making an ad hominem attack, we might ask who would have the most to lose from constructive engagement with such an alien race with superior intelligence and knowledge. The answer, of course, is those whom we as humans hold up as the paragons of scientific understanding. If these aliens do exist and were to come to earth, they would instantly become a source of incredible advancement for our own sense of the universe. They, and not our top drawer astrophysicists -- Hawking first among them, would become the most influential experts on matters of astronomy and cosmology. Additionally, there would surely be among them one or two who would be quite skilled in communicating this advanced knowledge to us and it would not be hard for them to find a good agent and publisher, thereby rendering pop science classics like A Brief History of Time obsolete. If we make contact with other worldly beings, Hawking goes right to the remainders bin. So, we might wonder whether Professor Hawking is being authentically concerned about our well-being as a species or whether he is merely worried about his own royalties...

Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Comicological Argument for the Existence of God

My Fellow Comedists,

Philosophers working in the traditions of Judeo-Christian have put forward what has come to be called the cosmological argument in which observations of an orderly universe are used to argue that a Creator god must exist. We Comedists have the comicological argument in which we cite examples of irony and absurdity as evidence for the existence of the Cosmic Comic. This week ought to leave no doubt.

Last week, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, held that the explosion that caused the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico was a work of God. He received derision for the claim, but I think he was right. How else could you explain the fact that we were handed the world's easiest current events pun, "spill, baby, spill"?

This week, it only got better. We had Republicans in the Senate arguing that we should not ban people on the no-fly list from buying guns. Sure, they are too dangerous to be allowed on airplanes, but what could possibly go wrong with allowing people we have good reason to believe are enemies of the state to arm themselves? Lindsay Graham's argument for this -- and I am not making this up -- is that the Founding Fathers were clear about firearms in the Second amendment, but said nothing about air travel since they couldn't have predicted the invention of the airplane.

Speaking of absurdity and terrorism, we've got to mention Faisal Shahzad, the keystone kop of the jihad set. Not only did he use the wrong kind of fertilizer, but he was taped parking his getaway car, but then took public transportation back to Connecticut because he accidentally left the keys to his car inside the van he was trying to blow up. You can just see him, nervous about the explosives, trying to set everything up, leaving walking to the getaway vehicle, reaching into his pocket, trying the other pocket, jacket, back to the original pocket, and then realizing -- oh no, did I leave them in..., oh no. Do I have time to go back and, no, oh, man, how much cash do I have on me? It's like the sequel to Woody Allen's Bananas.

Finally, we have to mention this one. With all the calls for the Vatican to investigate longstanding problems in the clergy, finally they are indeed acting.

"Three Catholic women's communities in Washington state are being investigated by the Vatican. They were chosen for review as part of an extensive investigation into American nuns. The Vatican says it's following up on complaints of feminism and activism."
Better nip that in the bud, after all, patriarchy has worked out so well for them.

What irony or absurd happenings have you observed lately?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, May 07, 2010

The Meaningfulness (or Lack Thereof) of College Rankings

The Washington Post recently ran an article about some colleges taking themselves out of U.S. News and World Report's annual rankings. These rankings lead to deep feelings of conflict within portions of higher ed. Gettysburg College, for example, tends to get this in spades because we are usually ranked in the tail end of the 40's for liberal arts colleges and the front page of the listings goes up to 50. to fall off the front page is perceived as disastrous for recruiting, even while we poo-poo their claimed meaningfulness.

On the one hand, you hear these ranking frequently disparaged on several grounds. First, the criteria used in U.S. News' algorithm do not really tell you about the quality of education that you would receive. If you use more adjuncts, your score goes down even if you are hiring in retired faculty who are master teachers instead of research-heads who resent being in the classroom. A significant factor is reputation, so whether you deserve it or not, the fact that people who have no idea what is happening on your campus have a positive or negative knee-jerk reaction to your name pretty much cements you close to your traditional rating. Second, the numbers do not mean anything. That you are 33rd this year and not 36th, implies that you are 3 better at something this year than you were last year, but of course that is not true. Thirdly, the factors are known by institutions who then craft policy to fool the rankings, not in line with best practices. It makes schools look better, but hampers their efforts to get better. Finally, you cannot give a simple linear ranking. Different schools are more or less appropriate for individual students. It's about fit. Schools have vastly divergent cultures, emphases, and characteristics that would enhance some students' experiences and diminish others. Trying to shove that into some line-up from best to worst is a category mistake.

On the other hand, schools are obsessed with the rankings because they make a real difference in the world. Parents and students take them EXTREMELY seriously, more so than they should. The stories are frequent about the prospective student who says that I was accepted to both this school and institution x, and I am going there even though I like this campus better because they are ranked four places higher than here. When you appear in certain ranges, numbers of applications go up and allows you to be more selective. More selective means better students, and that means an improved campus culture, more fellowships and grants to brag about, and all sorts of other improvements. The rankings are like money, they are valuable solely because people think they are valuable and that value can then be cashed in for goods and services desired.

What makes the objections a bit less than honest is that we do buy into a sense of the rankings ourselves and only admit it behind closed doors. We talk about colleges which we partition in "reach," "like," and "watch" classes. Our reach schools are our older siblings whom we idolize and hope to grow up to be just like someday. The like schools are the ones we sit with in the cafeteria and call our friends even if we gossip about them behind their backs and it wouldn't break our heart to see them drop their tray and embarrass themselves in front of everyone. The watch schools are the ones we might have a couple beers with, but would never admit to waking up next to the following morning. As faculty, we say of certain positions, but not others, that it is a "good job" and when talking over spinach dip at conferences, you know when your peers approve of your home institution and when they figure this must be a fling while you wait to find "department right."

So it is interesting that the colleges leading the charge here, the ones opting out of the academic version of keeping up with the Joneses, are some of the Heathers of the lot, very prestigious schools who are doing quite well in the rankings. Is it the sort of principled stance that idealistic academics are supposed to take? No doubt, in part. Could it also be sour grapes that they are doing well, but not as well as they think they should be doing? Maybe. Is it maybe the sense that not only are they doing well, but that they are so good, they don't even need to play that silly game? Rankings are for losers who need some stupid magazine to pat them on the head. Maybe. Is it resentment that non-academics have the nerve to judge us who sit so high above them? Dunno.

Whatever the motivation, it ain't going to work. U.S. News rankings are and will remain important because the families of high school students looking at colleges are among the worst informed consumers out there. They don't know exactly what it is they are shopping for and have virtually no sense of how to compare the different options. Most people only know of a few universities, usually those that are local or have well-known football or basketball teams. These are major research universities whose teaching record is far from stellar. "But there are several Nobel Prize winners there, doesn't that mean that they will be taught by the best and therefore become the best?" No, it doesn't work that way. "But they have a new athletic center with a bowling alley!" Oy. You can't blame them for this because they do not know -- and to some cannot know -- what to check out. Who knew their daughter would major in anthropology? Who knew their best anthro teacher would get denied tenure in a power play because of factional in-fighting? Who knew that her course load and advisees would be picked up by a senior member who would have retired years ago but for his collapsed 401k and despises his students? The most important aspects are often things you would never know to look for nor would be able to find out even if you did figure out what you wanted to know.

So, what's left? U.S. News and world Reports' rankings. It's all they've got. No, they don't understand them. Yes, they think they mean something they don't. But the fact is they are real and given a sense they don't deserve. They are the Moody's of higher ed and just as we are reforming the financial system whose collapse was due in part to incestuous ratings mechanisms that could be manipulated, so too we need to reform the rankings.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Atheism, Religiocity, and Spiritualism

A twist today on the old chestnut, what is the difference between being religious and being spiritual. Can an atheist be either? I was best man a few years back for a dear friend who got married by an atheist rabbi. He was a working rabbi, conducted services and performed rituals. He considered himself deeply Jewish, he just didn't believe in the existence of God. Could he, or someone like him, be conisdered religious or spiritual?

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Objectivity of Grades

I was going to respond to the ongoing thread in yesterday's post, but thought that the argument deserved its own space in order to be thorough. The claim has been put forward and agreed to that grades on work like papers is subjective and thereby meaningless. This, I want to argue, is entirely false. Grades are not subjective. The "culture of grades" may be deeply harmful to students, but that is not because the marks assigned are random, a matter of taste, or a function of arbitrary factors.

An anecdote: I was on a committee several years back in which a music history prof brought in three essays from her class and asked us all to grade them. None of us were experts and we ranged over the entire college. There was a biologist, a physicist, a Spanish prof, a German prof, a sociologist, a management prof, an economist, and me, a philosopher. We read carefully through the three essays and graded them without discussion or contact amongst us. In the end, every single one of us had the same grades for the assignments to within a single +/- grade. I do not believe this was accidental or chance.

Every year we have senior thesis papers that we grade. The adviser of the writer assigns the grade, but we all read over the papers to make sure that we are grading in a way that is consistent across the department and it is the minority of papers about which there is any disagreement. The point is that grades are replicable. Repeated grading does not usually turn up radically different results.

What accounts for this is that when we assign grades, we have reasons for that grade. There are things we look for: depth of understanding, clarity of thought, active engagement with appropriate sources, insight beyond quoted sources, the ability to synthesize different sources into a coherent argument, taking seriously dissenting views and approaching them critically and respectfully. Now, there is no ideal paper that has this much insight, that much scholarship,... Different papers have different strengths and weaknesses, in part connected with the topic, but there are aspects of a good paper that we cite when justifying a grade.

Sure, grades may differ to some degree from prof to prof, some may expect more scholarship, others may reward slightly higher a spark of insight that the student clearly has but didn't work out fully. But we must be careful not to confuse objectivity with the ability to quantify. Just because there is not some algorithm by which we compute a paper grade does not mean that there isn't a real difference in the world between an A and B or a B and a C paper. There is.

We must be careful to distinguish the fact that the grade is underdetermined from the claim that it is subjective. To say that "x is subjective" is to say that whether x is true or not is purely and completely a function of personal belief. If something is subjective, then there is no way that I can be wrong about it and there need be no reason for my belief. If I prefer vanilla to chocolate ice cream then I just do. I can't be wrong about this. If you try to convince me that I only think that I prefer vanilla, but I really -- unbeknownst to me -- prefer chocolate, you are talking crazy talk. There is also no rational discussion that will make me change my mind. My taste is my taste.

But grades are not a matter of taste. We can change our minds for rational reason and it is not a matter of I like or I don't like. Grades are not subjective. You may challenge an unfair grade as unfair which means that you have inherent in your understanding of grading a sense fairness, of "ought," and that means that there is a sense -- admittedly, limited -- in which grades are objective.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010


Is A+ a real grade? If so, does the top student in each class deserve it or is it something that should be given only to truly remarkable, once in a decade type work?

Monday, May 03, 2010

An Open Letter to Students

Dear Students,

Sorry to interrupt, I know how busy you are right now and how stressful the end of the semester is with papers and exams. I know you've been listening to me go on and on all semester, but I have one last thing I really need to say. Please do not plagiarize.

This is not some high-horse lecture about intellectual property, academic integrity, or personal growth, this is heart-to-heart advice from your Uncle Steve because I know you are in a vulnerable position. You are facing too much work, too little time, you are exhausted from a long semester and do not know how you are going to get everything done. You are nervous about your grades because you know that both the job market and grad school admission is getting more difficult, you know it is one of the first things your parents will ask about when you get home, and you are worried that your professors will think less of you if you do not work up to what you think are their expectations. Lack of sleep and not eating well have clouded your judgment and from this point of view it will seem very tempting to cut corners, especially since you see other people doing it and getting away with it. Still, please don't.

First of all, you just aren't that good at it. I've been reading your work all semester and I know what to expect from you. I know your writing style, I know the sort of things you've been thinking about from your comments in class, I generally know what sort of other classes you've been taking and how much background you have in complex topics in other fields. Yes, it would thrill me to get a really good paper from you, the sort of work that shows you were as excited about the material as I am, the sort of work that shows some kernel of insight just waiting to be unpacked through the years of experience to come, the sort of work that opens up discussions we could have next semester over a pizza because you just can't let this go.

But that paper looks a lot different from a plagiarized paper; it sounds like you, it sounds like an enthusiastic undergrad who has gotten a real glimpse of something, but is incomplete and sloppy in the ways an undergrad paper should be, ways that would allow new doors to be opened, it is not the polished work of a professional scholar whose years of training under experts and whose doctor dissertation required a collecting of evidence you would have no sense of. I know you haven't read the footnotes in Rawl's A Theory of Justice. I know that you do not understand general relativity. I know that you do not know about the non-standard interpretations of the later Plato. But I do know how to use all the same tools you would use in finding the material to cut and paste and it is actually quite easy nowadays to get right to the text you would plagiarize from. It's not that hard to detect and not that hard to gather the incriminating evidence. It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes.

Second, even if you did get away with it, it won't end up making that much of a difference in the end. By this point of the semester, so much of your grade is already determined that the difference between a B+ and a C- paper is quite small and even if it does move you a couple of +/- grades in one direction or another, that fact will most likely have no effect on who you marry, what job you get, what you name your kids, where you go for vacation when you are 48, nothing. I know grades seem a huge deal right now and professors are in part to blame because we are insecure and think that without the threat of grades hanging over your heads, you won't respect us. But in truth your college GPA means very little in the lives of most people. But getting busted for plagiarism could mean a lot. It is something that is becoming a show issue and you will be treated harshly to make a point. There is so little reward that it is absolutely not worth the risk.

Finally, your professors are not "the man," we are not looking to nail you. We like you (well, most of you anyway). We want you to succeed. We want you to keep in touch by e-mail and come back to campus ten years from now for alumni weekend and tell us funny stories about your time in college and about how you got to be wherever it is you will end up. And you know what, we won't care or remember that paper. To be honest, we will have forgotten about it long before next semester. We will not think less of you because you handed in one piece of garbage, we will think that you must have been overtaxed with work or that we gave a bad assignment. We will still like you. Attach a note to the bad paper telling us that you know it is not your best work and that if you had more time it would have been better and that you had hoped to take it in this other more interesting direction. We write papers all the time, often at the last minute for conferences. We understand, it happens to us too. We've just learned the trick of saying at the beginning, "this is a work in progress" -- "in progress" is professor-speak for "inferior work I hope to do well someday."

But when you plagiarize, you put us in a horrible position. We don't want to turn you in, in part because we want the best for you, but also because we don't want to have to deal with the process. We are tired too. It's been a really long semester and we just want to get our grades in so we can get to the plans we've made for break. And now you make us have to spend our time searching for your sources, documenting evidence, and explaining how we knew this had to be plagiarized. We have so much to do right now that we don't need the headache. You just made so much more work for us because you decided not to just turn in a lousy paper. We resent the fact that I now have all this extra work because you didn't want to do the work you knew you were supposed to do. You write a paper, I read a paper, that's the deal. Because you decided not to hold up your end of the bargain I now pay the price. Screw you! It is frustrating at a time when I'm exhausted and pissy, too.

But more than that, it feels like betrayal. All semester, you've been great in the classroom with interesting things to say. I looked forward to giving you a good grade and seeing you around the campus and now you go and do this to me? ME: the one who spent the time preparing for class, answering your e-mails at awkward hours, giving you extensions and offering to look at drafts. I was more than happy to write a letter of recommendation for that internship for you when I had a stack of blue books on my desk and a meeting for little league coaches to go to, and you do this to me?

So, students, please. Give me shoddy work if you must. It's the season of generosity. I know how tough it is for you right now because it's that tough for us too. Do us all a favor and try your best to get in the best work you can even if your best right now isn't that good. For all of our sakes, just don't plagiarize. Please.


Uncle Steve

p.s. Do try to get sleep, eat well, and take a break to get some exercise -- it will make you more efficient, improve the quality of your work, and keep you from getting sick.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

New Sets

My Fellow Comedists,

A bit late for my annual Saint Shecky's Day offering, here are a couple new sets from a show I mc'ed at The Junction. Comedy on the first one starts about 2 minutes in and features what I believe to be the only dirty non-Abelian group theory joke.

Smart jokes:

An abbreviated verison of my holidays set:

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve