Early 20th century MOOCs

It is always enlightening to see how some of the same breathless optimism derived from our newest innovations, the claims that perennial problems are going to be solved at last, were also derived from innovations a century or more old, when they were new. In particular, I was struck by Kevin Birmingham’s account (in his remarkable book on the genesis of James Joyce’s Ulysses) of the early days of Random House, and its Modern Library series:

Both within and beyond universities, people began thinking that certain books illuminated eternal features of the human condition. They didn’t demand expertise — one didn’t need to speak classical Greek or read all of Plato to benefit from The Republic — all they demanded was, as [Professor John] Erskine put it, “a comfortable chair and a good light.” […]

The Modern Library offered commodified prestige with the illusion of self-reliance. Readers could have the benefits of institutional culture without the institutions. They could rise above the masses by purchasing a dozen inexpensive books.

Replace “good light” by “fast internet connection”, and you have the promise of Coursera. Of course, that jibes well with the feelings that many skeptics have, who wonder why we need new technology to democratise education. As long as you’re lecturing to masses, where personal feedback is logistically impossible, doesn’t it suffice to have a well-stocked library?

Vice and virtue

From a NY Times article on the crazy low success rates of applicants to prestigious (and even not-so-prestigious) US universities:

Bruce Poch, a former admissions dean at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., said he saw “the opposite of a virtuous cycle at work” in admissions.

The “opposite of a virtuous cycle”. There ought to be a name for that. Maybe, I don’t know, a “vicious cycle”?

(“Virtuous circle” is obviously a back-formation from “vicious circle”. It reminds me of the phrase “random act of kindness”, which seems to have almost superseded the “random act of violence” that it is obviously modelled on. Not that that’s a bad thing…)

The overscheduled maths student

… at Imperial College.

Some say that young people today are overscheduled, but I didn’t realise how bad it had gotten until someone showed me the sample student timetable posted by the maths department at Imperial College. Some highlights:

  1. The student spends up to 6 hours on music practice on some days.
  2. Working on problem sheets starts only at 11 pm, and lasts for an hour, and only on Mondays and Tuesdays (and maybe Wednesdays, when “study time” is planned).
  3. Monday and Tuesday are also the only days on which lunch is planned.
  4. Two hours of “self-help” are planned on Thursdays, perhaps a therapy group to cope with the stress and lack of sleep.

On the weekend (schedule available here) she spends hours on French assignments, but again doesn’t get around to doing her problem sheets until 11 pm on Sunday night. Five straight hours of orchestra rehearsals, though.

student timetable

“Buyer’s market”

When did the values of the market become a substitute for ethical standards? I found myself wondering this in reading this article in Inside Higher Education about a young philosophy PhD who was offered a tenure-track job at Nazareth College in New York, replied with an enthusiastic email attempting to start a negotiation about starting salary, sabbatical, maternity leave, and limited teaching in her first year. Although she made clear that she didn’t expect all of her requests to be possible, the university responded with a brusque retraction of the job offer. Now, the misogyny of philosophy departments is by now well established, but this smackdown of a young colleague who has just been selected as the best available for a job in your department, merely for making some requests, seemed shocking to me. Not to the commenters on the IHE blog, though, who may be supposed to be mainly higher education professionals. Some sample comments:

She has too many requests and this is always a sign that a person is going to be a pain in the *&*%. Her requests on balance are not unreasonable but she is in no position to ask for all of this — it is a buyer’s market. … Lots of great people to choose from so why saddle yourself with someone who is challenged right off the bat.

several substantial requests, the sum of which went beyond the pale for hat-in-hand applicants.

You just spent a semester narrowing hundreds (or more) candidates and arguing for this ONE person… only to have them forward THAT? Not exactly who I want to spend the rest of my career with (not to mention that the person clearly felt they were ‘playing with house money’ and could afford to lose the job offer… someone who REALLY wants the job wouldn’t risk that message).

(To be fair, some comments are supportive of the candidate, and others take on other issues.) What fascinate me in these responses are these references to a “buyer’s market” to which the presumably arrogant candidate should have meekly submitted, with the clear presumption that the logic of the market is proper and just. If you are in a powerful position, where you can take advantage of those unfortunate enough to have qualifications that are in high supply and low demand, then of course you should, and no one could be surprised if you do. It’s an argument that is rarely applied to those who are robbed at knifepoint by those stronger or more ruthless than themselves, but it does show up in certain comments on rape and on international relations. It’s the belief that power creates its own justification.

I am frequently reminded of Nietzsche’s remarks on markets in Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science):

Kaufen und verkaufen gilt jetzt als gemein, wie die Kunst des Lesens und Schreibens; Jeder ist jetzt darin eingeübt, selbst wenn er kein Handelsmann ist, und übt sich noch an jedem Tage in dieser Technik: ganz wie ehemals, im Zeitalter der wilderen Menschheit, Jedermann Jäger war und sich Tag für Tag in der Technik der Jagd übte.

Buying and selling are common skills nowadays, like the art of reading and writing: Everyone is accomplished in it, even if he’s not a businessman, and practices every day, just as in earlier times, in the days of primitive man, everyone was a hunter, and practiced that skill every day.

One last point: The largest number of commenters fault the young scholar for her “tone”. Everyone knows, apparently, that you don’t put this sort of thing so baldly in an email, for God’s sake! Obviously they had no choice but to rescind the offer when she attacked them with an EMAIL that clearly laid out what she would like. This is pretty hilarious, given how much philosophers pride themselves on their ruthlessly direct style of academic disputation, with some of them arguing that the would-be philosophers with excessive numbers of X chromosomes can’t hack it.

“Institutions of Higher Perspiration”

“They don’t want to turn the universities into sweatshops. They’ll be institutions of higher perspiration.”

That was my conclusion about the trajectory to which our managerial overlords aspire, as I was trying to convince a colleague that he should support the UCU, the British academics union, and its escalating strike action. I walked the picket lines for the first time on Thursday, during our two-hour strike. There were about 20 of us there, and only a few were senior academics, which is somewhat disheartening. There were almost as many reporters as strikers, so I got to talk to    all of them. Their questions were interesting:

  1. Why do you think you deserve more pay, in this time of wage restraint? Other workers aren’t getting raises. I think they should join unions and demand higher wages too. It’s not a law of nature that we have “wage restraint” for everyone but the CEOs and fat-cat bankers. It’s a reflection of political decisions and power imbalance, and the effect of words like “time of wage restraint”. Continue reading ““Institutions of Higher Perspiration””

Solidarity for academia

You may not have noticed, but the UK academics’ union (UCU) is on strike today, together with the higher-education employees of Unite and Unison, representing clerical, technical, and support staff. Having come to Oxford from Queen’s University (Ontario), which is a closed shop, where the union flexes its muscles on behalf of academic employees, I was surprised by the weakness of the academic unions here. UCU seems to make no effort to inform new academic employees that it even exists. The only news I ever heard about UCU during my early years in the UK were the efforts of a vocal minority to hijack the union for anti-Israel boycotts.

But I decided I should make an effort and actually sign up for the union. It’s pretty clear that the panjandrums of higher education in the UK are fundamentally managerialist in their outlook, and are happy to take advantage of academics’ hauteur to break our solidarity. We think we’re important professionals, not like those maintenance employees and secretaries and such for whom unionisation may be appropriate, but from the perspective of the VCs we’re all just a bunch of proles.

Many seem to think that the special values of academia are incompatible with unionisation. I’d say exactly the opposite: To the extent that we hold to peculiarly academic values, we are not going to preserve them in any form against the corporatisation drive of UK university administration and government through persuasion. It is going to be a power struggle, and only a strong union will give us any chance of asserting our vision. They’ll be happy for us to bring a well-honed argument to an education-policy gunfight.

A spokesman for the UCEA (University and College Employers’ Association) dissed the union last week, saying

It is for trade unions to predict their support but given that less than 5 per cent of staff chose to vote in favour of strike action, our higher education institutions anticipate low-level impact on students.

In other words, you won’t be missed.

When I ask colleagues how they feel about the union and going on strike (and following the strike, the union’s decision to “work to contract”), they tend to respond with some variant of “It would only hurt the students.” Of course, that’s the kind of scruple that the employers never have. I’ve never heard of a vice chancellor saying, “We could worsen conditions/ cut pay/ replace permanent by temporary lecturers, but it would only hurt the students.”

For academics, our salaries are not just our salaries. Many of the advantages that reconcile us to the low salaries in academia, relative to other sectors where people with our skills and education might work, depend on maintaining our departments’ research environment, which requires that the salaries be at least comparable to international standards.

Germany’s German-brain drain

Der Spiegel has just published an interview with Nobel-Prize winner Thomas Südhof, in which the editors express their dismay that the Göttingen-born and -educated Südhof has spent his entire professional career in the US, except for an apparently disastrous 2 years as director of a Max Planck Institute. He sounds apologetic, praising Göttingen and his supervisor, praising the research environment in Germany. He left only because

I think every scientist should spend some time abroad; a country should make this possible — but naturally should also try to get them back.

Hmm. “Try to get them back”? He also makes clear that he doesn’t even know if he has retained his German citizenship. The interview continues:

Spiegel: Many researchers leave for the US or England because they don’t like the conditions for scientists in Germany. What do you think?

Südhof: The research landscape in Germany is terrific. Many of my collaborators, very good people, have returned to Germany — happily. Germany has a lot to offer.

Spiegel: Why don’t you return?

Südhof: Professionally I’m probably too old. I’d like to keep doing research as long as I am able. In the US that’s possible. Otherwise I’d really love to return to Germany, if only so that my young children would learn the language.

He’s still seven or eight years away from normal retirement, and lots of exceptions are made, so this sounds like a polite excuse.

But I’m interested in this presumption that German scientists should want to return to Germany, and that Germany should be trying to lure them back. Germany isn’t Canada. It’s not as though German science is overrun with foreigners. The statistics I read a few years back were that about 94% of professors in German universities are German, and two thirds of the rest are from neighbouring German-speaking countries. My own experience has been that German universities are much less open to applications from foreign academics than British or Belgian or Dutch or French or Canadian ones. I don’t think the number of Germans at British universities is so much higher than the number of Britons at German universities because of “better research conditions”, and I think language is only a marginal issue.

Why is it that there is a constant outcry over the need to bring back a few more sufficiently teutonic academics from abroad? I suggest that they should be thinking about how German universities can make themselves more attractive to good researchers — not just a few star scientists who can run a Max Planck Institute — regardless of their nationality? I don’t have the impression that the UK goes into mourning when a British-born scientist working abroad wins a prize. And maybe, if German universities were less insular — and less prone to academic nepotism — more of the cosmopolitan sort of German scientists would be eager to build their careers there.

Macho science: Deflowering virgin nature

I was listening to BBC radio this morning, which I rarely do, because I find it generally dull. A scientist named Mark Lythgoe was being interviewed, director of the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging at University College London, and an enthusiastic mountain climber. The interviewer asked — inevitably — about the connection between mountain-climbing and science. The answer was almost archaically macho, in what it said both about science and about mountain climbing. It wasn’t anything about planning or co-operation, or the beauty or peace of nature, not evening about pushing yourself to your limits. No, it was about deflowering virgin territory.

There is a very special moment when you stand on a part of this earth that no one else has ever stood on, and look out on a view that no one else has seen… That’s the same as when someone calls you up from the lab with an image that no one else has seen before… The hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

I don’t know of any better argument against the narrow British approach to education — where a scientist will never read a book after age 16 — than that through exposure to the humanities a certain percentage of scientists would recognise deflowering virgin nature as an embarrassing 19th century cliché. Some might acquire enough of a familiarity with how to think about human matters — about society and gender and nature — with a sophistication to match the overweening self-confidence that their scientific expertise tends to impart.

He also presented what was supposed to be an example of the brilliant eclecticism of his institute (and himself), a collaboration with a biologist to study homing pigeons. He says that there was a theory that pigeons have magnetite in their beaks or brains that orient them with respect to the Earth’s magnetic field. So they developed a brand new imaging technology that could make refined images of the distribution of magnetite in the beaks and brains, and found — there is no magnetite. Brilliant! Except, isn’t it a huge waste of time and effort to develop refined imaging technologies, without first figuring out (by, I don’t know, grinding up the beaks and doing some chemical tests)? Maybe I’m missing something — maybe that wasn’t possible for some reason that he was too busy talking about his drive for success to explain — or maybe I just don’t sufficiently appreciate big science and IMPACT.

The peer-review fetish: Let’s abolish the gold standard!

I’ve just been reading two books on the climate-change debate, both focusing on the so-called “hockey stick graph”: Michael Mann’s The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, and A. W. Montford’s The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science. I’ll comment on these in a later post, but right now I want to comment on the totemic role that the strange ritual of anonymous peer review plays for the gatekeepers of science.

One commonly hears that anonymous peer review (henceforth APR) is the “gold standard” for scientific papers. Now, this is a reasonable description, in that the gold standard was a system that long outlived its usefulness, constraining growth and innovation by attempting to measure something that is inherently fluid and abstract by an arbitrary concrete criterion, and persisting through the vested interests of a few and deficient imagination of the many.

That’s not usually what people mean, though.

An article is submitted to a journal. An editor has read it and decided to include it. It appears in print. What does APR add to this? It means that the editor also solicited the opinion of at least one other person (the “referee(s)”). That’s it. The opinion may have been expressed in three lines or less. She may have ignored the opinion.

Furthermore, to drain away any incentive for the referee(s) to be conscientious about their work,

  • They are unpaid.
  • They are anonymous. We know how well that works for raising the tone of blog comments.
  • Anonymity implies: Their contributions will never be acknowledged. If they contribute important insights to the paper, they may be recognised in the acknowledgement section: “We are grateful for the helpful suggestions of an anonymous referee.” Very occasionally an author will suggest, through the editor, that a referee who has made important contributions be invited to join the paper as a co-author. More commonly, a paper will be sent from journal to journal, collecting useful suggestions until it has actually become worth publishing.*
  • No one will ever take issue with any positive remarks the referee makes, as no one but the authors (and the editor) will ever see them. Negative comments, on the other hand, may get pushback from the author, and thus need to be justified, requiring far more work.
  • Normally, the author will be forced to demonstrate that she has taken the referee’s criticism to heart, no matter how petty or subjective. This encourages the referee to adopt an Olympian stance, passing judgement on what by rights ought to be the author’s prerogative.

Of course, I don’t mean to say that most referees most of the time don’t do a very conscientious job. I take refereeing seriously, and make a good-faith effort to be fair, judicious, and helpful. But I’m sure that I’m not the only one who feels that the incentives are pushing in other directions, and to the extent that I do a careful job, it is mainly out of some abstract sense of duty. I am particularly irritated when I find myself forced to put original insights into my report, to explain why the paper is deficient. I would much rather the paper be published as is, and then I could make my criticism publicly, and then, if I’m right, be recognised for my contribution. Continue reading “The peer-review fetish: Let’s abolish the gold standard!”

The Long Room: An academic allegory

Richard Tames’s A Traveller’s History of Oxford describes the “Long Room” of New College, a range of first-floor latrines built over a huge cesspit. Robert Plot, first superintendent of the Ashmolean Museum rhapsodised in the late 17th century that it was

stupendous… so large and deep that it has never been emptied since the foundation of the College, which was above three hundred years since, nor is it ever likely to want it.

The book also notes that this historical appraisal was in fact erroneous, as the pit had in fact, according to College records, been emptied in 1485.

The author does not make clear whether this description is intended as an allegory of academic productivity.