Sunday, February 27, 2005


For security reasons

Now, don't you feel safer?

A revelation

The sports writer Heywood Broun is credited with noting that, "sports doesn't build character, it reveals it." This has never been more true than in the case of John Chaney , coach of the Temple Men's Basketball team.

Things weren't going the way Chaney wanted in the game against Saint Joseph so he sent into the game, little-used 6-foot-8, 250-pound Nehemiah Ingram to "send a message" to John Bryant and the rest of the St. Joe team. Ingram proceeded to foul out in four minutes of play including a foul that sent Bryant to the ground and breaking his arm.

It's not clear if this represents an escalation or a scaling back of Chaney's behavor since he threatened to kill then-Massachusetts coach John Calipari during a postgame news conference.

Oh by the way, Mr. Chaney has apologized.

Saturday, February 26, 2005


Hold on to your wallet

This post may seem a bit on the inside to some but my real point here is about language, not geology.

What prompts today's correspondence is the seminar given in my department yesterday. Sometimes we get bad talks that are poorly organized or convey little information but it the rare talk that actually does harm. I fear the three dozen or so students left the seminar with a poorer understanding of the world around them than when they entered.

The talk was given by a gentleman whose affliation was given as "International Oil and Gas Consultant" (a polite way of saying "unemployed"). Some noteable aspects of his talk:

1. The industry (or it might just be him) has a term called "proven reserves". This is the volume of hydrocarbons in a particular field. But this is not the amount that has been taken out of the ground; its the amount still down there. How do they know it is down there? Well, they make their best guess. The difference between proven reserves and unproven reserves is that in the former, some oil has been extracted and in the later, none has. OK, so we have a field that had yielded a drop of oil, now all of the other stuff we think might possibly be there is vaulted from unproven to proven. What a crock.

2. Geographic Information System (GIS) is all the rage these days. GIS is essentially a database linked to a map. With GIS folks can display all sorts of data on maps. It is used in lots of things like geology and real estate and urban planning. It can be a terrific tool that helps map makers make pretty maps faster than they ever could before. But some aren't satified with this. Our speaker yesterday asserted that GIS is revolutionizing the Earth Sciences. He argued that it allows us to do things we never could before. What a crock. When one doesn't understand the difference between impossible and impracticable, one is perhaps misunderstanding a lot more. Maps have been being made since the invention of the pencil and fancy computers don't do something new. They may do it faster and offer much more convinience but GIS is not a revolution. It is a tool. The microscope might be a better example of revolutionary technology; it really did allow new observations and measurments to be made. GIS is not a tool of observation but a way to display other peoples observations in interesting ways.

When you see someone declaring a guess as a proven fact and a new way of display as a revolution in science, hold on to your wallet.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


What is this thing called diversity ? (I)

David Vellemean has a very interesting comment concerning "diversity".

The question is what we do with our diverse student body, once we have gathered it. Do we talk incessantly about how diverse we are? Do we issue hysterical denunciations of every remark or piece of graffiti that might offend some minority group, on the grounds that it violates our diversity mission? Do we require our students to take courses on race and ethnicity? Do we fall all over ourselves to incorporate the racial or the gender angle into every subject? Do we ask academic departments to think about how to make their courses more interesting to minorities and women? Do our administrators make endless speeches exhorting us to value our diversity?

Or, alternatively, do we treat our students like adults, avoid facilitating their efforts to segregate themselves by race, perhaps, but otherwise let them get on with learning from one another -- with all of the frictions that such learning will inevitably entail?

These questions are about the ideology of diversity, not the reality of diversity. And they are the questions that are relevant here. After all, having a diverse campus need not be connected with the politicization of the academy, which is the topic under discussion. A diverse campus need not be politicized.

An interesting thing this diversity. At the university where Comrade Snowball toils away his days we are in the throws of looking for a new provost. Part of this ritual includes a “public forum” in which the general campus community is invited to chat with the candidates. During these Q&A sessions one can count on a question from a faculty member (usual suspects include professors from the departments of History, English, and African-American studies) probing the provost-wannabe’s commitment to “diversity”. FYI, those that would be provost are all for it.

But what is this thing called diversity? Although the provost-wannabes don’t want to say so out loud, it seems to be a diversity of appearance. But there is the implication that this diversity of apperance will gain us some other benefit. Why we don't just adopt policies that will maximize these other virtues is not discussed.

If a variety of appearnce is what we are after it should be pretty easy to determine when we had reached the desired standard deviation. But what are the measures of these other benefits? What are those things we could recognize that would tell us no more diversification is necessary?

I think if you ask these questions of the diversificationists you will be able to identify those who want to get something done and those who just want to do something.

Sunday, February 20, 2005


Maybe he shoud just go to Benedict College

A story in USA Today discusses the downside of self-esteem without competence:

"One of the things the managers talked about is an incredible sense of entitlement for people who don't deserve it," she says. "They'll come in right out of college and don't understand why they're not getting promoted in three months."

Hey, this expectation of promotion without merit starts well before graduation! Here's a exerpt from a recent e-mail exchange with one of my students:

Subject: geology 1330 grade

I never received a response to the following e-mail and I thought perhaps you never received it. I still feel very unsettled to have received a D considering all the time and effort I put in. I plan on applying to the College of Business and they won't accept any classes with grades below a C, so this class won't even count for me. Is there any way that I could do some extra credit to bump my grade up to a C? Thank you for your consideration.

----- Original Message -----

Sent: Sunday, December 26, 2004 6:07 PM
Subject: geology 1330 grade

      I just checked my grades and was rather upset to see that I received D+. I tried very hard in your class, I did all the reading, attended all of the lectures, and I studied really hard for all the tests. I just don't understand why I did so poorly. Is there any way you can please reconsider the grade. I am willing to do anything for extra credit.

Thank you for your time.

----- my response -----

I won't be changing your grade. As far as I can tell, you got the grade you earned. Last semester I had twelve people who got more points than you who did not get a grade of C or better. On what criterion should you be favored over them? Your final score was 225 out of a total of 450 points possible. You got as many questions wrong as you got right but you think you deserve a C. I disagree.

As far as how hard you worked, I'm sorry you feel that a lot of effort was put without a satisfactory result but I'm not in the effort measurement business. However, the next time you want to impress one of your professors of your diligence, I suggest you take all of the tests and do any extra credit exercises offered.

This guy actually thought his grade should be elevated from a D+ to a C even though he didn't show up for all of the four tests offered. David Foster at Photon Courier has wonderfully termed this "Superheated 'Steem". I didn't bother to use it on this guy but I usually ask students claiming how their hard work should be a factor in thier grade whether or not students who had not worked very hard but managed to get good grades anyway should be punished for thier lack of effort. This usually shuts them up but I suspect this guy will only shut up following real and significant failure.

Let us all wish this student well.

Free speech means free speech for everybody

Harvey Silvergate discusses the irony of the protection Ward Churchill rightfully enjoys. An exerpt:

The primary lesson that I take away from this academic spectacle (“Where else but in higher education could such a farcical spectacle take place?” one asks) is the reliable old Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. For more than two decades now the academic left has been seeking—with a considerable degree of success—to censor and otherwise punish the right for its politically incorrect views on a wide range of social, political, and even intellectual/academic issues. Speech deemed offensive to “historically disadvantaged groups” or otherwise “regressive” has been punished as either “harassment” or “hate speech.” Now comes someone from the left mouthing words and ideas found highly offensive by those on the right (and indeed by many on the left), and he is roundly attacked, with a state legislator from Wisconsin, protesting Churchill’s scheduled March 1 lecture at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, describing his writings as a form of “anti-American hate speech.”

Ah, how the worm turns! What better proof is needed that all folks need to protect the rights of all other folks, because next year the target might be on one’s own back? This is the proven genius of our notions of academic freedom and constitutionally protected free speech, and especially of the doctrine of “viewpoint neutrality.” We all enjoy only so much liberty as we accord those we despise but who might be in the driver’s seat next time around.

Do you suppose the furor in the Colorado legislature calling for Mr. Churchill's firing will give pause to those who have broadly favored speech codes and prohibitions on "hate speech"?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005


Well at least we're doing something

The Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics is a well-meaning group. It is made up of faculty at 47 institutions that participate in NCAA sports. However, it is not made up of any university presidents. The faculty senates of universities represented in the Coalition are now considering a document entitled, Academic Integrity in Intercollegiate Athletics: Principles, Rules, and Best Practices. Below are my comments about selections from the Executive Summary of the document:

Because the rationale for merit scholarships based on athletic, rather than academic qualifications is not strong, the Coalition recommends that a reassessment be made of the feasibility of converting athletics scholarships to a need basis.

What could be stronger that the rationale that this guy can run fast (or other athletic qualification)? If sports are about performance on the field then nothing could be more rational than choosing folks who have athletic skills. What the Coalition can’t seem to bring itself to say is that there is little rationale for universities spending millions of dollars every year putting on sports exhibitions.

The campus faculty bears primary responsibility for ensuring that academic programs conform to high standards of integrity in curriculum and student evaluation. Reports of differential academic treatment of athletes by faculty have persisted for years and occasionally been confirmed, but without detailed data on athlete enrollment patterns and grades, faculty governance bodies have no way of routinely assessing the integrity of campus programs in this regard or remediating problems that may exist. The Coalition therefore proposes that campuses collect data on the academic performance of athletes by course section, and convey that information to their campus faculty governance bodies, protecting the anonymity of individual student records. [NCAA bylaw proposal, Section 3.1] .

What a colossal waste of time this would be. Collecting this sort of data would surely show that athletes have a hard time competing with their colleagues not spending much time and energy playing games. But how would it be able to recognize any inappropriate treatment of “student”-athletes? No criteria are offered. None can be imagined.

Because coaches have great leverage to guide their athletes to place academics first, the Coalition recommends performance assessments of coaches and close monitoring that creates incentives for coaches to use that leverage constructively.

Of course they have the leverage but why, oh why, would a coach use this leverage to put academics first? We already have performance assessments of coaches: the win-loss record. Until this plays no part in the future employment opportunities of coaches they are not likely to care much about the academic achievement of their minions.

The competition scheduling decisions that campuses make directly affect the challenges athletes face in the classroom. The Coalition recommends that Faculty Athletics Representatives and campus athletics boards be meaningfully involved in the design of season schedules to ensure that academic priorities guide planning.

Meaningfully involved? Short of actually having the final say, there will be no meaningful involvement of faculty. Can anyone really imagine that academic priorities drive anything in athletic departments? Those who do must not have ever taught at a university. Last semester I had a softball student in one of my classes. She came to me mid-semester to ask how she might improve her pitiful grade. She explained to me that she was taking 18 hours in the fall because she had been coerced (counseled is clearly not the right word) by her academic advisors to do so. She was told to take 18 hours in the fall because softball is a spring sport. “Meaningfully involved” means nothing short of being in charge. It means getting rid of anyone so cruel as to assign students 18 hour semesters simply because it might benefit the win-loss record of the softball team (read: softball coach). A few years ago I taught a student who recounted her experiences dealing with academics on the softball team. She was told that she should consider another major because geology classes required too many field trips. Student Athletes? BUUUUUUUULoney! Until coaches have no say in who gets scholarships it will be worse than doing nothing to claim that faculty have meaningful involvement in the design of schedules that ensure academic priorities. Until coaches are judged by GPA and not winning percentage, none of this will matter.

The success of athlete advising is critical for the academic integrity of campus sports programs. Faculty have a responsibility to understand the role of the OAAA, and to be assured that the office is structured to operate with integrity.

Well sure, if integrity could be found in campus sports programs, it would be nice to start with advising. But I fear my experience with softball players is not unique. However, to be assured that such offices operate with integrity is akin to being told the check is in mail. Integrity is coming to the faculty senate and detailing how last years efforts comport with last years predictions or promises. Integrity is not coming to the faculty senate and declaring victory in the absence of any predictions or well-described mileposts. Integrity is not arguing that since things could have been worse (or indeed that they have been worse in the past) that things are ok. The better-than-a-sharp-stick-in-the-eye defense is not integrity. I understand the role of the OAAA too well.

Here’s another idea. Simply require everything done at a university, including the athletics program, to be subjected to this question: Does this make the institution a better place to teach or learn? If it doesn’t, stop it. Now it may be that answering this question will be complicated but avoiding the question is not the way to make the problem go away.

Well of course it does!

In an interview on Morning Edition on Feb 14 Jerimiah Gerdler of the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests that whether or not our missile defense systems works, "depends on your definition of 'works'".

RED FLAG ALERT: When folks have to convince you of the merits of their position by redefining words everybody thinks they know the meaning of, one should be very skeptical of the position. Just like when some folks were so skeptical when we were urged to re-understand "is".

Shut up, and support our troops

This piece on NPR last night by Bob Sommer resonated with me. He highlighs yet another example of folks who want one thing to happen but can't come right out and say it, so they claim to be interested in something else. Part of what he said:

"Support our troops" is a code. ... Those who presumably need to be admonished to support the troops are those who oppose the decisions of the adminstration. "Support our troops" means then, that we should be supporting the war. I believe that most yellow magnet bearers want support not just for the troops but for the mission, the presence, the president. Maybe the magnets should say, "Shut up, and support our troops".

Saturday, February 12, 2005


Differential Differences

If you've watched sports on TV then you've probably heard nonsense like this:

The current six-point differential really favors the Wildcats

This is nonesense because it uses an adjective (differential) in the place of a noun (difference). This is a classic example of It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. But of course, these TV people pay no price for mangling our language.

Alas, I'm reminded of this as I read one of the smart chaps at Oxblog. David Adesnik opines,

The power differential between us and Togo is so great that even our ambassador or Assistant Secretary of State for Africa could make America's voice heard.

We expect better from Rhodes Scholars, boys. If we wanted this sort of drek we could just turn on a basketball game.

Thursday, February 10, 2005


What a pleasant world it would be

Makers Of Zoloft To Create New Pill Based On Bush's Outlook

Wednesday, February 09, 2005


No Athletic Director Left Behind (cont. )

In CS 25 Jan 05 I used the title of this post to express, well, ... disapproval. I thought it would be clear. It seems not everyone sees it that way. The minutes (pdf) of the September 8, 2003 Oregon Athletic Director’s Association Executive Board Meeting discuss "LTC courses" designed to help one persue "CAA certification". The minutes tell us that the motto for the upcoming classes will be “No Athletic Director Left Behind”. These notes seem entirely without any appreciation of the irony of people who claim to offer students something of value better than school itself.

They have truely drunk the kool-aid.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005


The Department of Tenure Studies

I have a friend who has a PhD in geography; he has taught classes at universities given the designation “geography.” I never saw him teach but based on my interactions with his students, I think he did a good job. He taught them about history. He taught them about economics. He emphasized how geographic features such as rivers, harbors and mountains influence these subjects. So far, so good. My problem is that he insists on calling this stuff geography. He gets all worked up when folks think that geography is just state capitals. Of course he’s right about that but worrying about what to call the other stuff is not the best use of one’s resources.

It must be a reflection on the political clout of geographers that academic historical geography is seen to be possible in departments of history and economic geography is not out of bounds in departments of economics or political science. Contrast this with departments of Ethnic Studies or Women’s Studies in colleges that also house departments of History or Sociology or Political Science. Or consider universities that have both a department of English and a Department of Reading. This really exists but I’ve yet to come across a Department of Subtraction in a university already paying for a department of Mathematics. I know of a Department of Biological Sciences that used to be two separate departments of Biology and Biochemistry until they saw the light.

Now I’m no less interested in folks studying women’s history or women’s politics than folks studying subtraction but I contend there are both practical and intellectual reasons not to subdivide these investigations into overly-fine categories. One could have the department of, for example, Tennessee history or the department of Alpine Geology but wouldn’t give the students in these departments that Tennessee history could be understood without serious consideration of US history or world history. Would not the inhabitants of the department of Alpine Geology be lulled into the false notion that little light could be shed on the geology of SE France by studying rocks anywhere else?

Richard Mitchell said it better than me:

There is only one Education, and it has only one goal: the freedom of the mind. Anything that needs an adjective, be it civics education, or socialist education, or Christian education, or whatever-you-like education, is not education, and it has some different goal. The very existence of modified "educations" is testimony to the fact that their proponents cannot bring about what they want in a mind that is free. An "education" that cannot do its work in a free mind, and so must "teach" by homily and precept in the service of these feelings and attitudes and beliefs rather than those, is pure and unmistakable tyranny.

The reason we have departments of Ethnic Studies is not because it is in the best interest of the students.

The best reason to take Ward Churchill of the payroll of the University of Colorado is not that he has said a bunch of stupid and unkind things. If CU would just reassign those members of the Ethnic Studies department really interested in the “ one Education” other departments they not only could save money on the staffing overhead needed to maintain a department of Ethnic Studies but we might actually make CU a better place to teach and learn. And there'd be no need to keep Churchill without the department of which he was chair .

But in the meantime, it is most distressing that anybody thinks he ought to be sacked just for being an asshole.

Of course, if Churchill is a liar then that's a different matter.

Sunday, February 06, 2005


Football as feminism

At the May 2004 meeting of the University of Houston Faculty Senate meeting the audience was treated to Athletic Director Dave Maggard’s self-fulfilling, backward-looking, setting-the-bar-as-low-as-one-can assessment of his spending of millions of dollars that could have been used on somebody’s education (more on him later), I was surprised to find among the usual group of toadies and apologists was a faculty member whose web page describes as "a leading authority on Mexican-American literature, Chicana writers, feminist and queer theory, sexuality, and pedagogy." Her point seemed to be that Maggard’s heart was in the right place. Given her history of critisism of earlier university adminstrations, he couldn't have had support from a better source.

Maybe now I've figured out what she was up to: although the millions (billions?) spent by universities across the country does little to promote teaching or learning, it suppresses this more in men than in women.

Sure, men are already being outperformed in most high school and university classes (if you want to find a high-achiever in my classes, just look for a young woman born in this country whose parents were born in either Vietnam or India) but why not keep the pressure on by promoting the notion that sports can give one a better chance for success than studying. And don't just promote sports for the dumb guys. It can only help girls to have smart guys to be too tired to do well on tests. Get them more worried about quadracepts than the quadratic equation and girls will continue to shine relative to boys.


First person from now on

I've decided that although I very much like the sound of the the third-person postings such as seen in University Diaries and Professor Blogger (it is the style and not just the substance that I like so much about these blogs), this writing style is too much trouble for me. Therefore, I may occasionally refer to my self as Comrade Snowball but mostly I will use the personal pronoun.

It may be that folks in the humanities and social sciences use the third person more but I've never shied away from "me" and "I" in my (scientific) professional writing so that may be why it seems so forced for me here.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005


But Professor, I tried really hard....

A story on NPR this morning brought CS’s attention to the Success Equals Effort (SEE) program at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina. David Holmes Swinton, president of the college explains the policy here. He writes:

The SEE policy requires all instructors at Benedict College to evaluate each freshman and sophomore student on two factors: effort and content learning. The final grade for freshmen is weighted 60 percent on effort and 40 percent on content knowledge and the final grade for sophomores is weighted 40 percent effort and 60 percent content knowledge. The policy is designed to increase student learning of subject matter content at Benedict College by increasing a student’s learning efforts

CS is sure the folks' at Benedict College hearts are in the right place. However, if they wanted to increase learning they really should have done something that helped them learn. Dr. Swinton continues,

The policy emerged out of our dissatisfaction with learning outcomes at Benedict College and our assessment of the reasons for the less than satisfactory outcomes.

Hmmm… The reason for their dissatisfaction seems not to have been the sorry preparation of the students entering BC. Nor does it seem to have anything to do with the teaching abilities of the faculty. The big reason previous students at Benedict College weren’t getting good grades is because they weren’t being graded enough on how hard they worked!

CS has seen it many times. After a student realizes that his or her grade is or is soon to be not what she or he wanted, out come the rationalizations. Top of the list is, “But I worked so hard!” To this CS will often reply that he makes no effort to measure industriousness as it is so very hard to do. Moreover really smart students would be penalized by any plan remotely like Success Equals Effort. If students can just show up for the tests having only lightly studied but still demonstrate mastery of the subject, should they be marked down? This is probably, however, not a problem Dr. Swinton and his fellow pedagogues will have much to deal with at Benedict College. Accomplished students looking for an education will eschew enrollment here. Potential employers can also be expected to steer clear.

It is often the case that effort will lead to success. However, there is no guarantee. The SEE program at Benedict College is the Tyranny of Low Expectations in action.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005


If it's popular, it must be good!

Two fairly different views of college sports can be found in two recent postings at Inside Higher Education:

Here we see John V. Lombardi, chancellor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst tell us that the problems of university athletics are really our own fault (after all we do watch the games, don't we) and that there really isn't any problems anyway (after all, lots of folks like it). Well maybe we should worry when a "university or college loses so much money on its sports program that it cannot support its academic program." In other words, as long as academic programs aren't falling over, it matters not that millions get spent each year on putting on sports exhibitions. Thanks for the support Dr. Lombardi!

Here we learn of the plans of Seton Hill University, a small liberal arts school in southwestern Pennsylvania, to start playing football. Our correspondent wonders will his 'future campus be a place where "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity"?' Have no fear Dr. Jerz: lots of folks like sports. And after all, as long as your sports programs manage to get by "without cheating and scandal" you've got absoultely nothing to worry about. Well, you might want to worry if Dr. Lombardi ever decides to move to Pennsylvania,

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