Archive for the 'Passing thoughts' category

The perils of embodiment.

I have long maintained that bodies are suboptimal vehicles with which to schlep minds around.

Most recent data point in support of this position: On Tuesday, I managed to hurt my knee in the course of grading papers. Grading papers! Come on now!

I guess it's also a data point in support of the hypothesis that if there exists an improbable way to injure oneself, I will manage to injure myself that way. (Ask me about the time I sprained my ankle stepping onto a bed.) However, if I weren't embodied, that wouldn't be the case.

* * * * *

Undoubtedly someone's going to want to know how grading papers resulted in a hurt knee, so here's what I think happened: I was sitting on a bed with a laptop and a clipboard on my lap, grading a bunch of online assignments. To create enough surface at the right height on which to balance both laptop and clipboard, I was sitting cross-legged. Apparently one of the knees was getting more than its share of the stress thusly distributed.

I anticipate I will be advised to sit at a table or desk like a sensible human being to get through long stretches of grading. The problem with doing that is that the available chairs in my Cave of Grading are hard enough that I can only count on about an hour and a half of grading before the pain in my butt from my "sits-bones" (as my Pilates instructor calls 'em) becomes unbearably distracting.

In short: bodies seem not to support grading as well as they might.

15 responses so far

Claims and their logical consequences (or not)

Within certain quarters of the administration of my fair university (and of the state university system of which it is a part), it is now taken as given that the classroom is a relic of a bygone era.

Lectures, it is declared, don't work. Besides, the Internet abounds with free streaming lectures (the ones from MIT, the TED Talks). What could we possibly have to add to that? So, it's time to phase out classes in classrooms and move our instruction online.

It's interesting to me that what is offered is a general declaration, rather than an identification of any particular lecture classes of ours that are not working. As it happens, the particular classes are what we offer, not some abstract generalization of "the lecture class".

Moreover, to the extent that lectures are a suboptimal delivery method for information and skills, this seems to be connected to a lack of opportunity to engage in what we in the biz call "active learning". This can be as simple as a pause for questions, or to have students work through a problem where they try to apply or extend something presented in the lecture. It might also involve a more elaborate small group exercise or a facilitated discussion.

Here's the thing: many (if not most) of us who teach "lecture" courses already incorporate a lot of active learning.

And, if the concern is that we should do more of it, or do it better, why would one conclude that the answer is to take this interaction out of the classroom and move it online? Why, especially, would one conclude that one should move it online while making class sizes much, much bigger?

Wouldn't it be more reasonable to conclude that the way to increase active learning is to make class sizes smaller?

Of course, that would cost more.

However, if the goal is really better pedagogy, not just cutting a few million dollars here or there, it might be worth remembering that facilitating active learning -- not to mention evaluating it to provide students with useful feedback and/or grades -- requires more instructor labor, not less, when it's done online.

Or, maybe the administration is only interested in improved pedagogy if the improvements (and whatever extra labor they require) can be had for free.

The whole thing kind of makes me wish the folks further up the org-chart than I am would just spell out exactly what they care about, and exactly what they don't care about. As it is, enough is left implicit that it's really hard to know whether there's any common ground for us to share.

2 responses so far

The things you can learn reading a comment thread.

So, Chemjobber (whose blog focuses on "[q]uantifying the chemistry job market" and "helping chemists find jobs somehow") wrote an interesting post on the supply/demand mismatch when it comes to chemistry Ph.D.s and how this might affect a person's rational deliberations about whether it's worth the gamble to pursue a chemistry Ph.D.

That post got me thinking (as good posts do), and I posted some of my thoughts about what we (in a sort of societal-level "we" that at least includes chemists and chemical educators, broadly construed, but that might also encompass higher education types and even society as a whole) might want to do about this supply/demand mismatch, and about how what we think we should do is probably connected to how we think about the point of education in the first place.

My post got Farked.

I went and read the comments. (I know, who does that?)

There, I learned:

1. Putting up a blog post that includes some typos (or maybe they were artifacts from the voice recognition software) means that your Ph.D. should probably be revoked. Immediately!

2. The existence of one commenter with a Ph.D. in chemistry who has an intellectually stimulating job that pays well means that there is no job crisis for Ph.D. chemists! (False alarm, kids! Come on back to the lab!)

3. The existence of one commenter who works placing interns for his university's STEM college and reports a 100% placement rate for students looking for internships means that there is no job crisis for Ph.D. chemists! (Even though maybe these are undergraduate students being placed? And maybe some of these internships pay less than what you'd view as a living wage, or perhaps nothing at all? Still, companies will welcome cheap transient labor from science majors, so the economy is totally fine!!)

4. Ph.D. programs in chemistry are probably way easier now than they were 100 years ago. (Whither intellectual rigor?) Maybe these lower standards are to blame for the glut of chemistry Ph.D.s.

5. On balance, it is a good thing when a sub-par chemist finds a job teaching philosophy!

Thankfully, we sub-par chemists can look to Fark comment threads for helpful examples when we teach logic and critical thinking.

And, because I count it as due diligence, I immediately emailed Chemjobber to alert him to the news that he's been mistaken about the chemistry job market. I expect by the end of the week he'll shift his blog over to providing photos of labware with hilarious captions.

Finally, given that the blurb that went with the link to my posts reads:

The market value of a Ph.D. in chemistry is now limited to asking 'Would you like fries with that?" On the positive side, chemistry students are bumping the hell out of English majors in the paper-hat careers

I could get all shirty about pointing out that my Ph.D. in a "useless" non-STEM field helped me secure a tenure-track job (and, ultimately, tenure) in a field where it's maybe even harder to get an academic job than in chemistry. (Look at me being a dumbass with my sunk costs and such!) And, there are no fry-o-lators or paper hats involved.

But that would just be mean of me.

6 responses so far

When gate agents attempt to be social engineers.

Mar 17 2012 Published by under Passing thoughts, Personal

I have just returned to Casa Free-Ride after a few days at a thoroughly engaging conference about which I'll have more to say soon. Getting home required air travel, this time on United.

There are many airlines that have so many levels of premium member stratification that they have run out of precious metals and gemstones by which to identify them in calling them to board. However, United is the first airline I have noticed that gets really tetchy about precisely which lane the non-premium members queue up in for their approach to the gate agent who scans the boarding passes even after all our betters the premium members have boarded. See, the premium lane has this special blue carpet on it that, it seems, is only to be trod upon by the feet of those special in the eyes of United Airlines. Indeed, on more than one leg of the trip I just completed, the gate agents actually halted the boarding of a plane to move everyone in the passenger-group-now-boarding from the fancy blue-carpeted premium lane to the economy lane.

Gate agents, the premium passengers have already boarded! They will not see the great unwashed swarm of economy travelers stepping on their blue carpet of awesomeness!

Anyway, on the last leg of my travel, the amplified gate agent (who was announcing which groups were invited aboard) was both distinct from the gate agent scanning boarding passes and several yards away from the boarding lanes for the gate. Thus, she tried to direct people to the appropriate lane by reiterating that the premium lane was the one on the left and the economy lane was the lane on the right.

It turns out USian air travelers cannot (or will not) distinguish left from right any better than your typical U12 soccer player. (How well is that? As a soccer coach, let me tell you: not very well at all.)

In short, it strikes me that United is:

  1. Attempting to get USian air travelers to accept a rigid class system, and
  2. Attempting to do so based on people's knowledge of the difference between right and left.

I fear both of these attempts are doomed to failure (although maybe for different reasons).

8 responses so far

A hole inside where my optimism used to be.

I have discovered that whatever patience I may have once had for students who think it's a reasonable strategy to try to deceive their way through "meeting" requirements in an ethics course has completely eroded. There's not a bit of it left, just a gaping hole where it used to be.

What's more, I think I came to the mistaken impression that I still had some patience in reserve largely due to my lack of inner shout-y-ness* about these students.

It turns out the inner shout-y-ness is gone because the part of me that regulates it has concluded that it's wasted energy. I cannot save adults who have decided to cheat at ethics for a grade. This is not to say I believe they cannot change -- just that I cannot change them. At least, not with the tools at my disposal.**

This realization leaves me feeling kind of sad.

Also, I think it has changed my strategy with regards to setting explicit expectations (for example, specifying that students are only allowed to use class readings and notes, discussions with classmates, and their own wits on certain assignments, and that using any other materials for these assignments is forbidden), and then enforcing them with no wiggle-room. At this point, if a student specifies (in writing) that he or she understands the rules and agrees to follow them else fail the course and face administrative sanctions, I am going to treat that as an enforceable contract.

Because honestly, with a critical mass of students who do seem willing to conduct themselves ethically in an ethics class, it's probably better for everyone if I can remove the few who are not.

I only wish removing the bad actors didn't leave me feeling dead inside.

*Shout-y-ness is so a word.

**This is not an oblique request for a torture chamber. That's not really my scene.

6 responses so far

Pursuing your goals in a world with other people.

Apropos of the discussion here, I offer some general thoughts on pursuing partner, career, family, or other aims one deems important:

  1. Knowing what you want can be handy. Among other things, it can help you identify when you've found it. If you have no idea what you want, recognizing it when you have it can be harder.
  2. On the other hand, being able to specify exactly what you want is not a guarantee that you can or will attain it. It could be, for example, that your desired simultaneous combination of partner-career-family-other aims does not exist.
  3. Hypothetical people that meet all our desiderata may be easier to get along with in our imagination than are actual flesh-and-blood people who embody those desiderata. Happily, it often turns out that actual flesh-and-blood people who significantly depart from some of the desiderata we set a priori are wonderful to be with.
  4. It's possible that there's something creepy about choosing a life partner on the basis of an a priori list of criteria (as opposed to, say, getting to know hir and deciding zie is a person whose companionship you value), especially if those criteria tend to specify services that imagined life partner will provide in advancing your aims. It kind of sets you up to be a self-serving creep who doesn't care about your partner's needs or aspirations.
  5. If your aims matter to you -- if they're really worth pursuing -- sometimes this requires that you sacrifice other aims.
  6. If you, personally, are unwilling to sacrifice aim X to pursue aim Y, that probably means that, push come to shove, you value aim X more. That's fine -- but it might be a good idea to make your peace with the possibility that you can't have both X and Y.
  7. If you really, really want to pursue aim Y without abandoning your pursuit of aim X, you might have to adjust your expectations about the level of attainment that will be possible. (Depending on values of X and Y here, this might involve ratcheting down career aspirations to something slightly less competitive, lucrative, prestigious, and/or time-consuming, scaling back on the projected number of your progeny, ratcheting down your expectations for a spotless home, what have you.)
  8. On the other hand, if you really, really want to pursue aim Y without abandoning your pursuit of aim X and you therefore make it someone else's job to pick up the slack on one of these two goals, it strikes me that you ought to make damn sure that this someone else (a) values the goal you are asking hir to pursue on your behalf and (b) that zie is not being forced thereby to abandon the pursuit of some other goal that zie values more.
  9. This is a good moment to remember Kant's insight that treating others as mere means to advance your goals rather than recognizing them an setters of their own goals is thoroughly assy behavior.
  10. In some circumstances, the least exploitative way to achieve the goal that matters to you but not so much that you'll sacrifice pursuit of your other goals to attain it is to pay someone else to do it. After all, money can be exchanged for goods and services, which might make it useful to the person whose assistance you are getting in pursuing some of hir goals.
  11. Institutions that stack the deck in favor of some classes of people being expected to sacrifice their own aims in order to accommodate (or actively support) other classes of people in the pursuit of their goals suck big bags of crap.
  12. When you recognize that institutional structures support your pursuit of your goals by limiting the options of others to pursue their goals, it would be a real show of humanity (and of not being an entitled ass) to do what you can to increase the potential for those other people to pursue their goals. It would also be cool to examine the institutional structures that stack the deck and figure out how to start dismantling them. (If you need a self-interested reason to do this, consider that fate may conspire to make you care greatly for the happiness and well-being of someone on the short end of this institutional structural stick.)
  13. In an environment where some people's goals are presumed to matter more than others (because of what class they are in rather than anything to do with the particulars of their goals), or where certain goals are judged in advance to be more appropriate (or "natural") to members of some classes of people, it is hard as hell to identify "freely chosen goals" that are actually free of the influence of various institutional structures. But, people who don't live in vacuums can't set goals that don't assume the persistence of certain features of our background environment.
  14. Sometimes taking your own goals seriously may require imagining -- even working for -- the non-persistence of certain features of our background environment. This may also be required to take seriously the goals and aspirations of other people who matter to you. It doesn't mean changing those features will be easy, but few goals worth pursuing are.

I hope I can be forgiven the Xs and Ys in the discussion here, as I think what's at stake ranges far beyond the traditional work/life balance issues about how to divvy up housework and parenting, whose career advancement to prioritize, et cetera. I think it cuts to the core of treating other people as fully human.

And, for some reason, it seems an awful lot like politicians, policy makers, and pundits are having a harder time with that lately than they should be. It feels like the rest of us have to pick up some of that slack.

4 responses so far

On being asked a question to which I did not have a ready answer.

Feb 23 2012 Published by under Academia, Passing thoughts, Philosophy

After my "Ethics in Science" class today, one of my students asked me a question:

"What is philosophy?"

My immediate response was, "That's a good question!"

I didn't have a course catalogue handy from which to crib a pithy description, nor my department website (although it turns out that describes instrumental reasons one might want to study philosophy rather than pinning down what exactly it is that you'd be studying).

I could have gone the Potter Stewart "I know it when I see it" route, but I have too many memories of people doing this in my graduate department -- and in a way so narrow that is seemed often to put everything that was not logic, philosophy of language, metaphysics, epistemology, or old school philosophy of science on the "That doesn't look like philosophy to me!" side of the line.

What I ended up saying is that philosophy tends to take things we take for granted -- justice, right and wrong, friendship, time and space, knowledge, science, beauty, what have you -- and interrogate what we think we know about them.

Do we have a coherent concept of (say) cause and effect? Do we have a consistent view? Is it a view that corresponds to actual stuff in the world, or just to the structures of the human mind organizing the information we can get about the stuff in the world? Do we need that concept to do other stuff we care about? Would we be better off without such a concept (and if so, how)?

What comes out of these efforts at interrogation varies. Sometimes we come away with a better understanding of the concept or practice about which we've been asking questions. Sometimes we come away with a lot of unanswered questions (some of which may even leave us without good strategies for trying to nail down answers). Sometimes we piss people off, upset the social order, and get handed the cup o' hemlock.

Maybe this means that philosophy is less a unified subject matter than a set of habits of mind, "question[ing] everything ... except your intelligence," as the Philosophy Talk guys describe it in their tagline. Or maybe it means I need to be sure I have a concise answer at the ready the next time this question comes up ... except that I had a real Suzanne Farrell moment* thinking about the question: I didn't know the answer to the question, but I love that my student made me think about it again.

* Let the record reflect that this was a Suzanne Farrell moment that did not involve an affair with the parent of one of my students.

3 responses so far

Things to do instead of grading that first stack of student papers.

  1. Staple any papers held together by paperclips, folded corners, or sheer force of will.
  2. Print out papers turned in by email, stapling if necessary.
  3. Alphabetize papers by students' surname.
  4. Divide papers into sets of ten and paperclip together.
  5. Create a grading rubric.
  6. Create a spreadsheet in which to record the grades.
  7. Find a supply of appropriately colored grading pens.
  8. Try to locate your drawing board.
  9. Double-check that the state and county correctional facilities will not, in fact, correct papers, not even those from state university courses.
  10. Leave papers, grading pens, and rubric on kitchen table overnight to see if elves will come to grade the papers.
  11. Write a blog post about ways to put off actually getting started on grading those papers.

13 responses so far

Passing thoughts from Casa Free-Ride in Exile.

Feb 14 2012 Published by under Passing thoughts, Personal

This week has been (and I daresay will be) sort of discombobulating.

Late last fall we discovered that we had hardwood floors hiding under the ratty wall-to-wall carpeting in Casa Free-Ride. We also found out from our friend who refinishes hardwood floors that if we were to refinish ours in February, we could get a deal on it. February, being part of our rainy season (to the extent that we have anything describable as "seasons" in the Bay Area), is part of the slow season for floor refinishing.

Given that we have held the carpeting in contempt for some time (did I mention that it was ratty?), it sounded like a great idea to us, even though it would mean completely clearing all the rooms in which carpeting would be pulled up and floors would be sanded and finished. Yeah, it meant boxing a lot of stuff and moving a lot of furniture, but we'd have time to get on that ...

After the holidays.

And after the kids went back to school.

And after ScienceOnline.

And after my semester got going.

Yesterday was the day of reckoning. The rooms were not quite cleared by 7:30 AM, but we had the last one emptied by 11:00 AM. By the end, we pretty much abandoned organizational principles in favor of getting it done, which means some of these boxes will be ... interesting to unpack.

We are lucky enough to have a place to stay within a couple miles of Casa Free-Ride (which is especially convenient given that the rabbit is still holding court in her backyard run, and demands regular water, kibble, carrots, and watercress stems as tribute).

I keep hearing how going carpetless leads to a remarkable decline in airborne allergens. I expect I'm likely to experience our return to Casa Free-Ride this way whether or not it's true; the place we're staying for the duration has enough residual cat in it (possible in time-release form) that my eyes have been scratchy and my throat itchy for the 30-odd hours we've been in residence. When I get that stack of papers today that will need grading, maybe I'll take them to the cat-free cafe. However, the cafe has wifi, which our current lodgings do not, which might make the grading harder.

In any event, I'm hopeful that the sock-skating we'll be able to do when the floors are finished will make the trouble of being dislocated totally worth it.

4 responses so far

Risk assessment with a stuffed-up head.

Dec 29 2011 Published by under Medicine, Passing thoughts, Personal

I have succumbed to what I hope is my last cold of the calendar year. (If I manage to fit in another after this, I will be tempted to claim it as a testament to my efficiency, rather than the capriciousness of my immune system.) And, seeking relief of my symptoms, I have returned to using my neti pot.

However, since last I used this handy device for nasal irrigation, I saw this news item:

Louisiana's state health department has issued a warning about the dangers of improperly using nasal-irrigation devices called neti pots, responding to two recent deaths in the state that are thought to have resulted from "brain-eating amoebas" entering people's brains through their sinuses while they were using the devices.

Both victims are believed to have filled their neti pots with tap water instead of manufacturer-recommended distilled or sterilized water. When they used these pots to force the water up their noses and flush out their sinus cavities — a treatment for colds and hay fever — a deadly amoeba living in the tap water, called Naegleria fowleri, worked its way from their sinuses into their brains. The parasitic organism infected the victims' brains with a neurological disease called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAME), which rapidly destroys neural tissue and typically kills sufferers in a matter of days.

OK, first thing? Every neti pot user I have spoken to since seeing this story uses tap water. I no longer have the box for my neti pot (on which the instructions for use were printed), but I cannot recall the instructions stressing -- or even mentioning -- that the neti pot only be used with distilled or sterilized water.

Not that I don't routinely ignore recommendations or void warrantees. It's just that I generally do so consciously, rather than accidentally.

Anyway, a headcold sucks. Brain-eating amoebae would probably suck even more.

Commentary I have seen on this story suggests that the real danger is not so much nasal irrigation with tap water as the questionable quality of Louisiana tap water. The quality of the tap water in the San Francisco Bay Area is pretty high. So, probably I could safely continue to use tap water in my neti pot.

But, now that I have the possibility of introducing brain-eating amoebae into my brain on the brain (as it were), the magnitude of the bad outcome (amoebae eating my brain) is big enough that I'd rather reduce the risk of that happening to zero. And, I'd feel like a fool (in the moments of self-awareness that I had before my brain got eaten) if I did fall victim to this bad outcome, as unlikely as it is, by betting wrong.

Which means, I'm now boiling my tap water first before I use it to irrigate my nasal passages. And, as I get used to this new protocol, I'm risking the discomfort of applying saline solution that has not cooled down quite enough.

But so far, I haven't seen any news items about brain tissue denatured by using a neti pot with too-hot saline solution.

3 responses so far

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