Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Authority and Inequality

In this podcast, Alex Voorhoeve points out that one important problem with inequality is that it gives one person power over another. The problem isn't just that you are rich and I am poor, but that as a result of this, you can fuck with me. I do more than resent your success, I fear for my safety.

Over the last few years, I've grown into the habit of thinking of the moral emotions in terms of Haidt's five fold system, and as a part of this, I thought of all issues of equality and all sorts of Rawlsian concerns as matters of fairness. If one person is rich and one is poor, this is a problem for the "fairness/reciprocity" set of instincts which liberals recognize. But a lot of times that's not the problem. The problem is with the authority/hierarchy instincts. These are instincts that conservatives think of as moral, but liberals are indifferent to. Conservatives believe that obedience and dereference to your betters are good, while liberals think that all urges toward obedience are irrational and should be expelled.

So here's my big revelation: the authority/hierarchy instincts are not just amoral. They are immoral. They aren't just irrelevant for moral thinking. They systematically lead us astray.

If this is right, it is big. The typical liberal critique of the conservative moral emotions is that they are prejudices. The big example here are the moral emotions associated with purity and sanctity, which include the feelings of disgust we have at people whose sexual practices violate our rules. Liberals tend to reject these instincts, which is all well and good when it comes to accepting gays, but is harder to when it comes to rejecting instincts against incest.

Personally, I do accept the moral importance of some purity instincts, including the instinct against incest. But I want to go farther than simply rejecting the moral importance of the authority/hierarchy instinct. It is not just mistaken. It is systematically the opposite of true.

Ok, now I've written that. I'll see if I believe it in the morning.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

test driving free plagiarism detection software.

I just caught a student cheating, so now is a good opportunity to check the various free plagiarism detection services which are out there. Using Google, I've found one online source which is a close match for one of the student's paragraphs. I want to see whether the free online services will be able to find the match I found and match the rest of the document. I am particularly interested in output: I'd like to see side-by-side comparisons of the paper and the original source, with the matching passages marked. This is what I did for the one paragraph match I found

If you have comparisons like this for the whole document, you are pretty much justified in throwing the book at the student. I have redacted the student's name, which is what I believe is required by FERPA.

See Sources Seesources.com

This page is a freebie teaser for a pay version called Plagscan, which costs about a penny a page and is available at plagscan.com. It lets you upload your whole file as an attachment, rather than cutting and pasting paragraphs into a little field. The nice looking output is reserved for paying customers. What I got looks like this.


The software caught matches I did not, but it only caught direct quotes, and not slight paraphrases like "Hypothetical Imperatives conditionally demand" for "A hypothetical imperative conditionally demands." You could use these to get to the rest of the copying, though. More interestingingly, at a penny a page, blanket coverage for me would only cost $5-$10 a semester, which I could pay out of pocket.


Didn't catch anything. FAIL.

Plagiarism Checker.

Produced by the University of Maryland Department of Education. This is again a free teaser for a subscription product, which at $8 a month is again something I could pay out of pocket. The whole thing is Google driven, and when it finds a hit, it just gives you links to a Google search for the exact phrase it hit on. The subscription version will let you upload files directly and will ignore material in quotes. If this is all it adds, it doesn't seem worth it. Output below.

Testing free plagiarism detection services: plagiarism checker

Ok, the kids are freaking out. I'll finish this later. I need to check these two.

Copy Tracker




Friday, December 03, 2010

Scholars of the Valley.

The Grand Mother-Empress summoned the greatest scholars of the River, the impuritans of the lower valley and the Maximalists of the upper valley, to debate her divinity. Privately, she hoped she was not divine.

The impuritans, charged with negative position, sent as their first arguer, a boy of eleven. Boy-of-eleven was quite a prodigy, to be sure, but no one expected him to win an imperial debate. The Maximalists clearly didn't expect him to win, as they sent out an over-the-hill back bencher, who was scarcely an imperial class arguer when he was in his prime. Looking uncomfortable in a brand new formal suit, Boy-of-Eleven looked like he had just come from his manhood ceremony, which would in fact not be for two more years. Back-Bencher wore the suit he wore when he won his most famous argument, some twenty years ago.

"Hey kid. Don't think for a moment that I'm going to take it easy on you because your a kid." Back-Bencher said as the two shook hands.

The kid won the toss, and got to choose the style of argument. "Dissent" he called. "I'll take the skeptical position." This was a safe move for him. In a dissent all the skeptic has to do is prove that the positive side has not made its case. In a debate, by contrast, both sides have positions they are trying to prove, and it is possible for the argument to end in a tie.

"Inductive reasoning," Back-Bencher replied, "from plausible premises." He was, at least, not simply handing the boy the match. If he had called for deductive reasoning or self evident premises, he would have a harder row to hoe. Perhaps he knew his limitations.

"I assert the divinity of the grand Mother-Empress," declared the Back-Bencher, "and as evidence I offer the prosperity of the valley."

With this opening move, the grand Mother-Empress sighed, not loudly, but enough that that she could be heard by her chief advisor on her left and her eldest son on her right.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Free writing

That Fred believed a combination nursing home and whorehouse was a splendid idea would surprise no one who knew him. It was somewhat more surprising that he could find so many RNs who were also experienced prostitutes. It was genuinely alarming that he had gotten this far along in the loan application process at one of the largest banks operating in Nevada. "Health care and sex work have a lot in common both in terms of the skills you have to bring to them and the outcomes you can expect with the clients," he said to the assembled skeptical faces.

Free writing

Silk Worm Moon had decided that it was time to bring the religion of The Users out of the fictional world of Tron and into the real world. Having worked in translation of one sort or another all her life, this seemed a natural thing to her. It helped a lot that philosophers were now regarding the idea that we live in a computer simulation to be a live possibility, rather than a skeptical hypothesis. She thought about bringing the religion to some of the corners of the internet she knew where such proposals are received with exactly the level of seriousness she had. She worried, though, that the voices there would have questions about the video game, the comic book, or the new movie. A user, she thought, would be a kind of semi-demi-urge: not ultimate creator, nor the creator of this world, merely someone who had customized this portion of the world to suit his needs. A city god, or tribal god. A guardian spirit or animal guide. Should she first show that the world is really a computer simulation? She didn't want this project to end like her youthful attempt to recreate the Pythagorean cult. Most of all, she needed to know what her user wanted her to do.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Free Writing

In recent ship-wide elections, the Conservative Party gained control of the starboard engine, and have vowed to shut it down. If Labor, which retains control of the port engine, decides to massively increase thrust, the ship may start traveling in tiny circles. However, the most politically likely outcome is that the massive asteroid vessel will fly straight into the sun.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Free writing

"Ha ha!" cried the villain, "with this device I shall go all the way back in time, to the very beginning, and change it so the universe as a whole never existed!"

Friday, November 12, 2010

Free Writing

The Grand Mother-Empress summoned the greatest scholars of the River, the impuritans of the lower valley and the Maximalists of the upper valley, to debate her divinity. Privately, she hoped she was not divine.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Free Writing

The people of his planet had large hands that were extremely sensitive. Indeed, their language had a hand-holding form, in addition to a spoken and a written form. The cost of this sensitivity was that the hands must be kept extremely cold, about 20 degrees colder than human body temperature, a fact that Captain Patel found very inconvenient whenever she was in a relationship with one, which was surprisingly often.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Time to Vote!

Again, here are the much coveted Helpy-Chalk endorsements. This election we are also pushing early voting. By voting now you can save the Dems much needed money on turning out other voters later.

Also, this esteemed blog is recommending judge4yourself.com for information on the down-ticket judicial races no one ever seems to know about.

And now the endorsements: For every state and national level office & the county council race: The Democrat.

For Cuyahoga County Executive: Tim McCormack. He's a longtime Dem running as an independent because of the corruption of the local party. He sounded very good in his WCPN interview.

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court: Eric Brown (over Maureen O'Conner). This is a race between two sitting judges to see who will be chief justice. The court itself is an embarrassment, that frequently rules in favor of large corporate donors to the campaigns of the judges. The very fact that judges are allowed to rule on cases involving donors is a disgrace that has been featured in the New York Times.

For a long time before Brown was appointed, the court has been all Republican. Brown was appointed by Strickland after the former Chief justice died. He has been endorsed by the Plain Dealer and Call and Post and gets higher ratings from the local bar associations. I'm just hoping that as an outsider to the court appointed by a Democrat, he is more likely to push against the corruption.

Justice of the Supreme Court: Mary Jane Trapp (over Judith Lanzinger) See above for the background. Lanzinger is the incumbent in this bad system. Trap gets better ratings from the bar associations and has the recommendation of the Call and Post. The PD went with Lanzinger, but I distrust their endorsements.

8th district court of appeals: Kathleen Ann Keough and Eileen Gallagher, based on judge4yourself rating.

Judge of the Court of Common Pleas Lance Timothy Mason (over Baker), on judge4yourself ratings

Judge of the Court of Common Pleas Dick Ambrose (over Hall), This is one of those places where the judge4yourself ratings are very helpful. Ambrose's opponent received a "not recommended" from all four local bar associations, a sign of serious incompetence or corruption.

Judge of the Court of Common Pleas McClelland (over Clancy). McClelland has all excellent ratings from the local bars, but the newspapers went with Clancy. I decided to trust the bars, on the grounds that at this level simple legal competence is more important than political connections. Also, the bar associations listed include the associations for women, African Americans, and defense lawyers, so I feel the less powerful are represented.

Judge of the Court of Common Pleas Michael Astrab. His opponent, Bridget McCafferty has been indicted in the corruption arrests that have swept the county but still might when the election because women with Irish last names do well around here.

Judge of the Court of Common Pleas Rosemary Grdina Gold (over Marshall). Marshall's ratings are so bad it is natural to suspect incompetence or corruption.

Issue 1: Money for the public schools: YES. Always vote for the schools.

Issue 2: Allow attached housing in some business districts Yes. Sounds like it would be good for walkability.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Should people give final exams?

The Boston Globe has a piece up about the declining use of final exams, and In Socrates' Wake responds with more general thoughts about frequent, low-stakes testing vs. infrequent high-stakes testing, as a part of their ongoing discussion of the issue. I have long been on the frequent, low-stakes side, which mostly means I spend a lot of time shuffling paper. ISW comes down in favor of retaining some role for the final exam, but everything I'm seeing here reinforces the idea that frequent low-stakes testing is the way to go.

The Globe article was prompted by a change in Harvard's policy about scheduling finals. Rather than assuming that every class will have a final, and them booking a room for it which may go unused, Harvard now requires instructors to request a room for a final. This decision in tern was prompted by the discovery that only 23% of the classes at Harvard actually have finals. (This, by the way, is a change that LCCC might want to consider as well. Our inefficient room scheduling has been cited by outside consultants as a place where we might save money, and our finals scheduling has often been a mess, with rooms double booked.)

I know there is research out there backing the frequent, low-stakes side, but I've never really delved into it. The Globe article one cites on empirical study, by M. Vali Siadat, which showed that algebra students who were given small weekly quizzes did better overall, and on the final exams, than those who were given less rigorous weekly assignments. (This makes me feel good about the structure of my logic class.) This is the original study. A commenter at ISW also mentions the spacing effect, which shows that periodic reinforcement over a long period of time leads to better memory than short cramming sessions. This, by the way, has been known since 1885.

Michael Cholbi at ISW suggests that the frequent low-stakes vs. infrequent high-stakes may a be a false dichotomy. Indeed, the Siadat study seems to have really been about two different versions of the mixed approach, with the winning strategy leaning more to the frequent low-stakes side. My logic class follows roughly that structure, with 10 short quizzes (down from 15 in a 15 week course.) In place of a final, you are allowed to re-take 3 of your quizzes. I think this definitely works for math-like subjects. The issue is more complicated for the humanities.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Hey math teachers!

My colleague in math and a friend at a nearby community college are producing free online math textbooks aimed mostly at the kind of students we teach. So far they have college algrebra and pre-calc. You can download the .pdf file for free or have the book printed by Lulu for $15. If you want your students to get hard copies through your bookstore, you can make courspacks or order in bulk from Lulu. These are books that ordinarily cost $100+ and all shared via a Creative Commons license.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Smells Like Teen Spirit at 19

Jim H on facebook reminds me that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was release on this day nineteen years ago.

I had graduated St. Johns and was working at the Tower Records on University Avenue in Seattle. I had no idea how to survive in the real world, and had only gotten the job at the record store through the intervention of my friend Doug, otherwise I would be completely unemployable.

I think Doug must have brought home the single for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" when it was released to radio, two weeks before Nevermind came out. Doug and I shared the basement of our house. He had the finished part of the basement, and I had a corner of the unfinished part, walled off by plywood. We listened to the single by the laundry machines. I remember thinking that it sounded more or less like the Nirvana I had been listening to all summer. I was obsessed at the time with the CD single for "Sliver" and the live version of "About at Girl" that came with it. The new Nirvana was just a hair slicker, though. I distinctly disliked the bweep BWEEP you hear during the verse (bweep BWEEP/load up on guns...)

I was working the night Nevermind itself came out, and I remember telling the manager around five that I was taking my dinner break. She said, "Don't you want to wait an hour to go to the Nevermind record release party at Beehive." Beehive was our competition around the block. I waited till six and wound up seeing Nirvana in a small shop that looked just plie my place of work, but it was full of sweaty people. Never got a chance to see them that close again.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Dennis Lambert for County Council First District.

Information gets thinner when you look at candidates for the Democratic nominatino for County Council first district. I'm going with Lambert mostly for the way he talks on corruption issues. He also mentions on his website that he has been both a union representative and a manager. I'm not as confident in this vote as I was for the county executive vote.

These notes are mostly from the Plain Dealer website and focus on stances on specific issues in the campaign.

James D. French (Lawyer): Not sure if he wants to release minutes of executive meetings. Doesn't want to raise taxes. Gets the Plain Dealer's endorsement. I haven't lived here long enough to decide what that is worth.

Walt Halun (Director of purchasing at some company): Will publicize the minutes, won't raise taxes.

Nicole Daily Jones (City councilwoman for North Olmstead): Wants to reduce taxes. Will release the minutes of executive meetings.

Dennis Lambert (Customer service supervisor at the post office, former Fairview city councilman.): Has a degree in accounting. He talks explicitly about ending the patronage system when he talks about ending corruption, rather than talking vaguely about accountability and transparency, as the other candidates do. Wants to release the executive minutes in a limited form. Wants to reduce taxes.

Pete Matia (retired UPS driver, former city councilman for Fairview Park): Will release minutes, will not raise taxes.

Maureen Sweeney: would consider raising taxes, would not change the policy on minutes of executive sessions.

Terri Hamilton Brown for Cuyahoga County Executive.

Cuyahoga county government has been mired in corruption for years, but stands a chance of turning around now that a new structure with a strong central executive has been put in place. Terri Hamilton Brown is the candidate most likely to clean up the corruption, and hereby gets the much coveted Helpy-Chalk endorsement. Below are my notes on the four candidates for the Democratic nomination for county executive.

Terri Hamilton Brown: Her most important qualification is her work cleaning up corruption at the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority: Few dispute that Hamilton Brown, 48, cleaned up CMHA, where her predecessor was fired for shady dealings and later went to federal prison for theft of public funds and other crimes. That links is to her plain dealer profile, which opens with a compelling description of Hamilton Brown going ballistic over the failure to remove snow from public housing sidewalks and parking lots after a big storm. She comes off well, and the Plain Dealer isn't even endorsing her; they are endorsing Ed FitzGerald.

The PD also has thisvideo from Hamilton Brown. She doesn't talk about corruption of CMHA. Instead, she just talks about finding savings and efficiencies in government working, and says that if we do this, we won't have to raise taxes. She also advocates greater transparency, including making executive meeting minutes publicly available.

She gets my vote for competence as an administrator of a public institution and ability to fight corruption.

Ed FitzGerald: is a former FBI agent. His profile at the Plain Dealer makes him look mostly like a law-and-order candidate, with detailed proposals for improving the police. The PD endorsed FitzGerald, citing Hamilton Brown's aggressive management style, which might make it hard for her to work with the County Council. They also imply a conflict of interest, because her husband works for Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson. I'm not particularly impressed by either of these arguments. If the goal here is to clean up corruption, I think we need someone who can stand by her principles. And I'm not exactly sure what the conflict of interest with Hamilton Brown's husband is supposed to be. Frank Jackson and his team have a reputation for being bland technocrats, competent people who play by the rules.

The other two candidates for the democratic nomination aren't serious. James F. Brown is a bus driver with a high school education, no experience leading large organizations, and no organized campaign. Dianna Lynn Hill uses ALL CAPS a lot in her statement to the plain dealer. When asked what she would do first on taking office, she writes: "The first thing I will do upon taking office would be to SALUTE the people of Cuyahoga County Ohio who have endured generations of corruption and chosen the less traveled road toward reform and revitalizing the American Spirit of our citizens at large by standing up for change!!!"

One final note: this story by our local NPR affiliate states that many candidates for office this election have extensive criminal records, including things like murder and soliciting sex with a minor. But then the story provides no information at all on who these people are or how we can avoid voting for them. Grrr.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Thought while listening to Studio 360.

Suppose you can travel back in time, and the rule is that you can change things that don't have any effects that endure to the future time you came from. You can then meet someone to whom it seems you can do anything. That person would then have to confront the fact that in a concrete, measurable way, nothing they do really matters.

I suppose some sci fi story somewhere has dealt with this idea.

Friday, August 13, 2010

NYT on textbook prices.

The New York Times money blog has a post about saving money on textbooks. Mostly it just covers the standard advice on finding cheaper books, but it does contain a couple interesting statistics.

"College textbook prices rose about 6 percent, on average, every year — that’s twice the rate of inflation — from 1986 to 2004."


“We are finding that 75 percent of students still prefer print to digital,” Ms. Allen added."

For my students the number is around 95%. Our population is a little older, but more importantly, they are a lot poorer.
Thankfully, federal rules that went into effect in July may help ease the pain. Publishers can no longer bundle their textbooks with accompanying materials like workbooks without offering the items separately, and they must reveal their prices to professors when making a sales pitch. Colleges, meanwhile, are now required to provide students with a list of assigned textbooks during course registration, which allows for more time for shopping before classes begin.
I heard people at the AAPT talking about the regulations and what a pain they are, but we have nothing at our institution regarding this. I'm pretty sure I could get in compliance quickly if I needed to, though.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Loftis, J. Robert: "Breaking the Back of Perverse Incentives: Ending High Textbook Prices for Good with Free Online Textbooks"

I gave a talk at the AAPT arguing three connected theses:
  1. Textbook prices are an injustice
  2. Philosophy teachers have a professional duty to create and use free online textbooks
  3. This duty is best fulfilled using what I call the Open Office model
. The Open Office model simply means that you try to replicate functionality of the existing closed access product without innovating a lot. This contrasts with the Linux model, which tries to displace an expensive product by creating something that works better, but is unfamiliar and difficult for most users. Most existing free textbooks, I think, are written on the Linux model.

At the conference, a lot of people were talking up concept mapping software, xmind in particular. So the night before the talk I decided to give xmind a whirl by making a concept map for my talk. this is what I came up with. I think I made the whole thing too big. It is hard to figure out what the print area of these diagrams are.

This is the handout, which lists free textbooks and course materials databases along with little descriptions and recommendations.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Peter Bradley, John Basl, Rudy Garns "Social Networking Technology and Teaching Philosophy."

Peter Bradley, John Basl, Rudy Garns "Social Networking Technology and Teaching Philosophy."


Textbooks are like client-server systems; we need textbooks that work more like peer networks.

Why not make distributed textbooks? Every part of writing a textbook is social, so lets doing social media.

He actually has a free online critical thinking textbook, that comes with a printed version, and in use at 3 schools. USE THIS.

He is collecting critical thinking examples at http://inquiry.mcdaniel.edu/, and wants start crowdsourcing the database of examples.

John (remotely using wimba classroom)


What can you get your students to do on Twitter? Write a haiku or a tweet summarizing the reading.

#PhilQ is the hashtag for philosophical questions

I am now following him on twitter.

Google Wave!


All his stuff is here

He uploaded his slides to slideshare.com. Use this in the future.

Mostly familiar technologies. He puts his classes on groups.diigo.com for social bookmarking. Also netvibes.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Alexandra Bradner, Chris Weigl & Emily Esch, "Pedagogical Issues in Experimental Philosophy"

“Clickers and experimental philosophy”


Sample survey


What experimental philosophy is.

Empirical philosophy: Any philosophy where people use empirical work, generally from other disciplines. People have been doing this for ever. John Doris Lack of Character

Experimental philosophy: Philosophers who run their own experiments.

Negative project vs. positive progress

Negative: Bashing conceptual analysis. Intuitions are suspect, subject to framing effects, etc.

Positive: Finding out what folk concepts people actually have. Useful work on personal identity and free will. Sean Nichols on agency.

Knobe (2006). [Josh Knobe founding father of movement.)

Environmental question: chairman of the board intentionally harmed the environment but not intentionally helped.


What unique discussions can experimental philosophy bring to a class?

Nahmias and Nadelhoffer “Polling in teaching philosophy” in teaching philosophy.

Guy goes off on whether these should be called “thought experiments” or “hypotheticals”

Why does this matter?

How can we best integrate experimental philosophy with traditional texts?

Intro level: In the background while talking about thought experiments
Upper level: As an explicit metaphilosophical issue.

What special challenges does teaching experimental philosophy face?


Introduction to philosophy with experimental philosophy
Units covered: Morality, personality Identity, Epistemology, Free Will, God

Thought experiments covered: Trolley, transplant, experience machine, ship of Theseus, soul switching, eletransporter, Gettier, truetemp, trapped conversationalist, drug addict, Pascal’s wager

She used the thought experiment at the intro with no background. Surveys on pencil and paper. Tabulated by prof.


Comprehension: Its worse than you thought. People don’t understand the thought experiments


Variation: increased rigor makes the variation in intuitions more salient.

Justification: leads people to justify their answers.


Paper version of original survey. “Always have a plan B when you are working with technology”

Turningpoint Anywhere. With Response XR clicker.

Her recommended system:

Bioethics guy has a turning point ppt on the turning point website. This si very good.

Use cell phones or laptops

Disadvantage: It just draws attention to people who are lower income.


Best for research. Lets you do branching surveys. Easy to print from.


Coolest clicker ever.
Higher ed unfriendly.
Great metrics.


Namias, et al., Nichols and Knobe. Good articles using x-phi in the free will area.

Stephen Finn “Creating in class exercises to hone philosophy skills”

Stephen Finn “Creating in class exercises to hone philosophy skills”

He’s under contract to create an exercise book—this is part of the writing of it. Send him an email if you want to use any of his exercises.

[Kinds of exercises:
Arguments/critical thinking
Intuition listing
Looking carefully over schemes/lists
Close reading
Decision making/question answering.]

Today the agenda is to develop a list of philosophy skills and exercises that work those skills.

What are the skills students need to succeed in a philosophy course?]

Critical reading for philosophy
Finding an argument.
Identifying intent
Indentifying larger conversation.
Analysing arguments
Writing skills
Reflective equilibrium.
Rauhut’s quizzes
How to ask a question.
Socratic prompts from changingminds.org.  good
Engaging other views.
Oral presentation.
“understanding the question to which their reading is the answer”
Dealing with thought experiments
“Distinguishing fact and opinion claims” (AARGH why would a philosopher use this distinction.)

He hands out some exercises.

We do Skill #3 analyzing philosophical texts: What is the au doing—claiming, arguing, questioning, informing, defining, etc.

Group one on skill one
• Group response: “We got hung up on just what you meant by the instructions.”
• “I like to emphasize re-reading. Have them read it. Say what they think. And then read it again.
• Use one sheet per group to force group interaction.
• “what did you learn new on the third reading”

Group two and three: Skill three
• You need background on what these things are.
• Write numbers next to sentences. Let students write multiple numbers.
• Annotate text on a smart board. Give them your own annotated text with you system.

Group four on skill 9
• Group response: “We got hung up on just what you meant by the instructions.”

“Are there uniquely philosophical skills?”
“No. what we are doing is reinforcing skill sets across disciples. Right now, the way the university is compartmentalized, students compartmentalize not just their knowledge, but their skills. Philosophy breaks that down.”

Small groups again

• State elaborate exemplify: Reading exercises. For each passage state the point, elaborate on it, exemplify it. “Do you add evaluation later” “Not that this stage.”
• Analytical outline for their own writing. You’ve got a draft, try to figure out what it actually says. “Does this carry over into other texts?”
• Have two students attempt to summarize the same paragraph. See if they match.
• Powerpoint arguments with blanks.

“I think the more structure the better with introductory students.”

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Understanding Bakugon

Joey is obsessed (for this week at least) with Bakugon, so I thought I'd make an effort to understand the game underlying the product line. Joey doesn't understand it either, but I thought if one of us did, we could have more fun.

Right away, I am perplexed by things that I imagine kids just blow right over. The video says "Bakugon represent six important attributes," and then list six funny made up names. How do you "represent" an "attribute"? Based on other things Joey watched, I think they mean that there are six kinds of Bakugon. But they might mean that each Bakugon has six properties that you need to keep track of. Why is this so ambiguous? For all the fancy animation, did they not bother to get a good translation of the original game instructions?

Other comments: I don't want to show Joey these instructional videos, because he's going to want to buy too many things. Also, he will want to simply watch the video repeatedly with me. And then he'll want another movie. And then he'll want to spend the day watching Youtube videos.

At least the don't insist that the kid who wins the game gets to keep the other kid's toys.

So what is the smallest amount of money I can spend and still have enough plastic crap to sit down and play a game of Bakugon with my son?

Bakucoin? There is a Bakucoin? What does that do?

Ok, if you buy a Bakutriad pack you get 3 Bakugon, three gate cards, and three ability cards, which is enough for one side of a Bakugon battle. If we purchased two of these, we'd have enough for a game. Next question: If we scoured the house and sorted through all the plastic crap would we find this much Bakugon paraphernalia?

Baku = explode
Gan = sphere.

And again, it is hard to tell what exactly you are purchasing, if you try to buy the product on Ebay.

If we went to Target or Toys 'r' us to get Bakugon, we could make it a fun expedition what would get the kids out of Mom's hair for several hours. But we'd probably wind up buying more crap than we wanted.

Do we even want to go down this route? The game is designed to encourage you to buy more crap.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Federal Health Care Aid for Illegal Immigrants

So far I've been avoiding researching the situation with illegal immigrants and health care, even though every time I teach medical ethics, I have students claim that it is unfair that they have to pay for health care while those illegal immigrants get it for free. This year I'm going to deal with, though, because I have a couple very intelligent, hardworking students writing papers on it, one with personal experience on the subject.

So I've just tried to get people to be more specific about what federal programs they are actually talking about. My thought was that this would deflate hysterical rhetoric of the "OMG those lazy, coddled immigrants get free everything, like health care, and pie!" sort. The problem with this tactic is that the law here is simply a mess. We are dealing with two of the most incoherent, contradictory legal areas in the US: health care payments and immigration. If you could find a way to throw in the tax code, you would have a federal gibberish trifecta.

So far, one of my students has cited the The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act of 1986 and the Alien Emergency Medical Program, which is mandated as a part of the Welfare Reform Act.

This might wind up as a case of justice vs. compassion, at least if you read all arguments with maximum charity, which would be interesting.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Opposite of Mother is not Father, Dammit.

One of Caroline's activity books asserts that the opposite of "mother" is "father." Actually, a lot of children's books and toys make mistakes like that. If two things are commonly paired, the designer of the product thinks they are opposites. So salt and pepper are opposites. I've emphasized to Caroline that these people are simply wrong. To be opposites, the member of a pair must cancel each other out. Still, I'm particularly galled by idea that the *opposite* of "mother" is "father."

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Scoobie-Doo Realism

wants to posit that there is an intellectual movement that should be called "Scoobie-Doo Realism." People take up a stance of Scoobie-Doo Realism when they pose as hard nosed advocates of science and objectivity, because they can unmask a traditionally mysterious figure. This despite the fact that their own explanations make no sense and they hang out with a talking dog.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Experts: "We're Fucked"

The industry professionals at The Oil Drum suspect that the real leak in the Deepwater Horizon site is not at the blowout preventer, but 1,000 feet below the sea floor. BP may have even been trying to increase the flow at the sea floor to relieve pressure on the leak 1,000 feet below.

The post is full of technical industry talk (and rather badly edited) so it is hard for me to figure out exactly what they are saying, but there seem to be two further catastrophes to fear. Apparently the sea floor there is just silt that doesn't really provide any support for the blowout preventer. The preventer is just resting on the 1000 foot pipe beneath it, which now seems to be buckling. The other problem is that the sea floor itself might be opening up, causing the whole oil reserve to come to the surface at once. I'm not sure how this outcome is compatible with the worry about the pipe collapsing, since it seem to imply that the sea floor is a solid mass that can shatter, which they just said it wasn't. I'd like to see more explanations of this stuff.

Update: Prof. Goose from The Oil Drum has stopped by Unfogged to explain some things http://tinyurl.com/3xunewu. He points out that the article is by a TOD commenter, not a regular writer. Goose points to comments on The Oil Drum thread that undermine dougr's original post. A guy calling himself R2-3D points to other signs that would be present if there had been a casing blow out beneath the sea floor. Maybe we should leave this to the experts to debate before we reach higher levels of panic than we have currently.

Friday, June 04, 2010

End of the School Year

Every weekday this year, a small line of first graders (including Caroline) has formed on my front lawn, waiting to board the bus. Often one child's younger brother got in line too. He is around three and was inevitably wearing pajamas. He just wants to be like the big kids. His mom made sure he didn't actually get on the bus. School is over after today, and I will miss this little ritual.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Collateral damage in a defensive action against birds

The kids and I were picking strawberries to give to our neighbor for her birthday, when we found this guy, caught in the netting I had put up to keep out the robins. He had been still as the dead until I took one step closer than he liked, and he zipped away as far as the net would stretch.

Chipmunk with wound and attached netting
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

I was scared to handle him at first, thinking that he could carry disease and might scratch me, but it quickly became clear that he would not be able to get all four of his claws out of the net on his own. The weird thing is that once I got all his claws free, there was just a glob of netting attached to his side for no apparent reason.

clear shot of wound and attached netting
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

Also, he had rubbed a big patch of fur clean off from his shoulder trying to escape.

scared chipmunk
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

The only way to free him was to cut the glob of netting with scissors. Once free, he scurried into some PVC piping connected loosely to the downspout of the gutters of my house.

Some background. I've seen him in the garden before, sometimes scurrying into the PVC pipe, sometimes scrambling around the southwest corner of the garden, looking for a way out. Sometimes it looked like he did find a way out--the base of the fence consists simply of flagstones piled together, and there are plenty of chipmunk sized holes. The PVC pipe is another story. The downspout comes down at the corner of the house, which is adjacent to the northeast corner of the garden. It empties into this PVC pipe, which goes under the garden fence, one side sticking into the garden and one side sticking out. The pipe is a natural varmint highway, and up until now I have dealt with this problem with the simple expedient of putting a large rock on the sticking-out-of-the-garden side. But the rock is often moved and doesn't cover the hole right, so I am not surprised that it has still served as a direct route to my garden.

Ok, so the chipmunk is in the pipe and the kids having been briefly entertained by The Chipmunk Incident, are now asking to do something new and exciting. I am not satisfied with the situation, however. The 'munk is scared, cowering in the pipe, and may think to leave out the side that exits the garden, and might not. So, with the kids watching, I proceed to try to disinter the PVC pipe, slide it out from under the fence, and coax the chipmunk out. This is not entertaining to children, who whine and make escalating demands, including that I stop what I doing any play Uno. Finally, unable to take the pestering, I yell

Can't you see I'm trying to rescue and injured chipmunk here!!!

which in retrospect, is kinda a weird thing to yell. In any case, it scares the kids off, and I am able to remove the pipe and clean it out. It turns out the whole thing is packed full of dirt and live roots. There is no way it would carry water, an issue which never came up, because the downspout and the gutter that feeds into it are also completely clogged. About halfway through the process of emptying the pipe, the 'munk scurries out and runs into a nearby evergreen bush. I imagine I will recognize him if I see him again, because he has a glob of net sticking out from his side. I should name him, but the only name that comes to me is "Leibniz" which I am not satisfied with.

Leibniz the chipmunk
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

I am also worried that his wounds will mean his early demise. I can't figure for the life of me how the net got stuck to his side. Molly has suggested hopefully that Leibniz (for want of a better name) might have a mate who will help groom out the netting. But the whole thing still worries me.

I spent the remainder of the day restoring the PVC pipe to its proper place and fashioning grates at either end to be sure to keep all varmints out. I also took care that it was tipped so that, if the gutters of the house are ever repaired and actually empty water into the PVC pipe, it will be appropriately tipped so that the water pours into the garden, and not out of it. I even measured with a level.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

little philosophers

Joey, from the back seat of the car: "Why I don't believe in God, is that God is a person, and God created persons,* so who created God? And why Caroline** doesn't believe in God is that God created Caroline, but then..." Here he pauses and stammers as he tries to remember the argument. "God created Caroline, so why didn't God make Caroline believe in God?"

* Joey pronounces "person" as "perthon" and "persons" as "perthonth"
** Pronounced "Care-wine"

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

NFM campaign to help adjuncts get unemployment insurance.

Adjunct faculty who find themselves without work are often eligible for unemployment insurance. New Faculty Majority has launched a campaign to help adjuncts get the money they deserve. Employers sometimes claim that adjunct faculty have "reasonable assurance" that they will be hired in the future, but this has been successfully challenged in California and Washington. NFM president Maria Maisto says in a press release
In other industries, seasonal employees who face similarly precarious circumstances do not have to prove 'no reasonable assurance'; neither should college teachers who are denied continuing contracts. This situation stems from higher education's overdependence on contingent employment, which is devastating the teaching profession and is detrimental to education."

New Faculty Majority is a advocacy group fighting for adjunct and contingent faculty. This is the first of what will hopefully be many campaigns to improve working conditions for the 73% of the academic workforce that is not on the tenure track. Please help spread the word to adjuncts you know.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dear Idea of a Human Centipede

Dear Idea of a Human Centipede: Please get out of my brain. Please get out of the casual conversations I have. Please let me forget your existence.

You enter my thoughts at least three times a week, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes from the words of another. This cannot go on. Your presence hurts me.

I sometimes imagine that the writer/director of the movie The Human Centipede was in a similar position. Once you, this poisonous idea, got into his head, he couldn't stop thinking about it. Maybe he thought that by making the movie, he would be spared, sorta the way in The Ring if you show the cursed video to someone else, and curse them, then you won't die. Maybe he didn't think he could rid himself of the evil thought, but he resented the rest of us so much for being free of it that he wanted to bring us down to his level.

In any case, Idea of a Human Centipede, please leave my brain.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Now is my chance to liveblog an episode of Space 1999

The family is away. I have the house to myself. What should I watch that no one else in the family would watch with me?

SPACE 1999. Episode: Mission of the Darians.

00:30 Middle school geometry is used to express awe:

"Twenty miles long by five miles wide!"

"A hundred square miles of space ship!"

00:33. I was going to make fun of the characters for being unsurprised that the aliens speak English, but rewinding I see the inserted the line "Signal decoded." But how did they decode it?

Battlestar co-creator Ron Moore said that the Eagles were the coolest looking spaceship ever. He's right.

Dramatic music!

This Episode: Funky Music! Absurd Costumes! Guest Star Joan Collins!

And once again, people get information from computers by reading cash register receipts.

Again, Barbara Bain is stuck in the smurfette role.

360 degree panning shot, starting with the character speaking. When the camera returns to the spot where it started, the speaking character is no longer standing there, but we can still hear him.

Dwarfs! Mute Dwarfs!

Now a violent big guy.

Sinister dwarf hand.

When I was a kid I was fascinated by how the Space 1999 guns were different than Star Trek phasers.

There is going to be a taking off the space suit helmet reveal.

The dwarfs are enemies of the big guys.

AAANND... the aliens do speak English after all. The nice thing about Space 1999 is that once you accept the basic premise that they are all on the moon, which has been blasted away from earth and is now wandering to all the interesting parts of the universe...well, anything else is plausible.

We first meet Joan Collins with a long shot of her hips and thighs. In fact, we see the hips and thighs, then get a whole nother scene, and ontly then do we get the face reveal (also featuring silly headgear.)

The weird headdress has a matching wig.

"You have to understand, apart from this small area, our ship is a wasteland."

"out of 15 thousand darians, only 14 survived intact."

Throw the dwarf in the glass elevator!

Throw the just introduced for this episode character in the glass elevator!

"Have you considered how similar our situations are? Our ship? Your moon? Both victims of an unfortunate disaster."

Premise reveal (?) Lost generation ship offers to team up with lost moon.


"A hundred years. Its a very long time."

The show accurately predicted that chunky shoes would be hip in 1999.

The aliens are eating people! Maybe each other! Will they eat our heroes?

Ahh, they don't eat each other, they eat the people lower than themselves. It is a metaphor.

The food people are rising up against the eating people, but the eating people are only doing it to preserve "the undamaged genetic material of our race."

Glowing orbs.

Here I am, doing my paperwork in my super short bright pink dress.

"You Darians have one of our people. A WOMAN. I want you to take us to her."

The eating people use the food people for transplant organs and for amino acids that run the ship, but i don't think they actually eat them. In any case, THEY WANTED TO EAT OUR HEROES.

"Once our race is established on the new planet, we will gladly die."

The food people say to head eating person "You are not a god," and throws him head first into the glass sheet that preserves his genetic code.

"Listen! The only chance you people have is to help each other! and to live together!"

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

I have the house to myself until Saturday.

All those times I said to myself, "I could get this done if I just had a moment of peace and quiet." Now is the time. So what am I getting done?

Listening to old records on vinyl. So far: Miles Davis Get Up With It, The Hated Every Song. Now playing: The Fugs, The Fugs II.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

What are we looking for a natural history of?

Looking for this book, I type "a natural history of..." Google, helpfully offers these suggestions

the senses,
the sonoran desert,
the dead hemmingway
the romance novel
the dead
western trees

Friday, April 02, 2010

Stupid fucking backyard trampoline

The ad for a comparable new model says it takes 45 minutes to assemble. We have been working on this project off and on for a month now, including things like a week spent waiting for a tool we ordered and sweaty afternoons spent doing work we just had to undo later. Of course, we did not buy the new model, which would be ~$850. We got a used one for free on freecycle (plus like fifty dollars to rent a truck to pick it up and 90 dollars on replacement parts, so far). (It was Molly's find.)

The whole thing is driving me apeshit, and I mostly have myself to blame. We didn't get instructions with it, so we just winged it. Later we checked for instruction son line and found them right away. If we had done that first, we wouldn't now be in a position of having to take the whole damn thing apart and start over.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

I WILL be productive today

Big important tasks
  • Assemble kids' backyard trampoline
  • Finish grading ethics outlines
  • Organize and enter ethics in class assignments
Smaller less important tasks
  • Return/pick up library materials
  • put screen in storm door
  • clean clean clean
  • put out & water plants
  • go to open bookkeeping budget meeting
  • Fix slipper
I'm shooting to get all these done today, but I predict I will get one major task and all the minor tasks done.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Empirically verifying models of competences

The ethics textbook I use is called Moral Competence, and its focus is just what it says it is. The book develops a five-fold model of a morally competent decision maker. Although the book is riddled with arguments--for instance claiming that virtue alone, as the book defines it, is not sufficient for moral competence--it doesn't make an effort to empirically verify the system as a whole. This makes sense for what the book is trying to do. The model is presented mostly as a framework for students to deliberate on their own moral competence and for synthesizing results and ideas from a wide range of philosophers and psychologists.

Still, something could be gained by looking at the ways that other disciplines have developed models of competences and verified them. The focus on language competence in Chomskian and post Chomskian linguistics would be a good model. A lot of emphasis is placed there on error patterns. It is a big deal that children frequently overgeneralize grammatical rules, but never simply spit out strings of words without any grammar. Something similar happens in neuropsychological models of different abilities. A stroke can impair one aspect of the ability but not another--for instance a patients ability understand written number words like "One thousand fifty four" but not Arabic numerals like "1054"--and this says something about how we model the competence.

I'm trying to figure out what the equivalent data for moral failings would be. Liszka's system encompasses many classical distinctions between kinds of moral failings, such as Aristotle's distinction of failures of knowledge and failures of will. It also brings in psychological theories of failure, like ideas about anti-social personality disorder and failures of empathy. But I still don't have a good sense of what the data to be explained is.

Are there kinds of moral failure we just don't see, akin to Chomsky's grammatical mistakes that don't get made? Are there cases of selective impairment that would help us here?

If I still had time for a research program, I would do more reading in the moral psych literature to figure this out. Right now, though, the things I've seen really work orthogonally to this issue. So now I'm just wondering out loud.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Philosophical Mission Statement #1

143 Let us now imagine the following kind of language game: when A goes to B and asks him to write down a mission statement.

The first step of this game is to look at the mission statements of other departments. —How does he get to understand their assertions?— First of all, he will be required to copy them. And here already there is a normal and an abnormal learner’s reaction. At first he might simply transcribe them, substituting the phrase “Philosophy and Religious Studies” for the term “Biology; but then the possibility of getting him to understand will depend on going on to independently write a mission statement that is appropriate for philosophy and religious studies.—And here we can imagine, e.g. that he does write the mission statement independently, but he substitutes jargon, saying “In support of the college’s wider excellence, the Department of Philosophy and Religion strives to provide mission with a solid sustainability and diversity.” And then communication stops at that point.—Or again, he makes ‘mistakes’ in adapting the statement to philosophy by writing the mission statement in the style of one or another great philosopher. Here we shall almost be tempted to say that he has understood wrong.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Scientist in white lab coat: 62% Perky reality TV show host: 82%

A French producer has created a one-episode reality TV show based on the Milgram experiments. (Here's a Salon article and a Agence France-Presse story). The kicker: while Milgram could only get 62% of his subjects to deliver a lethal shock, the reality TV show got 82% compliance: apparently lethal shocks delivered before a cheering crowd. There are a lot obvious of reasons for this. The crowd has to help a lot. Also, the subjects were not randomly selected--they were self selected fame hounds. Finally, I think we have to recognize that perky reality TV show hosts hold an awesome amount of authority in our society.

Monday, March 15, 2010

R. Crumb's Illustrated Genesis.

I've been reading R. Crumb's illustrated version of the Book of Genesis, and I've been meaning to blog about it for a while, because it routinely floors me. Unfortunately, every post I can think to write about it would sound like this:

You know that part when Judah hires a prostitute, and he doesn't know it is his daughter-in-law because she is wearing a veil, and he gets her pregnant, and then when she is going to be burned at the stake for being a whore she says "Judah is totally my baby daddy, and here I've got his ceremonial seal to prove it."

That's fucked up, man.

Crumb totally made the right decision to simply illustrate Genesis at face value. He even portrays God as a man with a long white beard. By taking Genesis at its word, Crumb transforms his amazing comics mojo into a conduit for the total fucked-up-edness that is the Bible.

Also fucked up: the fact that Tamar (the daughter-in-law) is pretending to be some kind of temple prostitute and that her fee is a baby sheep.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Alien Envy

Alien Envy
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

from Tedra: National Geographic has pictures of rare black penguin. http://bit.ly/cTdqkW. PK points out that its standing on rock beach & hypothesizes that color could prove 2B advantageous adaptation & that other planets would envy earth for having such a cool penguin.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

"Teacher evaluations have little to no impact on the quality of education or student learning"

The research is resoundingly consistent: Teacher evaluations have little to no impact on the quality of education or student learning (Colby, Bradshaw, Joyner, 2002; Flesher, Sommers, Brauchle, 2000; Frase & Streshly, 1994; Peterson, 2000; Cousins, 1995; Joint Committee, 2008; Shinkfield & Stufflebeam, 1995; Stiggins & Bridgeford, 1985).

That one of the early statements made in this article by Lindsay Noakes in the Journal of Multidisciplinary Evaluation. The most striking thing here is that Noakes is referring to all forms of teacher evaluation, including not just student evaluations but interviews, competency exams, student performance and classroom visits by peers and supervisors. The articles she sites are about K-12 teacher evaluation, but it looks like the complaints will carry over to the community college level. Surveys are criticized for not being tested for their validity (whether they measure what they say their measure) and reliability (whether they give similar results in similar situations). Class visits are criticized for the variety of subjective biases that come form the observer. Her bottom line rings true for me: "This is either because teacher evaluations cannot or, more likely, are not being used for the purpose of teacher improvement."

Noakes' article actually isn't that interesting apart from what it cites. She basically lists problems that other people have identified with teacher evaluation, and then borrows a checklist for good evaluations from someone else and says it should be applied to teacher evaluations. Noakes is a grad student at the Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University. In any case, here are the citations for the quotation above.

Colby, S. A., Bradshaw, L. K, & Joyner, R. L. (2002, April). Perceptions of teacher evaluation systems and their impact on school improvement, professional development, and student learning. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No.
ED464916) Link.

Cousins, J. B. (1995). Using collaborative performance appraisal to enhance
professional growth: A review and test of what we know. Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education 9(3), 199-222. Link

Flesher, J., Sommers, C., & Brauchle, P. (2000). Enhancing instructor evaluation. Performance Improvement, 39(8), 26-29. Link

Frase, L.E., & Streshly, W. (1994). Lack of accuracy, feedback, and commitment in
teacher evaluation. Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education, 1, 47-57. Link

Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation. (2008). The personnel evaluation standards (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. Link

Peterson, K. D. (2000). Teacher Evaluation: A comprehensive guide to new directions and practices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. link

Shinkfield, A. J., & Stufflebeam, D. L. (1995). Teacher evaluation: Guide to effective practice. Boston: Kluwer. link

Stiggins, R. J., & Bridgeford, N. J. (1985). Performance assessment for teacher
development. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 7(1), 85-97 Link

Friday, February 26, 2010

Practical Ethics: "Shall Ape Be Allowed to Kill Ape?"

Over at Practical Ethics they are asking "Shall Ape be Allowed to Kill Ape."
However, the defenders of rights for great apes and other animals often miss a crucuial point about the extension of universal human rights to animals. It is not only humans that are liable to violate any rights that non-human apes might hold. Other apes are liable to do so as well. Consider the right to life. It is well known that chimpanzees have a propensity to kill one another ... If we take the idea that non human great apes have the right to life then surely we have a responsibility to police all ape communities to uphold the right to life, in the same way that we try to ensure that the right to human life is upheld, by policing human societies.

People commonly object to vegetarianism by saying "Other animals eat each other, so why can't we eat them." The standard reply is that humans have free will in a way that animals do not, so we must hold ourselves to a higher standard. I actually think this reply needs to be beefed up a little, but it is very interesting to note that it doesn't seem to apply at all here. Advocates of personhood for all great apes push the idea that chimps and the like really do have human like levels of self-awareness and self-control. If we extend the moral community to them, it looks like we have to extend both rights and responsibilities.

What the practical ethics post misses, though, is that the other apes have their own communities and already are policing their own behavior. Just as we allow different nations to handle their own murder cases for the most part, we should probably allow other ape communities to handle their own ape-on-ape violence for the most part. We make exceptions in the international case when the violence rises to the level of crimes against humanity, or when the justice system of the nation seems hopelessly broken. Perhaps we could identify similar thresholds for the other apes. Chimpanzee troops fight wars. Might we be obligated to send in peacekeepers?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Should We Ban Cognitive Enhancing Drugs from Schools?

Barbara Sahakian wonders if cognitive enhancing drugs, such as Ritalin and modafinil, should be banned from schools the way performance enhancing drugs are banned form sports. (The abstract of her talk is here; a write up from the Guardian is here.) Anders Sandberg at Practical Ethics does a good job at undercutting this argument, especially when he points out that at rock bottom, school is not a place for competition, but for learning.

Missing from this discussion, though, is the fact that very common mild stimulants like coffee and cigarettes are excellent cognitive enhancers. (I recently learned that someone i went to college with took up smoking in medical school because it gave her a cognitive edge. She is now a transplant surgeon. I don't know if she does lung transplants.) Do coffee drinking students have an unfair advantage over Mormon students because they can caffeinate before a test?

Friday, February 19, 2010

This week in mandatory ugliness

Often in class I create little hierarchical charts on the fly in MS Word. In Word 2003, I am able to make a chart like the one on the right while I am explaining it. In Word 2007, the same chart comes out like the one on the left, and there is no way to remove the double balloons. (Or if there is, I can't find it.) The result is that more visual space is taken up with junk that carries no information, and there is less room to put in more explanatory text.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

This week in stupid

Its been a big week for stupid. Here are some highlights.

An article on Read Write Web features the words "facebook" and "login" in the headline and deals with some trendy topics, so it gets to be the number 1 google hit for "facebook login." The comment thread then is flooded by people who think they are at the facebook login page and are complaining that they don't like the new interface.

A US college student was detained and interrogated by federal agents at an airport because he had English/Arabic flashcards.

The Virginia legislature debates a bill that would ban employers from putting microchips in their employees against their will. No business is even considering doing this, but Delegate Mark L. Cole explains that people worried about this because the Mark of the Beast described in Revelations might actually be a microchip installed by a one world government to control commerce.

Via Apostropher, Chris G, and minivet.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Same class, two sections, two completely different sets of evaluations

I taught two land-based sections of ethics last semester, one right after the other, using the same syllabus and lessons plans, and the course evaluations could hardly be more radically different. The whole thing is a good case study in interpreting student evaluations.

The chart above is just one measure of the difference. In the 10 AM section, a big majority (70%) of the students strongly agree that I was an effective teacher. For the 11AM section, few strongly agree that I was effective, and some even disagree with the idea that I was effective at all. (Note, there is a strong bias toward positive evaluations on this question. You simply won't see evaluations that are the exact inverse of my 10AM question unless the teacher was, like, drunk in class.)

The written comments paint a bigger picture of the 11AM section. I got twenty seven comments, and only four were positive. This was actually the first page I saw when I opened the envelope, and the whole thing hit me like a sack of bricks. They hated me, they hated the textbook, they hated the assignments, they hated the syllabus. Almost everyone used the word "confusing." It gave me one of those "Have I really chosen the right career?" moments. The 10AM section, on the other hand, only had four comments, all of which were blandly positive.

A typical response from teachers here would be that course evaluations really don't tell you anything, and this is evidence for that. Responses are all over the map, and they only reflect the idiosyncratic responses of students, who don't really know what is good for them anyway. But this would be a big mistake.

Thing is, I knew the 11AM section wasn't going well while it was happening. The students were so unengaged that I had the cameraman move to the 10AM section so we'd get better video for distance learning. I didn't realize how bad it had gotten, I think, because the good earlier class put a halo over the later class. But I knew there was a difference. The negative evaluations for the second section reflected a real difference in student experience and student learning.

Here are the real lessons I take home. The first is something every customer service representative knows: unhappy customers give a lot more feedback than happy ones. I don't have two pages of effusive comments about how great I am from the 10AM section, even though they all checked that I was a good teacher.

The second is that you can't design a course that will appeal to all students. Is the design of my ethics course sound? It is for some students. I suspect that this course, in particular, works for students who were better prepared for college. One positive review from the 10AM section said "Its challenging in a very good way." The wave of negative reviews from the section section all said "confusing" and "too advanced for an introductory class."

Ideally, you would respond to this situation by tailoring the class to fit the students, so that if you see that a section is floundering, change the syllabus. But this is a lot harder to do when you have, say, 100 students in three sections of ethics, plus another class or two. To keep your own workload manageable, you need to keep all the sections doing the same material.

Another observation is that classes tend to consolidate around an opinion of you. If any one of the dissatisfied students in the 11AM section were moved to 10AM, they would have softened their critique, because they would have seen other students responding positively, rather than having their negative opinions reinforced.

There are definitely things I'm going to change about the class. The negative comments are far from useless. They also hurt a lot, too. I had to buy some junk food after reading these. I also needed to write this post to put things in perspective.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Never doubt that slippery slopes can be very very real

A Dutch group is pushing for legalized physician assisted suicide for people over 70 who are "tired of life."

Oddly, part of their argument is that the initial decriminalization of euthanasia in The Netherlands did not lead to any worse consequences: Says Eugène Sutorius (63): "It was thought to be the first step on a slippery slope that would lead the medical profession to lose its integrity. But I have seen nothing of the kind happen."

Apparently, since the first step down the slippery slope didn't lead to any other steps down the slope, we can go ahead and take another few steps down the slope.

At the bottom, at least to my mind, is euthanasia as a treatment for depression.

spin fail

LC3 has put out a flier for those interested in "Music and Theater Careers" that tries so hard to be optimistic that it includes this: "Many openings will also arise out of the need to replace those who leave the field each year because they are unable to make a living solely as musicians." That's right: so many people are fleeing the business, that it has to be a good place to look for openings. Also, wouldn't the jobs that open up be basically guaranteed to be ones where you couldn't make a living solely as a musician?

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Dream in four parts

Vignette one: I have borrowed a train

I have borrowed a train and need to return it before daybreak, when the people who actually use it will need it. The problem is that I do not know where I am supposed to return it to or how to drive it. I am also aware on some level that I did not actually get permission to borrow the train, but at no time during the dream do I think, "I have stolen a train." The landscape in front of me is lightly wooded and hilly, and probably suggested to me by one corner of the campus of Stuffwhitepeople Like University, where I used to teach. The train tracks go up and down the hills and around in a complex pattern, and I am at the top of the tallest hill. If I start the train down the hill it might roll around to the right location, like I was pushing wooden trains around on the kids' train table. But where I am trying to get the train to go? Suddenly, I realize the train automatically returns to the station, like the Roomba returning to its recharging stand. I am safe. But...

Vignette two: Acid zombies heart BitchPhD

There are men at the station wearing T-shirts that say "I Heart BitchPhD." I am aware that they are wearing these shirts ironically. The men have an acid that when they spray it on you, continues to eat away at your whole body until there is nothing left. They spray my left arm. Soon I will die. I am aware that the men are someone doing this as a theatrical critique of liberal politics. Now lots of people have been sprayed and we are in an open field. If a sprayed person touches another person, they spread the acid, giving he other person a death sentence. I, like most people, avoid touching anyone. But some people come together as couples, smearing each other with their acid covered bodies in an effort to die quicker. This is looking like a good option to me.

Vignette three: Acid rain

I am back at the train station. The men are now dressed in police uniforms. They have a device that looks like a white prism. If you jump into it, you are instantly disintegrated and a flash of light sends you into the sky. The policemen are jumping into it to avoid slow death by acid. They see me and throw me in. I am grateful.

But once the acid people are in the sky, they fall down like rain. I am cowering in the entryway to an office building, to avoid the fatal rain, but the rain is dissolving the building. I go deeper into the basement of the building. There are lots of people all over, but no one can decide what the best shelter will be. I am in a shopping plaza. I am at the beach. The world will end.

Vignette four: The movie is over, but I am still here

It is now obvious to me that this is a movie, what with the overtones of zombies and apocalypse. The credits roll, thankfully. But I am still here. What is going on? I push behind the movie screen onto the stage. There are props and flats around. Will I go back to the zombie world? I push behind another wall. And another. Then I wake up.