Archive for: December, 2012

Your consequentialist argument for cheating doesn't make what you did not-cheating.

I'm willing to accept that not every instance of cheating is necessarily clear cut -- that there may be some iffy choices that have not been explicitly identified as out-of-bounds.

However, I keep running into a situation that is quite different, where an explicit rule has clearly been broken* and yet, the person who has been caught breaking it tries to persuade me not to impose the promised penalty for breaking this rule** because the imposition of that penalty will lead to other bad consequences for the person who broke the rule that this person really, really doesn't want to deal with.

And look, I understand not wanting to live with the bad consequences of a choice. But the very fact that X will bring additional bad consequences for you does not mean that X was not cheating.

Those additional bad consequences from being caught cheating should maybe have been reason enough to try to achieve your desired ends without violating the agreed upon rules. Gambling on achieving those ends by cheating only works if you get away with the cheating. When you don't, articulating all the reasons that being caught cheating is going to mess you up does not make what you did something other than cheating.

* For example, "Here are the resources you may consult to complete this assignment and all other resources are forbidden," or "You must properly cite the resources you used in completing this assignment." In practices, violations of the first rule here are always accompanied by violations of the second (since otherwise, you'd be acknowledging that you used a source you were not allowed to use).

** For example, if you violated the agreed upon rules, you fail the course. (Here, the students must explicitly affirm that they understand the rules and will abide by them at the beginning of the course.)

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The mass shootings are reported, but not every near miss is.

Dec 17 2012 Published by under Current events, Personal

Let me give you a little context on my reaction to the murders in Newtown, Connecticut.

This kind of shooting puts me on edge. Not just because I watched a major one unfold on TV when I was pregnant with my first child. Not just because when the big school shooting before that happened, one of my fellow grad students told me, "That's where I'm from." Not just because someone I've known since I was a kid is married to a survivor of another. Not just because I freaked out waiting to get word about whether two of my friends from grad school were safe when the university that hired them became the site of another mass killing.

Although all of that, surely, would have been enough.

No, this kind of news puts me right on the edge because of a particular day I had a few years ago.

One of the students in our department left a note on the whiteboard in our conference room that was not quite right. In fact, one of the other students conveyed concern about this note, as it kind of sounded like an expression of intent to return to the department with a gun to "solve" a lot of "problems". The student who raised these concerns was very apologetic -- almost sheepish -- in doing so, but there were already concerns about this student. And there was very good reason to believe this student had access to a gun. So, our department chair called campus police to ask what we should do, and found out that the "shooter on campus" drill was scheduled for the very next day which meant they hadn't yet figured out what the standard response to this kind of threat was going to be. So, probably it would be best for everyone in the department to pack up for the day and go home.

At my department chair's urging, I packed up and went home. I walked to the on-site after school program where my kids were at our elementary school, signed them out and, on the walk home, asked them how their school day was. They proceeded to tell me what their teachers had done with their classes while the school was on lockdown.

While the school was on lockdown.

Because that very day, when a student in my department at my university was maybe considering coming back with a gun to shoot at us, my kids' elementary school was locked down because someone with a gun was on its campus. As it turned out, he wasn't there to shoot students, teachers, or staff -- he was merely cutting across campus with a gun on his way to a nearby apartment complex, where he went on to murder his spouse and a neighbor.

So when experts talk about how rare mass shootings, especially mass shootings at schools, are in the grand scheme of things, I feel the need to point out that they are not nearly rare enough. It is easy enough for people with guns to get in shooting distance of me and my kids that I got to experience two near misses in the same damn day.

This suggests to me an overabundance of access to weaponry combined with a remarkable lack of imagination about other ways to deal with frustrations of various sorts. That's a problem that we really need to fix, and soon.

(Also, read Stephanie's post on peculiar problems with U.S. gun culture that it's time to take on.)

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Not answering the question.

Dec 14 2012 Published by under Current events, Passing thoughts

Today there was another mass shooting at a school.

I am beyond tired of mass shootings at schools. Not just because I have kids in school, not just because I spent 26+ years of my own life as a student, not just because I work at a school (which is a big part of what a university really is). Schools are where people come to learn, to build skills, to find out who they are or who they want to be.

Schools are supposed to be safe.

As I was driving home from my school, I was listening to experts being asked on the radio how a school shooting like the one today could happen. Obviously, the follow-up question would be something along the lines of how, knowing what causes it, could we prevent more shootings like this one?

And the experts, down the line, said that really, this is an extremely rare event. Mostly, this kind of thing doesn't happen.

Which is probably true, but that wasn't the question.

Rare or not, this kind of event is utterly devastating. Do you know what caused it, or what contributed to it? Or is it an event for which you have just as little knowledge about causes, and effective prevention, as the rest of us?

The experts were also asked how parents should discuss this news with their kids. Here too, down the line, they said that parents should reassure kids that schools are very safe places.

But here again, that's not really the question our kids are asking when we talk about people showing up at a school with guns and killing lots of people.

What they want to know is, "Can you keep me safe? Can you promise that no one will show up at my school and do something like this?"

As much as we want to tell them yes, I don't think we can, not without lying. If there's a way to keep this promise, I'm not sure we know enough to do it. And maybe, even if we knew all there was to know about the causes, we still couldn't keep these shootings from happening.

That's a bitter pill to swallow, but if that's how the landscape looks to the people who study mass shootings, I kind of wish they'd tell us that rather than repeating how safe schools are.

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Another ponderable: Are public elementary schools becoming less secular?

Way back in the last millennium, when I was in a public elementary school in northern New Jersey (approximately 1974-1980), our school had holiday-themed classroom activities and music performances that were mostly secular. Snowmen and sleigh rides and reindeer featured heavily, and for every song or activity that made explicit mention of Christmas, there would be one that made explicit mention of Hanukkah (you know, for balance). It was pretty clear to us students, though, that serious effort was being made to keep holiday-themed stuff at our elementary school as secular as possible ... because that's what was appropriate in a public school (where kids had to be there whether or not they worshipped in a particular way, or at all).

More recently (approximately 2004-present), I have been the parent of students in a public elementary school in northern California where the holiday-themed classroom activities and music performances have been decidedly less secular. There has been an overabundance of straightforward Christmas carols (complete with verses with religious content), weak attempts to recognize the existence of Hanukkah by singing that one dreidel song, and no apparent effort to recognize the existence of (let alone incorporate in activities, performances, or celebrations) the seasonal celebrations of other religious traditions (e.g., Diwali). And, this convergence of "winter holidays" towards Christmas in the public elementary school has been happening despite a significant population of kids in the classroom who are not Christian, nor Jewish, nor Muslim.

All this leaves me wondering: Were serious efforts to keep religion from encroaching on our public school activities an East Coast Thing? Were they a late 20th Century thing? How is it that the adults running things in a significantly less diverse school district some 40 years ago were better at acknowledging that their student population might not all believe the same thing or partake of the same religious or cultural traditions than are the adults running things in our wildly diverse school district here in California?

Honestly, it's all pretty weird, and I'd like to understand the source of this receding commitment to secularism better.

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Ponderable: Academic hiring and interviewing.

It has been eleven years since I was last on the market for an academic job, and about six years (if I'm remembering correctly) since I was last on a search committee working to fill a tenure-track position in my department. Among other things, this means that I can consider the recent discussion of "conference interviews" at The Philosophy Smoker with something approaching "distance".

However, as I'm well aware, distance is not the same as objectivity, and anyway objectivity is not the kind of thing you can achieve solo, so I'm going to do a little thinking out loud on the screen in the hopes that you all may chime in.

The nub of the issue is how search committees in philosophy (and in at least some other academic disciplines) use preliminary interviews (typically 30 to 60 minutes in length) to winnow their "best" applicants for a position (as judged on the basis of writing samples, publication records, letters of recommendation, transcripts, teaching evaluations, and other written materials) down to the finalists, the number of which must be small enough that you can reasonably afford to bring them out for campus interviews.

The winnowing down is crucial. From more than a hundred applications, a search committee can usually reach some substantial agreement on maybe twenty candidates whose application materials suggest the right combination of skills (in teaching and research, and maybe also skills that will be helpful in "service" to the department, the institution, and the academic discipline) and "fit" with the needs of the department (as far as teaching, advising students, and also creating a vibrant community in which colleagues have the potential for fruitful collaborations close at hand).

But even if we could afford to fly out 15 or 20 candidates for campus interviews (which typically run a day or two, which means we'd also be paying for food and lodging for the candidates), it would literally break our semester to interview so many. These interviews, after all, include seminars in which the candidates make a research presentation, teaching demonstrations (hosted in one of our existing classes, with actual students in attendance as well as search committee members observing), meetings with individual faculty members, meetings with deans, and a long interview with the whole search committee. This is hard enough to squeeze into your semester with only five candidates.

So, the standard procedure has been to conduct preliminary interviews of shorter duration with the 20 or so candidates who make the first cut at the Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association. For departments like mine, these interviews happen at a table in a ballroom designated for this purpose. Departments that have a bit more money will rent a suite at the conference hotel and conduct the interviews there, with a bit less background noise.

Job candidates pretty much hate this set up. The conference falls during winter holidays (December 26-30 or so), which means travel is more expensive than it might be some other time of year. Search committees sometimes don't decide who they want to interview at the convention until quite late in the game, which means candidates may not hear that a department would like to interview them until maybe a week before the conference starts (boosting the price of those plane tickets even more, or making you gamble by buying a plane ticket in advance of having any interviews scheduled). Even at conference rates, the hotel rooms are expensive. Occasionally, winter storms create problems for candidates and search committee members try to get to, or to flee from, the conference. Flu season piles on.

Search committee members are not wild about the logistics of traveling to the convention for the interviews, either. However, they feel like the conference interviews provide vital information in working out which of the top 20 or so candidates are the most likely to "fit" what the department wants and needs.

But this impression is precisely what is in question.

It has been pointed out (e.g., by Gilbert Harman, referencing research in social psychology) that interviews of the sort philosophy search committees use to winnow down the field add noise to the decision process rather than introducing reliable information beyond what is available in other application materials. This is not to say that search committees don't believe that their 30 or 60 minutes talking with candidates tells them something useful. But this belief, however strong, is unwarranted. The search committee might as well push itself to identify the top five candidates on the basis of the application materials alone, or, if that's not possible, randomly pick five of the top twenty for campus interviews.*

Of course, search committees seem not to be in a great hurry to abandon conference interviews, at least in philosophy. My (brief) experience on the scientific job market didn't include conference job interviews per se, but I did have preliminary interviews of very much the same nature and duration with some private sector companies and national labs -- which is to say, I don't think it's just philosophers who are making hiring decisions that are at least partially grounded on a type of information we have reason to believe could be misleading.

The question, of course, is what to do about all this.

Search committees could abandon these preliminary interviews altogether. That would surely put more pressure on the written components of the applications, some of which might themselves be misleading in interesting ways. I'm guessing search committees would resist this, since they believe (although mistakenly, if the research is right) that they really are learning something important from them. It's not obvious to me that job candidates would unanimously endorse this either (since some see the interview as a chance to make their case more vividly -- but again, maybe what they're making is pseudo-evidence for their case).

Search committees could work to structure preliminary interviews so that they provide more reliable information (as the research suggests properly structured interviews actually do).** This would require search committee members to learn how properly to conduct such interviews (and how properly to record them for later examination and evaluation). Moreover, it would require that search committee members do something like acknowledging that their instincts about how to conduct free-flowing, open-ended preliminary interviews that are also informative are probably just wrong. This is a task with a difficulty level that's probably right around what it takes to get science faculty to acknowledge that having learned a lot about their field might not be sufficient to be able to teach it effectively, and that science education research might be a useful source of empirically grounded pedagogical insight. In other words, I think it would be really hard.

Search committees could keep conducting preliminary interviews as they always have. Inertia can be powerful, as can the feeling that you really are learning something from the interviews. However, it seems like a search committee would have to take into account the claim that, empirically, interviews are misleading when drawing conclusions on the basis of preliminary interviews. (Of course this is a normative claim -- the search committees ought to take this worry into account -- rather than a claim that mere exposure to a research finding would be enough to remove the search committee's collective powers of self-delusion.)

Or ... search committees could do something else?

What else could they do here? How do those of you in scientific fields handle the role of interviewing in hiring? Specifically, do you take concrete measures to ensure that interviews don't introduce noise into hiring decisions? Or do you feel that the hiring decisions you need to make admit of sufficiently objective information that this just isn't a problem for you?

If you prefer to comment pseudonymously for this discussion, feel free, but one pseudonym to a customer please.

* For all I know, campus interviews may introduce some of the same kinds of noise to the decision-making process as conference interviews do. However, many include teaching demonstrations with a sample from the actual student population the candidate would be asked to teach if hired, a formal presentation of the candidate's research (including responding to questions about it), and ample opportunity for members of the hiring department to get a sense of whether the candidate is someone with whom one could interact productively or instead someone who might drive one up a wall.

** It is worth noting that some search committees, even in philosophy departments, actually do conduct structured interviews.

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