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Friday, August 28, 2009

A tale of two B's

As an undergraduate, I got only two B's; the rest were A's. Not that I necessarily deserved the A's: the school did not have a plus/minus system, and I can think of at least one class where by the requirements stated out in the syllabus, I deserved a solid B but got an A anyway (maybe the instructor wanted to reward what she saw as my "hard work"?....I guess I'll never know). Also, my university was not necessarily the most challenging, which might also explain the high number of A's.

But this post is not about the A's. It's about the two B's. My first B was in a first semester physics class. My second was in a Constitutional Law class (a political science class).

For the physics class, for starters I must say that it was one of the less challenging physics classes I could have taken. The class did not assume the students had studied calculus (which I had in high school) and the course was graded only on performance in the lab and on four exams (if I remember correctly): three midterms with 10 multiple choice questions each, and one final with 20 multiple choice questions.

I memorized all the formulas I was supposed to for the class. I went to each lab faithfully, I got A's on all the midterms and I scored so low on the final that my grade was brought down to a B. If I had gotten one more answer right (or guessed the right answer), I might have gotten an A for the semester.

I should say if I had gotten an A, I would not have deserved it. I scarcely believe that I deserved a B. Here's why: I did the work, but I didn't really learn much from it. I memorized what I had to and promptly forgot it when the semester was over. While I appreciate the need to understand science--yes, even a liberal arts major like me believed that studying and understanding the natural sciences was important--I dropped the ball. Other than the 3 credits and fulfilling one of my lab-science requirements, I got nothing out of the class. Too bad, so sad.

My other "B" class was in constitutional law. It was probably the hardest class I had or have ever taken. For each day, we had to read 2 or 3 (or more rarely, 4) Supreme Court cases. The professor would call us randomly and we had to, without notes, "present" the case, and then answer his questions about it. (When I was presenting on one case--INS v. Chadha--the professor asked me "what was Congress thinking when they passed that law?" I told him I didn't understand the question, and he said "That's the right answer!")

The tests were hard. While undoubtedly they weren't as hard as one would get in law school, they were based on a model that I understand is used in law school exams: they presented a hypothetical court case and we had to write the Supreme Court's decision, taken into account the precedents we had learned about over the course of the semester.

The grade cut-offs were steep: 93% was an A, 86% was a B, 79% was a C, and (if I recall correctly), 70% was the cut off for a D. (The professor was clear from the very beginning what the grading scale was like, so everyone would have had the chance to drop if they found it too hard.)

I worked very hard that semester. My first midterm, I got a D. Eventually, I got a B overall in the class.

That class has got to have been one of the the most useful I have ever taken. I still use what I learned in that class, and I have expanded my knowledge of all I learned there.

I got two B's as an undergraduate, but those B's weren't created equal.

Open letter to James Lindgren

James Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy has recently posted two comments on an Indiana survey of healthcare reform. The links to his posts are here and here.

Here is my open letter (i.e., open email) in response:

Dear Mr. Lindgren,

I enjoyed reading your recent posts on the survey about health care reform "myths," and I believe your comments on the specific "myths" asked about in the survey are well-taken, and I agree with most of them.

My quibble is that you seem to misrepresent the purpose of the survey. As I read the synopsis of the survey, which you linked to, the goal was to ascertain how many people believed what the White House claims are "myths." In other words, it's more of a survey that attempts to figure out how effectively the White House is getting its message across. The survey does not, as I read it, say that these "myths" are indeed "myths," only that the White House claims they are.

I base my assertion on the following words taken from the website you linked to:

"A surprisingly large proportion of Americans believe what the White House has dubbed ‘myths’ about health care reform."

I am posting this email, which I am sending to you, on my blog, If you care to respond, you are welcome to do so.


"Pierre Corneille" (pseudonym)

UPDATE (8-30-09): Mr. Lindgren responded to my post in the comments below. I would like to thank him for taking the time to do so.

He correctly and politely points out that I elided over something he said in his original post, namely that one of the survey administrators said something to indicate that he really believes the healthcare myths are "myths."

"Please consider the environment...."

An acquaintance of mine occasionally sends announcements to a listserv I'm on and at the end of her emails is the notation "Please consider the environment before printing this email."

Wouldn't it be more environmentally friendly not to print the email at all?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Are Antitrust Laws Uniquely Unfair?

I have a tendency to believe that antitrust laws are unfair. The main reasons for this belief:

1. The "rule of reason" that applies to so many banned practices is subject to a wide degree of interpretation.

2. Compliance with antitrust law is so hard that it increases expenses of those who wish to comply. In other words, they have to hire lawyers and legal consultants.

3. The banned practices that are not subject to the "rule of reason" are not necessarily pernicious and, in my view, do not by themselves merit either civil or criminal prosecution. These practices, called "per se" violations include such practices as price fixing and collective negotiating by, say, small retailers who want to band together to get better terms from credit card merchants. (Now, I do think practices like price fixing can be abusive, but they almost always involve some other illegal activity--e.g., extortion or fraud--when they are abusive. Prosecutions and lawsuits could be made on those grounds alone.)

If my objections are valid, however, I have to resolve another question: are antitrust laws "beyond the pale" in their unfairness?

My chief objections lie in that I propose antitrust laws are vague (reasons 1 and 2 above) and that they have a chilling effect on what are essentially defensible business practices (reason 3 above, but also reason 1).

But aren't most laws "vague" in the sense that some of their elements are open to interpretation? Don't most laws have a "chilling effect" on borderline cases? It's a question of line drawing.

I still think on policy grounds I am justified in being critical of antitrust laws (although, as I said in this post, a wholesale repeal of the laws would be unwise). But I wonder if they are in and of themselves unfairly vague.

Friday, August 21, 2009

"Cop Killer" Poetry

This is a difficult post to write because it is critical of a community that is dear to me, so dear as to command from me an almost religious reverence. It's the community of poets I belong to, or used to belong to. While I have specific scene and locale in mind, I will redact the names of the place and person(s) involved because I believe the problem I want to discuss is not specific to that poetry scene but is general to most of the poetry scenes I've been involved with.

One night at an open-mic poetry reading, a night where there was a pretty good crowd, a poet went up to the podium and said: "Repeat after me"

Poet: "KILL!"
Audience: "KILL!"
Poet: "COPS!"
Audience: "COPS!"

This poet then launched into a poem--I forget if the poem was technically good or just a rant, but my point holds even if the poem was a technical masterpiece. This poem criticized the cops and the oppression and violence of police brutality. The criticism targeted an important issue: the power of the state and how it is sometimes unjustly used against people. But I have a hard time reconciling that critique with the poet's original admonition to "kill cops."

Cops are people, too. They feel pain and they have families. They have a hard job (I, for one, would probably call 911 if I ever feared for my life. And if the fear for my life is justified, calling 911 probably means asking a cop to place his or her life in danger.)

They make mistakes and sometimes do unconscionable things (one gets plenty examples of this in Chicago, and the examples are probably just the tip of the iceberg for a larger problem). These commission of these unconscionable acts are probably part human weakness, part systemic, and part "fog of war" type responses to uncertain situations. (By "fog of war," I mean, for example, it's easy to criticize after the fact a decision to shoot someone who points a water gun at a cop, but it's harder if one is in the situation where one doesn't know if the water gun is a real gun or a toy).

They are human, and no one, I believe, is 100% evil (nor is anyone, I believe, 100% good). Counseling a "kill them all" attitude is wrong because it fails to treat cops as human beings. Even if it's done "in jest" it is wrong, because it creates a callous atmosphere that is that much more excepting of unwarranted and indiscriminate violence (unwarranted because there are other solutions to police brutality and indiscriminate because it identifies all cops as a general category).

Now, I don't for a moment believe that this particular poet really wanted people to kill cops. I should also admit, shamefacedly, that when he said "repeat after me" and "KILL!," I repeated after him. I demurred (I memory is fuzzy) when he said "COPS!"

But neither do I believe that this poet was merely speaking for a character. In other words, he wasn't writing a poem from the perspective of a would-be "cop killer" but was himself playing to the crowd.

Many of my poetry friends, who I value dearly even though I am not really in that community anymore, liked to protest, vocally, against the very real injustices our society and world face. Police brutality is as important as any of them, but there is an entire list others as well.

I do believe, however, that these peaceloving poets--and I do believe they are sincerely lovers of peace--need to realize that the distance between sincere love of peace and recourse to violence is smaller than many of them think. I'm not anti-violence in the sense that I believe that violence is sometimes necessary to achieve some ends although I am anti-violence in the sense that I think it is best avoided. I do argue that it should be the last resort and the "ends" must be good enough and clearly realizable by the use of violence; but that's the subject of another post. I also think it is unconscionable to counsel, even in wink-and-a-nod jest, the unreflective killing of others who, like all of us, are imperfect beings.

My poet friends, in short, need to learn a lesson that I have had to learn and relearn and will probably have to relearn again: we are all capable of doing some very bad things and in order to choose to do good, we have to have a sense of what we're capable of. Otherwise, we risk descending into a self-righteous version of that which we oppose.

Anti-Hellenisticism, or the crusade against fraternities and sororities

I never joined a fraternity (or a sorority, for that matter). And not that anyone asked, but one of my reasons was that I believed they were exclusive clubs that denied individuality and were merely institutions where members paid for the privilege of having friends, und so weiter, et cetera.

Maybe much of this is probably true of how fraternities and sororities operate, although I really don't know. But the truth is, all groups of friends I have been involved with have been exclusionary in some respects.

There are the obvious exclusions one would hope to find in any circle of friends: none of my groups of friends would tolerate first degree murderers or neo-Nazis (although at least one of my circles of friends tolerates Trotskyists and Maoists--the former claim there should be a revolution in which they admit innocent people shall die and the latter apologize for and gainsay the mass murders of the "Great Leap Forward" and the "Great Cultural Revolution").

There are the not so obvious exclusions. My group of graduate student friends (in history) would probably tolerate a Republican, but would roll their eyes at him or her. Another circle of friends, who I knew growing up and are now probably only distant acquantences, would probably do the same for a committed Democrat.

None of my circles of friends explicitly has a dues paying requirement, a requirement that I understand is de rigueur for most frats and sorors. Yet for the most part, most of these circles meet an understanding that we should all have a minimum level of wealth or, oftener, are in a certain social class that has access to social and cultural capital (i.e., most of us have a lot of formal education).

Another criticism lobbed at the Greek system is that its components are centers of privilege. That was, apparently, one reason that Woodrow Wilson, who was president of Princeton before he was president of the U.S., railed so much against fraternities. Yet, I must confess that a good number of the non-drudgery jobs I've had I have received from tips and informal recommendations from friends. I have taken all these jobs seriously and have been very grateful for them and (I hope) do them competently. Still, I would not have gotten a lot of these jobs without the opportunities offered by my social network.

I'm not trying to defend the Greek system. I am just really saying 2 things:

1. I don't know enough about it to criticize it intelligently.

2. I (and others) should pause before I self-righteously inveigh against them. None of is purer than Caesar's wife.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Reasons to support antitrust laws

As a general rule, I'm critical of antitrust laws. I think they are a blunt instrument and unfair in their application because it's very hard for most people to know when they are in violation of the laws until they have been prosecuted and/or convicted. There are, of course, some arrangements, like price fixing cartels, that have long been held per se in violation, but otherwise it is hard to know what counts as an antitrust violation. Another reason that I oppose antitrust laws is that most of its goals--smaller, more competitive businesses, lower prices for consumers, etc.--often contradict each other (sometimes it's the largest "monopoly" that can outproduce smaller businesses and offer its goods at a cheaper price). Moreover, I believe most of these goals can be realized through other forms of regulation.

Still, I think there are some reasons to support antitrust laws. And while they don't change my belief that these laws are ill-considered, I still find the reasons compelling enough to list;

1. Some corporations can become so powerful that they act almost as states within states, or as imperium in imperio. Antitrust can be a good counterpoint to this power.

2. Some companies, like banks, might become "too big to fail" and thus need to be bailed out when in trouble. Antitrust might alleviate this condition. (I do believe, however, that other forms of regulation might work better than the hail mary shot of an antitrust prosecution that punishes people in many cases for simply being fortunate enough to succeed at business.)

3. Antitrust laws have been around (in the US and elsewhere, but I'm talking especially about the US) for a long time, at least since 1890 at the federal level and even earlier in some states. These laws have become so involved in the way that businesses operate and the way that contracts are formed that simply to repeal the antitrust laws would wreck more havoc than keeping them on the books. (This is an argument I got from reading Donald Dewey's The Antitrust Experiment.)

I find reason #3 to be most compelling. Still, I think the laws can be modified to be fairer and more rational.

Gay marriage and children's welfare

I've just read this excellent piece by Jason Kuzinicki at Positive Liberty in defense of gay marriage as it relates to raising children.

In contrast to a lot of what one hears from activists on either side of the issue, Mr. Kuzinicki does a great job at leaving aside the talking points and instead offering a well-reasoned argument.

Check it out.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

What I learned from teaching, part 4

Don't take it personally if students don't laugh at your jokes.

For example, if I say "the eighteenth century gentry in Virginia were jealous of their liberty, and wished they had it," and students don't laugh, maybe it's because the joke isn't funny to begin with.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

On taking students' suggestions and questions seriously

In this post, I said that "When in doubt, assume that a student's question or suggestion is sincere." Here's an example where I did not follow that advice and regretted it:

Once, when I was a TA for an intro to US history (part 2, from the Civil War to the present), we were discussing the 1970s in discussion section. I mentioned "stagflation" and defined it as "a recession in which there is inflation instead of deflation." I drew a contrast (if I recall correctly) between the 1970s and the Great Depression and the Depression of the 1890s.

This was in Spring, 2008, at the beginning of the present recession, and one of my students asked, does that mean we have stagflation today? I quickly dismissed the question with a comment, the gist of which was "no, this recession is different."

I was wrong to be so dismissive. She was one of my brightest students, but even if she hadn't been, her question was sensible: newspaper accounts (and for all I know, economists) were reporting that we were in a recession and that we had inflation. Ergo, by my definition of "stagflation," that's what we were experiencing. (This was before the credit crisis had hit its nadir, so the possibility of deflation wasn't in the news.)

What I should have done is acknowledge that my definition of stagflation might be faulty, because I doubt that even the more alarmist economists in 2008 would call what we were going through a "stagflation."

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A taxonomy of student plagiarism

One of the most frustrating things to deal with as a TA or adjunct instructor is student plagiarism. It's frustrating for many reasons and in many ways, and I'm still not sure what to do about it. One major source of frustration is that it's not as easy to identify as I would have thought, say, when I first started TA'ing back in the late 1990s. One reason is that there are different kinds of plagiarism:

1. Outright plagiarism. This is when a student downloads an entire paper or almost an entire paper, or quotes, for paragraphs at a time, from other sources without giving attribution. This is by far the easiest to identify and deal with. The student almost always knows that it's wrong and almost always accepts the punishment (usually an F for the course....but I hope to write later why I am uneasy with zero-tolerance policies, even for instances as egregious as this).

2. Outright plagiarism of material assigned for the course. This occurs most often when a student quotes from a textbook assigned for class without citing the textbook. It's plagiarism and it's pretty bad, but does it really deserve an F for the course?

3. Taking things from another source--usually wikipedia or encarta or sparknotes or Encyclopedia Briannica online--and paraphrasing slightly, without any citation. These situations are really murky. It's "obviously" plagiarism, but it does represent some effort to understand the material besides merely copying from another source. I'm not convinced all students, or at not all Freshman college students, even realize this is plagiairism.

What to do?

Friday, August 7, 2009

What I learned from teaching, part 3

1. When it doubt, assume that a student's question or suggestion is sincere.

I'm not here talking about accepting excuses for tardiness or late papers (although this might apply in those situations). I'm talking specifically about suggestions that students make about the course or questions they have about the content of the course. Once I had a student suggest that the students grade each other's papers, instead of me grading them. I dismissed that suggestion out of hand and in a way that probably hurt her feelings. As it turns out, it would have been unworkable and probably not the best way to go about papers in that particular class. Still, I could've been nicer about appreciating her suggestion, because it was made in good faith.

Similar thing with questions. Students almost never ask questions unless they sincerely want an answer. (There are exceptions, to be sure, but in general, even something that seems obvious may not be obvious to the student.)

2. There is not such thing as 100% fair lateness/tardy/absent policy. No matter how hard you try, nothing you will do when it comes to exceptions to the course requirements is going to be completely fair to everyone in the class.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

What I learned from teaching, part 2

My girlfriend, who's an excellent teacher in her own right, has offered another suggestion about teaching that I heartily endorse:

Sarcasm has no place in the classroom.

The few times I have used sarcasm in the classroom, I have always regretted it. It tends to alienate students, even those who aren't the object of the sarcasm. (I'm reminded of the Pink Floyd lyrics: "No dark sarcasm / In the classroom.")

As a corollary to this point, I'll say that sarcasm has no place in lectures about history. What I mean is, the historian, or teacher of history, should usually strive to present the topic without being sarcastic about the intentions of the historical actors involved.

For example, if I'm teaching about the so-called "Lochner-era" of the Supreme Court, the mantras of "the Court gave people the right to work extra long hours without overtime" (Lochner v. New York) or "the Court affirmed the right of people to be cheated in a lottery scheme" (I forget the case, but it came from the 1890s and had to do with a Louisiana based lottery) do not necessarily capture what the justices meant when they cast decisions based on "liberty of contract" doctrines. (For what it's worth, I realize that the notion of a "Lochner Era" court is a bit under dispute and a bit of a caricature; still, the use of sarcasm does nothing, in my mind, to expand critical thinking about the issue. Also, David Bernstein at the Volokh Conspiracy is working on a book about the Lochner court, which I look forward to reading when it's out.)

The AAA all over again?

Jason Kuzinicki at Positiveliberty links to a post that suggests Congress's "cash for clunkers" program is reminiscent of some of the wasteful destruction of foodstuffs under FDR's Agricultural Adjustment Administration. I hadn't seen the connection before, but I think I see it now.

For those who aren't familiar with the program, here are the details: the federal government has promised to reimburse car buyers (indirectly through car dealers) who trade in their own gas-inefficient cars for newer, more gas-efficient cars. Apparently, the program has been a "huge success" (although there is some dispute about it: see this post from the Volokh Conspiracy) and the original $1 billion or so allocated for the purpose has all been spent and Congress is busy trying to pass another law to allocate yet another $1 or $2 billion to the program.

The comparison with the AAA is that as the AAA destroyed food in order to drive up the price of food to help farmers, so this program is destroying cars in order to help out car dealerships and car companies.

Where the comparison breaks down, in my view, is that this program, even if the several billions sought are devoted to it, is not as far reaching as the AAA. (I'm not enough of an expert--in fact, I'm not an expert at all--on the AAA, but I wouldn't be surprised if the AAA was much more the very least, Congress had created its own administration to oversee the program.)

Another point where comparison breaks down is that one of the stated justifications for the program and, presumably, one of the reasons why it was passed, was to provide for more environmental friendly cars and thereby help the environment. I don't think the AAA had such a goal (maybe I'm wouldn't surprise me if the AAA tried to address such environmental concerns as the dustbowl....again, my ignorance is conspicuous.)

Most of my friends seem to cheerlead this cash for cars program, and mostly they harp on the supposed environmental benefits. There very well may be such benefits, and maybe the economy is helped also (the links above dispute that claim, but then again, the authors aren't necessarily sympathetic to government intervention in the same time, they're not knee-jerk reactionaries either).

But one thing is clear: the government is giving away tax money to subsidize the auto industry.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Food for Thought

I've stumbled across this very interesting article about what, according to the author, are the unthinking criticisms that "agri-intellectuals" level against modern farming. I'm still contemplating it, but it has made me think differently about certain things I had taken for granted when it comes to organic farming, "industrial agriculture," and factory farming of animals. His concluding paragraph:
But farmers have reasons for their actions, and society should listen to them as we embark upon this reappraisal of our agricultural system. I use chemicals and diesel fuel to accomplish the tasks my grandfather used to do with sweat, and I use a computer instead of a lined notebook and a pencil, but I'm still farming the same land he did 80 years ago, and the fund of knowledge that our family has accumulated about our small part of Missouri is valuable. And everything I know and I have learned tells me this: we have to farm "industrially" to feed the world, and by using those "industrial" tools sensibly, we can accomplish that task and leave my grandchildren a prosperous and productive farm, while protecting the land, water, and air around us.
Although I'm still processing the article, I can say I have learned a lesson that I've had to learn and relearn several times in my life: I should try to get the facts before opining on whatever it is I have opinions about.

A. E. Houseman, Immortality, and the Hapless Student Straw Man

In my English class when I was a senior in high school, we read Perrine's Sound and Sense, an introduction to poetry.

One of the poems in that book we had to read was A. E. Houseman's "Is My Team Plowing." The premise of that poem is this: a man has died and is wondering if everyone is so distraught at his death that, functionally, all the people he knew could not get on with their lives. We see in the poem, however, that everything pretty much is going on well without him. In other words, the lesson I take from the poem is that the world will go on without us when we leave it. (While there may be other, closer interpretations of that poem, I believe that mine is plausible and readily apparent from the poem.)

In the Perrine volume, at the end of the poem is a set of questions for classroom discussions. The gist of one of the questions was: "One student wrote a paper saying that "Is My Team Plowing?" proved that A. E. Houseman believed in immortality (in fact he did not). Why was that student wrong?" I don't have the book in front of me, but this quotation represents the gist of the question, along with the knowing assurance that A. E. Houseman did not believe in immortality.

I find this pedagogical technique quite objectionable because it appears to do one of two objectionable things. First, it takes what might superficially be a "plausible misinterpretation" of the poem and makes it into a straw man by positing that some student came up with it. The misinterpretation is "plausible" in the sense that one who has little experience in reading poetry and who gave the poem only a cursory reading might indeed come up with a notion that it endorses the idea of immortality. For example, one of the speakers in the poem is the dead person, speaking from beyond the grave. A superficial reading might lead to the conclusion that the poem evinces some belief in immortality.

The second objectionable thing that this pedagogical technique might be doing is that it takes a real-life effort by a student. This student probably sincerely believed that his or her "plausible misinterpretation" of the poem really proved what he or she thought it did. That student was probably wrong, but the effort was likely sincere.

I think these approaches are objectionable because they set up a "straw man" that compel the discussants to determine what the poem is not, rather than what the poem is. It also sets up the specter of a hapless student who just bumbles along misinterpreting the assignments. One plausible effect of setting up this straw man is to discourage other people who are students from even volunteering their own observations on the poem. (I say "plausible effect" because I don't believe it's an inevitable result, but it is something counterproductive that may come from such a way of framing the question.)

Besides these two approaches that I find objectionable, there is another point about the discussion question that rubs me the wrong way. That's the assurance that Houseman did not believe in immortality. I know very little about the guy and have, indeed, read probably only three of his poems--"Is My Team Plowing?," "Terence, this is stupid stuff," and "To an Athlete Dying Young"--and none of these seem to prove to me that Houseman believed in immortality. I'm also willing to accept that he may have written extensively on the subject, declaring on every page his disbelief in immortality and may have so confided in everyone he met. So far so good.

But we really can't know. Maybe he was lying to everyone, or maybe he had some sort of deathbed conversion.

Or maybe his poetry and other writings evinced a train of thought, a logic, that, if taken to its rightful conclusion, might demonstrate that he did indeed believe in immortality, in spite of himself. Maybe the very act of writing--putting one's words to paper--reflects a belief in the permanence of life or of one's self.

It's this latter possibility that I wonder about. I don't really care whether Houseman believed in immortality. (I am also personally wary of arguments that try to tease a meaning out of one's writings that is contrary to the writer's expressed beliefs.) But perhaps the (possibly fictitious) student wrote what he or she did on the belief that "Is My Team Plowing?" betrayed some understanding and belief in immortality. Maybe that student realized full-well that Houseman was mocking a disposition common to many of us, namely, that the world will be so sad at our passing that it will think long and hard before resuming its rotation along its axis. Maybe the student, being a student and not a fully developed intellectual, may not have had the tools to write clearly or may not have yet learned to make his or her argument precise enough to be argued with, but it's possible the student was sincere and deserved better than this flip criticism.