Words of wisdom

G.H Hardy on why professors shouldn’t be over-modest. Not one of my problems.

From G.H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology:

It is one of the first duties of a professor, in any subject, to exaggerate a little both the importance of his subject and his own importance in it.

My students will agree that this is one duty I perform with diligence.

Footnote If you haven’t read Hardy’s memoir, you have a treat in store.

Malpractice with chalk on our sleeves

Bob Frank opens his reflections on teaching economics with a discouraging examination of how badly we get our students to understand the really wonderful content of his discipline. Why do educated people think it makes them appear witty to repeat a dumb bromide like “economists know the price of everything and the value of nothing”?   Statistics is in a similar position (“there are lies, damn lies, and statistics”).  This kind of joke, based in willful ignorance, is diagnostic of an affective failure, not an intellectual one.  Students are afraid of this material, not just bored, as something being done to them that will make them worse people in some way, against which they need to defend themselves.  How many people loved their intro stats course, and still remember the eye-opening realization that they had acquired powerful tools with which to understand and improve a complicated, random, changing world?

Statistics and economics university departments are also similar in being tasked with “service” courses for students in other majors and general education introductions, as well as professional apprenticeships for people whose careers will be in creating new methods in the disciplines themselves. As a consumer of the former service–those introductory courses are an input to my teaching production function–I often have occasion to weep, gnash my teeth, and rend my academic regalia, even though I am only hoping for student command of the few big ideas Frank claims should constitute the entire curriculum of an introductory course.  But as a disciple of Deming, I discount absolute-scale measures and prefer to manage on the derivative: no matter where we are now, could things be [even] better? how? Continue reading “Malpractice with chalk on our sleeves”

…from the folks who gave us W

Two long articles in the NYT about the Harvard Business School’s attempt to be less of a misogynistic hell for women , and the curdled elitism that seems to have enveloped the place recently , seriously tickled not only my social justice gland but also my barf reflex.  If the reporting is anything close to fair, it presents a culture so deeply sick, self-absorbed, and malign that the place’s non-profit status needs to be reviewed.  Do we really want federal tax dollars channelled to actively destroying social capital?
What a uniformly awful bunch of people these students are, and proudly see each other as!  What does the admissions committee think it’s doing, admitting the, idle, wastrel scions of the richest people in the most unequal societies of the world so they can pile up even bigger fortunes – is HBS now teaching that the purpose of enterprise is to make Gini coefficients bigger?  Are they trying to beat the alumni fail record set by George W. Bush – is there an even worse president partying there as we speak, slouching towards someone’s plutocrat yacht party to be unleashed on us?
Part of the problem, I think, is that their business model is a dysfunctional (for everyone but them) treadmill.  As all schools try to do, they convince their students to believe, as alums, that  their positional $ucce$$, the fundamental indicator of m€rit, is due to HBS, and the alums both accumulate a lot of wealth (distinctively compared to other professional schools, even law schools) and like to give some back.  At the same time, their production process is very cheap (no wet labs! big classes!) despite the expensive profs, and a very large fraction of students (those spoiled rich scions) don’t care how much tuition they pay. As a result  they accumulate money they simply have no idea what to do with, leading to truly wretched excesses: faculty offices that are suites with real wood paneling, a faculty dining room with a buffet an upscale restaurant would be proud to lay out, subsidized to McDonald prices, and a private gymnasium, for Pete’s sake. I suppose the latter provides those specialized exercises appropriate to the very rich (cranking yacht winches, maybe, or riding a mechanical dressage horse – who knows?), suitably obsequious trainers and towel-bearers, and secure isolation from the kind of coarse hoi polloi you have to encounter in all the rest of Harvard’s athletic facilities.
The HBS endowment is about $2 billion: how much would be enough so they can start using it for something besides transferring everyone’s wealth into a financial sector populated with unspeakably selfish, shallow, jerks?

More advice for Janet Napolitano

Mark’s gracious rejoinder to my letter to Janet Napolitano as she takes the reins of the University of California reminds me of an old joke:

A rabbi of Chelm is assailed by two neighbors demanding he settle a dispute.  The first presents  a devastating indictment of the second’s housekeeping, garden management, child-rearing, and more.  He listens and says, impressed, “You’re right!” The second woman denies all these assertions, and then accuses the first of setting a terrible moral example for the neighborhood, entertaining strange men at all hours, dressing inappropriately, and the like.

The rabbi says, “that’s terrible, you’re absolutely right!”

His daughter says, “but Daddy, they can’t both be right!”

After reflection, he says, “you’re right, too!”

Yes, we can.  Mark is right that the president of ten campuses, each with a chancellor, isn’t in the same position as the president of a one-campus institution. Much of what I said to Napolitano is, as Mark suggests, more directly relevant to the chancellors, though they are always academics and not new to the business. It’s also true that if Napolitano doesn’t take on Mark’s charge to get the funding tap reopened, she’s not doing her job. But doing that is not, in my view, just a matter of reciting the facts about UC’s importance to the state and society, and glad-handing important pols. The citizens of California have withdrawn their traditional support for us, admittedly through very noisy and flawed political machinery, because they do not see us as creating net value for money. Without rebuilding that support, neither smooth lobbying craft skills nor “radical political action”, whatever Mark means by that, will work. Continue reading “More advice for Janet Napolitano”

Letter to Janet Napolitano

Dear President Napolitano:

Welcome to the University of California, one of the really great institutions of the world.  I don’t know whether you will have fun, but you will never be bored here, especially if you can get out of the office in Oakland and go to and fro across the campuses.  You’re coming to us with a stellar resume and a priceless variety of work experience, so I’m looking forward to having you take the helm.  Of course, anyone who takes on a job like your new gig here will get lots of advice: here’s mine.

Not surprisingly, your imminent appointment has been the subject of much chatter among my colleagues.  A lot of this schmoose has articulated a fear that, not being a PhD, an academic, or a scholar, you won’t “understand the culture of the university”. Voices on this side hope you will (i) keep your hands off the educational and research enterprise completely, (ii) apply your political skills outside, somehow making  the state and the feds pony up a lot of money so (iii) we (faculty) can do what we know is best to do (this last is a close fit, as far as I can tell, to “what we [think we] are best at doing”), (iv) not interfere with our choices about what and how to teach and research, and (v) maybe charge our students less tuition as well.

I do not take this position; indeed, if you adopt our view of who we are and what we should be, and all we get from you is flackery and comfort, we will have been swindled. Even if we get more money, because merely patching up our financing is unlikely to be of much long-term value. I hope you will pay more attention to shaking up the actual internal culture of the university than to pitching us to the legislature, and coming in from outside our very closed little club at least raises the odds that you can perceive the needs and will give us the courage and confidence to attend to them.  Continue reading “Letter to Janet Napolitano”

Dealing with lazy inquiries

David Kennedy demonstrates how to answer the “I’m-a-student-please-write-my-term-paper-for-me” email.

Much as I value my friend David Kennedy, I wish he’d settle for being smarter and handsomer than I am and not insist on also being nicer. He produced what must surely be the perfect response to the “I’m-a-student-please-write-my-term-paper-for-me” email. I much prefer his answer to mine. Note that the student seems to think that sending random questions to scholars constitutes conducting “interviews” as “primary research.”

Full text at the jump, with names changed to protect the guilty.
Continue reading “Dealing with lazy inquiries”

The Stupid Party, cont’d

Eric Cantor wants to defund social science. Can you say “Stupid Party”?

The U.S. currently spends about $27 billion a year on biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health, and something less than a quarter of that amount ($6 billion per year) on all other scientific research through the National Science Foundation. Of that smaller amount, less than 5% ($247 million) goes to “social, behavioral, and economic sciences.”

Yes, biomedical studies are expensive. And yes, everyone wants a cure fox X, by tomorrow morning if possible. But the imbalance is bad for the scientific enterprise, and probably not optimal even from the narrow perspective of improving health care, let alone health outcomes.

But don’t worry: Eric Cantor has a solution to the problem: eliminate all federal social funding for social science. Because of course the less we know about how social systems work, the more likely we are to believe Republican b.s.

I suppose it’s no surprise that the Stupid Party is also the Party of Ignorance. The fact that research and higher education are two major industries in which the U.S. remains the undoubted world leader doesn’t matter to them as long as the people who work in that sector (1) insist on finding and communicating inconvenient truth and (2) vote Democratic. But couldn’t Cantor at least change his name to Kent? His current behavior constitutes an embarrassment to the rest of the Jews.

Universities and information revolutions

Per Susanne Lohmann, information revolutions always cause universities to expand, not to dissolve.

Brad DeLong writes:

I will not dare make predictions about the potential Christensenian disruption of higher education until I understand why and how the university as we know it survived the Christensenian disruption that was the coming of the printed book. I don’t understand that.

The long answer to that question will be known to all the world when my colleague Susanne Lohmann publishes her long-awaited book on the history and management of the research university. While we’re waiting, here’s the short answer (per Lohmann): all three information revolutions (printed books [turn of the 16th century], electrical [turn of the 20th century] and electronic [turn of the 21st Century]) hugely expanded the demand for highly-educated labor, and universities are the primary suppliers of such labor. The production process is as much social as it is cognitive, and therefore cannot (to date) be reproduced without physical concentrations of learners and teachers. Thus Alex Tabarrok’s argument that some teaching tasks can be done better on-line than they can face-to-face – which is undoubtedly true, and will become truer over time – does not prove what he thinks it proves. Yes, a 15-minute TED talk generating 700,000 views is a lot of student-hours. But that’s an extraordinary TED talk. A much less extraordinary book that takes 20 hours to read and finds 10,000 readers generates even more. But the TED talk will no more replace the course than the book did.

In my view, the current information revolution will save higher education as a mass high-quality activity, by bringing Moore’s Law to the rescue of the Baumol Cost Disease.

Footnote: Actually there was an even earlier information revolution: the development of the manuscript book (first the scroll, then the codex) and the concurrent reduction of oral traditions (Homer, the Bible) to writing, which happened sometime in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. It was followed by the development of proto-universities such as the Academy.

A second cut at a new UC logo

Not hard to improve on, but maybe it’s a start.

No one is ever going to confuse me with a graphic designer, even in very dim light. But starting with Mike’s suggestion of a Fresnel pattern to pun on “Let There Be Light” and switching to a Moire, I came up with this. No, it doesn’t say “University of California.” It doesn’t have to, because we’re the farking University of California, and if we make this our logo people will recognize it.



Of course anyone with superior skills and tools – that is to say, nearly anyone – could easily do better. This thing is too dark and too contrasty. But I claim that this does, as the other thing does not, look as if it might be the logo of someplace whose logo you’d care about.

UC logo

Having shared some very snarky jibes on a UC listserv about the new UC ‘logo’  that Mark deplores, I’m now feeling some remorse.  As a piece of graphic design, I think it’s not a success on its own or for its purpose. But it’s not a replacement for the seal, in fact the designer says “our goals were two-fold: first, to reinstate the systemwide seal’s authority and gravitas after years of casual, indiscriminate use; and second, to create a coherent identity that would help us tell the UC story in an authentic, distinctive, memorable and thoughtful way” and these are not silly or trivial objectives.  And as an erstwhile architect and current designer of non-physical environments, I am sensitive to the long, sad history of people who should know better lambasting new stuff–from the Eiffel Tower, that was universally despised for its first forty years, to Wagner’s music and Bird’s (maybe Byrd’s, too, back in the day), to the Nude Descending a Staircase–by making fun of it because it’s easier than making a fair effort to engage, and because dissing something gives you a quick hit of feeling superior and sophisticated.

As a mea culpa, here are some serious comments about the project and the design. Continue reading “UC logo”