Monday, April 24, 2017

Power and Gravity

"Gravity is a mysterious carriage of the body invented to cover the defects of the mind."
La Rochefoucauld

"Don't be enamored of power."
Michel Foucault

One of my aims in writing about harassment in astronomy is to encourage astronomers to be more critical about the things social science is telling them. You might say I'm teaching intellectual self defense.

This is especially important when natural scientists listen to social scientists since there may be a presumption that both are "scientific" in the same way. Astronomers might assume that sociologists have the same sort of basis for talking about the structure of society as they themselves have for talking about the structure of the universe. Many years ago, Friedrich Hayek offered an analogy in an attempt to correct this misunderstanding. He said that, when thinking about social "science", physicists should imagine having first-hand knowledge of the inside of an atom but no opportunity to observe interactions between them, nor any way to experiment on them. I'm sure the aptness of that analogy is debatable but it suggests another one that I want to elaborate here.

Power is to sociology as gravity is to astronomy. In a certain sense, it explains everything. It certainly affects everything and you can't understand the relevant phenomena without taking it into account. But as a phenomenon in its own right it's not very well understood. Already Newton had to treat it as an essentially "occult" force, only observable through its effects on other things. Today, to be sure, there are very smart people working on it, but what gravity is, the ontology of gravity, if you will, is still one of the great mysteries. While light "particles", i.e., photons, have been demonstrated to exist, the corresponding particle of weight, if you will, the graviton, remains a hypothesis.

And yet gravity obviously "works". It not only determines the passage of our Earth around the Sun. It structures space across billions of light years. As one astronomer put it to me recently, many of these structures were "baked in" at the creation of the universe. Very slowly (from our point view) they also change. Today, the Milky Way is one structure and Andromeda is another, two spiral formations, each consisting of billions and billions of stars circling an enormous well of gravity. But in about 4 billion years this will change. The two structures will collide and produce a single new structure. Here, again, gravity will be doing most of the work.

Like I say, it may be useful for astronomers to think of power as a kind of "social gravity". This will avoid misunderstandings that I think pervade the pursuit of social justice in the STEM fields, and perhaps actually the concept of justice as it is understood in many of the social sciences today. (One point at which the analogy breaks down, after all, is that sociologists are much less "on the same page" about power than astronomers are about gravity.) It is natural to think of power as a primarily oppressive or "marginalizing" force. Indeed, this is the sense I get when listening to Sarah Ballard explain her vision of scientific "humanity". But this, I want to suggest, is a bit like thinking of gravity as something that is only "keeping us down", only holding us back. To be sure, it does that too. But do we really want to say that photons are more "liberated" than, say, rocks? Does that make sense?

We would not want a universe without gravity. It does limit how high we can jump, but at the same time, by the very same force, it makes jumping a meaningful activity. While it determines how difficult it is to get from point A to point B, it also, in an important sense, creates the "here" of A and B, whether that be two different places on our planet, or two different planets around two different suns. We don't resent gravity, because we know that it works for us as often as it works against us. Why are we so inclined to resent power?

Activists do sometimes demonstrate an understanding of this. When they talk about "empowerment" they are using the concept of power in the positive, creative sense. But the end game of empowerment too often seems to be an equal distribution of power. Astronomers who are trying to get their mind around what this implies need only imagine a universe with a completely uniform distribution of mass, a completely homogeneous gravity "structure". I put that word in quotation marks because, though I'm not an expert, I believe I just described the opposite of structure, namely, total chaos. I'm describing a world in a state of maximum entropy. The fabled heat death of the universe.

When Ballard imagines a scientific culture as "a place in which everyone could thrive" she's actually describing a place that is no place at all. There would be no "there" there, as Gertrude Stein or Martin Heidegger or, if you will, Tristan Tzara might have said. She is forgetting that we actually don't want everyone to thrive in science, we want it to be a place where mainly smart and curious people can thrive, and the less intelligent and less inquisitive among us can run palpably into our limitations. (The sooner the better so that we can quit and find work we are more suited for.) We also want it to be a place where "thriving" means different things to different people at different times. It's a place where the young learn and the elders teach, and where everyone is a little young and a little old at the same time, but not, I dare say, equally young and equally old in every way. We want there to be a tension, a dynamic. We want there to be movement, from falsehood to truth, from darkness towards the light. As individuals and as a society. We want a culture in which difference thrives, in which people thrive differently.

But what social science, too often I'm afraid, is teaching natural scientists is that society—or culture, if you will—is just spinning eternally around a gravity well of oppression. Call it the Toilet Model of social mechanics. There's no joy in their description of science, no hope, only pain and fear and harm. There is no sense of velocity, no possibility of escape. No levity. The only hope they see is that everyone who has power ("privilege") "check" it, i.e., abdicate it, that they lay their heavy burden down on the cold, hard ground. They don't seem to understand that the hard work a young scientist does early in her career, against a host of odds, some of which certainly channel injustices that have been "baked in" to our culture since the time we either came out of the caves or planted our first crops or opened the first bank, can actually, and in some cases literally, put her into orbit.

Ballard doesn't seem to understand this even though it describes her very own experience. The giants may be white and male but you don't end up under their heel. You stand on their shoulders. Sometimes they steady you by holding firmly onto your ankles. It is a tragedy that social science is teaching astronomers to think of this as "physical harassment".

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What Does Sarah Ballard Want?

At the recent MIT Communications Forum panel on "Sexual Harassment and Gender Equity in Science", Christina Couch asked Sarah Ballard what she would consider success in the effort to change the culture and institutions of science on those issues. I found her answer quite revealing.

[41:30] When I imagine what a sea change would look like, [one that would produce a more equitable scientific culture], a place in which everyone could thrive, it would no longer be a myth about a few bad people—or good people. Instead, there's humanity. Along certain axes people possess more power; then there are axes along which people possess less power. So even though I am a survivor of harassment as a woman, I'm also complicit in this scientific culture, which excludes and marginalizes women of color, who in fact experience harassment at higher rates than white women. And yet I am the one who ended up coming forward in this particular case. And I was treated very, very differently, I'll say, than individuals in my exact field in astronomy who have drawn attention to racism.

Let me stop for a moment to note underlying anthropology here. In Ballard's vision of "humanity" there aren't good people and bad people; rather, there are "axes" of oppression. And they "intersect", as they say. So here she is displaying her awareness that even though she's oppressed along what we might call the Axis of Sex, she's also "complicit" along the Axis of Race. The "even though" is worth emphasizing because it expresses the intuition (within this world view) that those who are themselves oppressed don't matter-of-factly oppress others, i.e., that this is something that needs to be brought to awareness. And that's really the view that's being promoted here—everyone is oppressed, and everyone oppresses. It's hard to see how anyone, let alone everyone, could thrive in this environment. This becomes especially clear when she turns attention on herself:

[42:25] So in that sense it's beholden upon me to not only think about how I've been wronged but also to think about what I can do to avoid wronging others. In this sense, every individual scientist should adopt some of those advocacy ideas, [namely], that there are ways in which we can behave that can remove us from this dichotomy that there are bad people and good people, which is why a lot of people [otherwise] resist the existence of harassment. [They think:] "So-and-so is a good guy, so it's not possible." Well, I'm sure he's good in some ways, but he's also harassed people. Likewise, I've experienced harassment and have probably also been very careless and thoughtless with other people around me, and not treated them the way they ought to have been treated. I would want to be told.

This is an important moment in her statement. What she says about supposedly "good" people presumably applies to Geoff Marcy. And she is herself now making the comparison. Indeed, my sense has been that Marcy's "wrong" in Ballard's account lay merely in being careless with one of his young female students. Ballard is saying that Marcy's thoughtless sexism probably has a counterpart in Ballard's implicit racism. And she here announces that she would like someone to point this out to her. I wonder if, somewhere down the line, she'd be happy to be forced into retirement by an organized movement of astronomers of color who found her a little condescending ten years earlier. I don't think so. At some level, I believe her actual view is that Marcy is not a "bad" person and he should not have been personally punished or shamed. The problem is "systemic", she could have said, and must be solved at the institutional level. Ballard's harassment, on this view, did not finally come from Marcy's behavior as such, but through the "axis of power" along which his behavior transmitted an oppressive force.

The interesting consequence of this is that Marcy did not harass Ballard to his own ends. The harassment was a result of his failure to consider the institutional forces working willy-nilly around him. From this insight, it is a short step to Ballard's ideal scientific community:

[43:22] When I imagine how a scientific culture could look different it would be one in which we really get away from this idea that science is distinct from advocacy. Rather, science and the way science is performed is necessarily sociological, necessarily political, and it would ultimately be a different kind of identity to be a scientist. That’s what I imagine longterm.

That is, what Ballard wants is a culture in which everyone is constantly aware of power and politics. She wants scientists to construct their identities, not around the natural facts that stimulate their curiosity, and certainly not around their emotional connection with people they like, but around the "intersections" of the axes of oppression that structure the scientific community, just like any other community. A scientist's first concern should not be figuring out how the world works, but finding new ways of "including" others in the work. Science is not sometimes inconvenienced by politics, it is necessarily political. A scientist is not simply free to pursue the truth. She is always "complicit" in one or another injustice.

This image of science doesn't appeal very much to me and I suspect it doesn't appeal to a great many other people who have a natural inclination toward science. I suspect that Ballard herself didn't realize she wanted to be scientist until she spotted in it a culture that might need her "advocacy". For Ballard, science is just another system by which people (here, "scientists") are oppressed. I think she's doing a disservice to the women of color who were hoping science might be a place where, for a time, they could be free of their identity as an "oppressed minority" and just do some interesting work. I still believe science offers such a place to anyone who cares to ignore the advocates long enough. But the times they are a-changing.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Nitty-Gritty of Rape Culture, Part 2

[Part 1]

There must be something in the water. Laura Kipnis opened her talk at Wellesley by expressing not so much her admiration as her envy over Philip Roth's artistic liberties—his ability to write freely about sex (even when the acts in question are as strange as masturbating on a grave). Later, she mentioned a recent episode of Girls ("American Bitch") in which Hannah gets harassed (or allows herself to be harassed) by an author. Kipnis's interlocutor in my previous post also liked that episode (though she doesn't like Lena Dunham.) In the episode, Hannah and the famous author bond on their appreciation of Roth. To close the circle, the episode apparently also resonated with Sarah Ballard. It looks like I'm going to have to find some way of watching it.

Kipnis praises Lena Dunham for her honesty about the conflicting emotions that play out in sexual harassment situations. In the context of her other remarks, I think her point is that we can use these artistic representations to better understand such situations and, by extension, help us navigate them safely. Norman Mailer suggested, to my mind plausibly, that literature helps us draw maps of the social world that can guide our way through it. Kenneth Burke called literature "equipment for living" with, I imagine, similar thoughts in mind.

In this spirit, I want to propose for our consideration three scenes from the canon, all which of are arguably "major" contributions to American letters, and therefore the American experience. In an important sense, they are part of what America knows about sex. Actually, in a sense that I think Kipnis laments, they are more accurately part of what America has forgotten about sex and therefore no longer teaches its college-aged women. The first was published in the early 1920s, the second in the late 1950s and the last at the beginning of the 21st century. They are by Hemingway, Mailer and Roth respectively. I will provide some capsule summaries here but I will insist that any further discussion should proceed on the basis of reading them.

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway recalls Gertrude Stein telling him that "Up In Michigan" was a good story but that it was ultimately "inaccroachable", by which she basically meant "obscene". It includes a quite explicit sexual encounter that it would not be very controversial to describe as a rape. But even so, it also includes a lot of the ambiguities and conflicts that might, more controversially, be seen as distributing, if not blame, then responsibility, or desire, or perhaps more neutrally, agency to the victim: "Jim had her dress up and was trying to do something to her. She was frightened but she wanted it. She had to have it but it frightened her."

As if to anticipate the case I discussed in my last post, however, I don't think Jim thought of it as an assault, though Liz clearly told him no: "You mustn't do it, Jim. You mustn't." (Perhaps, then, it does help me to imagine what I said I would have a hard time getting my mind around.) I think we can agree that it tells us something about what a 20th-century woman could do to avoid having sex she doesn't, finally, want to have. By extension it can, perhaps, be part of the curriculum for teaching men not to rape, as some Title IX activists like to put it.

By the time Norman Mailer wrote "The Time of Her Time", explicit sex scenes were no longer inaccroachable. And Mailer certainly tried to do something with that freedom. The story is about a Village stud, Sergius O'Shaugnessy, who sets his mind to bringing Denise, a young woman—nineteen years old and a college student no less—to orgasm. This turns out to be a very demanding task, and, in desperation and frustration, and with an almost plainly declared desire for retribution (he calls his penis, "The Avenger"), he finally commits what, on paper (as it were), looks disconcertingly like an anal rape. It certainly seems to anticipate the kinds of encounters that Title IX officers have been asked to adjudicate, with "mattress girl" perhaps the most famous example.

Neither character in Mailer's story, however, seems to think of it in those terms, even though the woman leaves in anger over what he has done. As in Hemingway's story, there is enough detail and enough perspective to help us think clearly about the agency of the participants, and the contingency of the situation. While Hemingway, it must be noted, wrote his story in the third person and peeked into the heads of both characters at key moments, Mailer chose the first-person perspective of the man alone. But in both cases we are able to see, not only how things could have been different, but who could have done something differently.

Finally, let us consider a story that provides a rich and nuanced view on perhaps exactly the kind of the situation Kipnis is most interested in. In The Dying Animal, Philip Roth imagines a relationship between a sixty-something university professor, David Kepesh, and a 24-year old university student, Consuela Castillo. For many of today's campus feminists, the relationship might be considered sexual harassment almost by definition. Even though Kepesh is careful to make sure the affair happens after the course is over and the grades have been given, there's no question that he deliberately "targets" her, nor that the power imbalance remains throughout the story.

Early on in the relationship (p. 30ff), as a continuation of a consensual encounter (again, much like the story we considered in the last post), Kepesh takes control of a sexual encounter and forces oral sex on the student in a manner that has much of the violence of Mailer's story. In both cases, the man is doing something that the woman "does not like" in order to "make something happen to her". O'Shaugnessy describes the woman as "thrash[ing] beneath [him] like a trapped little animal"; Kepesh says he "kept her fixed there, kept her steady by holding her hair." Roth suggests that this act of violence "freed her", though she "looked not just horrified but ferocious" afterwards; Mailer has Sergius say, "I gave you what you could use" after Denise tells him he did a "lousy thing". Like I say, the objections of the women notwithstanding, I think both Mailer and Roth would balk at the idea that an assault took place.

This aspect of sex, in which our partner pushes us across our boundaries, beyond, in an important sense, the limits of our "consent", is increasingly frowned upon in our culture. It is a boundary that Title IX officers appear to be only too happy to patrol and police. Indeed, in order to find O'Schaugnessy and Kepesh guilty of sexual assault, I think we'd have to project our 21st-century "academic" concept of consent into those situations. In those bygone times, the woman might be angered, and even genuinely hurt, by such actions, but she would see it more like the pain of the boxer than than that of a victim. I'm not here, not yet, taking a position on it. I'm saying that we have a literature that can provide us with what Ezra Pound called "the data for ethics".

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Nitty-Gritty of Rape Culture, Part 1

If you want to see some really frank talk about the regulation of campus sexuality, Laura Kipnis's talk at Wellesley last month is well worth the time. I want to draw attention in particular to the exchange between Kipnis and some students at the end of the Q & A. She is being asked to comment on the experiences of the friends of these students, which is difficult terrain in this sort of forum, but one that the conversation, in my opinion, has to cover if we're going to make progress. Kipnis apparently shares this view; she rightly tells one student not to apologize for pushing the point. "You're getting to the real nitty-gritty of it," she says.

The exchange had an interesting arc. Kipnis at first takes the sketches of the experiences at face value and suggests that, since these were negative experiences, we do well to think about how they could have been avoided. (I think Kipnis is right when she says—more clearly in answer to an earlier question—that some women need to learn how to say no assertively and how to defend themselves.) This elicits some pushback from another student who proposes to consider cases that, she asserts, are definitely assault.

During the course of the conversation the scenario she is describing becomes clearer. Apparently we are talking about a steady couple who begin to have (consensual) sex (as usual) but at some point it takes a violent turn. He holds her down and forces her to engage in something she does not want. At this point, Kipnis tersely remarks that that is just illegal and the conversation could perhaps have ended there.

But there is one important discordant element in the student's description of this episode. She says that the man would "genuinely not think of [it] as an assault", nor, as I understand it, was any attempt made to make him see it as such after the fact. That is, the assault is an uncontroversial fact among a group of female friends, but would be highly controversial as such if presented to the man who is supposed to have committed it. This sits oddly with something else the student puts into her description of the case later: the woman had said no. It is unclear to me how a man, faced with these facts, could both grant that they accurately represent what happened and deny that it was assault.

This is what the conversation seems to hinge on, although Kipnis (I think wisely) doesn't force the ambiguity to a resolution. The student who had put the example forward demands a response; she demands to know what Kipnis thinks should be done here. And she rejects a number of suggestions, both from Kipnis and another student, that go to the need for better communication between the sexual partners, and perhaps better judgment in the choice of sexual partners. It's clear that while Kipnis is not blaming the victim, she is raising the question of how she got herself into this vulnerable situation. (Kipnis rightly points out that sex just is a vulnerable situation.) "What 'situation'?" the student balks. While they might be appropriate in other situations, she insists, the case as described is not open to those responses.

At this point, Kipnis, granting, I suppose, the student the right to specify the facts of the case (it's of her choosing, after all), asks what she thinks a proper response would be: prosecute? And here the student becomes very categorical. "Yes ... if someone penetrates you forcibly after you've said no—which is what I said [happened]—[then] yes [he should be prosecuted], because that's what rape is."

Kipnis basically leaves it there, but here, really, is the rub. Because it will now be the woman's word against the man's. (Keep in mind that we're talking about two people who are alone together and naked and already engaged in sexual activity on an entirely consensual basis at the time that the alleged assault takes place.) Obviously, once the accusation of sexual assault is levied, he will insist that he had consent and that she did not say no or resist. Indeed, the student had previously said that his defense here would not even be dishonest. He would "genuinely" believe that he did not assault her. (Again, I find this hard to get my mind around unless he simply didn't hear her say no.) And yet there is supposed to be no doubt in our minds, i.e., the minds of people who are hearing this story from the point of view of the alleged victim (albeit third-hand), that this was indeed an assault. It is presented as cut and dried at one level, but also somehow still "problematic", an "issue". This obviously exposes the accused to the risk of being expelled (on one sort of standard) even where there is insufficient evidence to find him guilty of rape. Kipnis is right to wonder whether we want these situations adjudicated quasi-judicially.

The problem with the case that the student is putting forward is that it is supposed to be an entirely objective assault to everyone but the perpetrator. The man in the story would not feel like he "got caught", but that there was something he just doesn't understand about women. I think this captures very neatly the idea of a new kind of subjective "rape" that the Title IX culture has fostered on college campuses. It also has obvious parallels to the problem of harassment, which is increasingly being defined in terms of the subjective experience of the victim, not the more objective judgment of what the law refers to as a "reasonable person". In Part 2, I want to suggest ways that literature can help us understand the subjectivity of these situations.

[Part 2]

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Geoff and Sarah Show

I started out calling it "The Ballad of Geoff and Sarah". But this MIT panel made me imagine another device. I'll do a closer analysis of the panel in the weeks to come, but I wanted to note an immediate impression and ask those who choose watch it along with me whether they think the same. Does it not seem that everyone is talking in very vague terms both about what Geoff Marcy did and what happened to Sarah Ballard? It is assumed throughout that Marcy sexually harassed Ballard, and that Ballard was harmed by his actions, but it is never made clear what happened.

I, for one, have never quite understood what Marcy is supposed to have done wrong. Is Ballard claiming that Marcy had sexual desires for Ballard and tried to satisfy them by wielding the power he held over her career? Is she even claiming that Marcy somehow harmed Ballard's career? I don't think she's making such claims. There's a point in the discussion (22:20) where she seems to be saying (as I've noted before) that the damage consisted mainly in her coming to question whether science is a purely meritocratic profession. Perhaps, then, it was his friendship, not his sexual interest, that disconcerted her? I, for one, am not persuaded that Marcy hoped to have a romantic relationship with Ballard. And Ballard herself seems unsure about whether he did. Otherwise, couldn't she just tell the story as a clear attempt at seduction?

Notice that for all the references to the experience during the panel, neither Ghorayshi nor Ballard ever really tell the story of what happened between Ballard and Marcy. This got me thinking. Until the scandal broke, Marcy considered himself an ally of women in science. Indeed, it's my impression that many women continue to think of him as an ally, albeit very quietly and in private for the most part. By resigning, he seemed clearly to be thinking of how to protect his colleagues (and no doubt his graduate students) from getting caught in some very destructive pressures. I think it's uncontroversial to suggest that he had the best interests of astronomy as a field at heart. It has never seemed like he was willing to take anyone else down with him in this debacle.

So why, I wonder, has his willingness to cooperate not been exploited (I mean that in a good sense) by gender activists? Why does Sarah Ballard appear on a panel like this and talk vaguely and guardedly about her experiences rather than touring the country's astronomy departments with Geoff Marcy, speaking directly and openly about their shared cautionary tale of interpersonal relationships in science? Why isn't this story being told in detail so that the very men that activists think can be taught not to harass women, and the vulnerable women that Ballard explicitly wants to help avoid such harassment, could learn from it?

It seems to me that a real opportunity was missed here. Ironically, the very people that pushed the hard line against Marcy, ultimately forcing him into retirement, keep saying that this isn't about individuals. It's a "systemic" problem, they say. It's about changing the culture and transforming the institutions. Surely, the best way to do this is to model conflict resolution between tootwo well-meaning people like Ballard and Marcy. Reading Ballard's story, I can't for the life of me understand why a healing process between them should be impossible. At this point, it's mainly Marcy's reticence to go anywhere near his accusers that makes sense. I wouldn't be easily persuaded either. I think that should sit badly with self-avowed gender activists like Ballard and Ghorayshi. With panels like this, they are not bridging the gender gap. They are deepening it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


These musings about an ideal (or better) college are a nice way of keeping things in perspective. I have already written about the sort of curriculum I'd like to see and how the grades should be distributed. But what about the form of the examinations themselves? First, I think there should be both oral and written exams. Some should have very little preparation and some should have a great deal. That is, students should demonstrate an ability to produce a thoroughly researched and carefully planned presentation (again, both in speech and writing) but they should also demonstrate extemporaneous mastery. As before, let's assume they are taking three courses per semester. That means they will have six exams every year.

In the last year, they should submit some sort of thesis that would be defended orally. Here all their skills would be brought together and count for maybe one half of that year's overall grade. Other than that, here a six exams I'd like to see:

1. Research paper. The student is given a general topic and is expected to narrow it to a problem that can be solved using the resources of a library. The length of the paper would increase from year to year, but there would be a consistent requirement to write well-formed prose paragraphs that present a coherent argument.

2. Take-home essay. The students would be given a limited amount of time (24, 48 or 72 hours) to answer a question pertaining to the course.

3. Written exam. Again, this is a familiar sort of performance. The students would arrive in a classroom with a specified set of materials (books, notes, etc.) and would be given a question to answer in an essay form. They would be given, say, four hours to plan and compose an essay. This would test their actual writing ability as well as their mastery of the course material.

4. Oral presentation. Students would prepare an oral presentation of a specified length. Essentially a short lecture. Afterwards, the examiner would ask questions to probe their knowledge.

5. Oral examination. Students would simply arrive at the exam and answer questions put to them by a panel of examiners. Their only preparation would be the course itself (they would receive no question in advance).

6. Debate. Students would debate each other on issues related to the course. The grade would be given on the individual performance.

There's really nothing new about any of those exams. But there's something about bringing them together like this that, at least for me, clarifies the competence that could be imparted by a "liberal arts" education. To pass these exams, students would need to be able to think, speak and write. In addition to their reading, preparing for these exams simply means building these competences through continuous practice—of thinking, talking and writing.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Guest Speakers

For the students of Claremont McKenna

A good college will often bring in guest speakers to enrich the conversation among students and faculty. The apparently growing phenomenon of students protesting guests with the intent of preventing them from speaking suggests that colleges need to develop a culture, and perhaps a set of policies, that guides decisions about controversial speakers and governs reactions to those decisions. Here are my thoughts on the matter.

First, there should be a limited pool of resources to draw on to host guests. That is, invitations should be considered on the basis of the value of the speaker, measured against the cost of hosting them. I'm here talking about the cost of travel and accommodation, as well as any speaking fee. All of these will vary from speaker to speaker. Some speakers demand, or simply deserve, not just a high speaking fee but first class travel and lodgings. At the end of the day, it is the president of the college (working through whatever deputies and committees) that authorizes the expense. All guests of the college, therefore, are guests of the president.

Now, I believe that faculty and students should have channels through which to propose invitations. Indeed, academic departments should have some part of the guest speaker budget that they are free to do with as they please. Likewise, some funds should be allocated to let the students themselves invite speakers. The best way to do this is to let student organizations apply for funding to invite speakers. The important thing is that even these guests, since they are a paid for by the college, are guests of the college, not just he department or student group that. Finally, students groups and departments who raise their own funds would still need campus facilities (a lecture hall) to hold the event. These should be provided free of charge and, again, approval means that the guest speaker is a guest of the college, which is to say, of the president of the college.

That is, while all guest speakers are in practice invited by members of the college of community, the invitation is in principle extended by the president of the college. This is the principle that I would put at the center of any controversies about an invited speaker.

This means, first, that "free speech" is really about the right of the community to hear views that interest them. Once an invitation has been extended, it must be assumed that some members of the community want to hear the speaker's views. The speaker did not have some pre-given right to speak at the college. The speaker is there, "at the pleasure" of the president, who represents the community.

This, in turn, suggests that any protest should be directed, not against the speaker, but against the president who approved the request and extended the invitation. It's the president's judgment that is in question, not the speaker's right to speak. Also, any disruption is a violation of the campus rules of decorum, according to which any sanctioned activity (whether a class, a sports match, or a guest lecture) must be allowed to developed under the rules appropriate to it. Students who violate these rules do so at the risk of being disciplined and ultimately of being expelled. That is, they would have to answer to the president of the college.

Finally, the president would always owe an apology to an invited speaker whose event was disrupted. Even a "peaceful" protest should embarrass the president, especially if it used the sort of strong denunciations in its rhetoric that many protests these days deploy. Once the invitation has been extended on behalf of the campus, respectful, articulate disagreement should be not only allowed but encouraged. But at no point should the speaker reasonably feel unwelcome, let alone unsafe. The very need for police protection from students calls into the question the whole culture of a campus.*

I believe that if this attitude was taken and enforced with respect to campus speakers, we would not see the sort of protests we are seeing today. In fact, I presume that this is the attitude that is preserving the good name of many colleges as we speak. We don't hear enough about them. The good example is so much less newsworthy.

*Some speakers require protection on the best of campuses. Obviously, if the POTUS were invited, the ordinary security precautions would need to be taken. But not out of fear of the general student body—only the disturbed "lone gunman" among them. But this is no different from any other speaking engagement. My point is just that no speaker should feel especially unsafe on the campus I'm envisaging.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Colleague Rape Crisis

"Microsoft, where’s your ad campaign telling adult male scientists not to rape their colleagues in the field?" (Monica Byrne, HT Christina Richey RTing Karen James)

This is one of those nits that I happen to be qualified to pick. I agree with Monica Byrne that there's something odd about Microsoft's attempt to brand itself as a supporter of women in STEM by telling girls that the odds are against them.* But I must say that the ad she imagines might be more on point would hardly be more encouraging: telling young women that the odds are they'll get raped by a colleague. Neither message is especially well-suited to getting them to "stay in STEM".

Her sources for that claim are worth examining more closely. The first is an op-ed in the New York Times by A. Hope Jahren that brings her personal story of being raped while doing fieldwork together with Kate Clancy's Survey of Academic Field Experiences. The second is a Mother Jones interview with Clancy herself about the same study. Jahren's piece is compellingly written but makes what I believe is a baseless connection between her own story and Clancy's research.

If I understand Jahren correctly, she was attacked and violently raped by a local stranger in an Aegean resort town. Her story, she tells us, "is not unique," and she cites Clancy's study to support the assertion that "26 percent of the female scientists surveyed had been sexually assaulted during fieldwork." And she goes even further: "I know several women with stories like mine, but more often it is the men of one’s own field team, one’s co-workers, who violate their female colleagues." Again she cites Clancy, quoting: "perpetrators were predominantly senior to them professionally within the research team."

Here's the problem with this way of putting it: Although its definition of sexual assault did cover rape, and the paper said that respondents reported "sexual assault including rape", Clancy's study did not ask specifically about rape. We simply don't know how many people in Clancy's survey were reporting "stories like" Jahren's, which sounds truly awful but did not have a colleague as a perpetrator. It is likely that most of the bad behavior Clancy's survey registered was unwanted groping and stolen kisses. Connecting the problem of being raped by a stranger in a stairwell with the problem of unwanted touches by a colleague at a party in this vague way is highly problematic from my point of view.

I don't doubt Jahren's story. But I do find her claim that she knows "several women" who have stories similar to hers, i.e., stories of violent forcible rape with "blood under [her] fingernails", except that the perpetrator was not a stranger but a fellow scientist, a bit hard to believe. In any case, it's almost certainly not true that this is the experience of 1 in 4 women in STEM. While I don't doubt that doing field work exposes women to a higher risk of sexual assault, I do not believe that "staying in STEM" in general increases a woman's odds of being raped. Contra Byrne, I do not believe that male scientists are especially in need of being told not to rape their female colleagues.

If anything is going to keep women out of STEM I think this idea that it's a favored career path for rapists is probably going to do it. Fortunately, it appears to be baseless. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to stop ideologues from pushing it.

*UPDATE: As Jonathan Mayhew points out in the comments (and at his blog) the way these odds are presented in the ad is misleading too. It tells the girls that they have a 6.7% chance of graduating with a STEM degree (indeed, it tells them "odds are you won't solve [the] problems [you are interested in]") because they are female. But the same ad for boys would not (as some viewers might have assumed) tell them their odds are 93.3%. Rather, 17% of men graduate with STEM degrees. Assuming a roughly equal male/female population that means that the chance that anyone gets a STEM degree is 11.8%. Moreover, as Jonathan points out, there are fields (including those relevant to the interests of the girls in the ad) that graduate more women than men. The point should be that science is hard. Boys, too, should in principle be told that the odds are against them solving the world's problems through science. But there is a time for that hard truth and 12 years old isn't, in my opinion, it. Telling girls of any age that science is harder for them than it is for boys, meanwhile, is a lie that reinforces the inequality it attempts to address. I agree with Jonathan when he says that we "want a basic statistical literacy among those debating these issues. The M of STEM after all is Math."

Sunday, April 09, 2017


Many years ago I had an epiphany while struggling with Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. How many philosophers, I thought to myself, have ever had the time to take it seriously? How many have ever really carried out a transcendental deduction of the categories of experience? We say we're "beyond Kant", "post-Kantian", etc. But how many people have really read him, really mastered his thinking? Is it a question of going further than Kant in our understanding of pure reason? Or aren't we first and foremost struggling just to reach his level of precision on the matter? The same, I realized, goes for later thinkers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger. Who ever really gets the Philosophical Investigations or Being and Time under their skin? Who knows enough to go beyond them?

The insight also applies to literature. When did anyone really have time to read In Search of Lost Time or Ulysses carefully enough? When did anyone finish with Hamlet or Don Quixote? All of these works are inexhaustible; they reward any amount of rereading. Also, they provide a point of departure for the study of virtually all Western literature. Anything you read can be understood better by setting it in their light. They are the exemplars par excellence of "modern language", just as Kant, Wittgenstein and Heidegger epitomize "modern thought".

I'm not trying to suggest a "canon". I'm happy to let you replace any of the these works with works you find to be equally inexhaustible but more interesting to you. My point is that once we have chosen six or eight of these books we don't, in principle, need any more. These can be the core of a curriculum for a particular college; they can constitute what the students have to become intimately familiar with. Their authors can serve as the masters of the craft that the students are themselves pursuing—always partial—mastery of. In short, they are masterpieces.

There are those who would point out that I have chosen exclusively white males. In my defense, two of them are not straight. Also, I would argue that even a college that sets itself to "deconstructing Western metaphysics" will need to deconstruct precisely these six or seven works. These are the texts you must struggle with. It is not, I would argue, as it easy as some people think. A mind that is capable of deconstructing the "presence" and "privilege" of Shakespeare and Proust has some serious intellectual skills.

It should go without saying that the students can and will read much more than the core curriculum. In class, the core works will be continuously exposed to what came before and what came after in order, of course, to better understand not just the core works, but also what came before and what came after. In any case, masterpieces—whichever ones a college chooses—must be at the forefront of the curriculum. Programs should be organized around them. They would read Woolf to shed fresh light on Ulysses. When they read Deleuze they are really improving their understanding of Proust. When they read Borges they are enriching their understanding of Cervantes. Plato helps them to read Heidegger. Beckett opens new perspectives on Wittgenstein. Lisa Robertson takes them through Heidegger to Dante. Etc.

Imagine 2400 students that, in addition to their particular specialties and idiosyncrasies are all conversant about Hamlet and the Quixote, Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time, Being and Time and the Investigations. Or six comparable works. Imagine the intellectual culture on a such a campus. Surely, we would here have students capable of thought, speech and writing at a level worthy of Western civilization. They would be something our civilization could be proud of. And they could, perhaps more importantly, be proud of themselves.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Learn to Think, Speak and Write!

Jordan Peterson nails it (at 1:51 and forward):

Being knowledgeable, I said a couple of years ago, is the ability to make up your mind, speak your mind, and write it down.

Thursday, April 06, 2017


Before I get into the more interesting matter of curriculum design I want to propose something that I believe would improve grading practices in college. Let us imagine that students take three courses per semester and there are 600 students in a cohort. That means that 1800 grades would be given out to each cohort every semester. My idea, now, is to draw these grades from fixed pool of available As, Bs, Cs, and Ds.

The distribution could vary slightly from school to school. The simplest is 20% As, 30% Bs, 30% Cs and 20% Ds. Teachers would "draw" their grades from this pool in rounds that allow for a maximum of 360 As, 540 Bs, and 540 Cs, with the remaining 360 going to Ds and Fs. If a teacher wants to give a student an A after the pool has run out, then they would have to square them off against the picks of other teachers in that round, before a panel of disinterested [faculty] peers who would look only at the general quality of the submitted work.

This would give teachers the task of designing assignments that demonstrate mastery in a relatively objective way, beyond the "subjective" (or specialist) judgment that the course teacher is able to give. Students, too, would need to make sure that they are not just impressing their teacher, but doing work to an inter-subjectively enforced standard. Teachers at each level should of course reach some agreement about what sorts of assignments to give their students—essays of what length, etc.

Oral examination could also be done this way, with some students being called in to perform before the judges to determine who gets the As and who must settle for Bs. The teachers would, of course, not send their best students into these battles because they would be at risk of getting a B (and that would be rather unfair). They would send those that deserve an A only if they outperform their [student] peers in general academic skills (presentation, coherence, reasoning, etc.).

After some time, I imagine the teachers would get a good sense of each other's standards and would be able to trust each other's judgment. The point is that an "easy A" would, on closer examination, not be so easy. Teachers would in a sense be nominating their students for grades, not merely assigning them unilaterally.

PS I apologize for the breezy style, but it's having a cheering effect on me just to dash these ideas off the top of my head like this. If this system sounds like a lot of work, I think you're overestimating how many grades would actually end up in the "danger zone" between pools and how difficult it would be to decide between them.


I'm a romantic about the college campus. I believe it should be located near a small town (where the faculty could live) and have green grounds with trees to sit under and even woods to walk in. There should be dorms for all the students. There should be dining facilities—not a food court but a decent cafeteria—for each dorm. There should be a library. The academic departments should have offices (one office for each faculty position). And there should, of course, be lecture halls, classrooms and colloquium rooms.

I am not against athletic facilities. But they must not increase the cost of tuition nor become a major financial interest. (There is always the danger of drawing too many donations into the "brand value" of an athletics department.) I think any institution at which young people live year-round needs places and equipment for, not just exercise, but games of various kinds. There should be sports fields and, perhaps, even a swimming pool.

I also believe that the students should contribute labor to the upkeep of the grounds. While there should be a grounds keeper who organizes this work, much of the labor should be provided by students working a few hours each week. The same goes for keeping the dorms and classrooms clean. There should not be a staff of caretakers to leave the impression that university students have servants. Even two hours a week from 2400 students is 4800 hours, or the equivalent of 120 full-time staff members. And, yes, I believe it would build character and a sense of care for the campus.

This care should of course also be care for each other as members of the community. A certain spirit should animate a college campus, one that respects the privilege of attending an institution, relatively sheltered from the pressures of social life.

Advertising and corporate branding should be entirely banned from campus. There should be no Starbucks on campus and no posters that sell anything of any kind, except tickets to events sponsored by campus organizations. No donation should be able to buy the attention of the students. No surface on campus should distract the students from the main purpose: learning. (Obviously, what the students choose to wear and what posters they hang up in the dorm rooms is their own business.)

I would expect the campus to be connected to the Internet, of course. But I think the classrooms themselves should be low tech, with chalk boards.

This was sort of a boring post, I guess. There isn't really anything revolutionary in these suggestions. The idea, however, is to keep things simple and inexpensive and to involve the students in their maintenance. That's really the main point.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017


I'm impatient, so I'll just begin today. The first thing to consider when imagining a college is what it should cost to attend. It must not be free because going to college should be the result of a decision that weighs a short-term investment against some long term goals. On the other hand, it should not be so expensive that "elite" simply means "wealthy" (or that only exceptionally talented poor people can go to elite colleges through the generosity of scholarships). How, much, then, is reasonable?

My suggestion is that it should cost, all inclusive, $12,000 dollars a year to attend college in the United States.* By "all inclusive", I mean exactly that. $12,000 dollars should cover tuition, materials, room and board. This means that a college campus must provide cheap accommodation and food for all the students. Ideally, students would not be able to spend personal wealth to improve their quality of life while at school. That is, economic inequality should be suspended.

I arrive at $12,000 by way of another utopian notion: basic income. I believe that young people, based on their demonstrated merit in high school, should be able to attend a college by spending their entire basic income for the time they attend. They will only graduate (with a satisfying grade) if they devote themselves entirely to the effort, which means they will be unable to hold a job on the side. School should require all their energy. Or, rather, it should provide a context in which all their energies can be meaningfully devoted to learning.

Let's imagine a school with an incoming class of 600 students. Roughly 2400 students in all would attend at any given time. That's a revenue stream of 28.8 million dollars. 250 faculty and 50 staff members earning an average salary of $70,000 would cost 21 million. I have not worked out whether you can feed 2400 people for a year on $7.8 million. I hope someone can find a way (or tell me how much I've got left over after everyone's been fed). The students would be required to do a certain amount of (unpaid) work on the campus in order to graduate. (Again, I would recommend not letting wealthy students pay their way out of this, for obvious reasons.)

I believe the grounds and buildings should be donated by the community. This will normally mean some sort of state subsidy, involving a land grand with a tax exemption for as long as the college operates. Also, there ought to be an endowment, funded by the alumni and other benefactors, both for the expansion of facilities and their upkeep. The luxuriousness of a college should in no way depend on the tuition fees (which should be the same at all colleges); it should depend entirely on a combination of state funding and private contributions.

I'm leaving a lot of things out here, of course. The important thing to keep in mind is that I'm only trying to imagine the operation of a physical place that lets people eat and sleep, teach and learn. Very little is required of such a space in principle. It can be done cheaply. In subsequent posts I want to say something about what the place should look like and what should go on there.

*It may rightly be asked why I, a Dane, would set my mind to imagining the ideal American college. That subject is worth a post of its own, but, to be brief, I believe that the future depends on America. I don't believe that any utopian schemes can be implemented anywhere until they are, at the very least, imaginable in America.


I have to regroup. Trying to explain what is wrong with higher education in the West today feels like banging one's head into a brick wall (the wall of the administration's offices, in most cases). I'm going to spend a few posts dreaming, imagining what college and university could be like. I'll start tomorrow.

Same As It Ever Was

It's exhausting to think about what his happening to our ("Western") culture and, especially, our universities. I'm reduced to gathering quotes:

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood... (Tocqueville, 1840)
[The society of the future] will be run by a tolerant élite composed of scientists, well-heeled technicians, and efficient commissars, buttressed by serviceable cadres of social workers and psychiatrists. As the tragic drama unfolds,these grousp must play the assassins of whatever is passionate and unpredictable in human experience... (Layton, 1961)
American colleges have abandoned their educational mission and become government colonies, ruled by officious bureaucrats enforcing federal dictates. This despotic imperialism has no place in a modern democracy. (Paglia, 2017)

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The Corrosion of Truth

K.C. Johnson neatly expresses my concerns about the "social science" of campus rape, albeit when talking, not about science, but about policy and process.

The only reason that colleges and universities have for their existence is the pursuit of truth. If we’re no longer in the business of pursuing truth, we no longer have a reason to be around. And these are systems in which the colleges and universities are willingly making life altering decisions about their students on the basis of wildly incomplete evidence. And you can’t have a college or university system where we say, “Okay, we have this one area where we’ve got this set of procedures where we basically don’t care, but in all other aspects of college and university actions we do care about the truth. Trust us.” That just doesn’t work. So the Title IX prosecutions are fundamentally corrosive to the basic nature of higher education. (31:20)

Like I say, he's talking about the adjudication of individual cases. Surely, it gets much worse when the construction of general claims about the prevalence of rape is equally unconstrained by a care for the truth. As I write this, I note that there is as yet not a single piece of journalism that is critical of the idea that 15% of female undergraduates at UT Austin have been raped (see my notes). The claim has been widely reported, but remains completely unquestioned. This despite the fact that it is nonsensical on its face.

It is a perfect example of a "post-truth" fact. Everyone understands that the university's Title IX apparatus has commissioned the construction of this fact (at a cost of almost two million dollars) and everyone respectfully asserts it as such. How we can know anything at all about society if facts like this cannot be questioned is beyond me.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The UT Austin Campus Rape Crisis

Just some notes for later (still taking a break).

Headline in the Dallas Morning News: "15 percent of female undergraduates at UT have been raped, survey says"

Some quick math puts that at about 3000 rapes on a campus of about 40,000 undergraduates. The official crime stats for the City of Austin says there were under 500 rapes in a population of about 930,000 people.

Fortunately, the Dallas News did a follow-up story on the how the survey was done, which casts some light on things:

In the study, rape was defined as "having oral sex with someone, making someone perform oral sex, or penetrating someone's vagina or anus with penis, fingers or other objects without their consent, by use of verbal pressure, taking advantage of them when they're incapacitated, threatening to harm or using force."

An example of rape in the survey, for instance, would be if a perpetrator pressured someone to perform oral sex, after they'd said they didn't want to, by threatening to end the relationship or threatening to spread rumors about about the victim.

I just don't know what to say. I was made aware of this survey through Kate Clancy's Twitter feed, when she retweeted this. These are the people who are constructing the facts about academic harassment. Enough said.

There's video of the press conference here. And the report can also be downloaded here. It really does say, "Fifteen percent of undergraduate females experienced rape since their enrollment" (p. 18).

* * *

(Update March 26)

The Guardian headline reads "Nearly 15% of female undergraduates at UT Austin report being raped". This is misleading in an important sense that is actually emphasized in the study's methodology.* Respondents were not able to "report being raped"; they were asked to answer a series of "behaviorially specific questions" that the researchers then interpreted. As I point out above, the final report phrases the conclusion a bit more carefully: "Fifteen percent of undergraduate females experienced rape since their enrollment."

As far as I can tell, the consensus view among researchers in this area is not to let the respondents themselves interpret their experiences as a "rape" or otherwise. Rather they elicit descriptions of experiences that they then interpret on their behalf as rape. It would seem that if a woman allows her boyfriend to penetrate her anally under "threat" of his "ending the relationship" then the researchers consider this an instance of "rape".** Indeed, even if she performed oral sex under those conditions, they would consider her "raped". It's hard to know what to do with this other than simply point it out. In any case, it is not true that the CLASE study found that 15% of undergraduate women reported being raped. The survey wasn't set up in that way. Many of the women that the survey counts in its 15% would probably not describe their experience as a rape.

Jenny Miller at New York Magazine gets the lede right: "The University of Texas at Austin is reporting that 15% of its female undergrad students have been raped."

Endnote 1 of the CLASE report: "The terms employed in this study are used in the context of social science research, and not in their legal context. They are not intended to indicate that the responses of results of the survey constitute or evidence a violation of any federal, state, or local law or policy." I take it this means that we are being told that 15% of UT Austin's female undergraduates have been raped but not necessarily in way that breaks the law (or even a UT policy.) If you've been looking for an example how the terminology of the social sciences has been completely detached from reality, I give you a new species of rape: one that doesn't constitute an illegal act.

* * *

(Update March 27)

Imaginary headline: "Mayor Announces that 15% of women aged 18 to 25 in Austin have been raped."
Imagine journalists not following this up with the Chief of Police.

Actual statement in UT Austin President Gregory L. Fenves' message to the UT Community: "[The survey found that] 15 percent of undergraduate women at UT Austin reported that they had been raped."
I have not seen any comment from the chief of the UT Austin PD.

I know that the reason for this is that what the CLASE report means by "rape" has nothing to do with what the police, or anyone else for that matter, means by "rape". My point of the comparison is that we don't let a mayor define behavior that is policed in his city in ways that diverge radically from the way the chief of police defines that behavior. Nor should a university president.

In another post, I'll take up the question of how free social scientists are to define terms for behaviors independently of how they are defined by a society's administrators and enforcers.

The story has reached Newsweek. So far I haven't seen one story that approaches this in a critical way. It's like everyone is writing the same story.

* * *

(Update March 30)

Campus Safety Magazine covers the story. Not much new here, but this is worth noting: "The UT System-wide rape rate among female students was 10 percent." What I noted was that they are talking about "the" rape rate, as if it its something that this study is merely providing a recent measure of. The truth is that it is constructing an entirely new fact.

And a clipping from the Houston Chronicle:

Fifteen percent.

For any parent who has sent a daughter off to college, for any young woman who's enrolled in a university, the story behind that number is downright terrifying. That's how many undergraduate women recently reported they've been raped since they started attending the University of Texas at Austin.

A shocking study conducted at the behest of the UT System Chancellor William McRaven made headlines last week, indicating thousands of students have been sexually assaulted after enrolling at one of the largest institutions of higher education in the United States. More than half of the victims said they were attacked by fellow students.

The idea that you have a 1 in 7 chance (slightly better than a dice roll) of being raped while at college is, indeed, "downright terrifying". But the horror, I would think, subsides a little once you realize that "rape" here includes being "made" to perform oral sex on pain of losing a boyfriend, or sleeping with someone who tells you he's single only to discover that he's got a girlfriend. Now, before you tell me to shut up because I'm not a female college student, please note that the Houston Chronicle addresses itself to the fears of a "parent who has sent a daughter off to college". I'm not quite there yet, but I do have a daughter. And my concerns about letting her attend UT Austin were seriously moderated, let's say, by looking closely at the report's definition of "rape". (Of course, I'm being a bit disingenuous there; I was pretty sure about what I would find when I looked.)

In any case, notice all that inflammatory, fear-mongering language. Even the though the great majority of incidents probably do not involve physical force of any kind, we're presented with "shocking" facts about "assault". And although the vast majority of cases are probably not even instances of coercion but manipulation, we are being told that the victims were "attacked". Parents reading this can be forgiven for imagining undergraduate men hiding in the bushes waiting to pounce on their helpless prey.

*(Update March 28): In fairness to the journalists, not even the CLASE report's authors seem to understand this point. On page 49, we read "Fifteen percent of female undergraduate students reported having experienced rape since enrollment at UT Austin." I may be wrong about this, but I don't think that question appeared on the questionnaire, i.e., "Have you been raped [or experienced rape] since enrolling at UT Austin?" The correct way to state the result, I think, would have been to say, "Fifteen percent of female undergraduate students reported having experiences since enrollment at UT Austin that constitute rape on the definition used in this study."
**(Update March 30): As far as I can tell, the encounter would be deemed "rape" in the study even if she found it to be a pleasurable experience and granted that he had been right to stake the relationship on pursuing it. The fact that he "made" her do it by "threatening" to leave her turns this sexual negotiation into a rape, it seems.

Friday, March 24, 2017


With the always informative Andrew Gelman, as well as Brian Nosek and Deborah Mayo.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Taking a Break

Martinus Rørbye, Scene Near Sorrento Overlooking the Sea, 1835.
(Source: Nivaagaard Collection)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Advice to the Next Tim Hunt, Geoff Marcy, and Matt Taylor: BE COLIN MORIARTY!

Specifically, do not apologize (5:30). Don't give them anything. They are ruining everything.

First Mover Advantages

John Leo at Minding the Campus is getting impatient about the administrative response to the protests that shut down Charles Murray's talk at Middlebury College. Over at Reason, Jon Haidt warns of a "huge disruption" to the current business model of universities as the disappointment over what college has become hits home to students and the parents who pay their tuition. I, too, believe that within a decade many colleges, who have been banking on a captive audience for ideological indoctrination, will be forced to close as students find more efficient (and less exasperating) ways to gain the credentials, and especially the skills, they need to succeed in life.

I'm not as sanguine as Jon Haidt seems to be about the alternatives to four-year residential liberal arts education, though I do think it's a road too many students take. (There are too many students going to too many of these colleges without really thinking about the value of what they might be getting there.) I hope that only the ideological superstructure of today's colleges will fall apart, forcing the colleges to fall back upon their permanent infrastructure: a group of buildings, some pleasant grounds, a faculty dedicated to learning, and some longstanding academic traditions. These last will of course include free speech.

I think there are two opportunities that will open up in the wake of the coming disruption. The first is the one that Middlebury is poised (but apparently reticent) to take. It can be the first college to issue stern reprimands against students who are known to have participated in the prevention of Murray's talk. Many of them are easy to identify in the video (since, with their backs turned to Murray, they proudly face the camera.) This will win back the trust of the parents and students who are rightly concerned about the educational climate at Middlebury. The schools that make examples of truly disruptive protesters first will attract the attention of students who want some assurance that their intellectual space will be protected from ideological excesses.

The other opportunity comes out of the rubble of the colleges that fail. College campuses are highly specific places. Once they go bankrupt, they can't easily be converted to other uses. So we do well to think about how a campus can be quickly acquired and staffed, and then begin enrolling students. I'm imagining that some of these campuses may be quite nice architecturally, so the idea will be to design a low-cost, no-frills curriculum that depends mainly on the reading of widely available texts, discussion in low-tech classroom settings, and examination in straightforward written and oral forms. The students will be given an "opportunity grow" through ordinary learning of the familiar kind.

As T.S. Eliot once said, you don't make flowers grow by pulling on them, but by watering and weeding. You give students good books to read, foster lively discussion, (yes, you invite stimulating and sometimes controversial speakers), and you expel students who waste not only their own time, but that of the their fellow students, on pointless protests against their inheritance—the privilege of living in Western civilization.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Gendered Approach to Science II

I've been meaning to write about Bryan Gaensler's presentation at York University for some time. I just found another video that provides an excellent counterpoint, namely, Sarah Ballard's contribution to Jackie Speier's sexual harassment panel. Here are the two videos, which I encourage you to watch in their entirety. But this post onlymainly deals with what is said in the first two and a half minutes of each video.

I present this as part II to my earlier "A Gendered Approach to Science" for two reasons. First, because I like a good pun. In the first post, I was talking about how we might "approach" the study of science as, say, philosophers; in this post, I will be talking about how two scientists "got into" their field, i.e., how they approach their own work.

Second, this post does actually develop the theme of the first one. Both presentations, and especially Ballard, make a point of emphasizing that men and women reason differently and are differently motivated to get into science. As always, it puzzles me how easily feminists can state this fact (which I think is very plausible) and then refuse to accept that two groups who reason differently and are differently motivated might be differently represented at the higher rungs of the career ladder. It's just such an obvious contradiction to me.

But the reason I wanted to write this post is to make an even simpler point. Gaensler begins by explaining why he loves saying he's an astronomer:

Ever since I was three years old I wanted to be an astronomer. I never had any plan B; it’s the only thing I ever wanted to do. It's an incredible privilege and a gift to be able to do what I always wanted. [...] And I always look back thinking there was never any doubt that I was going to be an astronomer because I wanted it so badly.

He's setting up a point, of course, (he's going "check" that "privilege") but we'll get to that in a moment. Listen to Ballard's story of how she realized that she was going to be an astronomer. Here's how she put it to Kishore Hari on Inquiring Minds about how she got into astronomy:

Hari: So you were basically interested in astronomy straight away when you came to college?
Ballard: I wasn’t … I started out in college thinking I was going to be a peace and conflict major, a gender studies major. And in fact I had taken some classes to that effect and I thought maybe I’d be a social worker. And I took an astronomy course because of what I thought of at the time as a useless physical science breadth requirement. … I felt the call of astronomy at 18.

I'm going to presume that Gaensler thinks that Ballard is precisely the sort of person that needs some extra help in a sexist world. Indeed, he has a handy graphic to make the point for him.

Ballard (being a woman) is "shorter" (in a man's world) than Gaensler (a man) and should therefore get an extra box or two to stand on. The peculiar thing is that he completely discounts the fifteen years he himself presumably spent climbing up on "the shoulders of giants" to see further into the depths of space than his school friends did. By the time he got to college, he probably already knew what a goddam "magnetar" is! Ballard by contrast, as she herself explains, heard "the call" of astronomy as a freshman by looking at a picture of space and being struck by its "magnificence".

Here's the saddening thing Gaensler finds himself saying about what is almost literally his lifelong passion for astronomy:

It was only much later that I realized that there were probably lots of other people like me who were just as focused and determined and driven to be astronomers, for whom for reasons beyond their control things didn’t work out. That was a real light bulb for me, when I realized that it wasn’t my force of will or my desire but my privilege and my fortune that allowed me to get where I am.

Actually, he's helping young women who thought they were going to be social workers when they got to college, and had to be talked in to doing science by an academic advisor, and plan not actually to do a lot of core science but "build a culture" (4:15) for younger versions of themselves (5:40), outmanoeuvre people like himself who had been obsessed with the universe since the age of three and never, for that reason, had a "Plan B"!

"No, Bryan," I want to say, "there weren't lots of people like you. That sort of passion is rare and when you have it it does actually help overcome adversity and beat out those who don't have it." If, of course, you don't let those less passionate people explain their own failures by way of the "inappropriate" affections of their professors and prop them up with all sorts of special programs. What Gaensler is basically saying to young, white men who devote their entire lives to astronomy from an early age is that they shouldn't be proud of their accomplishments. After all, perhaps even their interest in science from that early age was "engendered"!

The CSWA Workplace Climate Survey, Two Years and Counting

Data collection for the CSWA Workplace Climate Survey was completed on March 15, 2015—two years ago today. On November 12, 2015, Christina Richey presented preliminary results of the survey when she accepted the Division of Planetary Sciences' Masursky Award. She presented them again on January 6, 2016, at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

No write up of the survey has yet been made public. I gather from rumors on social media that the paper has been rejected by (or withdrawn from) one journal and is being considered for publication by another. All my questions about the survey's methods and analysis and all my requests for a draft of the paper have been rejected. This post is just to mark the current state of things.

[Added at 12:18 PM: The reason I'm so uptight about this is that Richey is withholding data about an important subject. I'm not saying she has to share her data openly—although that would be nice—but that she should present the data in a way that affords others opportunities for replication and criticism.

The questions "How many women have been sexually harassed in astronomy?" and "How often are women sexually harassed in astronomy?" are good and serious questions. They deserve serious and careful study. When Richey says something like "People hear sexist remarks over 40% of the time," she is making a serious, empirical statement. But it appears to be based on a set of data that really shows that 56% never hear such language, 25% hear it rarely, 15% hear it only "sometimes" and only 4% hear it often. She is counting people who say they rarely hear such language to support the claim that people hear it 44% of the time. Likewise, when a journalist says that "32% of women report being verbally harassed," they are citing a study that actually found that under 2% of respondents reported experiencing gender-based verbal harassment often and 11% reported experiencing it only sometimes. That is, over 60% of the "reports" (around 20% of all respondents) described such harassment as "rare".

Or that's what I think is going on, judging by her slides. I can't be sure because she won't show me her paper and won't answer my mails. Something is happening to 32% and 44% of astronomers. Something worse is happening to 9% percent of them. The problem is that Dr. Richey refuses to tell us what it is. It's as if she said "something" from outer space is coming our way "fast" and "might" hit us, but she's not going to help us understand whether it's a comet or a photon or how likely it is to miss. And she does want you to help her "do something" about it "now".]

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Fran Lebowitz Talking

I'm a big fan of Fran Lebowitz. But while I was searching for videos that might teach the students at Middlebury College something I stumbled on one that, in retrospect, doesn't put her in the best light. (Granted, after Trump got elected, the light changed somewhat radically.) I hadn't paid attention to her views on Hillary at the time, but when Trump won the nomination, it seems Lebowitz took the conventional, establishment view that "everyone has to love her now".

This glibness about what "stands in the way" of Trump actually becoming president is, of course, one of the things that got him elected. The problem with that quip about hiring someone who is not a plumber to fix your pipes, leaving aside the little matter of the "plumbers" that Nixon hired, is the metaphorical fact that we've been calling plumbers to fix the pipes since 1913 and, while they never fail to send us a bill (and take us to court if we fail to pay them), the pipes also never really stop leaking.

But it turns out that long before this, and completely separate from the prospect of a Trump (or even a Clinton) presidency, Lebowitz articulated precisely the elite, liberal policy consensus that Trump's voters rejected. In the following clip, Vanity Fair had the excellent idea of putting together Lebowitz's views on homelessness, immigration and tourism (which really are related problems). I will focus on her immigration policy, which starts at 2:08.

After expressing complete despair about the prospect of peace in the middle east, Lebowitz proposes to let (literally!) everyone there move to the United States. She'll go on to say that they are not welcome in New York as tourists, but have to come as permanent residents. (As an aside, I agree with her in broad outline on this point. Immigration is a perfectly respectable activity in my book; tourism is not.)

Here's the thing that might have created a Trump voter or two: the image of Fran Lebowitz sitting high atop the (I presume) Manhattan offices of Vanity Fair announcing to the citizens of middle eastern countries: "The whole middle of [America] is empty ... Come here!" She goes on to say that, unlike Italy, America doesn't have a culture. I looked it up. She is talking about Kansas.

She is talking about this guy:

She is talking about this emptiness:

Monday, March 13, 2017

Four Black Men Talking

To mirror "Four White Men Talking" I thought it might be interesting to find four black men discussing themes that are as black as the other four's were white. Again, there's an assignment here for Middlebury's students: compare and contrast. Listen and learn. And consider the question of why exactly Charles Murray's ideas could not possibly be part of this conversation.

One White and One Black Journalist Talking to One Black and One White Nationalist

Another compare and contrast exercise for Middlebury's students. Here we have a black reporter (Roland Martin) in a confrontational interview with a white nationalist (Richard Spencer), and a white reporter (Mike Wallace) in a more controlled but no less confrontational interview with a black nationalist (Louis Farrakhan). I don't care what you think of the views being expressed here, surely their expression is instructive.

Four White Men Talking

"What whiteness will you add to this whiteness,
what candor?"
(Ezra Pound)

The tragedy of Middlebury is not just that the students wouldn't listen to the ideas of Charles Murray, but that they couldn't distinguish them from those of Jared Taylor. I would encourage them to take on (and their teachers to assign) a compare and contrast exercise. Trigger warning: you might learn something.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Middlebury Heterodoxy

For as long as I can remember*, I have nurtured a romantic fantasy about teaching at a small liberal arts college. While the image is beginning to fade, this discussion among Jonathan Haidt, Frank Bruni and Dan Senor (filling in for Charlie Rose) about the significance of the Middlebury protests against Charles Murray gives me a little hope.

While I realize that I'm merely looking for nails that the hammer I happen to have in my hand is good for pounding, I have two simple suggestions. First, make prose composition a foundational part of a liberal arts education; second, grade all students on a curve. Students should learn to compose themselves in series of coherent paragraphs. Getting a C at college should be an utterly normal experience. At college, students should discover their uniqueness against a backdrop of prosaic normalcy.

*This is obviously hyperbole. Let's say this fantasy is as old as my desire to be an academic.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

AAS: There Is No "Leaky Pipeline" in Astronomy

Yesterday, noticed a piece by Kevin Marvel, published in the American Astronomical Society's publication Status back in January 2016. Here he notes the demographic changes in the discipline:

[W]e can clearly see an ongoing trend ... : the fraction of AAS members who are women is going up and that trend has continued monotonically since the first reliable data I have available in electronic form. Also, once AAS members reach the postdoctoral stage, roughly the age bracket 28–32, the fraction of women moves forward nearly uniformly over time to the next higher age bracket — except in the oldest age bracket, where women’s longevity becomes quite obvious. We are not, actually, recruiting new female AAS members once they hit 83 years of age!

Let me pause there to point out something that perhaps deserves more attention. Men have well known early-career advantages over women related to the two-body problem and motherhood. Among astronomers who got their PhDs in, say, 1997, current career status is likely to systematically vary by gender, simply because women in their thirties have other priorities than men or, perhaps, because they are under other societal and familial "pressures" (which you are free to take as a euphemism for "sexism", though I think the direct systemic effect of that particular pressure is very small). Men, on average, probably get further along in their career in the first twenty years than women do.

But Marvel here points to the possible justice of this arrangement: men die younger too. They have shorter careers. Perhaps this can also be connected to the idea that women are held back by being more ethical. In the long run, and since women can play a longer game, this turns out to be an advantage. But that's all pretty speculative, of course.

Anyway, here's the part that caught my eye:

This positive demographic change repeats all the way back to the first data set and tells me that once a woman has her Ph. D. and is an AAS member, she tends to stay an AAS member and, I assume, an active astronomer. This is a good sign, as it shows that there is no leaky pipeline, at least for AAS membership. It may tell us that women who choose to join the AAS see benefit in membership throughout their career and stay members — quite heartening from where I sit. But what it certainly shows us is that there is an ongoing demographic change in our membership, one that stands in stark contrast to other closely aligned disciplines.

Astronomy, Marvel here tells us, appears to be one of the most welcoming disciplines for women when compared to "other closely aligned disciplines". (It's one the places they feel most welcome to stay, we might say.) It's ironic that Marvel should have found "heartening" news like this, just a few months after Geoff Marcy had been forced into retirement on the grounds that he represented merely the "the tip of the iceberg" of an allegedly systemic harassment culture in his discipline. As I've noted before, there is little credible direct evidence for a culture of harassment in astronomy and a great deal of indirect (proxy) evidence for its non-existence. The absence of a leaky pipeline is one such proxy.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

CSWA Update

It looks like there was a bigger shake-up at the CSWA than merely Christina Richey reprioritizing between work and volunteering. The Women in Astronomy blog has posted an interview with the new chair of the committee, Pat Knezek. I'll have something to say about her in the days to come. Interestingly, she is herself a past chair (2003-2007) of the committee. Last year, she took over Joan Schmelz's role in promoting awareness of "implicit bias". Schmelz, meanwhile, is a past two-term chair (2009-2015), and, importantly, the chair during the time that Geoff Marcy was being investigated for sexual harassment.

My hunch is that Knezek marks the return of some pretty entrenched power, but probably also a somewhat more cautious, liability aware, leadership of the CSWA. Indeed, as Kate Clancy noted in a recent interview (see comments to my post on that interview), implicit bias training is the preferred institutional response to Title IX pressures because they are less likely to lead individuals to sue organizations (like the AAS) than attempts to police behavior and punish harassers. Clancy, who is co-authoring the (still unpublished) CSWA Workplace Climate Survey with Christina Richey, was clearly unhappy with this approach. That's all very interesting to me.

But what suprised me about the Women in Astronomy post was the thank you note to the outgoing chair ... I mean, outgoing chairS:

The CSWA would like to thank previous Chairs Aparna Venkatesan and Christina Richey for their hard work. Aparna will be continuing on the committee as a member focusing on the CSWA cross-over with the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy. Christina will be shifting into a Past Chair position, and will continue leading anti-harassment efforts within the committee and the greater community.

I had never heard of Aparna Venkatesan before, and I consider myself an interested observer of the CSWA. I had always thought that Richey was the chair, and had been working alone in that capacity since she took over from Schmelz in 2015. I searched the WiA blog and did find a passing mention* of Venkatesan as co-chair in a post from January of this year, i.e., quite recently. I asked Kevin Marvel, the executive officer at the AAS, who had made the appointments and how it had happened, and I received the following response:

The AAS Council appoints chairs to our committees. Venkatesan was approved in a co-chair position in January 2017, it was a request from Richey to make the work load more manageable. Council was amenable, but given it was a small change, no effort to make notification was taken, although CSWA members were told when Council approved the concept. The changeover to Knezek when Richey decided to resign brought the matter before Council again and some discussion took place about the concept of co-chairs generally.

He believes that the council ultimately decided on a single chair at that time. I have to say I think this is a wise decision. I did not have much confidence in Richey's leadership, mainly because she has never answered a single mail from me, letting go-between from the AAS do it for her instead, and only after I took my concerns to the president. The co-chair structure often makes oversight of such committees more difficult because there is not single person who is answerable to the Council.

Like I say, I've got more to say about this coming up. But I just wanted to get these new facts down here. I'll develop my ideas about how this marks a transition from what we might call a harassment (or enforcement) regime to a bias (or compliance) regime. Both kinds of regime (like any power structure) pose a threat to the freedom of astronomers, but the threats are somewhat different. Interestingly, Schmelz appears to have run a kind of "hybrid" form during her six years as chair. I'm looking forward to learning more.

*Note that this interview does not announce that she has just been appointed. It merely presents her as, among other things, a co-chair of the committee. This style of communication is interesting to me. I'll probably say more later.