Two sad stories, not just one

Jon Ronson tells the story of “Hank,” who joked about “a really big dongle” and “forking someone’s repo” at a tech conference.

Another conference attendee was offended and complained to the conference organizers, including a photo of “Hank.” As a result, “Hank” lost his job. Ronson thinks this is a sad story, and I agree. So does Christina Hoff Summers, who Tweets:

Man tells innocuous joke to friend at conference. Overheard by aggrieved woman. What happened next is frightening.

And, yes, the story is pretty much as you might guess. In Ronson’s telling, the complainant is a “men’s movement” caricature of the sort of woman who uses “being offended” as a weapon and has no remorse about wrecking someone’s life for an off-color joke.

But – also in Ronson’s telling – the complainant, named Adria Richards, is then the victim of an internet lynch mob. She is subjected not only to insults but to physical threats. She, too, loses her job: the on-line mob takes down her employer’s server, and threatens to keep it down unless she is fired; the employer (not named by Ronson) complies.

And, unlike Hank, who quickly finds a new job (at a place that, conveniently for him, doesn’t employ any women), the complainant is still out of a job, and still subject to digital harassment, two years later.

Ronson skilfully uses language and selects facts to make “Hank” sound like an innocent victim, and Adria Richards like someone who was last seen knitting next to the guillotine. Naturally, Richards (as relayed by Melissa McEwan) tells the story somewhat differently: among other things, she asserts that she protested against the firing of “Hank.” She also, (quite plausibly) accuses Ronson of practicing the bait-and-switch characteristic of low-rent journalism, setting someone up for character assassination by pretending to provide a sympathetic ear.
But put that aside for the moment.

Let’s assume arguendo that Adria Richards is precisely the sort of unsympathetic character Ronson portrays. (Of course, it’s also possible that being fired and then harassed for two years might have somewhat depleted her stock of empathy.) She is also – again, by Ronson’s account – the victim of a crime, and someone who lost a great deal more for complaining about the rude jokes told by “Hank” than Hank did for telling them. But somehow Ronson and Sommers sympathize only with “Hank.” Like millions of battered women and rape victims before her, apparently Adria Richards was asking for it. How is it possible that Ronson, Sommers, and editors of Esquire, and the publishers of Ronson’s book all missed a point which was obvious even to me, based entirely on Ronson’s own account?

After all, I’m squarely in Ronson’s target audience. I’ve been the victim of enough “STFU-you-privileged-white-male” treatment to fully sympathize with someone in the position of “Hank.” My natural response to pompous unsolicited moral advice is a rude gesture; I’ve been known to respond to the two hours of dim-witted “sexual harassment” the University of California imposes on me every year by asserting I am already expert at sexual harassment and require no further training.

But how morally challenged do you have to be not to sympathize with Adria Richards, the victim not merely of organized intolerance but of a criminal conspiracy involving extortionate threats?

There’s a broader point here, too “Hank” and Richards both lost their jobs, though neither had done anything anywhere close to violating the law, or even raised serious questions about their job performance. That was possible because of the doctrine of “employment at will,” which makes puts every (non-union, non-civil-service, untenured) employee at the complete professional mercy of his or her employer. I think professors and civil servants are somewhat over-protected against being fired for incompetence or shirking. But it seems obvious that the rest of the population is grossly under-protected against the whims – or, in Adria Richards’s case, the mere cowardice – of the kind of people who wind up working in “human resources” departments.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Obvious Child

Romantic comedies have a peculiar relationship with sex. It’s treated as the goal, yet it’s rarely mentioned explicitly. It’s hard to attain, yet for the lucky few who succeed, all other fortunes and contentments await. But if romantic comedies struggle to talk about sex explicitly, then they are outright squeamish to talk about its consequences. Not so in this week’s movie recommendation Obvious Child, in which debut director Gillian Robespierre takes aim at rom-coms’ queasiness about the ramifications of an impromptu fling.

Jenny Slate plays Donna Stern, a New York stand-up comic who regularly bears her soul on stage for the amusement of strangers. Hers is the comedy of the revoltingly personal, replete with confessions about farts, filthy underwear, and her moribund sex-life with her scoundrel boyfriend (who happens to be present in the audience and is forcibly corralled into the humiliation). After one such set, he frankly reveals that he’s been cheating on Donna with her friend, and leaves her to pick up the pieces of her already unstable life.

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In a drunken stupor one night at the bar, Donna meets Max, a handsome and sweet guy who could as comfortably be typecast as a librarian as a model for Ralph Lauren’s winter collection. He’s the guy you’d be happy to introduce to your mum, but not the guy you envision for a rough-and-tumble one-night stand. When they clumsily hook up, Donna becomes unexpectedly pregnant, and has to deliberate about whether and how to tell Max that she intends to have an abortion. You heard it right: it’s a comedy about an abortion.

The self-effacing honesty of Jenny’s professional comic persona is a vehicle for the hapless, shrug-and-take-what’s-coming attitude she brings to the abortion. But Obvious Child achieves more than just rehearsing the tired trope that sets a comedian’s stage act in relief to the bitterness of their home life. On the contrary, Jenny’s comedy feels like a necessary catharsis, both for her and for us. As audience members, we also struggle to process the challenge in which Jenny finds herself. Not only does her standup routine force us to commiserate with Jenny as she works through her predicament, but we’re also wrested into being active—and unwitting—participants in that therapy. It’s not enough that we listen to her complaints and exasperations; we’re also recruited into her cheering section, demanding that everyone around her do their best to make things just a little easier for her.

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The recent alignment of stoner comedies with shock-factor film-making (see The Interview – or preferably don’t – for a noteworthy example) has nonetheless retained a space in which some of the most mundane topics still remain absolutely off-limits. Even Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, which ostensibly was about the same theme of an unplanned pregnancy, desperately steered clear of even mentioning the word abortion (Jay Baruchel’s character wincingly refers to it as “an A-word”). Then again, where there’s discomfort, there’s ripe material for comedy, and while Obvious Child takes aim at that discomfort, it doesn’t go the whole way: The main sources of laughter in Obvious Child are the peripheral challenges that attach to an abortion, including the awkward conversations and the confused questioning about one’s ‘readiness’ to be a parent. It ultimately steers clear of addressing some of the really routine and mundane happenstances that truly can make abortions the uncomfortable life event they are for many, such as unsupportive family members, the stigma, and the expense. Instead, everyone from the best friend to the mother to Max is hearteningly understanding of the life challenge Donna is experiencing. The result is that Obvious Child is a comedy about an inconvenient (aren’t they always?) abortion in a nurturing environment.

It’s Valentine’s weekend, folks. Nothing says ‘I love you’ like ‘I support a woman’s right to bodily autonomy.’

Traits and management

K-12 education has been convulsed for years by the idea that good teaching is a trait, a tacit justification for all the versions of the loony idea that we can increase learning by just finding the ‘bad teachers’  and firing them. The latter scheme looks even better if “finding” employs a bureaucratic, mechanistic process of testing students (on things that can be measured “objectively”–bye-bye art, music, creativity, and courage). The alternative idea is that people with widely varying intrinsic qualities, or starting points, can all learn to be better teachers.  Both are obviously correct to some degree; at the time they get control of the chalk, some people have better “teacher traits” than others, and it must also be the case that practice, training,  and coaching can improve anyone’s performance at this job, like all others.  But the relative weight placed on trait and learning theories of effectiveness matters a lot.

Administrators and politicians love what I call immaculate corrections, schemes like student testing for teacher promotion, that excuse managers from all the heavy lifting of retail attention to what subordinates and customers are actually doing and why they do it.  If you can couple  impersonal performance assessment with a theory of motivation that puts greed (for a money raise) and fear (of dismissal) in play, and delegate the implementation labor to people who aren’t on your payroll and can’t defend themselves against having their time wasted (the students), it’s a hat trick.  The only defect of a scheme like this is that it doesn’t deliver much value in the classroom (or wherever), but that’s a feeble weapon with which to confront an internally consistent and theoretically beautiful construct that lets managers out of doing a lot of real work.

Alison Gopnik’s WSJ column has more on the costs of using the trait model, retailing this recent paper [paywall]: people in academics who believe traits count for a lot seem to (i) gather in particular disciplines (ii) have a lot of trouble engaging women and African-Americans as peers, presumably because they also wrap up familiar stereotypes about what kind of people are (intrinsically) smart. Gopnik:

Professors of philosophy, music, economics and math thought that “innate talent” was more important than did their peers in molecular biology, neuroscience and psychology. And they found this relationship: The more that people in a field believed success was due to intrinsic ability, the fewer women and African-Americans made it in that field.

This should be sort of a bombshell, but it’s been  a busy few weeks. We’ve known for a while that the student evaluations of teaching we use at Cal–to the near-exclusion of anything else–for promotion and tenure decisions don’t have much to do with student learning. Indeed, our administrative higher-ups are reflecting deeply on the fell implication that maybe we should (i) do more observation and coaching with an eye to actually improving teaching before review time, when it could actually be useful, and (ii) evaluate teaching for promotion in some way that actually indicates whether students are learning.  Of course, both of these involve actual work, while SETs produce numbers (which must be Data, right?) and don’t cost us (faculty) anything to obtain, so it’s a tough call.

This call has got a lot tougher with the appearance of the first study known to me [HT: Philip Stark] in which students could register their evaluations without knowing the actual sex of the instructor, using an on-line course in which the same teacher presented as a male and as a female, and hooboy:

Students in the two groups that perceived their assistant instructor to be male rated their instructor significantly higher than did the students in the two groups that perceived their assistant instructor to be female, regardless of the actual gender of the assistant instructor….For example, when the actual male and female instructors posted grades after two days as a male, this was considered by students to be a 4.35 out of 5 level of promptness, but when the same two instructors posted grades at the same time as a female, it was considered to be a 3.55 out of 5 level of promptness.

Hard to imagine anything more traity than sex, mmm. There’s more (a colleague reminded me of this about a minute after this post went up; click on the link at the top of the story) and stuff like this anyway needs to be considered against the background of the crap women put up with every day, at work, at school, and on the street.

So the same teaching practices will get a woman significantly lower student evaluation scores than a man.  Could this be true for minorities…how could it not?  I think this study–assuming of course that contrary findings don’t emerge from similar experiments–is a beacon to personal injury lawyers and every woman prof (at least; stay tuned for the experiment in which Phyleesha and Felice are the same person) henceforth denied a raise or tenure through a process in which student evaluations counted. Not to mention an ambitious federal prosecutor with a copy of Title IX in his pocket. Now we’re not just talking about leaving student learning on the table, but consent agreements and actual money: I wonder if this will be enough to make us stop delegating teaching assessment to unpaid, inexpert conscripts.  There’s lots of useful stuff to learn from student evaluations, but not for pay and hiring.