Wanted to be accepted without being acceptable …

I chuckled when a FB friend posted this:

The individual who posted this did so in a tongue-in-cheek way.

But it did get me to thinking about what I’ve actually seen. I teach college. And from time to time, a student will complain about flunking a class. But often their complaints will be “I needed this class and those credits to…” (insert “keep my scholarship”, “get my job”, etc.)

And, because I teach mathematics, their complaints are almost never “I did this correctly and didn’t receive proper credit” or “I knew the stuff and you flunked me anyway”. To them, the “grade” and “credit” is really a commodity that I have and that they want; “knowledge”, “learning”, and “performance” are almost always completely unrelated.

It would be like a prospective surgeon always botching the cadaver operation but wanting a pass, or a prospective pilot always crashing in the simulator but wanting a “pass” from pilot school.

It is the old “accept me” rather than “help me so I can work to meet the standards”.

Another note Needless to say, poor people are not the most popular people in our society and are often blamed for their fate. The article I linked to purports to ask “why”. It is a decent article, but I find it strange that the author doesn’t see the reaction to poor people as being natural.

The headline is: “Why do we think poor people are poor because of their own bad choices?” so I’ll give my answer:

1. Our own experience. Quick: what poor people to you actually KNOW? (not merely read about or have seen somewhere)

Chances are, it is the family mooch. In our case, this sibling of a family member had the same parents, the same educational opportunities, the same upbringing, the same inheritance (well into 6 figures), and managed to piss it all away.

Parents will often see some of their kids do well, while others become chronic underachievers.

So when we hear “poor people”, we think of the examples that we know, rather than someone who grew up devoid of realistic opportunities. We look at the negative outliers that we know and try to extrapolate.

2. Social pathology. Yes, poor people tend to share some very bad, self destructive habits. Of course, research tends to show that this behavior tends to stem from poverty rather than the other way around. “Being poor makes you stupid” as some might say. The direction of causation isn’t always clear.

3. Fear. Yes, though I am comfortable at the moment (and close to being “long term comfortable”), at mostly points of my life, I was really only a bad break away from personal disaster (untimely illness, injury, lay off, employer going out of business just when I become unemployable), etc. No one wants to think “I am one bad break away from being just like that poor person” so we conjure up reasons why “it can’t happen to us because we are so virtuous” or something.

July 7, 2017 Posted by | education, politics/social, social/political | , | Leave a comment

Doing students a disservice: not pointing out their ignorance

A couple of things have struck me. There is a New York Times article about high school students not believing climate change because of what they hear at home and from our current President.

On the other end, you see student takeover and (attempted) intimidation of faculty at Evergreen State College; what struck me is how inarticulate the students are, and how they seem to ‘know” that they know more than the faculty and staff:

And they appear to be enabled by at least some of the faculty:

About 55 Evergreen State College faculty and 23 College Staff have signed a “statement of solidarity” with the student protestors, which you can find here. (That’s more than a quarter of the faculty).

I reproduce the statement in its entirety (indented). It is an implicit criticism of biology professor Bret Weinstein as a racist, which he is not. He is being punished and ostracized for writing an email refusing to leave campus at the “request” of students of color on Evegreen’s “Day of Departure.” If you want to see the email that got Weinstein demonized, go here. The bolding is mine, and my comments are flush left. […]

I omit the names of the signers (see the document linked to above), but I am guessing that the faculty are almost all humanities professors and that there are few or no science professors. The College Fix (I can’t verify their assertion) says that “The statement is being circulated by Julie Russo, whose expertise is “media studies, gender & women’s studies, sexuality and queer studies,” and Elizabeth Williamson, whose expertise is English literature and theater studies, according to a Friday listserv email from Russo obtained by The College Fix.

Now I am for getting students to start to think for themselves. But part of “thinking for oneself” is to come to grips with one’s own limitations (intellectual ability, experience and knowledge) and to understand when to defer to those who know more. Not all opinions are created equal.

And yes, fresh eyes might pick up on blind areas, but, I’ll just ask this: are the students really fit to run a university or to teach classes?

Now I teach mathematics and I can tell you that if I am not reasonably gentle with my examinations, I would blow away my classes. They simply lack the perspective, knowledge and experience that I have.

Yes, once in a while I might make a mistake on the board and they catch it, but none of them would claim to know more than I do.

I think that it there is a fine line between encouraging students to think for themselves and making them way overconfident as to their current abilities and achievements.

Workout notes: a bit sore from this weekend, but I still got in a weight workout and an easy walk:

weights: rotator cuff, pull ups (5-5, then 4 sets of 10), bench press: 10 x 135, 5 x 185, 8 x 170, incline press: 10 x 135, military: (dumbbell) 15 x 55 seated, supported, 10 x 45, 10 x 40 standing, rows: 2 sets of 10 x 55 dumbbell, 10 x 110 machine. Goblet squats: sets of 5: 25, 25, 45, 55, 60, 65, 70, 75, abs: 2 sets twist crunch, 2 sets of yoga leg lifts, 3 sets of moving bridges, headstand (shaky, but ok), 5k walk (warm).

June 5, 2017 Posted by | education, social/political, walking, weight training | | Leave a comment

Death of Expertise (really not that new)

This is an interesting article:

How conversation became exhausting
Critics might dismiss all this by saying that everyone has a right to participate in the public sphere. That’s true. But every discussion must take place within limits and above a certain baseline of competence. And competence is sorely lacking in the public arena. People with strong views on going to war in other countries can barely find their own nation on a map; people who want to punish Congress for this or that law can’t name their own member of the House.

None of this ignorance stops people from arguing as though they are research scientists. Tackle a complex policy issue with a layman today, and you will get snippy and sophistic demands to show ever increasing amounts of “proof” or “evidence” for your case, even though the ordinary interlocutor in such debates isn’t really equipped to decide what constitutes “evidence” or to know it when it’s presented. The use of evidence is a specialized form of knowledge that takes a long time to learn, which is why articles and books are subjected to “peer review” and not to “everyone review,” but don’t tell that to someone hectoring you about the how things really work in Moscow or Beijing or Washington.

This subverts any real hope of a conversation, because it is simply exhausting — at least speaking from my perspective as the policy expert in most of these discussions — to have to start from the very beginning of every argument and establish the merest baseline of knowledge, and then constantly to have to negotiate the rules of logical argument.

I see this all of the time on social media. No, I am NOT talking about “only conservatives” but also fellow liberals. Take any issue: sexual violence statistics, safety of GMO foods vs “organic” foods, who is ahead in a primary election (really), creationism, vaccinations, you name it.

Ok, yes, you might accurately point out that *I* am not an expert in these fields. But I know that I am not and so I DO turn to the experts. Yes, sometimes there is genuine debate within the expert community (degree of certain problems in climate change, the mechanisms of evolution, supply side vs. demand side economics, etc.) and all I can do is say “this makes sense to me”.

As far as math: I make it a point to not discuss mathematics “in public” (though I do have a blog aimed at other college teachers). It is simply too exhausting to do.

And yes, some students have gotten caught up in this too:

Universities, without doubt, have to own some of this mess. The idea of telling students that professors run the show and know better than they do strikes many students as something like uppity lip from the help, and so many profs don’t do it. (One of the greatest teachers I ever had, James Schall, once wrote many years ago that “students have obligations to teachers,” including “trust, docility, effort, and thinking,” an assertion that would produce howls of outrage from the entitled generations roaming campuses today.) As a result, many academic departments are boutiques, in which the professors are expected to be something like intellectual valets. This produces nothing but a delusion of intellectual adequacy in children who should be instructed, not catered to.

Sorry, but regardless of what some educators will tell you, the students aren’t going to “discover calculus on their own” (calculus was developed by some exceptionally intelligent people). And no, your undergraduates (or the vast, vast, vast majority of them anyway) will NOT be doing “cutting edge research” while undergraduates. Fact: at a typical 9-12 hour teaching load institution, your FACULTY won’t be doing such research either. Being a genuine “cutting edge” researcher is a 24/7 job.

And what might be worse: some who have never become experts at anything don’t know what expert knowledge is. And those who are: well, some think that being really good at, say, law, means that their opinions on, say, biology, ought to be taken as seriously as those of a professional biologist.

The confidence of the dumb
There’s also that immutable problem known as “human nature.” It has a name now: it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which says, in sum, that the dumber you are, the more confident you are that you’re not actually dumb. And when you get invested in being aggressively dumb…well, the last thing you want to encounter are experts who disagree with you, and so you dismiss them in order to maintain your unreasonably high opinion of yourself. (There’s a lot of that loose on social media, especially.)

But remember: EVERYONE ELSE is dumb; you are smart. 🙂

Oh well…

But here is my quibble: this sort of dismissing expertise is not that new. Think: creationism. Think: the church’s reluctance to even admit that heliocentric astronomy was completely wrong.

Religious people have been dismissing expert opinion for a long, long time.

June 26, 2016 Posted by | religion, social/political | , | Leave a comment

College these days

I haven’t seen much of what is being deseribed here and here at my university. I do think that there is a fine line between being responsive to student needs and holding students accountable for their learning. Learning isn’t passive and it involves the students working AND changing. And, students don’t know what is best for them, though they often think that they do.

It is just so easy to fool yourself into thinking that you know something that you don’t really know. And, yes, becoming educated often involves entertaining ideas that one does not like.

June 22, 2016 Posted by | education, free speech, Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

My take on a professor’s lament

A college professor writes:

Salon is running a particularly poorly thought-out piece, even by Salon standards, about the inability of college students to use the English language to express themselves in writing. I’ll let the author off the hook for the stupid title (“Death to High School English”) and the tagline, as an editor probably chose those. But the argument overlooks such an obvious explanation in favor of a more complicated one that it’s difficult to take whoever she is seriously. When the tagline asks, “My college students don’t understand commas, far less how to write an essay. Is it time to rethink how we teach?” We could do that, I guess. Or we could rethink how we grade them in high school.

There is a tendency, even among educators, when outcomes are not as they should be to assume that teachers as individuals or the educational system writ large must be to blame. In this case we’re hypothetically dismantling all K-12 English education and starting over from scratch with some sort of newer, better method. What this overlooks is the reality that most students in college – the same ones the author rightly points out are terrible at writing – have no idea that they’re terrible at writing. They think they are quite good at it, in fact. They do not believe this because of simple arrogance or Those Darn Millennials or any other popular explanation. They believe they are good writers because they have been getting good grades on written assignments and in English throughout their educational careers.

The rest of the piece at Gin and Tacos is worth reading.

Now I have never tried to teach anyone how to write, aside from supervising a senior project and reading student’s mathematical proofs. I have had some conversations with English faculty and I remember one saying: “I can get most students to an A…..” at which case I wondered if was the STUDENT who was supposed to get THEMSELVES to the grade.

Here is what was going on, I think: many professors let students rewrite and rewrite their papers prior to turning in the final copy. This makes me wonder: at what point is the professor actually grading their own work rather than the work of the student? I can easily see a student learning how to game the system by, in effect, getting the professor to write their work for them. Hence, they get a good grade by producing a polished paper, and move on to the next class not having learned a thing, other than how to get someone else to fix up their writing.

At some point, someone has to kick up the training wheels!

Now, on a related note, I am not without guilt. Yes, I think that I assign grades fairly; I let the spread sheet do the calculations, and then I move the student names off of the screen and just look at the numbers. Yes, at times, I’ve used cut offs that were slightly more generous than those stated on the syllabus, though, again, I am looking at the numbers and NOT at the names.

But, that aside, even strange things can happen.

In one case, a student with a 98 average made an 86 on the final exam, which still gave the student an A. But on ONE other problems (the rest of the exam was good), I was told: \int^{\infty}_0 e^{-3x} dx = lim_{b \rightarrow \infty} \frac{e^{-3x+1}}{-3x+1}|^b_0 . Yes, the student aced the other integral problems, including the trig substitution problem as well as the substitution problem \int e^{sec(x)}sec(x)tan(x) dx . The error that the student made on that problem was just plain inexplicable.

In another case, a linear algebra student missed problem one, which was to determine the determinant of a two by two matrix of integers! But the student got enough of the other problems right to end up with a (low) C for the course, including one that involved finding eigenvalues and eigenvectors of a 2 by 2 matrix.

Anyway, I shudder to think of these students making such errors in a subsequent class the their instructors finding out that they had their previous class from me. 🙂

Go figure.

May 17, 2016 Posted by | education, mathematics, social/political | | Leave a comment

Frogs and some college issues…

Frogs There is an African frog, known as the rubber frog, which evidently found a way to mimic the chemical signature of a particularly vicious type of ant. The ants don’t recognize this frog as something to attack and eat. This is called “chemical camouflage”.

Colleges and universities There have been a few articles in the news about student unrest in universities; for example. Now I linked to an article from The Nation (written by a professor) which, of course, enables this sort of behavior (e. g. students issuing “demands” to college presidents and the like).

What is going on? Jerry Coyne directs us to this Jonathan Haidt article: he claims that certain groups are conferred “victim status” even while in high school and everyone else is told to “shut up and listen” (so to speak). He comments that this happens in high school:

And Centerville High is not alone. Last summer I had a conversation with some boys who attend one of the nation’s top prep schools, in New England. They reported the same thing: as white males, they are constantly on eggshells, afraid to speak up on any remotely controversial topic lest they be sent to the “equality police” (that was their term for the multicultural center). I probed to see if their fear extended beyond the classroom. I asked them what they would do if there was a new student at their school, from, say Yemen. Would they feel free to ask the student questions about his or her country? No, they said, it’s too risky, a question could be perceived as offensive.
You might think that this is some sort of justice — white males have enjoyed positions of privilege for centuries, and now they are getting a taste of their own medicine. But these are children. And remember that most students who are in a victim group for one topic are in the “oppressor” group for another. So everyone is on eggshells sometimes; all students at Centerville High learn to engage with books, ideas, and people using the twin habits of defensive self-censorship and vindictive protectiveness.
And then… they go off to college and learn new ways to gain status by expressing collective anger at those who disagree. They curse professors and spit on visiting speakers at Yale. They shut down newspapers at Wesleyan. They torment a dean who was trying to help them at Claremont McKenna. They threaten and torment fellow students at Dartmouth. And in all cases, they demand that adults in power DO SOMETHING to punish those whose words and views offend them. Their high schools have thoroughly socialized them into what sociologists call victimhood culture, which weakens students by turning them into “moral dependents” who cannot deal with problems on their own. They must get adult authorities to validate their victim status.
So they issue ultimatums to college presidents, and, as we saw at Yale, the college presidents meet their deadlines, give them much of what they demanded, commit their schools to an ever tighter embrace of victimhood culture, and say nothing to criticize the bullying, threats, and intimidation tactics that have created a culture of intense fear for anyone who might even consider questioning the prevailing moral matrix. What do you suppose a conversation about race or gender will look like in any Yale classroom ten years from now? Who will dare to challenge the orthodox narrative imposed by victimhood culture? The “Next Yale” that activists are demanding will make today’s Centerville High look like Plato’s Academy by comparison.

There are some tough issues that deserve a fearless and complete intellectual investigation (e. g. is affirmative action a good idea?) and shouting down different points of view…well…that does no good at all. After all, are people spending lots of time, effort and money to find ways to be offended?

And speaking of higher education, I wish that columnists who write “colleges and universities should do this” actually knew what they were talking about. This person does not. Example: when he talks about faculty and summer, he should have researched the topic; he would have found out that many of us (tenured professors) have 9-10 month contracts. As far as costs: the new technology (computers, internet) is a huge cost driver. A professor writes a nice response.

December 3, 2015 Posted by | education, frogs, science | , , , | Leave a comment

Student unrest at college campuses: speaking up vs. making policy

I think that I’ve figured out how I feel about these various issues (Missouri, Yale, etc.)

Students can (and should) speak up about the problems that they encounter (e. g. racism, intimidation, etc.)

However, they are NOT qualified to prescribe policy. Note: I am NOT saying that they shouldn’t voice their ideas. I am saying that those who know better (or should know better) shouldn’t let them dictate policy.

November 13, 2015 Posted by | education, social/political | , | 1 Comment

Free speech on college campuses …

Workout notes: Swim: 500 easy (roughly 1 minute per lap), 5 x (50 fist, 50 free) on 2:10 (roughly 1:55), 5 x (50 drill (fins), 50 free), 5 x 100 on 2:10 (1:43, 1:45, 1:43, 1:42, 1:43), 100 pull, 100 fly/back (fins)

My ear plug stem broke off, so I had to go home and pull out the ear plug with tweezers. I then noticed that I was a bit fatigued so I didn’t walk.

Personal: I learned something new (to me) as a spin off of teaching the actuarial mathematics course (in the context of the Woolhouse approximation)

Though many don’t think of it in this manner: this is a bit like finding another formula for the error terms for the trapezoid rule (approximation of integrals). I might write a math blog post about this.

Topic of the post

Free speech on campus is an interesting issue. On one hand, one doesn’t want deliberately harassing and intimidating speech aimed at individuals (e. g. threats). Of course, these things are illegal by law. On the other hand, one wants the free discussion of ideas.

Now “free discussion” of ideas does NOT mean that discredited ideas are given a captive audience platform. For example, ideas such as creationism have been examined and found to be incorrect. This is NOT a valid competing idea and if a biology professor wants to teach this as a valid science idea, it is fine to fire that professor for professional incompetence. Faculty should be held to a high professional standard, and students should be held to a lesser standard during exams, course projects, etc.

But when it comes to forums, e-mail messages, debates, etc., I am very uncomfortable with administration deeming certain ideas “off limits”, even if those ideas are those I don’t like. Example: it is fine to, say, discuss the negative aspects of affirmative action, or to have an honest discussion of the correlation of race and IQ (which leads to: “what does race mean”, can the IQ of a population change with a change in social conditions, etc.). So this balance is well discussed in the following blog posts:

Washington Post

And Jerry Coyne has a very good 3-part discussion here, here and here.

One of the confrontations between an angry student (who was acting inappropriately, as far as I am concerned) and someone in charge of a residence is shown here: (I do not know exactly what the student was upset about, but this student clearly crossed the line, in my opinion)

Of course, there are some things that shouldn’t be tolerated, such as threats like these. These things have nothing to do with ideas.

November 12, 2015 Posted by | civil liberties, social/political, swimming | , | Leave a comment

Photos from the marathon

Workout notes: No lifeguard at the pool, so I did a “cornstalk classic” 4.2 mile walk in just over 1 hour. I didn’t push at all. Yoga (including crow, backbend and headstand) afterward.

Issues Well, I am seeing articles about colleges and universities not dealing with “non-pc” stuff very well (with regards to invited speakers and editorials in student newspapers).

I’ll have more to say on this later; this sure looks like the “coddling” that even President Obama warned about.

Now I understand that some ideas have no merit at all; only crackpots believe them and those in the profession have examined them and found them to be without merit.

But there are areas that have not been completely worked out and places where alternate points of view could be at least entertained. For example, I learned by entertaining (and then rejecting) the thesis of the book The Bell Curve. Examining that book at its ideas left me knowing more than I did before.

It is sort of depressing to find that, at times, people who hold different opinions often give better arguments than many who support your point of view. But that has happened to me time and time again…of course there are also smart people who share my point of view. 🙂

Marathon walk
At the end, my feet hurt and I was just holding on. This was a tough effort for me.

My time (5:49): on one hand, it wasn’t one of my better walking marathons, though it was my best “100 percent walk” since 2009. But when one corrects for age it was right in line with *most* of my walking marathons/50K from 2002 to 2009; it was right in the middle of the other performances that I was ok with.

I didn’t realize it at the time that I finished the race though. I just know that I was tired and that my time was slower than it was 6 years ago.




October 23, 2015 Posted by | education, marathons, walking | , , | Leave a comment

Intellectual and Emotional Potpourri

Workout notes
First weights (7:10 am):

pull ups: 10, 10, 15, 10, 10 (the set of 15 was tough)
rotator cuff exercises
bench press: 10 x 135, 4 x 185, 7 x 170 (good set)
incline press: 10 x 135 (easy at the start, challenging at the end)
military press: 2 of 10 x 40 dumbbell, standing, 10 x 100 (each arm) machine
rows: 2 of 10 x 60 single arm dumbbell, 10 x 110 machine.

That took about 45 minutes. Then running:
11:06 treadmill mile
track: 17:09 2 mile (lane 2: 8:41/8:28) Not all out, but it wasn’t easy either. Was it really 14 years ago this was my marathon pace?

stationary cycle: 16 minutes (4 miles) to help the knees.

I left the workout feeling pretty good. This took me to 8:45

Other topics
Jerry Coyne: is retiring. I found this post interesting as it describes the life of a research professor. He also gives advice to the next generation of research scientists.

He also has some things to say about the attitude of always trying to keep the students comfortable; evidently the current generation of students are more easily traumatized.

I can say this: yes, when I was their age, we whined about similar things. The difference is that administration (and professors) merely told us to “grow up and quit whining”. I admit that, at times, it is easy to take the “easy way out” and not challenge the students to find the best in themselves.

Capitalism and morality Jonathan Haidt suggests that capitalism has contributed positively to our morality in that we now have the luxury of considering certain moral issues. I think that this fits in well with some of the stuff that Jared Diamond wrote about (society reaching a stage where people have time to think)

But yes, capitalism (especially, lightly regulated capitalism) has its dark side too.

Curb Your Enthusiasm Here are some interesting tidbits about that show. Note: one episode helped someone (correctly) beat an unjust murder charge!

Hillary Clinton when a politician has had a long career, they will make mistakes and change their mind on some issues. Now the Iraq war: I wanted my Senator to vote no, and Senator Durbin did.

But on gay marriage: many of us changed our minds; remember in 2004, both President Bush and Senator Kerry were for civil unions. I came to marriage equality long before then, but there was a time in my early adulthood where I was “anti-gay” just, well, that is what “good people were.” But as I grew up and learned more..I found that my heart was never in it. This became clear to me when I saw some gay men kissing and sitting on each other’s lap; I just couldn’t get upset about it though I felt I was “supposed to”. In fact, I thought “well, they won’t compete for my female date” and that was that. So the gay rights thing switched for me in my early 20’s (1980’s).

Keystone pipeline: I was ambivalent at first; after all, oil has to be transported somehow, and the potential for accidents was always there. Reading the science and engineering articles on it turned me against it, but I needed to see the evidence.

Anyway, Hillary Clinton, while a better politician than Bernie Sanders, isn’t the politician that Bill Clinton was or that Barack Obama is. But she is thoughtful and that sometimes confuses people.

Here is a video of her discussing the problems with a program that gives public money vouchers for private religious schools. Of course, her points flew right over the heads of the dimwitted wingnuts who posted the video, but excellent points they remain.

September 30, 2015 Posted by | hillary clinton, politics, politics/social, running, weight training | , , | Leave a comment