Category Archives: politics

Yes, newspapers, you need us!

The story so far:  New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece called “Professors, we need you!” in which he mourned the loss of the public intellectual of yonderyear:

SOME of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

And so on from there.  You’ve heard this song — we speak in our own jargon, we’re obsessed with meaningless turf wars, there’s too much math, “academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose” (must we?)

Lots of pushback on this, as you can imagine.  But the predominant tone, from professor-defenders like Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo or  Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker and Ezra Klein in Bloomberg View, is that it’s not really academics’ fault our writing is so bad and unreadable and sealed off from the world.  It’s our bad incentives — the public intellectualizing we’d like to be doing isn’t rewarded by our tenure committees and our academic publishing system!

I’d put it a different way.  I think our incentives are fine, because our incentive is to be right about things, which is our job.  Newspapers have different incentives.  I’ve been writing for general-audience publications for years, and I can tell you what editors mean when they say a piece is “too academic.”  They don’t mean “there’s too much jargon” or “the subject isn’t of wide interest.”  They mean “you didn’t take a strong enough position.”  When I write about a matter of current controversy, I often get asked:  “What’s the takeaway?  Who’s right here and who’s wrong?”  In real life there are no takeaways.  In real life one person’s sort of right about one thing and the other person’s sort of right about another thing and understanding the nature of the controversy may require a somewhat technical unraveling of those two different things which are thoughtlessly being referred to as one thing.  Most editors hate this stuff.  That’s why they don’t print it.  But it’s the work you have to do if you want to say things that are true.

I’ve been lucky to have done a lot of my journalism for Slate.  A lot of other academics write for them, too, and you know why?  Because they might tell you “this is too complicated, can you say the same thing but clearer?” but they’ll never tell you “this is too complicated, can you say something simpler and more bullshitty instead?”

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Ask Uncle Quo: should I change my name when I get married?

Commenter RG asks:

Not relevant to this post, but curious to your thoughts: Debate is about a 26-28 year old woman who wants to keep her last name in marriage because of her professional identity. My response was to laugh, what identity do you have at that age? I said, sure there are a couple of hot shots – you came to mind – but I bet they could change their name to a peace symbol and still retain their professional identity. She’s not going into witness protection, FFS. curious what you think about name changes at marriage, reputation, and loss thereof? You seem like someone who would have considered it.

I wanna be like Cathy and answer random people’s questions on Sunday mornings!  In homage to Aunt Pythia I will answer as “Uncle Quo.”

Changing your name seems to me like it would be a massive gluteal agony.  Short answer, independent of any issues of professional identity:  Why would I ask my wife to do something I would never do myself in a million years?

Well, here’s one reason why:  there was a time and a place where not having the same name as your spouse was sufficiently weird that it carried with it its own long-term irritations.  But those days, in the social tranche where I hang out, are not just going, they are long, long gone.  As I said in the comments to the other thread, when I think about couples I know at UW, mostly in the “parents of young kids” demographic like me, it’s very hard for me to think of any who share a surname; the only example I can think of is a couple who both took a double surname (separated by a space, not a hyphen) with the wife’s original surname last.  When I think of couples I know in Madison outside the university, I do know some where the wife adopted the husband’s surname, but in each case they go by three names, no hyphen:  “firstname birthsurname newsurname.”

Professional identity:  in math, at any rate, of course this matters!  If you’re 28, you likely already have a Ph.D. and a couple of papers out, maybe you’re finishing a postdoc and you’re about to apply for tenure-track jobs, you’re going to be on a list of 400 applicants and you want someone on the hiring committee to recognize your name and look at your file, and you’re suddenly going to change your name to something nobody’s ever heard?

WonderWomanHellNo

 

As for me and Tanya, we got married 10 years ago and never considered changing names.  We had some vague idea of using my last name “socially” but we quickly realized there was no social situation where that felt appropriate.  Occasionally we get invited to a bar mitzvah by my older relatives on which Tanya is called by my last name.  And I changed my middle name on the Harvard alumni list to her last name.  Our kids have two middle names, the second of which is Tanya’s surname, and their surname is mine.  Nobody seems to be confused about the fact that we’re a family.

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Apparatchiks

Izabella Łaba, who grew up in Communist Poland, wrote a long, fascinating blog post about the lived realities of socialism:

If I were to name the most “socialist” things that I see or hear about on this side of the pond – “socialist” referring to the reality I’ve experienced, not to the latest myth du jour – Obamacare or “big government” would not be especially close to the top of the list. (If you recall, the problem with the “big government” in the Soviet bloc was a little bit more particular than it just being big.) On the other hand, big U.S. banks and other “too big to fail” entities are pretty good analogues of the coal and steel communist corporation. Pork barrel politics. I’ve mentioned Wall Street already. Academic politics, in so many ways that it just hurts to think about it. But also bureaucrats and politicians who try to micromanage academic research they don’t understand and use arbitrary indicators of “usefulness” to evaluate it, much like communists instituted a set of “criteria” to control production.

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The trouble with billionaires

Cathy blogs today about the enthusiasm for billionaires displayed at the AMS public face of math panel, and her misgivings about it.  Cathy points out that, while gifts from big donors obviously accomplish real, useful, worthwhile goals for mathematics, they have a way of crowding out the public support we might otherwise have gotten, and sapping our will to fight for that support.

I think there’s an even deeper problem.  When we’re talking about putting up buildings or paying people’s salaries, we’re talking about things that require many millions of dollars, and asking:  who’s going to pay for them?  It’s not crazy that the answer “a rich person” is one of the things that comes to mind.

But when we talk about improving the public image of mathematics, we are not talking about something that automatically costs lots of money.  We’re talking about something that we can do on social media, something we can do in the newspaper, something we can — and frankly, should — do in the classroom.  Cathy describes the conversation as centering on “How can we get someone to hire a high-priced PR agent for mathematics?”  That means that the billionaire solution isn’t just crowding out other sources of money, it’s crowding out the very idea that there are ways to solve problems besides spending money.


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Is online education good or bad for equality?

It seems like it would obviously be good — now kids who don’t have money and don’t live near universities have, in principle, access to much of the world’s knowledge as long as they have a cheap computer and an internet connection.

But in math, I’ve heard anecdotally that this isn’t really happening.  I thought we were going to see an influx of mathematical talent, smart kids from Mississippi who couldn’t get any math past calculus from their peers, their local high school, or the public library, but who trained themselves hardcore on Art of Problem Solving or Mathematics Stack Exchange.  But I don’t think this is happening so much.  (Correct me if I’m wrong about this!)

I thought about this when I read this article about MOOCs, which says that they’re primarily used by wealthy people who already have college degrees.  What a depressing outcome that would be, if a platform meant to make elite education available free to everybody and help undo the student-loan disaster instead mostly made life easier for people whose lives are already easy, and saved money for people who already have money.

 

 

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Sebastian Thrun, MOOC skeptic

The founder of Udacity no longer thinks MOOCs are the answer, says this Fast Company article.  As for me, I’ve become more optimistic about MOOCs as I’ve talked to the people at Wisconsin who are doing them, and seen what they’ve put together.

Although Thrun initially positioned his company as “free to the world and accessible everywhere,” and aimed at “people in Africa, India, and China,” the reality is that the vast majority of people who sign up for this type of class already have bachelor’s degrees, according to Andrew Kelly, the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute. “The sort of simplistic suggestion that MOOCs are going to disrupt the entire education system is very premature,” he says.

I too was surprised to learn that most people who take Wisconsin’s MOOCs are 30 and up.  But that made me really happy! Right now we put a massive amount of effort into teaching things to people who are between 18 and 21, and after they leave the building, we’re done with them (except when we mail them a brochure asking for money.)  30-year-olds know a lot more about what they want to do and what they need to know than 18-year-olds do.  55-year-olds even more so, I’ll bet.  I hope we can make higher education a life-long deal.

Oh, also:

When Thrun says this, I nearly fall out of my chair. He is arguably the most famous scientist in the world

I feel like you have to be very deeply embedded in Silicon Valley culture to type this sentence.

 

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“The global warming crowd has a problem”

Such a weird lede in this op-ed from Berkeley physicist Richard Muller.  “The global warming crowd has a problem” sounds like he’s going to lay down 800 words of climate change denial!  But no — what he means is something more like:

“Climate scientists have a PR problem, because we’re experiencing a short period of flat temperatures, which makes people think incorrectly that warming has stopped — and part of the blame for this is down to climate scientists themselves, who underrated the amount of natural variation and led people to expect an uninterrupted warming trend.”

Cheers to him for trying to say something this complicated in a NYT op/ed (though warning:  if Brad DeLong is right about the way Muller gets his “temperature plateau,” the article sort of falls apart.)

Still:  I wonder what proportion of people read this quickly and took away from the piece that Muller was smacking down the “global warming crowd” and rejecting the claims of climate change as hooey.

This is related to the question of whether Malcolm Gladwell is to blame for people thinking there’s no such thing as talent and all you have to do is practice oboe for 10,000 hours and you’ll be whatever somebody who’s really good at oboe is called.

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Wisconsin and the Common Core math standards

I have been inexcusably out of touch with the controvery in Wisconsin about the adoption of the Common Core state standards for mathematics.  I present without comment the text of a letter that’s circulating in support of the CCSSM, which I know has the support of many UW-Madison faculty members with kids in Wisconsin public schools.  All discussion (of CCSSM in general or the points made in this letter) very welcome.

(Related:  Ed Frenkel supports CCSSM in the Wall Street Journal.)

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To whom it may concern,

We the undersigned, faculty members in mathematics, science and engineering at institutions of higher education in Wisconsin, wish to state our strong support for Wisconsin’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM).  In particular, we want to emphasize the high level of mathematical rigor exemplified by these standards.  The following points seem to us to be important:

  • We know that what we have been doing in the past does not work.  Nationwide, over 40% of first-year college students require remedial coursework in either English or mathematics.[1] For many of these students, completing their remedial mathematics (that is to say, high school mathematics) requirement will be a significant challenge on their path to their chosen college degree.  The situation in Wisconsin mirrors the national one.  Over the University of Wisconsin system as a whole, 21.3% of all entering freshmen in the fall of 2009 required remedial education in mathematics.[2]  Over the Wisconsin Technical College System, the mathematics remediation figure is closer to 40%.[3]
  • The CCSSM set a high, but realistic, level of expectations for all students.  It is unrealistic, and unnecessary, to expect all students to master calculus (for example) in high school.  That would be the “one size fits all” approach that is often brought up as an argument against the Common Core.  Instead, the CCSSM attempts to identify a coherent set of mathematical topics of which it can be reasonably be said that they are essential for students’ future success in our increasingly technological and data-driven society.  “College and career ready,” yes, but also life and citizenship ready.
  • It is easy to point to a certain favorite topic and say that the Common Core delays discussion of that topic, or places it in a grade level higher than it has been taught previously.  It is also dangerous.  There is no merit in placing a topic at a grade level where students are unable to do more than repeat procedures without understanding or reasoning.  (One example would be the all-too-frequent expectation that students compute means and medians of sets of numbers, with no significant connection to context, and no discussion of when it would make sense to use one rather than the other.)  It is necessary to look at any set of standards as a coherent whole, and ask whether students who meet all expectations of the standards have been held to a sufficiently high level.
  • Any set of standards is a floor, not a ceiling.  Any local school district, school or individual teacher may set expectations beyond the standards, if they choose to do so.  There are certainly many students who will need more mathematics in high school than is required by the CCSSM: Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM)-intending students, or students who hope to attend an elite college or university, are two obvious groups.  These students should indeed take more mathematics, and opportunities should be made available for them to do so. The standards question, however, is whether all students should be required to learn more mathematics than is in the CCSSM; our answer is “no.”
  • Even for talented students, the rush to learn advanced topics and procedures should not come at the expense of students’ deeper understanding of the mathematical content being covered. Talented students also need quality guidance; they should not be rushed thoughtlessly for the sake of advancement.
  • There are undoubtedly some professional mathematicians, scientists and engineers who claim that the CCSSM are insufficiently rigorous; it is our understanding that they are a small minority.

We entreat you to keep Wisconsin in the group of States that are adopting the CCSSM.  We see the consequences of failed educational policies in our classrooms every day, and we only have the well being of our students in mind. The CCSSM is the right balance: already far higher than our previous State standards but not beyond what one can expect from a majority of students.

 


[1] Beyond the Rhetoric: Improving College Readiness Through Coherent State Policy, accessed from http://www.highereducation.org/reports/college_readiness/gap.shtml on October 3, 2013.

[2] Report on Remedial Education in the UW System: Demographics, Remedial Completion, Retention and Graduation, September 2009, accessed from http://www.uwsa.edu/opar/reports/remediation.pdf on October 6, 2013.

[3] Findings of the Underprepared Learners Workgroup, accessed from http://systemattic.wtcsystem.edu/system_initiatives/prepared_learners/Findings.pdf on October 6, 2013.

PC run amok

It’s very strange, in restrospect, that certain aggrieved personalities of the 1990s held that the world was going to hell because some people started saying “differently abled” instead of “handicapped,” when everyone was already going around using the phrase “senior citizen” with a totally straight face.

Jews, intermarriage, and the love that is actually quite comfortable speaking its name

Do Jews have a future?  Maybe, but only if we stop marrying goyim, says Jack Wertheimer, a professor at JTS, in a long article I found infuriating for reasons I find hard to articulate. Maybe you guys can help me be infuriated by it in a more fully worked-out way!

There is the confusion about causation and correlation, which annoys me as a mathematician:

The bottom-line fact is that in both religious and communal life, intermarried families participate at decidedly lower rates than their in-married counterparts. The 2000-01 NJPS offers ample evidence comparing the two populations. In the realm of religious engagement, four times fewer intermarried families than in-married families join and regularly attend a synagogue, and five times fewer keep a kosher home. The same trends obtain in the area of social and communal participation: three times fewer intermarried families report that two or more of their closest friends are Jewish, and four to five times fewer join and volunteer for Jewish organizations or contribute to Jewish philanthropy.

And of course hysterical overreaction to disagreement, which annoys me as a human being:

In short, it remains unacceptable to encourage Jews to marry other Jews, unacceptable to state the obvious about the downside of intermarriage, and unacceptable to invoke such a thing as a responsibility to the Jewish people. In today’s environment, Jewish endogamy has become the love that dare not speak its name.

I’m a Jew married to a Jew, and nobody throws rocks at me, nobody vandalizes my house or calls me names on the Internet, and I can very definitely tell you that nobody suggests that I be forbidden from marrying, or institutionalized, or just plain thrown in jail, like those people who loved in the way that actually didn’t dare speak its name.

I’m the kind of person who, in Wertheimer’s mind, ought to be part of what he hopes is a “silent majority” —  I’m raising Jewish kids, I belong to a synagogue, I give to Jewish charities.  And yep, I favor my kids marrying other Jews.  I’m in the Jewish community.  But guess what — it’s exactly articles like this one that make me want to tell the Jewish community, or this part of it, that it can go take a leap.

It reminds me of going to Orthodox Talmud Torah as a kid.  They told us that any one of us who married a non-Jew was fulfilling Hitler’s plan.  They also told us that if the United States ever went to war with Israel, we would have to fight on Israel’s side.  Fair to say they took commitment to the Jewish people fairly seriously.

But I actually like those guys, in retrospect, better than I like this article!  Because let’s face it — they knew my family didn’t keep kosher.  They knew we weren’t shomer shabbos and they knew that when we came to pray on Saturday morning, we drove there, parked three blocks from shul, and walked the rest of the way, just to keep up appearances.  It wasn’t a problem.  They let me keep going to Hebrew School there, and they let me stand up and be bar mitzvahed there just as if I were observant.  I think it’s fair to say I learned a lot there that helped keep me part of the Jewish community for life.

Should they instead have tossed me out, the way Wertheimer wants synagogues to do with Jews who marry outside the faith?

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