Good intentions…bad results …

I read yet another editorial that calls for “abolishing requiring the SAT/ACT for college admissions” (which, to be sure, isn’t the same as placement into a program)

I know that the issue is worth talking about but one thing: what might work for one university might not work for another.

Yes, there are some elite universities that turn away thousands of students who CAN do the work. (example: Admiral Nimitz, of WW2 fame, was rejected by West Point but did well at Annapolis)

BUT that is certainly not the case at many (most?) universities. And when one looks at high school transcripts, seeing a student got a grade of A in, say, high school calculus does not really say that much either; I’ve seen many such students fail to place into freshman calculus ..and even struggle greatly in a pre-calculus class! Variation between high schools and grade inflation really make it difficult to screen based on high school transcripts alone.

And, eventually, some high schools develop reputations of sending underprepared students to college…so a student from such a school might well suffer from their school being “profiled” as low quality. So, an entrance exam score could well mitigate that effect.

So, my preferred method of affirmative action would be to take student backgrounds into account, as well as college entrance scores, at least for an institution like mine.

Workout notes: easy outer loop hike yesterday (3 miles), 2 mile walk after weights today.

I did my standard PT, 5 sets of 10 pull ups, decline: 10 x 135, 7 x 175, incline: 10 x 140, military (2 sets of 10 x 50 standing dumbbell, 10 x 180 machine, 3 sets of 3 x 210 Hammer rows).

Usual abs; 2:30 of plank still was uncomfortable.


May 23, 2018 Posted by | hiking, walking, weight training | | Leave a comment

Every negative stereotype of a liberal arts professor….

Oh boy…when higher education is under fire…and she has to bring attention to herself…

No, she doesn’t have Ph. D. according to this source:

Jarrar studied creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, receiving a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, and a master’s of fine art from the University of Michigan.

But she did have a critically acclaimed book and has written for respectable outlets. I suppose that sometimes people who are “productive in print” are eccentric in other ways.

April 22, 2018 Posted by | education | , , | Leave a comment

And I turn contrarian …..some conservative talking points have merit…

Well, I was very grumpy because I came back from a “College of Liberal Arts and Science” meeting and thought “what nonsense…hours and hours of time spent coming up with …THIS???”

So I was about to go on a tirade about how many conservatives are right about some of their criticisms of liberal arts education…but then I decided to read statements from other liberal arts colleges. And..they weren’t that bad.

Here is a typical one: it appears to be reasonable to me. But still: any statement has zero effect on how I teach, how I research, or how I think about our curriculum. In service courses: “what tools do they need to master in able to learn their major”? In major courses: “what do I expect a math major to have mastery of? How do we help them attain such mastery?”

The problem is that some mission statements have stuff about “equality” (our proposed statement does). So it follows that anything that appears to be contrary to “equality” must be bad or wrong, right? Hence you have things like this: (Jerry Coyne’s website)

Finally: a sensible discussion of “race”
And by “sensible,” of course, I mean a discussion that aligns with my own views. I’ve often written that while there are no finite and strongly genetically demarcated human “races”, there are meaningful and statistically diagnostic differences between populations, ethnic groups, or whatever you want to call them. This is in opposition to the common Left-wing view that races are purely “social constructs” having no biological reality.

Well, there aren’t a finite number of groups whose members are 100% genetically differentiated from other groups. But when you take all genes together, there are sufficient average frequency differences that one can discern statistical clusters that, in turn, allow you to use lots of genes to pretty much diagnose where somebody’s from and who their ancestors were. These “statistical clusters” are real, not social constructs, for they fall out regardless of the politics or biases of the investigator.

Recognizing their existence by no means justifies bigotry or stereotyping, but we shouldn’t dismiss the existence of those clusters simply because, in the past, people with an incorrect idea of “race” have used differences to justify segregation and prejudice. Yet all too often, as with genetic differences among ethnic groups, behavioral differences between the sexes, and evolutionary psychology, those on the Left simply dismiss entire fields because of a fear that scientific research will justify discrimination.

Professor Coyne links to an excellent article by David Reich in the New York Times:

To understand why it is so dangerous for geneticists and anthropologists to simply repeat the old consensus about human population differences, consider what kinds of voices are filling the void that our silence is creating. Nicholas Wade, a longtime science journalist for The New York Times, rightly notes in his 2014 book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History,” that modern research is challenging our thinking about the nature of human population differences. But he goes on to make the unfounded and irresponsible claim that this research is suggesting that genetic factors explain traditional stereotypes.

One of Mr. Wade’s key sources, for example, is the anthropologist Henry Harpending, who has asserted that people of sub-Saharan African ancestry have no propensity to work when they don’t have to because, he claims, they did not go through the type of natural selection for hard work in the last thousands of years that some Eurasians did. There is simply no scientific evidence to support this statement. Indeed, as 139 geneticists (including myself) pointed out in a letter to The New York Times about Mr. Wade’s book, there is no genetic evidence to back up any of the racist stereotypes he promotes.

Another high-profile example is James Watson, the scientist who in 1953 co-discovered the structure of DNA, and who was forced to retire as head of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories in 2007 after he stated in an interview — without any scientific evidence — that research has suggested that genetic factors contribute to lower intelligence in Africans than in Europeans. […]

What makes Dr. Watson’s and Mr. Wade’s statements so insidious is that they start with the accurate observation that many academics are implausibly denying the possibility of average genetic differences among human populations, and then end with a claim — backed by no evidence — that they know what those differences are and that they correspond to racist stereotypes.

In other words, refusing to admit that there ARE differences in frequencies of certain alleles in certain population clusters often leads to “see, the racist stereotypes must either be right or at least have a kernel of truth to them.” And, in my opinion, the regressive left (often found on college campuses) and the alt-right are on agreement of the implication; the “solution” the regressive left offers is to dismiss genuine science as “junk science; a tool of the oppressive white patriarchy” and the racist right is “see: the snowflakes are afraid of the truth, which WE are bold enough to talk about”.

(digression: I recommend reading Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and Pinker’s Blank Slate. )

But…yeah, I can see how some conservatives think of education as a type of indoctrination. Then again, many of these conservatives are the same morons who think of creationism as having any validity and of expertise of being of no value. Yeah, I know; the Illinois governor’s race is a contest between unqualified billionaires/multi-millionaires. So …

Speaking of campaigns: I always wondered about how effective some campaigns are and if there is a point of “diminishing returns”.

And there is some research that backs this up. That is one reason I no longer phonebank; who wants to be annoyed at home? I might do some GOTV stuff; getting your people to the polls is essential. But if the turn out is high..well, it is mostly about the candidate (after a certain point anyway).

March 24, 2018 Posted by | evolution, racism, social/political | , , , , | Leave a comment

Trump’s positioning becoming a bit stronger…

These are interesting times.

Trump’s approval ratings have inched up to 41.5 according to Real Clear Politics. That is still very low for a President just finishing their first year (and lower than Obama’s) and especially low, given that the economic numbers aren’t that bad overall.

Nevertheless the trend is up..and the Republicans are improving just a bit in the “generic Congressional ballot”, though they are still not in great shape. It is far, far, far from certain that the Democrats will win a chamber of Congress back.

Here is what I find ironic: Trump is actually governing like a typical Republican (in terms of what policies he is pursuing). And some Republicans who like those policies but who feared his instability are feeling better, and some who hate his “crony capitalism” just love how acerbic he is, especially when he attacks targets they don’t like. In fact, were Trump to act more normally, his approval might actually be lower.

On another note: higher education is under attack. Some of it is cost: new technology adds cost, new mandates (to accommodate students with “learning disabilities”) adds mandated cost and each program carries with it administrators and the like; administrative payroll is much higher than it once was.

And there is college itself: the postmodernist nonsense prevalent in some disciplines is not helping our reputation and frankly, I wonder about the overall erosion of academic standards.

February 2, 2018 Posted by | education, politics, politics/social | , , | Leave a comment

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