Archive for: August, 2010

The future of higher education, according to the rumor mill.

I'm getting this third-hand, and I'm always cautious about predictions of future events, but here's someone's vision of higher education yet-to-come:

  1. Professors will totally need to incorporate online elements, especially social media elements, into their courses if they are to have a prayer of engaging their students.
  2. They will also need to get students to accept the idea that since the jobs are being outsourced to other countries, they (the students) will need to be ready to move to those countries. (No word on whether students are to be prepared for the prevailing wages in those countries, or on whether those countries are likely to welcome our students as job-seeking immigrants.)
  3. The end of new tenure track faculty.

Excuse me, but I was promised a zombie apocalypse.

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Punishment, redemption, and celebrity status: still more on the Hauser case.

Yesterday in the New York Times, Nicholas Wade wrote another article about the Marc Hauser scientific misconduct and its likely fallout. The article didn't present much in the way of new facts, as far as I could tell, but I found this part interesting:

Some forms of scientific error, like poor record keeping or even mistaken results, are forgivable, but fabrication of data, if such a charge were to be proved against Dr. Hauser, is usually followed by expulsion from the scientific community.

“There is a difference between breaking the rules and breaking the most sacred of all rules,” said Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia. The failure to have performed a reported control experiment would be “a very serious and perhaps unforgivable offense,” Dr. Haidt said.

Dr. Hauser’s case is unusual, however, because of his substantial contributions to the fields of animal cognition and the basis of morality. Dr. [Gerry] Altmann [editor of the journal Cognition] held out the possibility of redemption. “If he were to give a full and frank account of the errors he made, then the process can start of repatriating him into the community in some form,” he said.

I'm curious what you all think about this.

Do you feel that some of the rules of scientific conduct are more sacred than others? That some flavors of scientific misconduct are more forgivable than others? That a scientist who has made "substantial contributions" in his or her field of study might be entitled to more forgiveness for scientific misconduct than your typical scientific plodder?

I think these questions touch on the broader question of whether the tribe of science (or the general public putting up the money to support scientific research) believes rehabilitation is possible for those caught in scientific misdeeds. (This is something we've discussed before in the context of why members of the tribe of science might be inclined to let "youthful offenders" slide by with a warning rather than exposing them to punishments that are viewed as draconian.)

But the Hauser case adds an element to this question. What should we make of the case where the superstar is caught cheating? How should we weigh the violation of trust against the positive contribution this researcher has made to the body of scientific knowledge? Can we continue to trust that his or her positive contribution to that body of knowledge was an actual contribution, or ought we to subject it to extra scrutiny on account of the cheating for which we have evidence? Are we forced to reexamine the extra credence we may have been granting the superstar's research on account of that superstar status?

And, in a field of endeavor that strives for objectivity, are we really OK with the suggestion that members of the tribe of science who achieve a certain status should be held to different rules than those by which everyone else in the tribe is expected to play?

29 responses so far

Start-of-semester paradox.

Regular readers of this blog may recall that the California State University system, of which my fair campus is a part, is in the throes of a budgetpocalypse. The state of California just can't put up the money it used to put up to support the educational mission we are charged to uphold, and one immediate strategy the system has taken to deal with dramatically reduced state contribution is to shrink our enrollments.

I recognize that this seems counterintuitive -- you'd think more enrolled students would mean more tuition dollars coming in, which would bean more money available to pay for stuff like instructors and electricity in the classrooms and so forth. However, even with steadily increasing "student fees" (our euphemism for tuition in a university system which was set up to be tuition-free), the amount of money the students are putting up comes nowhere near the actual costs of educating those students. The money from the state is essential to even approaching those costs, so when the money from the states is reduced, it means we can't enroll as many students. (My understanding is that this has jacked up the demand at the community colleges significantly, but I haven't seen actual numbers on this.)

Anyway, from a faculty-eye view, the immediate impact of slashed enrollments was a first week of classes during which ... it didn't quite feel like the first week of classes on campus. There was not a line of traffic several blocks long to get into the parking structure. The sidewalks in most parts of the campus were not so congested with new and returning students as to be practically unnavigable. It was not practically impossible to grab a quick bite at the main campus eatery in a 15 minute window before noon.

However, from within my classrooms, you'd get the impression that enrollments have skyrocketed. I have had many more people asking for add codes (and many more students sitting on the floor or standing through the first class meeting) than in any semester I can recall here. I'm still waiting to see what the official policy ruling will be on how many students I'm allowed to add (since going over enrollment targets can lead to punishment of departments that do so).

I guess I'll try to appreciate how much less time it takes to park, even if I end up having to use the time I've saved (and more) grading a larger stack of student papers.

3 responses so far

Friday Sprog Blogging: Kids Day at SLAC 2010 and the saga of Mr. Marshmallow Man.

The younger Free-Ride offspring reports on one of the workshops at Kids Day @ SLAC 2010:

Dr. Free-Ride: Tell me the story with Mr. Marshmallow Man.

Mr. Marshmallow Man

Younger offspring: Mr. Marshmallow Man got put into a vacuum chamber, and it was also kind of like a time machine, 'cause when they put him in, he was, like, porking out on all these marshmallows. Except, he wasn't eating himself. And then, the time flew fast and he turned eighty. Then he porked out some more. And then, time flew more fast, and then he turned a hundred, and then his head fell off and I came to his funeral. (In a dramatically sad voice) I'll never forget you, Mr. Marshmallow Man!

Dr. Free-Ride: OK, but can you tell me what was happening in terms of the balloon in the vacuum? What actually happened?

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One response so far

A hopeful sign at work today.

Seen on my colleague's office door:

4 Days Since Last Robot Attack

I'm glad we've gone at least a few days without a robot attack, as the budget for responding to robot attacks has been slashed to the bone (and the paperwork you need to file after such attacks is terribly burdensome).

4 responses so far

Start-of-semester mad dash.

Well, summer sure ended quickly (although suddenly the weather is downright summery -- thanks, irony!). Less than 48 hours from the beginning of classes, my to-do list looks something like this:

  • Update syllabus for the "Philosophy of Science" class I've taught for several semesters.
  • Update web pages for that "Philosophy of Science" class.
  • Set up materials in Desire2Learn* shells for the two sections of that "Philosophy of Science" class that I'm teaching this term.
  • Finish writing syllabus for the "Logic and Critical Reasoning" course I'm teaching for the first time this semester.
  • Create web pages for "Logic and Critical Reasoning".
  • Set up materials in Desire2Learn shell for my section of "Logic and Critical Reasoning."
  • Update my homepage (primarily to reflect/link to courses I'm teaching this term and to list my current office hours).
  • Find out what the heck my college's official policy on add codes is this semester, the better to inform the throngs of people turning up wanting to add my courses what (if anything) I can do for them.
  • Verify that textbooks are actually available in the campus book store (and not mislabeled and/or mis-shelved).
  • Verify that necessary classroom equipment is functional in my classrooms.
  • For each of my courses, create 1-page handout giving overview of course requirements and URLs for detailed syllabi, assignments, etc.
  • Make offerings to the deity that controls department photocopier in order that I may successfully photocopy the 1-page handout for each of my courses.
  • Put in request for the courses I'd like to teach spring semester.
  • Try really, really hard to dodge any new committee assignments.
  • Brace self for inevitable unpleasantness of the details about what else needs to be cut this semester in light of the fact that the budget assumed a 10% increase in student fees** and that student fees actually only increased by 5%.***
  • Bring a sweatshirt to office, which seems at present to be a full 30 oF colder than the ambient temperature outside. (Bring thermometer to office, to track meat-locker-like temperatures in which it seems I'm expected to work.)

By the way, these are just the items requiring the most urgent attention -- the full to-do list is much longer.

We'll see what I can get done before the last minute has passed.
*Desire2Learn is a course management system, like Blackboard or WebCT (which Blackboard bought and assimilated). My university adopted it because it seems to do better on accessibility issues (like making content easy to navigate for students with visual impairments with a screen reader).

**In the California State University system, of which my university is a part, "student fees" is the euphemism for tuition. Tuition is spoken of euphemistically because until the early 1990s there wasn't any. Now there is, and it seems to increase substantially every term.

***That 5% increase, however, is enough to make life really hard for a lot of our students.

4 responses so far

Friday Sprog Blogging: Kids Day at SLAC 2010 hazards and mitigations.

Longtime friend of the Free-Rides LO has been instrumental in hooking the Free-Ride offspring up with Kids Day @ SLAC. Finally the year has come when the younger Free-Ride offspring meets the age requirements to join the elder Free-Ride offspring. As is our practice, we prepared by reviewing the safety information:

Dr. Free-Ride: So, we're talking about Kids Day @ SLAC. I'm showing you the logo for this year's Kids Day @ SLAC. There seems to be some sort of -- I don't know if that's a laser beam or something. Looks interesting. But, the part we need to discuss has to do with the safety information. "All children must wear long pants, Kids Day T-shirts" -- which you guys will get from LO and put on when you get there -- "closed-toe shoes, no jewelry, and long hair must be pulled back. Please review the hazards and mitigation information on the workshops." Younger offspring, let's look at workshop B.

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2 responses so far

Harvard Dean sheds (a little) more light on Hauser misconduct case.

Today ScienceInsider gave an update on the Marc Hauser misconduct case, one that seems to support the accounts of other researchers in the Hauser lab. From ScienceInsider:

In an e-mail sent earlier today to Harvard University faculty members, Michael Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), confirms that cognitive scientist Marc Hauser "was found solely responsible, after a thorough investigation by a faculty member investigating committee, for eight instances of scientific misconduct under FAS standards."

ScienceInsider reprints the Dean's email in its entirety. Here's the characterization of the nature of Hauser's misconduct from that email:

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4 responses so far

Friday Sprog Blogging: please stand by.

Dr. Free-Ride is pinned down in committee meetings for a while.

There will be a conversation with the Free-Ride offspring posted later today. In the meantime, here are whiteboard traces of a science-y conversation the sprogs had recently with Dr. Free-Ride's better half.

On our whiteboard

Yeah, I find the "sand" thing worrisome, too.

2 responses so far

Is objectivity an ethical duty? (More on the Hauser case.)

Today the Chronicle of Higher Education has an article that bears on the allegation of shenanigans in the research lab of Marc D. Hauser. As the article draws heavily on documents given to the Chronicle by anonymous sources, rather than on official documents from Harvard's inquiry into allegations of misconduct in the Hauser lab, we are going to take them with a large grain of salt. However, I think the Chronicle story raises some interesting questions about the intersection of scientific methodology and ethics.

From the article:

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6 responses so far

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