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"The Administration is bending over backwards to subsidize an enormously profitable corporation"

[ 0 ] January 14, 2009 |

Good to see that the Yankees’ fleecing of the public fisc is attracting more attention, although in policy terms it’s almost certainly too little too late. In fairness, Thompson doesn’t seem to be considering the immense economic rewards that come from such subsidies; after all, without them, it’s hard to imagine that the South Bronx and Willet’s Point would be the engines of economic growth and vibrant culture that they are today…

"As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado"

[ 0 ] January 14, 2009 |

I have little to add to what Rob, Dana, or Erik have offered on the subject, but I’d like to grit my teeth audibly for a moment and urge Ezra Klein and others to stop conflating “academics” with “the relatively small number of professors employed at one of the 946 doctorate- and master’s-granting universities in the United States.”

Kids whose parents work at community colleges also “grew up around academics,” as did kids whose parents work at four-year institutions where scholarship is regarded by administrators as a quaint hobby — like collecting equine figurines or roaming the beach with a metal detector — that professors indulge in because they’re never quite abandoned the habits they acquired in graduate school. Dana’s certainly right that for professors employed at schools formerly known as Research-I institutions, teaching likely “won’t matter a hill of beans when it comes time for tenure evaluations.” Applied to the profession as a whole, though, that statement makes little sense. At most schools, teaching and university/community service provide the sole basis for tenure and promotion decisions.

All that aside, the gimmick at Texas A&M — offering $10G as a reward for good evaluations — is a terribly misguided allocation of resources. In immediate terms, it’s little more than an invitations for professors to debase themselves in front of their students. If the administration at A&M were serious about improving classroom performance, they’d invest quite a bit more money in pedagogical training for their graduate students; hiring more professors and reducing class sizes; offering release-time for professors to design new courses; and so on and so forth. But since they’re clearly not serious, this is what they’re offering instead.

To that degree, Klein has the problem entirely backwards. To substitute one sloppy generalization for another, it would nevertheless be more correct to say that it’s not “academics” who hate teaching, but administrators. By their works ye shall know them.

Ezra Klein: Wrong About the Academy, Wrong for America

[ 0 ] January 14, 2009 |


I grew up among academics. And I have never since met a class of people so contemptuous of teaching. You’d think they were being asked to chew mud.

When in the course of making blanket statements based on what amount to personal anecdotes, Ezra should probably pause to consider whether he knows any academics who value teaching. Like, say, me, or Scott. It’s true that some academics are contemptuous of teaching, and that undergraduate education isn’t well supported institutionally in either the production or employment of most academics. However, many (in fact, most) others enjoy teaching, and make every effort to do it well; it’s shocking that people actually try to do well at aspects of their jobs that don’t lead directly to promotion. Moreover, the academics that Ezra grew up among may not have been representative of the profession as a whole; many academics have to worry quite a lot about their evaluations, because they work at institutions that value teaching over research, or because they’ve been forced into a succession of teaching oriented adjunct positions.

As for the substance of the proposal (paying $10000 to some lucky professor on the strength of evaluations), I can say that evaluations (and I get fantastic evaluations) have almost nothing to do with teaching skill or effectiveness. They’re a useful metric for evaluating student satisfaction, but this isn’t the same thing as teaching. Off the top of my head I can think of half a dozen ways to pump evaluations, none of which have a positive impact on student learning. As an academic, I’d be happy to have $10000 floating around the system (maybe the winner would feel generous enough to buy me a beer), but it’s absurd to expect anything useful in terms of teaching outcomes to result from such a prize. Given his wide experience with the academy, I’m rather surprised that Ezra would believe that such a stunt could actually improve outcomes. Measures to improve the training of academics in graduate school would help, as would stronger institutional support for innovative undergraduate education. Indeed, if I had $10000 and was tasked with improving professorial teaching effectiveness, I’m not sure I could come up with a less helpful way of spending it than instituting such a prize.

Also see Erik.

Cross-posted to Tapped.

Ezra responds:

Nor does Rob Farley, who notes that he gets “fantastic” student evaluations, but believes they “have almost nothing to do with teaching skill or effectiveness.” He goes on to say that he “can think of half a dozen ways to pump evaluations, none of which have a positive impact on student learning.”

I’m sure he could also think of a half dozen ways to pump evaluations such that students would enjoy going to class more, and would learn more. A clear class outline put on the projector, for instance, so students could follow the verbal presentation and understand the structure of the argument. An animated lecture style. If these incentives compel some efforts that make teaching better and some that simply make class more enjoyable, I’d consider that a policy success.

Ezra continues to miss the point, on a couple of levels. Sure, better teaching can lead to better evals, but it doesn’t necessarily do so. In fact, (and as several commenters have noted), objectively bad teaching can produce good evals. Most importantly, gaming the eval system is easier than teaching well, which is why an prize based incentive is quite like to produce the former, rather than the latter.

Second, Ezra notes correctly that physical characteristics and personal mannerisms have a large impact on evals. This is quite clearly true; reams have been written on how women have more difficulty getting high evaluations that men, for example. Any construction under which high evaluations receive a prize will inevitably be out of reach for teachers who don’t have these specific characteristics. I may or may not be a fine teacher, but I am 6’1″ and have a beard, which means that I have what amounts to a high evaluation floor. If I were 5’3″, the story would be much different.

Unfortunately, Ezra doesn’t really engage with the critique that student evaluations don’t measure learning outcomes, and as such don’t measure teaching effectiveness. “Give it a try and see what happens” is the last bastion of desperation for the policy wonk who’s been given lots of reasons why giving it a try would be useless at best.

Oprah’s normal weight

[ 0 ] January 14, 2009 |

The more one looks into this topic the more obvious it becomes that a concept like “normal weight” is so sociologically complex as to be practically meaningless.

A couple of further notes: One thing the fat police love to say when it’s pointed out that the entire overweight range and much of the obese range fails to correlate with any overall increased mortality or health risk (in fact the overweight range correlates with lower risk than the “normal” range) is that BMI is a poor proxy for “adiposity,” which is the real risk, and that if we were measuring this stuff on the basis of waist circumference or percent body fat then all the stuff they’re saying would actually start to have some basis in the data.

There was never really any evidence for this — these people are simply obsessed with the idea that body fat is bad per se and work from that as an axiom or a quasi-theological act of faith. Anyway I’ve just read a couple of articles in proof that examine this question directly. They use the NHANES data cited by the CDC and referenced in my linked article, and they find that waist circumference and percent body fat are neither meaningfully better or worse than BMI for predicting mortality risk. I’ll link to them when they’re published.

Anyway it really is hard to describe how crazy this stuff is. The short version is that you have a bunch of anorexics with medical degrees doing things like tossing out 90% of the data in their studies until they can claim science “proves” that their particular obsessions and neuroses ought to be the basis of public health policy.

Pathetic Governors Who Lie

[ 0 ] January 13, 2009 |


Sarah Palin fired a new salvo in her war on the media, unloading in a new interview on her home state paper and “bored, anonymous, pathetic bloggers who lie.”

The Alaska governor, who has granted a steady stream of interviews since Election Day, also told an Esquire reporter that she wishes she had told McCain campaign advisors she’d be “callin’ some of the shots.”

“Bored, anonymous, pathetic bloggers who lie annoy me… I’ll tell you, yesterday the Anchorage Daily News, they called again to ask — double-, triple-, quadruple-check — who is Trig’s real mom,” she said, in an interview to be published in the magazine’s March issue.

At least we now know the name of at least one of the newspapers that Palin reads in her daily quest to peruse “all of them.” But for the record, here’s the ADN editor explaining — in a late December e-mail to the governor herself — why the paper had a reporter calling her office about the story.

You may have been too busy with the campaign to notice, but the Daily News has, from the beginning, dismissed the conspiracy theories about Trig’s birth as nonsense. I don’t believe we have ever published in the newspaper a story, a letter, a column or anything alleging a coverup surrounding your maternity.

In fact, my integrity and the integrity of the newspaper have been repeatedly attacked in national forums for our complicity in the “coverup.” I have personally received more than 100 emails accusing me and the paper of conspiring to hide the truth (about Trig’s birth.)

. . . .I finally decided, after watching this go on unabated for months, to let a reporter try to do a story about the “conspiracy theory that would not die” and, possibly, report the facts of Trig’s birth thoroughly enough to kill the nonsense once and for all.

Lisa Demer started reporting. She received very little cooperation in her efforts from the parties who, in my judgment, stood to benefit most from the story, namely you and your family. Even so, we reported the matter as thoroughly as we could. Several weeks ago, when we considered the information Lisa had gathered, we decided we didn’t have enough of a story to accomplish what we had hoped. Lisa moved on to other topics and we haven’t decided whether the idea is worth any further effort.

Even the birth of your grandson may not dissuade the Trig conspiracy theorists from their beliefs. It strikes me that if there is never a clear, contemporaneous public record of what transpired with Trig’s birth, that may actually ensure that the conspiracy theory never dies. Time will tell.

Elsewhere, Eric Boehlert offers a natural history of the rumor, proving once more — as if further proof were required — that Sarah Palin simply has no idea what she’s talking about.

Hamas, Hezbollah, and so forth

[ 0 ] January 13, 2009 |

I diavlogged with Eli Lake last week:

Great Moments In Hackery

[ 0 ] January 13, 2009 |

Speaking of Stuart Taylor and Evan Thomas, who can forget their classic Newsweek cover article asserting that Sam Alito was a moderate who would disappoint conservatives? After all, he liked baseball and had a family –pretty clear evidence that he wasn’t the wholly doctrinaire reactionary more trivial sources of evidence like his judicial record would suggest.

Saying the Loud Part Quiet and the Quiet Part Loud

[ 0 ] January 13, 2009 |

This is the kind of thing that Ehud Olmert shouldn’t talk about, even if it’s true:

In an unusually public rebuke, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel said Monday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been forced to abstain from a United Nations resolution on Gaza that she helped draft, after Mr. Olmert placed a phone call to President Bush.

“I said, ‘Get me President Bush on the phone,’ ” Mr. Olmert said in a speech in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, according to The Associated Press. “They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said I didn’t care: ‘I need to talk to him now,’ ” Mr. Olmert continued. “He got off the podium and spoke to me.”

Israel opposed the resolution, which called for a halt to the fighting in Gaza, because the government said it did not provide for Israel’s security. It passed 14 to 0, with the United States abstaining.

Mr. Olmert claimed that once he made his case to Mr. Bush, the president called Ms. Rice and told her to abstain. “She was left pretty embarrassed,” Mr. Olmert said, according to The A.P.

I understand that this is primarily for Israeli domestic consumption; being able to demonstrate that the President of the United States is his bitch (forgive me…) is going to help Olmert’s party in next month’s election. I rather think, though, that the Israel lobby (such that it is) acts more effectively for Israel’s interest when people pretend publicly that it doesn’t exist.

Via Matt.

Deep Thought

[ 0 ] January 13, 2009 |

I sure hope that 98% of EPSN’s news coverage consists of breathless reports about whether and where the 27th best QB in the NFL will play in 2009, just like it did last year.

As Allen Barra points out, the Jets would have been much better off signing Kurt Warner. This isn’t to say that Warner is a “greater” QB than Favre. Durability matters, and while Warner is certainly a better QB at his best and certainly has been better in the playoffs, Favre has had a much longer career at a usually high (if often highly overrated) level of value. But Favre’s durability was irrelevant to what his signing meant in 2008, and his expensive sub-mediocrity couldn’t have been more predictable. Mangini probably deserved to get fired, but if the Jets bring Favre back at the price they have much worse problems.

I’m Duly Impressed…

[ 0 ] January 13, 2009 |

The Provost at UK has launched a “War on Attrition”, designed to mobilize faculty around the goal of keeping economically marginal students in school during the recession. In spite of my general skepticism of Wars on X, I think that the goal is a worthy one; a certain attrition rate for public universities is healthy and necessary, but the reasons for that attrition should be related to academics and maturity rather than to economics. Moreover, a recession is precisely when economically marginal students should be in college, because the alternatives aren’t so good. Matt had a good post on the challenges facing college graduates during poor economic times, and I’d assume that the situation is even more dire for non-graduates. And there are, of course, lots of things that faculty can do to help out economically disadvantaged students, such as maintaining non-traditional office hours, being open to alternative assignments, and trying to keep textbook prices down.

Most of all, though, I’m impressed that we’re now naming our campaigns after semi-obscure episodes in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Looking forward to our Suez Crisis…

Proof of the Pudding

[ 0 ] January 13, 2009 |

Michelle Goldberg on signals that Obama will rescind “don’t ask, don’t tell”:

Granted, he didn’t say when it was going to happen, but it’s definitely an encouraging sign, and one with far more concrete repercussions than the participation of Warren in the inauguration. That doesn’t mean choosing Warren was a good idea – Obama still elevated the already too-high standing of a fundamentalist ideologue. But if this pattern holds – symbolic sops to the right, followed by real-world gains for gays and lesbians – it will be a huge improvement over Bill Clinton, who did almost exactly the opposite.

Of course, as Goldberg implies Obama shouldn’t be given credit for the good policy change until it happens it either. Symbolic losses for policy gains is a tradeoff worth making if he comes through on the former latter, so we’ll see. Which is why, despite the need to talk about something in the dead time for politics, there’s no point in reaching judgments either way until we see what actually does. People who claimed in 1962 that LBJ was playing supporters and opponents of civil rights for suckers would both have had plenty of ammunition. If we’re lucky (and put on enough pressure), Obama will (in the manner of LBJ) will shiv his more unsavory allies; if we’re not, in the manner of JFK he’ll talk a good game sometimes and not actually do much of anything to avoid upsetting his unsavory allies. I’m betting that he’ll be closer to the former (or I wouldn’t have supported him), but until we see how he actually performs in office, the question will simply remain open.

“This is Rickey calling on behalf of Rickey. Rickey wants to play baseball.”

[ 0 ] January 12, 2009 |

With Henderson going to the Hall of Fame, now is as good a time as any to relive the greatest Rickey stories of all time. This profile in The New Yorker a few years back was also pretty excellent.

I’m not quite sure why, but I always liked Henderson. When I was a kid, about the only thing I could do capably on the field was stealing bases. I wasn’t fast, and I ran more or less like you’d expect a duck to run if it had slightly longer legs, but I could easily take second or third base whenever the ball dribbled through the catcher’s legs to the backstop. And so in 5th grade, I senselessly tried to model my batting stance after Henderson’s, until my coach asked me, and I quote, “What the fuck kind of stance is that?” Not having a good answer — and “It’s just davenoon being davenoon” would not have been one — I resumed my regular habit of striking out while merely looking like your bog standard, uncoordinated 10-year-old, instead of your bog standard, uncoordinated 10-year-old with a vestibular defect.