SPSP 2013 Plenary session #1: Ian Hacking
Tweeted from the 4th biennial conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 27, 2013
(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Jun 27 2013
(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Jun 09 2013
Sure, people are always warned not to read the comments. But in the philosophy blogosphere you might expect more thinking-through of positions, more recognition that what is metaphysically possible is not always plausible, and so forth. Plus empathy and stuff. And yet ...
(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Jun 07 2013
More than you could possibly want to read about this case has been posted by the folks you should already be reading to stay up on happenings in the world of academic philosophy: Leiter (here and here), New APPS (here, here, here, and here), Feminist Philosophers (here), The Philosophy Smoker (here).
At issue is whether it is (always) wrong for a professor to send email to his graduate student research associate mentioning that he was thinking about her while masturbating.
I take it as a mark of how deeply messed up the moral compass of professional philosophy is that there are commenters at some of the blogs linked above who seem willing to go to the mat to argue that there may be conditions in which it is acceptable to email your RA you that were thinking about her during your hand-job. Because personal interactions are hard, y'all! And power-gradients in graduate programs that are at once educational environments and workplaces are really very insignificant compared to what the flesh wants! Or something.
Since, apparently, treating graduate students as colleagues in training rather than wank-fodder is very complicated and confusing for people who are purportedly very smart indeed, I'd like to propose ways to make life easier:
1. Let's make it an official rule that professors should NEVER email students, staff, colleagues, supervisors, program officers, et al. ANYTHING mentioning their masturbatory activities or the thoughts that pass through their heads during such activities. I would have thought this is just common sense, but apparently it isn't, so make it a bright line. If you're not able to follow the explicit rule, you probably don't have the chops to handle the more subtly challenging duties of the professoriate.
Anyone who wants to hear about what you're thinking while you're masturbating is either treating you within a therapeutic relationship or someone with whom you're in a position to share a pillow. Just take as given that no one else wants to know.
2. Don't try to date your (department's) students. I don't care if your institution doesn't explicitly forbid it (and honestly, I expect philosophy professors to recognize the difference between "it's not against the rules" and "it's ethical and prudent"). JUST DON'T. It's a risky call, especially for the student. (I have read letters of recommendation for applicants to academic jobs written by the thesis-supervisor-who-dated-the-applicant-until-they-broke-up. In a crowded job market, it's not a good look.)
What about love? If it's real, it will keep until the student is no longer a student. What, you say it's the student pestering you for a relationship? Say no! You can say no to other unreasonable requests from students, can't you? If not, again, maybe the professoriate is not for you.
Really, this should be enough.
And, for the record, having been on the receiving end of unwelcome behavior in philosophy (among other professional communities), I do not for a minute believe that such incidents are a matter of social ineptness or inability to read cues. Rather, a more plausible hypothesis (and one that usually has a great deal of contextual evidence supporting it in particular cases) is that the people dishing out such behavior simply don't care how it makes the targets of the behavior feel -- or worse, that they're intentionally trying to make their targets feel uncomfortable and powerless.
Spending too much time trying to find the possible world in which jerk behavior is OK simply gives the jerks in this world cover to keep operating. We should cut that out.
(by Janet D. Stemwedel) May 19 2013
I was impressed to read about your willingness to take a stand against your high school's factually inaccurate pro-abstinence assembly, especially given your high school principal's (predictable) threat to retaliate.
I was similarly impressed (though not surprised) by the response of my alma mater, Wellesley College, to your principled stand.
I am disappointed to learn that, despite earlier promises, your high school seems to be using the cover of "streamlining graduation exercises" to deny you and other highest honors graduates at George Washington High School the chance you were promised months ago to speak briefly about topics of your choice at your commencement.
One would hope that educators who value the education they are helping to deliver in a robust way would also value the perspectives of the students who are supposed to be at the center of the teaching and learning that is happening at the school. You are not mere products coming off an assembly line. You are members of our community whose thoughts and ideas, whose hopes and anxieties, should matter to us as we try to educate you, and to help you move into the world as adults who can keep learning and growing outside the bounds of classrooms or formal learning environments.
What you and your fellow classmates had prepared to say at your commencement matters, and we would benefit from hearing it.
Thus, I would like to invite you and your fellow highest honors graduates at George Washington High School to use my virtual podium here to deliver your remarks. Drop me an email and we can sort out the details of how you'd like to do that.
Thanks for continuing to stand up for fairness and for facts.
Janet D. Stemwedel
Wellesley College class of 1989
(by Janet D. Stemwedel) May 18 2013
In my last post, I insisted that you read what Aaron Bady has to say about "The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform". Now, I'm going to insist that you engage with Tressie McMillan Cottom's compelling look at dueling narratives around higher education. One of them is the narrative of market forces, of individuals as rational actors (and communities as mere collections of same), and of every single challenge having a market-based solutions -- and some market-based solutions being so attractive that folks seem to need to create problems on which to unleash these solutions. The other is a less economic, more sociological narrative -- one in which we get to see the salient details of the experiences of the students largely served by for-profit colleges, students who are offered (at least in the abstract) as the perfect clientele for MOOCs.
You will maybe not be surprised that for-profit colleges, and the current market-logic of higher education, does not always serve these students so well. However, if you teach at a place like San Jose State, you may be surprised by how much these students have in common with some of your own students.
Anyway, I've been recommending a lot for you to read, about MOOCs, which may seem contrary, given that some MOOCs seem content to assign "viewing" rather than reading. You're in luck! You can watch a video of Tressie McMillan Cottom presenting her arguments at UC-Irivine. (Her talk is from about 0:36:50 to 1:08:00.)
Here's just a taste:
When the story of profit in higher education tells us it will disrupt, it will innovate, it will cage-bust, it will unbundle, it is using the language of markets. It is telling a story of education as a tool of markets. We become a serf that exists at the largesse of market morality and financialization. When we use that language to resist our own commodification, even when we have the best of intentions but we use and adopt that language, we are limited in the possible outcomes of our resistance. If the language gets to define the problem, then it gets to define the solution. ...
So how did higher education become a market is a thing I'm very interested in. That's a story that's integral to the narrative being sold about this "calcified" higher education system, particularly public higher education, that has been so in need of disrupting and innovation. I put this before you because in California recent legislation,... Senate Bill 520, would have you take for granted that "something" needs to be done about public higher ed. Something. That's always the starting point. Nobody ever interrogates whether or not that's actually the case.
If you want to keep the written word, and your ability to read it, alive (on principle, probably because you're old, like me), I've tried to capture an approximate transcript here.
(by Janet D. Stemwedel) May 17 2013
Aaron Bady's essay at The New Inquiry, The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform, is so thoughtful and devastatingly on-target that it gets its own post in the series rounding up links that respond to issues raised in the SJSU Philosophy Department's open letter to Michael Sandel (PDF of that letter here). If you do not read the whole thing, ruminate on it, and read it at least once more, you are living a lie.
Here, I share some tantalizing tidbits that you will appreciate even more in the context of Bady's nuanced discussion.
On what can happen when the pace of what is viewed as inevitable change gets really, really fast -- and on how messed up our perceptions of the pace of change have become here:
… the first story makes us imagine a groundswell of market forces and unmet need, a world of students begging to be taught by a Stanford professor and Google, and the technological marvels that suddenly make it possible. But it’s not education that’s driving this shifting conversation; as the MOOC became something very different in migrating to Silicon Valley, it’s in stories told by the New York Times, the WSJ, and TIME magazine that the MOOC comes to seem like an immanent revolution, whose pace is set by necessity and inevitability.
For example. When the president of UVA was abruptly fired last June, it would be an exaggeration to say that a David Brooks column and a few articles in the WSJ were the cause of it, but it would not be that much of an exaggeration. As we can now roughly reconstruct—from emails which were FOIA-ed by the UVa student paper—UVa’s rector and vice rector essentially engineered Teresa Sullivan’s resignation because they decided she was moving too slowly on online education. And what you get from reading these emails is an overwhelming sense of speed, which they are repeating, verbatim, from the articles they are emailing and forwarding to each other. …
Where this urgency comes from, however, might be less important than what it does to our sense of temporality, how experience and talk about the way we we are, right now, in “the MOOC moment.” In the MOOC moment, it seems to me, it’s already too late, always already too late. The world not only will change, but it has changed. In this sense, it’s isn’t simply that “MOOCs are the future,” or online education is changing how we teach,” in the present tense. Those kinds of platitudes are chokingly omnipresent, but the interesting thing is the fact that the future is already now, that it has already changed how we teach. If you don’t get on the MOOC bandwagon, yesterday, you’ll have already been left behind. The world has already changed. To stop and question that fact is to be already belated, behind the times.
The first thing I want to do, then, is slow us down a bit, and go through the last year with a bit more care than we’re usually able to do, to do a “close reading” of the year of the MOOC, as it were. Not only because I have the time, but because, to be blunt, MOOC’s only make sense if you don’t think about it too much, if you’re in too much of a hurry to go deeply into the subject.
On whether MOOCs are a revolutionary new thing or something so familiar we should keep calm and just let it happen:
Things are moving so fast because if we stopped to think about what we are doing, we’d notice that MOOCs are both not the same thing as normal education, and are being positioned to replace “normal” education. But the pro-MOOC argument is always that it’s cheaper and almost never that it’s better; the most utopian MOOC-boosters will rarely claim that MOOCs are of equivalent educational value, and the most they’ll say is that someday it might be. This point is crucial to unpacking the hype: columnists, politicians, university administrators, educational entrepreneurs, and professors who are hoping to make their name by riding out this wave, they can all talk in such glowing terms about the onrushing future of higher education only because that future hasn’t actually happened yet: it’s still speculative in the sense that we’re all speculating about what it will look like. This means that the MOOC can be all things to all people because it is, literally, a speculation about what it might someday become.
About the stakes of California Senate Bill 520, even for people outside of California:
if SB520 passes, it will define the shape of things to come, not only by creating a model for other states to follow, but by creating a kind of market value for MOOCs that didn’t exist before, and which wouldn’t exist otherwise. By making certain selected MOOC’s convertible into course credit—at CCC’s, CSU’s, and the UC system—the California legislature will quite literally create value where it didn’t exist before, by making MOOCs a thing that are worth paying for. This shift is important. But mandating that a MOOC is the same thing as college—that it can be literally credited as a college class—not only changes what a MOOC is, it changes what college is.
After all, if a MOOC is simply a free educational resource that you can find on the web—which is what MOOCs presently are—then there’s nothing to object to in them, and everything to like. Such a MOOC is an almost wholly good addition to the universe: other than opportunity costs and the costs of a computer—which are not nothing, but they are also not that much—it’s simply a free and useful thing, available to those that want it. But the moment that such a use value becomes legible as a market value, when it becomes something that can be exchanged for the kinds of course credits that students pay very high tuition for, MOOCs become a radically different beast, with a radically different kind of economic value. It’ll be much easier to charge for them, on the one hand, and almost unthinkable that associated costs won’t rise, as they did with the once free California public universities (especially since Udacity and Coursera are literally for-profit enterprises). And on the other hand, they will radically devalue the resource that they can now be used to replace: if you can replace “chairs” (by which I mean, the brick and mortar campus) with a chair-less university—if those things are literally exchangeable—then the market value of “chairs” goes down, at the same time as its actual costs stay the same. If we can’t fully staff our classrooms now, how will we staff them in the future, when they have to compete with free?
To put it slightly differently, pumping up the value of MOOCs in this way—declaring, by legislative fiat, that MOOCs are now convertible with “real courses”—actually does have an important cost. If the platonic ideal of the classroom experience is the gold standard, then declaring that a bunch of other unrelated metals are also gold will lower its value, especially if those metals are freely available, in infinite supplies. Why would someone pay a teacher to give one-on-one attention to students when those students could get the same formal credential from an online course? You can point out that there is an actual and effective difference between a student to professor of 17 to 1 (in the gold standard class) and a ratio of 10,000 to 1, where a student will effectively never have a personalized interaction with the professor. But once market equivalency has entered the equation, once the market recognizes an equivalence between a MOOC and an in-person class, pointing out the difference that is experienced by the student will be trumped by the equivalence of market logic, which will dictate paying the cheaper of the two. An in-person education will become a unnecessary luxury: like gold itself, it will no longer be the “gold standard,” the basis of educational value, but rather, simply, an ornamental marker of elite status.
Some reasons to think the MOOC model will not do much to help the CSU achieve its stated goal of improving retention, that it won't do much for ethical conduct, and that the "increased access" being promised won't be access to something very good:
MOOC boosters live in the future; actually-existing MOOCs are a far cry from what their champions promise they will someday become, which allows us to gloss over any troubling trends in their present day iteration. After all, MOOC boosters like to brag about the thousands of students—even hundreds of thousands—who sign on to learn from super-professors like Harvard University’s Michael Sandel or Sebastian Thrun. But completion rates for these courses consistently hover in the mid single-digits. A Software Engineering MOOC taught by UC Berkeley professor David Patterson in May 2012, for example, may have enrolled over 50,000 students, but less than 4,000 actually completed the course, and this is typical. What’s more, as Patterson himself was quick to observe, his MOOC was a “cheating-rich environment”; it is safe to assume that the number of students who actually completed the course is somewhat lower than even the 7% that received a completion certificate. …
It rewards self-directed learners who have the resources and privilege to allow them to pursue learning for its own sake. But if you want it to function as a gate-keeping mechanism, which is one of the things that universities do, it’s not very good at that; a MOOC is almost designed to make cheating even easier that ever before. And if you want to use it to make educational resources available to underserved and underprivileged communities—which has been the historical mission of public education—MOOCs are also a really poor way to do that. Historically, public systems like California’s provided high quality education to citizens of the state who could not have gotten the equivalent anywhere else. MOOCs promise to see to it that what the public universities are able to provide is not, in every sense, the equivalent of what rich people’s kids get.
Noticing that MOOCs, as a "disruptive technology," manage to leave some things hardly disrupted at all:
… instead of de-institutionalizing education or making learning less hierarchical, we see some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world treating the MOOC as a lifeline in troubled economic waters, leveraging the figure of the “super-professor” to maintain their position of excellence atop the educational field, and even to create new hierarchical arrangements between universities. These MOOCs are just a new way of maintaining the status quo, of re-institutionalizing higher education in an era of budget cuts, sky-rocketing tuition, and unemployed college graduates burdened by student debt. If the MOOC began in the classroom as an experimental pedagogy, it has swiftly morphed into a process driven from the top down, imposed on faculty by university administrators, or even imposed on administrators by university boards of trustees and regents. From within academia, the MOOC phenomenon is all about dollars and cents, about doing more of the same with less funding. And while MOOC-boosters like to deride the “sage on the stage” model of education-delivery—as if crowded lecture halls are literally the only kind of classroom there is—most of the actually-existing MOOCs being marketed are not much more than a massive and online version of that very same “sage on a stage” model. And what could be more hierarchical than a high prestige university like Harvard lecturing to a less prestigious institution like SJSU?
If you haven't already, go read the entirety of The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform. You will be better for it.
(by Janet D. Stemwedel) May 02 2013
The Philosophy Department at San José State University (of which I am a part) took a pass on teaching Michael Sandel's "Justice", a MOOC licensed by the start-up edX, as a "flipped" course (which would have involved students watching videos of Sandel's lectures -- including his Q&A with his Harvard students -- and then coming in to discuss that in a classroom).
We explain our reasons for this decision in an open letter which you can read online at the Chronicle of Higher Education or download as a PDF here. The CHE article about the letter has some comments from the SJSU administration about the situation.
Janet D. Stemwedel (whose nom de blog is Dr. Free-Ride) is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San Jose State University with a misspent scientific youth in physical chemistry.