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November 15, 2010

Plagiarism and the mechanics of privilege
Posted by Teresa at 07:15 AM *

Thesis: The primary way most Americans make money is the salary their job pays.

The primary mechanism of privilege in most Americans’ lives is that it enables those who have it to get jobs that are better and more lucrative than they could get on merit alone.

That said, here’s an utterly fascinating article by “Ed Dante” in The Chronicle of Higher Education: The Shadow Scholar: The man who writes your students’ papers tells his story. It begins with Jonathan Barkat’s editorial note:

Editor’s note: Ed Dante is a pseudonym for a writer who lives on the East Coast. Through a literary agent, he approached The Chronicle wanting to tell the story of how he makes a living writing papers for a custom-essay company and to describe the extent of student cheating he has observed. In the course of editing his article, The Chronicle reviewed correspondence Dante had with clients and some of the papers he had been paid to write. In the article published here, some details of the assignment he describes have been altered to protect the identity of the student.
That is: it’s real. The author does what he says he does. Onward.

“Ed Dante” now:

The request came in by e-mail around 2 in the afternoon. It was from a previous customer, and she had urgent business. I quote her message here verbatim (if I had to put up with it, so should you): “You did me business ethics propsal for me I need propsal got approved pls can you will write me paper?”

I’ve gotten pretty good at interpreting this kind of correspondence. The client had attached a document from her professor with details about the paper. She needed the first section in a week. Seventy-five pages.

I told her no problem.

It truly was no problem. In the past year, I’ve written roughly 5,000 pages of scholarly literature, most on very tight deadlines. But you won’t find my name on a single paper.

I’ve written toward a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I’ve worked on bachelor’s degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I’ve written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I’ve attended three dozen online universities. I’ve completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else. …

You would be amazed by the incompetence of your students’ writing. I have seen the word “desperate” misspelled every way you can imagine. And these students truly are desperate. They couldn’t write a convincing grocery list, yet they are in graduate school. They really need help. They need help learning and, separately, they need help passing their courses. But they aren’t getting it.

For those of you who have ever mentored a student through the writing of a dissertation, served on a thesis-review committee, or guided a graduate student through a formal research process, I have a question: Do you ever wonder how a student who struggles to formulate complete sentences in conversation manages to produce marginally competent research? How does that student get by you? …

Of course, I know you are aware that cheating occurs. But you have no idea how deeply this kind of cheating penetrates the academic system, much less how to stop it. Last summer The New York Times reported that 61 percent of undergraduates have admitted to some form of cheating on assignments and exams. Yet there is little discussion about custom papers and how they differ from more-detectable forms of plagiarism, or about why students cheat in the first place. …

It is my hope that this essay will initiate such a conversation. As for me, I’m planning to retire. I’m tired of helping you make your students look competent.

It is late in the semester when the business student contacts me, a time when I typically juggle deadlines and push out 20 to 40 pages a day. I had written a short research proposal for her a few weeks before, suggesting a project that connected a surge of unethical business practices to the patterns of trade liberalization. The proposal was approved, and now I had six days to complete the assignment. This was not quite a rush order, which we get top dollar to write. This assignment would be priced at a standard $2,000, half of which goes in my pocket.

A few hours after I had agreed to write the paper, I received the following e-mail: “sending sorces for ur to use thanx.”

I did not reply immediately. One hour later, I received another message:

“did u get the sorce I send

please where you are now?

Desprit to pass spring projict”

Not only was this student going to be a constant thorn in my side, but she also communicated in haiku, each less decipherable than the one before it. I let her know that I was giving her work the utmost attention, that I had received her sources, and that I would be in touch if I had any questions. Then I put it aside.

From my experience, three demographic groups seek out my services: the English-as-second-language student; the hopelessly deficient student; and the lazy rich kid.

For the last, colleges are a perfect launching ground—they are built to reward the rich and to forgive them their laziness. Let’s be honest: The successful among us are not always the best and the brightest, and certainly not the most ethical. My favorite customers are those with an unlimited supply of money and no shortage of instructions on how they would like to see their work executed. While the deficient student will generally not know how to ask for what he wants until he doesn’t get it, the lazy rich student will know exactly what he wants. He is poised for a life of paying others and telling them what to do. Indeed, he is acquiring all the skills he needs to stay on top.

One of Atrios’ ongoing themes on Eschataon is the cast-iron stupidity of many of the people at the top of our media and business elites. They simply are not competent in ways that comparable leaders and executives were in the past. Personally, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the mainstream media’s large-scale grasp of information and their ability to analyze it went into a perceptible decline around the time that university degrees became standard for those jobs, and the salaries paid to top names went up.

You know why it’s harder to nail a rich kid who’s committing plagiarism in middle school or high school? Sure, they tend to go to better schools and have more resources, but that’s not the real answer. What does it is their parents’ willingness and ability to sue schools for academically disciplining their children. Their reason? If you flunk their kid for cheating, he or she won’t be able to get into a good university and thereafter get one of those really good jobs.

Fear of lawsuits is also the biggest reason universities don’t back up instructors who accuse students of cheating. A common euphemism: “It’s difficult to prove plagiarism.” It isn’t that difficult to prove it in an academic context. The hard part is demonstrating it to tone-deaf lawyers, judges, and juries.

Back to the article:

As for the first two types of students—the ESL and the hopelessly deficient—colleges are utterly failing them. Students who come to American universities from other countries find that their efforts to learn a new language are confounded not only by cultural difficulties but also by the pressures of grading. The focus on evaluation rather than education means that those who haven’t mastered English must do so quickly or suffer the consequences. My service provides a particularly quick way to “master” English. And those who are hopelessly deficient—a euphemism, I admit—struggle with communication in general.
The students who are hit hardest by this system are the ones who have to work while going to college, which curtails the time they can spend on research and writing, and who don’t have the money to pay for plagiarism. If they’re truly desperate, they can buy a previously used uncustomized paper, which greatly increases their chances of getting caught.
Two days had passed since I last heard from the business student. Overnight I had received 14 e-mails from her. She had additional instructions for the assignment, such as “but more again please make sure they are a good link betwee the leticture review and all the chapter and the benfet of my paper. finally do you think the level of this work? how match i can get it?”

I’ll admit, I didn’t fully understand that one.

It was followed by some clarification: “where u are can you get my messages? Please I pay a lot and dont have ao to faile I strated to get very worry.”

Her messages had arrived between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. Again I assured her I had the matter under control.

It was true. At this point, there are few academic challenges that I find intimidating. You name it, I’ve been paid to write about it. …

I have become a master of the admissions essay. I have written these for undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs, some at elite universities. I can explain exactly why you’re Brown material, why the Wharton M.B.A. program would benefit from your presence, how certain life experiences have prepared you for the rigors of your chosen course of study. …

You know what’s never happened? I’ve never had a client complain that he’d been expelled from school, that the originality of his work had been questioned, that some disciplinary action had been taken. As far as I know, not one of my customers has ever been caught.

Read the whole thing. The comment thread is good too.

===========

Postscript: One of my habitual vices is answering questions at Yahoo! Answers. I’m usually reliable, but last night I did something slightly wicked. Here’s the question:

URGENT!!! WUTHERING HEIGHTS?
I have a huge essay due (only 5 paragraphs) but it counts a lot for my grade. The paper is pretty much on the setting of Wuthering Heights, but not just the setting in the beginning of the book, the setting throughout the whole book. I have to make a thesis statement about the setting, it could be anything, and in my essay I need to prove the thesis statement right. I really can’t think of a thesis statement, can anyone help? I would love for a lot of responses for this .. any details would be good too about the setting or anything .. my teacher gave examples such as why it’s always stormy and ugly at Wuthering Heights but it’s nice at Thrushcross Grange, why could that be? I guess that might make for a good thesis statement .. PLEASEEEE help :)
I sincerely doubt she’s read the book. Notice that her teacher has practically handed her the answer, but she hasn’t thought about the assignment long enough to notice that fact. Notice also that she’s trolling (in the original sense) for lots of responses containing lots of details about the book. She’s no first-timer at this.

If you tell querents too blatantly to suck it up and do their own work, Y!A is likely to hand you a disciplinary smackdown. Instead, I took my inspiration from the Flying Moose of Nargothrond’s Tolkien Homework Page, and came up with a coherent and defensible thesis about the setting of Wuthering Heights:

Here’s a thesis statement: Wuthering Heights is an early work of science fiction that takes place in a dimensional bubble separate from our own universe. We know this because any time someone gets too far from the Wuthering Heights/Thrushcross Grange/Gimmerton Kirk triangle (think Bermuda Triangle), they cease to exist as far as the story is concerned. Nothing outside the bubble is a solution to anything that happens inside it, no matter how logical that should be. Characters living inside it only leave if they’re desperate, and for some strange reason, they keep coming back. …
Don’t feel sorry for her. When I finished explaining the skiffy angle at more length, I gave her the standard answer, plus some useful additional bits of info. If she thinks about it for two minutes, she can pull together her five paragraphs.

Yahoo! Answers is full of kids who think nothing of dumping their entire homework assignments into a single query, including the teacher’s assignment header. Some of them do that with research paper assignments. I see no reason to doubt that “Ed Dante” is telling the truth.

Comments on Plagiarism and the mechanics of privilege:
#1 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 08:42 AM:

This ties so unpleasantly into the discussion we had last week about the lack of qualified candidates for jobs ... (not to mention their distinct lack of judgement about which jobs to apply for...)

#2 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:13 AM:

The depressing thing about this is that there is a simple (not easy, but simple) way of detecting this kind of fraud.

In-class writing assignments.

My mother taught high school English and took great pride in designing tests to detect students who hadn't bothered to read the book. Part of her final on Ivanhoe was a piece of paper with a castle floor plan on it and this question: "At the point at which the horn blows, where is everyone and what is each of them doing?" You were allowed to use the book, but the time constraint made it nearly impossible to find the right passage in time if you didn't have a general idea of where it was.

She had fun grading them too, especially when people would add bits like "Friar Tuck is in the kitchen raiding the refrigerator."

#3 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:18 AM:

Lawsuits are fine when they're protecting your worthless kid from being called out for cheating, but when they're employed against a doctor who amputated the wrong limb, that's going too far.

#4 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:31 AM:

Wow, that's depressing. I graduated from a private high school that emphasized writing above all: in English class we had a weekly essay period (Monday from 2-3 pm), in addition to regular papers, in-class essays, and tests on which we wrote short essays. English wasn't the only class I had a lot of writing in; besides History and Science classes, I also wrote essays in French. By the time I'd finished high school, I'd written probably 200 papers. College was not a cakewalk, but at least I was prepared to write.

I do review my son's papers, with the intention of teaching him how to write a proper essay or paper. I'll point out where he needs more information, tell him to correct his language, his spelling, or his grammar, or to rephrase an awkward construction. If he's having a lot of trouble, I'll let him dictate to me, but I edit as we go along by telling him what will or will not be acceptable.

I still write a fair amount of material, mainly for use in teaching continuing education or for generating standard operating procedures, but I also do some work with scientists in writing their proposals. The hardest part for them is sometimes the request to describe their research in lay language. In this case, I act as a translator from scientific jargon to "regular English".

I wish we didn't force our teachers to "teach to the test", because the tests are geared towards rapid grading, so they are only multiple-guess. The few testing methods that involve essays are also the more advanced tests that require more time to grade, therefore generate less profit.

I also wish the schools still devoted more time to daily or weekly essay periods, to help the students develop the skills of composing a decent essay on short notice, with attention to details like proper grammar and spelling. I didn't start writing A compositions until my 11th grade year, because of my ongoing issues with semi-colons, but in four years of comps, I had only two misspelled words: "similar" (in 9th grade) and "and" (12th grade).

Yes, I misspelled "and". I used a "&" in my sentence. I had to write "and" five times.

I just remembered that we were not allowed to use the first person singular in our essays, nor were we to use an exclamation point. After I graduated, I filled a sheet of paper with "I!", just because I could.

#5 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:35 AM:

If you substitute credentials for local judgment, credentials become less valuable, as everyone focuses on doing whatever it takes to get one. The same is true of tests, measures of productivity at work like lines of code/day, etc.

I liked his euphemism for people who basically don't belong in college. And many of those people graduate, decreasing the value of a college degree. (I think most of the value of a generic college degree is verifying that you're smart and diligent and functional enough to get through college. Obviously, that's different if someone wants an employee with an engineering or accounting or education degree--they want specific training. But jobs that just want a college degree, they're filtering on minimal intelligence and diligence.)

#6 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:35 AM:

I just added a bit at the end of the main entry.

#7 ::: TutorC ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:36 AM:

This is why we have 70% final exams.

#8 ::: Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:38 AM:

It has long been academic scuttlebutt that the cultural acceptance of cheating varies greatly from one institution to another, and that certain institutions with big huge unassailable reputations are the worst offenders.

(Become friends with someone who's done the two-years-and-out associate professor dance at a few elite institutions. Buy them a drink at a place where no colleagues are going to be around, and listen. The results are both eye-opening and very depressing.)

#9 ::: D. Potter ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:50 AM:

This makes me inordinately happy that I went (the second time) to CUNY for my degree.

Odd: I had worked out that because jobs in media at entry level don't pay well, one had to at least have a private source of income; and that because of the requirement of a degree in media, one's viewpoint becomes narrowed. I had not put the two together, though. Thanks.

#10 ::: Nickp ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:53 AM:

Further to Lila's comment @2. Have bluebook essay tests gone out of style in the two decades since I left college?

#11 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:01 AM:

Years ago, after I had a computer and a printer but before having computers and printers was ubiquitous, I used to do academic typing. My son was small, and I also used to do secretatrial temping. I vastly preferred the academic typing -- I could do it at home and in my own time. I even learned things from it. I wasn't writing the papers, I was typing up the handwritten pages they had written. When I first got an assignment, I'd ask if they wanted me to fix minor grammatical and spelling errors -- most people did, occasionally somebody would think theirs was better than mine.

Every year, the students training to be teachers had to produce a word-processed essay, to prove they could use computers -- and we'd have a rush. These were the least grammatical and with the worst spelling of everything ever.

I never fixed a word of them. But I did worry about the ethics of typing them in the first place.

#12 ::: Seth Gordon ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:02 AM:

My wife, a former chemistry TA at two institutions with big unassailable reputations, fears for the day she wakes up on a hospital gurney and recognizes one of her former students.

It’s probably worth pointing out that professors at elite colleges have no incentive to take a hard line regarding academic integrity in their classes, because teaching is not their main job. Hours spent arguing with a parent or fending off a lawsuit are hours that they can’t spend doing research, bossing around grad students, or hustling for grants.

#13 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:15 AM:

Here’s a thesis statement: Wuthering Heights is an early work of science fiction that takes place in a dimensional bubble separate from our own universe.

You can't imagine how much I want to read an entire dissertation about this, expanded to include nearly-related works, particularly Jane Eyre.

#14 ::: Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:29 AM:

Don't blame me if your Wuthering Heights theory gets published. In her 50s satire The Groves of Academe Mary McCarthy needed a literary theory so ridiculous that it would never be propounded with a straight face. The character gets away with suggesting that Emily Dickinson was a lesbian.

#15 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:31 AM:

I suppose this was inspired by discussion of a recent political memoir ...

#16 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:32 AM:

Lila @2: My mother got unbelievable flack from some of her students for, effectively, adding to the gradable achievements in her class 'reads the instructions for the test' and 'attends class and pays attention'. Luckily, her administrators backed her up and let her grading choices stick over howls of protest from (privileged, well-off) students who were used to cakewalking through classes with straight A's ... but got at best middling B's from my mom until they started actually living up to her standards.

Technique The First: Buried amid the brief instructions paragraph at the top of the midterm/final/quiz/whatnot, along with info on how to mark which choice you've chosen, what is going to be in which section of the quiz, etc, is a sentence like, "Turn over your test paper, and draw a small flower in the bottom-right corner of the back side of the test, then come back here and keep reading. This is worth five points and will count as an extra-credit question." Other activities she has used (because some kids heard about the flower from previous students and would just put it on all her tests without, um, reading) included "On the top of your answer sheet, write your name using no upper-case letters/include your middle initial and a period" and other suchlike.

Technique The Second: During lecture (especially the 'this class will be spent primarily reviewing for your test' lecture period), in addition to passing out photocopies of her overhead-projector transparencies (which she regularly did, providing her students with an outline they could then embellish with their notetaking), she would -- at whatever moment seemed most likely to miss the kids who were simply choosing not to show up: early, late, right after the pee-break, etc -- pause and tell everyone, "All right, on the test tomorrow, ...." What would follow was either more of the flower variety of checksum, or a very specific answer to an insanely detailed or otherwise can't-expect-kids-to-get-it-right memorization part of the subject matter, which would be addressed by a question midtest. In other words, another extra-credit question that isn't (a) announced, (b) stuck on at the back visibly where you can turn to it first, and (c) rewarding effort, diligence, paying attention, and general commitment to class instead of just ability to cough out a memorized answer or bullshit out five sentences on an assigned topic.

She always designed her courses -- and put in the syllabus! -- with carefully calculated point distributions, in an attempt to teach kids how to minmax their class effort in ways that impact their grade positively. Also, when an administrator came to her and claimed she was giving out too many A's, she (a) let him take her final (and he didn't do well), (b) showed him the stacks of finals her students took (and did do well), and pointed out that the major difference was that students who had attended all her lectures and paid attention could, y'know, pass her final.

This was Earth Science, and generally did not include massive essay requirement, but most of the really important gradable behavior happened in the classroom.

#17 ::: Grace ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:34 AM:

ESL students can indeed be pretty desperate for help with making their English look better. Three of them in my college class have more or less adopted me for my writing and proofreading skills.

Two of them just want a better paper, and don't care about learning how to produce one, even though I am willing to try and teach them. If they had enough money to throw at the problem to make it go away, they would. The irony is that their English itself is not so bad, but they clearly never learned either basic essay structure, nor how to resist the lure of bigger words and overly complicated sentences. Fix those two big problems and their essays would get much better. They also blatantly plagiarize from each other when they can. The time I found them doing it, I should have let them get caught...but I didn't know then that they did this regularly, and on more than one kind of assignment.

The third girl also wishes the problem would just go away, but in the meantime is willing to sit with me for hours and try to learn something about how to write. She's getting roughly double the attention the other two do, and she's getting more out of it -- her writing is visibly improving over time, and I may have managed to get the purpose of an outline through to her. More and more, her sentences only have minor grammatical errors, not errors of sense, and the number of utterly tangled ones is gradually going down.

#18 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:39 AM:

The cynic that occasionally inhabits this college dropout thinks that the primary value of a degree is that it demonstrates to employers a willingness to put up with loads of bullshit, a valuable trait in corporate America.

#19 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:44 AM:

As always, Teresa, you have impeccable timing. Over the next day or so, about 80 term papers are going to land on my desk for the course I'm TAing, and I will not be hugely surprised if I find at least one that seems fishy.

I'm quite disconcerted by the range of writing skill (or lack thereof) I've seen from my students - some of them write very well, but the tail of the skill distribution is not encouraging. When I was an undergraduate a few years back, I had the good fortune to have had writing skills drilled into me in high school - I still had to learn how to write a good scientific paper, which is a very different skill, but I had a more than respectable foundation to build on. Some of my students cannot even string two sentences together in a coherent manner - much less write an essay that does not induce nausea.

Much as the next three or so weeks are going to be impressively busy because of this avalanche of grading (about two-thirds of them are 5pgs; the others are 10-15pgs) as well as everything else that needs to get done before the end of classes*, I am exceedingly grateful to work for a professor who has a traditional view of how to deal with cheaters and plagiarists. Traditional, in that if they engage in any form of academic misconduct, he will fail them for it.

*You want the list? NSF-GRFP deadline this Friday (oy... I've been writing this funding application for the better part of three months), VSS [conference] abstract deadline December 1, 3rd examination for the class I TA for on December 2nd. Oh, and the professor wants us to meet to compile final grades on December 5th or 6th.

#20 ::: Grace ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:46 AM:

Also, when I helped tutor another student, they were doing Wuthering Heights that semester, and I was appalled to find out that a masterpiece of English literature had plot holes that a dime romance novel solves handily. This was not the only reason I hated the book, but it was the worst of the lot. I still have my marked-up copy, flagged with different kinds of revenge-related incidents, coded from A to T, except for category P, which is "coverups, lies, and stupidity." I remember finding enough Ps to write at least an essay about.

#21 ::: Shauna ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:52 AM:

@Nickp #10

I frequently take blue-book tests in my courses. I don't know about other universities, though. (sophomore undergrad)

The idea that people pay money to get papers written just saddens me. I work with ESL students in my uni's writing workshop, so I have a general idea of how difficult English writing can be for people. But that students ignore available resources in favor of cheating--? Granted, I have no idea what universities this writer's clients go to, but I'm sure my school isn't exempt from this type of thing, honor code or no honor code.

#22 ::: Marci Kiser ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:57 AM:

The anonymous author of this missive suggests a very interesting question, though one I think we scribophiles will inherently shrink from: is this an inherently bad thing?

By this I mean that Teresa is noting the use made of generic college degrees by employers: as a way of screening for some basic intelligence. The other dimension to this, however, is the use of a college degree to the graduate. For many students, the most valuable lessons they learn in college are the ability to smile through their bullshit, to put aside what they want to learn for what they have to learn, to observe that no group project ever undertaken has received equal effort on the part of every member, to prioritize one's failures, and to navigate the petty fiefdoms of dogmatic professors.

(This last is particularly acute at the graduate level, where students quickly learn to mirror the prejudices and predilections of their professors - to echo them in miniature - or be ground beneath their heel.)

Just as the most valuable lessons children in an industrial society learn in public school are the ability to cope with soul-crushing boredom and the fortitude to bear up under arbitrary cruelty from one's peers, so too do college students learn that bureaucracies value those who tick all the boxes, not the ones who can spell 'bureaucracy' or distinguish it from 'hierarchy'.

The writer speaks of students who are rich enough to pay others to write their inconvenient papers. Frankly, asking a college to undo this deeply-held sense of entitlement is a bit much to ask, particularly when any changes it encourages will be short-lived. Similarly, ESL or incompetent students are compensating for their own deficiencies by appealing to literate members of the oldest profession. Yes, it would have been nice had they embarked on a decade-long study in the proper use of the English language, but they haven't. What exactly is their option, particularly in a world where college degrees are so cheaply given and so little esteemed? Surrendering their opportunity to obtain even the barest of their middle-class credentials is a heavy price to pay, even for a functional illiterate.

Put simply, while I glare askance at those who cannot crack the possessive 'its' or make any effort to separate their speaking language from their written language, I don't see this plagiarism as undermining the undergraduate or graduate experience because the notion of a 'classical education' is hopelessly quaint and increasingly irrelevant. Much as I see such values as central to who *I* am, that same graduate-trained ability to reflect self-critically reminds me that I am a distinct and vanishing minority.

#23 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:59 AM:

Here's a thesis statement: the writing and publishing industry is compounding the problem by paying huge advances to people who hire ghost writers.

See: Decision Points, ostensibly by George W. Bush; John F. Kennedy; V.C. Andrews; Tom Clancy; Arthur C. Clarke.

Also see: musicians who suddenly become "singer-songwriters".

And it also isn't particularly helping the medical industry either. On the other hand, that stuff is scrupulously checked and edited, lest someone die of a typo.

#24 ::: Keifus ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 11:03 AM:

First thought: these rich kids also have family fortunes and related benefits to fall back on. For one thing, their cheating is well-funded and loan-free.

Second thought: it's implied that the ghostwriting is a lucrative business, although I'm curious about how much is his share. Disappointingly, my perfectly legitimate job contains enough on-the-fly learning and quick writing to make it seem less than a distant leap. More disappointingly, my crappy blog is mined frequently for suspiciously worded book-report-looking queries, and I've always wondered how to prevent it. Would I have been better off cheating for pay? All I'd have to do is suspend every ethical impulse I've ever had.

Third thought: my antipathy toward the students who requested these services would probably get me even before the ethics of being enabling their behavior would.

Fourth thought: I feel bad for the session musicians out there.

#25 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 11:05 AM:

When I was an assistant instructor in art history, the summer intro course came complete with an ESL student who was so far behind the learning curve that he couldn't even manage plagiarism, not that it would have done him any good under the circumstances. The museum assignment--go over to the art museum, and fill out several pages of directed questions about specific works of art, giving your own reactions (what do you observe? what can you see? what happens if you stand over *there*?)--proved to be so beyond him that his submission was digital photographs of three of the 20 objects. I would have tried to work with him, but he also had an attendance rate of approx 15%, so he was allowed to flunk.

#26 ::: Tracie ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 11:14 AM:

James Frey's young-adult fiction factory. Not quite the same thing, but disturbing nonetheless.

#27 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 11:15 AM:

Teresa, my love for your Wuthering Heights thesis idea is considerable. I want to read the whole paper. There's a paper to be written on sfnal aspects of Jane Eyre too (Rochester does keep pointing out how strange and unearthly Jane is, after all).

As for the rest (and as the parent of a college student and a high schooler): it's highly depressing. When the college girl was at home I would offer to read her papers before she turned them in; fixed some grammar or pointed out the "you are not saying what you think you are saying here" bits. I do the same with the 9th grader. And since early childhood--since the web has been around since their early childhood--I've been batting them about their curly heads with what it is acceptable to put in a paper without attribution and what you need to cite. (It is possible that mine is the only child who at 9 was asking a teacher seriously if she needed to provide footnotes for a class presentation.)

I was, admittedly, weird. I liked writing papers. And like Jo, I earned a lot of money typing papers--and could charge a higher page rate than some other student typists because I would fix spelling, grammar, and call the author up and point out the "you are not saying what you think you are saying here" bits. But I can't imagine writing papers for a living; part of the pleasure was that, if I did it really right, I got the spandy bright A.

Given that the college girl got an A on a speech-and-rhetoric "instructional paper" on how to prepare for the coming Zombie Apocalypse, I suspect she feels sort of the same way. Thank God.

#28 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 11:19 AM:

Nickp #10, Shauna #21:

Even blue books have their pitfalls. As a TA, I once graded a student-provided[1] blue book for an hour exam that came with an extremely detailed outline for a major question (possible questions had been announced in advance) on a back page. My supervising professor and I would have been much more likely to believe the student's explanation that she had been outlining before she wrote, had not the outline been in pencil--with attempts to erase--while the entire exam was written in ballpoint.

We ended up giving her a sort of benefit of doubt by having her write another essay question on guaranteed blank paper under my supervision. The professor switched over to providing exam paper[2] after that.

[1] Department funds being lacking
[2] Room to write on the exam paper; two extra blank sheets were much less expensive than a whole blue book, even if it did mean that students cramped their writing in a fashion able to qualify them to engrave "The Eyes of Texas" on a grain of rice.

#29 ::: skadhu ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 11:37 AM:

I teach courses in communication (graphic) design in 2 post-secondary institutions, and this touches on a couple of things from my experience.

Cheating in my courses usually involves plagiarizing existing visual materials. It doesn't happen often, because they are required to go through a staged development process and show their work and the thought processes behind it at all stages.

Although my students don't have to write essays, they do have to write briefs for their projects, because these courses all relate to communication, and a good designer will be able to communicate verbally as well as visually. (These would probably be harder to get ghost-written material for, and not worth the cost, so I doubt anyone pays for them, though they might get help from friends/family.) In the briefs they are required to explain the context of the project (info about the client, their target audience, strategies for communication with that audience) and how and why they made the choices they did (ranging from explaining how they implemented the strategy to explaining how they applied compositional principles to make their designs work better).

I don't mark their use of English (that would add days of work, given the fact that probably 60% have poor literacy skills), but I do mark the briefs on whether they include the required material. The requirements for the content in the briefs is discussed in class and clearly laid out in a project requirements handout. It's a 1-2-3 step by step process: they can simply answer the questions I lay out, in order, and they'll have an adequate paper.

But they don't.

For example, I am currently teaching a course which focuses on professional practices and requires a more comprehensive document than usual, a detailed concept proposal (the sort of thing you would present to a client). I required bound hardcopies as well as digital copies of their proposals. From a class of 22, I have received 6 bound hardcopies and 4 additional PDFs. One student handed in scribbled notes. And this is part of a major project that they must complete adequately in order to pass.

I think that some of the students simply don't have the language skills to understand the written or verbal instructions. But I also believe that another reason for this failure is that many of them don't actually pay attention to anything being said; they're too busy chatting on Facebook or texting, and they don't even bother to download the handouts and read them.

I get students from a very wide range of backgrounds, ranging from kids fresh out of high school to the middle-aged looking for a new career, and some on subsidized job retraining. Yes, privilege of class certainly plays into what goes on. The program isn't cheap, and there's definitely a "I paid $XX,XXX for this program, I deserve to pass/an A" attitude from some students. But I think that assumed privilege goes beyond the rich students.

There is also the widely-held assumption that they do not need to take any responsibility for their education and that they will pass whether they do the work adequately or not. The assumption that they do not need to pay attention, and it will all turn out fine. (My favourite example of this was a student who attended two of 12 classes, did none of the work, and then asked if he could pass.)

The attitude is more common with younger students; the more mature have usually figured out that they get back what they put into their courses.

When they hit the real world, the rich kids will be able to continue to be incompetent and pay others to do work for them, because their financial privilege is genuine, whereas that of those without money is assumed. The poorer kids will end up flipping burgers. I think that a secondary education system that enables an illusory sense of privilege is seriously failing students.

#30 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 11:50 AM:

I can't recall any teaching about how to write an essay, but that was in another country, and besides...

Sorry.

It was a long time ago, anyway. My brother has a real MSc and a Cambridge MA. Back in those days, a lot of the school staff were "M.A. (Cantab)", which we thought looked impressive.

I'm making the academic world sound like a bunch of spivs, aren't I.

#31 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 11:58 AM:

Tracie @26

A very suspicious deal: who checks that the profits you might share in are honestly reported?.

And then I checked who James Frey was...

#32 ::: Mags ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 11:59 AM:

I don't feel sorry for her. If she follows your advice, she might end up writing the most interesting and spot-on five-paragraph thesis on Wuthering Heights that her teacher has ever seen.

#33 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 12:00 PM:

I wonder how many rich kid politicians we've had who used shadow scholars?

#34 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 12:12 PM:

I feel obliged to mention Howard S. Becker's really good book, Writing for Social Scientists for those who actually want to learn to write a good paper (it's also good for other types of writing). There's a fair amount in it about how people aren't taught to write at the college level. I recommend it highly.

#35 ::: Mags ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 12:17 PM:

A story, if I may: I dropped out of college and went back to night school after 10 years of entry-level admin and retail jobs to complete my degree. One class I had to take for the science requirement for liberal arts students was purportedly chemistry, but my late brother the engineer told me, after looking over my book one night when he came over while I was doing homework, was physics. The instructor provided us with a syllabus. While science in general is not much my forte, I made my way through each reading assignment* and showed up for class, list of questions in hand. The instructor was usually delighted to get questions and happy to explain anything we didn't understand. I remember one class he started lecturing on the material and it quickly became clear that only a few people in the class had actually done the reading.

He asked, "Why didn't you do the reading?"

One woman said dismissively, "I can't learn from a book."

I remember thinking, "Then you shouldn't be in college, lady."

Also, for those asking about the blue book tests: I was a history minor and we ALWAYS had blue book tests for history classes, both in the early 80s and the late 90s (my two university eras). The TAs usually graded them, and I often had comments in the margins such as, "Nice turn of phrase. Are you an English major?" Why, thank you for noticing. ;-) But I always thought they must have got a lot that was basically unreadable.

*I had discovered the Cornell study method, which was really helpful--taking notes as I read, and forcing myself to summarize the notes when finished, was SO much better than highlighting for general comprehension and recall and true understanding of the material. Wish I had known about this the first time around!

#36 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 12:27 PM:

Elliott Mason: You need to write two books: Stories of My Mom and Being My Mom's Kid.

#37 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 12:37 PM:

I was a TA in Organic Chemistry at Princeton in 1965. I used to tell the lab students that I was going to have "Do not let a Princeton Man operate on me" (and yes, they were all male then) tattooed on my chest.

One of the other TAs had a T-shirt that said "The ether layer is on top". Avoided a lot of questions, and probably some fires.

#38 ::: john ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 12:44 PM:

Elliott Mason @ 16: I am reminded of an exam I once sat. It was an invigilated exam in an exam hall, not a take-home.

First page (recto): School, department, course name and number. This was all you saw as the exams were distributed.
First page (verso): Questions 1, 2, and 3.
Second page (recto): Questions 4, 5, and a statement "There are no more questions".

Some time after the exam was over, everyone found out:

Second page (verso, therefore facing the table as the exams were distributed): A list and description of several algorithms from the course, one of which was needed for one question, and the statement "This is the end of the exam paper".

I don't think it was intentional... in fact I suspect he proofread the file printed at two pages per A4 sheet, so the last pages were visible at the same time (lots of his class handouts were this scale).

#39 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 12:45 PM:

Marci Kiser @22:

The anonymous author of this missive suggests a very interesting question, though one I think we scribophiles will inherently shrink from: is this an inherently bad thing? ...
Yes. It is.
Just as the most valuable lessons children in an industrial society learn in public school are the ability to cope with soul-crushing boredom and the fortitude to bear up under arbitrary cruelty from one's peers, so too do college students learn that bureaucracies value those who tick all the boxes, not the ones who can spell 'bureaucracy' or distinguish it from 'hierarchy'.
I question the value and validity of those lessons. Even if they're something we should learn, it only takes a small fraction of our classroom time to learn them. Either way, we know there's value in the stuff they're supposed to be learning in school, and the fact that those lessons are sometimes badly taught doesn't diminish the value of learning them.

One of the biggest non-economic predictors of whether a high school student will do well in college is whether, at some point, they've completed a large project that required them to do research, assess and organize their data, and put it into some shapely form. Science projects, formal debate, and having to write a major senior paper work equally well.

I vividly remember that skill acquisition process. On the good side, there's the moment when I realized that researching a paper took far less time than my teachers had allotted. On the bad side, there was finding out what can happen when you work without an outline. On the terrifying but occasionally triumphant side, there was having to do the first negative speech in debates, and discovering that you can do a valid analysis of the structural flaws in the other team's proposal when you're completely unfamiliar with its content.

What I remember along with it is that funny feeling of my brain being bent into unfamiliar new shapes. It wasn't easy or comfortable, but it's basic to who I've become.

The writer speaks of students who are rich enough to pay others to write their inconvenient papers. Frankly, asking a college to undo this deeply-held sense of entitlement is a bit much to ask,
No, it isn't. Schools at all levels should be doing that.
particularly when any changes it encourages will be short-lived.
I haven't forgotten the lessons I learned at that age. I see no reason to assume other students won't retain what they learn.

You're also missing a point. These college students aren't just learning lessons about privilege. They're illicitly and unfairly acquiring real-world privilege they'll keep for the rest of their lives.

Similarly, ESL or incompetent students are compensating for their own deficiencies by appealing to literate members of the oldest profession.
They aren't buying services. They're buying credentials they haven't earned.
Yes, it would have been nice had they embarked on a decade-long study in the proper use of the English language, but they haven't.
First, if they don't speak the language well enough to pass their classes, they shouldn't be getting degrees from an English-speaking university. Also, English isn't the only skill they're skipping. Acquiring, assessing, analyzing, and reshaping information is supposed to be part of the total package.
What exactly is their option,
That's easy: doing their own work and getting graded on it.
particularly in a world where college degrees are so cheaply given and so little esteemed?
That's a circular argument: we should make postsecondary studies meaningless because they're meaningless. I hole that they are not meaningless, and offer as my initial proof the fact that people are willing to lie, cheat, and pay substantial amounts of money to falsify the successful completion of them.
Surrendering their opportunity to obtain even the barest of their middle-class credentials is a heavy price to pay, even for a functional illiterate.
But it's all right for poor students who are working their way through college to pay that price? I don't think so.

Reasons why it's not okay:

Because it's not available to all students.

Because it illicitly increases the privilege of an already privileged class.

Because it's one more way for the rich to pull the ladder up behind them.

Because it teaches privileged students that laws and rules are for the little people, not for them. It's a very, very bad idea to teach that lesson to that class.

Because it teaches privileged students that facts don't matter, and that non-reality-based strategies work. We already have enough problems with that mindset.

Because when you let students cheat their way through school, you have no idea how poor their skills and understanding are. You can't assume there's some basic level of competence they're going to have if you've neither required it nor tested for it. Cheating camouflages all levels of incompetence.

Because the subjects they're studying aren't just hand stamps. Ditto, the broadly educated worldview they're supposed to be acquiring. Ditto, the mental skills and habits they're supposed to be learning and exercising. Those things are the extra value we're supposed to be able to expect out of people who get college degrees.

To say they don't matter is to abandon the reality-based world of facts, results, and valid reasoning. To say they don't matter is to not only validate but embrace the idea that our educational system is and should be a mechanism for giving further privilege to the privileged.

I don't see this plagiarism as undermining the undergraduate or graduate experience because the notion of a 'classical education' is hopelessly quaint and increasingly irrelevant.
I'm sorry, but that's wrong, and it's not a matter of opinion. The real world is still out there. Knowing about it, and being able to use and extend that knowledge, is still essential. Our educational requirements include more math and science, and less Latin and Greek than they used to, so they're not losing relevance.

Furthermore, even if I'd gotten a completely outmoded pre-modern education and had no idea what you were talking about, I'd still have studied rhetoric, and I'd still be able to point out (with all due courtesy) that what you've made there are some completely unsubstantiated assertions; and would you perhaps like to do something about that?

#40 ::: Lawrence ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 12:47 PM:

A couple of data I'd like to throw in, not in support of any particular point, but simply because they seem vaguely relevant:

The Washington Post reported recently that the number of lawyers in the U.S. has been dropping since 2007 -- the university system finally managed to flood the market, and law school graduates from non-elite schools are finding they can't get work as lawyers. What used to be a guaranteed path to a good income is one no longer.

This happened previously with computer programmers, of course -- a field was seen as hugely profitable, so the supply increased to exceed demand.

It may well be (the Post suggests as much, in more than one article) that college degrees in general are headed this way and will soon cease to be worth what they cost, especially with so many students relying on loans rather than savings or earnings.

Another datum: My father was a chemistry professor at Tufts. One year he got in serious trouble, to the point of his job possibly being at risk even though he had tenure, because he flunked about 30% of the students in his freshman chem class. He was able to demonstrate that (a) the students in question didn't know the material, (b) he had taught the class the same as he always had, and his students had always learned what they needed to before; likewise, the other 70% did fine, and (c) he had offered several chances to re-take tests, re-do work, turn work in late, get one-on-one assistance, and so on, and none of the failing students had taken advantage of these opportunities. They had all simply assumed that because they were paying what they considered exorbitant tuition, they deserved to pass.

The year of this demonstration of perceived entitlement? 1964. It's not a new phenomenon, by any means.

#41 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 12:49 PM:

Mags @35: Cornell study method

Now, see, this is the thing: In this day and age, when there are absolute mountains of information out there on effective learning strategies, it astounds me that people (meaning me, usually) still blunder through life without doing a little research on how to go about it better and more easily.

RTFM, and all that.

#42 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 12:49 PM:

I'm disappointed that semaphores didn't enter into your answer.

#43 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 12:51 PM:

I haven't checked in on the comments for Dante's rant lately, but the first large batch showed a good bit of concern about ill-educated nurses, but unless I missed something, no one was ranting about ill-educated teachers. Dante said that while cheating was pervasive, it seemed to be a little more common for education students.

Some children have a talent for self-education or parents who can teach them, but how are the majority supposed to learn when teachers don't know the material?

It's been a while since I've read Wuthering Heights, but as I recall, the story wouldn't have happened if the characters hadn't been so isolated.

#44 ::: kouredios ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 12:54 PM:

I'm reading that article and this comment thread instead of grading (blue-book) midterms. I'm not sure which is ultimately more depressing. *sigh*

Several years ago, I caught plagiarism red-handed in a final paper, worth 25% percent of the student's grade, and thus she failed both paper and class. She had cut & pasted, verbatim, text from 5 different internet-based articles and cobbled together a 5-page paper wherein her only original work was the introduction and conclusion, if that. The occasional word was changed, clearly by use of a thesaurus.

When I emailed her to inform her that she would be failing due to plagiarism, she denied it. She appealed my finding and a few months later I found myself before an ombudsman's office panel with my color-coded printouts of the sites from which she had stolen. Her defense was that she had had technological trouble and thus hadn't managed to paraphrase the rest of the paper.

"Still plagiarism," I said.

Also, I was intimidating (it was the second time I had caught her stealing from online sources, but the first time was a short homework assignment copied from sparknotes, and a zero for that didn't ding her overall grade as hard), and she had "never had trouble with plagiarism before," which I took to mean she had never been caught before.

She was a first-semester freshman and was apparently a member of the honor society in high school.

But, at least this time, they upheld my grade for her: F.

I try to create assignments that are not standard fare for essay mills, but this article drive home the point that some of them are custom-order. I'm not sure how to fight that.

And, as a college instructor, I'm more than a little put off this guy's smugness. It's all my fault for not catching them, he says, and painting him as a bad guy is too easy? But he's motivated by cash just as much as the privileged students who pay him ultimately are.

#45 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 01:03 PM:

At the institution where I teach, there's a long=standing and surprisingly persistent rumour that the folks in these parts who write papers for money aren't above supplementing their income by passing on the names of their clients to interested professors.

I've absolutely no idea how this meme originated, but, without vouching for its truth, I do make sure to draw my students' attention to its existence from time to time. (They're typically shocked - even outraged - to hear that anyone could be so duplicitous.)

#46 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 01:12 PM:

praisegod @#45: I have on occasion contemplated signing up to be a supplier for such a paper-writing service, and including in each a comment to the professor, buried in one of the middle paragraphs. "Hi, I just thought you should know your student paid someone to write this," or the like.

Be interesting to see how many I could get before someone caught on.

#47 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 01:17 PM:

Grace, #20: Has anyone you know of ever done an essay on Wuthering Heights with the thesis that it's a very poorly-written book? That would be exactly the sort of thing I might have done -- I remember doing something very similar about a substandard movie interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream in one of my college classes.

Keifus, #24: According to one of the bits Teresa quotes, his share of the student's fee is 50%.

#48 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 01:27 PM:

Even if you skip over Teresa's excellent Wuthering Heights suggestion, this thread is full of good paper ideas. For example, use the original article to illustrate the difference between illegal and unethical. Or, is it ethical for a teacher to pay a paid essay-writer for the names of his/her clients? Is it ethical for the writer to sell those names? Does it matter whether there is an explicit or implied promise of confidentiality? Would it be ethical for the writer to sell only SOME of his clients' names, or does he/she have to give them all up if giving any up? And so on....

#49 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 01:29 PM:

This is distressingly reminiscent of this year's spring semester's Seniors Honors Seminar we taught.

The skill levels for writing, reading and comprehension of the students were appalling. One of them plagerized. We didn't have to deal with the handling of that, thank goodness. She was penalized, but she graduated anyway.

At the same time, the college in which we're currently situated, a humanities - liberal arts college -- is ALL ABOUT WRITING AND HISTORY. The students are highly skilled and become more so through out their degree programs. However, they're not well set up to deal with the real world when they get out. But then again, most of them don't need to, legacy money students reaching back to the founding of the nation as so many are, or inheritors of more recent wealth.

Nevertheless, I deeply fear their skill levels of reading, writing and comprehension are deeply in the minority these days.

Love, C.

#50 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 01:37 PM:

I am blackly amused that it took as long as 57 comments for someone to raise the idea that he might start offering to mark essays as well. Cut out the middleman.

#51 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 01:45 PM:

I spent a couple of decades teaching undergrad writing, about half of it variations on the freshman research paper course. Given that the skills involved there go beyond producing acceptable text, plagiarism avoidance/prevention became a central part of course design. This was all pre-Web, so every term I spent hours in the library, tracking down the sources of the plagiarized (or merely incompetently assembled and documented) papers. It was challenging and even interesting but quite arduous. Very few cheats got away with it, but I still occasionally did not get backing from the dean's level, particularly when the cheater could emulate incompetence. (Why this was forgiveable still puzzles me.)

That was 25 years ago, and the cheating culture has only gotten worse. My wife has designed her classes to make plagiarism nearly impossible, and she still gets papers studded with unattributed pastes from SparkNotes and the like--the little idiots don't realize that anything that's easy for them to lift from a website is just as easy to find. And, of course, they're too style-deaf to hear the shifts from undergrad to professional prose, and they wouldn't be able to smooth over the joins even if they could find them.

The dishonesty is accompanied by a combination of incompetence and laziness: poor reading skills and an inability (or refusal) to pay attention to detail or to read instructions. On top of that, they have been trained by the educational system that there's always an acceptable excuse, a second chance, a do-over, a makeup, an extra credit assignment. I see where it says "no late papers," but surely an exception will be made in my case. I don't do well on exams. I read the assignment but it just didn't make sense. I can't afford a copy of the text. My car wouldn't start. I had a court date. I had to take my roommate to the ER. I have a learning disability. You're just mean.

I think the word I'm looking for is "infantile."

For many years after I lost my teaching job, I missed the classroom. Now, listening to my wife's accounts of the behavior and attitudes of her students, I'm not sure I would go back to teaching even if I had the chance. That may mean that I have finally become Old.

And for years we have dreaded the time when our former students are the ones counting out our pills and reading our charts in the geriatric ward.

#52 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 01:50 PM:

kouredios #44:

It seems to me that the problem is in three parts:

a. Students who are hiring someone to do their work, either to hide their own inability or out of laziness or both. This will cost them later. (Though it would be interesting to know what fraction of the bought term papers were in subjects fundamental to the students' majors, as opposed to "help me get through this damned history class so I can get my accounting degree." And honestly, the big state university I went to didn't seem especially serious about teaching those introductory 500 kids in a lecture hall classes.)

b. Colleges whose courses can, in general, be passed without mastering their material. Even worse, colleges where it's possible to graduate with a major in some subject in which you didn't really master the material required. (There are constantly stories about public school systems in which a large fraction of the teachers can't pass tests of proficiency in the subjects they're teaching. I wonder how common this is in other fields. My guess is that teaching is no different from any number of other fields, and that lots of people with other degrees don't really know a lot of what they're supposed to know, either.)

c. The whole society, which has devalued high school diplomas in the interests of decreasing the dropout rate and giving everyone a chance to succeed, and which is currently devaluing undergraduate degrees for the same reasons.

I find (c) upsetting, because there's a kind of treadmill that is horribly destructive. If high school diplomas don't mean basic literacy and numeracy and intelligence and diligence, then college diplomas have to serve that purpose. And thus, we require millions of people to go tens of thousands of dollars into debt, and to burn four or five years of their lives, in order to get a certificate that lets them get a job as, more-or-less, a clerk. A great many of the people who do that flunk out, thus ending up out tens of thousands of dollars and years of their lives, without any compensation at all. If you want to distinguish yourself as really being bright, you may need to go to graduate school.

Consider what happens when you require four years of extra training before most people start working professional jobs. Millions of people start their whole lives up four years later. They marry later, have kids later, buy homes later, start saving for retirement and paying taxes later. But they still get old and sick and eventually die on schedule, just having had four years less of productive adult life. And they start their lives several tens of thousands of dollars in debt, which probably makes them less willing to leave unpleasant jobs, or change careers when they're young enough to do it easily, or go do something interesting and different like living abroad for awhile.

Now, learning interesting things, and pushing yourself intellectually, those are great things to do for yourself. It's worthwhile to do those things. As a society, I think we should be supporting learning by anyone who wants to learn. (And this is a really good time to be someone who wants to learn all sorts of stuff.) But making the formal BA/BS process the only real gateway to the middle class is an awful idea.

#53 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 01:50 PM:

Dave Bell @30:

I have to say, when I came to St Andrews from UC Berkeley in 1990, I was floored by my British classmates' essay-writing.

It was terrible.

I don't know how they got into university; the notion of a tell 'em three times* essay was clearly not sufficiently Roman for them. Most of them would not have known an outline had it shoved them off the Pier in full academic dress, and thesis statements were lost arts, like the making of Greek fire.

I used to get more marks than them for the same information, simply because I could lay it out comprehensibly. Of course, I was trained in outlining by my dad just after he finished law school, when his rule of thumb was one page of outline per page of finished essay.

And don't get me started on what my Berkeley Classics professors did to bad grammar in an essay. Let's just say that I aced my AP English test going into college, then learned to write properly thereafter. (I have since fallen away from that standard.)

-----
* Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em, tell 'em the thing, tell 'em what you told 'em.

#54 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 01:54 PM:

My current institution seems to be doing a pretty good job of smiting the slackers. There are a few caveats, of course:

1) Cheating would be harder for me than just doing the damn work. I'm a proud, vengeful person who wants my OWN A.

2) I've seen a few smitings (one prof gave back anonymized, notated grades. First homework: two students got zeros with "obviously collaborated", one got a zero with "Handed in late, copied from class discussion". Second homework, no such notes.) But seeing hits doesn't tell you anything about misses.

3) Engineering is kinda different.

#55 ::: martyn ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 01:54 PM:

I have a friend who used to be an RAF pilot instructor. He told the story of a Saudi prince who sat at the back of the room playing cards while his servant took lecture notes. Come his attempt to actually land a Tornado, after four attempts he sat back, folded his arms and said 'Insh'allah'. Julian's response was 'Not in my f***ing aeroplane', and to fail the prince after landing the plane himself.) AFIK, the prince remains a pilot in the Saudi airforce.

Some things money just can't buy, and a degree should be one of them.

#56 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 01:59 PM:

abi #53:

Yeah, I remember testing into honors sophomore English my freshman year (at Undistinguished State U). After the first assignment, we went back and reviewed rules for how to write complete sentences, what a paragraph was, etc. The teacher was clearly quite surprised that people in that class needed this kind of remedial English review; I wonder if there was some change in style or emphasis of teaching that led to a big drop in quality of English education in high school, right around the time I entered college. (My small town high school did a pretty good job of teaching us English, but we may have been behind the times.)

#57 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 02:02 PM:

What an interesting article: I was expecting to react to it with the mild distaste I feel for true-crime confessions. In the end I was rather rooting for the chap (certainly not for his customers) in the same way one feels affection for a gold-farmer playing twenty games of World of Warcraft simultaneously. Academic gold-farming! A guaranteed level-up or your money back!

Science folks tend to be a bit smug about this sort of article on the grounds that It Could Never Happen In My Subject, but now I've been wondering all afternoon whether this is actually so. If you're doing a lab-based PhD there's probably no-one on the internet who will build your calorimeter or quantum dot for you; but what about pure maths or cosmology? China has a lot of bright young graduates out there; are there virtual sweatshops turning out theses in algebraic topology and brane theory for lazy Westerners?

#58 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 02:04 PM:

Touching on what Russell Letson says @ 51 (and others earlier) — My mother used to grumble that despite what the syllabus said, she wasn't really teaching Beginning Acting or Intermediate Directing or Advanced Dramaturgy or anything like that, she was actually teaching Maturation 101.

#59 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 02:05 PM:

albatross, IIRC it was in the early 1980s that someone in the Georgia educational hierarchy declared that grammar would no longer be taught in public schools. No money was allotted in the budget for grammar books, no time allotted to it in the state-approved lesson plans. My mother continued to teach it using used textbooks and time scrounged from the required material. To this day I have no idea what the Powers That Be were thinking, but the results are obvious in the increasing need for colleges to teach tenth-grade English.

#60 ::: Marci Kiser ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 02:10 PM:

Teresa @ 22

My apologies. I didn't emphasize enough that, personally, I *completely* agree with everything you're saying. The average language skills of an undergraduate at university are appalling and frankly exhausting to read. More broadly, the commoditization of college degrees has made the majority of them, particularly in the humanities and at least as it pertains to screening job applicants, what high school diplomas were thirty years ago: a sign of basic intelligence and competency.

My point is more that the majority of the country seems to disagree with you and me about what purpose college degrees are supposed to serve. Of course, what makes a functioning, literate adult is not determined by vote, but how many students go to university to develop that broadly-educated worldview, and how many go because the undergraduate degree has been debased to the point that it's often a minimal requirement for any number of entry-level jobs? I'm not suggesting that universities should live down to the expectations of their students, only that either the expectations the job market has of college degrees needs to change or the expectations of the students.

To wit, I refer you to the two stock phrases of the willfully ignorant:

"You know what I meant."

&

"When will I ever *use* that?"

No matter how many times you might note that they come off as a semi-literate incompetent in every email, that they couldn't reason their way out of a paper bag, or that they've bollixed up their income taxes because they never learned fractions, the majority of people cannot be convinced that these skills are worth their time and effort.

I'd be thrilled to be wrong about this depressing line of thinking I've tended towards in recent years. I worked hard for my degrees and feel immeasurably enriched by them. Like you, it's basic to who I've become.

However, I would say that, particularly when they see the 'privileged' class we have today (caught an episode of Jersey Shore, have you?), it is very difficult to make the case to an undergraduate that they should not pay someone to write their assignments when all you can promise is this mercurial notion of personal growth. You can threaten them with expulsion for plagiarism (assuming you can substantiate it), but the wonderful sorts of moments you refer to when one's brain is tickled in just the right way are a hard sell to the marketing major who just wants to go hawk pharmaceuticals for the rest of his life. There is very little in the average person's day to disincentivize lacking the ability to think critically or write coherently.

That's my point, and I'm sorry if it was poorly put across. In no way do I side with cheaters and plagiarists. I just see how well the cheaters and plagiarists do and struggle to formulate an argument as to why they were wrong and I was right.

I would also be thrilled to see a Great Purge of those in our universities and colleges who don't have a care for their education save that they tick the box on their transcript. But as you pointed out, they're only marking time until the rest of us go to work for them.

#61 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 02:11 PM:

Abi@53:
>
>I have to say, when I came to St Andrews from UC
>Berkeley in 1990, I was floored by my British
>classmates' essay-writing.
>
>It was terrible.

I can't speak for the Scottish/Welsh/NI educational systems, but if you came up through the English system in the 70s and 80s it was possible to be taught very little formal English grammar at all apart from what your teachers decided to drop in on a whim. And if you chose all science subjects for O-level/CSE/16+/GCSE and then went on to do science A-levels and a science degree, it was possible—likely, even—that you'd reach the age of 21 with a degree without having written a single piece of long connected prose since you were 14, except for what you'd had to write for English between the ages of 14 and 16 (you couldn't, and can't, drop English until you hit 16).

This only struck me as unusual when I started reading Usenet in the 90s and noticed that Americans were actually very much better than we were at arguing cogently.

#62 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 02:27 PM:

Madeleine Robins @27:

Teresa, my love for your Wuthering Heights thesis idea is considerable. I want to read the whole paper. There's a paper to be written on sfnal aspects of Jane Eyre too (Rochester does keep pointing out how strange and unearthly Jane is, after all).
Mad, if there's more to that paper, it's praise of Emily Bronte's narrative strategies. Where did she learn to deal with unfamiliar subjects by silently letting them drop, the way she does with anything that takes place outside of walking distance of Haworth? It works. Most readers don't spot that oddity on their own, at least not the first time or three they read the book.

For that matter, where did she pick up the trick of selling an improbable story by having it told by two nested unreliable narrators? It's very effective. There's so much to argue with in Wuthering Heights, yet so few readers do, once they've succumbed to the story. A less judicious author could have made the Wuthering Heights storyline into something to rival Night Travels of the Elven Vampire.

Onward.

If Lin Haire-Sergeant can posit that Heathcliff is the son of Rochester and his first wife Bertha, I think I can be allowed my own completely unsupportable theory. Far from being a woman with "neither money nor name to recommend her," as Nellie Dean ill-naturedly asserts, I think that Hindley's wife Frances was originally surnamed Starkadder. She married Hindley to escape her relatives, and she dies in the amiable if mistaken belief that the Earnshaws, Linwoods, and Heathcliffs aren't as bad as all that.

#63 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 02:33 PM:

Abi #53 - I can't say I learnt anything much about essay writing at St Andrews in 95-99. The fact that I could write ok (but not great) essays in my last time at uni is down simply to having spent the last 10 years writing reports, stories and livejournal entries. Come to think of it, either my school did a bad job teaching essay writing, or I did a bad job learning it, or maybe both. (I did do chemistry and some geology and management modules when at uni the first time)

I've just been awarded an MSc in technology and analysis of archaeological materials from UCL in London. I had to learn how to write essays, and we had to submit these essays via turnitin, some sort of global academic plagiarism detection system. Has anyone on here ever used it?

Steve #61- the last proper grammar lessons I definitely recall getting were in the first year of senior school, around 1990 or so.

IT struck me that the hard working plagiarist for hire is trying to put much of the blame onto everyone else except himself, and of course he wouldn't have a job without people willing to cheat and a system insufficient to catch them and deal with them. Yet it seems like he is trying too hard to push the onus onto others, to side step their own ethical issues. Their story reads rather like they found college not to their liking and realised they could make money this way, and also get a hit at these stick in the mud college authorities who weren't going to appreciate their wonderfulness. In fact, there seems to be a bit of exasperation at their sense of entitlement somehow not working out.

#64 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 02:39 PM:

Marci:

My sense is that the set of required classes/departments required for graduation is at least as much a political decision (academic/local politics, not national politics) as an academic or intellectual decision. And the answer, as well as how demanding those classes should be, depends heavily on what you think the goal of a college education should be. Is this something everyone ought to do? Or everyone who's got an IQ above 100 and can read? Alternatively, is this something for only the most intelligent and dedicated of students? Or just the smart ones[0]? Is it mainly training for being in the ruling class[1]? Are we trying to give people who get through that education the gift of being an educated person? And if so, what does that mean[2][3]?

[0] Set the standards high enough--say, requiring working proficiency in a second language, solid mastery of calculus, and careful reading and understanding of a large chunk of classic literature--and you will either exclude most students from any hope of graduating, or allow all kinds of cheating and slipping of standards.

[1] I've often thought of Ivy League legacy admissions as fitting this model. It even explains a lot of the practical justification for both legacy and affirmative action admissions--there are going to be members of the ruling class from important families/minority groups, so let's send them through the ruling class educational system.

[2] Of course, different people will have different ideas on what this should mean, based on their political and social and economic interests. Shouldn't everyone study neoclassical economics? Wait, shouldn't everyone study sociology?

[3] If our goal is for everyone to become as much of an educated person as their talents and interests will lead them to become, then we shouldn't be too hung up on the gatekeeping job of colleges and their diplomas--instead, we should be making it as easy as possible for anyone to study and learn whatever they're interested in.

#65 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 02:42 PM:

I can't speak for the Scottish/Welsh/NI educational systems, but if you came up through the English system in the 70s and 80s it was possible to be taught very little formal English grammar at all apart from what your teachers decided to drop in on a whim. And if you chose all science subjects for O-level/CSE/16+/GCSE and then went on to do science A-levels and a science degree, it was possible—likely, even—that you'd reach the age of 21 with a degree without having written a single piece of long connected prose since you were 14, except for what you'd had to write for English between the ages of 14 and 16 (you couldn't, and can't, drop English until you hit 16).

In my experience this was true about grammar, but false about prose composition. There was literally nothing we were assessed on more thoroughly than the ability to draft quickly, felicitiously, and logically. I sometimes wonder why the Northern Examinations & Assessment Board was trying to train us all to be Winston Churchill's principal private secretary.

#66 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 02:45 PM:

albatross, #52: It's true that a degree in education is a degree in "how to teach", not in "how to teach Subject X". And while teaching is itself a skillset that should be learned by those who plan to do it, I do not understand why so many school systems seem to have no hiring requirement of competence in the subject you are being hired to teach. And then you add in the problem of "we're hiring this guy as a football coach, but we don't have the budget for a dedicated coach, so let's call him the teacher for Subject X as well" -- but that's a whole separate rant.

#67 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 02:46 PM:

guthrie @63: Turnitin is a horrible joke, but it SOUNDS so good that administrators tend to require profs to require students to use it.

I turned in a perfectly unobjectionable 5-page research paper (complete with cites, footnotes, etc) via turnitin; it flagged me with a 'score' (a single number with some theoretical maximum, and a scale placing ranges of scores in the categories 'probably no plagiarism', 'questionable', 'suspicious', and 'liar liar pants on fire', although they don't call them that) firmly in the 'probably plagiarized' end of the range.

My teacher, having read my hardcopy version (and knowing it matched in style and such with the things he'd seen me write longhand in class, the way I participated, etc), clicked through to find out WHY turnitin was flagging me as a big stealing stealer of intellectual steals ... and it turned out it was flagging all my (blockquoted, footnoted, cited) quotes as plagiarism.

Um. Can we say strong false positives? Also, all it's doing is comparing text strings to its known corpus of previously-extant material. Now, when they built the corpus they DID do something bright: every essay ever turned in through turnitin is now in the corpus, meaning that if your brother wrote a darn good English paper two years ago at another school (and put it through turnitin), it's going to flag as stolen when you turn it in NOW. However, that means every piece of anything ever put through turnitin is now effectively archived by the company forever, making havoc of the intellectual-property rights of the authors. Also, if you turn in a draft and then a final (as many profs assign), the final flags as *plagiarism of your own draft*.

It's not quite as stupid as the software my community college's parent district is forcing the schools to use to grade English placement tests, but it's pretty far up there. On the plus side, it saves a lot of instructor man-hours checking Google, Wikipedia, etc.

#68 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 02:54 PM:

Marci @60: I'm sorry, I completely misread that. I was having an excessively earnest moment.

I do understand your frustration. When I worked in the Financial Aid office at the University of Washington, we had to deal with semi-literate students who wanted merit scholarships in journalism, postgrad students whose mothers came in to fill out their paperwork for them, and hardworking but misguided ESL students whose grasp of English wouldn't have gotten them through elementary school.

I have two responses to "You know what I meant." One is Terry Carr's: "Yes, and when a singer misses a note, I usually know which one she meant to hit; but it doesn't help." The other is "No, I don't. I can guess at a number of things you might mean by it, but I can't tell which one you intended." (It's funny how many inept writers know that words add meaning, but not that they can also constrain it.)

My only real answer to "When will I ever *use* that?" is "I don't know; but then, neither do you." It's remarkable how many random bits of information I've picked up have turned out to be useful later.

#69 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 02:55 PM:

If I were a member of the privileged classes airily getting a paid drone to do my university work for me, the highly-paid job that I got on the back of it would feel a little, err, vulnerable to blackmail. Just imagine if the chap who wrote your essays, or the organisation acting as middleman, were keeping a record of all my pleas for rewrites and all the successive drafts, and wanted hush money ten years down the line? Or perhaps conscience might drive them to donate their archives to WikiLeaks. Your sins might find you out, sometimes.

#70 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 02:58 PM:

There was a banking class in the Economics department at the University of Wisconsin, in which each student operated their own bank throughout the term. This was in the days of mainframe computers, so each student submitted their decisions on borrowing and lending at the beginning of the week on punch cards. The professor and TAs could see all the student banks and their results. At the end of the term, you handed in a term paper explaining how your bank performed. It didn't matter if you'd done badly, as long as you could explain why you'd lost money.

One term, a student showed up after grades came out, wondering why her grade was so low. She was told that it was because she hadn't turned in the term paper, and she remonstrated that she had. They checked the term papers against her bank, and found a term paper about her bank. It had another student's name on it. Looking more closely, they realized that the typeface on the cover sheet was slightly different. They modified her grade, and flunked the other student.

He had showed up to class with a stapler and a cover sheet, snatched a paper from the stack where people were handing them in, and made the substitution. It was stunningly bold, vicious, and stupid.

#71 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 02:59 PM:

As the mother of children currently attending public elementary school in an industrial society*, I really do have to take some issue with this:

Just as the most valuable lessons children in an industrial society learn in public school are the ability to cope with soul-crushing boredom and the fortitude to bear up under arbitrary cruelty from one's peers

That's a flavor of easy cynicism I see a lot about education, and it casts a kind of miasma over the whole topic. I really don't think it's (a) warranted, or (b) helpful.

Briefly brushing by reality rather than generality for the moment, I can assure you that my children's teachers are not actually in the business of dealing out soul-crushing boredom. It's true that, at times, children become bored during class, but for the most part, they're being presented with interesting material in ways structured to allow them to engage with it, and grow thereby. And the kids do, as actual teachers will tell you if asked†.

This is fortunate, because if they're going to end up in the kind of working conditions that I have, for instance, they have to be ready to seek out and acquire information, incorporate it into their existing frameworks (questioning and revising those frameworks as they do so), and choose appropriate action based on the new whole (plus reasonable guesses about whatever unfillable uncertainties remain).

Even manual workers have to do that; an electrician trying to figure out why our hall lights don't work has to run an iterative hypothesize/collect information/test cycle to do the job.

(And the social situation is much the same; my kids' school is no more a factory for teaching children how to be bullied than it is a training ground for cognitive zombies.)

Thoughtlessly perpetuating this easy myth is harmful, too. It excuses the inexcusable and denigrates the people who are actually trying to create a good educational environment. In the end, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It's the emotional vampire of the conversation.

(I am being quite sharp here. I don't mean it to be pointed at the person who said it, because there's always someone who trots it out in these discussions. It is to conversations about education what the phrase "imaginary sky daddy" is to conversations about religion.)

-----
* admittedly not the United States; I state this explicitly because "in the US" is the universal unstated qualifier of these discussions unless explicitly contraindicated.
† Collecting evidence as precondition to drawing conclusions is a valuable skill.

#72 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 03:00 PM:

Steve with a book @69: The guy remembers the papers far better than the students. If anyone's in a position to commit blackmail, it's the outfit he works for. As for the independent paper-writers, I have to wonder whether they declare the income on their taxes, and if so, how. They could be vulnerable as well.

#73 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 03:04 PM:

albatross # 52(c)

Some of the dumbing down is a Good Thing, though most of it isn't. At my new university, introductory statistics is now taught to about ten times as many students as would have taken it twenty years ago. There's a lot less material in the course, but teaching lots of people some basics about statistical variation and conditional probability is more important than teaching a few of them about moment generating functions. It would be even better to push this material down into the high-school curriculum, and my colleagues are working on that.


12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more: WTF?

If someone can successfully get a graduate thesis written for them without their advisor knowing, there's something very different about graduate education in their program from what I'm used to. Surely there should be too much interaction between student and advisor for this to be possible? There are some papers that my students could have got written for them, but not a thesis.

Some of the students don't have very good English (yet -- they often are learning rapidly) and some of them just can't write, so I usually have to do a lot of line editing.


I am reminded, perhaps unfairly, of XKCD 451. Someone who can write well enough and knows enough statistics to produce custom papers for graduate students could easily find a better job. Copying is a problem, but I don't think commissioning is.

#74 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 03:06 PM:

Janetl @70, that's clever, if nasty: an elegant little maneuver. I hope they roasted him on a spit.

When I was in junior high school, another student tried that with one of my weekly science assignments. Unfortunately, he wasn't the sharpest hammer in the bag, and did it when I was standing three feet away. Didn't work out well for him.

#75 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 03:20 PM:

abi, 71: Thank you.

All: I would also like to point out that we just did the "let's all bash teachers" thread, right here on Making Light, and it made me want to run away and never come back. Please let's not do that again until my armor has regenerated.

#76 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 03:21 PM:

thomas@73:

> 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more: WTF?

> If someone can successfully get a
> graduate thesis written for them
> without their advisor knowing, there's
> something very different about graduate
> education in their program from what I'm used
> to. Surely there should be too much interaction
> between student and advisor for this to be
> possible? There are some papers that my
> students could have got written for them, but
> not a thesis.

I have known a few postgraduates whose advisors were useless. Really useless. Academics whose bright futures were a decade behind them, and who basically did nothing to guide their students' studies other than tell them a few books and papers to read and-come-back-in-a-few-months-when-you've-read-them. Most students in this situation drop out. Some manage to change supervisors. Some manage to deliver a thesis by their own concentrated superhuman efforts. If a student were to buy a thesis off the web I could sort of almost imagine some departments deciding to connive at it to make their success rates (and the success rate of Professor Useless in particular) look better. I hope this wouldn't happen, but...

#77 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 03:21 PM:

Wow. I hope this guy gets brought down, and massively.

Really, this should be a felony, from either side.

Wait though. Maybe it should just be a felony from the student side. That way they could be blackmailed for the rest of their pathetic lives by the people who wrote their term papers. That would at least take some of their ill-gotten lucre away from them. Granted, it would give it to another scumbag, but when people acquire undeserved privilege I really, really want them to suffer.

#78 ::: Doug ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 03:21 PM:

For what it's worth, I came across the article via a friend who said that he has and will fail people for trying such things in his classes. (He's also a Doctor of Theology, so some smiting may also be involved.) He's not at a big-name school, so it's possible to hold the line anywhere that people are willing to.

Similarly, I recall a story that went around language TAs at Georgetown when I was there. It seems that a scion of Arab royalty was not attending his language labs and was otherwise not meeting course requirements. The TA, in addition to whatever direct intervention with the student, also apprised higher-ups in the department of the situation. They said don't be afraid to fail him, but Document Everything. Again, even against the most privileged of the world's privileged people, an institution that chooses to can hold the line against dishonesty.

Third, I did a little quick math on the claims "Dante" makes about productivity, and I am skeptical. (I said so in the comments at the Chronicle.) His page claim works out to 1000 words an hour, for every hour of every eight-hour working day in the year. In raw terms, he's claiming that he is writing, in one year, roughly four times as many words as there are in The Lord of the Rings. Color me dubious.

If, by some chance, those claims for an admitted deceiver are true, then at $66K annually he's getting paid about 2¢ per word.

#79 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 03:24 PM:

Teresa (68): postgrad students whose mothers came in to fill out their paperwork for them

I am reminded of the mother who came into the public library where I was interning in order to do research for her son's law school homework. 1986, that would have been.

#80 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 03:28 PM:

Doug @ 78 -

Third, I did a little quick math on the claims "Dante" makes about productivity, and I am skeptical. (I said so in the comments at the Chronicle.) His page claim works out to 1000 words an hour, for every hour of every eight-hour working day in the year. In raw terms, he's claiming that he is writing, in one year, roughly four times as many words as there are in The Lord of the Rings. Color me dubious.

There are probably good chunks of this prose that is nothing more than boilerplate, usable with a few judicious find-and-replace commands.

#81 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 03:36 PM:

BTW, did anyone else flash back to Silverberg's Dying Inside when reading this?

#82 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 03:39 PM:

This has been in the air at our school recently. They've totally revamped the academic misconduct program here, and now students who are caught are going to be required to take a ten-week course in academic ethics, including writing a paper and doing community service in the public schools. (And I wonder how many of those papers will be bought and paid for...)

Formerly, these students were just required to put in community service hours on campus, and due to very restrictive guidelines about insurance, they wound up here, in the library, rather than outside picking up trash and digging flower beds. And due to our bad experiences trying to get them to do accurate work, we used them only to read shelves, where we felt they could do the least harm. One semester we had 90 -- far too many to supervise.

Anyway, our experience was that they would try ANYTHING to wriggle out of it, would slope off on break when they weren't being watched, and basically didn't learn a single thing except to cheat even more. A great many of them were athletes, who ALREADY got instruction in academic honesty from their own advisers -- we certainly don't want any NCAA violations, do we? -- and STILL managed to get caught cheating. So I really wonder if a course is going to do them any good at all. Well, at least my department doesn't have to deal directly with them anymore.

#83 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 03:41 PM:

Believe it or not, Ed Dante is a type, and he has a bigger sense of entitlement than he thinks.

What type could that be? Reasonably well-to-do white guy, previously successful at most or all of his endeavors, whose first novel doesn't meet with the reception he expects. No category of writer is more prone to get indignant, feel mistreated, decide that the system is broken, and go chasing after an alternate business model.

What sets Ed Dante apart from the rest is that his alternate business model actually makes money, in a miserable and uncredited kind of way. He should have stayed in school.

#84 ::: Mags ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 03:47 PM:

Jacque @41: The Cornell method was around during my first go-round of higher education (early 1980s) but we didn't have the intartubes in those days, or at least I didn't know about it, so I had no idea it existed. I first found out about it in an article in Rolling Stone, unfortunately, as I said, too late for my first go-round.

#85 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 03:52 PM:

If you're powerful enough, you're invulnerable to blackmail. Whistle-blowers who out credential flaws of the mighty can reasonably expect to be zapped by the Cloud-Gatherer's thunderbolt.

#86 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:01 PM:

Actually I have something concrete to contribute to this: my experience as a high school AP English student.

We had an essay exam every Friday without fail. Two questions (sometimes a choice of two out of three). The essays were expected to be well-formed mini-papers, five paragraphs of tell-'em-three-times, AND to meaningfully address the question. We had the 50-minute class period to write them.

In a way, this was "teaching to the test," because that's what we were expected to do on the AP Exam. But the questions were substantial, and the rest of the class was given over to discussion of the many books we were reading. The same teacher had a display in his class called "Cliff's Notes -- the SLEEZY way to an education!" It was clear that he read the Cliff's Notes for the assigned books and avoided the subject matter they covered on exams. (He said I was the only one who had ever noticed his misspelling of 'sleazy'.)

Best teacher I ever had. Really challenged us. Nine of us (out of something less than twenty) got fives (the highest grade) on the AP Exam. And we learned the lit we were studying and how to write within limitations.

Relevance here: If I ever teach a freshman English course, I will not have term papers. I will have in-class exams. FREQUENTLY.

#87 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:04 PM:

I suddenly find this particularly painful to read. It is not so much because I have raised one brilliant and conscientious kid who spells well, writes beautifully, and conscientiously did all her work (and another who is well on his way, at age 8.)

Rather, it's because I am now raising another kid (the foster daughter I've mentioned here before) who has some real biochemical-level problems, who was raised in early childhood with no real conception of responsibility (and then saw both parents die of cancer), who struggles mightily with grammar and logical concepts - and who is conscientiously doing all her own work for school. She is working her ass off to pass community college courses, and rightfully proud of it, and it's painful to think that she will be compared invidiously to these lazy dumbasses.

#88 ::: Doug ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:08 PM:

Teresa @83 What sets Ed Dante apart from the rest is that his alternate business model actually makes money, in a miserable and uncredited kind of way.

If you call 2¢ per word money. But yes on the miserable and uncredited.

(And what's with the Chronicle's saying this story came to them by way of a literary agent? Is this the warm-up to a book proposal? If it's sold as non-fiction, I bet it shouldn't be.)

#89 ::: Lawrence ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:19 PM:

Albatross @64: Ivy League legacies don't automatically get admitted -- something alumni have complained bitterly about for generations. Yes, being the child of an alumnus gets you bonus points on your application, but only about as many as a good set of extracurricular activities.

I was a legacy admission to Princeton, back in 1972, and wound up having my admission reconsidered when they got my senior year high school grades. They did let me in, but on academic probation.

My son, who had far, far better grades and credentials than mine, did not get in, ending a 111-year family tradition; it's gotten that much harder to get in. Most alumni kids get turned down now. Last I heard, Princeton's admission rate for legacies was something like 23%, compared to 9% for everyone else.

#90 ::: Matthew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:24 PM:

Elliott Mason @ 67: Your other criticisms of turnitin may be valid, but I think complaints about it "making havoc of the intellectual-property rights of the authors" are a load of bull. If you submit papers to a college or course that requires the use of such a service, you are agreeing to such use, just as you are agreeing to any other use of your work that your college/instructor may require to do their job.

If your essays are so goddamn precious, publish them and earn money from them. Don't whine that a college might, heavens forbid, archive them to detect cheating.

#91 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:27 PM:

This is one of the more depressing threads I've read recently. The damage done to any society that can't educate its population to a minimal ability to communicate is immense; if that society is (however unintentionally) going post-industrial, and thus dependent on information-based work to provide a large part of of its Gross Domestic Product, the damage may be fatal to the economy and the society in the not-so-long term.

One of the factors that made the US, and later Western Europe, so successful in the 20th century was a movement to ensure as near 100% literacy as possible (and to a lesser extent, numeracy), because the kind of jobs that needed to be filled more and more required that for communication of work requirements, control of inventory, and so on. As society has mechanized, the level of communication required has become both more sophisticated and more frequent.

And no, it's not really different for scientists and engineers. As a computer hardware engineer and later a software engineer, I probably spent at least as much time writing English prose as computer code: product proposals, requirements documents, architectural specifications, and even user documentation. Most of what I wrote needed to be clear and concise, and one of the things that made it so was frequent review by colleagues and prospective consumers of the documents. For that to be effective, I had to be able to write effectively, and the reviewers had to be able to read effectively.

Its especially bad that the privileged future managers and executives are the most likely to have blown off learning how to communicate, because that means that not only won't they be able to make good decisions because of incompetence, they won't even be able to explain to their subordinates who might be able to rescue the situation what the problems are. And their lack of ability will affect many other people and other organizations.

Teresa pointed out @39
it teaches privileged students that facts don't matter, and that non-reality-based strategies work. We already have enough problems with that mindset.

And the more we reward that attitude the less chance there is of us improving the situation.

#92 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:30 PM:

Ellitt Mason@67: Turnitin is not meant to be automatic. It flags material which might be plagiarised, but the teacher is then supposed to look at it and form a judgement. (Just saying 'exclude material in quotes' won't work because you can evade it by putting quotes around the whole paper.) If people are using it as an automatic detection system, they are Doing It Wrong.

That said, it wouldn't help with the present case, because it only picks up on stuff borrowed from a publcly available source, not stuff written to custom.

#93 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:30 PM:

Elliott Mason @ #16, I ran across an example of your mother's first technique in Roger Angell's "Five Seasons." It's a collection of his baseball columns from the New Yorker in the 1970s. He's recounting a list of managers who lost their jobs during the 1975 baseball season.

Also fired this year were Yogi Berra (former manager of the Yankees), by the Mets; Gene Mauch (former manager of the Phillies), by the Expos; Clyde King (former manager of the Giants), by the Braves; Edward II (former king of England and the son of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile . . . Aha! Now pay attention, class)

#94 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:31 PM:

Matthew Brown @90:

Dial it back a little, please. You can disagree with Elliot's evaluation of turnitin without using phrases like "a load of bull", "goddamn precious" and "whine".

Indeed, you weaken your argument substantially with them.

#95 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:35 PM:

Around 1993, I got disgusted with my freelance computer-industry jobs (techinical writing, technical support, trade shows), and myself, and started taking night courses in computer science with the aim of going to grad school.

It was at the New York Institute of Technology, once a quite good school but which had adopted an open admissions policy. So, it got lots of Grade Thirteen students. Kids who couldn't get into state schools, but whose parents expected them to go to college.

My classes were fine. The professors were mostly part-timers, but did a good job. I was a diligent student. A few professors asked if they could use my projects and homework as evidence that the school was doing its job, come accreditation time.

The flip side: A day after my first class, the head of the CS department asked me if I'd teach a class. Introduction to Computing. It was a pretty mal-thought, archaic, and useless class; an introduction to computing using BASIC. But I said yes. I'd taught kids BASIC in a summer program. How hard could it be to teach college kids the same thing?

I knew they'd be better off learning how computers would be used in their future jobs -- word processing, spread sheets, databases and the like -- but as an adjunct fill-in I didn't have much choice in what was taught, but I did me best to give fun and approachable projects. Like a number guessing game, or a Battleship like game where you shot missiles at Barney the Dinosaur.

I readily confess I probably wasn't a great teacher. I think I was really good at 1:1 tutoring, but not so much at the big-picture lesson planning thing.

But the students. Oh, sweet Jesus. I can't believe that they had graduated high school. Many of them were Juniors; I can't believe that got that far. Most, most of them had never touched a computer, or saw any real reason too.

After a few years I took the GRE and applied to a bunch of pie-in-the-sky schools. I got into Carnegie Mellon, with a full scholarship. Getting my MS was the most difficult task I'd ever been through, but also incredibly rewarding. My fellow students (in my program) were wonderful. The professors did research on leading-edge stuff. Everyone seemed to care.

The contrast between these two schools has both scarred and inspired me.

#96 ::: Erin ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:37 PM:

Steve C @#81: yes, me, and I scrolled all the way to the end to see if anyone else mentioned it! You win!

#97 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:40 PM:

Matthew Brown @90: My major objection is that the writers have no control or say over any future action of the corporation -- and, in fact, not even a shrinkwrap-license clickbox consent giving said corporation any particular rights. The corporation just assumes they own anything they're sent.

If you want to take the course, you are forced to give over your text to them, and personally I see no reason to trust in the goodwill of corporations involving intellectual property; one need only look at the history of interactions with Facebook, Yahoo!, etc, to see how good-faith consumers have gotten burnt in the past, and indeed how corporations attempt to grab all possible rights as fast as possible, not just the ones they actually need to do their jobs with, 'just because' it might be useful at some point in the future.

Right now, Turnitin could, in theory, publish CDs or hardcopies of anything turned in through them; they'd get their asses sued, but they could do it, and they might even win the lawsuit. Certainly they haven't signed any contracts assuring dire penalties to employees who read turned in papers and do whatever they feel like with the information (sometimes including very specific identifying information about the students, either in the 'who-by' slugs or the text of the papers themselves) -- that would be another multimonth dragged-out lawsuit for the student involved, and no guarantee they'd win it, either.

#98 ::: Gavin ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:41 PM:

When my wife was a TA (about five years ago), I became her plagiarism detector on the final papers. That meant skimming each one. If the prose/complexity remained steady throughout, great. But depressingly often, a paragraph or three would get dropped in that although uncredited, was clearly written by someone else. A quick Google would always unearth the original source.

My system wouldn't catch the "Ed Dante"s of the world, of course, but at least I got some of the blatant cheats.

We were both surprised by how frequently it happened. After the first semester, she spent some time in the first class emphasizing what plagiarism was and that it would be a failing offense, and that seemed to help.

#99 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:43 PM:

At the risk of further depressing Bruce Cohen STM:
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes ?

#100 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:57 PM:

praisegod:

Yeah, I love the sideline comment there, about how apparently the academic philosophers weren't reading one anothers' essays, or someone would have noticed this a long time earlier.

#101 ::: Stuart in Austin ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 04:57 PM:

If Ed Dante is making 66k then he is better paid than the majority of tech writers in Austin.

I can appreciate that he enjoys the intellectual challenge of having to write whatever is thrown at him.

My experience from the business world is that the people who become managers do not respect or understand the work of writing. At my last job I saw a tech support person promoted into a marketing job that he didn't have the writing skills to perform. When I objected to the poor quality of his output I was told: "You're the hardware engineering manager, you're not supposed to have an opinion on that." I was expected to take a badly written page of marketing jargon and write a product hardware specification from it. Gah!

Yes, I have a certain sympathy for Ed thumbing his nose at the system. At the same time I wonder why the students who are doing their own work aren't hanging his customers from the lampposts.

#102 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 05:00 PM:

Alex@65: you might well be right; I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about the way that I was taught English—I never felt I was getting enough constructive feedback about what I was doing badly and how I could do it better. I got excellent marks for all my English work and I knew it was mostly crap. (One of my happiest memories from school, oddly, is of English teacher Mr X, who wasn't my English teacher, telling me in no uncertain terms that Miss Y, who was my English teacher, was giving me marks that were far too high and frankly I needed to pull my bloody socks up. Sometimes it's reassuring to meet someone who sees right through you—it makes you feel less alone).

#103 ::: ed g. ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 05:18 PM:

Steve C. @80: There are probably good chunks of this prose that is nothing more than boilerplate, usable with a few judicious find-and-replace commands.

He even says: "I've refined ways of stretching papers. I can write a four-word sentence in 40 words..." etc. And has a "library of stock academic phrases".

He's the R. Lionel Fanthorpe of the academic paper.

#104 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 05:19 PM:

Elliot #67 - that sounds about right. I never worried since I couldn't be bothered to work out how on earth to find out how it scored my work, but I knew I hadn't plagiarised and so it could say what it liked, I'd just get all mature studenty with them if necessary*. Plus our lecturers were certainly intelligent and good enough to just ignore anything silly that it came up with.
It does concern me a bit that everything I now wrote is in their system, a bit like Google et al do as well. If it saves the lecturer having to search everywhere online to check for plagiarism, that is good, but it isn't so good if it falls into the hands of incompetents and managerialists. (Is there a not so insulting yet somewhat derogatory term for mangers who tick boxes, don't really know what they are up to, yet seem to get promoted in droves and as far as I can tell have taken over most of the UK university system? {and are exactly the sort of people who would install something like turnitin because it is a shiny database tool, never mind the downsides})


*Most of the class were at least 3 or 4 years out of uni, if not more, and thus were quite prepared to ask awkward questions, keep asking questions about stuff we didn't understand, and go back and complain if there were any issues.

#105 ::: Doug K ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 05:30 PM:

I can recommend zunguzungu's analysis.
The term paper as commodity fetish..

#106 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 05:39 PM:

'Legacy Student' at the Ivies and institutions of that ilk now mean your forebears are or have been POTUS or some other VIP, and / or your family name is endowing a laboratory or some other Institutionally Desired / Valuable ediface, program, chair, program etc.

One of the underlying causes of this kind of plagerism that hasn't been mentioned by the writer of the article or here is the proliferation in the last 20 years of cheapjack 'institutions of higher learning.' What they are, are extractors of federal education funds, particularly via student loans. The programs and degrees are worthless in terms of the student learning anything. Ministers of mega-churches have been very good at creating these, both as real world campus schools and online campus schools. Certainly many of those in the Federal Justice Dept. did. You saw some of those testifying about torture during the bush era -- at least one of them had long legs, long blonde hair, short skirt, short knowledge of the law or the Constitution.

They. Are. Everywhere.

Again too, this is part of both the desperation to make it, for which you need a high degree, preferably from a Great School, and the separate Christian state and schooling built inside the structure of what has been our traditional structures and instituions.

Very. Scary. Not. Good.

Love, C.

#107 ::: johnofjack ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 05:43 PM:

While I was working on my Master's in Library & Information Sciences, I read papers from classmates that, quite frankly, I would have failed as a T.A. for English Comp I. I found it shocking, not to mention disheartening, that these were MLIS students--I'd assumed that a love of reading would be common among them and presumed, foolishly, that it would have manifested in both a natural competence with language and a knack for critical thought.

#108 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 05:44 PM:

Mags@35:

> He asked, "Why didn't you do the reading?"

> One woman said dismissively, "I can't learn from a book."

Heh. Over the years I've learned that not only can I learn from a book, I can't learn any other way. I have to have a text in front of me that I can skip forward and backward in. The lectures I attended at university were a waste of a large, expensively-heated space: they should just have given me three years' worth of photocopied notes and told me to read them in my own time. If you want me to know something don't talk to me, write to me.

(Lots of different learning styles have been identified but 'solitary miserable so-and-so who wants to do it in his own time' doesn't seem to be one of them. It should be.)

#109 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 05:47 PM:

I know someone who will write papers for money. As far as I know, she only does it for people she knows, and the only example I have is an ESL student who paid her a hundred dollars. She had a lot of trouble making her language plausible.

I took a teaching-college course at the end of grad school, and I don't think that the professor understood how disheartening it was. He checked back on me at some point and seemed shocked when I replied that his class had made it obvious that I wasn't meant to teach. I had trouble conveying the sheer not okay of plagiarism-- I believe I said that cheaters should have their knees broken and plagiarists should be set afire, which was not rhetorically useful but did get my point across-- and I don't remember anyone else saying that the students whose semester-long intensive charitable project was bringing brownies to Ronald McDonald House should fail, period.

Of course, since I, for various reasons*, did not get a PhD, I'm never going to teach college. PhDs do not teach one to teach. They don't really teach one to do what one will be doing with a PhD, either, not in scientific academia.

Actually, this has made me feel a bit better about my lack of citable writing skills. Ha, I am a competent writer without a degree in writing! I strike back against the certification treadmill!
Really, though, my favorite professors were the ones who looked at my writing-- which was getting As in other classes, except for the introductory writing class**-- and red-penned it to hell and back. I feel bad when I use any of the forbidden phrases in academic writing, but I never felt rewarded for my efforts to avoid them in grad school.

*when I am feeling charitable, it is entirely my fault; when I am feeling nasty, someone should have taught me better.
**lest you think this was a good thing, I was told to use parentheses instead of semicolons and to write... badly.

#110 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 06:04 PM:

Abi @94: exactly the words I was going to do That Thing to. This has been your checkdigit du jour --

#111 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 06:31 PM:

The worst part about reading how inept and lazy many college students are is that it sorely tempts me to think like an judgemental elitist shithead.

#112 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 06:32 PM:

johnofjack @107, I know a few people with MLIS or similar degrees, and my friends are readers, and apparently there's a real line forming between "librarian" and "information scientist" [sic]. There are, I am told, some savagely aliterate[1] computer people trying for library & information science degrees.

[1] They COULD read but they don't understand why anyone WOULD. [2]

[2] One footnote is probably some sort of offense.

#113 ::: broundy ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 06:45 PM:

Steve with a book @102
I had a similar problem - I had enough natural writing talent that I never learned how to write. I could spell correctly and make coherent sentences, and that put me ahead of the curve enough that teachers let my other weaknesses slide.

I didn't learn what a thesis sentence was until my sophomore year of college, when my American Lit professor patiently pulled me aside and explained how essays were supposed to work. And my Shakespeare professor (junior year) finally beat passive voice out of me with a series of D grades, which, he told me, would become A's if I could remove the passive sentence construction.

#114 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 06:54 PM:

Teresa @39 writes: "Because it teaches privileged students that laws and rules are for the little people, not for them. It's a very, very bad idea to teach that lesson to that class."

Likewise, it also teaches the "little people" that the laws and rules don't apply to the well privileged, that privilege isn't something that can be earned by playing by the rules, that privilege is something one acquires either by inheritance or by fraud, and more often than not by a wretched excess of both. It's probably not a good idea for that lesson to be actively drummed into the vast teeming hordes of "little people" either.

#115 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 07:03 PM:

@78: Words are easy. Hackwork is a skill that can be learned and is when you need it. It requires hard work, and so do a lot of things. This is one reason why I wish newspapers and magazines would abolish the NIB - it's a way of training journalists to bang out filler.

Also, this is wrong:

Even manual workers have to do that; an electrician trying to figure out why our hall lights don't work has to run an iterative hypothesize/collect information/test cycle to do the job.

Being an electrician is not an idiotic and unskilled job. Electricians will laugh at your degree, or your lack of one. An apprenticeship is required. What did Lech Walesa do for a living (boomer memory check)?

#116 ::: Matthew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 07:05 PM:

Elliott Mason @97: Ah, my apologies for going off at you. I made a mistake I really do need to learn from: not to assume that the next person who brings up a topic is the same person (or at least the same argument) as the last time, which in this case was someone using "it's copyright infringement!" as a cover for "I don't want my work checked for plagiarism, with damn good reason", or so it seemed. That's not your argument, and I'm sorry I confused it.

I suspect their actions are based on legal advice that working from fair use and implicit license gives them the minimal chance of being sued and maximum freedom to do what their business needs.

However, a warning that "by submitting your work through turnitin, you give permission for us to retain it in a database of previous works for the purposes of detecting plagiarism" would be at least more polite.

An assurance that they would never use it for purposes other than that, and that they treated it as confidential material with appropriate internal controls, would be even better.

I don't think you are opposed to the idea of this being done in principle? Rather than disliking the actual implementation as done by turnitin?

#117 ::: Matthew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 07:09 PM:

Abi@94, Teresa@110: Please, if you wish, remove my impolite words in post 90, which were ill-chosen and with needless hostility. Feel free to leave them in and leave me looking like an idiot, if you'd rather!

#118 ::: Matthew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 07:09 PM:

Abi@94, Teresa@110: Please, if you wish, remove my impolite words in post 90, which were ill-chosen and with needless hostility. Feel free to leave them in and leave me looking like an idiot, if you'd rather!

#119 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 07:13 PM:

Lawsuits are fine when they're protecting your worthless kid from being called out for cheating, but when they're employed against a doctor who amputated the wrong limb, that's going too far.

And if this thread hasn't horrified you enough already, the former can *become* the latter.

#120 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 07:13 PM:

Alex (115): "Manual workers" means 'people who work with their hands'. It does not imply "idiotic and unskilled job", nor should it.

#121 ::: broundy ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 07:17 PM:

For comparative purposes:
The Term Paper Artist, by Nick Mamatas.

#122 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 07:32 PM:

120: this is exactly my point. Having collected garbage, among other things, I can't think of many manual jobs where:

an iterative hypothesize/collect information/test cycle

is not relevant.

More respect, please.

#123 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 07:37 PM:

Alex (122): And I believe that *that* was exactly Teresa's point.

#124 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 07:42 PM:

Sandy B., I work with a MLS student who "doesn't like to read" (her words), made a library sign that included several grocer's apostrophes, and regularly asks for my help in searching databases for her schoolwork.

She was working as a paraprofessional before she went for the degree, and if the government is going to pay for your schooling you might as well do it, but there's not enough money in librarianship to make it worth it if you don't breathe it.

#125 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 07:45 PM:

Mary Dell at #13: Jane Eyrelock?

#126 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 07:55 PM:

Lawrence #40
I think that computer programming is inherently boom-and-bust, because computers tend to saturate each niche they take over.

#127 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 07:57 PM:

eric #42: students lean how to use them in semaphore year.

#128 ::: Renee ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 08:15 PM:

It's been decades, but I recall an incident at end of term in university. Five of us were sitting at a table discussing the take-home final and our answers to the various questions. A sixth person, a girl, came and sat down, and complained about losing a whole letter grade on her final because she had done the exam with another student (prof had said we had to do them solo), and that this wasn't fair 'because everybody does it!'

Every one else of us said, "I didn't."

I recall the open-mouthed look on her face, even decades distant, where I can't tell you now who else was at that table. Shock, disbelief... and maybe some frustration, because she wasn't getting the sympathy she was obviously angling for. And five against one is pretty telling data against 'everyone does it'.

I have wondered since, however: maybe, in her experience up to that point everyone DID do it. Is cheating cultural that way...?

#129 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 08:34 PM:

My daughter would be right there with you, Renee @128. Being between assignments today (she's a senior majoring in anthropology), she had time to read this article and was appalled. However, I personally was delighted that she couldn't name one single paper mill website. But we did talk about the heavy work load for students. I'm not a classroom teacher, but I have a feeling it may be affected by what the professors have to do to prove they are teaching hard enough courses. Does "I assigned 400 pages of reading" look better at evaluation time than "I only assigned 50 pages of reading, but we took it apart in class word by word"? And is it easier to assign 400 pages of reading and not discuss it if you really need to be working on your publications so you can get tenure?

#130 ::: Tehanu ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 08:37 PM:

I've hired, trained, edited, and supervised technical writers for 30 years. In general, the newbies now are not much worse than the newbies were back in the '80s ... but they are worse, no question. It's not quite as bad as it might be because they actually do want to be writers and are willing to work to fix their deficiencies, although it's often a horrible shock to them when they discover just how bad the deficiencies are. Usually they've been told what talented writers they are all through school, and it's only when they see their first efforts covered in red ink that reality dawns on them. Sometimes I wonder why I bother, though; management has started wanting everything written in "tables" (i.e., tweets) because it's too much trouble for them to read an actual sentence.

#131 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 08:42 PM:

Another factor to consider in how this occurs: the increasing use of casual labor (adjuncts, etc) in universities. If tenured and tenure-track professors have trouble going up against Deans etc. for flunking students, then those who can be fired without the slightest cause have much more trouble. (Not to *mention* that many adjuncts have to work ludicrous numbers of courses to make ends meet, and thus are less likely to see plagirism/bother to investigate.) And, of course, the customer-service model of higher education (I pay your salary, give me an A), plus the desperate financial straits of many schools, feed into this too.

Incidentally, TNH (#72) implies that this is illegal (or why else would they have trouble declaring the income on their taxes); Xopher (#77) implies it *should* be, i.e. it isn't now. Does anyone know -- is this actually illegal? Or just unethical? (My vague sense is that even if you were try to pass laws against it, you'd run up against various bogus fig-leaves, i.e. a cover page that says "this is just for research, not a completed assignment", but which are hard to disprove. But IANAL. Does anyone know?)

#81: Yes.

#132 ::: Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 08:45 PM:
Science folks tend to be a bit smug about this sort of article on the grounds that It Could Never Happen In My Subject, but now I've been wondering all afternoon whether this is actually so. If you're doing a lab-based PhD there's probably no-one on the internet who will build your calorimeter or quantum dot for you; but what about pure maths or cosmology? China has a lot of bright young graduates out there; are there virtual sweatshops turning out theses in algebraic topology and brane theory for lazy Westerners?
I doubt that strongly, though I'm certain that there are near-broke math grad. students turning out undergraduate final projects in mathematics. However, for anything too much more serious, you are going to start hitting language barriers pretty soon.

One area on the science-ish side of academia that has been dealing with this for ages is CS. (Just go see my comments on ML from five years ago) I don't know that a generally satisfactory solution has been discovered. The language barrier there isn't going to flag solutions written by people other than your student, and the necessity of code having a specific function and passing through a compiler makes it necessarily more uniform, and harder to judge when the "voice" of a particular project is clearly different from that a given student has used previously.

#133 ::: Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 08:58 PM:

TNH in #72 said:

As for the independent paper-writers, I have to wonder whether they declare the income on their taxes, and if so, how. They could be vulnerable as well.
Why on earth would they be? It is perfectly possible to declare illegal income on ones taxes, if you could even make a case that this income was illegal. (it might be abetting fraud, but that seems a stretch; of course, I'm not a lawyer)

It absolutely has to be possible to declare income from illegal sources without that declaration being used as evidence against you - otherwise, the IRS is a massive fifth amendment violation. See IRS Publication 17, and search it for "Illegal activity", "Stolen property", or "Bribe".

#134 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:11 PM:

Do high schools no longer teach students how to create a research paper? When I was a sophomore, I had a Creative Writing course, taught by our English Literature teacher. She took us through the process of creating a research paper, and required us to turn in outlines, draft notes, bibliography, draft and final papers, all which she critiqued and graded. There were several of these throughout the class year, each one building on the steps we learned previously; there were no tests, only the papers.

After going through that kind of wringer in high school, college paper requirements were fairly simple to prepare for. The study and research habits had already been ingrained. Do schools no longer teach such things any more?

#135 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:19 PM:

Wow, if I took Creative Writing and got that, I'd be really pissed. But I wish there'd been a course in doing that in my high school, and that I'd had the sense to take it.

#136 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:22 PM:

16
I met a test like the one in 'technique the first'. The idea was to make you read the entire test before you started writing, because the last thing on it, literally, was the instruction to write your name on the top line and do nothing else. (That was in second-year high school biology.)

#137 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:33 PM:

I have a dear friend who is an English instructor at a community college.

they have no problem outing and removing grades from students who resort to plagiarism. But their students are the working or just out of high school and etc., not children of privilege.

She says they get howls of protest until they show the students the matching, on-line paper. (which usually has claims that "Their teacher will NEVER find this!!!!!!")

#138 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:39 PM:

54
Engineering may be different, but so is the way that engineering students cheat.
We had some foreign students who would miss the physics exams, but would show up for the post-exam discussion in the cafeteria. It didn't take long for the rest of us to catch on to this, and start giving vague or misleading answers to the leading questions we were being asked.

Or, as I said to a supervisor who wanted me to tell her the answers to her son's apparently-meaningless final exam on computers that she was writing for him: The person doing the cheating should be the one getting the grade. (He wasn't writing the test because he had to get his tux for the graduation-night prom. Or so I was told.)

#139 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:53 PM:

70, 74
I once ran a program through the school computer system on punch cards. I recall that what I got back was the printout, but not the cards. (This was under the old-fashioned computer-room method of wrapping the printout around the card deck and putting the package in a pigeonhole for pickup, which does make it very easy for things to disappear.) Fortunately the instructor didn't care about not getting the cards ... much.

#140 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 09:58 PM:

And on the issue of being taught HOW to write papers. Granted, I'm an "Old Fart"(tm) but the first class I remember was in FIFTH GRADE. We were also told that if we directly copied ANYTHING we would get marked down on it.

We were already writing things, as early as third grade we were dong three-paragraph book report and that kind of thing. The papers expected only got more involved, and we were expected to perform okay. Granted, I had no problem but I know lots of other students who did.

#141 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:07 PM:

132
Someone like me would use distinctive names for variables and constants. (For example, in calculating time used to do something, my first tick would be fugit and the second tempus. I know someone who would name a loop-ending value hellfreezesover.)

#142 ::: Spiny Norman ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:19 PM:

I teach a big (hundreds of students), upper division molecular biology course. I ban calculators from exams, and *always* include simple math (addition, subtraction division, maybe squares or square roots, or if I'm feeling really evil, very simple logarithms) on the exams. No algebra. I get complaints about this, but it's a baseline BS detector. A student who can't do basic high school math *should* have trouble with a junior- or senior-level hard science course in college.

#143 ::: Jenett ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:21 PM:

Lee @47 : I did argue (in 11th grade British Lit class) that _Wuthering Heights_ was a lousy novel. Using definitions of novels from various dictionaries and literary criticism sources to demonstrate. Alas, that was in the early 90s, and I have not had a copy for years.

(I got an A-, but I also got a note asking me not to do it again, because it made discussions in department meetings trickier.)

Re: Turnitin.com: It doesn't solve the problem, but it does solve a couple of practical issues.

1) It deters some kinds of really easy copying, like an older sibling's/teammate's paper from a year or two ago (once you have enough in the database.)

2) It makes tracking down problematic passages faster. Won't catch everything, but the stuff it does catch goes about 4/5ths faster.

3) It also simplifies some issues of proof for teachers - both by acting as a general deterrant (assuming they also include "Here is what plagiarism is: do not do it" in their syllabus and at relevant points) and by making documentation of problems much faster and simpler.

You can incidentally (or at least you could last school year) change settings to eliminate a fair number of false positives, and to handle the problem of submitting both draft and final copies, though I admit that the usability design is not great.

#107: johnofjack: I had the same experience in a few of my MLIS classes, and also a number of "Your lack of intellectual curiosity really disturbs me" moments. (Though, also, some really great classmates.)

My favorite in hindsight was someone I was assigned to do a project with. We'd already had about 3 lengthy discussions on points of pretty common knowledge, when she spent about 20 minutes trying to argue that France was west of Spain. I finally went and got an atlas, and she mostly subsided after that. (I also don't think she finished the degree.)

Also the people who show up on library lists asking questions that can be answered with 30 seconds with Google. (Like which schools are ALA accredited.)

#144 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:26 PM:

I'm just watching in fascinated horror. It's one more reason to be glad my academic career didn't extend beyond grading homework as a grad student. And that was in physics, so right answers all tended to look alike regardless of who wrote them.

Several in my family are or have been academics and so are some of their friends. And so at every holiday gathering there are stories of Dumb Cheaters. The worst was when the cheating student was an instructor in another department of the same institution.

#145 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:28 PM:

Albatross at # 64: As a matter of fact, I do think that everyone should study a bit of economics. Or if not that, then thermodynamics. The lesson in either case being that you don't get something for nothing.

#146 ::: mensley ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 10:56 PM:

Madeline Robins @ 27 wrote: Teresa, my love for your Wuthering Heights thesis idea is considerable. I want to read the whole paper. There's a paper to be written on sfnal aspects of Jane Eyre too (Rochester does keep pointing out how strange and unearthly Jane is, after all).

I simply cannot resist the temptation to drop an excerpt from the TV show Friends into this thread, simply because this is the first I've seen that an excerpt from it is actually relevant and on-topic to the discussion here.

Rachel: (sitting down) So umm, what's this book about?

Phoebe: You didn't read this one either?!

Rachel: Well, I was gonna, but I accidentally read something else.

Phoebe: What?

Rachel: Vogue! Hey, so tell me about this Jane Eyre woman.

Phoebe: No! You should've read it yourself!

Rachel: Come on Phoebe! Don’t be such a goodie-goodie!

Phoebe: Fine! Okay, all right, so Jane Eyre, first of all, you'd think she's a woman, but she's not. She's a cyborg.

Rachel: A cyborg?! Isn't that like a robot?!

Phoebe: Yeah, this book was light years ahead of its time.

The Teacher: (entering) Sorry I'm late. Let's get started. So, what did everybody think about Jane Eyre?

Phoebe: Umm, Rachel and I were just discussing it and she had some very interesting insights.

The Teacher: Well, go ahead Rachel.

Rachel: Uh, thank you Phoebe. Umm, well, what struck me most when reading Jane Eyre was uh, how the book was so ahead of its time.

The Teacher: If you're talking about feminism, I think you're right.

Rachel: Yeah, well, feminism yes, but also the robots.

#147 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 11:03 PM:

P J @138: I tried to avoid saying that "Engineering students don't cheat" or "Engineering students who cheat get caught." I'm in a remote learning program, for pity's sake, I don't even want to THINK about how much cheating I could have done.

But, y'know, I'm spending my spare time yawping about sustainable energy [and thanks to the patience of those here who have read it] so I think I have cred as someone who's doing the work.

[Front of my brain at the moment: I have a design project which stores energy and would apparently make back three times its cost over the next 20 years, present value in both cases. "How would the world be different if this was true?" Time to check the math, followed by my assumptions. After that, time to round up investors and move to Texas? ]

#148 ::: The Raven ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 11:07 PM:

From a different perspective, I wonder how many of these degreed conservative cranks bought some of their coursework.

...and what about pre-med students? And lawyers?

My head is spinning, and I am not even flying in circles.

#149 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 11:14 PM:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mwbw9KF-ACY

Norwegian message about student plagiarism.

#150 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 11:28 PM:

j h woodyatt (# 114)

Likewise, it also teaches the "little people" that the laws and rules don't apply to the well privileged, that privilege isn't something that can be earned by playing by the rules, that privilege is something one acquires either by inheritance or by fraud, and more often than not by a wretched excess of both. It's probably not a good idea for that lesson to be actively drummed into the vast teeming hordes of "little people" either.

This is reminding me of the advice that is now given to people who have been laid-off in our New! Improved! Economy! -- the official advice now is that the single most important avenue for reemployment is "networking." In other words, the official advice now is "it's not what you know, it's *who* you know"

#151 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 11:31 PM:

I'm vaguely amused by how much Mamatas's description of his paper writing process is like writing articles for Wikipedia.

#152 ::: Carol Witt ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 11:35 PM:

Regarding turnitin.com:

Some courses use it at my university, though I haven't taken any of them. We're allowed to refuse to use it, in which case alternatives are suggested by the school, such as: "requiring annotated bibliographies from students; requiring students submit all rough work with their papers; [or] requiring that students include the call numbers or web site addresses of all sources cited in their paper."

#153 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 11:59 PM:

Craig, #150: There's actually a lot of truth in that. If you become active in some professional groups and get to know a number of people who are working in your field, you vastly increase the odds that when you're out of work, one of them will know someone who knows someone who's hiring. These days it's less about "old boys' network" than "6 degrees of separation". Even having professional-level friends in other fields can be helpful, because they may know someone else in your field.

#154 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 12:28 AM:

Craig R. @ 150:

In other words, the official advice now is "it's not what you know, it's *who* you know"

Nothing new about this. I've been laid off 4 times since 1987. Two of those times I got new jobs because someone I had worked with previously had an opening in his new organization, and the third time I got a really lousy job that I got out of a few months later by finding an old colleague who had another opening. The last time was in 2008; and when my unemployment started to run out I said to hell with it and retired. Some things even networking can't fix.

#155 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 12:34 AM:

Mary Aileen @123:

Well, it was my point, but yes.

Alex:

We are in violent agreement here. I used the term "manual worker" in the sense of "one who works with his or her hands". What I was saying was that there is no one whose employment is suited to not having been taught to think. I felt that the comment I was reacting to contained a number of buried assumptions, including the idea that there really are "brainless" jobs out there which schools should be preparing people to endure.

I happen to have a high level of respect for manual workers. Please read my comments again; I think the disrespect you think you see is from previous experiences that you're bringing to the current conversation.

#156 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 12:37 AM:

I fought to get into my college's Honors program because that select group of students was the only one in the whole student body NOT required to take English 101. The course description included "Learn to construct sentences and paragraphs." There was no "testing out" of that course.

Mostly I was afraid I might go into a homicidal rage at another student.*

My high school had a well-done series of courses on how to write well. The teacher I had for Term Paper (primary source) was the same one who taught an upper-level creative writing course, and one thing I remember vividly from that class is his insistence that if we did not know the exact definition of a word, we had to look it up. Then he had us look up "red."

He also had us do several exercises such as writing without adverbs, counting the frequency of the words we used to start sentences, and taking out every single instance of passive voice. I think that's about the time my writing got direct, and why those internet tests always say I write "male."

*My tolerance for student idiocy decreased noticeably during college. Unfortunately, my tolerance for hoop-jumping also decreased— not usually a problem**, but there was one class I should have taken as a sophomore that I took as a senior and barely pulled a C because I wasn't willing to play along with the BS.

**No, really. I had good teachers... and the courses with the dumbest classmates had an excellent, sarcastic teacher who knew that 80% of his students were drones, but who could point out tons of useful information if you were paying attention.

#157 ::: tymbri ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 12:38 AM:

I don't have time to read all of these, but I am grateful to have read all your thoughts, particularly Teresa and Marci's exchange up there somewhere. I am the student who works part time, paying exorbitant tuition, listening to her well off classmates brag about how easy it was to copy others work and graduate.
I dropped out of engineering. I'm back now but avoiding this kind of thinking is the only thing that's getting me to graduation. My boyfriend is doing electrical engineering, and recently found out that a large minority of his classmates pay people to not only write their programs, but to write their exams. My well off boasting classmate is now in law school.

(This is for the people who didn't think it happened in engineering. Maybe not to the same extent, but it happens)

#158 ::: Backpacking Dad ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 12:54 AM:

Back in my day we had to write our own essays uphill both ways. No one cheated and we all cleaned behind our ears.

...

Rather, getting the nerdy kid to do your homework for you was such a trope that the nerdy kids grew up and injected it into our cultural memory: the jock bullying the nerd into it; the cheerleader batting her eyelashes. We know these facts about school interactions because the nerds grew up to be writers and truth-tellers.

If it's a problem it's the same problem we've always had, but now the nerds require compensation instead of threats or promises.

Or is the problem that it's so widespread? In that case I have no idea how to tell that it's any more widespread than it ever was. Intuition? That since there's a cottage industry instead of localized bully-nerd interactions there must be more of it now? I'm not inclined to write off the university system based on that intuition. Testimony? Where's the credibility? Let's see some data before we start our fogeying. Academics and intellectuals are always the first to remind the rest of the backward-looking world that the good old days weren't good, just old. We need to be the ones to keep that perspective even when we're the ones who are inclined to romanticize the past, because there's no one left to do it for us.

#159 ::: Josh Berkus ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 01:31 AM:

Re: Turnitin.com

The company (iParadigms) is one of my clients. I'd be happy to ask them any questions you want about copyright of papers etc.; frankly, knowing the staff, I don't think it's ever *occurred* to them to use the papers for anything other than improving their quasi-Baysean algorithms.

Honestly, what would they use 8 million high school papers *for*, anyway?

Although the possibility in 10 years or so of mining their database to find out which politicians plagarized their middle-school term papers is very attractive ...

#160 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 01:33 AM:

Matthew Brown @117:

We tend to leave words as they are whenever possible.

But note that to the extent that you look like an "idiot" for having said them, you also look like a mensch for having the guts to own and apologize for them.

#161 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 01:40 AM:

I taught a course in what was called Professional Writing at U of Western Australia last year. I was called a Tutor. I think that probably means "TA" in the US.

This was an undergraduate course of one semester (half a year), in the second year of an Arts degree, rating a half-point in an academic year for which four full points were required.

The course content was canned, consisting of a self-contained set of notes, written by the course controller, with some directions for further reading. It was mainly concerned with structure, with some formal grammar (not much), and it was very basic, but unobjectionable.

Assessment was by assignment. The first was a "press release" of a thousand words or less, which had to meet certain specific requirements. This was worth thirty-five per cent of the course assessment.

Of the forty-five students I tutored, I passed all but one. My average mark was a C+. I gave twelve B's and one A. The student whom I failed had written three sentences that were actually unintelligible.

To my astonishment, not only did that student appeal the mark, but so did a dozen students with C passes, and one of the B's. The marks weren't high enough, they said.

To my utter astonishment all (all!) of the appeals were upheld, in effect. I was instructed that the fail would be given a pass.

Later, in the cafeteria, the person whom I had replaced (she had got a better job assessing proposals for doctoral programs) sympathised, and told a bunch of stories of her own about the wretched standard we were teaching, ending with an uneasy shrug, and words that stuck in my mind: "B is the new C, you know?"

Yes. And what would have been at most a component in a matriculation English course a generation ago is now found in the second year of an Arts degree at the foremost Arts and Law University in the State.

I needed the money. I taught the rest of the course, and marked as required.

I am thoroughly ashamed of myself.

#162 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 01:50 AM:

But note that to the extent that you look like an "idiot" for having said them, you also look like a mensch for having the guts to own and apologize for them.

And I, for one, remember the menschlichkeit much more than the idiocy.

#163 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 02:09 AM:

I'm actually surprised that nobody so far has mentioned Lawrence Block's Evan Tanner novels (starting with The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep, 1966). Tanner suffered a brain injury which left him unable to sleep -- he made a living ghostwriting term papers for college students. This does rather push back the point at which this sort of writing first became a problem.

His adventures sound very similar to Mr. Dante's. But more fun. These were in the high days of sexual innuendo in paperback originals. Block went on to write of other unlikely heroes.

#164 ::: Spiny Norman ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 02:09 AM:

Chris@119 -- you know what to call the bottom student in a medical school class, right?

#165 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 02:37 AM:

re blue books: My anthro of civilisation prof has a system. Everyone brings a blue book, and he puts them in a box. From the box he used in the last exam he doles out the blue book one uses for that exam.

My present English prof uses Turnitin. He said what he like about it (apart from the plagiarism from web/print sources being eaiser to spot, to say nothing of recycled papers) is the analytics he gets (things like percentage of quoted material). He seemed disappointed we don't get the same feedback.

That class, actually, is the first one, since I've returned to college, which has been any real challenge. I'm pulling a high B/low A. I'm feeling for him, because the class has dropped to about 15 students, half of whom have weak english (as a second language) and the other are all young.

He's a retired business type (undergrad in English from Princeton, MBA from Harvard. Retired from business, and still doing something in Japan. Really love English).

I'm not his typical student. I, for example, said Antigone wasn't a classic, per the definitions given by Calvino (actually, what I said is, there is nothing which is, or isn't, a classic according to Calvino: he is using the, "I know it when I see it, and you should too" school of definition. Absolute twaddle meant to cover his prejudices with authority), took Creon as the more relevant part of Antigone, etc.

It's not that I am smarter than the other students; but I am older, and more widely read. We shall see how I do on the last essay: compare and contrast Macbeth, and the Frankenstein.

#166 ::: cgeye ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 03:06 AM:

No one's mentioned the primary *academic* reason for the existence of fraternities and sororities: To serve as repositories of past students' work. This has been an open secret for decades, if not centuries, by now.

Anyone nowadays can booze and sex it up throughout one's academic career, but it takes collusion to keep tests and papers indexed for handy use, and to keep members contributing to the pile.

#167 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 03:23 AM:

Albatross @ 100

I'm not a mediaevalist, but if I was expected to read absolutely everything in my field I'd...

...well, actually, I'd probably have a lot less time for giving individualised feedback on every single paper (and outline) that's submitted to me by my students (most of whom are second-language English students).

I think the detail that I liked the most - apart from the fact that there's nothing unusual about a Finnish MP having a PhD in philosophy - was that one of Martin Stone's professed field of expertise was mediaeval views about lying and deception and that:

the article Truth, deception, and lies in volume 68 (2006), pp. 101-131 has been retracted as it has been found to plagiarise work by Johann P. Sommerville ("The 'new art of lying:' equivocation, mental reservation and casuistry," in E.Leites, ed., Conscience and casuistry in early modern Europe, Cambridge University Press 1988, pp. 159-184)

broundy @ 121: one thing I like about Nick Mamatas's piece is its complete lack of (what I think Abi has described elsewhere as) 'Anglophone privilege'. It's far too easy - and a temptation which I have to constantly fight against in my job - to equate a person's ability to think a coherent thought, or indeed their overall level of intellectual virtue, with their ability to construct a grammatical English sentence.

#168 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 03:37 AM:

@166. Argh. What preview won't do is alert you to the fact that after 60 comments, you sometimes need to recontextualise for implied anaphoric back-references.

'My favourite detail in the story about the plagiarising academic',of course

#169 ::: Fran Walker ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 03:41 AM:

Turnitin.com isn't just for high school students. My Uni (in New Zealand) uses it. It's compulsory, though I'm not sure if students are ever told their papers are archived there, or in fact if they're ever taught what plagiarism is.

Plagiarism is a problem: a few years ago we had to chuck out a doctoral student because his entire thesis was plagiarised, and I have a postgrad student who I had to thump repeatedly to make her realise that rearranging a few words in a sentence or replacing "ten years" with "a decade" was still plagiarism.

High marks, though, are more of a problem. Lecturers aren't allowed to fail students, because the Uni only gets government funding for the students who pass their papers and graduate (here, about 75% of the costs of teaching are funded by the government, with the other 25% being covered by student-paid tuition). Now they're trying to tie part of the funding to graduates getting employment, which is going to make the whole mess even crazier.

#170 ::: Rob T. ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 03:51 AM:

Elliott Mason @16: Your mother's flower technique reminds me of Van Halen and the brown M&M's. Van Halen used to be notorious for having an apparently whimsical clause in their concert contracts requiring brown M&M's to removed from the backstage area. There was method to their madness, though; the clause was designed to determine whether their contract had been thoroughly read.

Van Halen shows involved setting up huge amounts of equipment, and the consequences of doing this wrongly or carelessly could be disastrous. Brown M&M's, therefore, served as canaries in the coal mine. Or as David Lee Roth put it: "So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you're going to arrive at a technical error. They didn't read the contract. Guaranteed you'd run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening."

Always useful to be reminded that not doing one's homework has real consequences outside of academia.

#171 ::: broundy ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 04:37 AM:

praisegod barebones @167: one thing I like about Nick Mamatas's piece is its complete lack of (what I think Abi has described elsewhere as) 'Anglophone privilege'.

I feel a great deal of sympathy for students who are still learning to speak English - I can understand them wanting to go to a paper mill.

I once spent a few weeks grading papers for the Georgia Dept. of Education. At the time (and this may still be the case), all high school students in Georgia had to write a two-page essay on an assigned topic* before they could graduate. I sat in a room with a dozen other recent college graduates, ranking the papers on a scale of 1 to 5, considering spelling, grammar, ability to form an argument, etc. We had metrics and model papers to help us, but in general, a paper had to be really, really terrible to get a "1" rating, because a student with that score wasn't allowed to graduate.

Most of the essays weren't very good, but the worst were from students who clearly did not speak English as their first language. And I received two or three that just consisted of a single sentence, something like: "me no engelish pleez pass me pleez need gradjuate."

Those papers were just heartbreaking. But I had the metric right there, and this was my job, so... I had to reject them. I still feel bad about it.

*That year the topic was "Why you shouldn't smoke." Almost everyone on the grading staff started smoking heavily after the first few days, because we were thinking about cigarettes all the time. But after three weeks of it, we all had to resist the urge to walk up to smokers in the street and inform them that smoking was bad.

#172 ::: Emma ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 05:10 AM:

Not to depress you all further, but I work as an academic editor, getting historical research ready for publication on a prestigious digital humanities site. Part of the process requires fruther research on every named person, building, organisation etc in the text. It's fairly horrifying how many times I find plagiarised or carelessly cut and pasted text during this research. Sometimes articles come in with the links out to Wikipedia still there - the academic has changed the font and colour so they look okay, but when the document goes into xml they work just like new. Searching for hyperlink format has become a basic element in my checklist.

And these are not students. Far from it.

#173 ::: Zora ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 06:03 AM:

I recently did a short editing job, for a Norwegian graduate student. He had to submit his papers in English (why, I don't know) and his English was marginal.

That I could understand. It was his utter ignorance that floored me. He sent me his paper; I read it, wrote a two-page critique, and asked him if he wanted to deal with some of the substantive problems in his paper before I did the edit. Sure, he said. He sent me the revised version just four hours before it was due, and it was just as STUPID as the first version. I did a flying edit. Left a fair number of typos, I'm afraid. I also commented on some of the gaping holes in his argument.

He didn't want to use me for the next paper. I suspect that my frustration with his comprehensive ignorance and complete inability to make a convincing presentation had leaked through my attempt at bland professionalism.

It absolutely floored me that I knew more than he did in a field that I had never formally studied. And he was a graduate student!

#174 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 07:05 AM:

My first touch of "use someone else's work in an academic setting" was when one of my co-students (now, I believe, a PhD student, hopefully bettered in his ways) asked me if it was OK if he snagged my cmoputing labs, to turn in as his own. That was met with a quick "make files unreadable fr everyone except me" and a return email saying "No. Ask again and I'll report you."

As far as plagiarism and not doing your own work goes, I did feel like a bit of a cheat for co-authoring a progress report for a conference a few years ago. But, then, I've written somewhere between 40% and 70% of the code we were writing the progress report on and my co-author wrote the other bits (the codebase has since grown and now incorporate quite a few (credited) third-party libraries). That probably tells something about me (and the fact that I haven't actually been in academia for something like 14 years and still does that sort of thing probably tells you something else).

Jenett @ #143:
The French mainland is most certainly not west of the westmost part of Spain (some parts are west of the eastmost parts of Spain). But if you include overseas departements, I believe the westmost part of France is well west of the westernmost part of Spain.

So, in a conventional sense, "France is west of Spain" is blatantly false, but if you nit-pick enough, it may be true.

#175 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 07:07 AM:

Various upthread: I can't speak for St Andrews, being English. However, when that I was and a little tiny boy, admission to Oxford and Cambridge, which are more or less equivalent, was dependent, in all disciplines, on passing a three hour written exam called "Use of English", which did exactly what it said on the tin.

This was abandoned under political pressure at some point in the 1970s. Too elitist, you see.

#176 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 08:30 AM:

Emma @ 171: My work sometimes involves placing quotes from other people's websites into our online encyclopaedia (e.g. copying what a given organisation says it does, with proper attribution, of course). I always take the text from the other website, paste it into a Notepad text document, then copy it from there into my .html page. Strips out all the code. Even if I have to go back through and e.g. re-do bullet points, it's worth it for knowing I've not accidentally incorporated extraneous code.

And no, you cannot rely on someone citing a paper they wrote correctly in the references of another paper.

Re. teaching of English at schools in the UK, I was going through my primary and secondary education in the 1970s/first half of the 1980s and we certainly had to parse sentences, and were taught how to write essays, but I was at a private school (my parents knew the local state schools were bad, which is why they spent their money on ensuring I amd my siblings got a good education, while other people at the same income level might have been going on holidays abroad). Interestingly, writing a thesis statement was not included at any point (possibly was in e.g. English or History at "A" level (exams at 18), but I did sciences at that stage, so I wouldn't know one way or the other). We also were not allowed to use calculators in maths prior to "O" Level (exams at 16) - we could use one in the O-Level exam itself, but not in classes or for homework. This meant that (a) we got a proper grasp of numbers; (b) if the batteries died, we could use log tables correctly. My brother, 6-7 years ahead of me, learned how to use a slide rule, but they were gone by my time.

#177 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 08:56 AM:

praisegod #167:

The problem isn't that *everyone* didn't read his papers, but that apparently almost *nobody* read them. I've had papers of mine plagiarized before (from some guys at a university I'd never heard of in Pakistan), and it was other researchers in my field who pointed it out to me, when they ran across the papers and thought "hey, this sounds really familiar." But my field has an ever-increasing number of conferences and journals and publications, and I can kind-of see how this could happen.

#178 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 09:01 AM:

An academic institution that is not allowed to fail a student is a complete waste of time. That's a very clear example of "if we don't measure what we value, we'll end up valuing what we measure", e.g., money paid for butts in chairs.

The logical extension is a contract that says "pay us X thousand dollars, sign this statement saying you attended and passed all these imaginary classes, and we'll collect our funding and award you an imaginary degree." The Farmville approach to education.

Incidentally, someone upthread mentioned for-profit colleges. As of a few months ago,Wal-Mart offers its employees "scholarships" of up to 15 percent at one such institution. If their prices are similar to others in the field, that 15 percent would probably pay for an actual education at a community college. Oh, and they also offer college credit for performing your job at Wal-Mart.

#179 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 09:18 AM:

Constance @106:

One of the underlying causes of this kind of plagiarism that hasn't been mentioned by the writer of the article or here is the proliferation in the last 20 years of cheapjack 'institutions of higher learning.' What they are, are extractors of federal education funds, particularly via student loans. The programs and degrees are worthless in terms of the student learning anything.
That explains some stuff I've run into. Check out this comment from the Absolute Write forums. It’s addressed to a young woman who'd fallen into an exploitive “edit slush for pennies” scam run by a notorious “literary agency.” The comment is explaining that neither her editing work for the agency nor her BFA program in creative writing qualifies her for non-entry-level editorial positions.
... [Y]ou have some bad news coming to you. You can reject it, or you can listen and adjust your course and get on with your life. ...

Creative writing programs have been popping up all over the American academic scene like moth eggs hatching in woollens in the spring. They're popular, they're cheap to administer and staff, and most people can't tell whether the instructors have any idea what they're talking about.

The comment observes that all of these programs have been turning out BFAs and MFAs, many of whom can't write well enough to get paid for it. Their two choices are to get a non-writing job, or to teach writing in one of these programs.
I've looked at the list of full-time faculty members in your fiction-writing program. Roughly half of them have near-zero commercial publication credits, and many of those who have published commercially are journalists. The department chair has no history of commercial publication, unless you count instructional materials for wanna-be writers, which no one does. Five of the people on that list, including the department chair, describe themselves as having novels in progress (some of which appear to have been in progress for a long time). ... One instructor says she's finished a book, but (a.) it's journalism or near-journalism, and (b.) she self-published it through BookSurge.

One full-time faculty member ... is the nephew of the husband-and-wife team of professors who appear to be the real powers in the department.

The nephew's only novel got a stunningly bad PW review. Three of the full-time faculty got their BFAs or MFAs from that writing program. Almost all of the faculty's publication credits list work published in the department’s three literary magazines.

Instruction is built around a trademarked writing method invented by a professor emeritus (of the husband-and-wife professorial team). He also runs the [Trademarked Writing Method] Institute, which claims to be an independent training organization. However, the TWM is used only by that department’s writing program, all of its trainees work there, and most of the program's faculty are TWM trainees. The TWM professor is the department bigfoot: he's published one well-regarded nonfiction book.

And for this, the girl was paying tuition.

#180 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 09:29 AM:

The logical extension is a contract that says "pay us X thousand dollars, sign this statement saying you attended and passed all these imaginary classes, and we'll collect our funding and award you an imaginary degree."

First they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.

#181 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 09:53 AM:

Teresa #179:

I probably harp on this too often, but when respectable universities and other institutions go along with something like this worthless creative writing degree program, it diminishes that university's authority (and to a lesser extent, other universities' authority) when its professors make some statement about, say, global warming or vaccine safety or evolution.

The respectable institutions in our society are notoriously willing to lie and deceive people when it serves their interests. This has grave consequences for us. IMO, it's one of the reasons why silliness like the antivax movement, the truthers, and the birthers can continue to exist.

#182 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 10:03 AM:

It amazes me how many students think a University of Phoenix degree means anything at all -- they're not an accredited institution, their credits do NOT transfer to any real university, and their degrees aren't worth the paper they're not printed on.

I have a friend who's taken classes there, and apparently some of the classes (if you do the work) really do teach you stuff, but nobody out in 'the real world' will believe you know it if you say you learned it at Phoenix.

#183 ::: Charlie Dodgson ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 10:23 AM:

A belated, quick thought on the question that got posed way back: "When am I going to use this?"

There's a name for schools that teach only what the students will need in their professional lives: vocational training. But the way I remember it, a university education was generally once taken to stand for something else: the notion that there are things worth knowing for their own sake, that enrich your life or make you a better citizen (civics, say, or history or political science) whether you're making money off them directly or not. I've been wondering for a while whether the weird, substance-free character of current American political debate has something to do with the widespread lack of that kind of education.

Then again, a lot of our great universities seem to have reconceived their role in society since, say, the '60s and '70s --- from repositories and disseminators of knowledge for its own sake, to commercial enterprises. Thirty years ago, there were serious debates at schools about how out-of-school commercial activity of the faculty could compromise a school's academic mission. Now, the schools themselves are routinely caught up in it, and brag about the strength of their patent portfolios. And when I see slide decks or research talks that say "[Ivy League] University Proprietary Information", I'm the only guy in the room that even blinks.

#184 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 10:41 AM:

Elliott: even back when I was in high school, I'd heard the term "diploma mill"--I wonder if anyone's introduced the concept of accreditation to these students? There seem to be a lot of people whose educational decisions are based solely on advertising and fast-talking salesmen; have they never been walked through the "here's how you qualify to get into college--here's how you find an appropriate college--here's how you apply for financial aid"?

#185 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 10:53 AM:

When I mark papers I sit in front of my computer, with Google up. Every time I come across something that looks in the least dubious I google it, sometimes two or three times (taking phrases from different parts of the essay). When I find plagiarism I print out the source I've found on the net and attach it to the essay. Then I write "Plagiarism. Grade: 0." If the assignment is a final essay I may be obliged to add, "course grade: F." It isn't something I like to do.

Generally, once I've caught plagiarism the student tends to avoid the offence afterwards. However, I've had cases where students were less than clear on the concept (including one where the student stalked me since he couldn't graduate with an F on his transcript and I had to threaten to call the police).

In one or two cases, I've googled links to essay mills. Those I find particularly disturbing. On the other hand, perhaps I ought to be more disturbed by the student who, writing an essay on Mussolini, decided to copy an article which argues that Mussolini never truly deviated from his original socialism.

#186 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 10:55 AM:

Charlie Dogdson: To the student who asks "When am I going to need this?" I reply: I don't know, kid. When are you going to need to:

1. Think?
2. Analyze a bunch of new information and determine whether it's reliable?
3. Communicate clearly and concisely to another person, or group of people?
4. Learn something new?
5. Work with someone who has a very different background or viewpoint from yours?

Or in my case, when are you going to need to create a 7th-grade curriculum, from scratch, that will cover all the required material and get your child ready for re-entry into public school in 8th grade? Because I had to do that, with zero notice, and I did it more than adequately, and I couldn't have done it without my liberal arts education. Or in other words, what Teresa said: I don't know when you're going to need this, and neither do you.

Also, all that Latin and Greek I took when I thought I was going into the ministry? That made medical terminology the easiest class I ever took. And my boss with the Ph.D. sometimes asks me things like "how do you spell sphygmomanometer?"

As you may deduce, I have both a liberal arts education (A.B., Religion) and a vocational education (A.A.S., Physical Therapist Assistant). I'm a member of both Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Theta Kappa. The A.A.S. was harder than the A.B. It is much more difficult to bullshit on a kinesiology exam than on a philosophy of religion exam, for instance. YMMV.

And back to the subject of cheating: Questions like "tell me everything you know about the ankle" are really hard to cheat on.

#187 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 11:32 AM:

Charlie Dodgson @183 writes: "And when I see slide decks or research talks that say "[Ivy League] University Proprietary Information", I'm the only guy in the room that even blinks."

The next logical step in the ongoing degeneration, you must realize, is the transformation of $UNIVERSITY into a patent troll.

#188 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 12:11 PM:

This has been going on a lot longer than y'all seem to imagine. Two generations have grown up (at least in that area) without the opportunity to learn how to write the easy way, from an early age. (Of course they have classes in "writing" later in school.)

When my oldest daughter (now in her 50s) was in the third grade,she brought home a paper from school. It was of the fill-in-the-blanks type. It read, approximately, "The name of this book is ( ). The main idea of (name of book) is ( ). I liked (name of book) because ( )"

I said "What's this?" and my daughter said "It's a book report." I of course replied, "That's not a book report. THIS is a book report" and proceeded to teach her how to write a book report. A real one. As I recall, her teacher accepted it, and replied to my note, to the effect that this was "part of the syllabus".

Alas for actual learning. This btw is why all of my kids were home-schooled, at least in part.

#189 ::: Jenett ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 12:58 PM:

Ingvar @ #174: You're quite right about the nitpicking.

It'd probably help to have a piece of context: this was my Reference in the Humanities class, and the project was (in pairs or groups of three) to research and find resources relating to the Arthurian legends and some particular subtopic - literature, geography, music, art, philosophy, etc.

I was a Music and Medieval/Renaissance Studies major as an undergraduate, which among other things included a semester class on the Arthurian legends. While I knew a lot of the background on all of the areas, I picked the philosophy topic because it was the one where I had done the least formal research/reading (and thus better for practicing the actual library bits of the project).

All of which meant that we were talking pre-colonial France (and Spain), which made the relevant geography easier. (I think we'd gotten on there somehow about the development of standing stones and religion, though at this point, I forget the details)

#190 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 01:11 PM:

Elliott Mason @182 -

People think a Phoenix degree is worth something because companies like the Giant Megacorp my Major Motion Picture Studio is currently under accept them as such, pay tuition for them just as they would an Actual University, and consider a degree from the bogus institution just as legit when it comes to promotions, etc.

Back at the height of the Mortgage Boom, I worked (highly unsuitably) in the Mortgage Division of a Bignormous Bank. I was temping for about what an In-n-Out employee makes and I had two VPs with MBAs constantly running their e-mails through me so I could make them readable before they embarrassed themselves sending them out. When a permanent admin position was open they sadly noted that I had no degree and didn't qualify. I say they should have vacated their offices in shame if they were able to get an undergrad and Masters degrees without knowing how to construct a sentence.

I temped at my current place of work a few years before getting hired for a somewhat technical position. Should it come time to find a new job, hopefully the specialization will make the lack of degree moot because I'm just getting too damn old to temp my way into gainful employment.

#191 ::: Lawrence ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 01:20 PM:

Elliott Mason @182: I'd heard that the University of Phoenix was pretty decent -- that it was, in fact, the only "online university" that's not just a diploma mill. I'm sorry to read otherwise.

#192 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 01:23 PM:

Not to dispute anything1 that's been asserted here, but I'd like to toss another angle into the pot for contemplation:

I wonder how much of a factor this might be. While I didn't cheat, I certainly didn't exert myself to excel in school. Basically, all I wanted was out. Out of my family situation, which provided no feedback except Ur Doin It Rong. Out of school, which seemed like an extension of and marginally less dysfunctional system than family. Nevermind a complete absence of the sweet brain-tickle Teresa talks about.

It wasn't until I was out of the system for a good ten years that I began to grasp the options and possibilities that I had allowed to slip through my grasp. And it's only now, well into my 50s, that I begin to see what I would want to get out of advanced ed. And, of course, it's now (still) well beyond my reach financially.

At the time the options were available to me, my sole and only objective was to get out alive.

1In summary: laziness/ill-preparedness of students, complicity of education professionals, devaluing/hijacking of credentials & so on.

#193 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 01:27 PM:

As it happens, I've been looking in getting some sort of computer-related qualification, and all this makes me wonder just how good all these Microsoft-backed exams really are. They don't have to be dishonest, but they are a business. And do the people doing the recruiting think of them in the way that the adverts suggest.

I have a heck of a lot of practical experience, even attaching motherboards with a hot soldering iron, but none of it is documented. And, these days, the documents matter. But the stuff I did with MS-DOS isn't relevant now. I would need to show I'm current. (And it looks as though some of the testing is extremely specific on the correct answer.)

#194 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 01:35 PM:

Allan @144:

It's one more reason to be glad my academic career didn't extend beyond grading homework as a grad student. And that was in physics, so right answers all tended to look alike regardless of who wrote them.

That was a problem (my TA experience was in astronomy), but, like unhappy families, all wrong answers are wrong in different ways. Two problem sets with exactly the same errors were generally a good indication of collaboration.

Most of the homeworks I graded had at least some non-numerical portions, though, which made matters easier to judge. My policy in cases of unallowed collaboration was to take the earned grade and divide by the number of contributors; if four students working together earned 80%, they each got 20% on the assignment.

The best Dumb Cheater case while I was in grad school wasn't one of my students, though. Some hapless and luckless undergrad copied sections of a professional paper written by another member of our department. Sadly Dr. X wasn't available to be the university-mandated observer for the academic dishonesty meeting that resulted, though just asking the student to explain some of the terminology from "her" paper was enough.

#195 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 01:35 PM:

Relatedly, I spent the weekend teaching my 9 year old an indispensible educational skill. Not, as it happens, essay-writing; this week's lesson was rote memorization.

His class is going through the provinces one by one, studying their principal cities and landmarks. At the end of each unit, there's a map test in which the children have to name 15 - 20 specific items. He's been failing these, so we asked his teacher to send a worksheet home. I acquired a bag of M&Ms as well.

Then I spent the weekend drilling him. He was prepared to hate the process, but ended up not minding at all. We started with some familiarization, constructed amusing mnemonics, used poly dice for randomization, did open-book and closed-book drills verbally and in writing, and zoomed in on areas he was having trouble with. Closed-book drilling was rewarded with one M&M per correct answer, with an added 50% bonus for all correct answers.

With very little disruption to our weekend's routine, he learned to identify (and spell) the 18 principal features of the province of Drenthe. (So, as a consequence, did I.) The test was Monday; I don't know how he did yet, but he got a perfect score on the final drill before school.

(Next weekend is a book report. It's one of two oral reports he has to do in the year. The other is an informational presentation, complete with PowerPoint slides. Doing that well is going to be an interesting skill to teach.)

#196 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 02:07 PM:

I think people are being a bit too hard on teachers here. The primary job of a teacher is to teach. That's what they should be evaluated (graded?) on. Providing credentials is a secondary job. (Think about it - would you prefer a class with a teacher who was great at explaining the material but couldn't catch a cheater who just pulled their essay from Wikipedia, or a class with a teacher who caught every single cheater but gave incomprehensible lectures).

The problem is there is not an independent credentialing authority for a college education. Setting something like that up is difficult, because when the credentialee is buying, they look for places that will give them a good evaluation.

#197 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 02:08 PM:

re 179: Since the woman who taught my creative writing class in college had a Really Published Novel, does that mean my grade in the class was worth something?

re 195: This is the Irreducible Boredom of Learning, which if you have the temperament or wit can be made less boring but no less essential. Languages require vocabulary; history, geography and the like require similar factoid memorization. Languages and mathematics require drill, just as learning a musical instrument does.

#198 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 02:15 PM:

Steve @ 196 ...
(Think about it - would you prefer a class with a teacher who was great at explaining the material but couldn't catch a cheater who just pulled their essay from Wikipedia, or a class with a teacher who caught every single cheater but gave incomprehensible lectures).

Well -- in the second case, you'd know exactly what the students did(n't) learn...

In the first case you'd have no idea if the teacher was actually great or not, since the students cheated, so you've no idea what their retention actually turned out to be...

#199 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 02:19 PM:

From what I've heard about the University of Phoenix, my impression is that you CAN get a decent education there, but you have to be motivated and work harder than you necessarily HAVE to to get a degree.

The Wikipedi article reports some of UofP's programs (nursing, business, teacher ed, and counseling) have been recognized by accepted accreditation organizations. (Not necessarily the MOST accepted organizations.)

I was actually peripherally connected to the beginning of UofP. Back in 1976-77, I was working as a legal secretary for a private attorney. One of his clients was John Sperling and his then-partner (whose name I don't recall, and who seems to go unmentioned on the UofP history webpage), who were trying to get UofP up and running. The particular problem they brought to my boss was that the state of Arizona was suing them to prevent the use of the word "University" in their name.

My boss tried running a line of argument past me to see how it flew. ("The word 'university' is not reserved for state-run institutions of learning....", blah blah blah.)

My reaction was pretty much: "Bullshit! 'University' may not technically be reserved for state-run universities, but that's the first thing people think of when they hear the word. And 'university' carries impressions of a long history, experience and reputation. Ivy-covered halls, that whole shebang. AND most actual universities don't START by calling themselves universities; it's something that should be earned, not declared. Bullshit." (Arizona State University started out as Tempe Normal School*, as an example.)

My boss, a month or two later, got hired for a staff position with the State Court of Appeals and closed his private practice. The UofP case got shuffled to a different attorney, who I guess was successful in arguing Sperling's case. But I still hold by my initial impression: Sperling and partner may have been trying to start up a decent new school, or even a "college", but the word "university" had too much baggage attached for me not to call bullshit on them.


*I've always wondered if there was a Tempe Abnormal School. It would probably have been a lot more interesting to attend.

#200 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 02:26 PM:

re 183: There has always been a tension between work and general knowledge, because some fields (e.g. engineering and comp. sci.) are more plainly vocational than others (e.g. how many people are professional philosophers?). One of the things that I found peculiar about the engineering department in UMCP back in my day (late 1970s) was that they had their own versions of the general studies sorts of courses, and if you were an engineering student you had to take those rather than courses offered by the departments in whose field the course would generally be held to fall.

The bizarre competition for incoming students cannot last too much longer, as student loans are a speculative house of cards which is surely going to collapse soon enough.

#201 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 02:30 PM:

Steve @196, there ARE credentialing authorities for college educations. There are umbrella ones, like the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges, which credentials whole institutions, and more specific ones, like the American Library Association, which credentials library schools in the US. And then there are the athletic ones as well. In a big university like where I am now, I don't think a lot of us below the associate dean level get involved, and I understand some of the requirements have been a bit watered down, but a number of years ago I went through both a "substantive change" review and a regular 10-year review at the small college where I worked. It was all hands on deck. They pried into EVERYTHING, down to how the library would support the evening classes offered off campus and what we did about outcomes measurements surveys three and five years after graduation in each major. It was an eye-opening experience. I've assisted in a very distant way with some credentialing of individual schools here, preparing reports on what sort of materials the library has in support of specific majors and how often it gets used.

Bottom line, the savvy would-be student should be looking to see if the school and program they are considering has the proper credentials. Or more realistically, the guidance counselor and/or parent should be looking into this and explaining why it's important.

#202 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 02:41 PM:

abi (155): Sorry. I knew I should have gone back and checked that.

#203 ::: Nightsky ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 03:02 PM:

I am agog at the existence of MSLS candidates who don't like to read. WTF? Are they doing it for the vast, vast sums of money? Is this a problem in other fields? Are our MFA programs in creative writing stuffed with people who hate writing?

Now then. Building on Lawrence@40: when I was in high school in the first half of the 1990s, much newspaper ink was spilled on the subject of my generation's illiteracy, innumeracy, sloth, willingness to cheat, lack of respect, willful trampling of the elder generations' lawns, etc.; how colleges were appalled at the influx of us minimally educated, socially promoted ignoramuses; and how society would probably collapse as a direct result of us being in the workforce.

Now--surprise! The exact same complaints are being made about this generation of young people. I suppose standards may have slipped a bit since my day... but my day wasn't that long ago. Maybe they DID chuck out the syllabus once I graduated and immediately instituted the dumbing-down... or, maybe, today's kids are doing at least as well as yesterday's kids [1], and are just getting the exact same hooey that all generations of kids have gotten from adults who want to feel better about themselves.

[1] Personally, I find today's kids to be terrible spellers and grammarians but capable of grasping some quite sophisticated ideas--check out some of today's YA lit.

#204 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 03:23 PM:

Bruce Arthurs #199
From what I've heard about the University of Phoenix, my impression is that you CAN get a decent education there, but you have to be motivated and work harder than you necessarily HAVE to to get a degree.

The same could be said about many institutions. I think the best you can hope for is that getting a degree without an education requires conscious choice of the soft options.


#205 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 03:27 PM:

Janet, #201: Yeah, I remember when David Lipscomb College in Nashville decided that they wanted to be David Lipscomb University instead, and they had to go thru an accreditation process to make that change; apparently there are things (at least in TN) that a university is required to have and do that a college is not. Which in turn makes me deeply suspicious of the process by which "University of Phoenix" acquired the name; does AZ not have accreditation standards equal to those of TN, or did somebody pay the right bribe, or what?

#206 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 04:06 PM:

Lee @205, Yes, when I was at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski the substantive change review was when we went from two-year to four-year, and there were long lists about what we had to provide to justify the change. I got the impression then that, in SACS-accredited schools at least, 'University' was reserved for intitutions that offered graduate degrees.

Now this is something I didn't know. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation maintains a database of accredited schools at http://www.chea.org/search/actionInst.asp. University of Phoenix is accredited by North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which probably has different criteria than SACS.

(Oh, and I'd forgotten, since MMC was a Methodist-associated college, there was a whole 'nother layer of accreditation from the church...)

#207 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 04:20 PM:

@198 - I'm not asking whose students you think would perform better - I'm asking which class you would rather take, as a student. The point you bring up is an excellent illustration of the source of the problem. As a student in the class, you get 2 things - you get knowledge of the subject matter, and you get a credential saying you have knowledge of the subject matter. Which one of those things is more important? One teacher will give you more knowledge, and the other will give you a better credential. The problem comes when you try to evaluate the performance of the teachers - as you say, for the second teacher you can see how well the students are doing by looking at the grades, but you can't with the first teacher.

(Side note: evaluation is part of teaching - I don't mean to suggest that the first teacher can't write good tests. If you don't cheat in his course, you will get the grade you deserve - it's just that you don't know whether your classmates also deserve the grades they got).


@201
I know that colleges are accredited by outside bodies - my point was that college students aren't. There's no place you can go and take a test (or more likely, a series of tests) which, if you pass, will give you a college degree. (Or rather, there are such places, but they insist on selling you a bunch of classes as well).

This means that the same institution which is selling you the credential also has an interest in selling you an education. As far as detecting cheating goes, this is a conflict of interest. Kicking someone out of college for cheating is a loss of money for the school. It would be nice if people were always honest enough to prevent this from influencing them, but I suspect that some peoples only motivation to check for cheaters is to maintain their accreditation.

#208 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 04:37 PM:

re 203: There have been some substantial attitude changes over the years. UMCP's approach to admissions and retention changed radically between the time I started and the time I got my MS there. In the mid-1970s, when there were 40K undergraduates, what you needed to get in was (a) money (not hard in those days) and (b) a high school diploma. They then proceeded to flunk half the freshman class in the first semester. Since college prestige seems to be largely determined by admissions, the "we'll give anyone a chance but it's sink-or-swim" policy gave way to jacking up admissions requirements, in the process sawing off the 8,000 first semester losers. Like everyone else they've gone on a huge facilities program, and over the last decade they've started calling me begging for money. (I always say no.)

I wasn't aware of this until just recently, but there are substantial retention differences among colleges.

#209 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 04:49 PM:

j h woodyatt @114:

Teresa @39 writes: "Because it teaches privileged students that laws and rules are for the little people, not for them. It's a very, very bad idea to teach that lesson to that class."
Likewise, it also teaches the "little people" that the laws and rules don't apply to the well privileged, that privilege isn't something that can be earned by playing by the rules, that privilege is something one acquires either by inheritance or by fraud, and more often than not by a wretched excess of both. It's probably not a good idea for that lesson to be actively drummed into the vast teeming hordes of "little people," either.
True! And unquestionably one of the reasons why education matters.

If I'd listened to the subliminal broadcast signals when I was in high school, by now I could have an MA in Education and an underwater mortgage. I don't. I continue to judge the world via rules of thumb like "Never believe in a meritocracy in which no one is funny-looking."

Renee @128: "Everyone does it" is what people tell themselves who do it. Maybe her social circle in high school did that. I never did. I was working at Tor when I first found out how many elementary and middle-school students copy from the encyclopedia. It shocked me. It had never occurred to me that you could do that without getting caught.

Stephen Frug @131: Apparently it's not illegal. I don't see how that's possible, but it's so.

John L @134: The degree of emphasis on research and writing varies from school to school. IIRC, you couldn't graduate from my high school without it. On the other hand, that young lady who was asking for help with Wuthering Heights regards a five-paragraph essay as a major piece of work.

The Bush "No Child Left Behind" initiatives forced schools to teach to the test. You have to figure that a school that teaches to the test isn't teaching to the essay.

Spiny Norman @142: Clearly, I dropped out of the sciences far too early. I was told one had to have math to study science, so when I was defeated by algebra (it taught me how dyslexics must feel about spelling), I regretfully altered course for the liberal arts and humanities. But with the possible exception of the logarithms, all of the math on your tests is stuff I can do.

Well, foosh.

Jenett @143: The Brontes have always been an awkward presence in tidy schemes and definitions of great literature. F. R. Leavis's The Great Tradition (which began by announcing that the list of Great English Novelists consisted of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad, thereby excluding triflers like Sterne, Scott, Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, Hardy, Stevenson, and Joyce) famously relegated the Brontes to a half-page note at the end of the first chapter. In it, Leavis explained that while Wuthering Heights was no doubt an astonishing work and Emily Bronte a genius, in terms of the history of the English novel, the book was "a kind of sport." He meant that in the biological sense: for him, the book was a mutation or deviation from the parent stock, and according to him had no progeny, so it didn't need to be included in his lineage of the English novel.

IMO, Wuthering Heights is an oddly-shaped novel because it's built around the material Emily Bronte had (wanted?) to work with. Jane Eyre does that too. Both get stranger the longer you look at them.

... people who show up on library lists asking questions that can be answered with 30 seconds with Google.
I see that all the time on Yahoo! Answers. Students show up who are frantic for facts you can find in less than a minute on Google and Wikipedia. Can they possibly have spent all their online time messing around on Facebook and YouTube? A border collie could do that.

Alan Beatty @144: I grew up hearing occasional Dumb Cheater stories. I've told my favorite one too many times on ML to tell it here, but it still fills me with wonder.

Mensley @146, Patrick and I both laughed out loud at that.

Craig R. @150: Most non-entry positions in publishing are filled via word of mouth. Resumes can lie, or leave out major stuff, and they always overstate experience. It's hard to hold an entry-level job in publishing without getting to know a lot of people in very practical ways.

Carol Witt @152: I see urgent messages from high-school students asking questions like which page a particular chapter starts on in a book, or what's the opening sentence of the afterword. I assume they're a check mechanism to see whether the student has a copy of a book they've supposedly read.

Tymbri @157, I'm rooting for you. When all's said and done, they'll have a degree, but you'll be an engineer.

How did your boyfriend make that discovery about his classmates? Is there any way to report it?

Back when Patrick worked for the UWash Office of Continuing Education, he once busted a healthy percentage of the varsity football team for cheating and plagiarism on continuing education courses. He phoned me and said "What's that thing capitalism is supposed to offer its workers?"

"Incentive," I said.

"Right," said Patrick. "This job has incentive."

Terry Karney @165: Your Anthropology of Civilization professor is canny.

I had a psych prof who announced that the review session in the last class before the final was essential, especially if you'd missed a lot of classes during the semester. I hadn't, but I went anyway, and was puzzled by all the random unrelated material he threw in. The mystery was cleared up when I saw his multiple-choice final: all that random information was mentioned in the incorrect answers.

Albatross @181, my guess is that the instructors at that writing department think they're competent and are doing a good job. It can't be hard to have a high opinion of your own abilities when you spend your days teaching creative writing to undergrads at a school that will admit any qualified high school graduate. You can read about the school here. Notice how its fortunes started to rise right around the time Pell Grants became available, though I don't believe it's a for-profit university.

I know one good thing about the Columbia College (Chicago) writing program: Phyllis Eisenstein has a part-time gig there teaching SF writing. She has a respectable list of professional fiction sales, and knows a fair amount about the business, which makes her an adjunct instructor whose credentials can trump anyone else in the department.

I found something interesting when I was checking the dates on Pell Grants: the Pell Grant for-profit fraud controversy. Keep an eye on the numbers, especially the comparisons of tuition rates. The invisible hand of the marketplace strikes again.

Here are a couple of articles from the NYTimes: Report Finds For-Profit Colleges Mislead Students and Facing Cuts in Federal Aid, For-Profit Colleges Are in a Fight. Scary quote:

“These programs overpromise, underdeliver and load vulnerable students up with way too much debt,” said Chris Lindstrom, higher education program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, part of a coalition of education, consumer, student and public interest groups supporting the regulations.

In 2007, coalition members said, students at for-profit colleges made up only 7 percent of those in higher education but 44 percent of those defaulting on federal student loans. Adding new fuel to the fire was a recent presentation at a New York conference for investors by Steven Eisman, a hedge-fund manager known for having anticipated the housing market crash.

Mr. Eisman, whose early awareness of structural problems in the housing market is described in Michael Lewis’s bestseller

The Big Short, said the for-profit education industry, like the subprime mortgage industry, has rested on the proliferation of loans to low-income people who would not be able to repay them.

Without tighter government regulation, Mr. Eisman predicted, students at for-profit colleges will default on $275 billion of student loans over the next decade.

“Until recently I thought that there would never again be an opportunity to be involved with an industry as socially destructive and morally bankrupt as the subprime mortgage industry,” said Mr. Eisman, of FrontPoint Partners, a unit of Morgan Stanley. “I was wrong. The for-profit education industry has proven equal to the task.”

This is going to get ugly.

Jacque @192, nobody here would blame you for any of that. Just the opposite.

#210 ::: melospiza ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 05:01 PM:

Late to the party. A very good party.

I wish only that I were reading more uses of the words "wrong," "ashamed," and "immoral."

I can remember cheating only once, in a high school English class, on an essay on Joyce's Ulysses. Though I was proficient at cobbling together bullshit essays, I wanted to do better for this teacher. While researching, I came across a book with a new idea that made sense to me, and I used it shamelessly, without attribution.

Yes, I read the book. I did the research and wrote the paper. But I presented someone else's idea as my own, got an A+, and effusive comments. I never admitted it, and I'm still ashamed, and I never did it again.

This is all so sad. That so much of college isn't about learning, or even pretending to be about learning. I'm another of those people who got a B.A. and went back to vocational school for an A.A.S. I don't think my degree in Radiologic Technology was harder than my degree in Literature, but it was certainly more focused, and a lot cheaper.

I don't know if the problem is worse than it used to be (I certainly had plenty of people ask me to write essays for them), but it's sad.

#211 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 05:20 PM:

Sorry, Steve @207, I see what you mean. Yes, that sort of credentialing would be great, but it wouldn't make institutions any money. I understand law was like that some time ago -- you didn't actually have to attend school to be allowed to take the bar. And if you passed the bar you were a lawyer, whether you had a degree or not.

#212 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 05:22 PM:

Teresa #209:

There's something really uncomfortably similar about the education and housing bubbles. I'm not sure I can do a good job getting at it, exactly, except that there's this common pattern:

a. Here is something you pretty-much are required to do to properly join the middle class and be seen as successful in life.

b. Most of the successful people you see did it, and the common wisdom of basically everyone you talk to, and every respectable voice in the society, tells you you must do it.

c. People are encouraged to stretch, sacrifice, go all out to get into the best school/buy the biggest house they can. Again, this is the common received wisdom.

d. The federal government is interested in helping you do this, and has been pumping money into this market for many years in a variety of ways. Politically, extending home ownership / a college education to everyone is seen as an unambiguous good thing.

e. A set of large, influential, and highly respected organizations is pushing both the message that college education/home ownership is the key to the middle class, and that the government must do more to help people achieve those things.

f. It is getting increasingly hard for people to afford what they're being told to stretch to buy. The economics don't really make sense anymore. (You go $40K in debt to become qualified to make a little more money per year than you'd make working in a job requiring no college degree. Or you make use of mortgage insurance and accept a higher interest rate in order to buy a $300K house on a $60K/year salary with no money down.)

I guess the core of the badness here is the combination of this unified society-wide message that says "This is the path to respectable middle-class wealth," combined with an influential industry full of people ready to sell that path to you at a profit, and nobody apparently asking whether the message still makes much sense.

#213 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 05:30 PM:

I suppose we'll hit a wall when a student's indebtedness equals his expected lifetime earnings.

#214 ::: janra ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 05:31 PM:

I spent a substantial part of grades 9 and 10 math class helping my classmates with their homework. The teachers didn't mind in the slightest, because, to quote one slightly exasperated classmate: "you're better at not giving the answer than the teacher is!"

In university, there was this one guy that apparently always cobbled together his assignments from the group study sessions. Don't recall if he contributed much to others' answer sheets or only took. I attended a few, to try and talk through and understand a few of the problems, but wasn't pleased by how much copying was going on when understanding of the problem wasn't instant. Explaining is good; "here's mine" is bad. Ironically (or expected, given the topic at hand) that same guy went into graduate school at the same institution, and as a TA promptly became known as a hardass about cheating. I guess he knew all the tricks...

One thing guaranteed to put me in a bad mood and want to be antisocial is exposure to people who appear to think that rules are for other people. To see it institutionalized makes me despair.

I had an ex who didn't buy a parking pass for his street, which was 2-hr limited daytimes, 7 days a week (but only enforced weekdays, when he and his car were at work). One time I made a comment about somebody getting a ticket, and he asked if I would make that same comment if he got a ticket. "Yes. You know the rules and choose to park there without a pass anyway." He was not pleased with me. I was not pleased with his attitude. I may not have liked the parking rules there, but that is what they were.

And it may be immature of me, but I have been known to gloat a little on the inside when I see somebody parked illegally getting towed.

#215 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 05:42 PM:

I am awestruck by the way Teresa has a reply that is essentially a conversation with 15 different people.

In the UK there has been a general increase in testing and therefore teaching to the test over the last 15 years or so, just after I left school. Anecdotal accounts suggest it is responsible for some of the apparently poorer performance school leavers. On the other hand business leaders have been complaining about the quality of school leavers for ever, and the problem is that I simply don't have enough experience and good evidence to say exactly what is going on. I suspect that the grade inflation that has been going on for years now is down to a combination of easier exam board questions, richer folk paying for cramming and after school classes, teaching to the test, and perhaps some cheating, made easier by the internet. Of course the children might also be on average a bit more intelligent than 30 years ago due to the removal of lead from petrol.

In higher education, the system suffered an increase in students in the late 80's/ early 90's which caused more work and hassle for less funding, thus causing what I suspect is a decrease in quality of degree available. Before you all shout at me, there are lots of caveats around that statement, and it almost certainly doesn't cover every eventuality. Interestingly, about 9 years ago I had a temporary job, during which I fouled up badly. So the supervisor took me into his office and told me off, and also said something interesting. He'd been to St Andrews in the early 80's. He'd had twice as much lab time per week as i had. People graduating wich chemistry degrees when I did, nearly 20 years later, just weren't getting the lab time required to have the skills needed to do lab work well and fast. Part of that change was perhaps down to curriculum changes, and changes in modern chemistry and instrumentation. But a lot was down simply to lab work being expensive, more so than havign 1 lecturer to 150 students in a lecture theatre.

So to tie that back into the subject...
Reducing funding so that graduates are less skilled at what many people consider necessary skills, because learning said skills is expensive, seems to me to be intrinsically related to the issues with cheap poor colleges trying to make a quick buck; the inflation of grades and degrees required to get a job; the treatment of universities as businesses whose main job it is to make a profit, and therefore whose actions may well make plagiarism both easier and more desirable and may well lead to it being punished less.

(Thank you all for reading and this has been a party political broadcast on behalf of the "I think I know whats wrong but can't seem to be able to do anything about it" party)

#216 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 05:46 PM:

In the spirit of giving another excerpt from my someday-to-be-written memoir, Funny Stories About My Mom, here is, not a stupid-cheater story, but an "I wasn't cheating, honest! I can prove it!" story. Growing up on stories like this probably helped teach me sidewise twisty corkscrew problem-solving. :->

My mother, it should be noted, is dyscalculic. She's fine with addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division (even in fractions with fairly unfriendly denominators, like 3/32 -- she spent over a decade as a carpenter working in inches). However, most math more complex than that breaks her head extremely☆.

She did not discover just how utterly unable she was to handle things like college-level calculus material until she registered for said class, and trainwrecked partway through. Unfortunately, in that same semester, she was taking a chemistry class that presumed all students would either have passed or be taking it concurrently.

The final was a take-home affair: the prof gave everyone their own little vials of anonymous white powder. Students would have a long weekend to find time to use the gas chromatograph in the lab to analyze the sample, then figure out from the proportions of contents thereby measured what the compound was. The entirety of the test was "run it through the machine, and turn in that printout and all your calculations, plus your guess at what compound I gave you."

Students were expected to calculate the areas under various curves on the printout, and then take the proportions of the areas to get the proportions of the contents. So far, so straightforward -- as long as you know how to calculate areas under curves, which my mom didn't. She'd been doing pretty well all semester, and if she could just manage to pass the final, she'd pass the class and be DONE.

She handed it in, and the prof called her back into his office to accuse her of cheating. She protested her innocence and general virtue. He insisted sternly that there's no way she could've gotten those answers without cheating; they were too accurate. She asked what she could do to make him believe her. He said, "Fine, I'll give you another vial and watch retake the test. If you still pass, I'll know you're not cheating, because I saw what you did."

"Um," she said. "Do you have time? I have to go to another building to get my answer." He acceded, and watched her put her sample into the analyzer. So far, so routine. Then she walked her printout over to the admin building, where she was a work/study intern. She used their wet-process copy machine (prints both the white and the black) to copy her curves several times, blown up until it just barely fits on the sheet.

Then she walked back to the chemistry lab, cut out the curves delicately with an eXacto knife, and turned on the five-significant-figures ultra-accurate balance.

Then she weighed the pieces of paper, took the proportions of the weights of the cut-out graphs, and did her calculation in front of the prof, getting an insanely-accurate answer.

He gave her an A.

However, he also apparently☛ began using her as a parable with his TAs about being darned careful to specify allowable methods to use on tests -- no bitching that the student didn't use calculus if the instructions don't specify how you WANTED them to do it!


--
☆ She finally, going back for her bachelor's degree while I was in high school, passed analytic geometry, algebra, and trig -- by borrowing my (exceptionally detailed, tailored-to-our-similar-neurology) notes a semester and a half after I passed each class. She found that very convenient, if not originally planned-for. :->
☛ We discovered this about ten years ago, when a grad student Mom met through other social circles mentioned he was at her alma mater, and various comparing-experiences conversation led to the expostulation, "Wait, *YOU'RE* the Exam-Weigher? No way, I was SURE he made that up!"

#217 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 05:54 PM:

Elliot @ 216 -

That's a great story! Doing something like that to derive the answer is way more indicative of intelligence than applying a formula.

#218 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 05:55 PM:

re 209: "I see that all the time on Yahoo! Answers. Students show up who are frantic for facts you can find in less than a minute on Google and Wikipedia."

I think I have finally gotten my children trained that when they are sitting at the computer, it is a waste of time to ask me "What's X?" because I'm invariably going to say, "you're sitting in front of a computer! Look it up yourself!"

#219 ::: A belated, quick thought on the question that got posed way back: "When am I going to use this?" ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 06:08 PM:

I love the weighing! Because that is science. Calculus is only if you don't have something that can weigh the graph paper with sufficient accuracy.

I have had a couple of moments where I do things that are obvious to me, on a test, and find out that they're ONLY obvious to me. Document, document, document. It may have been my tendency to use half-lives instead of [1/e]-lives. Document, document, document.

("When are you going to use this?" The Teresa answer is good. I used the knowledge from a weekend blacksmithing course at least... three times. One of them was even something a normal person might do!)

#220 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 06:28 PM:

Steve C. @217 said: That's a great story! Doing something like that to derive the answer is way more indicative of intelligence than applying a formula.

A belated, quick thought on the question that got posed way back: "When am I going to use this?" [who I think is Sandy B.] said @219: I love the weighing! Because that is science. Calculus is only if you don't have something that can weigh the graph paper with sufficient accuracy.

Basically that's why he gave her the A on the final -- she'd proved she understood the CHEMISTRY, and that she was in fact not acquiring her data in any academically-dishonest way. It wasn't in fact his job to grade her on her mastery of calculus; it just hadn't occurred to him that any student WOULDn'T do it that way.

In fact, her method was demonstrably more accurate (and, depending on your average walking speed and how fast you wield a pencil, actually faster, too).

#221 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 06:32 PM:

Teresa at 179:
That looks at first glance like a uselessly circular and self-justifying program.

It seems to me though that even the good graduate programs look a little too circular and self-justifying.

After all, academics are people who go to school to become qualified to teach at a school. Isn't that kind of circular?

And how do you know which guys are the good ones? You check with the good ones. That becomes a circularity too.

So perhaps some of this is an unavoidable trait of schools in general rather than something wrong with this program, for all I know.

#222 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 06:38 PM:

Janet, #206: You went to Martin? Was Fred Ford on the faculty when you were there? He was the VUCC director for my first 3 years, and left to go to Martin as of the 1976-77 school year.

janra, #214: In that situation, I might make the same decision as your ex -- but if I then got a ticket, I'd take my lumps with good grace. When you choose to bend the rules, you also choose to accept the consequences if you're caught. It's the Republicans' widespread failure to understand this which is going to bite them in the ass.

Elliott, #216: Hee! You have absolutely GOT to write that book, Stories From My Mom. Not only are they good stories, but you tell them well.

#223 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 06:45 PM:

I'd read Elliott's book Stories from My Mom. I'd even buy it instead of borrowing it from the library (higher praise there is none).

#224 ::: janra ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 06:52 PM:

Lee: indeed. Any ticket obtained in that way is definitely deserved. He objected to my comments to that effect, which is why I was displeased with him. I expect I was supposed to support him in his indignation if he had gotten a ticket by parking against the signs.

#225 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 07:01 PM:

I think Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has a part about the author working for a college when it lost its accreditation.

#226 ::: Leigh Kimmel ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 07:39 PM:

Re. U of Phoenix, they also have a nasty habit of running through instructors at an astonishing rate. I briefly worked for them in the spring of 2008, and it was one of the great mistakes of my life. I was told it was a half-time position, but ended up having to put in about 80 hours a week just to keep up with my obligations -- and since the pay was so scant, I was supposed to be doing other work on the side, but there was literally no time left to get it done. I ended up burning out so badly I literally could not cope -- I still remember sitting for hours staring at a student's final paper, unable to get my brain to engage enough to actually read the words instead of just running eyetracks across the screen. After I'd put a permanent black mark on my career record, I discovered that they routinely misrepresent the time commitment involved, and that fall, when I was talking to my brother the adjunct lecturer at a respected state university, he asked me what I was being paid. I told him and he just stared at me for a moment, then said, "They were abusing you." Apparently I was being paid about half what is standard for an instructor with a master's degree.

But as long as there are more potential teachers where I came from, they can afford to burn through instructors like that.

#227 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 07:44 PM:

Steve C. @213 writes: "I suppose we'll hit a wall when a student's indebtedness equals his expected lifetime earnings."

If there is anything to be learned from the history of the recent housing bubble collapse, the financial system crisis, and consequentially, the foreclosure fraud tsunami, then it's that we won't hit that wall until well afterward, when student debt surpasses expected lifetime earnings by a substantial margin and the lenders finally reach their "Minsky moment" where the student loan spigots all get cranked off at once, leaving an entire generation of graduates indentured for the rest of their lives and their estates saddled with debts passed on to their unborn offspring.

#228 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 08:00 PM:

Teresa @ 209:

I was told one had to have math to study science

I have believed that to be true for the last 50 years, since my teachers in high school, college, and vocational electronics school, and the scientists whom I worked for in a graduate physiology department all told me that.

A few weeks ago I started reading several books1 by Evelyn Fox Keller, a physicist turned mathematical biophysicist turned feminist philosopher and sociologist of science. Two of those books are about the ways in which biology in the 20th century largely rejected theoretical as opposed to experimental investigation. Keller makes the claim several times in both books that part of rejecting theory for many biologists was not using (and often not being educated in) any form of mathematics2. Who knew?


“Until recently I thought that there would never again be an opportunity to be involved with an industry as socially destructive and morally bankrupt as the subprime mortgage industry,” said Mr. Eisman, of FrontPoint Partners, a unit of Morgan Stanley. “I was wrong. The for-profit education industry has proven equal to the task.”
While I must agree with the sentiment, I boggle a little at who said it. Pot, kettle, what color are we looking at here?


Erik Nelson @ 221:

I think you have to distinguish between graduate programs that turn out students who largely go on to teach and those that turn out those who go on to do research. It's possible to look at the quality of the research and get some idea of how well the teachers in the graduate program did their job. Of course that requires some subjective analysis: just examining publication rates and numbers of citations won't necessarily tell you how good the work is.


1. "Making Sense of Life : Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines.", "Refiguring Life: Metaphors of Twentieth-century Biology", "Reflections on Gender and Science." I'm planning on reading everything else she's written as soon as I can.

2. Except for statistics in some areas of population biology and genetics.

#229 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 08:01 PM:

You know, it seems to me that the much-ridiculed ivory-tower "knowledge for the sake of knowledge" ethic is the most powerful defense against this kind of abuse. Insofar as students internalize the idea that the point of education is personal enrichment, then this kind of cheating wouldn't even occur to them. It's only when college is seen in a pragmatic, economic light that cheating begins to seem like a good idea.

albatross @ 52: "c. The whole society, which has devalued high school diplomas in the interests of decreasing the dropout rate and giving everyone a chance to succeed, and which is currently devaluing undergraduate degrees for the same reasons. "

I think you're misinterpreting what's going on. It's not that college degrees are becoming way easier to get, it's that an increasing percentage of the population has a) gained access to the institution and b) realized that not having a college degree is an economic prison sentence. Due to slackening racial and gender barriers and student loans college is increasingly open to the entire population, not just middle/upper class WASP men. That increases enrollment without any need to invoke decreased standards. Furthermore, as middle-class blue collar jobs have gone the way of the dodo, college is seen more and more as the only path clear of poverty.* This isn't the result of degree deflation, it's the result of increased educational egalitarianism and the shifting job market.

*It's really not: it's just the only path with a reasonable shot at avoiding poverty.

Bruce Cohen @ 91: "One of the factors that made the US, and later Western Europe, so successful in the 20th century was a movement to ensure as near 100% literacy as possible (and to a lesser extent, numeracy), because the kind of jobs that needed to be filled more and more required that for communication of work requirements, control of inventory, and so on."

abi @ 195: "Relatedly, I spent the weekend teaching my 9 year old an indispensible educational skill."

Between this and your account of how you learned to outline back @ 53, you're making a pretty good case that the formal education system isn't where the necessary educational skills are actually acquired.

Steve @ 196: "I think people are being a bit too hard on teachers here. The primary job of a teacher is to teach."

Right. Between working on one's own research, designing curricula and teaching, and fulfilling academic service requirements, professors are overworked already. (Let's not even discuss grad students.) And now they need to overhaul the entire academic system to catch nearly-undetectable custom-bought essays? There are only so many hours in the day, and professors are never going to have as much time as the systematic cheaters.

C. Wingate @ 197: "This is the Irreducible Boredom of Learning, which if you have the temperament or wit can be made less boring but no less essential."

I reject your Irreducible Boredom--it is structural boredom, and it could be fixed. We split up content and form throughout the educational system under the misguided impression that it's easier to learn arithmetic if it's not encumbered with any practical application, easier to learn writing if you aren't trying to communicate something you care about. This is madness. The ONLY reason to learn arithmetic* or writing or reading is the practical subject matter that it allows you to access.

Steve C. @ 213: "I suppose we'll hit a wall when a student's indebtedness equals his expected lifetime earnings."

I think the wall will be when a student's indebtedness equals the difference between expected lifetime earnings with a college degree and those without. And we're getting there.

#230 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 08:08 PM:

219: That was me. I don't know how that replaced my name. Probably a spacer error.

#231 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 08:43 PM:

Dave Bell at # 193: How are Microsoft certifications regarded? Check out Tech Support Comedy and see the alternative acronyms used for MCSE: Must Consult Someone Else, Minesweeper Consultant and Solitaire Engineer, and on to NSFW versions.

#232 ::: sara ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 08:47 PM:

My favorite academic horror story is from when I was a graduate student TA'ing a history survey course, one with nearly a hundred students -- not three hundred, so essay examinations were still feasible, using the traditional flimsy little blue books. This was in '96 or so.

One student started writing his essay answers (in purple ink), finished one question, went on to the next and the next, and forgot to turn the page. One or two pages were covered in totally indecipherable dense purple scribble.

Was he stoned? Not my problem. The failed exam was only part of his grade, so maybe he got a B- or C. This was at a prestigious Ivy school, not East Bumbershoot University.

#233 ::: Jenett ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 09:25 PM:

Nightsky @ #203: To be fair, librarianship is less about reading than many people think. (Erm. Like publishing, really: you're surrounded by the things, and that has some benefits, but you're not actually supposed to sit there and just bask in them all day, you're supposed to do other stuff.)

But yes, the fact there are people who actively comment on - and even brag about - not reading who are MLS/MLIS students or grads terrifies me too.

I'm currently out of work and job hunting, and one of the things that consoles me is that at least I've got something on some of the often hundred or more candidates for most MLIS jobs out there are getting these days. Not that that does as much good as one might like.

(But when I find that job that needs a widely-read librarian with a passion for connecting small pieces of information into a larger and practical path to knowledge, I'm so there.)

Teresa @ #209 : You're quite right. With the mature knowledge of .. well a couple of decades, I'm more inclined to put the Brontes in the same category as Hildegard von Bingen: doing fascinating stuff that was mostly off the maps of what other people were doing and therefore not recognised for what it was actually accomplishing. But I didn't see it as a teenager trapped in a classroom of people who were either bored to pieces or completely into the emotional angst (which bored me).

I did like Jane Eyre a whole lot more when I read it a few years later, though that's partly because "coming of age story with education involved somewhere" pushes a lot more of my narrative buttons than "brooding hero and heroine don't do much, and when they do, it ends badly."

#234 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 09:35 PM:

re 229: I reject your rejection. First, I do not think it always can be fixed, but more importantly, where it isn't fixed, it still has to be done. Technique often has to be absorbed through repetition; data, through memorization. It is something of the same test of character to bull through that as it is to write one's own paper rather than to pay someone else to do it in one's stead.

Also, I question your specific example. My recollection of my math-education-among-the-masses was that the greatest gnashing of teeth was inevitably reserved for what at that level was termed "word problems", which is to say, applied math. Most people seemed to find the additional step of analysis an impediment. I found it helpful to be able to assign a meaning to the techniques I was learning, but in general it was easier for me to learn the techniques abstractly before applying them.

I do not agree that the only reason to learn math is to apply it. But then, according to the Board of Regents of the University of Maryland, I am a mathematician.

#235 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 10:00 PM:

@228
I think you're being a bit unfair to Mr. Eisman here. My only information comes from reading 'The Big Short', but my understanding of his role in the subprime mortgage crisis is as follows: He looked at the mortgages being issued, saw that the bonds being created were likely worthless, and sold them short. He didn't have anything to do with selling people lousy mortgages, or bundling them into worthless bonds.

On a related note, here's a talk he gave about for-profit education, titled 'Subprime goes to College':
http://investmentlinebacker.blogspot.com/2010/05/frontpoints-steve-eismans-speech-and.html

The short version, as far as I can understand it, is: The government guarantees some types of student loans, and there are for-profit colleges with profit models based around aggressively selling people who can't afford it an worthless education, which they pay for with student loans they can't pay back (because the education is worthless) which are nevertheless still guaranteed by the government.

#236 ::: sara ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 10:05 PM:


Distance education seems like the latest source of horror stories: witness this list of questionable institutions of higher education, many of them distance ed, and animals that have been awarded degrees by fraudulent institutions.

[from Wikipedia; caveat lector]

As for MLISes who claim not to read, one also thinks that professional chefs would like to eat all the time, no? You'd get sick of it, and so do librarians, especially when publishers spam you with the latest $AUTHOR HYPE.

#237 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 10:13 PM:

Word problems aren't the same thing as applied math, or at least word problems got on my nerves because it seemed so unlikely that the universe would naturally present information in that way.

Once I figured out that word problems were a matter of translating the sentences into equations, they became manageable, but I never got the impression they had anything to do with making math useful.

#238 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 10:40 PM:

On the "When will I need this?" question: I still remember an appalling opinion piece the local student paper published a few years back. It was by a journalism student who reminisced about her happy memories of high school, pointed out that her happy memories specifically did not include any of the things she had learned in her classes, and spent the bulk of her 1000 words registering how very upset she was that she now had to sit through "useless" non-journalism-related elective courses to earn her degree.

I mean, a journalism student. A job where the most fundamental skill is knowing how to pull together, digest, and explain loads of information on any subject at all.

Mind you, if very many journalists went through college with that student's attitude, it would explain a lot about the current state of journalism.

mensley, #146: The sad thing is that, at this point, someone is probably actually getting ready to publish that version of Jane Eyre.

Nightsky, #203:

Are our MFA programs in creative writing stuffed with people who hate writing?

Probably not, but it wouldn't surprise me if they were stuffed with people who hate reading. Apparently there are people out there who rarely read novels but still want to write one. I can't imagine what sort of books they'd produce.

Steve, #207:

Which one of those things is more important? One teacher will give you more knowledge, and the other will give you a better credential.

The problem I have with this argument is that it seems to assume the quality of the other students' knowledge, and therefore of the quality of their credentials, makes no difference to me. There's a pretty good chance that the students who cheated their way through their classes will end up writing legal documents that affect me, prescribing medications for me, and designing buildings I may happen at some point to be in. I really want their credentials to mean something!

#239 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 10:57 PM:

On the "When will I need this?" question:
The version I remember is the letter to the college newspaper from a foreign student, complaining about being required to pass the (English-language) graduation writing test; the student apparently planned to return to hir home country and never use written English again.

#240 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 11:35 PM:

209: "I see that all the time on Yahoo! Answers. Students show up who are frantic for facts you can find in less than a minute on Google and Wikipedia."

You know what sucks extra about that? When I go to Google looking for such easily-googlable answers, the damn Yahoo! Answers page created by students who didn't know to Google those answers comes up first!

#241 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2010, 11:38 PM:

Haven't had time to both catch up and comment, but I do want to throw in my favorite plagiarism story. Kenny May, who was by then my uncle (i.e. by marriage), was teaching an undergraduate History of Mathematics course at the University of Toronto, I think in the early 1970s (he did this fairly regularly, thinking it was important to get undergraduates interested in the topic). Of course some papers were required for the course. While marking papers, he ran across one that just seemed familiar. He couldn't place it precisely, but he was quite suspicious. And of course in the 1970s he couldn't just Google for it :-). But he kept poking at it, and finally found it. It was from the Encyclopedia Britannica article on the history of mathematics. Which he had written.

So this student had chosen a really obvious source, and hadn't apparently been lead to wonder why the initials of the article's author (I think they were crediting by initials at that point) just happened to match the initials of his professor.

And my uncle's memory was sometimes not as quick as it could be :-) .

#242 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 12:07 AM:

Students show up who are frantic for facts you can find in less than a minute on Google and Wikipedia. Can they possibly have spent all their online time messing around on Facebook and YouTube? A border collie could do that.

Alas, it is too true. Last fall, we had so many incoming freshman, that I and the other librarians were roped into teaching section for the First Year Seminar in web ethics and plagiarism. Really basic stuff, like don't copy things on Wikipedia or put drunk pictures of yourself on Facebook.

I knew I was in for fun when I told the class to open a browser on their computers and one young woman, age 18 and fresh out of high school, raised her hand and said she couldn't find her browser. I went over to her computer and pointed at the Firefox icon. She had never seen it before. Nor IE. Her experience with the Internet was mediated exclusively through cell phones and email clients.

#243 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 12:49 AM:

Keith Kisser @ #242, ouch. If I were teaching a course like that (which heaven forfend, given my noted lack of patience), I'd be tempted to rename the IE and Firefox desktop shortcut icons on every machine in the room, adding the word "browser" to the pre-assigned name.

#244 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 01:47 AM:

heresiarch @229:

Between this and your account of how you learned to outline back @ 53, you're making a pretty good case that the formal education system isn't where the necessary educational skills are actually acquired.

Well, to be fair, I do recall being taught to outline and write essays in middle school. (I still have, within about ten minutes' fumbling-about retrieval time, an essay on Loki that I wrote in the seventh grade. It's typed on a manual typewriter, and has the thesis statement underlined.)

But your point stands. I often muse that that lovely statistic that "the best predictor of academic success is parental support at home" hides a bunch of very un-egalitarian victim-blaming, from the lack of parental time in households subsisting on lower hourly pay rates to whether the support of parents without academic skills gets counted.

I reject your Irreducible Boredom--it is structural boredom, and it could be fixed. We split up content and form throughout the educational system under the misguided impression that it's easier to learn arithmetic if it's not encumbered with any practical application, easier to learn writing if you aren't trying to communicate something you care about.

I'm with C Wingate @234 here:

First, I do not think it always can be fixed, but more importantly, where it isn't fixed, it still has to be done. Technique often has to be absorbed through repetition; data, through memorization.

My degree is in Latin. That required tremendous amounts of memorization*: verb forms, noun forms, vocabulary. And, Auricula Meritricula notwithstanding, there's not a lot of Latin you can read until you've done that work.

And the specific example that brought it into our household is the same. How else is my son supposed to know where Westerbork and Emmer-Compascuum and Meppel‡ are? (Why does he need to know where Westerbork is? To a certain extent, this is back to the "when will I need to know this?" question. I don't know. Maybe he won't. But maybe it will be of use to know that the Hunze flows through Drenthe just to the east of the Hondsrug.)

-----
* Which leads to its own problems, since memorization is a skill that grows stronger with use. We all used "ponies": English translations of the works we were reading†. The problem was that it was all too easy to memorize the Penguin Classic translation of most of a work of prose, and unconsciously reproduce it on the exam. Our professors generally picked passages where the Penguin Classic wandered from the literal translation, and gave us enough parsing questions from the passage to wake us up, but in retrospect, I suspect those were harder exams to write than I thought at the time.

† We were allowed to do this, partly because our reading rates were not rapid enough to get through, for instance, the whole Aeneid or De Rerum Natura in a one-semester, three hours of classroom time class a week. But we needed to read the rest of the work for context.

‡ He blocked and blocked on Meppel, until I Malkoviched him with it over dinner.

#245 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 01:55 AM:

C. Wingate @ 234: "It is something of the same test of character to bull through that as it is to write one's own paper rather than to pay someone else to do it in one's stead."

To which I would say: when you're looking at writing an essay as something to be endured rather than as something to be learned from if not enjoyed, you're already kind of missing the point.

As to whether technique-abstracted-from-application can in all cases be avoided, perhaps not. But I believe the mentality it produces in students is qualitatively different if they are doing it sometimes rather than doing it always, and if they're doing it because they can see why the rote skill will be useful rather than because the teacher told them to.

"I do not agree that the only reason to learn math is to apply it."

If you are a mathematician then I am doubly disappointed that you didn't notice my careful use of the word "arithmetic" and not "math" in that sentence. But I did leave out the clarifying footnote.

Wesley @ 238: "There's a pretty good chance that the students who cheated their way through their classes will end up writing legal documents that affect me, prescribing medications for me, and designing buildings I may happen at some point to be in. I really want their credentials to mean something!"

How big is that chance, though? What percentage of students are really engaging in this kind of blatant forgery? It's been an implicit assumption in this conversation that this is pandemic through the entire system, but there's not actually any evidence of that. We have one guy, selling to what is self-evidently a niche market.* What percentage of students are chronic cheaters, and what percentage of their work is falsified? 5%? 1%? .0001%?

This seems to me to be a crucial question: people are asking for a wholesale re-arrangement and refocusing of the educational system to better defend against cheaters, a shift that will negatively impact the system's ability to teach material to the willing and able. There's a real danger that this will take the path of airport security, where we end up inconveniencing the vast majority of legitimate users in futile, ineffective search of a tiny minority of abusers.

At a certain point we have to accept that no system of certification is going to be perfect. There's a special word for systems that function perfectly: hypothetical. Here in the world of practice, there ain't no such thing.

*What percentage of college students do you think can afford to drop two grand a term?

#246 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 02:21 AM:

I do think there's a blurring of different flavors of objection to this practice, and the fact that C Wingate @234 cites a "test of character" kind of highlights that.

Two key objections are:

1. People who do not do the academic work do not learn what the academic work was designed to teach them.

In some cases, the academic work was designed to teach them relevant information, such as the conditions that are required to form a valid contract under the laws of a given state. Sometimes it's to teach them a process, such as research, or writing a persuasive essay.

Shirking that work has different implications in those different circumstances. In many cases, I think losing the "process" stuff is worse than the "information" stuff. But in any case, I think that the practical implications of these failures to learn are important.

2. People are demonstrating a notable and distressing lack of ethics in doing this.

This includes a lot of consequent issues, such as whether the ethical codes we think we live by as a society are the ones we actually live by, whether the ones we seem to reward are leading us where we want to be, etc.

There's also a certain amount of "I paid my dues" emotional content in there, certainly in my gut reaction. I can justify it by pointing out that I demonstrably do know a lot of things because of the way I approached my education, and I don't think it's a bad or wrong reaction.

But I name it because it's there.

#247 ::: Dan S., or possibly "Ed Dante" ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 03:52 AM:

albatross @52

"Consider what happens when you require four years of extra training before most people start working professional jobs. Millions of people start their whole lives up four years later. They marry later, have kids later, buy homes later, start saving for retirement and paying taxes later."

I definitely agree with your general argument, but would note that delayed marriage and childrearing aren't self-obviously bad things - in some cases, the former seems to be correlated with lower rates of divorce, for example. And spending part of one's formative years around people with some degree of at least geographical diversity could be pretty useful. But yes, bundling all this with an expensive and time-consuming gateway-to-the-middle-class prerequisite thanks to postindustrial society/devaluation of high school/crushing of unions/etc., etc. does seem... unhelpful.

#248 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 04:41 AM:

If the educational institutions don't do the credentialing, who does?

One way of avoiding the obvious conflict of interest is to have the credentialers be paid by those who are using the credentials for evaluation. It would be like credit agencies. Oops, though I admit I have fantasies of a non-profit credit rating agency staffed by religious people who take the commandment against bearing false witness very seriously.

The remaining alternatives seem to be a government credentialing service and crowd-sourcing.

Goodhart's Law is a stronger version of "If you don't measure what you love, you will love what you measure"-- any measurement which is used to guide policy will become corrupt.

I think it's true, partly because whatever is worth loving is too complex to be measured, so measurement is always of some simplified aspect which one hopes has a tight correlation with what one loves.

#249 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 05:02 AM:

Jenett @ #189:
Ah, yes. That makes perfect sense, since even the nitpickiest of nitpickers would have a hard time arguing medieval French departements on the west of the Atlantic.

C. Wingate @ #234:
Heh. I think every single question on any physics exam I've had would (in maths terms) be labeled a word problem.

"You are running across the floor in the gym hall, when you slip and fall over. If your running speed is 2 metres per second, your only contact with the floor is your knees and you slide two metres, what is the coefficient of friction and will you have a friction burn?

For purposes of determining if a burn happens or not, use a cut-off temperature of 65 degrees Celcius."

That is a paraphrase of one exam question I remember (but, it's been 20+ years since I sat the exam, so specifics will probably differ, even if I tried to make everything roughly sensible, expcet possibly the running speed, but that should be well within the realm of the possible).

#250 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 07:02 AM:

re 245/246: Arithmetic is in fact down in the core of irreducibility. For a person to be able to do basic arithmetic on their own, they need to know the tables and be proficient in the various techniques; however it be done, there is no escaping memorizing the first and practicing the second. I remember memorizing my times tables; it wasn't especially fun, but I do remember the sense of accomplishment in having done it. That's what I mean by "irreducible boredom": if it can be made fun, then all well and good; but if not, whatever tedium is involved just has to be endured.

I do not know precisely what this has to do with writing essays. I came into the school system quite precisely beyond the end of the emphasis on structural grammar, so that I have a copy of Warriner's, whose extensive section on sentence diagramming fascinated me; but we never used the book in class. We all got copies of Strunk and White along the way, whose precepts I have to force myself to follow (I always end up going back and omitting a lot of needless words). We wrote stuff, some of which I cared some about and some of which I didn't much. My parents' depression-induced ethic was that one did what needed to be done, which they never entirely succeeded in imparting to me to the same degree that they did to my brothers and sister. I suppose my attitude about writing essays on subjects that didn't interest me (e.g. the inevitable reading of Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace) was that one did what needed to be done. In practice it seems to me that in any class that involves everyone reading the same book is going to result in a lot of them not liking the reading. I don't know where one can go with that except to never have such a book.

#251 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 07:38 AM:

C. Wingate @ 250: Actually, memorising the times tables is not necessary for doing arithmetic - although it no doubt helps. I missed* the term when times tables were taught, and managed without them - I just remembered a few key values and did the arithmetic fast enough when needed (seven sixes = six sevens; three sevens are 21, twice twenty one is 42, therefore seven sixes are 42). No teacher ever noticed (or if they did, never commented). I'll admit I've regretted not having them, but not sufficiently to ever go and memorise them.

*I was in the year ahead of where I should have been for my age, and the junior school woudn't let me in until the term after I turned seven (November birthday, so I missed the first term).

#252 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 07:51 AM:

So is there a sense in which you, dcb, literally don't know that seven nines are sixty-three? if so, remarkable.

#253 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 08:23 AM:

alex @252: Well, no, I don't, not in the "seven nines are sixty three" that people have who -did- memorise their times tables. The nines are a special case, of course - I've always enjoyed the fact that the numbers always add up to nine. So , for seven nines: that will start with 6, and the other number needed to make it add up to nine is three, therefore, 63. Ask me for, say, seven fours, and mentally that's 2 x 14, = 28 (I "know" that two sevens are 14). I memorised 7 x 8 = 56, because that seemed necessary (no easy arithmetic to get there otherwise).

#254 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 08:29 AM:

alex @ #252:
dcb certainly isn't alone. I only know that 7 * 9 is 63 by the fact that 7 * 9 is the same as 7 * (10 - 1) and that's the same as 70 - 7, and that is 63. I just do the calculation really, really fast (to the point that I don't really notice it taking place).

C. Wingate @ #250:
Back when we were doing times tables in school, we (the class) used to play something called "maths bingo".

We each had a "bingo sheet" (a sheet with two rows of four squares, each containing a multiplication of two numbers in the range 1 - 12), teacher then pulled small squares with products, announcing the product. If you had the relevant multiplication on your sheet, stick a hand up and say what it says.

If it's right, cover it with the product. First sheet covered wins (with the prize being "I won", no more and no less). Continue to find a #2 and #3.

It worked well for me to learn multiplication of small numbers, even if I may not have been helped in actually memorizing the tables themselves.

#255 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 08:46 AM:

dcb: I too missed the part of school wherein the multiplication tables were taught (I was skipped from 3rd to 4th grade over Christmas break). So for the next 3 years, I was pretty much lost in math class. My father tried drilling me with flash cards but that always ended in tears. Multiplication Rock finally brought me up to speed around 8th grade.

#256 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 08:50 AM:

heresiarch @245 There's a special word for systems that function perfectly: hypothetical.

Just admiring this.

#257 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 09:06 AM:

I'm just intrigued by the idea that, not having learned something at an early age, it never stuck after you figured it out later. If you've worked out the 7x9 conundrum once, doesn't it hang around as 'knowledge'?

#258 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 09:07 AM:

re various comments on multiplication: Almost everyone who is mathematically gifted has some point at which they failed to learn some technique and rely instead on brute-force application of some more primitive method. What makes this work is being able to do the brute force a lot faster than most people can.

And I'm not saying that there aren't tricks to be thrown at learning this or that, or that we shouldn't bother using them. What I'm saying is that it comes down to a "whatever it takes" situation. I don't think it's realistic to expect that there is always something that can be used to eliminate the tedium/boredom/whatever of learning some material. People who can accept that and push themselves through the tedium are generally going to be better positioned than those who can't.

#259 ::: Sica ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 09:11 AM:

I never really memorized the times table either.

9 * N is easy as being 10N - N like Ingvar mentioned. 8N is either (10N-N) - N or there's a very quick 2N = N+N calculation followed by 4N = 2N + 2N and 8N = 4N+4N etc.

I never saw the point of rote memorizing those results when you had ways of very quickly getting to them through more fundamental rules. It had the advantage as well that when you had to deal with numbers outside the 1-10 range you could continue handling things in a similar way as before.

Factoring was very intuitive then as well.

I did the same thing when I had to learn a lot of ancient greeks style geometric proofs, rather than memorizing the actual proofs I memorized the starting conditions and the first step and then figured I could reason my way out to the Q.E.D, we had over 70 different proofs to learn so memorizing each step in all of them would be way more work than I was prepared to put in.

#260 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 09:15 AM:

My very favorite grade-school teacher, Miss O'Brien☀, did a drill-game in class that was marginally more interesting than the usually spelling bee☂; she called them [subject-name] Baseball.

The room would be divided into two teams►, and each team sent a member up to stand with their back to the board. You were then 'at bat'. She would ask the teammates at the board questions alternately, letting you specify how many bases of difficulty you wanted -- single, double, triple, or home run. Wrong answers were 'out', of course, and once an individual batter had gotten up to four bases (or more, if you overshot) you had earned a 'run' for your team and got to go sit down till everyone else in your team's batting order had batted.

For some subjects, it was alternate-questions-posed, with each batter getting to set their difficulty; for some, like geography, it was one question for both and the first to put their finger in the right place on the map behind us, won the point (with the other being automatically out; the sports geeks in the class declared that this meant the other team's fielders had 'caught a high pop fly' on them).

There were monthly sheets-with-everyone's-name-on; various activities could get you a star or a dark mark. Being the winning batter for your team in a game of baseball got you a REALLY COOL star; doing other academic-excellence tasks got you a lesser one. Being seen to actively help a classmate in ways that got THEM to succeed (like in group projects, or working on worksheets on parallel desks and collaborating WITHOUT doing their work for them) also got a star. Marks were for things like being disruptive in class, unexcused absences, etc.

At the end of the month, the top several star-getters got A Cool Thing, which varied month to month. I remember one time, when I was wayyyy out in front, my Cool Thing was that I got to pick the next book she read us!✪ Powerrrrrrr.

I had a bit of a shock some years ago when I realized that the age I'd just turned was the age Miss O'Brien was when she first came to teach us (I was sort of in◆ her class her first year). At the tiiiiime, she was an old boring grownup of boringdom (though better than many). However, *I* sure as heck didn't feel old at 26!

--
☀ Later Mrs. Kaplis, after I was too old to be in her class☆. She got married in summer, and worked a CLASSIC fakeout on her kids the preceding Spring! She told them they'd have a different teacher next fall, and (carefully never quite actually lying, you see!) that there would be a Mrs. Kaplis coming in fall in her place.
☆ We had smallish classes at that point, so she would take a combined class of all my school's 3rd and 4th graders, then teach the 4th and 5th the following year -- same kids. Then she'd backhitch and take the next year's 3rd graders. So not everyone who made it through my school got to be taught for two years by Miss O'Brien, which is a horrid shame for the kids who were 3rds while she was on 4/5, and only got her for one year.
☂ Though we did spelling bees, too -- usually double-elimination, meaning everyone stands up at the start. When you get one wrong, you sit down. Once the room has narrowed to one never-wrong student, everyone else stands up and does the 'one-question-wrong' elimination round for second place and the best speller has to sit on their hands. I spell excellently, for the record. :->
► Usually either boys/girls or half the class room geometrically -- right two rows against left two rows, etc.
✪ She would read aloud to us from a chapter-book -- usually Judy Blume or the like -- one chapter at a time after recess, encouraging us to put our heads down on our desks and get comfortable. She was a really, really good read-aloud-er.
◆ I got skipped ahead a grade for reading, into her class.

#261 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 09:21 AM:

re 244: The world divides itself up into 3.5 groups of people depending on what they do when they come upon "Meppel" and the hot-link to Auricula Meritricula. Some are knowledgeable, and smile because they already know of these things; some are curious and click or Google through; the .5 works the general idea out in context (e.g. I could figure out what Meppel was though I knew no detail about it) and goes on; and finally those who cannot summon up the effort to dispell their ignorance.

#262 ::: jnh ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 09:31 AM:

From this morning's Doonesbury's "Say What?":

"'We should remain optimistic that diplomacy and international pressure will succeed in disarming the regime.' The President paused. 'But we cannot allow weapons of mass destruction to fall into the hands of terrorists. I will not allow that to happen.'"
— General Tommy Franks, in "American Soldier"

"'We should remain optimistic that diplomacy and international pressure will succeed in disarming the regime,' I said at the end of the meeting. 'But we cannot allow weapons of mass destruction to fall into the hands of terrorists. I will not allow that to happen.'"
— George W. Bush, in "Decision Points"

Which pretty much proves Teresa's thesis, yes?

Match, Set, Game.

Topical quotes (frequently making a snarky point) that change at the whim of Trudeau or one of his staffers.

#263 ::: Russ ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 11:17 AM:

john@38

(and I'm only this far through the thread, so apologies for the out of sync post)

I got an "E" in my AS level maths for a couple of reasons*, but I think a strong contributor was not realising the formula sheet was double sided. I found this out about 10 minutes from the end of the exam, when I knocked it off the table and it flipped over as it fell.

This story is not apocryphal, and yes, I felt exactly as you imagine I would.

I had wondered, earlier and (unforunately) in passing, why the exam seemed to be making us work out a couple of common formulae from first principles when they would normally have been provided.

* One of which being that I was doing AS Maths at the same time as my GCSEs (for those who know the English system c.1990)), which makes the whole thing bearable as the later A-level effectively superceded this grade. I generally don't include it on my CV ;)

#264 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 11:18 AM:

262: actually, I'd think that's about the weakest sort of proof you could have for plagiarism: if that's what he actually said at the time (and presumably the meeting was being minuted and/or recorded) then you'd expect two accounts of it, both probably written by people with access to the minutes/transcripts, to contain identical quotes!

#265 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 11:19 AM:

263: my personal best was going into a maths exam and realising I'd forgotten my calculator - back to frantic by-hand long division, etc...

#266 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 11:26 AM:

ddb #241: A friend of mine at a large north-eastern public university told me that a student of his decided the best way to write an essay would be to go to the library and do a cut-and-paste from a journal. Unfortunately, he did not connect the name of the author of the article with that of the instructor of the course. After all, two or three people might have identical names and be experts on the very same subject. What really irked my friend, though, was that he had changed his position on the topic and that the article no longer reflected his viewpoint.

#267 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 11:32 AM:

I am a fast and fluent writer.

But I hated and loathed in-class writing assignments in school. More often than not, I'd turn in a blank paper.

#268 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 11:32 AM:

The ethical dimension of this discussion prompted a memory of something not thought of in many years.

In either the 7th or 8th grade, my best friend BS (heh) and I plotted to write book reports of non-existant books. What is funny about this is that both BS and I read voraciously all the time, so it wasn't as if reading a book for the assignment in book report writing was a hardship. We wrote all the time too, separately and together. We both were working on novels at the time.

It was purely wicked fun, the idea we could do this successfully, meaning fooling our teacher.

We did, too.

So, how do we categorize this behavior?

Love, C.

#269 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 11:46 AM:

Lee @222, Yes! I knew Fred Ford very well. One of the nice guys. Sadly, he passed away shortly after I moved to Oklahoma. He was the academic dean during the 10-year review I went through -- night and day to the dean for the substantive change review, who tried to blame all the library's deficiencies on me even though I'd only been director for three months.

#270 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 12:11 PM:

Constance @268: Turning in book reports for metafictional books would get you different results, depending on when/where in time/space you performed this little act of art.

Back in the 80s, when I was a lad, that sort of thing would have gotten disproving looks and an afternoon's detention.* In today's zero tolerance/sense of humor learning environment, there would be expulsions and media-fueled castigation, with Right Wingers yelling about the evils of Liberal education and teacher's unions for creating an environment that encourages this sort of creativity and a feverish hand-wringing marathon from the bipartisan crowd, who want to look tough on hooliganism but recognize that a creative act of rebellion like this is actually pretty clever.

Were I the teacher receiving such pieces, I'd probably play along, returning them with annotations citing fictional resources and hypothetical criticisms (along with a mildly worded note at the end that I expected a report on a real book by the following week). But then I'm not a teacher, I just play one on campus.

_________
*Plus a stern talking to from my mother, a teacher at the same school.

#271 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 12:23 PM:

Speaking of idiots working in a field where they should know something, but they don't... At a con this weekend, someone told my wife and I about her recently going to a bookstore, where she asked about an anthology, and the person working there didn't know what an anthology is. Yes, we've been told of the death of the short story, but...

#272 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 12:38 PM:

Serge @271: There are two kinds of people who work in bookstores. The first (which is the kind I was, when I was paid to do such a thing) is absolutely obsessed with books; at least half their paycheck gets recycled right back to the store. The other kind are working at a bookstore because it's an entry-level retail job, and they don't particularly care whether the store in question sells books, trendoid clothes, or cookies: it's a mall job, and they need the money.

I'm betting you ran into one of the second sort. Though possibly it was one of the first sort who just has very narrow read-for-pleasure fields -- I've known some absolutely obsessive manga fans who couldn't name you a single bestselling mainstream author (even though they walk past the endcaps to get into work every day), etc.

#273 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 12:42 PM:

abi, #246: Good point about process vs. content. Among other things, if you understand the process, that will more often than not tell you how to get to any content you lack. If you know how to do research, you can find out the requirements for a legal contract. I remember, in college, a couple of trig functions for which I never could recall the formulas -- but I knew how to derive them quickly, which was just as good.

dcb, #251: I did learn the times tables, but there are still occasions when I fall back on the sort of roundabout you describe. I have days when the basic-math circuit in my brain is decidedly offline, so having alternate options is a Good Thing. Oh, and I always check my checkbook subtraction with a reverse-addition, because about 2% of the time I'll find a braino.

alex, #257: Not necessarily. See my comment above about trig functions.

C. Wingate, #261: You forgot those who, because they have not studied Latin, don't feel any particular need to look at a reference for studying Latin. Which is not the same thing as "being unwilling to dispel their ignorance".

Janet, #269: Oh, dear -- I don't recall hearing about his death. That's sad, because he would still have been fairly young at that point. He was a good choir director for the most part; in retrospect, I'm aware of some flaws I didn't notice at the time*, but I enjoyed singing under his direction.

* He held auditions for solo parts, but always gave them to the same people -- and yes, they were good singers, but there were others just as good who could have taken some of them; and his interest in spirituals led him to include rather more of them in our repertoire than most people would have, at the expense of variety.

#274 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 12:43 PM:

Constance @ 268: In tenth grade, the state-wide, standardized literature test was to write an in-class essay about one of the short stories we'd studied that year (mainly European lit). Someone in my class wrote a detailed essay about the symbolism in a story called "The Detective" by Franz Gruber.

A week or two later, the teacher called me up to his desk, told me the above fact, and quietly asked if it had been me. I said no, because it hadn't been. He looked disappointed, and said "I tried to figure out who would have thought it was funny and been able to pull it off."

I thanked him for the compliment. I wish I'd had the guts to try it.

#275 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 12:54 PM:

re 273: I think that actually puts you in the .5 case, as you figured out enough of what was being talked about to get you through the passage.

re 270: Doing that at my high school would have gotten you in Very Deep Trouble, as we had an honor code.

#276 ::: Marna Nightingale ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 01:04 PM:

I need to catch up, but briefly:

My Soc of Religion prof puts this on all his syllabi:

"In the event of any question about the authenticity of submitted work the student may be required to take an oral examination on the topic of the work."

IOW, if you can't explain your work in your own words while sitting across the desk from Dr Beyer, you have troubles.

This also weeds out "actually did their own research but genuinely did not understand how - and how MUCH - to cite quotes, ideas and paraphrases" students, who lose the marks for that paper and get sent to the Writing Centre but are not disciplined past that, because they CAN explain their paper, they just wrote it wrong.

The actual rule is _if we talked about it in class_ you don't need to formally cite it, you can treat it as background, but some people genuinely do think that if it was anywhere in the assigned or suggested readings then OBVIOUSLY the prof doesn't think you thought it up yourself, you know?

#277 ::: Marna Nightingale ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 01:13 PM:

Also: I was once offered a perfectly legitimate job writing essays for a site like that.

By my own department. Religious Studies is specialised enough that they considered it worth salting the ground with stuff they'd recognise instantly. :-)

Sadly, I had enough essays of my OWN to write, right then.

#278 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 01:15 PM:

Wait, does this mean everyone's always understood every other example and obscurism I've mentioned on Making Light?

Cooool.

#279 ::: Sam Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 01:27 PM:

I learned my times-tables in primary school, and that gave me a good data collection for learning arithmetic with. I don't think the value of a stock of known data, against which to test taught procedures, can be overstated.

I forgot the tables easily enough, but have always been able to calculate them since, usually using a variety of subconscious approaches at once and letting them check themselves against each other. Now, I couldn't for the life of me say whether, when I'm asked what seven twelves is, I'm calculating it ab initio or remembering calculating it many times before, but I know I'm right.

#280 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 02:03 PM:

Re various:
Arithmetic is a brute skill to acquire for practical purposes, but it's also a doorway to understanding other more interesting kinds of mathematics.

My son spent part of last year learning his times tables the Montessori way, which involves making rectangles of the appropriate numbers of bead strings of the appropriate lengths and counting them, as well as other exercises, besides doing the usual memorization of times tables. The point of this approach is that once you have spent a while doing these exercises, you will understand 9 x 7 = 63 = 7 x 9 as a concrete physical fact, as well as a memorized rule. *

What he had also observed at the time, and explained to me last night, is that if you look at only the ones digit of a multiplication product (because they're learning place value at the same time) each of the single-digit even numbers generates a repeating series with a different permutation of the digits 0, 2, 4, 6, 8. (E.g. 4 x (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) => (4, 8, 2, 6, 0) It took him a while to figure out how to explain it, but once I understood what he was trying to communicate we had an interesting discussion about it. Even though he didn't know the term or the abstract concept, he's starting to explore the field on Z mod 10, but he could not have spontaneously discovered that or gotten curious about it without learning the arithmetic first.

[*] I am trying to avoid a tangent here about Montessori methods and Korzybski's General Semantics, so beloved by Van Vogt.

#281 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 02:29 PM:

I remember being in about 4th grade and realizing there was a pattern to 11x(any number 10 or higher). Sadly, when I tried to explain the trick to my math teacher he wasn't interested.

#282 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 02:33 PM:

Who wrote the Schmuck's papers, I wonder?

Meanwhile, at a Readercon Gary Wolfe wanted to know who did the editing for Robert Silverberg on the anthologies Silverberg edited. My jaw didn't quite drop at the question. "He writes faster than most people can read," I said, "Don't you think that someone who can write that fast, can do his own editing?"

#283 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 02:40 PM:

Elliott @260

We had smallish classes at that point, so she would take a combined class of all my school's 3rd and 4th graders, then teach the 4th and 5th the following year -- same kids. Then she'd backhitch and take the next year's 3rd graders. So not everyone who made it through my school got to be taught for two years by Miss O'Brien, which is a horrid shame for the kids who were 3rds while she was on 4/5, and only got her for one year.

As described, under this system all children would have her for 2 years. If you were a 3rd grader in a year she was teaching 4/5, you wouldn't have her for that year, but you'd be in 4th when she was teaching 3/4 the next year, and in 5th when she was teaching 4/5 the year after. If you were a 3rd grader in a year she was teaching 3/4, you'd have her that year, the next year when you were in 4th and she was teaching 4/5, but not the next when you were in 5th and she was back to teaching 3/4.

Not nit-picking ... I just can't resist a logic problem!

#284 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 02:45 PM:

What's fascinating to me with basic arithmetic is how few people use it for simple estimations (like, is this about the right amount for the bill, including tax?). I used to keep in practice back when I was at The Other Change of Hobbit by figuring (8.25%) tax in my head, and I'd generally do a quick estimate of the bill total in case I'd forgotten to include a number when running the adding machine -- seemed more ecological than running a tape.

People often thought this was odd. In many cases, I could figure it quicker than I could use the calculator.

#285 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 02:46 PM:

Lee @273 re abi @246, on process vs. content: This is very similar to what I often call "librarian's memory"--my knowledge base tends to be wide but shallow, but what I DO remember is where to go to look something up.

And Lee, yes, Fred was only 61, and I seem to recall it was rather sudden. He was a sweet guy, with all the lack of ruthlessness that can imply.

"Braino"--that's a good word which I may have to steal!

#286 ::: caffeine ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 03:03 PM:

Paula @282... Writing ability or speed has little, if anything, to do with ability to edit.

#287 ::: Jerome ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 03:11 PM:

What bothers me is "Ed Dante"'s lack of responsibility. He acts as if it's our fault that these students stay in school. If these students didn't have essay writers, they wouldn't be in school, would they?

He's cleaning up "our" messes? As an English teacher, I'm insulted. We teach our material. That doesn't mean that every student who comes out of my class will be able to write stunning essays. Students have to make the effort. I work with anyone who wants help--but I can move them five years ahead in writing in one semester.

Dante has the idea that we produce students like he produces essays, and I detest his smug superiority to the students he's working with, and the condescension he has towards academia--which obviously taught him how to write, but failed to teach him any morals. THAT's the lesson I'm taking away...

#288 ::: jnh ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 03:30 PM:

ajay @264:
(Regarding Bush and Gen. Franks)
262: actually, I'd think that's about the weakest sort of proof you could have for plagiarism: if that's what he actually said at the time (and presumably the meeting was being minuted and/or recorded) then you'd expect two accounts of it, both probably written by people with access to the minutes/transcripts, to contain identical quotes!

I agree that we have no reliable source to the exact wording in Bush's meeting (and I have a much looser criteria for cites in that context), but to have the text from Gen. Franks' book show up in Bush's book surely counts as direct plagiarism (why it wasn't caught by the ghost writer or the copyeditor is strange).

#289 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 03:38 PM:

Russ@263, ajay@265: a pal of mine, X, was sat in the exam room waiting for one of his university physics exams to start. This would be in the mid-80s. A girl a few desks away was in tears because she'd forgotten her calculator. X gave her his calculator to use. The invigilator looked at him with interest: a generous gesture, but was X now going to do the exam completely bareback? No: X triumphantly pulled out his emergency backup calculating device... a slide rule. Geek gallantry.

#290 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 03:53 PM:

I accidentally ran across a blatant example of plagiarism yesterday that is a bit different: a paper in a social sciences journal this year that is an exact copy of a paper in a statistical computing conference proceedings twenty years ago.

Firstly: WTF did the reviewers think they were doing? Even if they are happy to review a paper they don't understand, they should at least notice that the content is completely unsuited t to the journal and that the reference list stops twenty years ago.

Secondly: the authors are from a third-world country, presumably trying to get some academic leverage to counteract a lack of privilege

Thirdly: the journal itself is no paragon of respectability. It claims to be "monitored by the Social Sciences Citation Index". Being listed in the SSCI is a low bar, but important. Here, however, it seems "monitored by" is a way of saying "not listed in".

They all deserve each other.

#291 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 04:42 PM:

In re Heather Rose Jones @283 correcting my logic problem: thank you. :-> It's an old joke, but not untrue, that geeks are happy when corrected on matters of fact and logic; at least, I am.

Enrollment at my grade school was more than a little odd, and I think the admins were perfectly happy to combine classes for Miss O'Brien, because she was so good at controlling 30ish kids and getting us all pointed in the same direction. I am retroactively impressed, also, at her ability to slightly one-room-schoolhouse us, getting us all through sufficient curriculum and whatnot despite differing skill levels. I bet her having each set of kids for two solid years was so she could give us the same worksheets as much as possible and still have us work out having learned what we all needed to learn.

My graduating class was eight kids, of whom one was expelled three weeks before graduation for involvement in an Unspecified Police Matter. Which actually means six 8th graders (plus Mr. Expelled) and then me upshifted from 7th grade to graduate a year early ... a story far too convoluted to fit in this margin. However, the year I graduated, there were two 30-kid classes of 1st, 2 20-kid 2nd grades, and FIFTY kindergarteners.

Why, yes, I WAS born in a baby-trough, why do you ask? I noticed this only slowly. A whole bunch of AWESOME stuff aimed at kids came out consistently two years after I was the right age for it: Gymboree 'play gyms' (we only had Chuck E Cheese, etc), Magic Schoolbus, Bill Nye the Science Guy, etc. Interestingly, looking at graphs of US demographics, my year isn't particularly troughy on average, but it was visibly so in the neighborhoods and social circles I grew up in, so maybe it was a regional thing. My mother's old high school and college classmates certainly didn't breed until 5-8 years after she did (by the evidence of announcements in her alumni notes).

Tom Whitmore @284 is very good at quick calculations. I am good at *some* quick calculations -- the ones I have tricks for, like ten-times and nine-times, doubling, etc. I figure tip on a restaurant bill by taking the final bottom number (including tax; yes, I know this means I'm kind of a generous tipper), taking a tenth by moving the decimal point, and adding half that tenth to get to my 15%-ish. Then I round to make it simple, either to the coins and bills I'm carrying, or to make my credit-card total come out to a round dollar-or-half ... which is an aesthetic consideration. Sometimes I also add to reward valorous service, or deliberately undertip if I felt they weren't really worth the full amount, etc. But I estimate by move-decimal-and-add-half-of-that, fairly quickly.

However, on most other math problems -- the ones I don't have a 'trick' for -- I am so slow it astonishes my (mathy) husband. He'll ask me something, like the sum of two 3-digit numbers, or to multiply a 2-digit by a single digit, and watches me do it in my head on my mental blackboard, walking through it. He's finished at least twice as fast as I am, and often is significantly more accurate. I'm a bit better on accuracy, though no faster, if you let me have paper; my particular mild math disability involves digits swapping around when I'm not shining the burning spotlight of my attention directly at them, and paper remembers where I was last-step a lot better than I can in my head.

You, Tom, have a superpower. It's a minor one, but it IS one: many people can only do with difficulty (or not at all) what you do with great ease.

I'm a great believer in Weird Minor Superpowers. My husband has a cardinal-direction-sensor, which seems to NOT be magnetic (moving from lake-south Toronto to lake-east Chicago meant he was off by 90deg in his dead reckonings for nearly six months, which gobsmacked him). I can scan a page of text, barely paying attention, and spot typos and grammar problems with what must be a subconscious parser. My mother's eidetic -- that's a superpower most people know about. But she ALSO has completely exact color-memory: she can see me in a shirt, and eight months later buy me another garment (or yard goods, etc) that matches or coordinates with it PRECISELY, even if she saw it in sunlight and is buying by fluorescent, etc. I've always wondered if she has the Weird Extra Rods tetrachromat mutation, or if her three rods are at least not quite the same as everyone else's, because she can also distinguish between fine gradations of shade that most people would lump as the 'same' color.

Wow, that's gotten far afield; sorry for the hijack.

#292 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 04:51 PM:

C. Wingate at 261

Why do I only count as a half person?

#293 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 05:04 PM:

abi @195: I wanna reincarnate as your kid.

Expanding on my @192, when I started the second grade, my mom was called in because my grades tanked. I was particularly bad in arithmetic.

My parents response to this? It was mandated that I would sit at the dining room table to do my homework. When I my mother saw me drawing on my homework sheet one evening (because I'd seen another kid's decorated homework in class and thought it was cool) she slapped me.

This was the extent of the "help" I got from them in the subject.

#294 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 05:14 PM:

Elliott Mason @291: the math stuff is mostly practice. When I stop doing it every day, it gets harder. The good direction bump -- yeah, minor super-power. Don't ask me about finding rare books, though. Ask other people about me finding rare books. That one is a very odd power. And TNH will tell you I have others.

#295 ::: Keifus ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 05:31 PM:

#216 Elliott Mason:

For what it's worth, weighing chromatograms is a legitimate analytical technique, very old-school in fact. I've had it come up in a number of conversations with older chemists (who were also big fans of thin-layer chromatography, basic analyte challenges, and things like that). It was a lot harder to integrate a curve before the days of electronic data, when even a table of data was hard to come by. Instead you might have had a pen line drawn with some kind of analog chart recorder. Cutting out the peak ends up being more accurate than getting your ruler and measuring points for the rudimentary curve fitting or numerical integration you'd be inclined to do without a computer.

#296 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 05:37 PM:

Keifus #295:

I recall a chemistry lab where we were provided with the chromatograms on grid paper. It became an exercise of counting the squares under the curves.

#297 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 05:45 PM:

Sam Kelly (279): when I'm asked what seven twelves is

I've never quite understood the logic of memorizing times tables up to twelves. We learned them up to tens; anything after that went under the rule of two-digit multiplication. (Elevens have such a regular pattern that I learned them anyway, but we weren't formally taught those.) I can never quite remember 7x8; I have to add 7 to 7x7 or subtract 8 from 8x8. It works.

Elliott Mason (291): I figure tips the same way you do. My friends all complain about how hard it is to figure 15%; they're astonished when I tell them my trick.

#298 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 05:50 PM:

Back when tax was 7.5% in CA, the tip was merely double the tax. That still works if one wants to be generous, most places.

#299 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 05:51 PM:

You know all these confessional pieces from people who write for mills ring false in several respects. I write non-fiction for a living, and I'm pressed to put out 3K a day. And I'm an exceedingly experienced academic writer.

I have more than 15 years experience teaching college comp and lit classes at both SLAC and a large Research I university, where in some cases, there were as many as 700 students in writing intensive classes.

I've taught pre- and post- Internet classes, and I've taught online.

If a teacher is creating writing assignments that don't include criteria that are unique and difficult to duplicate even if you've got money, isn't including in-class writing exercises, and writing conferences with students, they're doin' it rong.

The best way to find plagiarism is to know your students' writing and your field. You notice when there's a shift in your students' native voice and style; you notice references to texts that they couldn't possibly have access to, or read, you notice problems with citations. You notice that there are no ties between the paper and class resources and discussions. You notice that it doesn't really respond to the assignment or the paper prompt.

I am increasingly disturbed at the reliance on services like turnitin.com -- which cause some technically naive faculty to flag false positives, and which violate students' intellectual property rights. Also? They really don't work very well.

#300 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 06:16 PM:

On academic trickery: A girl I knew claimed to have turned in essentially the same paper four to five times, in different classes. It was a book report of some kind (Lord of the Flies maybe?), on one of those books I've never read, but I feel as though I have, due to the sheer volume of book reports I've had to sit through. Whenever she was assigned it again she'd pick up her old paper, make any changes marked by the previous teacher, and turn it in. She also said she never got lower than a B+ on the thing, so either she was a genius when she first wrote it or she revised more substantially than she let on.

On the value of creative writing courses: The discussion in this thread has been incredibly eye-opening (and may have come just in time, as I've been investigating local creative writing and English programs). Sadly, my local college seems to be about fifty-fifty - there are a number of quite good conventional publications there, but a few of the professors seem to have published through the same local POD-related small press, which claims not to be a vanity press but is, at most, a fig leaf away from one. And there's nobody who seems to have legitimate credits in the fields I'm most interested in (Speculative fiction and TV writing).

I've had several jobs where the bulk of my responsibilities involved writing or editing, but I've had little formal instruction in either (my degree is in another field entirely). I was looking into going back to school for a second bachelors or a masters, because a lot of the jobs doing the same thing I used to do either require or prefer an English or communications degree. It's probably smarter to ask this question at AW, but I figure it can't hurt to ask it here, too. If not a creative writing program, what kind of supplementary education would you recommend to someone looking to beef up editing and writing skills?

On the subject of teaching people how to do things that are essential to their futures: One course that absolutely needs to be taught in all colleges (and probably most high schools) is network building. I've never been good at keeping in contact with all the awesome people I've met, and I let a lot of good contacts fall by the wayside. As bad as I am, I know shyer people who are even WORSE at it. Most people my age don't know how to do it at all. I lucked out somewhat there; at my last job I met a few girls who are naturals, and so I can ape what they do (a bit). Stil, a course on networking would have been worth more than almost any other class I had in college, and I had some damn useful classes.

#301 ::: Kee ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 06:36 PM:

Wesley #238 and Nightsky #203: I have it on good authority from a few fellow postgrads and Tutors that the creative writing courses they are involved with have more than one person in them who proudly admit to not only hating reading but think reading is stupid. Apparently these people expect everyone to be wowed by their great novel when they finish it.

I can't get my head around this mindset. But then, I also cannot understand how so many students don't even care to retain basic essential information like the name of their Tutor when they have been given a hard-copy syllabus with the name of the Tutor on it, their personalized class schedule on the university computer system also lists the tutor name with the class time, and the Tutor has emailed the class multiple times thus giving them a clue in email as well. (This is a continual source of frustration, as students submit their essays centrally and then get very upset when their essays go astray -- which is inevitable when they put down the name of another Tutor or someone who doesn't exist.) It doesn't say much for the amount of attention or care given to their courses. (Oddly, I don't have much sympathy for the students skipping classes to protest the possible reintroduction of fees.)

heresiarch #245: I typically catch approximately five plagiarists in a batch of eighty essays. I probably still miss the more sophisticated plagiarists. It's not an insignificant number. That also does not count the people who scrape a barely passing grade but do not evidence the ability to think logically. My first stack of student essays was when I suddenly realized that I had been a good student, and what that meant in comparison to a passing standard. It was a profoundly depressing moment.

These students have been profoundly failed by the educational system. Some of them are very thoughtful and have interesting things to say in discussion, but they have little concept of how to form their thoughts in coherent writing or how gaining knowledge requires real effort and time commitment.

#302 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 06:59 PM:

Bruce & Lee:
in re: "Not what you know but who you know"

I realize that this has always been a successful strategy -- my point is, that this is *now* what the state unemployment offices are telling job seekers.

And you know, for a lot of people who don't belong to professional organizations, or are socially inept geeks, this means that TPTB are telling a large chunk of the unemployed that they are SOL, And they (the unemployment departments) don't have the funding anymore to adequately help those otherwise frozen-out job seekers.

#303 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 07:00 PM:

Still amused that no one's commented on the culpability of various publishers in paying huge advances to people for something they know will be ghostwritten... I suspect there's a log in their collective eyes.

In the meantime: on the topic or recycling term papers, I would like to point to Tom Koch's "Rewriting Your Way to a PH.D." from Mad Magazine #158, April 1973.

#304 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 07:08 PM:

NerdyCellist (#190)

in re requirements for a degree for a position - I cannot fathom what these people are thinking -- they have a candidate *in place* that *knows the job,* that *has demonstrated an ability and willingness to *do* the job,* and they still balked at the degree requirement. Stupid.

I actually run into that myself. I ran out of money halfway through my BS in computer science. 30+ years ago. I've been working in my field since then, and I *still* get the "but you don't have a degree" BS. Never mind that, if I had *taken* my degree, after 3 decades a degree in computer science has very little applicability to the current state of computer science

(admittedly, if I *had* finished I'd still be using stuph learned - my concentrations were in computer language design and compiler theory)

#305 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 07:53 PM:

jnh@288:

I agree that we have no reliable source to the exact wording in Bush's meeting (and I have a much looser criteria for cites in that context), but to have the text from Gen. Franks' book show up in Bush's book surely counts as direct plagiarism.

I wouldn't assume that just from the passage shown. They're quoting from the exact same event, so as long as there's some sort of established record for it (either prepared remarks, or notes or recordings made of the meeting as it happened), two different books drawing on the record should use the same words for any given quote.

I'd be more concerned if they *didn't* agree, if they were supposedly talking about the same speech.

#306 ::: caffeine ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 08:02 PM:

Craig R. @ 304: When I was leaving a previous editing job, I helped my boss interview candidates for the position. One was a woman with 20 years' experience in her field, and she was a good fit for the position. She did not have a college degree. My boss was hesitant to recommend her to the recruiter who was handling the position; she was concerned that HR would reject the candidate out of hand due to the lack of degree. (A distinct possibility; this was a rather Dilbert-esque environmenta.)

Someone else eventually came along who was a better editor (and had a degree); this woman was offered the position.

#308 ::: jnh ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 08:49 PM:

John Mark Ockerbloom @305:
ajay @264:

Wow, I never managed to parse that Gen. Frank was Quoting Bush.

Color me bright red with embarrassment. Does anyone have a spare brain that I can have? Mine is clearly well beyond its sell-by date! I'll be over there in the corner, staring at my feet avoiding eye contact for a while....

#309 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 09:11 PM:

The problem is not that Bush is quoting himself; it's that he has lifted the entire anecdotes from his associates' writing (or from newspaper articles) and attributed it to himself. It's like the recent Cooks Source issue: the recipe (or dialogue) might not be copyrighted, but the discussion or anecdote surrounding the recipe/dialogue is. Bush is copying what other people wrote about those items, some of which were revised to make it seem like he was present, for example, at occasions where he was in fact, not present.

#310 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 09:19 PM:

And you know, for a lot of people who don't belong to professional organizations, or are socially inept geeks, this means that TPTB are telling a large chunk of the unemployed that they are SOL, And they (the unemployment departments) don't have the funding anymore to adequately help those otherwise frozen-out job seekers.

Well, if both of those statements are true, what else should they tell them? Even if the unemployment departments did have the funding for some kind of skill training, the subject may not be able to get a non-crappy job (or any job at all) just by being skilled at what he/she would need to do if he/she had the job; it may not even particularly help.

As for the socially inept geeks, some of them were ostracized for reasons beyond their control *before* they stopped being interested in having lots of friends. Or maybe I should say, some of us. (Hmm, on reflection I don't mean this to sound like socializing with the like-minded however few they are, rather than trying to form large social circles that might be more useful for networking, is a case of sour grapes, but that they/we have learned the futility of trying to form long-lasting social relationships with people who are psychologically an alien species, even if they are the majority of what is biologically the same species. Or maybe that *is* sour grapes, I dunno. Anyway, I don't think we're the ones primarily patrolling the walls of our own social ghetto, so asking us why we don't come out and mingle more often is about as useful as asking medieval Jews the analogous question.)

#311 ::: Fixer ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 09:24 PM:

In the post you say Jonathan Barkat wrote the editorial note that accompanies the Chronicle story. That is not correct. Barkat is the illustrator who did the article's incredible image, which was also on the cover of The Chronicle Review.

#312 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 09:32 PM:

I'll admit, compared to the other stuff Bush is pretty unambiguously responsible for, hiring a crooked, cut-rate ghostwriter for his book seems like a very small thing. ("Yeah, sorry about missing the warnings of the worst terrorist attack in history, the million or so people dead as a result of my unnecessary wars, the program of torture, kidnapping, and other crimes against humanity committed on my orders, and the wrecked global economy whose meltdown happened on my watch. Oh, and sorry for the book mostly being a cut-and-paste job, too.")

#313 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 10:17 PM:

265
Going into an exam and finding out the calculator had a dead battery, so I had to do the math problem by hand - it was converting a fraction between base 7 and base 10. (Fortunately I was already familiar with base 7 from junior high.)

#314 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 10:50 PM:

heresiarch, #245:

What percentage of students are really engaging in this kind of blatant forgery?

This kind? Undoubtedly few. On the other hand, the phenomenon described in the essay is not the only thing under discussion in this thread; people are talking about a whole range of academic misconduct. And, maybe more significantly, academic mismanagement: schools that pass students they shouldn't, other schools that exist as "vanity universities" handing out shady credentials for pay.

(A second question occurs to me: what percentage of the students who do pay for shortcuts or pseudo-credentials come from money-and-social-capital-rich backgrounds? The kind of backgrounds that often smooth the way into the kind of high-status jobs that could, directly or indirectly, affect other people's lives?)

This seems to me to be a crucial question: people are asking for a wholesale re-arrangement and refocusing of the educational system to better defend against cheaters, a shift that will negatively impact the system's ability to teach material to the willing and able.

I don't think anyone here is asking for anything like this--myself, I don't think a "wholesale re-arrangement and refocusing of the educational system" would accomplish anything at all. The solutions discussed here, to the extent that anyone has solutions, tend to run along the lines of "assign in-class writing assignments" and "uphold your existing academic standards."

The smaller problems discussed in this thread, I think, stem from one big problem: our society doesn't value education. We're suspicious of expertise. We think gut feelings are better and purer than actual knowledge. We elect politicians with little or no experience because we think they'll do a better job than professionals. We fill our school boards with absolutely anyone except teachers. When there's a Death Star to take down, our hero is the guy who turns off his targeting computer and goes by instinct.

This is something we can't solve by massively rearranging the academic furniture; what we need is a shift in cultural values.

#315 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 11:00 PM:

C. Wingate @ 250: "For a person to be able to do basic arithmetic on their own, they need to know the tables and be proficient in the various techniques; however it be done, there is no escaping memorizing the first and practicing the second."

C. Wingate, I'd like you to meet Number Muncher. Number Muncher, C. Wingate.

But this is really the lesser way to make learning not boring--the greater way is to teach it in a context where it's relevant, so even that if it is not madly rewarding on its own a more rewarding application is immediately within reach. Coring trees and lake sediments and glaciers is boring and hard; figuring out the history of the earth's climate is awesome and fascinating. Yet for all that the latter is impossible without the former, no one advocates that we need to make all scientists spend years learning how to core things before they learn about paleoclimatology.

Otter B @ 2^8: I'm glad you enjoyed it =)

#316 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 11:12 PM:

Kee, #301:

I have it on good authority from a few fellow postgrads and Tutors that the creative writing courses they are involved with have more than one person in them who proudly admit to not only hating reading but think reading is stupid. Apparently these people expect everyone to be wowed by their great novel when they finish it.

I hope I never pick up one of their novels by accident. (Mind you, I have a feeling they might have trouble getting them published.) One of my big pet peeves is reading things--whether books or blog comments--that seem to want an audience but simultaneously radiate contempt for it.

#317 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2010, 11:21 PM:

re 315: What makes you think it isn't boring/tedious?

#318 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 12:05 AM:

To paraphrase James Kakalios, the author of "The Physics of Superheroes"- when he gave his class real-world problems, they complained that they were never going to use this stuff. When he gave his class problems about Superman jumping over the Daily Planet building, nobody seemed to complain. Apparently there are, in fact, a lot of people with a plan for what to do when they wake up with heat vision. I know I've got one.

#319 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 12:12 AM:

Sandy B @ 318... Would carrying kryptonite around be a good idea for the rest of us? Or should we practice kneeling before Sandy B?

#320 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 12:31 AM:

Craig R @ 304:

Sadly, the need to see a certificate is not restricted to MBAs, managers, and Human Resources specialists. I saw it first hand a few years ago in a company run by some of the finest technologists alive.

I had been laid off during the dotbomb in 2001, stayed off the job market for several months following surgery, and was just starting to look for another job when I came across a description in a magazine of a company called "Applied Minds", a technology development and consulting company started by Danny Hillis (inventor of the Connection Machine, a truly elegant design for large-scale parallel computing) after he left Disney Imagineering. They were working on a prototype of a network architecture for distributed control of power, plumbing, and HVAC systems in houses and office buildings.

Now I have a great deal of respect for Danny Hillis' work, and I had just spent more than 8 years working on distributed software systems, including programming tools, object-oriented messaging systems, etc., etc. So I emailed the project leader a copy of my resume. The next day he called me and we talked for about an hour; after that he asked me if I would be interested in coming down to LA to interview. When I said yes, he double-checked my resume and said, "Oops, you don't have an MS degree, do you? Sorry, Danny insists on at least a Master's degree for everyone in the company."

I didn't bother arguing with him about it, but I did let him grumble to me for a minute or two about the waste of it all.

#321 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 12:37 AM:

Sandy B. @318: I've known physics profs who like to use velociraptors, as well.

Near the start of the term, he starts sprinkling in questions like:

"Starting from rest, you run at [insert numbers] straight out from a wall. At the same moment, a male velociraptor emerges from a door eight feet to your left, running at [speed] and a female raptor from the door to fifteen feet to your right, running at [other speed]. If the unlocked door at the other end of the room is 50ft away, can you reach it before you are eaten? If not, which raptor gets the first bite?"

... among all the bog-standard textbook ones. By the week before finals velociraptors have entered all possible problem types, and students are asked to calculate:

* How fast you can light a velociraptor on fire, given a source of heat X and if raptor skin has coefficients Y and Z;

* Designing circuits that will, when a tripwire is triggered, electrocute velociraptors, given only stated materials and batteries;

* If a rocket will, carrying two human astronauts, get to height Q in time R under thrust S, how high will it go (and how long will it take to reach its peak) with two velociraptor astronauts, if an average human is considered to mass B kg and an average velociraptor masses C kg?

* Dropping velociraptors over cliffs of known height into water and calculating splash results;

... and then he gets really silly. :->

#322 ::: janra ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 01:24 AM:

#166 cgeye: regarding repositories of past exams, whether or not that's cheating depends a lot on the department.

In my field (chemical engineering) the profs would recommend that we go to the student services office and sign out a binder of their old exams, with answer keys, and study them. They wrote new exams every year, so you couldn't cheat from the old ones.

Of course, the exams generally consisted of 4 questions, each of which took over a half hour to work through.

#266 Fragano Ledgister

I know somebody with a PhD in a field who shares a name with somebody who has a PhD in the same field... Don't know if they're working on the same part of said field, but it's not exactly a high population.

#300 Leah Miller

A course on network building (and maintaining) would have been nice - but I have a feeling it would have been tailored to the extravert majority, and not so useful to introverts. At least, that's how I've found every single "how to network" reference that I've ever looked up.

I did sort of use my network to find my current job. Not by asking people that I knew in my field if they had job openings, but by asking the suppliers that I had bought stuff from while at my previous job, if they knew of any other companies who might have use for somebody with my skillset. Suppliers' sales guys know lots of people, kind of by definition. (They were used to me only contacting them when I needed something... but then some of them would call me specifically, to ask about equipment that somebody else at the company had ordered, because they knew I'd dig up the answer for them. Seems fair.) One of them came up with the name of what is now my current employer. After getting company names I still went through my normal job application process however.

#323 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 01:49 AM:

janra @322 (re to Fragano @266): I ended up working on a project with two excellent statisticians named Tukey (John and Paul). They had figured out how they were related: fifth cousins. That's statistically unlikely....

#324 ::: Vigilarus ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 03:09 AM:

At Oxbridge, the tutorial system works against the grade-grubbing cynicism which underlies some of the market for custom papers in the US and the evaluative method which can enable it. Teaching is done predominantly by way of tutorials where students do independent research on a specific question over the week or two between meetings, they read or summarize their papers and then discuss and defend them for an hour with the professor and at most three other students. It would be difficult for a cheater to hide in the intense scrutiny of a tutorial. Furthermore, grading for the student’s permanent record does not derive from the tutorials but instead come from proctored final exams administered anonymously over a grueling few weeks after three years of study. It is in the student's interest to work hard and to participate fully, and the freedom from the politics of ongoing grading gives the professors more room to be ruthlessly demanding of students. The systems of debate and challenge as well as the separate final evaluation process help to prevent political correctness and the parroting of professorial views. In my experience, students had a real interest in ideas, they learned to hear criticism and to respond with skill, and most were motivated by a healthy work ethic. American visiting students often had to adjust to the shift in expectations from both their teachers and their peers at Oxford, but the majority of them came to relish the culture.

Of course, the tutorial system is labor intensive and would be difficult to replicate at a large state university, but there are elements that could be incorporated into American education. For example, each week a time could be devoted to the participation of a small portion of the class in a tutorial with the professor, and the final grade could come entirely from a proctored final exam at the end of the course.

#325 ::: Fran Walker ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 03:13 AM:

Based on my own (limited) experience, academic mismanagement is a real biggie.

At my Uni, a lecturer is alloted 2.5 hours per hour of live-lecture. So that's an hour to give the lecture, and 1.5 hours to research it, prepare the powerpoint presentation, meet with students who have questions after class, create the exam question, and mark the exams. Wholly unrealistic. Now they're being told to use multiple choice exams rather than essays because they're faster to mark.

Their only way to give themselves more time for lectures and research is to use postgrad students who, for minimum wage, mark exams and essays. There's no way these markers would catch a change in a student's style or quality of writing.

Postgrad student essays (for one semester a student will usually have to write three 10,000 word essays) have to be marked by two lecturers other than the student's supervisor. Since it's a one-off, there's no chance the other lecturers will have any idea if the essay reflects the student's writing ability or not; they're marking blind.

Thesis supervisors are alloted two hours per week to devote to each PhD student. That's for everything -- discussing the project, outlining experiments, teaching them assay methods, helping them analyse and interpret data, and reading over their thesis chapters.

One of my colleagues, a talented technician, did all of the bench work for a PhD student, and never even got thanked in his thesis. His main supervisor had no idea the student hadn't done the work; the tech works for one of the co-supervisors who made the tech do all the work, handed all the data to the student, and "forgot" to tell the main supervisor about it.

When I recently complained to one of the very high-up people that they were trying to run the Uni like a business, I was told, "We *are* a business. We sell degrees to students and we do research for money."

What's an academic to do, faced with that kind of mindset and with an ever-increasing workload -- and with a family to feed and a mortgage to pay?

#326 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 04:23 AM:

Mary @297

It wouldn't apply as a reason now, but it used to be that British currency had 12 pennies to the shilling, and the 12-times table was useful then. Not so obvious now, I agree, maybe factors?

#327 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 04:25 AM:

@324: a wonderful system, particularly due to the vast space it leaves for favouritism, bullying, sexual harassment, neglect [benign and otherwise], and the structural reproduction of a narrow culture of verbal cleverness. Not that there aren't many excellent scholars working in it, of course...

#328 ::: Russ ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 05:04 AM:

abi#53* ...his rule of thumb was one page of outline per page of finished essay.

I don't understand how this is possible - if it's the same length as the finished essay, how is it an outline? Was this a typo?**

I went to St. Andrews reading English in '92, and switched to Psychology in '94. I didn't think much of it at the time, but on reflection I think I probably did get an easier ride because I already knew how to write an essay/report.

On the other hand, I was one of the idiots who (in my first year) would sometimes turn up to an English tutorial without having read the text. I'm only half ashamed of this - university is rightly about a lot more than academia for an 18 year old leaving home for the first time.

* And again, apologies for responding before I've read the whole thread; that's going to take a while.

** Please forgive the nitpicking - if you meant this, I'm genuinely curious how it works.

#329 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 05:44 AM:

Russ #328: The way a formal outline is structured, the outline has a lot more whitespace than paragraph text does.

#330 ::: Russ ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 06:04 AM:

Heresiarch@315* C. Wingate, I'd like you to meet Number Muncher

Cool...it's available as an iPhone app. In the age of the internet, nothing is truly lost :D

C. Wingate@317 re 315: What makes you think it isn't boring/tedious?

I can't parse what your "it's" refers to - number muncher? Teaching in context? Neither seems obviously boring.

* For those following my progress through the thread, I skipped to the end but will now backfill the gap from 53-263. You're welcome.

#331 ::: Russ ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 06:17 AM:

David Harmon@329*

I'm afraid I'm still none the wiser - the outline in the example takes up at best half a page, for an essay that will presumably be considerably longer.

I can see the value of some whitespace for your ease of reading, maybe a line or so, but what would be the point of leaving a half page blank? I still don't see how to write a five page outline and then turn it into a five page essay without just doing the same thing twice.

* I saw David's response when I posted 330. I'm going back to 54 now. In order to spare the few who are not interested in my progress through the thread, for further updates please send a subscription email to the above address with the line "No really, I care" in the subject header.

#332 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 06:26 AM:

327: a bit harsh, especially as unjustified, I think.

#333 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 06:26 AM:

Russ @328:
I don't understand how this is possible - if it's the same length as the finished essay, how is it an outline?

As David Harmon @329 points out, an outline has a lot of whitespace to it. You're not even averaging one relevant idea per line, because some lines are taken up by organizational elements.

Furthermore, my father used afermative* paper, with a left-hand margin taking up about a third of the width of the sheet. I don't know where he got it; I used to beg sheets off of him and hoard them, well into my college years†.

Also, he was outlining by hand before typing the final document on a manual typewriter. A highly detailed outline meant that he didn't leave things out, and the size differential between handwriting and typing means that a 1:1 ratio isn't as dramatic as it might sound.

-----
* neither a misspelling nor a widespread term; it's peculiar to me

† until I moved from the Land of Letter-Sized Paper to the Wider World of A4

#334 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 06:29 AM:

The example I linked was just to show the structure -- that particular outline would be nowhere near finished! As you work on ithe outline, it would accumulate more and more sublevels until you have outline entries for every point you want to make under those topics. At that point, it will be at least as many pages as your finished paper!

Before personal computers, this involved a lot of scribbled notes with arrows, and some recopying of successively more advanced outlines. It's much easier with computers....

#335 ::: Russ ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 08:22 AM:

broundy@113 And my Shakespeare professor (junior year) finally beat passive voice out of me with a series of D grades, which, he told me, would become A's if I could remove the passive sentence construction

What’s wrong with a passive sentence constructions?

Davod Harmon & Abi, Re: Outlines

Ah - thank you for the explanations. I'm glad I asked, actually, as otherwise I would have been tempted to write off as a typographical mistake something which sounds like a useful (and widespread?) technique.

I was never taught to write an outline like that (my structural education went no further than the already mentioned "tell 'em three times")*; hence I imagine the body of my undergraduate essays had a somewhat stream-of-consiousness style. It was only in my final year that the university began to insist on word processed submissions, so most of this would have been by hand too.

It's a long time since I've had to write something that looked like an essay (my work writing is much more report style), but if I did it more frequently I think I would find the kind of structure you're suggesting very useful.

Presumably there's room for the whole thing to shift if, as you're writing, your thought process develops on a different track? I often found the process writing on a subject gave me new ideas about it. I guess that would require trashing and recreating the outline?

*This isn't entirely true. I was indeed encouraged to outline essays before I wrote them, but was never taught a formal technique for doing so. Hence my idea of an outline would probably be more appropriately referred to as half page of brainstorming.

#336 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 08:23 AM:

abi@333: No, A4 is narrower than US Letter Size. :-)

You're welcome.

#337 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 08:25 AM:

janra # 322: Such things do happen, but not very often in my friend's field (African-American studies) where the likelihood of two people with my friend's name and educational history would be vanishingly small.

#338 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 08:28 AM:

janra #322:

Further to my previous comment: Across the road from me there works a gentleman with a PhD who has the same name (Michael Dash) as an old friend of mine, also equipped with a PhD, who teaches at NYU. Both happen to be citizens of the Co-Operative Republic of Guyana. I don't think they're close relatives. One's a theologian (the chap across the street), the one at NYU specialises in Franco-Caribbean literature.

#339 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 08:38 AM:

I've been bad.

Note his comment about the Wikipedia link, then click on the link.

#340 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 08:57 AM:

What I love about David Harmon's link is that to judge from the fully abstract structure under "Rules for Constructing a Harvard Outline", it is mandatory to include, at a sub-level within your first main topic, a section on the French business classes after Napoleon III.

I think this is quite right, and any student who submits a paper on, say, the development of the fugue in German orchestral music of the late 17th century without referring to the French business classes after Napoleon III should be heavily penalised.

#341 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 09:00 AM:

Russ #335: Presumably there's room for the whole thing to shift if, as you're writing, your thought process develops on a different track? .... I guess that would require trashing and recreating the outline?

Yes, and more or less. One advantage to the outline is it highlights when some subtopic is threatening to take over the lead. At that point, you have the options of fleshing out the neglected sections, or reorganizing your essay.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden #339: A nice colorful response, chosen by the asker for maximum irony content! (I wonder how long until it gets zapped?) And yeah, that "didn't find anything" is just precious.

#342 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 09:12 AM:

PS: to TNH #339: And your list also highlights a subtle trap of Wikipedia: you include a genuine pigment group (anthocyanin) which is not listed in that WP article... apparently because it's not photosynthetic!

#343 ::: The Raven ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 09:32 AM:

ginger, #309: "The problem is not that Bush is quoting himself; it's that he has lifted the entire anecdotes from his associates' writing (or from newspaper articles) and attributed it to himself."

albatross, #312: "I'll admit, compared to the other stuff Bush is pretty unambiguously responsible for, hiring a crooked, cut-rate ghostwriter for his book seems like a very small thing."

Want to bet he started in school? And may even have paid other people to write his papers at Yale. So he came out not knowing much of anything and faking. There is a line from that to being a really bad president, because he didn't know, didn't know how to check his ideas against anything, let alone reality, and probably resented people with real knowledge as well.

I wonder, though. Sarah Palin, with her how many undergraduate universities? Bet she cheated. And...Obama in economics? About a week ago, I wrote in exasperation, "Has this man ever passed a math class? Or done any physical craft? Done anything where failure is not the result of failing to be persuasive? Perhaps not." And then Teresa posted this.

The self-discipline required to learn a subject, and accepting the honest judgments of a good teacher, is practice for engaging external reality, which cannot be bribed, or or talked into giving a better grade. One can cheat in school. One cannot cheat the world.

Croak!

#344 ::: Russ ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 10:11 AM:

C. Wingate@234, 250

Ah! Having read this, I am now able to parse your comment at 317. Apologies for complaining in ignorance.

dcb@ 251

I also have a distinct memory that I never had to formally sit down and learn my times tables - the numbers were small and familiar enough that I could work the answer out almost as quickly. I admit that this has left me the odd hole; to this day “eight sevens” will have me working back from 64.

On a separate note, it seems to me there’s nothing quite so likely to destroy a book for a reader as being forced to read it chapter by chapter in class over a period of 3 months. Aloud. I have no idea whether Farenheit 451 is really any good or not, as I now have an aversion to it reminiscent of my reaction to tequila since that ill-advised night in ’96*.

alex @257 If you've worked out the 7x9 conundrum once, doesn't it hang around as 'knowledge'

I don’t know – maybe it just doesn’t come up often enough, or in a meaningful enough context. I know in my soul that four sevens are 28, but five sevens I have to work out (trivially, of course, because multiplying by five is easy).

Generally, the relations between numbers that hang around seem to be the ones that mean something or fit some kind of pattern. What constitutes a meaningful relationship, of course, is highly idiosyncratic.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden@339

Ooh…that is naughty. It took me a minute to see what you’d done, knowing both that you’d done something and what malachite is.

Let’s hope the asker (and anyone else who sips from that particular poisoned well) will learn a lesson about the reliability of the internet, rather than just get a bad mark and think “but I looked it up!”.

*The planned Mexican evening was woefully under-attended.

#345 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 11:04 AM:

Elliott Mason @ 216 -- I remember being trained on some kind of spectrometer, and being shown that the instrument had an automatic feature to integrate the areas under the curves. And being told that in the old days, the areas would be measured by cutting them out of the plot and weighing them.

-----

Part of what disturbed me about the plagiarism I caught while I was a lab TA was how utterly careless and blatant some of it was.

* The student whose computer assignment was exactly the same as her classmate's. Including, on the continuous fan-fold printout, the header page with the classmate's name and computer account ID. Yet she still insisted that it was her own work, and had no idea how that header page could have got there...

* The student who copied almost all of his lab report from a classmate. Except that the copier's handwriting was about 1/3 smaller than that of the guy he was copying from, and he didn't "reformat" the text, so each line of text only occupied about 2/3 of the width of the page, and some long words were bizarrely broken/hyphenated for no obvious reason...

* In one short pre-lab test, one student demonstrated that she really didn't understand the calculation (showing the steps in her work), and got a ludicrously wrong answer. The guy next to her on the lab bench showed no steps, but wrote down the same ludicrously wrong answer. Challenged, he claimed that he couldn't remember how he'd done the work, but insisted that he hadn't copied... and the lab supervisor backed down because we couldn't prove anything. (A couple of years later, I noted the guy's name in the student newspaper: he was running one of the university's social/activity organizations. The following year, the organization dissolved because their bank account was mysteriously empty and none of the records could be found. Possibly a coincidence...)

#346 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 11:22 AM:

Russ @344,

Teresa lists two colourstuffs that are not in the list referenced on Wikipedia, and the Asker comments, "I did try Wikipedia.. but didn't find anything."

I noticed that Yahoo gives users one point per visit, so I am gradually working up the levels, just for using a mailing list.

#347 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 11:30 AM:

Evil Thought for Yahoo Answers: could the system get salted with apparently significant questions and answers which are pointless.

Wasn't there a Battle of Pottsylvania Courthouse in your Civil War? I'm sure that there was something important about that.

#348 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 11:34 AM:

Dave Bell (326): You're probably right. And there are 12 inches in a foot--still relevant in the US, if nowhere else.

(it's 'Mary Aileen', not 'Mary' :)

#349 ::: caffeine ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 11:49 AM:

Blatant cheating story: In college, I took several semesters of Japanese. Many of my fellow students were there because they were anime fans and thought it'd be cool to know Japanese; they didn't last past the first semester.

Some of our classwork was done in pairs. My partner would have much rather discussed the latest episode she'd found of a particular anime (this was before they were shown widely in the US), so I ended up doing most of the pair work by myself.

One day, after an in-class session of paired work, the sensei went around the room asking each person to answer a few of the questions. When it was her turn, my partner -- whose sheet was completely blank -- casually leaned out across the aisle and started reading off my paper.

#350 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 12:06 PM:

Dave @326 & Mary Aileen @348: Not to mention things which are still sold by the dozen and the gross, and/or by other values based on those. A case of soft-drink cans is 2 dozen, while a case of T-shirt blanks is 6 dozen.

#351 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 12:48 PM:

Raven @ 343: "Want to bet he started in school? And may even have paid other people to write his papers at Yale. So he came out not knowing much of anything and faking. There is a line from that to being a really bad president, because he didn't know, didn't know how to check his ideas against anything, let alone reality, and probably resented people with real knowledge as well."

No bet -- I went to the same kind of school and ran into the same kind of rich kid with privileges, including legacy admission to Yale and so on. For some families, legacy admissions means never having to take school seriously. I've known his kind since I was in 9th grade and had them copying over my shoulder on the chemistry final exam. Too bad I'm a fast reader and got through the exam before he could finish copying the first set of answers.

#352 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 12:51 PM:

Cheating in Engineering: Well, there is the time-honoured tradition of drawing straws for the odd question on the assignment (4 people, 5 questions; usually the one who drew the short straw got his (almost always his) beer paid for).# And when I was marking for Programming 101, it wasn't that hard to spot the pairs that just s/var1/firstvar/g throughout.

And a bank of old exams is a tradition that has to go back to Livy and M. Tullius Cicero, at least. I don't see that as much of a problem, at least if people know about it - at least in Engineering, there should be enough ways to ring changes on the issues that old exams should simply be "unmarked assignments" and an idea of what is actually considered important in the class (something that was frequently very difficult to determine from the instructor). Of course, I missed Dean's list because I treated one classes' old exam as an example and not as a carbon copy (cut-and-pasted) of this year's exam (please note - someone asked how to solve Q3 of last year's exam on the last "any questions" day - useful, really, as he hadn't actually covered the topic, and as it was on the exam as Q5, right to the same numbers. There were Other Issues with this professor as well).

I liked Dr. Smith's idea (not just teaching "British Army" style - basically, the tell-them-three-times strategy mentioned here) of having the last question on the exam be open-ended (I think my year, it was "here's the hospital design and their ideas of how communication works. Explain how you would design the network, with emphasis on the security and connectivity decisions").

I suck at writing essays, and I write like I speak. I tell good stories, though. Part of that is Nick Mamatas's "It's because students have never read term papers", now that I look at it - we were taught how to write them (badly, see below), and we dissected poetry, stories, and novels, and wrote essays on poetry, stories and novels, but we didn't actually spend much if any time studying essays. This is probably why I can give a good 2-3 minute speech on any random topic (and do it from a point-mode outline), or write code (from point-form pseudocode-as-comments), but can't write an essay of the standard EngCrit type.

Harvard Outline: That looks like an excellent cribsheet for people who have forgotten how to do Harvard Outlines. And it's the format I learned and would natively use even if I hadn't learned it (with python indenting instead of 1Aia...labelling). But it doesn't help with either: how to format the essay (i.e. what should be A, Z, and what to organize for B, C, D) or what kinds of things are being looked for in analysis. See previous paragraph*. I think this boils down to "too obvious to instructor to be analysable", which I certainly understand**.

On math: I can't do sevens. Well, I can, now, but it's still multiple times slower than any other digit. And that's adding, not just multiplication (where you do sort of have to memorise). Making fun - there's a game called 99, which is basically competitive adding. Taught to me at about 5 or 6, by the time I was about 10, we were playing it at cutthroat speed (if the next person plays *and announces the total* before you've replaced your card, you don't get to.) Everyone knew when I was about to play a seven, because of the long pause. In fact, they used to tell me what the count was going to be before they saw the card.

# I only did that in one course. But that instructor was the source of the following two quotes:

"What's a control system?"
"Haven't you been here all term?" (this was the last day of class, for the course "Control Systems")
"Yes, right in this spot."
"Well?"
"So I know how to model one, analyse it, affect its parameters, and what to do when it goes positive-feedback. But I don't know what a control system *is*, or why I would want to use one."

and

"You know, if I went upstairs and murdered now, I'd have 92 alibis clearing me." (Class of 93 students, obviously)
"Yeah, I'd tell them you were with me. I'd tell them you were my lover, if I had to." (in 1980s Engineering, which was no less homophobic than you'd expect)

So I feel somewhat less ashamed.

* I did well on my Gr. 12 Departmental exams in Social Studies, because the essay question there *told you the outline*, and the instructor pointed that out to us. All I had to do was do the research, decide what I was going to argue from that, fill the outline with the appropriate topics, and write. I do well at formal technical writing for the same reason. I'd probably do better at EngCrit if someone was able to bang "the structure of an EngCrit essay" through my head *a). Do I care, though? Not really - I'd rather enjoy (or despise***) my reading than either analyse or write it. More power to those who do want, though.

*a) What really bothers me about it, though, is that the English teachers claimed that doing their "Compare and Contrast ..." essays fortnightly was "teaching us how to write, which is useful outside of English class". No, it was teaching us how to write an EngCrit essay. I've written several things on several different outlines (see ** below) and I Can Do That. It was as if since that was the only thing they wrote, it was the only thing that mattered. Maybe I should have taken vocational or business English instead of Matriculation English - but then again, the "writing proficiency" requirement of University was "Good enough in English 30 or write another one of these things" - even though what would have been much more useful for Us Gearheads would be "write the lab report from this experimental data". But then again, it was marked by the English department,... I love vicious circles.

** Vis my history here and otherwise on body language and trying to learn it (tip for anyone else with my problem; look for sources on cross-cultural social issues. Nobody thinks to say "in North America, standard talking distance is X", but they will say "If you're from Egypt, please note that North Americans expect more space from the person they're talking to. Try about X". I learned more about body language *in the society I've lived in all my life* from reading Wikitravel's "how to do business in India" pages for my two-week trip than I had in years of living here).

Also I've seen this from the other side: I play, direct, and teach Bridge. Several people have mentioned that you don't let Mycroft near the novices. They ask questions that I answer over their heads, because I literally can't think far enough down to see what their problem is; I've internalized it so completely.

*** Margaret Atwood wrote a Canadian Literature textbook called "Survival". The Opening Chapter. The rest of the book is "see, I'm right!" I got it about page 6; the book is over 100 long. I hate survival literature; I find it incredibly depressing. Writing essays where I had to avoid saying "you know this stuff you tell me is great literature? I'd rather read anything else, including the phone book" was part two of no fun.

***a) Note that there's a lot of works written by Canadians that don't fall under Atwood's umbrella. Of course, they're not "literature".

Unnumbered) Ah, more footnote than text. Feels like a Monastery post.

#353 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 01:12 PM:

Ginger @ 351... In high school, at one of the finals, one guy said he was going to sit at a desk next to mine and that I was going to let him see my answers or else... I said "No" because I don't take kindly to bullies and I was used to gettimg in fights so one more wouldn't scare me. Please note that the 'or else' never happened. That's one of my favorite memories about high school, along with the cute girl who introduced me to Lovecraft.

#354 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 01:13 PM:

I taught through several fashion cycles of how-to-write-an-essay methods, including the work-from-an-outline model. I eventually started telling my students that an outline is an analytical tool, most effectively applied to a body of material already generated by whatever method works best for the individual: Take your marginal notes, stream-of-consciousness draft, deck of 3x5s, or whatever, and sift through them for likely main points, using conventional outlining to separate main points from support and to rough them into logical/presentational sequence. Rearrange and refine as needed. The writing-as-writing process is where the finer-grained connections get established at paragraph and sentence level. This protocol has the additional virtue of dividing the work into manageable stages with distinct goals.

Needless to say, most students preferred the one-draft-in-a-panic-the-night-before mode, which is why I gave so few grades above C+. And why so many resorted to various kinds of plagiarism as a solution to their problems.

BTW, Lisa Spangenberg @299 nails the requirements for miniziing plagiarism (which also feed into general good teaching of writing). My wife and I evolved the same approach independently (well, we did talk about this stuff a lot), and it prevents some of the worst practices and makes the other attempts easier to spot.

And a last note on creative writing. My wife has been teaching it for about 15 years, and the "I'm a writer, not a reader" sentiment has been a recurring feature for that entire time. It's a continuing marvel.

#355 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 02:53 PM:

Oh, and on the "outline 1:1 pages to text", and "rewriting outline": I once saw one of my mother's colleagues' office (while she was trying to teach me how to write EngCrit, as she didn't do it instinctively, as my mother did) while she was alligators-deep in her Education Ph.D. dissertation. She avoided the "rewriting outline" bit by using post-it notes. Hundreds, if not thousands, of post-it notes. Floor-to-ceiling (except where furniture intervened), all four walls. When she decided that one section needed to be in another place, she just removed that section's stickies, and reassembled them at the new point.

#356 ::: Spiny Norman ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 03:03 PM:

TNH@209: no offense intended! It's just that we can't all be good at everything all the time. Foreign languages just destroy me.

#357 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 03:10 PM:

Elliott Mason @216: Oh wow. TALK about your epic hacks...! OTOH, given a choice of "experts" with whom to be stranded After the Fall, your mom would be at the top of my list.

Mary Aileen @223: I'd read Elliott's book Stories from My Mom. I'd even buy it instead of borrowing it from the library (higher praise there is none).

Hell, I'd pay for it in advance.

#358 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 03:42 PM:

Jacque @356, Mary Aileen @223: The major problem is that my mom is fairly protective of her privacy (having been burned by internet-stuff and life-drama repeatedly), and I have no idea how I'd even do it without writing things she would be extremely upset to read that I'd written.

Also, many of the stories are second-hand -- I'm basically telling you a version of the story SHE tells, or a story I've heard told of her, because much (not all, but much) of the colorful stuff happened before I was available to be a witness in my own right, or happened in places I was not present.

It's sort of ethically rocky, in an intellectual-property sense. :-> Plus, the only organizational method that occurs to me (short chapters per story, embellished and footnoted and so on, finishing with a satirically-pat moral -- for the weighing-your-test story, probably something like, "There are at least three ways of solving any problem: a 'right' one, a 'wrong' one, and the one they expect you to use. Just because you can't do it 'right', don't quit trying to do it at all. There are probably more ways to skin that cat, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.") strikes me as possibly of exceedingly-limited appeal.

Which doesn't mean I couldn't write it up, do my own book design, and pay Lulu or someone to print copies, I just don't know that it'd be worth it. :->

In the chapters-and-morals format, it'd probably be titled Fake It Till You Make It, and other things my mother taught me.

#359 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 03:55 PM:

David Harmon #329:

Re:the linked article.

Vietmanese?
(My typo-vision is hypersensitive at the moment)

As for the Harvard outline, that would have been so very useful in my undergrad years. We were never taught how to construct an essay.

It wasn't until post-graduate thesis writing time that I embarked on the steep learning curve. It's one of the things that the undergrad science programme could have done much better.

#360 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 04:42 PM:

Clifton Royston @280: I am trying to avoid a tangent here about Montessori methods and Korzybski's General Semantics, so beloved by Van Vogt.

Oh, please, tangent away!

#361 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 04:50 PM:

What's that about van Gogh and General Semantics?
("Not van Gogh, Serge. It's van Vogt.")
Oh.
Nevermind.
(...)
Still, that's a story I'd pay good money to read.

#362 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 05:05 PM:

re 345: Or you can use a planimeter.

#363 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 05:47 PM:

Serge@319: I have no interest in testing the limits of my hypothetical invulnerability. [invulnerability to hypotheses? Check.]

Mycroft @352: Almost everyone and every book fails to teach bridge. You may be an extreme case, but you're hardly alone. What worked for me, and I use the phrase "worked" judiciously, was somehow learning how the PLAY of bridge worked, and then realizing that the BIDDING was a nearly independent system bolted on the front.

My theory is that people try to teach bidding first because it happens first, and if you don't understand what a trick is or how you take it, never mind how many you should be able to take or why a king is three points and what you can do with those points, you glaze over before you understand that there's a part of this game where someone deals the cards.

#364 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 07:38 PM:

Sandy B.: I wasn't even meaning that. Ask me why one bids some way (or plays some way), and I'll tell you. And it will likely involve three or four layers of "well, why that" before we get down to things that make sense to real beginners. And there is likely to be at least two of those layers that I don't even know that I learned, I just know it.

On that note, a history lesson (that Bridge evolved from Whist, effectively by several stages of bolting on bidding to determine trump), so congratulations, you figured it out without context!

As far as learning the play first, there are at least two concepts that are attempting to do this "right" - minibridge (where everyone announces their HCP, the higher pair declare, and agree on a trump suit, then LHO of the highest HCP hand leads) and Fred Gitelman's Learn To Play Bridge software series. I like it, and frequently ran into "but doesn't everybody know that?" moments...

As far as "learning bidding first" goes, that really annoys me, because (at least in North America") there's a feeling that there is One True Way to Bid, and there definitely isn't. The problems coming from that are legion (not least the fact that my most common answer to "what do you bid with this hand?" is "it depends...")

#366 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 08:29 PM:

My problem with learning Bridge was being taught by friends who didn't seem to think it useful to distinguish between "You do this because it's in the rules" and "you do this because it's good strategy." The frustration that engendered left a bad taste in my mouth.

Also they talked about bidding first, which as y'all say is a bad idea. I have a good head for detail retention, but only if I am allowed to prepare contextual boxes in my head for the details first. Without those boxes, I have nowhere to put the incoming data, and it slips out my ear. Thus with all the bidding detail before I had a clue about game play.

I would much prefer a tipsy game of Booray on the fourth of July, or indeed any day of the year, to having anything to do with Bridge.


re: multiplication tables - is it unusual that my school, if I remember correctly, simply didn't teach them? We learned that multiplication is simply addition lots of times over, and we did a lot of simple brute force mechanics until we were comfortable with the concept. Then we got the mnemonics and the one-digit sequences. As someone said above, the result was 7 * 8 = 56 as a concrete fact, which we knew because that's how multiplication works.

I think. I may be remembering wrong. But for sure I have no memory of reciting multiplication tables.

#367 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 08:40 PM:

I remember memorizing the multiplication tables, but what really helped me with them was having a weekly paper route delivering one of those neighborhood 8-pagers which was supposed to cost $0.15 a week. Since it really bothered people when I pounded on their door for that picayune amount I usually didn't try to collect every week. When I did collect it was in multi-week amounts, so I got to know my "X times 15" amounts really really well.

#368 ::: janra ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 09:15 PM:

I learned to play bridge in university - by playing hearts first, until somebody introduced us to bridge. By then we already knew about tricks and trump and the basic gameplay once the cards started actually being played, and we just had to learn the bidding rules. As long as I was playing regularly I retained the bidding rules, but I've long since lost them. I never played with anybody who took the game seriously, however.

I never did like, or really fully get the hang of, the tell-you-three-times essay. I think it was partly because I found the redundancy incredibly irritating. I have been known to explain the same concept from multiple different directions, however, if I don't see the lightbulb go on. :-) (This causes complaints when the person isn't interested in a lightbulb and is just listening to be polite, the first time.)

#369 ::: Wrye ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 09:49 PM:

I love this thread, I do.

Soon Yee @358: I know what you mean. I lost about 4 years of University due to never having been taught, among other things, that there is more than one way to structure an essay, and that there is more than one kind of essay. Also that you really need to understand how to write for length, or you will try to cram a graduate level idea into an undergraduate page length, and it just isn't going to work...

#370 ::: mimi ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 10:41 PM:

Josh Berkus @159:

I'm a little late to this thread, but having just studied the iParadigms case in my copyright class, I can tell you it provoked an interesting discussion. I don't think any of my fellow students minded the idea of having papers checked for plagiarism, but one or two people did stick on what could be done with the papers, even if no one was actively planning anything reprehensible.

#371 ::: jnh ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 10:57 PM:

ddb @336:

Ummm, actually A4 is much wider that US Letter Size.

And much shorter too!

#372 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2010, 11:05 PM:

xeger, #364: I hope the students who cheated realize just how lucky they are, because that's a much better deal than they deserve. And I also hope that the word gets out on the student grapevine about who did cheat, and that they find themselves ostracized by their fellow students -- the ones who also have to take an unexpected makeup exam because of what those assholes did.

Nicole, #365: As I understand it, the play of bridge is not so much different from Rook, Hearts, or Spades; what distinguishes all of these games from each other, pretty much, is the way the bidding goes (or, in the case of Hearts, doesn't go -- Hearts doesn't have bidding). Well, and that Rook uses different cards.

I actually used to read one of the major bridge columns in the newspaper. I didn't learn much except perhaps some of the jargon, but it was sort of interesting. And I have no idea what Poirot is talking about specifically in Cards on the Table, but Christie does explain why it's important.

#373 ::: Josh Berkus ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 12:34 AM:

Mimi:

Yes, and recent corporate legal has taught us to be cautious that just because the company who owns something currently is OK, doesn't mean that the people who own it 10 years from now (or even 2 years from now) are going to be equally disinterested. I wonder what restrictions exist around iParadigm's use of those papers? Maybe I should ask.

#374 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 12:34 AM:

Actually, the concept of trumps in bridge is very different from anything in hearts -- the same concept is found in a few other games, like skat. Yes, one can throw anything if one is out of the suit in hearts; but it doesn't have any effect on who takes the trick. Trumping makes a major difference. (I've played a lot of both, and I know.)

Bidding is an arbitrary language with certain rules. Actually, my mother was trying to use it as a model for machine translation of languages in the 1960s, when she was working at Lockheed Missles and Space Division. (I think they hired her because she had her own PhD and they wanted my father's military connections: the Military-Industrial Complex edition of the Two Body Problem. I can't think of any other serious reason why they'd have been interested in machine translation of language. Her background working with the NSA in the 50s probably helped, though...)

#375 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 12:44 AM:

Tom, #374: the concept of trumps in bridge is very different from anything in hearts

True, and something I forgot to mention. Thanks!

#376 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 02:05 AM:

jnh@371: I could just as easily say that letter is much wider and shorter...letter landscape compared to A4 portrait, that is. (I assume that's what you were doing!)

#377 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 02:46 AM:

re paper sizes: When I was in the Army during the 1970's, I worked with an odd size of paper, 8x10.5 inches, that I'd never seen before. But it was what was used for all the forms & papers I had to type up and/or run off on the company mimeograph. (I was a company clerk.)

(There are some old apa mailings from that period that included apazines printed on that size paper. I don't know how that could possibly have happened.)

I found the history behind that paper size on Wikipedia:

"There is an additional paper size, to which the name "government-letter" was given by the IEEE Printer Working Group: the 8 × 10+1⁄2 in (203.2 × 266.7 mm) paper that is used in the United States and Canada for children's writing. It was prescribed by Herbert Hoover when he was Secretary of Commerce to be used for U.S. government forms, apparently to enable discounts from the purchase of paper for schools. In later years, as photocopy machines proliferated, citizens wanted to make photocopies of the forms, but the machines did not generally have this size paper in their bins. Ronald Reagan therefore had the U.S. government switch to regular letter size (8+1⁄2 × 11 in/215.9 × 279.4 mm).[1] The 8 × 10+1⁄2 in (203.2 × 266.7 mm) size is still commonly used in spiral-bound notebooks and the like."

Wow, Ronald Reagan did something I approve of. Pass the smelling salts, somebody.

#378 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 06:44 AM:

Any recommendations for information on various ways of structuring essays?

#379 ::: Marc Wilson ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 06:50 AM:

Mary@223 - I'd buy it, too. Go on, Elliot: publish!

janra@224 - "A true patriot is someone who gets a parking ticket, and rejoices because the system works."

Nicole@240 - you could try adding "-yahoo" to your Google string.

One of my favourite stories about plagiarism is a comment added to a student essay:
"Your essay is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good."

#380 ::: jnh ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 07:16 AM:

David Goldfarb @376:

jnh@371: I could just as easily say that letter is much wider and shorter...letter landscape compared to A4 portrait, that is. (I assume that's what you were doing!)

Now David,
if you'll please get up from your seat (at the side of the table), and stand behind me (at the head of the table), you'll clearly see that you are mistaken.

#381 ::: John Chu ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 09:25 AM:

Lee@372: Another big difference is that, in Bridge, one person (aka, the dummy) lays down his cards for everyone to see. The result is that everyone playing can see half the deck. (The dummy doesn't really play. He just does whatever the declarer tells him to.) That has a noticeable affect on play compared to Spades, Hearts, or Rook.

Bridge is probably easier to learn if you already know any of those games though, and as you said, the big difference is bidding. As Tom@374 said, each partnership essentially has its own language, as expressed through contract bids, for each player to describe her hand so that the partnership can arrive at (hopefully) the best contract to play in. There are some rules for what can and can not be in the language, but for the most part what bids mean are a matter of agreement between partners. This is why "how would you bid this hand?" questions require a lot of context before anyone can give a reasonable answer.

#382 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 11:22 AM:

One thing I'm curious about in this discussion which hasn't been talked about much is the privilege aspect of things, other than the de rigeur attacks on the character of GWB-- and personally I have extremely low expectations of presidential memoirs.

I went to one of those supposedly privileged boarding schools, though so long ago that I doubt the possibility of getting away with significant fraud was pretty low. Besides the lack of an internet to steal from, the other factor was that the faculty lived right on top of us. Even these days each English faculty member only has 25 kids to keep track of all told. Now the place I went has a rep for being more of an academic grind school, but still.... I wonder how much the perception of privilege is being shaped by the perception that none of us has it.

#383 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 12:17 PM:

C Wingate @382:

The privilege that I think we're all assuming we're talking about is not based on the institution one attends. It's based on the ability, through wealth or power of other sorts, to disobey the rules that other people are bound by and get away with it.

Sometimes it's because money makes it possible for someone inclined to cheat to commission an essay rather than Google one up, and risk being caught by a professor's Google-fu. Other times it's about being able to overrule a failing grade or bully a teacher into dropping charges.

That kind of undue influence can happen anywhere, and be banned anywhere. I am certain that there are quite prestigious institutions, quite exclusive ones, that have taken firm stands against that, and many fairly obscure ones that have been entire pushovers.

In other words, I'm entirely convinced that your boarding school was honest, and instilled in you a strong moral code. It may have conveyed other privileges, just as both my excellent high school and very good universities did; a good education opens doors for one's entire life. But that's not the privilege we're talking about here.

(I suspect what's kind of itching at you is the feeling that people assume that all members of a given class do cheat. I don't actually assume that. What I assume is that those who do get away with it more often. This does present a kind of moral hazard and temptation to their peers; I'm open to the argument that a greater proportion of wealthy and powerful people elide the rules simply because that proportion of them who would otherwise refrain from the fear of getting caught don't. But I am also prepared to believe that many wealthy and powerful people are scrupulously honest and honorable.)

#384 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 12:20 PM:

C Wingate @ 382... the de rigeur attacks on the character of GWB

It's de rigueur.

#385 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 12:30 PM:

C Wingate:

This might be like the way that nobody considers himself rich--instead, he considers himself upper middle-class, and figures that "rich" begins somewhere around twice his own income or wealth. Of course, most of us in this conversation must look privileged compared to most of the world. As do most people who get into college at all.

And in one sense, we're pretty much all deeply privileged, though it's easy to forget it here. I think paying to have someone write a school paper for you seems really weird, if you're the kind of person who feels at home in this extremely verbal, literate community, tied together almost entirely by written communications. Most people probably don't have the native intelligence, or the fluency with written language that comes largely from years and years of reading and writing, to stay in this community.

I wonder whether cheating is more common among the people we'd think of as privileged (aka more privileged than us) or among the people we'd think of as less privileged.

#386 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 01:19 PM:

albatross @385: I expect that different classes have different prevalent forms of cheating. Paying for papers is clearly higher-class than plagiarizing them off the internet, which is higher-class than copying from an encyclopedia.

#387 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 02:07 PM:

re 385/383: Actually my reaction to the notion is that I would have always assumed I could do it better myself, never mind my personal integrity. But "I can do just as good a job myself" ought to be my impressively omnicompetent father's motto, which to some degree all of his children have inherited.

Looking back I think I was reacting to precisely this passage:

For the last, colleges are a perfect launching ground—they are built to reward the rich and to forgive them their laziness. Let’s be honest: The successful among us are not always the best and the brightest, and certainly not the most ethical. My favorite customers are those with an unlimited supply of money and no shortage of instructions on how they would like to see their work executed. While the deficient student will generally not know how to ask for what he wants until he doesn’t get it, the lazy rich student will know exactly what he wants. He is poised for a life of paying others and telling them what to do. Indeed, he is acquiring all the skills he needs to stay on top.

I think it's a lot easier to hide this kind of dishonesty in college, but as a picture of what college is all about it lacks. Or maybe not. I'm from the math/CS side of the house, and as far as math is concerned this isn't going to get one very far; on the other hand I suppose lazy rich kids don't do math to begin with.

From the engineering side of the house there is rather frequently the feeling that what goes on in the liberal arts is mostly BS anyway. Mr. Dante seems to be playing into this stereotype, if inadvertently. If a lazy rich kid is getting a degree, then what for? I have to assume that the thesis behind that is that the actual content of the degree is irrelevant and that it's just a rubber stamp on the way to something else.

I realize this is coming out as a less than coherent expression. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that I think our distaste for these people is getting in the way of our understanding them.

#388 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 02:41 PM:

albatross: Most people probably don't have the native intelligence, or the fluency with written language that comes largely from years and years of reading and writing, to stay in this community.

I'd just like to go on record as saying that I strongly disagree with the first claim, and am not at all convinced of the second.

#389 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 03:06 PM:

Actually, Lila, I'm glad that most people don't find this place conducive to hanging around. Imagine if we had several billion regular commenters, rather than (the few hundred?) that we have now.

That says nothing about their native intelligence....

#390 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 03:54 PM:

Lila:

This report from 2002 says that only about 57% of people had read a book in that year. Only 47% read any literature (defined, as I understand it, as fiction or poetry). This link claims similar statistics--1/3 of students never read another book after high school, for example.

I'm trying to imagine someone feeling comfortable in this community if they hadn't read a book since high school (assuming they didn't just graduate), and never read any literature or poetry at all. Given that a big fraction of the discussions involve literature (unsurprisingly, given who runs the blog) it seems unlikely to me, though I'll admit I may be missing something.

Similarly, I could surely be wrong, but I don't think most people would find this place fun, partly because a lot of the discussion is pretty intellectually demanding. (As Tom says, that's a feature, not a bug--lots of manageable-sized communities make a better world than one giant unmanageable one. And a one-size-fits-all model for discussion and debate leads us to CNN and Fox News.)

#391 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 04:08 PM:

Lila:

It occurs to me that some of this may be a difference in underlying models of the world. My assumption is that people vary substantially in how smart they are, at least by the time they're an adult. People seem to self-segregate by intelligence, to some extent, though obviously there are a lot of other criteria on which they self-segregate. Partly, that's because of shared interests, and what kind of conversation is interesting. With increasing freedom of association and falling social barriers, people tend to self-select environments that suit them better, which means people with whom they feel more comfortable and share more.

The internet allows an enormous level of self-selection of environments. This shows in the online communities that grow up in various places, at least among the people who post fairly often and are visible. (It's impossible to know about the lurkers, absent their support in email.) I don't think the regulars here look even remotely like a group drawn randomly from the population, in terms of intelligence or verbal fluency or interests.

#392 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 04:26 PM:

Russ @ 335

What’s wrong with a passive sentence constructions?

They are generally frowned upon. :-)

(I've always been puzzled by objections to the passive voice as well - and especially irritated by Word's grammar checker objecting to it. But a while back, I read an illuminating post on Language Log suggesting that at least some people who thought they were objecting to passive voice were in fact objecting to indefinite subjects. For example, although 'it is widely thought that' was being correctly classified as a passive construction, so was 'many people think'. Indefinite subjects, or at least, obfuscatory uses of them do seem worth complaining about, on at least some occasions.)

#393 ::: A spokesman from the Union of Lurkers, One-Off Commenters, Sock-Puppets and Related Internet Denize ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 04:55 PM:

albatross @ 391

In fact, we lurkers are somewhat bemused as to why anyone would think that it was necessary to pay someone to write a paper in order to avoid being detected as a plagiarist, given that one can escape being caught simply by cutting and pasting the whole text of one's paper into a search box on Google, pressing Search, and when the results come up painting the screen of one's monitor with lemon juice.

#394 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 05:31 PM:

albatross: no disrespect to you, but this is not a topic I want to pursue. I've contributed the only thought I had to contribute.

#395 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 05:49 PM:

Ginger @ 309: "The problem is not that Bush is quoting himself; it's that he has lifted the entire anecdotes from his associates' writing (or from newspaper articles) and attributed it to himself. It's like the recent Cooks Source issue: the recipe (or dialogue) might not be copyrighted, but the discussion or anecdote surrounding the recipe/dialogue is."

Except that in the HuffPo piece linked to from #307, I didn't see that any of the discussion around the quotes had been plagiarized. Quotes are reused, yes, but they're quotes, not original material, and they're clearly identified as quotes from specific people, not Bush's own statements (except where Bush himself is being quoted).

Last I checked, there was no requirement that a popular autobiography only include scenes never previously reported or related elsewhere, or that it all has to come exclusively from the author's personal memories. (In an academic work, quotes obtained from another source generally need to have their immediate source, and not just the original speaker, cited in a footnote or end-note, but this isn't an academic work.)

If an autobiography *primarily* consists of stuff that's already been reported or published, it's a pretty disappointing offering. But it's not plagiarism.

(Strictly speaking, the Cooks Source recycling of a blog post was copyright infringement but not plagiarism, since I think the author was in fact cited, just not asked for permission. Plagiarism is reuse without proper attribution; copyright infringement is reuse without proper authorization.)

#396 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 06:10 PM:

abi, #383: Also, whether or not a particular person cheats may be strongly affected by what is modeled for them at home. There was a Reader's Digest homily article called "Why Johnny Cheats" a long time ago which I will try to summarize here:

When Johnny was six, he was riding in the car with his father when they were pulled over for speeding. He saw his father hand over his driver's license... and a folded $20 bill. The cop let his father off with a warning.

When Johnny was 12, his parents' application to get him into a good private school was rejected because his grades weren't strong enough. Johnny's mother called her friend, who was on the Board of Directors for the school. Johnny got in.

When Johnny was 16, he got an after-school job at the grocery store. He worked in the produce department, and his job was to package bulk fruit into standard-weight boxes. He was instructed to put fruit that was beginning to spoil at the bottom so people wouldn't see it, with better fruit on top.

[several more anecdotes of similar type]

When Johnny was a junior in college, he was caught cheating on an exam. His parents were horrified. "He certainly didn't learn this at home!" they exclaimed.

I wish I could remember the whole thing better. But the point is clear: when parents think nothing of bribery and string-pulling, when your on-the-job training involves unethical behavior, how do you ever learn where the line should be drawn? And the higher up in the privileged class you are, the more opportunities present themselves to use that privilege for unethical gain. "Legacy admissions" are part and parcel of the same thing.

Lila, #388: I agree. While the bar here is moderately high, I don't think it's so high as to exclude over half of the general population. What would be more likely to send them away would be a lack of common interests. What comes up here a lot? Science fiction/fantasy, reading/writing/editing, wordplay, poetry, computers. Other things too, of course, but someone who lacks a basic interest in that set is probably not going to hang around here no matter how smart and fluent they are.

#397 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 08:09 PM:

re 386/396: My sense is that perhaps those most likely to use an essay-writing service are not the comfortably secure in their station, but those trying to pull themselves up.

#398 ::: sara ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 08:45 PM:

When I was sub-employed, I had a look at Elance for freelance writing gigs. The meat of the site is in technical writing, which I don't have any experience in, so I was looking at their non-technical odds and ends. Very many of these projects looked as if business managers and students were farming out proposals, reports, and academic papers, though Elance tries to disclaim that it facilitates the production of the last. To add insult to injury, Elance, of course, follows an auction model, so that the person who bids lowest wins the job.

I concluded that English-proficient individuals in India or other English-speaking parts of the global South are probably writing business proposals and academic papers for Americans, which explains why we (Americans) are presently up the creek without a paddle. A great covert ops strategy -- write business proposals that will cause the United States economy to crash!

#399 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 08:49 PM:

Ethical lapses, high school football edition.

Quarterback had crib sheet attached to wrist, lost it, opposing team's coach found it and used it to successfully defend against quarterback's team and defeat it. No penalties so far assessed.

#400 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 08:51 PM:

One URL and I'm in moderation, the all-knowing Gnomic page tells me? What did I say?

#401 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 09:09 PM:

The latest spurt of spam (we had quite an onslaught a couple of days ago) brought a couple of new words of power.

The one you accidentally tripped has been removed from the list.

#402 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 09:15 PM:

C. Wingate, #387:

I think it's a lot easier to hide this kind of dishonesty in college, but as a picture of what college is all about it lacks.

Maybe part of the problem is that the people who cheat have a conception of what college is all about which is wildly different from ours.

Like I said earlier, a lot of people in this country don't value education much. Here's a probably unprovable hypothesis: I'm wondering whether the cheaters see their relationship with their professors as adversarial.

From the good students' perspective, the professor is a resource and an ally: they're paying money for the privilege of working with this learned person to increase their understanding of the world. For the cheaters, college is a place to get credentials that will boost their careers. They paid for those degrees. But first comes a herd of professors assigning reading, essays, tests--hoops the cheaters must jump through to get what's rightfully theirs. Their professors are obstacles.

Maybe in the cheaters' minds, by pulling a fast one on their professor they're doing something clever. Emulating a roguishly charming trickster hero. Finding creative, innovative solutions. Practicing problem solving skills that will serve them well in their careers. Maybe it never enters their heads that they might be missing the point.

#403 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 09:22 PM:

Speaking of lost plans, General Lee's plans for the invasion of Maryland in 1862 were found wrapped around three cigars, and were delivered to General McClellan.

Even with Lee's complete plans, McClellan was unable to get a clean win, instead fighting to a bloody draw at Antietam.

More recently, we have Sarah Palin checking the cheat notes on her hand. One wonders, yes one does, whether she learned to do that in college, or if she'd already perfected the art in high school.

#404 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 09:51 PM:

403
Why do I have the impression that McClellan was not exactly our brightest general?

#405 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 09:53 PM:

Thanks for the comment release, sir.

I think college in the minds of the cheaters has become merely another place where one's ticket is punched before going out and making money. It's not Education; it's Training.

#406 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 10:23 PM:

Linkmeister, #399: Sports are a whole different world. Why are they agitating for penalties against the person who found and used the crib sheet, but not against the one who had and lost it in the first place? That doesn't make sense.

Wesley, #402: You may be onto something there. That would certainly fit with the attitude exhibited by some students that just by showing up, they deserve an A. If they think that buying a degree is like buying a refrigerator -- you walk into the store, put down your money, and walk out with the product -- that would explain a lot. They don't realize that what they're paying for is, not the degree itself, but the instruction by which they are supposed to earn it.

#407 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 10:25 PM:

abi @333: I googled "afermative", and the 2nd link led me to a site called "MegaEssays.com", which offered to provide me the full text of an essay titled "Afermative Action" if I signed up. The site appears to be subscription based. Their FAQ disclaims "[a]ll papers provided by megaessays.com are for research and reference purposes only" and "...turning in someone else's work as your own is unethical and against the law." They also claim "[w]e have a wide range of papers varying in all levels of writing skill."

#408 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 11:05 PM:

Linkmeister @ 405
"It's not Education; it's Training."

Need for both, I think. Theory without practice and training without critical thought both have problems.

#409 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 11:09 PM:

Lee, 406: Because the person who lost it was the quarterback. There's nothing wrong with a quarterback using a list of signals. It's dumb, yeah, but not unethical.

#410 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 12:40 AM:

Lee @ #406, It's not atypical at all for quarterbacks at all levels, including the professionals, to have a plastic-enclosed sheet of plays wrapped around his wrist. The sequences used to call plays can get very complicated very quickly so it's nearly customary, particularly for younger QBs who aren't as experienced as the "wily" veterans.

I found some brief paragraphs about their history:

According to the research staff at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, possibly the first time in history a quarterback wrist band was used with plays displayed on it was during the 1965 National Football League season with the Baltimore Colts.

Quarterback Johnny Unitas was down with an injury as was second string quarterback Gary Cuozzo. That left running back Tom Matte with the task of running the offense as the third string quarterback. In an effort to help him remember the plays, a wrist band was constructed which had many of the plays from the offensive playbook.

Over the years, quarterback wrist bands have been used more frequently. Today it is common to see nearly every quarterback with these wrist bands which can hold 200 plays in it which are signaled in from the sideline.

#411 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 12:50 AM:

If the quarterbacks can't keep 'em straight, how do the other players (who have to hear the play and then perform it accurately)?

#412 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 12:54 AM:

That's why Peyton Manning and Tom Brady stand up behind center, look at the defense, and shout number/color sequences to the rest of the team. It's also why football at the pro level is a six-day a week job, 8-10 hours a day. Those guys do a lot of classroom/video study.

#413 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 01:44 AM:

Teresa Nielsen Hayden @ 209

Apparently it's not illegal. I don't see how that's possible, but it's so.


Just as a matter of interest, what laws do you think it would be (natural for it to be) against?

#414 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 02:17 AM:

praisegod barebones @413 -- it's not at all difficult for me to see this as being a violation of the commandment about bearing false witness against a neighbor: the false witness being the inferred statement "I know more than my neighbor about this subject because I do better on this test." Which, in many cases, is a statement that hurts the neighbor (especially when things are graded on a curve).

#415 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 05:43 AM:

Jeremy Leader @407:

Heh. I didn't know anyone would try to figure that term out, much less that Google would point one to an essay site. That's just funny.

As for what I mean by the word: afermative is the negative† of fermative, "tending toward an insufficiency of space in the margins".

-----
† I know that an a-privative form should really only be used with adjectives of Greek derivation, but I couldn't resist.

#416 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 09:27 AM:

Jeremy Leader, #407:

They also claim "[w]e have a wide range of papers varying in all levels of writing skill."

Which raises the scary possibility that many of the less literate cheaters know they can't write coherently in their own language, and don't see why they ought to care.

Maybe because they think their computers will take care of it for them. This occurred to me because I write these comments in TextEdit before pasting them into the box, and because of a typo it just now corrected "ought" to "ugh." The single most common language problem I see these days is the malapropism...

#417 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 12:10 PM:

#413: Just as a matter of interest, what laws do you think it would be (natural for it to be) against?

The laws of God.

#418 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 12:44 PM:

Tom Whitmore @ 414

That seems like an answer to a question I didn't ask, and don't feel I need an answer to - namely, 'why's it wrong?' (It's also a less illuminating answer than a lot of what's been said here, as far as I'm concerned, but let that pass.)

There are quite a lot of things which are morally pernicious, but which it's entirely unsurprising that there are no laws against. To take a rhetorically extreme example, if Teresa had said she found it surprising that there was no law against adultery, I'd have been very surprised.

(I don't intend to speak to the question of whether there should be laws against eddanteism: for the time being I'm agnostic about that; whereas I think there are good reasons for not having laws against adultery.)

Labouring the point a bit more: it doesn't strike me as especially surprising that there isn't (as I assume there isn't) a specific statute relating to the obtaining of educational qualifications by fraudulent means, and to the aiding and abetting of others in doing the same. It might be a bit more surprising that general statutes against fraud don't apply; but it would be interesting to know more about why Teresa thinks that's surprising (and indeed why she thinks it's true - if in fact it is.)

Just for clarity - I'm not trying to make grief here. I'm certainly not in the business of challenging the local consensus, in which I whole-heartedly share - that eddanteism is a Bad Thing.

#419 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 12:44 PM:

Praisegod barebones, #413: The obvious law(s) that it ought to be against are the ones about fraud. When you turn in someone else's work as your own, in a class for which you are supposed to be doing your own work, that's pretty clearly fraudulent to me.

#420 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 02:12 PM:

James D. MacDonald @ 417

My rhetorically overblown response to Tom Whitmore now seems less overblown...

(Living where I do, under a government which recently thought it might be a good idea to make adultery a criminal offence, I'm not especially enthusiastic about people who want to make the laws of God a pattern for the laws of man; and I feel a bit jittery around people who say things which suggest they might want to; the political views of my namesake notwithstanding.)

Lee @ 419 - we may have cross-posted. In any case, two further thoughts.

1) I'm actually quite pleased that this doesn't fall under fraud statutes (though I'd still be interested in knowing why. Is it, for example, because fraud statutes require you to make false representations for immediate financial gain?)

One reason why is that I can't imagine that if, in accusing a student of plagiarism, I was accusing them of a criminal offence, my university would allow me to follow procedures like (@299) Lisa Spangenberg's in dealing with it. And I'm pretty sure that no student would either a) own up to plagiarism or b) allow an accusation of it to go uncontested onto their academic record. Both of these me as potentially good outcomes from a purely educational point of view (though perhaps less obviously good from the point of view of credentialling).

2) That aside my original question was not intended to be about whether it was surprising that turning in a paper that wasn't your own wasn't a criminal offence, but about whether it was surprising that running a paper mill was. It's less obvious (at least to me) how the latter might be brought under a fraud statute.

(obvious caveats: IANAL. And, if it's not sufficiently obvious already, IANA American citizen either, so things which are obvious to most people here about American law may not be so obvious to me. And I'm also not - despite an academic background which would qualify me as privileged on at least C. Wingate's understanding of privilege - in favour of either plagiarism or paper mills.)

#421 ::: Mark ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 02:24 PM:

praisegod barebones @ 420: Fraud generally doesn't stand alone, but as a vehicle for (for instance) larceny. Some discomfort with this sort of academic fraud being criminal may thus arise because of the notion of grades as property having a quanitifiable value. In our current society it's obvious that they do, but it derogates so many of our idealistic notions to say so out loud.

#422 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 02:30 PM:

praisegod @418: Good expansion: I'll see if I can do it justice in my response.

A lot of laws that we do have relate to following what's right. In practice, most of the laws of the land have some basis in the Ten Commandments. And I think that in looking inside T's head, she believes in them pretty strongly. So I was trying to point out what her reasoning was likely to be.

Overall, I think Lee's 419 states it more succinctly than I apparently could.

#423 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 03:43 PM:

C Wingate @387:

From the engineering side of the house there is rather frequently the feeling that what goes on in the liberal arts is mostly BS anyway. Mr. Dante seems to be playing into this stereotype, if inadvertently. If a lazy rich kid is getting a degree, then what for? I have to assume that the thesis behind that is that the actual content of the degree is irrelevant and that it's just a rubber stamp on the way to something else.

Frankly, I didn't tackle this because I don't sense that you're interested in hearing a liberal arts major try to convince you of the value of a broader education. Learning to think about ways of expressing ideas, to analyze arguments? Reading—deeply reading, with undivided attention—the foundational thinkers of Western culture (and other cultures)? Learning to analyze, to encounter, dissect, evaluate and absorb new ideas? It may be the unfortunate tone of our dynamic right now, but every defense of the liberal arts I tried to write left me picturing you rolling your eyes.

But via Tim Walters in the open thread: maybe you're willing to listen to a professor of biochemistry and chemistry on the subject.

#424 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 04:07 PM:

Mark @ 421

A very good point. Arguing that academic cheating is fraud also then requires you to answer a lot of questions about which grades have value. I mean, if I get a degree entirely by fraudulent means (say, 25% of my coursework was done by Mr. Dante), and I put the degree on my resume and get jobs with it, let's say we call that fraud. Pretty safe ground there, I think.

What about if I cheated in an elective course I didn't need to graduate? Sure, I lied. Both God and Jim Macdonald have cause for wrath (myself, I fear the wrath of Jim rather more). But does my employer? After all, if I'd dropped or never taken the course, I'd have the same degree.

What about if I just took some class for my own edification? Still fraud?

So now we need to know what you've done with this fraudulent grade: the offense is not prosecutable at the time, but only later, if you use your fake credit for profit. So can I have the class I was caught cheating in stricken from my transcript so I can finish my degree and get a job?

Further, in the US it's usually legal to pretend to be anyone you want, so long as you don't try to profit by it. I think, for instance, that it's perfectly legal to tell people you're a doctor: the crime is /practicing medicine/ without appropriate credentials, not simply claiming to have them. (This gets funny where actual government certs come into it: I'm pretty sure it's legit to claim a JD, I think you might run into problems claiming to have passed the bar. I know you'd get hauled in for trying to practice law.)

#425 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 04:43 PM:

423
What I noticed, as an engineering and, later, CS student, was that the humanities classes were not, in general, dumbed down for the science and engineering students, although the science and math course had dumbed-down versions for the humanities students, and somewhat less dumbed-down versions for the science and engineering students who didn't need the full version.

(It was fun taking humanities classes. I felt that it was necessary to keep me balanced and reasonably sane.)

#426 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 04:46 PM:

abi@423: In fairness to C. Wingate, I don't believe he was saying that he himself was unconvinced of the value of a liberal arts education, but rather that he had observed such a lack of conviction on the part of some members of the engineering community.

(Which, having hung out with an engineer or two in my time, I can easily believe.)

#427 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 04:58 PM:

PJ Evans @425:
What I noticed, as an engineering and, later, CS student, was that the humanities classes were not, in general, dumbed down for the science and engineering students

Perhaps it depends on the institution.

The humanities classes pitched at people fulfilling breadth requirements at my university (UC Berkeley) weren't so much dumbed down as shallowed out. They tended to be survey courses: one-semester "taster" classes such as Classical Civilizations, which covered everything going on in the Mediterranean basin from the Etruscans through Constantine. (Classics majors were required to take individual courses on each of the relevant subjects instead.)

Likewise, the linguistics course I took for my breadth requirement didn't require any competence in any other language, teach me the International Phonetic Alphabet, or really dig into the subtleties of the topic. How could it, in one semester?

Perhaps the English or history courses offered for breadth requirements varied less in their scope from the ones that English or history majors themselves would take. I don't know; I didn't take any of them. But my elder brother, studying electrical engineering and computer science did—a course on Shakespeare's historical plays—and got a B. And if his essays in that class met the standards that an English major would have had to achieve to get a B, I will eat any hat of your choosing.

(I love and admire my brother. He is a brilliant computer scientist. But he is not much of a writer.)

#428 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 05:15 PM:

abi, I took medieval history, and didn't bother to tell them I wasn't in it as a history student, although I believe I told the professor during office hours. (Any professor who uses 'The Life of Brian' as part of the introductory week of the class is on our side, I think.)

The school was Cal Poly Pomona, so engineering, agriculture, and business. The horses, in a sense, own the place.

#429 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 07:03 PM:

Tangential, but should be appreciated here: Thai teacher smashes cellphone when a student takes a call during the middle of class.

A lot of the courses I took for my distribution requirement were survey-type. However, I also made it a point to take one course per semester that just looked interesting, whether it counted toward my major or not. That's how I got Chaucer, music history, physics of light & sound, creative writing*, and Traditional Ballads**, among others.

* A disappointment -- I learned nothing about the craft of writing, although I did pick up a couple of useful concepts that the prof let drop in passing. He was much more interested in name-dropping about all the Famous Writers he went hunting with (none of which were names I recognized), and ogling the miniskirted women, than he was in teaching us anything.

** Also a disappointment, because it wasn't the course the professor wanted to teach, and he spent most of his time talking about the humorists of the Mark Twain era instead, that being his area of interest. I said on the course review that they either needed to rename it, or let someone have it who would actually teach the subject matter.

#430 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 08:00 PM:

Devin @ #424, it is illegal to practice medicine without a license in the U.S. even if you don't get paid. In fact, in some jurisdictions pretending you're a doctor falls under the unauthorized-practice-of-medicine statute, even if you don't do any treatments. The law is designed not only to protect people's wallets, but also their bodies.

#431 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 09:32 PM:

Lila @ 430

Good to know! I'd assumed that "practice medicine" pretty much meant what it said on the tin (that is, it's illegal whether you get paid or not). I think it's interesting, though, that some places it's illegal to tell someone you meet at a party that you are a doctor, but (presumably) other places it isn't.

#432 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 09:45 PM:

re 423/426: One of the reasons I stayed away from the engineering department at UMCP (thirty years ago, mind you) is that they had their own special versions of humanities courses, and you couldn't meet the departmental requirements by taking the "real" courses. CS by contrast was independent and had some of the most lax major requirements ("lax" meaning that that they were very open-ended) on campus: all you had to do was take thirty hours of upper level major courses, so lots of people in the department took second majors or double degrees. I did CS and math, which was the easiest combo, but I know people who did English and music was also reasonably common.

#433 ::: Spiny Norman ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2010, 10:57 PM:

Sandy @ 363: Ah! Like backgammon or horse racing.

#434 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 09:40 AM:

An example. No patient contact, but fraudulent access to a hospital, and possibly medications.

My Google fu has not been able to provide me with a list of state laws, but as far as I can figure in some states "impersonating a physician" is illegal; in others, it's "impersonating a physician in order to obtain prescription drugs" or "practicing medicine without a license".

#435 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 10:05 AM:

Lila #434:

I suspect it's quite rare for anyone to actually get in legal trouble for the casual kind of impersonation (telling someone you're a doctor at the cocktail party in order to try to get her interested in you), just because there's probably not much evidence for it. On the other hand, if you're treating patients, or even representing yourself as a doctor for a newspaper column or radio show, there's plenty of evidence, and I expect it's pretty easy to get into serious trouble there. (And this seems right--a fake doctor picking up women in a bar is nasty, but nowhere near the nastiness level of a fake doctor treating patients!)

But this is supposition, not knowledge.

#436 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 10:09 AM:

Lila #434: I remember that case.

There's also pretending to have a PhD, as in this case. "Doctor" Muhammad's office was downstairs from mine. Five years ago when we were going through reaccreditation we all had to prove our credentials to the university's satisfaction. Suddenly, he disappeared. I'd no idea why until the producers of The Real Gilligan's Island made public the fact that his claim to be "The Love Doctor" longer on love than credentials.

#437 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 10:20 AM:

Just my own take here, but I think there are two things going on w.r.t. the perception that humanities are fluff (common among techies I know):

a. Science and engineering and math get the prestige of technology, which demonstrably works and does things that seem miraculous given what came before. So when you want to theorize about what happened in the first tiny fraction of a second of the universe's existence, that comes off as important and meaningful, even if it's quite unlikely that anyone will ever get practical technology out of the result.

b. At least some large subset of science and technology has constant reference to the physical world (experiments, observations, practice), which damps down the kind of intellectual fads and groupthink which seem to me, as an outsider, to afflict a lot of the social sciences and the humanities.

But the more I think about it, the more I think (a) dominates here. If someone tells me they're studying the effect of gender roles in medevial French poetry or something, I tend to think "Geez, what an obscure and useless area of study. She must not have much of a life." But if they tell me they're studying the Riemann hypothesis and the distribution of prime numbers, or the role of prions in non-DNA-linked heritable changes in phenotype in fungi, I think "Wow, what a cool thing to study. She must be really smart!"

Similarly, when someone tells me some obviously nonsensical sounding thing from the humanities, I think "what an obvious bunch of nonsense." When I hear such stuff from math/science, I think "Wow, that's really hard to get your head around. I wish I were smarter, so I could understand it more easily."

#438 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 10:29 AM:

Albatross @ 437... Science and engineering and math get the prestige of technology, which demonstrably works and does things that seem miraculous given what came before

When I'm dancing close to her
"Blinding me with science - science!"
I can smell the chemicals
"Blinding me with science - science!"
"Science!"
"Science!"

#439 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 10:33 AM:

Another angle on the same issue: If the only time you study the humanities is some survey-level courses required for your CS or EE degree, it's probably relatively easy to miss how much depth there is in other areas of knowledge. I took three sociology courses in college. The first two (intro and a class on social deviance) were almost entirely content-free exercises in memorizing definitions and reading platitudes. The third (social psychology) was one of the best classes I ever had--talking heavily about experimental psychology applied to small groups of people, reading original papers instead of textbook regurgitations, etc. At the time I just thought I'd gotten very lucky. Thinking about it now, I suspect I'd also gotten past the intro level stuff, into what the sociology majors thought of as the meat of their studies.

And I also studied economics in school. That attempts to be the hardest of the social sciences, but seems to me to be disconnected enough from empirical verification by experiment or observation or practice that it's extremely susceptible to intellectual fads and groupthink. So you could learn a lot from those courses, but much of what you learned was the "right" way to mathematically approach some questions or situations that, thinking about it and looking at more evidence I've seen since those days, often isn't obviously the right way to approach those questions at all. (Think about the simple microeconomics picture of individual behavior vs. what you see in experimental economics, or in observing real companies.)

#440 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 10:34 AM:

Fragano @ 436... The Professor was always my favorite. Heck, he could build a nuclear reactor using coconuts. Years later, when actor Russell Johnston was asked how come his character could build a nuclear reactor using coconuts, but couldn't fix that hole in the Minnow's side, he explained that 's because he had studied at a university where one learned to build nuclear reactors using coconuts, but not how to fix boats.

#441 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 10:55 AM:

Serge @ 438 ...
When I'm dancing close to her
"Blinding me with science - science!"
I can smell the chemicals
"Blinding me with science - science!"
"Science!"
"Science!"

Apropos of not much, I scare myself. Quite lovely.

#442 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 10:59 AM:

Majoring in English (or another of the humanities) is kind of like writing haiku: really easy, so long as you don't mind doing a mediocre job of it; and really hard if you want to do it well.

#444 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 11:39 AM:
Fear of lawsuits is also the biggest reason universities don’t back up instructors who accuse students of cheating.

I wonder if this is true.

That is, I wonder how much university administrators are really afraid of getting sued, verses how much easier it is to shrug their shoulders and say "Lawsuits, whaddayagonnado?" than to piss off a paying customer by moving to expel a cheater.

"We can't do X because we might get sued" is, in my experience, right up there with "the check is in the mail".

#445 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 12:48 PM:

Where I went to school, there were remedial math courses, and there was an "appreciation" of math course, and there were three statistics courses ("baby", "mama", and the two-term "papa stats" that I took). There was a somewhat-light physics course for pre-meds, and a Physics Lite course for non-majors who needed the distribution credits. I'm sure there were other accommodations for humanities majors as well.

There was nothing similar in English, History, Philosophy, classics, modern languages, or sociology/anthropology. (There was a "writing requirement" that you could get out of with a good enough SAT verbal score, but even most English majors had to take the course.) Math majors took English 10 and 11 along with freshman English majors, if they wanted to take English courses, and the same for History and etc. And, just incidentally, generally got perfectly fine grades in them, too.

So I felt pretty strongly that science types were expected to show broader intellectual skills than humanities types.

(1972-77, Carleton College. High-end private liberal arts school, which did very well sending people on to science grad schools as well as humanities, law, and medicine. "Distribution requirements" specified groups of departments that you had to have some courses in all of to graduate. My degree is a BA in mathematics; they didn't have a computer science program yet.)

#446 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 12:55 PM:

James D. Macdonald@417: I do not recognize the laws of any god as having jurisdiction in this (or any other) case. Furthermore, there seems to be considerable lack of consensus as to what those laws are. Also (in the USA) a specific constitutional prohibition against picking one set as official.

That seems a very bad basis for trying to establish what is right and wrong.

#447 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 01:08 PM:

"Ed Dante" seems to have contact (currently) with college students only in his professional capacity. So he's seeing a very filtered view of the cheating going on. In his world, 100% of the students who contact him want to cheat in their courses; but we don't actually know (from his report) anything about how common it is; we only know that it's widespread (at many different institutions), and that some students get away with it more than once (since he has repeat customers).

(I'm not going to argue that things aren't pretty horrible on the cheating front. I caught and failed two in a half-course introduction to HTML a couple of years ago, just with what I thought of as some pro forma Googling.) (I don't teach regularly, but I've taught two courses at a local community college.)

I wasn't aware of anybody cheating on tests or papers in highschool or college when I was there. If somebody had been expelled for cheating it would have been big news, I think. So either they weren't getting caught, or they weren't cheating.

Oh, and with regard to the discussion of one of the main purposes of fraternities -- at Carleton, since there weren't fraternities, the Math department had to maintain its own files of old tests for student reference. This was especially useful for the "comprehensive exam" which majors had to take, that covered all the required courses in the major (and which was usually taken Senior year, whereas a math major was likely to have been through all the required courses by early in sophomore year, since the major had low specific requirements; most of the courses you took were in the "and at least 9 other upper-level math courses", not the specific required list). Qustions didn't get re-used -- but studying the old tests, it became quite apparent for example that one was going to be called on to differentiate a function containing a factorial.

#448 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 01:18 PM:

science education: I had an appalling science education before getting to college, so I skated through my college degree with the minimum science classes that I could take to fulfill my general education requirements. They turned out to be quite useful. One of them went into a broad understanding of disease and medical treatment. The other was "The Science of Light and Color for Non-scientists." It was great fun, and it helped me get a job several years later. I was interviewing for a marketing position at a company in the fiber optic field. The interviewer asked me what I knew about optical fiber, and I explained how internal reflection works (this was in the days of multimode fiber), and he was quite startled. He said I knew more about it then most of their engineering candidates.

albatross @ 439: As one of my economics professors said (roughly): "You can over-simplify to the point that the model is useless, and get a mathematical model that's understandable, or you can try to do a realistic model, and the math becomes impossible." Since economics is all about finding a maximum profit, or a minimum cost, doing it with calculus is simple and straightforward. Doing it without calculus means convoluted, unintuitive explanations. Undergrad econ classes rarely require calculus as a prerequisite, so students are subjected to a lot of confusion.

#449 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 02:48 PM:

Oops, I meant that doing the over-simplified, two-variable model is straightforward in calculus, and convoluted without calculus.
Once you start trying to get realistic, you enter the world of chaos theory, and no matter what mathematical tools you bring to bear, life is complicated.

#450 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 03:03 PM:

On consideration, one of the most valuable things I learned from a liberal arts education is that there is not one-and-only-one correct answer to every question.

Wish to heck more engineers and science types had learned that.

#451 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 03:47 PM:

By the time I got to Carleton (I'm class of '85), a good SAT verbal score did NOT get you out of writing requirement. I know this with absolute certainty, as I had an 800 and still had to do it. Owen Jenkins being the fellow he was, I still had to sweat for it, too.

There was a remedial English course as well, I am quite sure. I don't think either it or remedial math (which I don't remember but which probably still existed) counted for distro (not that you said it did).

My brother (who is now an aerospace engineer) told me once that he found it about as easy to get a B in English as in physics, but that for him it was much less straightforward, and took about three times as much work, to get from a B to an A in English than in physics. All the same, I think he could do 50%-75% of what I do, whereas I could do almost none of what he does.

#452 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 03:47 PM:

abi @ 450: On consideration, one of the most valuable things I learned from a liberal arts education is that there is not one-and-only-one correct answer to every question.

The nearest I came to satori in my life was in frosh literature class, in college. After a day of lecture on a particular story, I stopped the professor after class to explain that I'd interpreted the story in a completely different manner. He nodded, thanked me for the input, and the next class period, stood up in front of class and started with, "While this isn't how I read the story, one way you could..." And then proceeded to give a brilliant fifteen-minute mini lecture on what I had claimed, argued for and supported with all the skill of a man who'd been teaching literature for many years. All of which was directly opposite to what he'd said about the story in the previous class.

And lo, I was enlightened.

#453 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 04:17 PM:

abi @ 450... there is not one-and-only-one correct answer to every question

Yes there is.

#454 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 04:18 PM:

abi @ 450... Wish to heck more engineers and science types had learned that

You've dealt with my managers, haven't you?

#455 ::: John Chu ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 04:41 PM:

janetl@448: A friend of mine followed up his PhD in physics with a PhD in economics. He once remarked to me that the math he did for economics was much more complicated than anything he did for physics. (He also did some econophysics for a while.)

#456 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 06:12 PM:

HelenS@451: I took English 1 (rhetoric) from Owen Jenkins, in fact. About 2/3 of that class specifically wanted Owen, and the other 1/3 didn't really know what they were getting themselves into. I probably should have taken the risk of taking the advanced rhetoric course later on.

We lived next door to the Jenkins the first three years we were in Northfield (that college house across from the Junior High; our side was 218 College, their side was 315 E. 3rd), though, so by the time I got to Carleton as a student I had plenty of experience dealing with Professors Jenkins and Dyer-Bennet, at least; and found that I was not much intimidated by anybody else, either.

#457 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 07:49 PM:

albatross, #437: I think you've developed a case of foot-in-mouth disease with your examples here.

On sciences vs. humanities: while I wouldn't go so far as to say that there are no humanities equivalent of what we called "bathtub courses" (aka "Rocks for Jocks", etc.), I do think they're relatively rare. Also, at least until the explosion of anti-intellectual sentiment in the last couple of decades, it had always been much more socially acceptable to say (frex) "Oh, I just don't get math, I can't even balance my checkbook," than to say that you'd never read any Shakespeare. So yes, I would agree that you can get a pass on sciences from the humanities side much more easily than you can get a pass on humanities from the sciences side. I do not, however, believe for one moment that this means humanities students aren't as intelligent as science students. I do think that there's a false perception of that being the case, which leads to the fulfilling of lowered expectations.

#458 ::: grendelkhan ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 08:04 PM:

Damn. That's a much better Yahoo! Answers technique than I use--I generally just post a smooth fifty-fifty blend of helpful answers and biting descriptions of how they're wasting their own time, their instructors' time, and my time. I like to think I make them pay for their answers, in some sense.

I think this guy was the most jaw-dropping example of someone wanting to have information regurgitated for him. ("Don't link me!") He literally wanted someone to, rather than pasting a link, copy the content from the link and paste it in. I cannot, no matter how I try, understand it.

Has anyone looked at the "Diet and Fitness" board there? It's all "how can I lose thirty pounds in a month?" and "how many situps do I do to get a six-pack?". Sheesh.

#459 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 08:09 PM:

The structural equivalent of physics for poets/rocks for jocks/math for the innumerate is the intro to X course--e.g., the intro to lit that fits between freshman- and majors-level courses. When I was in grad school, those were sophomore-year electives that satisfied humanities distribution requirements (I taught a bunch--poetry, drama, fiction, modern lit) and courses like them survive to this day--my wife uses a Myth & Legend course to delivers large doses of Homer, Euripedes, and Ovid in one version and Malory and Beowulf in another. And she finds that her most interesting and engaged students come from outside what's left of the humanities.

Re: Administrations not strongly enforcing anti-plagiarism policies. There may be a litigation-avoidance component, but my observation has been that it's more often a matter of not pissing off the customers, with a certain amount of "can't we just make this go away?" avoidance behavior. And in any case, part of the problem is that the student thinks like a customer and that admin has, um, bought into that view. I was hearing the "I paid, so where are my credits" rap back in the Sixties, and with the rise of let's-run-the-university-like-a-business philosophy, admin tends to agree. Another component is sentimentality--"Aw, the poor baby doesn't understand this complicated academic honesty stuff. How 'bout just a warning this time." This, of course, can be cover for a desire not to piss off the customer or a way of dodging the uncomfortable parts of being a manager.

#460 ::: johnofjack ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 08:23 PM:

I don't know why I didn't remember this earlier, except that high school is (happily) less in my mind than it's ever been--but I let someone cheat off me in high school.

The fellow who cheated off me was a football player, huge and dull-witted, a classic bully. He sat right beside me one test day and immediately on receiving the test began pestering me to let him cheat off me. I was shaking my head, then responded to it with--at everyday volume, not in a whisper--"No, you can NOT cheat off me."

The teacher chose to shush me rather than investigate, lowering my estimation of him considerably.

The test was multiple choice and had just begun; most people had probably answered only a few questions. I hadn't gotten past putting my name at the top.

So I filled in all the wrong answers and let the football player cheat off me. He caught a couple of them and corrected me on them quietly. I thanked him for it, also quietly. Then when he got up to go turn in his test, I erased all my wrong answers and--quickly--filled in the right ones.

It was an easy enough deception, capped off with looking dazed and crestfallen and quickly tucking the test away the day it came back graded. The cheater looked at his grade, looked at me with some suspicion, and asked what I got. I made something up about how my mother was going to kill me. And that was the end of that (aside from the football player undoubtedly finding better people to cheat off of, and the teacher probably not caring).

#461 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 08:41 PM:

Russel Letson@459: The structural equivalent of physics for poets/rocks for jocks/math for the innumerate is the intro to X course--e.g., the intro to lit that fits between freshman- and majors-level courses.

No, the courses I'm talking about are courses NOT allowed for majors in the subject, and which exist specifically to allow non-majors to fulfill requirements (distribution mostly).

Carleton's English 10 and 11 were intro to English literature -- and they're taken by English majors and by everybody else. History 12 ("introduction to historical inquiry") was for physics majors and everybody else.

Physics 22 was intro to Physics -- and was taken by science majors and people seriously considering that; whereas people needing only the distribution credits often took Physics 12, generally called "physics for poets". That course counted for distribution but did not count towards any requirements for a science major anywhere. (And I'm forgetting what the pre-med course number was, now.)

In my experience (and some research), these seem to exist far more commonly in math and sciences than in the humanities and social sciences.

(Carleton has renumbered the courses since I graduated, I don't know the new numbers, or the new distribution rules for that matter.)

(One of the "Russel Letson"s I overlap in various places is a Carleton grad; not sure if that's you, or if they're all the same person and the universe is folded more strangely than I had thought, or what.)

#462 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 09:15 PM:

albatross @ 437: "b. At least some large subset of science and technology has constant reference to the physical world (experiments, observations, practice)"

The corollary to this is that the sciences rarely reference the social world, so discoveries in the physical sciences don't often challenge people's understanding of themselves and their society. Few non-physicists have strong opinions about physics; everyone has strong opinions about society. This makes the humanities inherently political and therefore contentious in a way that the physical sciences just aren't. Well, mostly: just look at the mad scrum around global warming or evolution. Now imagine all science was like that.

#463 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 10:09 PM:

ddb #461: At least in my time ('85-'91) Harvard certainly had such courses as part of its "Core Curriculum". Most represented a casual overview of, or exploration in some region, literature, science, etc. One of my favorite courses was "Heroes for Zeros", more formally something to the effect of "The Heroic Archetype in Ancient Greece". 20 years later, I've probably made some comments here at ML, that were based on what I learned in that course....

#464 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 10:15 PM:

ddb @461--I perhaps should have drafted that sentence more carefully. The courses I taught then and that my wife teaches now were/are "general ed" distribution-credit fillers rather than intros for majors. At Big-Huge U, where I did my grad work, prospective majors weren't filtered out, but the courses were not aimed at them, either--they were for non-specialists. That didn't stop me from blinding my students with ambitious literary analysis, but I was a bit green back then.

[The only other Russell Letson I know of in this neck of the woods is a genuine midwesterner (as distinct from a New York State transplant) and St. Paul resident who might well be a Carleton grad. I heard from him when one of his acquaintances saw my byline in Acoustic Guitar, and thought it was him. Turns out we are both Juniors, born about two months apart, named for fathers who were serving in WWII, though on opposite sides of the world. Fortunately, we have different middle names. I don't know if that's a strange fold or just a random wrinkle in the cosmos. I'm more puzzled by a namesake on the far side of the continent who is also a guitarist, though he apparently actually makes some money at it. Come to think of it, though, guitar playing is so common among American males born after 1945 that every late-20th-century Russell Letson in the multiverse can probably plunk a few chords.]

#465 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 10:47 PM:

wasn't there once a music appreciation class called "clapping for credit"?

#466 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 12:57 AM:

Abi @450: On consideration, one of the most valuable things I learned from a liberal arts education is that there is not one-and-only-one correct answer to every question.

A good math education would teach that, too. There's not much excuse for the math-and-science types not to know it.

#467 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 01:11 AM:

Russell Letson @464:

My department managed to snag some drifting freshmen into the study of Classics with the non-specialist survey courses. I think that's one reason for not distinguishing between people taking them for breadth requirements and people who later go on to major in the subject. (Classical Civ did not, however, count toward your major if you ended up in the Classics department.)

generally:

I'm actually pretty damn tired of the contempt of so many science majors toward the liberal arts. I don't know where that particular nasty attitude gets inculcated, but it's a tremendous and disappointing intellectual narrowing. It represents a real failure of education somewhere when university doesn't lead to a broadening of the mind. A truly educated person is one who knows that there is more of value out there than he or she will ever understand, and by that standard, I know some pretty uneducated scientists and techies*.

I would note, as a moderator, that most of the people who tend to end up with arguments swirling around them are loudly proclaimed science majors with that very contempt for the liberal arts. I speculated above that it's because they've internalized the idea that there is one and only one correct answer to every question, so when they have a correct answer, everyone else is wrong.

But perhaps it's merely the habit of contempt for others, coming out.

-----
* As well as many well-educated ones, I must add

#468 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 03:49 AM:

And then proceeded to give a brilliant fifteen-minute mini lecture on what I had claimed, argued for and supported with all the skill of a man who'd been teaching literature for many years. All of which was directly opposite to what he'd said about the story in the previous class.

But did he give you the credit for the idea?

#469 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 04:00 AM:

chris y @ 468:

Oh, yes. He started off by saying explicitly that I was the one who'd presented this interesting approach to reading the story. Full credit. I suppose there must be professors out there who'd claim credit for a student's idea, but I never got the sense that any of mine would've, in that department; if anything, they seemed quite happy any time they were given the chance to boast of how clever, quick, and insightful their students had been of late. One professor who was a quite outspoken Marxist loved to mention the excellent arguments some student had given lately against his personal philosophy.

#470 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 05:58 AM:

Abi #467 - I would like to say that first I am a science major, in the american parlance, but when I got out into the real world I found arts and humanities were rather relevant too.

So, that aside. Yes, thats right, univerity doesn't lead to a broadening of the mind. Especially in science courses. You have to narrow down your interests and research so much even during a 4 year degree that you end up knowing lots about, say, fuel cells but not a lot about biochemistry. I think that is part of the problem, especially here in the UK. But does the American habit of having minors really make so much difference?
Another part of the puzzle is probably that yes, science questions do usually have one correct answer. Moreover, the ability to make hypotheses, and look at various possible answers isn't usually taught in science, its kind of assumed that when you do your 4th year project people will guide you in teh right direction, but generally you spend the first 3 or 4 years at university doing rote learning, experiments with predetermined outcomes in order to get lab experience, and generally just doing as you are told.
Then when you graduate, most of them have to leave science because of the lack of jobs. Or else you do a PhD, when you learn that you really weren't prepared very well for doing actual broader minded research, and so have to learn more.

Personally I also blame the modern system, which in the UK is getting fucked over even more. Universities have been pushed down the American road for years now, leading to increases in people but not funding, bigger classes and less quality involved in them, as it were. Thus there isn't any time or inclination for mind broadening classes or discussions. Also, not once at the universities I did my undergraduate and postgraduate at did any philosophy of science get covered. I had to learn it all myself later on, and it came in useful when I joined in the fight against creationists.

As you probably know, England is infamous for making people choose between subjects for A levels, meaning most people only get GCSE level science's. One poor woman on module of the MSc I lately finished had to re-learn what atoms and metals were, simply because she'd gone the arts route at school and now found herself in an archaeometallurgy lecture with no idea what the lecturer was talking about.

#471 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 06:26 AM:

abi @ 467... Luckily there are science majors (and tech types) who known they don't know about other areas, and they admire those who do know and wish they'd know even a fraction of what the others know. Meanwhile, we've had people who know nothing and who have no inclination to know. You know what I mean?

#472 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 06:29 AM:

I've mentionned this before, but I thought I should remind people that December 8's episode of "MythBusters" has the gang revisit Archimedes' Death Ray because of a challenge by Obama.

#473 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 07:39 AM:

abi #467: I'm actually pretty damn tired of the contempt of so many science majors toward the liberal arts.

Abi, that goes both ways, with other folks insisting that science is mere incidental fiddling-with-stuff, and "how do they know they're right", "it would be mean if that were true", and so on.

That basic split is, of course, nothing new! I'd say it represents two basic views of the world -- between those who consider people as the "significant" part of the world, with everything else being background; versus those who consider that the world is made of things, with people just wandering around in it. (And I've probably given away my own bias there....)

#474 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 08:27 AM:

David Harmon @ 473... those who consider that the world is made of things

Nothing but hands sticking out of boxes?
No Gomez?
No Morticia?
(The latter would leave Neil Gaiman quite distressed, as she was the object of his teenage affection.)

#475 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 08:31 AM:

Ahhh but David, what about those of us who consider the world is made of stuff, and people are complex instantiations of stuff which feedback upon stuff which feeds back on them and so on and on.

On the other hand I do think there is a rough accuracy to the old scientists aren't much good at people things and artists aren't so good at sciency things. But its two well overlapping normal distribution curves, rather than two mountain peaks a mile apart.

#476 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 08:38 AM:

I remember reading that Feynman enjoyed eating at the nearby strip club, and that he was quite a good artist.

#477 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 08:38 AM:

Einstein played the violin.

#478 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 09:06 AM:

Feynman enjoyed eating at the nearby strip club

If you think that gives him arts/sciences crossover points, you've been studying at the wrong college...

#479 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 09:17 AM:

alex @ 478... Either that or I was thinking of the movie "Real Genius". Actually, I was addressing David Harmon's description of the arts-vs-science camps. Also, I pointed out that this gent who dabbled somewhat in physics (to put it mildly) also liked to draw.

#480 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 09:24 AM:

Sorry, did I miss out the ba-doom-tish!?

#481 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 09:38 AM:

alex @ 480... Well, I was also trying to be tongue-in-cheek. Didn't quite work out. Sorry about that.

#482 ::: Janet K ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 09:39 AM:

Back in the dim past (the early 60s) when I attended a large state university all students had to take three quarters* of freshman English**, two quarters of mathematics**, introductory courses on American history, world history, political science, sociology, and economics, three quarters of science (two different fields), and two quarters of a foreign language**.

I considered this a Good Thing--I was introduced to lots of new stuff. And some of the lecturers were actually good. But back then I don't think as many students started college with any firm idea of what they wanted to study. Many today might consider all those introductory courses a waste of time.

A front-page article in yesterday's Washington Post focuses on a criticism that prestigious universities are "...failing to require students to take courses in more than one of seven core academic subjects: math, science, history, economics, foreign language, literature and composition."

---

*instead of two semesters there were three quarters in the school year--this made it possible to take more courses during the year.

**entrance exam scores might decrease this requirement

#483 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 09:40 AM:

A bit related to the current topic... The depiction of scientists in movies... Mt favorite probably is Clayton Forrester. No, not the one from MST3K. The one from George Pal's "War of the Worlds".

#484 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 10:08 AM:

As you probably know, England is infamous for making people choose between subjects for A levels, meaning most people only get GCSE level science's.

And the latest thinking is to make kids do GCSEs at 14, thereby making them even more elementary, and then have the students go to either academic, vocational or technical colleges (or Grammar Schools, Secodary Moderns and Secondary Techs, as we used to call them when I was a lad) for four years.

Madness. Ecclesiastes 1:9.

#485 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 10:22 AM:

Jane K #482 - that variety of courses sounds interesting. However I always thought that you were supposed to get a reasonable grounding in maths, science, history, english and a foreign language at school. When I was doing Highers in Scotland I did maths, english, chemistry, physics, french, thus making me in the top 20% of students since I did 5 highers at once. (Didn't do very well mind you) Thus in theory, people who went to university a year or two later would have done at least 5 highers and have a reasonable grounding in the topics already.
But then we enter the discussion of how subjects have gotten easier since the complainant did the exams back in 1922 or whenever.

#486 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 10:45 AM:

Clayton Forrester from MST3K is obviously Clive Crashcup on meth.

One of my favorite items from the old Leonardo magazine (does it even exist anymore?) was an article from an engineering student who took a required art course at MIT and ended up creating a wonderful and astonishing lamp based on technology used to crack (as I remember it) petroleum distillates. I'd have one now, but the cost of a 6' acrylic column (square or circular, I don't care which) is more than I can afford--the rough version that I made from storm-door sheet and wooden angle when I read the article worked fine and looked great for about 20 minutes before it disintegrated...

#487 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 11:05 AM:

xeger (441)
in re the Dolby video -- That is a lovely song.

And that song is one that might actually get me to seek out the artist's album (I especially like the trombone solo and piano work)

#488 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 11:43 AM:

xeger @ 441... My belated thanks for the link. I had never heard it before, but my wife had because she once owned the album.

#489 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 12:22 PM:

One of the things I (as an English-lit type person) liked about the Engineering program at Vanderbilt University when our elder son was going there, was that it had a fairly heavy-duty humanities requirement. The head of the department was quite explicit about their reasons: as he said during the freshman orientation session, Vanderbilt expected that in twenty years its engineering graduates would no longer be doing engineering, they would be managing engineers and talking with corporate executives . . . and for that, they needed the humanities.

If not for the fact that it would have caused our son to perish of embarrassment on the spot, I would have cheered.

#490 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 12:43 PM:

serge @ # 477, Einstein played the violin.

And Jan Peerce didn't like to perform with him, because he said Einstein couldn't count.

#491 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 12:49 PM:

Lila @ 490... I remember reading about that. And that he didn't like wearing socks. Not sure what that has to do with his musical shortcomings though.

#492 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 12:52 PM:

abi @ 450 "there is not one-and-only-one correct answer to every question"

As some of you may not know, in British universities we don't have the "major" and "minor" stuff, nor any requirement or encouragement to take classes outside our subject. In the veterinary course, anyway* there really isn't time to go to other courses. However, I was at Cambridge, which meant I spent my third year studying a different subject (Applied Biology - a wonderfully wide-ranging course covering subjects from mammalian population dynamics and human nutrition through entomology and plants to soils, depending which modules you chose). I got my first essay back with the comment: "you write as if you believe everything you read. Do you?" I stared at the professor. My mental reaction was "Wait! We're allowed to question? Definite light bulb moment. You see, in the veterinary course we were just expected to absorb information and regurgitate it in the exams to show we'd learned it. Querying stuff was not on the agenda. Being expected to think and look at different possibilities was refreshing.

Also, while I acknowledge that there are, sadly, scientists (too many) who have contempt towards the liberal arts, I've also met many arts graduates who are actively proud of their lack of knowledge of science, are totally contemptuous of science, and lack any understanding of scientific method (but would hate to be without the benefits than science has brought them). *Sigh* Another "them and us" (from both sides), it appears.
*that's an undergraduate course over here.

#493 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 12:54 PM:

Debra Doyle @ 489... in twenty years its engineering graduates would no longer be doing engineering, they would be managing engineers and talking with corporate executives . . . and for that, they needed the humanities

Next, they'll tell us that people skills are necessary.
:-)

#494 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 01:06 PM:

Serge, #493: This is one of the things I see as a huge flaw in corporate structure in general, and one of the causes of the Peter Principle. There is no full-career path for the person who isn't interested in management and just wants to do problem-solving; at some point, when you're good at the latter, you're expected to move into the former as a matter of course... and be just as good at it, even if it's not something you've ever done or wanted to do.

#495 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 01:06 PM:

Craig R @ 487, Serge @ 488: You might also want to check out the original version of "I Scare Myself," by Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks, from the excellent album Where's The Money?

#496 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 01:23 PM:

Avram@466: Avram is quite right -- if you look at it right. Real math isn't "what's the derivative of f(x)?" (to which there is only one right answer, though it can be written several ways); real math is "how do you prove (or disprove) thing", to which there are infinitely many right answers (and also wrong ones).

Now, in arithmetic, there's only one right answer to "what's 4 plus 5 (in base 10; that's the default here on Earth, but in this crowd I'd better be specific)?".

But then mathematics is not a science. If you divide the world into two groups, many of those pairs put math and science together. And all the sciences make a lot of use of mathematics. But they're still not much the same thing.

abi@467: I should probably note that I do not resemble that remark (though critical failure of introspection is always possible). Even if you group math with the sciences for this purpose (up to you, it's your claim), I'm pretty solidly supportive of the liberal arts education; I tend to grouse about the humanities majors being given special easy courses, is all.

Also -- engineers, who you encounter a LOT more of than actual scientists, also have to know at a very deep level that there is more than one right answer to any interesting question. And at least in my head, the narrowness of view associates more with engineers. (I'm a software engineer myself, but my degree is pure math, and anyway despite the subject name one can certainly argue that software development is still an art (probably a black one), it hasn't progressed to being a real engineering discipline yet.)

#497 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 01:28 PM:

My college required three science courses (one had to include a lab, one could be a math/logic course instead), some number I was fuzzy on of essay-writing courses, a year of foreign language (or testing out of the equivalent), and at least four classes taken in four separate geographic/cultural areas from carefully compiled lists of what qualified for what. (Intro to Buddhism was a very popular class among seniors trying to fulfill that last requirement. "I haven't taken anything in Asia yet, and I don't want to take an art history or politics--oo!") This on top of the frosh-specific classes which were interdisciplinary (my first one was taught by professors from the French, Politics, and English Lit departments, respectively, the second was in the Music department), and required a lot of essay writing.

On the matter of classes aimed at non-majors... I took a Physics class which was very much aimed at non-majors, though it had a lab attached. There were also various English Lit courses that came in two flavors, 100-level and 200-level: they covered the exact same material, and drew professors from the same pool, but English majors were strongly encouraged to take the 200-level versions unless they were feeling shaky in their essay-writing ability and needed a gentler introduction to college writing standards. The 100s were mostly filled with all those science majors getting their geographical requirements out of the way. There were also Composition classes, which were exclusively (by practice, though not mandate) for non-liberal arts majors who needed to complete their writing requirements.

I am somewhat bemused to discover this wasn't quite standard. On the other hand, I was never actually required to take a history course--I covered almost all the geographical requirements in the progress of my Lit degree--so that might be considered a failing of the system. In retrospect, a college-level history course on something other than another dreary rendition of The United States From Pilgrims To Vietnam might've done me some good.

#498 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 01:30 PM:

Lee @ 494... And if what you're good at (and enjoy) is the solving of problems(*) or at building things that won't fail, they eventually think that they could get someone cheaper to do the work just as well. Right. That's why yours truly recently had to spend hours of his recent vacation telecommuting to fix something that had been designed by someone who didn't know what he was doing, and whose work had been tested by someone who also didn't know what he was doing - on a project that had been assigned to them instead of me, so as to alleviate my work load.

(*) There is a reason why my blog's default icon is Mister Scott inside the Jefferies Tube.

#499 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 01:31 PM:

Lee@494: Companies like DEC and Sun (and even, I believe, some companies which still exist as independent entities!) do have "dual career path" programs; they need rather high-level technical people, and so they provide technical jobs up to somewhere in the vice-president level. But of course the very top jobs at any big organization are by definition management jobs.

Part of the issue is not just that people want to keep doing what they like, but that they want to keep getting paid more for it each year (I certainly feel that way!). People who just don't have the makings of either a manager or a "principal scientist" are not going to get executive-level salaries, more's the pity.

I think people generally don't evaluate their career choices very critically, and get less good results than they'd really like as a result.

#500 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 02:17 PM:

Fade, #497: History was the distribution I skipped at Vandy (7 areas, and you had to fulfill the requirement for at least 6), but that was because it was a guaranteed flunk for me; I am abysmal at names-and-dates kind of testing, which History is generally full of. I'm much better at remembering the how-and-why, and a great believer in "those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it"; a survey course based on (frex) showing the parallels between Period A in Society X and Period B in Society Y, and how they eventually ended in much the same way, would have been very interesting to me.

#501 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 02:20 PM:

Lee @ 497: I have dreaded history for years because of exactly that problem with names and dates. (If I have to struggle to remember what months my siblings were born in, and can't remember the first names of most of my aunts and uncles, I'm sure as hell not going to do well with either.) I've recently enjoyed the Roman history we're covering in my Latin classes enough that I've tentatively thought of trying a course anyway. One that spends a lot of time on big picture stuff and analysis, rather than memorization. But I'm not really sure how to find those classes; my classmates tell me horror stories about their introductory history classes, which is not encouraging.

#502 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 02:24 PM:

guthrie #475: Ahhh but David, what about those of us who consider the world is made of stuff, and people are complex instantiations of stuff which feedback upon stuff which feeds back on them and so on and on.

As far as I'm concerned, maintaining awareness that "people" are also "things", puts you in the "world of things" camp.

My bias here is that it looks to me like the "world of people" crowd tend to think that their connections, money, persuasiveness, or other resources within the human sphere trump basic physical reality. (The corresponding "world of things" excess might be the failure to recognize the importance of staying "compatible" with the society you're embedded in....)

Of course, the two worldviews aren't completely incompatible, and reconciling them is its own sort of enlightenment. But the thing is, the material world has priority, and uppity humans who fail to recognize that are likely to get squished. (Or bitten, burned, drowned, etc.) Note that combining them the other way round from guthrie yields animism ("everything is a person"), which is comfy and spiritual, but not much for practical uses.

#503 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 02:42 PM:

abi #467:

Speaking for myself: We were divided into streams at a very young age (seven) at school which quickly inculcated us to think that the top stream of students, who did best in the science subjects, were better. That attitude was hard to shake & persisted up to university level*.

And of course, working in research, the answer to any question is usually, "It depends". There may be one correct answer but that is not necessarily so; context matters.

*I'm better now.


#504 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 03:19 PM:

David Harmon @502 My bias here is that it looks to me like the "world of people" crowd tend to think that their connections, money, persuasiveness, or other resources within the human sphere trump basic physical reality. (The corresponding "world of things" excess might be the failure to recognize the importance of staying "compatible" with the society you're embedded in....)

I think the corresponding "world of things" excess is to think that technical superiority trumps all other considerations. This leads, for example, to products that excel at doing something very few people want done, or to interactions that assume that a technical solution can be imposed on people even if it is a poor psychological or cultural fit. (Thinking of a lot of security-related "solutions" with that one.)

I'm beginning to imagine a college breadth course that examines classic failures in various modes: the Tacoma Narrows Bridge where physical reality bit back, the Challenger disaster where a physical-reality issue was turned into a disaster by management failing to listen to its own experts (the BP Gulf spill looks like another one of these), but also things like the Dewey defeats Truman headline where the interaction of technology and society wasn't sufficiently considered and cases where solving the technical problem does not mean solving the problem. The goal would be to make people on both sides of this divide recognize that there are important points on the other side.

Soon Lee @503 We were divided into streams at a very young age (seven) at school which quickly inculcated us to think that the top stream of students, who did best in the science subjects, were better.
I hear an echo of "I'm so glad I'm a beta. I don't have to work as hard as the alphas, but I'm much smarter than the gammas."

#505 ::: Janet K ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 03:46 PM:

guthrie @ 485. In my school days (40-50 years ago) I think pre-university education in the US tended to be bland and superficial. Keep between the lines. Just know what's in the textbook. (I suspect the introduction of Advanced Placement classes and similar may have improved things.)

The university courses were a breath of fresh air. They were at a higher level, more informed by academic research and thinking, more challenging--and directed at adults not children.

#506 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 04:14 PM:

Lee #494 - in "the good old days" of British industry I have the impression that there was something of a career path for such people - only it wasn't exactly a path, more a guarantee that they'd let you do what you want, ie more freedom the longer and more productive you've been, rather than try and make a manager out of you. Or certainly you'd get more respect, even if you didn't get any more pay.

David Harmon #502 - see climate change, problems doing anything about it, for example. I wonder why animism hasn't had such a good turnout recently? Possibly the rise of rationaility and science hasn't helped.

OtterB #504 - Huxley was right! Again! Actually, I happened upon a blog post written a wee while ago by someone who sells tutorial stuff for schoolchildren over here. They were complaining, amongst other things, that schools try and fix their placement on the league table of schools by 'encouraging' pupils of more normal ability to aim lower, thus guaranteeing decent pass marks at a lower exam level, rather than having the chance of ok or poor pass marks at a higher level.
Which just goes to show how league tables are stupid.

#507 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 04:28 PM:

Tim Walters -- 495

the instrumental lines are very good in the Hick's recording, but I don't think I like the vocals.

#508 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 04:31 PM:

abi @

David Dyer-Bennet @ 499: "But of course the very top jobs at any big organization are by definition management jobs."

Unless you're at Apple, in which case the top job is industrial design.

This strikes me as one of those claims that seems perfectly intuitive if you happen to have grown up in a society where all the very top jobs at any big organization are management jobs, but that actually represents only a tiny slice of the possible.

David Harmon @ 502: "My bias here is that it looks to me like the "world of people" crowd tend to think that their connections, money, persuasiveness, or other resources within the human sphere trump basic physical reality."

I'd be comfortable saying that's one possible failure mode for "world of people" thinkers, but I am certain that it fails utterly as a general descriptor.

"(The corresponding "world of things" excess might be the failure to recognize the importance of staying "compatible" with the society you're embedded in....)"

That sounds like a "we're just too special, is the problem" kind of a claim to me. Instead I'd argue that the corresponding failure mode for "world of things" thinkers is thinking that world of people factors don't matter or can never trump world-of-thing factors.

#509 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 05:16 PM:

Moving back toward the original topic: Sub commander fired because of cheating ring.

"...no evidence Maher was involved in the cheating ring, but stated his command had 'fostered an environment which failed to uphold the high standards of integrity of the submarine force.' "

That's what accountability entails.

#510 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 05:24 PM:

heresiarch@508: Apple certainly tries to make themselves seem special, but Steve Jobs is CEO, yes?

One could certainly invent a world where big corporations didn't run hierarchically. Possibly some of the structures invented might even work with Mark I human beings; possibly not. I don't think we really know.

There have been some attempts to avoid hierarchical structures, and I'm not aware of any big organization that lasted any time in that mode. So I'm feeling fairly confident that we don't know any other way to do things that has been demonstrated to work.

#511 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 05:40 PM:

Craig R. @ 407: Yes, Hicks is a better songwriter than singer, for sure (although I would have said the same thing even more strongly about Dolby back when he was popular--sounds like he's been practicing).

If you want "more like that," though, you'd probably have better luck exploring Hicks' catalog than Dolby's. Although come to think of it, "I Scare Myself" is a bit of an anomaly for Hicks as well.

#512 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 05:54 PM:

Lee #437:

Perhaps so. It took me a long time to realize that music and literature were important things in their own right, not simply fun fluffy things to be done when not doing the important stuff. This was my intellectual failing, FWIW.

But I note that I still tend to have a lower starting assessment for the worthwhile-ness of an obscure pursuit in the humanities than in the sciences. That's true even though it's overwhelmingly likely that advances someone makes in the theory of crystalographic groups or the symbiotic relationship between fungi and leafcutter ants aren't really going to lead to better technology, any more than advances in the understanding of medieval poetry or pre-Confucian philosophy in China are going to lead to fundamental changes in what we read or think today.

I think what I'm really running into is one of those places where I've long mistaken my own personal preferences for some kind of global statement about what's valuable and what's not. And maybe shining some light on that also shines some light on what's going on in the minds of other people with the same default assumptions. At any rate, it's useful for me to understand ways I personally have been kind-of dumb.

#513 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 06:09 PM:

heresiarch #462:

That's an interesting point. It seems like the main question is whether the field of study is threatening some established set of beliefs or political policy or something. Some areas of study are pretty far removed from today's conflict, whether that's ancient Egyptian history or computational linguistics[1]. And other areas of study, despite being apparently just as obscure, can have some kind of perceived relevance to political or social issues today. (Evolution, historical discussions about how religious the founders of the US really were.)

[1] Who've had it too easy lately, unlike emo kids.

#514 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 06:11 PM:

Serge #472:

Yeah, yeah, more government-instigated research with military applications....

#515 ::: Renee ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 06:18 PM:

abi@467: How much of the dissing across intellectual boundaries (in any direction) is due to the absolute disinterest of the disser in the dissee's field of knowledge? As in, how much of this is justification for this disinterest?

Thinking back on my own kleptocratic educational career (They have a course in X? Cool! ... No, I don't care that it doesn't count for my degree, I wanna take it anyway) I don't think I have an automatic snob reaction to much... except education courses. Not that learning to be a teacher isn't good or worthwhile, but that I had zero interest in becoming one, and therefore discounted them.

It's hard to see worth in something you figure you already know enough about... especially if what you know doesn't cross the line of 'knowing enough so that you know how much you don't know'.

#516 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 06:33 PM:

heresiarch #508: Fair enough. On consideration, perhaps the "corresponding failure mode" would simply be compartmentalization -- not attending to stuff outside one's familiar circle.

And via ddb #510: Actually, this strikes me as a classic example of that tension... hierarchy is ubiquitous in human society, because it's wired into our wetware. The catch is that the dominance behavior suitable for life on the savanna isn't tuned quite right for corporate governance -- or really, for anything involving more than 500 or so people. But we can't just edit our instincts....

#517 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 06:54 PM:

Albatross @ 514... That's one way of looking at it. Come to think of it, the MythBusters are probably a front for some secret govt research outfit (think of the military applications of an air-pressure cannon for turkey-hurling) and Jamie is probably a Man in Black. He always wears black pants, a white shirt, and a black hat. All right, it's a beret, but don't let that fool you.

:-)

#518 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 07:20 PM:

albatross @ 512: It took me a long time to realize that music and literature were important things in their own right, not simply fun fluffy things to be done when not doing the important stuff.

As Scott Miller (one of my favorite musicians) once said in this regard: "You know, you can become a doctor and save people's lives, but for what, so they can listen to Pat Boone?"

#519 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 07:47 PM:

Re technical contribution vs. management. At the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing earlier this fall, I sat in on a session about becoming a top technical contributor. Most of the panelists had done both management and high-level technical work, and they agreed that the big difference between the two was not "dealing with people" - technical contributors usually work with teams and deal with people a lot. They thought the difference was in breadth vs. depth. If you wanted to dig deeply into one problem at a time, you might want to be a technical contributor; if you liked being involved in a lot of different things, then perhaps management was the right role.

They also said that women had to fight to take the "technical contributor" path; companies tend to slot them into the management track.

#520 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 07:51 PM:

heresiarch @ 462:
Well, mostly: just look at the mad scrum around global warming or evolution. Now imagine all science was like that.

There have been times in history when it was. I've just finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson's "Galileo's Dream", so the way factions of the Catholic Church used Galileo's advocating the Copernican model of the solar system as a weapon against each other is fresh in my mind, but there are other examples.

In the last century science was raised up by some as a purely logical, value-free institution, with no connection to politics, religion, or any other human institution. I don't think that that was ever true, but a lot of people believed it for awhile, and it certainly allowed some to use the processes and instrumentalities of science in various political ways (e.g., in avoiding ethical concerns as in eugenics programs and use of human research subjects without adequately-informed consent) while claiming that there could be no political component of their actions by the nature of science.

So I wonder if there's ever been a time when large parts of science weren't used in one way or another for political ends.

#521 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 08:25 PM:

Heiresiarch @508:
"Unless you're at Apple, in which case the top job is industrial design."

but-- Wozniak didn't get as much money out of co-founding Apple as Job did.

#522 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 08:30 PM:

The catch is that the dominance behavior suitable for life on the savanna isn't tuned quite right for corporate governance -- or really, for anything involving more than 500 or so people.

Or fewer, too. It often works *for the person practicing it*, or it probably wouldn't be wired into us in the first place, but sometimes (often) that person gets ahead by climbing over everyone else. As on the savanna, so in the boardroom.

Heck, even when a group of humans manages to actually work for their shared interests (when they have them), there's usually *someone* who believes that all the others are shamming in order to pull a fast one on *them*. Someone who, as often as not, is cheating the others at the same time he suspects them of cheating him.

Trickery is to humans as swimming is to fish. ISTM that we didn't evolve our big brains in order to outwit our prey; we evolved them to outwit *each other*. That's what made it such an explosive endless arms race...

#523 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 09:11 PM:

It took me a long time to realize that music and literature were important things in their own right, not simply fun fluffy things to be done when not doing the important stuff.

Both of them have been around far longer than the discrete separation of technology and science for understanding the world in which we are born.

Indeed, out of them come the tools for discrete science and technology.

Shoot, they invented religion, or at least the tools religions still employ, to start with.

All history is embedded in music/language if we've got the tools to translate and decode.

Love, C.

#524 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 09:28 PM:

David 496: But then mathematics is not a science. If you divide the world into two groups, many of those pairs put math and science together. And all the sciences make a lot of use of mathematics. But they're still not much the same thing.

Well, that's one position. Another, and the one I personally subscribe to, is that mathematics is the Perfect Science, where every experiment is perfectly reproducible. Of course it could be argued that a perfect science is not really a science, just as a perfect person is not really human. But that's a different argument altogether.

#525 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 09:44 PM:

Bruce Cohen StM @520 use of human research subjects without adequately-informed consent

Yeah ... I'll add the Tuskegee syphilis experiment to the syllabus for my hypothetical "Epic Failures" course @504

#526 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 10:28 PM:

And I don't think a lot of musicians who are strictly musicians realize that a lot of music is math. On the other hand, and maybe a linkage, a lot of mathematicians and physicians are also musicians.

#527 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 10:29 PM:

I had a great deal of secret pleasure in college, as a CS major, taking several classes that were approximately in the trivium and quadrivium, none of which were actually required for anything more than breadth requirements.

Why, yes, I do think that education should look like a shrub, not like a utility pole.

#528 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2010, 11:15 PM:

527 breadth first rather than depth first?

#529 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 12:02 AM:

Both at once, if you can manage it? (Not to mention the possibility of having something turn up that turns your path in a different direction.)

#530 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 12:36 AM:

I would like to apologize for my comment 467, which was waspish and unhelpful, both to the conversation as a whole and to some individuals in it. For some reason, I spent yesterday deeper in depression and exhaustion than I have been in some time, and I was doing classic inappropriate pattern matching.

I try not to inflict my moods on this community. I failed, and I apologize for that.

#531 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 12:39 AM:

ddb @ 510: "One could certainly invent a world where big corporations didn't run hierarchically."

You're using "hierarchy" like it's interchangeable with "management." Our corporations are structured with people managers at the top because our corporations are run by MBAs, who have no other skills.

albatross @ 513: "It seems like the main question is whether the field of study is threatening some established set of beliefs or political policy or something."

Yep, that's it. And social studies almost always threatens politics and beliefs pretty directly. It's not the only difference, but it's an important one.

David Harmon @ 516: "Actually, this strikes me as a classic example of that tension... hierarchy is ubiquitous in human society, because it's wired into our wetware."

And this strikes me as a classic example of trying to collapse a complex social phenomenon into the single factor most amenable to a "hard" science explanation. Problems with corporate governance are at least as much (read: far more) a product of capitalist practice and modern constructions of masculinity as they are results of some savanna past--and that's without even getting into the deeply hypothetical nature of that savanna history and any psychological legacies it might have left.

Bruce Cohen @ 520: "In the last century science was raised up by some as a purely logical, value-free institution, with no connection to politics, religion, or any other human institution. I don't think that that was ever true, but a lot of people believed it for awhile,"

My feeling is that disentangling science from society (even partially) was mostly a good thing: it allowed science to operate relatively freely and thereby make a lot more progress than it would otherwise. I think it's one of an interesting set of cases where there's an ideology that is clearly not true, yet an enormous practical benefit is reaped from the general conviction that it is.

#532 ::: The Raven ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 12:52 AM:

OtterB, #504: "I'm beginning to imagine a college breadth course that examines classic failures in various modes."

The current economic disaster might be a fine addition. There's a strong case to be made that much of what brought on the disaster was the collapse of the scientific ethics of the economics profession, and its rejection of history.

But then, that tale is still unfolding.

#533 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 01:33 AM:

OtterB @ #545, don't leave out the recently-public news of the Guatemalan syphilis experiments in the late 1940s.

#534 ::: The Raven ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 02:22 AM:

And here here we have a lecture by a very angry University of Central Florida management professor who found that 200 students of a 600-student senior lecture class cheated. The cheating hinged on breaching the security of a textbook publisher's "test bank," which the professor was using as a source of exam questions. (Via kottke.com, via balloon-juice.com.)

Croak!

#535 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 05:20 AM:

Xopher #524 - see this cartoon for an illustration relevant to your post:
http://abstrusegoose.com/316


Chris #522 - trickery is to humans as swimming is to fish? Not in my experience. Thats rather a broad brush you are using there.

#536 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 07:13 AM:

heresiarch @531 My feeling is that disentangling science from society (even partially) was mostly a good thing: it allowed science to operate relatively freely and thereby make a lot more progress than it would otherwise. following on Bruce Cohen @520

Does it work to formulate it that science is for determining facts about how the physical world operates, but that those facts are necessary but not sufficient input for making decisions about what people should do?

When you start to think about all the different ways this can go wrong, it's a wonder human society functions at all. Ignoring or overriding important scientific truths, slavishly following later-discredited "science" (thinking of fads in child-rearing here)...

Also heresiarch Our corporations are structured with people managers at the top because our corporations are run by MBAs, who have no other skills.

That's a little harsh. I think there's a case for good management resting on the ability to be a generalist rather than a specialist. For the most part your orchestra needs a conductor, no matter how excellent the individual musicians, and it probably needs a business manager too. Your fleet needs an admiral, no matter how good the individual captains. The building needs an architect, and then a general contractor. There's a coordination and general support function involved. It can be done by all the individuals, but then it takes away from their time to excel at their individual specialty.

Of course, if you have a BAD conductor, or admiral, or architect, then you have a larger problem than having bad individual performers.

#537 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 07:39 AM:

Our corporations are structured with people managers at the top because our corporations are run by MBAs, who have no other skills.

I know a couple of people who have gone for MBA's after a few years using other skills.

Any idea what the proportions are of fresh-out-of-school MBA's vs. already-have-a-resume MBA's?

#538 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 08:31 AM:

I think one element of all this, whether it's plagiarism or inappropriate positioning of MBAs, is that we all tend to recall the bad examples. We more easily recall the exceptional.

(It actually seems to be an element of how human memory works.)

#539 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 08:40 AM:

Abi @ 530... I failed, and I apologize for that.

Oh, stop being silly.

#540 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 08:48 AM:

OtterB @ 537... there's a case for good management resting on the ability to be a generalist rather than a specialist

This reminds me of my previous manager. It was a strange idea for my employer to put a non-technical person in charge of a technical group. It could have worked if, like the captain of a ship, she'd been willing to trust people who might know better even when they disagreed with her. If the ship's engineer says the nuclear reactor will blow up if the captain's decision is enforced, a smart captain will listen.

I seem to remember that one of ML's regulars -who is the manager of a tech group - once said something to me that leads me to believe that a tech group needs a manager with even better people skills than others. Something about tech groups being like a bunch of screaming toddlers, I think...

#541 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 08:50 AM:

Meanwhile, at the Hindenburg School for Airship Design...

"What's the Humanities Dept like?"
"O the Humanities!"

#542 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 09:43 AM:

heresiarch@531: Yes, I pretty much am. People above you in the hierarchy have a certain amount of ability to direct what you do at work, on pain of being fired. That's management. (Details of management style and better or worse management exist and are important, but the basic thing is the hierarchical direction.)

Do we have more trouble with "corporate governance" than the communist countries had with people running state industries? We have somewhat different problems, perhaps -- but in both cases people frequently acted to enrich themselves and their cronies without regard to the alleged duties of their jobs. And politicians in dictatorships are the same again, it seems to me. We also have better mechanisms for detecting and dealing with such misbehavior, which means we probably hear about it more often. (Note: "better" I'll attempt to defend; but I'm not confusing it with "good", you understand.) I think this is a general human problem, not particularly a capitalist problem.

Lots of MBAs have lots of other skills; it's very often an add-on degree for somebody transitioning from technical to management, or for a small business owner who realizes things are getting out of hand.

One of my writer friends, Pat Wrede, also got herself an MBA and worked for B. Dalton's for a while while working to finish and sell her first few novels. I believe she once got to point out at least to her agent, if not directly to a publisher, that she had the training to go in and exercise the rights granted in the "audit" clause of a standard novel contract herself; though I don't think it's ever actually come to that.

#543 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 09:54 AM:

#510 ::: ddb:

I've wondered for a long time why there isn't some sort of industrial democracy (employees vote for the top of the hierarchy). After all, democracy works for cutting back on the worst leaders, and blunting some of the worst abuses by government.

#544 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 09:54 AM:

abi @530: sympathies for the depression and exhaustion; I hope you can get out in daylight a bit - According to BBC weather you do have the chance of some sunny intervals today, so maybe those will help?

#545 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 10:05 AM:

Nancy @ 544 -

I've wondered for a long time why there isn't some sort of industrial democracy (employees vote for the top of the hierarchy). After all, democracy works for cutting back on the worst leaders, and blunting some of the worst abuses by government.

I remember a SF novel that had that as one of its themes. I don't recall exactly, but I think it was by Greg Bear.

However, in real life, I don't think it's workable. The goal of a corporation is much more narrowly focused than the goal of a nation's government.

#546 ::: Madeley ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 11:14 AM:

Steve C. @ 546 - I'd disagree. The Co-operative Group in the UK runs dozens of different businesses, and is owned by a collective membership of some 5 million people. Tower Colliery in South Wales was owned and run by its workers for over a decade after the British government closed it in the 90s. The John Lewis Partnership runs several high-profile retail outlets, and is owned by its employees. Real Madrid and Barcelona Football Clubs are owned and operated by their fans.

#547 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 11:53 AM:

#546 ::: Steve C.:

The narrow focus of a corporation doesn't strike me as a problem. A corporation can still be wrecked by incompetence or fraud at the top.

#548 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 12:10 PM:

guthrie, #536: Agreed. If trickery was something that came naturally to most humans, you wouldn't see (frex) the spam-fraud explosion. Con men of all stripes depend on most of their targets not being able to recognize that they're being scammed.

Nancy, #544: You can say that with a straight face, given what's going on in our government right now?!!

#549 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 12:13 PM:

Madeley @ 547 - Are the CEOs and other executives actually chosen by popular vote? I have no problem with cooperatives or organizations with an elected board, but in the cases I know about, the operational executive management don't run for office.

There are examples of employee-owned corporations in the US (at one time United Airlines was employee-owned) but the corporate management was still approved by the board and didn't face elections.

#550 ::: Madeley ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 12:53 PM:

Steve C @ 550 - I don't know off-hand, but I accept your point. But co-ops do have significant democratic mechanisms that effect the running of the business, and democracy doesn't have to mean voting specifically for who occupies the top of the hierarchy- over here, there's no popular vote for who gets to be Prime Minister.

#551 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 01:02 PM:

Sandy B. @ 318
To paraphrase James Kakalios, the author of "The Physics of Superheroes"- when he gave his class real-world problems, they complained that they were never going to use this stuff. When he gave his class problems about Superman jumping over the Daily Planet building, nobody seemed to complain.

That's because the first rule of teaching someone is getting their attention. The second rule of teaching is keeping their attention. It's only when the teacher has the students' undivided attention that you can impart knowledge and information. I have a friend who started out as a substitute teacher in public schools and now runs a childrens' center day/after school camp. She freely admits that she's half floor show and half lesson plan. A physics class where you study superhero physics is no different than my anthropology professor using amusing anecdotes from digs to illustrate her lectures. Of course the students aren't going to complain about Kakalios' examples. They're too busy snickering under their breath.

All the best teachers I've ever had engaged the students on as many levels as possible. Up to and including my biology professor taking her class outside so we could pretend to be a cell going through mitosis. I had a poetry professor who actually hopped around the room to demonstrate meter. The first few times I had a professor act in a non-professorial manner was disconcerting to me as a freshman in college, but I found I learned a lot more from them that I did from the droners.

I just wish my math professor in college (I got a BA, so I only needed one math class) was as creative. I took a math class designed for architects - Elementary Applied Mathmatics (EAM). I didn't realize that when the course catalog said "algebra, geometry and trigonometry prerequisites" that they meant "college level" not "high school level". My adviser didn't know about that distinction either (or I accidentally conned her) so she let me sign up for it. Luckily for me, I was one of three students in my high school who took advanced math courses. Because we were few and highly motivated, we got a lot of attention from our teacher -- who adjusted his lesson plans to keep up with us. I wound up getting an A out of EAM in college, but not without a lot of work and swearing on my part. At one point, the teacher issued a re-test because 95% of the class had failed the first one. (He was a droner of worst sort with enough verbal pauses to drive me nuts.) The whole class was nothing but story problems about real world examples.

Over a year ago, I needed to figure some line of sight distances. (It's for a SF trilogy I'm writing). If something blows up in the troposphere, I needed to know how far away the lights could be seen by someone standing on the ground. So I dusted off the skills I learned in EAM. For weeks afterward, I went around chortling about how more people should take "Math for Evil Geniuses."

#552 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 01:05 PM:

Re: trickery as a driver for human evolution. I suggest reading "Chimpanzee Politics: power and sex among apes" by Frans de Waal. Yes, it is generally thought that the main "arms race" leading to greater human brain capacity was competition with each other, not a predator-prey situation.

Apes will also pretend to other individuals that they have not got food, for example. I recently read a paper in which a subordinate male bonobo had learned to pretend not to have found nice food items, or to hide them in bedding, and eat non-preferred items until all the females were busy eating, then he would carefully eat his nice food. He also didn't do this every time - if he did, his deception would have been more likely to get noticed (Van Elsacker et al. (2000) How a subordinate male bonobo leads dominant females up the garden path. Folia Primatologica 72, 33-36 )

#553 ::: The Raven ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 01:59 PM:

Nancy, #554: "I've wondered for a long time why there isn't some sort of industrial democracy."

Well, some places there are, Mondragon in the Basque country, for instance. See Zwerdling, Workplace Democracy. The democratic workplace is a fine old socialist ideal. The basic reasons there are aren't more democratized workplaces seems to be organizational difficulties and enormous opposition from the rich and powerful.

#554 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 02:07 PM:

Lee: When Johnny was a junior in college, he was caught cheating on an exam. His parents were horrified. "He certainly didn't learn this at home!" they exclaimed.

You just reminded me of my first speeding ticket that never happened when I was a fairly new driver. My parents had a friend who knew someone in the DMV or police office or something, and they disappeared the ticket from my record and--more importantly--the vehicle record. My parents presented this to me as follows: "We are perfectly capable of punishing you for this speeding ticket ourselves. We don't need to be punished along with you in the form of raised insurance premiums. Rest assured that YOU and YOU ALONE are the one paying for your moving violation." I was grounded for a non-trivial number of weeks.

I suppose alternate-universe me might have come away from the experience with a resolution to cultivate friends in the DMV wherever I went so that I could one day do what I wanted and have neither the law nor parents punishing me. But this-universe me took away the moral "Don't expect others to pay the price for your mistake if it can at all be helped. That's on you, kid. Mistake less next time."

On the other hand, I was friends with someone else whose parents could pull the ticket-disappearing strings, and judging from events in our lives proceeding forward from there, I think she learned the alternate-universe-me lesson.

#555 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 02:17 PM:

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little @ 555: that's back to the nature-or-nurture thing, isn't it? You can have an experience where you broke the rules* and got off lightly, and either think: "Whew, that was lucky. Well, I've learned from that, and I won't risk a [fine/serious injury/scolding/prison sentence] again." OR you learn that "Well, I can do that and I won't get [fine/serious injury/scolding/prison sentence], so I might as well repeat". And that lesson, in either form, then gets internalised and used to judge future actions of other sorts.

* legal, laws of physics, whatever

#556 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 02:27 PM:

...I should probably clarify that this was my first speeding ticket, but it was my only disappeared speeding ticket--between my not earning any other speeding tickets while driving my parents' car, and neither being able to nor seeking the ability to have the few I've earned as an adult car-owner disappeared.

I did not mean to imply that it was the first in a series of disappeared speeding tickets.

(I can only remember one other speeding ticket at all, in fact. It involved a police officer pointing his laser gun at a patch of highway in Wyoming at the bottom of a long mountain descent. Late at night. On the one hand, it seemed like a rather unfair set-up, a speed traffic guaranteed to generate ticket revenue. On the other, catching people where they are more likely to speed seems like an effective way to try to curb speeding. I paid the darn thing by mail and resolved to better manage my speed on long descents in the future.)

#557 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 02:29 PM:

Nicole Leboeuf-Little @ 555... The alternate-universe me is tall & skinny. Oh. Wait.

#558 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 02:31 PM:

Serge @558:

The alternate-universe Patrick has a beard.

Oh, wait.

#559 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 02:36 PM:

The alternate-universe Paris Hilton is named Waco Howard Johnson.

#560 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 02:47 PM:

ddb @ 543:
People above you in the hierarchy have a certain amount of ability to direct what you do at work, on pain of being fired. That's management. (Details of management style and better or worse management exist and are important, but the basic thing is the hierarchical direction.)

I don't agree that the difference between "leadership" and "management" is a minor one of style1, and both are hierarchical forms of control. Also, not all hierarchies are created equal; there's a large difference between rigid bureaucratic hierarchy (say, late Roman Empire style) and the tangled heterarchy you find in the sort of "virtual organization" that actually does exist in a few cases outside an organization process consultant's wet dream.

1. Compare and contrast the operation of a commercial corporation and a combat military unit, for instance.

#561 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 02:51 PM:

My 561 has an epic case of HTMLfail as a result of my thinking that adding a superscript was simple enough that I couldn't screw it up, so previewing wasn't necessary. Wrong, wrong, wrong. If the crappy layout that resulted bothers any of the moderators sufficiently to want to fix it, it looks like the problem is just that the '>' on the closing sup tag got typed in as a ',' instead (missed the shift key somehow).

#562 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 02:54 PM:

dcb - I fully agree. (I wasn't trying to disprove anything with my example; I was just reminded of the experience by the conversation.) The cheating parents' motivation isn't invisible to the kid. Kids of someone who cheats a rule in this particular instance to avoid the injustice of a rule's edge-case are likely to learn a different lesson than kids of someone who cheats because "rules are for little people."

For what it's worth, I only learned later in life that my dad really does have a bit of a penchant for "no one can stop me, so why shouldn't I?" and "hee hee, I got away with something." It's amusing when the cheating in question sidesteps a rule that is clearly not in pursuit of justice, or simply isn't important; he was so very pleased with having crafted a clever false bottom on his ice chest and smuggling in actual cold beers from home. It's much less amusing when the rule he's breaking is there for a goddamned reason, and breaking the rule shows a hell of a lot of disrespect for the hard work some people are doing. I'm thinking of the various rules a nearby wild animal refuge has about good and bad ways to observe the animals. "Oh look, there's a bear! We couldn't hardly see them at all from the observation deck. Let's just park the car here where the view is, despite the signs clearly asking us, for the animals' sake, not to do so. It's not like they can stop us, after all!" Thanks, Dad. I love you, but YOU'RE THE REASON WE CAN'T HAVE NICE THINGS GAAAHHHHHH.

--

I am convinced that alternate universe Geddy Lee sings country, as does alternate universe Sarah McLachlan. In some universe Blondie may actually be a reggae band, but I waver on whether I think it's an alternate universe or this one.

#563 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 02:55 PM:

Steve C. @ 560:

The Hilton property in Paris, Texas is a Hampton Inn.

#564 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 02:55 PM:

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little @ 557: No clarification needed - I gathered that neither the incident nor the disappearence of the ticket were habitual for you. But it sounds like the situation was different for your friend. I was just musing how different people could react to such an event, and wondering what factors lead people in different directions.

My only near-speeding-ticket experience was the speed camera which double-flashed when I passed it at about 35+ mph on a road near home, at about 6.30 on a Saturday morning, with no other traffic in sight for me to judge my speed, when I'd been travelling on motorways (70 mph) for several hours the previous day. So, I knew why my speed judgement was messed up, but that was no excuse. I spent the day (my birthday!) worrying about it, then the following month waiting for the speeding ticket to arrive. It didn't (guess there was no film in the camera), so I "got away with it". However, I punished myself pretty well during that day and month, and it reminded me to be more careful checking my speed after motorway driving.

#565 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 03:07 PM:

Re. 'industrial democracy', this is actually quite common, in the form of works councils, mandated Union representation on boards, and suchlike, in continental Europe. Things like the UK co-op organisations are fundamentally different, in that the workers are employees, it's the customers who are members. John Lewis is a sort-of workers' co-op, though it's actually a trust with restrictive operating conditions.

But the works council model doesn't actually mean workers' control, of course, just, generally, lots of long-winded consultations before bending to the dictates of market forces.

In general, workers' co-ops are a great idea, once you've sorted out how you buy yourself in to co-ownership of the fixed and circulating capital, what the conditions of being 'bought out' for incompetence or irreconcilable differences are, who has actual operational control of activities, what happens when economic conditions require contraction, etc. One might compare all this to the fact that, despite electing our political representatives, we still find ourselves in the unpleasant situation of having to obey the law. If you were hoping that was the problem it would solve, it won't.

One reason co-ops don't predominate is that it really isn't easy to actually solve those issues, except through ideological harmony - this is how some co-ops endure in relative isolation today, and how they were supposed to become general 'after the revolution' anarcho-syndicalist stylee. But until then...

#566 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 03:10 PM:

OtterB @ 537:
That's a little harsh. I think there's a case for good management resting on the ability to be a generalist rather than a specialist. For the most part your orchestra needs a conductor, no matter how excellent the individual musicians, and it probably needs a business manager too.

The conductor is probably a bad example; all the conductors I've met or heard of were trained musicians of one sort or another, not, for instance, "Art Directors" or "Music Managers".

But even in the general case of a commercial corporation, there has been a common problem with MBAs. The original concept as developed at Harvard was that a manager need not and in many people's minds should not know anything about the particular work that the people managed are doing. My own experience with MBAs who believed that is that it a very dangerous (to the organization) and pernicious attitude, and has resulted in the destruction of more than one company that I have worked for.

Note that I'm not saying a manager shouldn't be a generalist; a generalist has to know something about a lot of areas. The problem is that for many people, an MBA is someone who only knows about the abstract field of "management", whatever that is.

#567 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 03:32 PM:

An odd thought just occurred to me -- hiring someone to write one's papers is the modern equivalent of the 19th C (and earlier) model of hiring someone to do one's military service. At least in the minds of the people who do it.

Not talked about much, reserved for those who have enough money, and not seen as a particular stigma to many of the class that can afford it.

#568 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 04:40 PM:

Bruce Cohen @567 The original concept as developed at Harvard was that a manager need not and in many people's minds should not know anything about the particular work that the people managed are doing. My own experience with MBAs who believed that is that it a very dangerous (to the organization) and pernicious attitude

I agree. The particularly pernicious sub-attitudes IMO are (a) contempt for the people who do the work, and (b) an inability to understand that what sounds like a good idea in the office may not work on the ground. I think the manager should have performed SOME function other than "managing". Organizations that don't let you into management from a staff position - you have to have served in a line position - have a point, I think. And that, perhaps, makes the conductor not so bad an example. He or she may play several instruments, but doesn't play them all, and knows how to appreciate the value of all of them.

There are, of course, downsides to the technical specialist moving into a management role. The two that leap to mind are micromanaging and focusing on one's own specialty to the exclusion of everything else. No doubt there are others.

#569 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 04:50 PM:

abi @ 530: I hope you're felling better. This CS major didn't take offense at your remark @467; I understood the frustration and didn't take it personally.

I do think that there's a worrisome tendency among too many folks in one of the traditional "two cultures" to fail to understand the importance of the other. Because of the audience this forum tends to attract, here you see more of the misunderstanding on the "science majors" side of things. But I also see willful ignorance not just of science, but of quantitative data, among more folks than I'd like who've been trained in humanities or social fields.

For instance, rhere was a fair bit of resistance even among some faculty about including a quantitative reasoning requirement for undergrads at Yale not too long ago. "Who needs it if you're not going to be a scientist?" was what I heard more than once. Meanwhile, far too much of American public discourse is driven with scary/inflammatory/self-rationalizing anecdotes designed to push people towards a particular position that may have little justification when you look at broader data. (The recent terrorism and security arguments are largely continuing this tradition, for instance.)

I'm a big fan of multicultural education, where this includes not just education about different ethnic groups, but also education about the tools and outlooks of many different disciplines, scientific, humanistic, artistic, and spiritual. And, for what it's worth, I feel I've learned a fair bit in all those areas listening to folks here over time.

#570 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 04:53 PM:

OtterB @ 569... that, perhaps, makes the conductor not so bad an example. He or she may play several instruments, but doesn't play them all, and knows how to appreciate the value of all of them.

This reminds me it's been a long time since I saw Fellini's "Prova d'orchestra".

#571 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 05:54 PM:

Bruce, #567: Exactly. And then they present this complete, willful ignorance about what the company actually does as if it were a feature -- "being able to think outside the box". Well, y'know, there's a time and a place for thinking outside the box -- but when you're in the parking lot ain't it.

Tom, #568: The difference between the two models being that relatively few people expect to make big bucks in civilian life using the skills that you can't learn anywhere but in the military.

#572 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 06:04 PM:

Tom, #568: The difference between the two models being that relatively few people expect to make big bucks in civilian life using the skills that you can't learn anywhere but in the military.

Though some made very big bucks after transitioning into private military firms like Blackwater. With the US reluctant to expend uniformed troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can expect more of this "privatization".

#573 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 06:23 PM:

chris #522: The potential presence of trickery is one of the challenges to any interaction within a group -- not just for humans, either. The hierarchical order has some tools for controlling it, by way of "authority", but there are even more bound up with our other social pattern, the horizontal links of relationship and trust. (But note, the fact that you can't get rid of the horizontal pattern either, introduces weaknesses/bugs into hierarchical systems!)

heresiarch #531: The problem is that it's not just corporate governance that gets affected. Consider the several Communist regimes and communal experiments that ran aground on trying to erase class and other hierarchical patterns. What they eventually wound up with didn't look much like what the idealists wanted -- mostly because people went ahead and self-organized into hierarchies regardless of what the founders said they "should" do.

David #496, Xopher #524: I like to think of mathematics as the science of substance-invariant phenomena. E.g., turbulence shows similar properties in a variety of fluids....

It's worth noting that a modern understanding of the limits of computation (requires minimal substrate mass/energy, sends energy to entropy, cannot generally be predicted) makes it clear that sufficiently complex computations can qualify as experiments or observations.

#574 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 06:37 PM:

OtterB @ 569:
There are, of course, downsides to the technical specialist moving into a management role.

To be sure. But there's surely a middle ground between requiring managers to take a graduate-level course that teaches them that management is a special kind of job, unlike all others, and promoting technical contributors into management jobs with no training in the skills and techniques specific to the non-technical side of management. I've seen the latter produce some spectacular failures too (one of reasons I stayed out of the management promotion ladder except for a couple of times when the en

#575 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 07:00 PM:

guthrie, #536: Agreed. If trickery was something that came naturally to most humans, you wouldn't see (frex) the spam-fraud explosion.

Well, some are better at it than others, of course. But that's also true of things that indisputably do come naturally to humans, like running and climbing.

Con men of all stripes depend on most of their targets not being able to recognize that they're being scammed.

...frequently because the marks believe that *they're* the ones gaining an advantage over someone *else* (sometimes the con man, sometimes a third party).

It's not strictly true that you can't cheat an honest man, but honesty sure does cramp the con man's repertoire. And even honest people usually have a *capacity* for trickery, but choose not to exercise it. (Or choose not to exercise it for real -- you can have a quite exciting game of Diplomacy with people who are scrupulously honest in real life.)

Maybe the line about fish was hyperbole, though -- some fish literally die if they stop swimming. How about "as running is to horses"? Horses can stand still if they feel like it, but it doesn't mean they don't still have perfectly serviceable legs (except the few who don't). And horse races have losers, but the losers were still running.

#576 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 07:12 PM:

Bruce 567: The original concept as developed at Harvard was that a manager need not and in many people's minds should not know anything about the particular work that the people managed are doing.

That, by itself, goes a long way to explaining why all the Harvard MBAs I've ever worked with (and there have been many) have been, without exception, worse-than-useless idiots. Their "management" actively screwed up things that would have worked fine if they hadn't put their oars in.

What a moronic concept. My respect for Harvard just dropped enormously.

#577 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 08:00 PM:

OK, let's try that again, only without the premature posting:

OtterB @ 569:
There are, of course, downsides to the technical specialist moving into a management role.

To be sure. But there's surely a middle ground between requiring managers to take a graduate-level course that teaches them that management is a special kind of job, unlike all others, and promoting technical contributors into management jobs with no training in the skills and techniques specific to the non-technical side of management. I've seen the latter produce some spectacular failures too1.

1. That's one of reasons I stayed out of the management promotion ladder except for a couple of times when the engineering manager assured me I would stay primarily technical. In one of those cases he lied, and after a year or so I resigned that job and went back to being a lead engineer. In the other, the company went under, and I blew off the idea of looking for a new management job.

#578 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 08:27 PM:

OtterB @ 537: "That's a little harsh. I think there's a case for good management resting on the ability to be a generalist rather than a specialist."

Sure, but as Bruce Cohen @ 567 points out, being a generalist in the design, production, marketing and/or economics of widget-making is a substantially different thing than having an MBA. An MBA isn't a generalist degree; it's a degree in Business Administration, which is a specialism in its own right. That specialty's default position at the top of the hierarchy is not rational or inevitable. It's culturally determined. Perhaps the band needs a business manager, but why should the business manager tell the band which songs to play? Nor would you want an admiral whose primary skill set is running meetings and networking rather than fighting naval engagements. Yet that's exactly how are corporations are run, by people whose education is in how to Administer Business and make money, not how to do anything.

ddb @ 543: "People above you in the hierarchy have a certain amount of ability to direct what you do at work, on pain of being fired. That's management."

You seem to have forgotten where this conversation began. You said "[some companies] do have "dual career path" programs; they need rather high-level technical people, and so they provide technical jobs up to somewhere in the vice-president level. But of course the very top jobs at any big organization are by definition management jobs." There are "technical" and "management" jobs at every level of the hierarchy, excepting only the very top. You asserted that this is only natural, and I objected: there's no reason that the very top jobs in an organization cannot be "technical" jobs, despite their lofty height in the hierarchy.

It's not even very hard to imagine examples for this. Alex is a brilliant microchip designer, wants to start a company but doesn't want to have to make all the personnel and financial decisions. So she hires Brian to be her manager and make day-to-day decisions on her behalf, allowing her to focus on design. Alex still controls the company and sets the agenda, while Brian only executes it. Would you describe Alex's role as "management" or "technical"?

"Do we have more trouble with "corporate governance" than the communist countries had with people running state industries?"

That would be a really killer counter-argument if I were arguing that capitalism is the source of all ills. Unfortunately, I'm not--I'm arguing that it's the source of some particular ills revolving around the management of US corporations.

The Raven @ 554: "The basic reasons there are aren't more democratized workplaces seems to be organizational difficulties and enormous opposition from the rich and powerful."

Ideological controls are important, but they also just can't compete well against capitalist corporations on capitalist terms, nor expand as effectively. Companies expand by making profit and re-investing that profit in expansion. That profit is larger the more the workers are being gouged; a worker-run cooperative is unlikely to gouge its workers as much as a capitalist corporation. Thus, capitalist industries will expand faster and fill more market space than cooperatives.

Bruce Cohen @ 567: "The original concept as developed at Harvard was that a manager need not and in many people's minds should not know anything about the particular work that the people managed are doing."

Wow, it was really explicitly laid out like that? I always assumed it was an emergent trend, not a point of doctrine.

#579 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 09:02 PM:

Steve, #573: Going mercenary isn't really returning to civilian life, either. I think my main point stands; someone who buys a fraudulent college degree generally does plan to use it as a stepping-stone to Big Bucks, in a way that most discharged servicemen don't.

#580 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 09:11 PM:

Heresiarch #579: Alex is a brilliant microchip designer... So she hires Brian to be her manager and make day-to-day decisions on her behalf, allowing her to focus on design. ... Would you describe Alex's role as "management" or "technical"?

I'd describe her role as "chump". This is the classic setup for the "business manager" to take over the company, or at least the profits from Alex's work.

#581 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 09:42 PM:

Speaking of management and motivation, RSA Animate - Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us is a fun and pithy 11-or-so minutes of worthwhile watching.

#582 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 09:57 PM:

Lee @572/580 -- in a historical context, though, the "old boys" network of the military was a major source of advancement for people who were not necessarily of the monied classes. Even after they left the military. The context was different then. And the military was seen, then, as a potential source of advancement much more than education. The people who paid others to take on their service actually already had contacts (in the same way that those who pay for papers do now). So they needed it less. It's another example of privilege making it easier to stay at the top.

#583 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 12:05 AM:

David Harmon @ 581:
This is the classic setup for the "business manager" to take over the company, or at least the profits from Alex's work.

Not necessarily. We often forget that the CEO's job is not to manage day-to-day business or even the financial operation of a company (those are the remit of the COO and the CFO, respectively), but to determine overall policy and the direction of growth. In a technical company, much of a CEO's job is in fact to determine long-term technical direction1. If day-to-day control allows a palace coup (and it might), then it can take over from any kind of CEO. The key factor is not what the CEO is doing in terms of policy-setting, but what the CEO is not watching in terms of the activities of his direct reports, something that any lead engineer has to be considering as well.

1. I can run this down in an example, if you like, but it will take longer than I have available this evening. I should be able to do it tomorrow. Oh, the example is Intel, where I worked for number of years, and was at least on speaking terms with some of upper management (including the person who is currently the CTO of Intel).

#584 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 12:11 AM:

heresiarch @ 579:
I always assumed it was an emergent trend, not a point of doctrine.

It may not have started as doctrine, but emerged and then was taken up as doctrine later. I don't know, as my experience is not with the program itself but with graduates of the program in the 1980's, when they started appearing in volume in the computer industry. But by the time I got to know them the idea that a Harvard MBA did not need to know anything about company operations was accepted as doctrine.

#585 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 12:44 AM:

dcb #565:
"My only near-speeding-ticket experience was the speed camera which double-flashed when I passed it at about 35+ mph on a road near home. (...) I spent the day (my birthday!) worrying about it, then the following month waiting for the speeding ticket to arrive. It didn't (guess there was no film in the camera), so I "got away with it". However, I punished myself pretty well during that day and month, and it reminded me to be more careful checking my speed after motorway driving."

TBMK, the speed-cameras currently in use are digital, and transmit the image of the speeding car to a central location. The most likely reason you didn't get a ticket is that the driver's image, or the license number, wasn't clear enough to identify.

(Our van got speed-flashed one time when it had been borrowed, and the ticket was sent to the registered owner, me. I was able to get the ticket waived by sending a copy of my driver's license picture, showing that the person behind the wheel in the speed-camera photo wasn't a grumpy-looking old guy.)

#586 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 01:25 AM:

My experience with MBA holders was that the Harvard guy had his head in the clouds, the Columbia guy was within sniffing distance of the worker bees, and the two U of Hawaii guys put their noses down in the muck with the rest of us. The East Coasters were paid a lot more and, in the case of the Harvard guy, did a lot less.

This was at one $8M (sales) company in the space of about 8 years.

#587 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 02:02 AM:

ddb @543, "Do we have more trouble with "corporate governance" than the communist countries had with people running state industries?"

Not yet. If some current trends (executive competence or lack thereof, cutting costs wherever possible or impossible, more and more capital put into more and more obscure financial instruments so that less is available for companies that actually do things etc.) continue for the next 20 or 30 years, I'd say all bets are off.

#588 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 03:12 AM:

The thing about an MBA is that there's a lot of stuff about corporate governance which isn't specific to a particular industry. So there's a body of knowledge which can be taught, and used, independent of what a person's previous education might be.

But an MBA doesn't tell you why you need an oil-filled, three-phase, star-delta starter switch, or a piece of task-specific software in the back office which doesn't depend on Internet Explorer v5.

#589 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 03:39 AM:

Bruce Arthurs @ 586: We may be talking different types of camera, although the ones I'm talking about may have gone digital by now (the incident in question was several years ago). This is one of the sort (the most common sort, in the UK) that flash after the car has passed, i.e. the camera takes a picture* of the car from behind, so no image of the driver anyway.

*Two pictures, with a known time interval, against the set of lines on the road: the distance the car has travelled in the time indicates the speed. We're back to maths problems again...

#590 ::: Russ ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 06:49 AM:

dcb@590

I was told (by GATSO, when I phoned them in a panic after being flashed by a camera, with eleven points on my license*) "Oh, don't worry, that one's a fake".

Apparently, the radar in the real cameras is directional and costs about £30k. The radar in the fakes is not (it will go off for vehicles on either side of the road***) and costs about £3k, so there's a mix deployed and if you don't know which is which it's a lottery****.

All of this is hearsay from the aforementioned conversation, but it seems credible to me.


* 12 points is an automatic ban**. I'm happy to say I'm now point free.
** It turns out they cannot, after all, be exchanged for glasses or James Bond bullet hole stickers.
*** You may have noticed a camera go off when you're within the speed limit - it's most likely a fake, detecting vehicles travelling the other way.
**** I wonder if the mechanisms can be/are regularly be swapped around?

#591 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 07:52 AM:

Russ @ 591: Interesting; I didn't know that (although I have noticed some being set off by vehicles going the other way). Generally, I try not to drive above the speed limit, particularly in built-up areas, for safety reasons*. Of course, so long as I stick to that, I also don't need to worry about speed cameras. But I hate it when there's a speed camera warning sign and no indication of the speed limit, leaving the poor, would-be-law-abiding driver not knowing what speed they -should- be driving at. Surely it owuldn't cost much to put a speed limit repeater on the same pole that's holding the warning sign?

* Hit a pedestrian while you're doing 40 mph, 90% chance you'll kill them; at 20 mph, 90% chance they will survive. If you're travelling at 30 mph, you have a better chance of hitting the brakes in time to be down to a survivable speed by the time you collide with the poor idiot who's just walked out in front of you.

#592 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 10:50 AM:

There's two main types of road camera I've seen around the UK in the last decade. Firstly, and most popular, the standard gatso type camera, usually painted grey, that takes a photo from behind you.
Secondly, a sort of blue and yellow thing which takes a photo from in front of you, and doesn't flash. Although there are lines on the road it works some other way, I have never bothered to find out how.

There are also average speed camera's around Birmigham, roadworks and they also seem to use them on other motorways sometimes but I havn't see much information about them.
There is also the police camera van which I'm sure you are all familiar with.

#593 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 11:07 AM:

Around here, high school students started doing some pranks using the speed cameras. They would print out a copy of someone else's license plate, tape it over their license plate, and speed past the camera, thus getting someone else sent a ticket.

I guess this would be easy to appeal if the prankster had a very different-looking car than yours. ("Why is this black Odyssey wearing the plates of my blue Prius?") But if they had the same color/make/model of the car, I suspect it's pretty hard to get out of paying the false ticket. ("Well, this is a red 2005 Camry, and you do have a red 2005 Camry, right?")

#594 ::: Russ ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 11:28 AM:

dcb@592

I completely agree with you about the safety aspects of speeding, particularly in built up areas - it's not big, and it's not clever. My startling point collection was acquired when I was driving ~25k miles a year for work, mostly on dual carriageways and motorways, very much in my younger days. Whilst I was making light* of it above, it's not something to be proud of.

*heh.

#595 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 11:35 AM:

The problem is, there really are good reasons for speed limits, and there really are speed traps and localities here in the US that use them as revenue sources. Living in a world with human-created, human-enforced laws means working out when the rules deserve respect and when they don't, and when they're actively evil. That's as true in driving as in other parts of life.

#596 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 11:37 AM:

chris #576:

It's hard to imagine a human society of any size at all without some deception going on in it pretty routinely. Indeed, many societies, including ours, seem to me to rely partly on deception for their smooth operation. If every law on the books could be enforced perfectly, a lot of everyday life would grind to a halt.

#597 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 11:50 AM:

David #574:

I tend to think of math as something like reusable code, but as applied to distilled reasoning. If I can map my problem to a mathematical description of it, I can reuse the distilled reasoning of centuries of really smart, focused people. The mapping to/from mathematical ideas is a place where problems can easily creep in, of course. In almost every real-world case of interest, you have to omit a huge amount of detail about the real world to get a tractable mathematical model--the equivalent of assuming a spherical cow of uniform density. But if you can manage it and still get some core part of your real-world problem in those terms, you have this amazing toolkit, including 2500 year old algorithms and theorems that still work[1].


[1] There are still an infinite number of primes, and that was known centuries before the birth of Christ. The Sieve of Erasthones is an algorithm for finding prime numbers, and variants of it are still used in generating large prime numbers for public key cryptography.

There are tests you can run on large integers to see if they're prime, which work probabilistically--each independent test you try will be passed by a composite number with probability no more than 1/4. Iterating those tests many times gives you a probability very close to one that this number is truly prime. However, you want to start with a number that's very likely to be prime, so you don't have to do the sequence of tests to many numbers. So you can sieve the numbers first. Start with a table of the first 100 primes, and start with some value that is (random number)*(product of first 100 primes). From that value, build a table of the next (say) 10,000 integers. Now, "cross out" the multiples of each of the first 100 primes P[i], starting from your initial multiple of all of them. You will end up with a list of candidates which are much more likely to be prime than randomly selected integers in the same range. Applying your expensive probabilistic tests to these saves you a lot of time.

#598 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 11:54 AM:

@596. No. There is never a good reason for breaking a posted speed-limit, unless you are an emergency-services trained driver.

Feel free to contest my assertion, with evidence.

#599 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 12:02 PM:

Bruce @585 writes: "[...] But by the time I got to know them the idea that a Harvard MBA did not need to know anything about company operations was accepted as doctrine."

My experience tracks with yours. I've worked at more than one company in silicon valley that would make excellent case studies in business management failure. Two of which are notorious examples. Both were riddled with Harvard MBA graduates.

My understanding is that the theory underlying the doctrine is all about managers being specialists in financialization.

#600 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 12:12 PM:

alex @ 599 -

Avoiding an accident is a perfectly good reason to break a speed limit. If an out-of-control car is barreling towards your rear, I'd goose it.

#601 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 12:35 PM:

In heavy traffic which is all traveling above the posted limit, it's significantly safer to be moving at the same speed as everyone else than to cause whitewater in the flow.

#602 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 12:37 PM:

J H Woodyatt @ 600...

"Activate... the Financializer!"

#603 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 12:43 PM:

I wanted to write a long treatise, but don't have time: therefore, a short statement of observations.

A good manager is what makes a group smarter, rather than stupider, than the sum of the individuals involved.

#604 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 01:30 PM:

@552: I got a BA, so I only needed one math class

Huh; I got a BA, and was required to take at least 9, I think it was, math classes.

This is probably because my BA is in math.

(The BA/BS split isn't arts / sciences; it's liberal arts / vocation-technical.)

#605 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 01:44 PM:

@601 - and how far would you race this car, and how fast?

@602 - that's not a good reason: you may feel safer rolling along at the same speed as everyone else, but collectively, you're all going too fast. If the traffic's heavy enough to make you feel the need to keep up with it, you can bet you're all too close for safe reaction-times.

The 'mechanics of privilege' apply here, almost painfully literally - "I can drive a car, so I can decide how to drive it, because it's MINE!"

#606 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 01:55 PM:

ddb #605: Oddly, I have a B.A. in Computer Science, which is both technical and vocational. Admittedly, it's from Hahvard, which is certainly liberal-arts.

#607 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 02:15 PM:

alex, #606: That may very well be true, but it doesn't negate my statement in the least.

#608 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 02:16 PM:

alex #606:

Perhaps I missed the set of controls on my car that could be used to slow all the other drivers down. The only ones I've been able to find control my speed. If the speed limit sign says 45, and the traffic around me is going 70, I can go 45 only at the cost of making myself and surrounding cars more likely to be involved in accidents with the cars blowing by us at 70. Now, that may or may not be sensible, based on conditions (around here, there are plenty of idiots who think their 4WD car means they can go fast on icy roads safely, and it's surely safer for me to drive a safe speed and let them pass me), but it's not an automatic win w.r.t. safety to drop your speed in all cases.

Similarly, let's suppose I'm on an empty highway which, until yesterday, had a speed limit of 70. Today, they've put up a new speed limit sign of 55. In what sense is it now less safe to drive 70 than it was yesterday? In what sense is there a moral difference in the decision to drive 70 yesterday and today, other than the direct notion that you ought to obey the laws whatever they are. (I'll admit, I haven't ever really bought into that moral notion.)

Or come at it from the other side. Suppose there is some stretch of highway that's just not safe to take faster than 55 MPH. If tomorrow, the speed limit on that stretch of highway is increased to 70 MPH, will the right speed to drive it also change? (Assume you're driving it with little other traffi--otherwise, you have to account for differences in speeds of other cars.)

I suspect you're making a mental tradeoff between safety and speed that says safety must always win. But nobody actually lives that way, or all speed limits would be very low. Extra hours of travel time cost something, and people demonstrably trade off less travel time for less safety. One role of a speed limit is to impose a particular tradeoff, since the world is full of people who would make different tradeoffs. But there's no inherent reason to think those tradeoffs are always sensible or right.

#609 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 02:16 PM:

alex, it's always safer (in one sense) to drive more slowly than the posted speed limit. Maximum safety happens at zero speed.

Your contention is a special case of a general theorem, and I don't think you're trying to maximize safety.

#610 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 02:20 PM:

606# - Who said anything about racing? Driving safely encompasses more than just obeying the posted speed limit. In fact, one can be ticketed for driving at or below the speed limit if the officer's judgment is that your speed was unsafe for conditions.

#611 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 03:35 PM:

ddb @ 605: My alma mater (Caltech) offered BS degrees in English, and and I think also in History and possibly a couple other "liberal arts" subjects. It was a matter of accreditation; Caltech wasn't accredited to offer BA degrees, and didn't consider it worth the extra effort to get such accreditation. Mostly, the liberal arts degrees were offered for people who wanted double majors, but I knew several Physics-and-English double majors who ended up dropping the Physics. All students regardless of major were required to take something like 4 years of humanities and social sciences (as well as 2 years of math, 2 of physics, 1 of chemistry).

#612 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 05:17 PM:

A question for those folks that watch scary foreign movies: is Moju worse on the nerves than Audition? Because I can't tell which description is more creepy, frankly.

#613 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 05:18 PM:

Sorry: cross-posted that one by accident.

#614 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 05:18 PM:

Sorry: cross-posted that one by accident.

#615 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 05:20 PM:

And now a double post! God DAMN these pain meds--my head's full of cotton today. My apologies to everyone.

#616 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 05:22 PM:

Bruce E Durocher @ 613... scary foreign movies

Watching "HellBoy" clips in French is scary.

#617 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 05:33 PM:

SamChevre @ 604: I like that.

ddb @ 605: "(The BA/BS split isn't arts / sciences; it's liberal arts / vocation-technical.)" In the UK, we don't have liberal arts colleges or liberal arts degrees (to my knowledge). The BA/BSc split is arts/science. Except that e.g. Cambridge has been around for so long they never started giving a BSc; everyone gets a BA, whatever their subject (then three years after you got your honours degree you pay some money, go to another ceremony, and it converts into MA (Cantab).

alex@606: You may be correct, but it's not unknown for the police to stop someone who is driving at the speed limit when everyone else is somewhat over and tell them to speed up and stop messing up the traffic flow.

#618 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 07:00 PM:

alex again -- as long as you get to define "good", your proposition is also unassailable.

#619 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 07:17 PM:

Tom @610: Maximum safety happens at zero speed.

That depends on how fast the guy behind you is going.

#620 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 07:36 PM:

Avram -- relative speed. It's all relatives, as Uncle Einstein used to say. Appropriate for Thanksgiving, too.

#621 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 08:14 PM:

Zero safety happens at maximum speed.

#622 ::: Singing Wren ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 08:50 PM:

Tom@621
It's all relatives, as Uncle Einstein used to say. Appropriate for Thanksgiving, too.

ObGirlGenius

#623 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 08:59 PM:

Tom Whitmore@610: Well, maybe if the whole exercise is recreational, and there's nobody else on the road.

In the real world, driving faster than the lava can be important :-) .

Being badly out of step with the flow of traffic on the road is also quite dangerous.

#624 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 09:03 PM:

albatross@609: The faster you're going, the more energy is available to any accident you happen to be involved in. And the less time you have to react to anything. And the more stress there is on your tires. There are LOTS AND LOTS of ways in which going faster is inherently more dangerous.

I agree that, except for the behavior of the other drivers, and the possibility of a ticket, and the inherent differences in risk at different speeds, a sign setting a speed limit makes no safety difference. (Of course, you don't necessarily know what prompted them to put up the sign, either. Perhaps it was the 8 fatal crashes on that curve last week.)

#625 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 09:06 PM:

David Harmon@607: Well, computer science is probably most often taken for career use these days, but there is still such a thing as actual computer science. (I've worked in the software field since 1969, myself.)

#626 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 10:02 PM:

The BA/BS split: When I finished my masters degree in economics, I was surprised to be given the option of either an MA or an MS. I went for the MS, because it amused me to have it different than my BA in economics.

#627 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 10:22 PM:

@599, Alex: I give an anecdote told to me by my parents. There was a patch of undistinguished highway in South Carolina, between my parents' house and my grandmother's house, in the 1970's. With no change in road conditions, the speed limit on this road went from 55 to 40 to 30 to 55. (Here endeth the confirmed facts; my parents drove that road both ways once a year until I was 14, at least.) The story continues that the police in that town got a percentage of speeding ticket revenues. There were two cops in town, and one had a tennis court and the other had a swimming pool.

My hypothetical: Late night, that road, no police, no other traffic. Physically, the road is equally safe at 55 MPH in the 55 zone, the 40 zone, and the 30 zone.

What does slowing down get you, except lowered gas mileage from braking and accelerating?

"Never" is a strong statement and I'm not sure the burden of proof should be on me, here.

#628 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 11:18 PM:

The speed limits on the rectangular white signs with black lettering are set by politicians.

The suggested speeds on diamond-shaped yellow signs with black lettering are set by highway engineers.

Decide for yourself which ones are important.

#629 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 11:25 PM:

maximum safety happens at zero speed within a moving frame of reference.

#630 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 11:40 PM:

Sandy, #628: Note that it takes only one counter-example to disprove an absolute. Alex made a claim which was absolute; you have provided the necessary counter-example. Q.E.D.

#631 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 11:41 PM:

Sandy B @ 628... "Never"

"What, never?"
"Well, hardly ever!"

:-)

#632 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 11:44 PM:

My city started being rebuilt right after the Civil War and since then, we have two roads where there are short sections of 25mph (residential) in each of two mostly 35mph roads. The city put up electronic signs at the entrance to each end of each section that show how fast you're going. You'd be surprised at how many people then slow down and stick to 25mph until they get out of the section.

#633 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2010, 11:57 PM:

Should we be picking nits over the difference between Speed and Velocity, or is that covered by "relative"?

#634 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 01:37 AM:

James D. Macdonald@629: My personal experience with those speed suggestions is that they tend to be very very conservative. (Another way of looking at it, is that, so far as I can tell, the suggested speeds are speeds that will be safe in all road conditions short of glare ice -- which means that most of the time you will be able to go noticeably faster [i.e., about 10-15 MPH] with perfect ease.)

#635 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 01:50 AM:

David Goldfarb @635:
My personal experience with those speed suggestions is that they tend to be very very conservative.

Not in a top-heavy, rather underweighted Volkswagen pop-top camper van, which is what I learned to drive in. One takes such recommendations seriously then.

(Which is your point about them being conservative suggestions.)

#636 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 02:08 AM:

David Goldfarb #635:

Given that there are differences in road-handling capabilities of an average 1970 car vs. an average 2010 car, do you or nay others know if posted 'speed suggestions' have changed over the years?

If not, then one might conclude that speed limits have become more conservative over time simply due to improvements in car technology.

#637 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 02:41 AM:

David, #635: I could take you over half-a-dozen exit or transfer ramps right here in Houston where it's damn clear that they MEAN that speed limit, and my car isn't top-heavy. Maybe you could cheat it in a Porsche or a Mini Cooper, but not in much else.

#638 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 04:20 AM:

Thanks for the responses to my provocation. As I thought, there are plenty of people who just don't take the privilege of driving huge hunks of lethal metal seriously enough. Frankly, I'd include in that cops who are prepared to tell people to drive faster.

And lest we get further derailed, I'll note again that I said 'breaking a posted speed-limit' - which is akin to letting your dog foul a public pavement, parking across a fire-hydrant, blocking an emergency exit, waking your neighbours with loud music, or doing any number of other things which are illegal for good reason, despite what may suit your personal convenience. If you think you have a good excuse, tell a judge.

Driver-entitlement syndrome really pisses me off, can you tell?

#639 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 04:57 AM:

alex writes:
Thanks for the responses to my provocation. As I thought...

[jabba]Ho ho ho! Your troll powers will not work on us![/jabba]

#640 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 06:46 AM:

alex @ 639: It's not about not taking "the privilege of driving huge hunks of lethal metal seriously enough".* It's about recognising and acknowledging that there are edge cases - say you're passing a slower vehicle, while staying within the speed limit, and an emergency vehicle comes up on your tail, at well over the speed limit - could be a life-or-death situation for that vehicle to get where it's going quickly. You are aware there's nowhere safe to pull in behind the vehicle you're overtaking (because someone pulled into it the moment you vacated the spot), but there is a good space ahead of it. On a good road, in good driving conditions, there is (in my opinion) nothing wrong with exceeding the speed limit for a short time to get past the other car and out of the way of the emergency vehicle.

And yes, if I got caught for speeding while doing that, I'm be okay about taking it up in court, if necessary.

And you're missing the point of Steve C. @ 601: He postulated an out of control car approaching rapidly - it's not a matter of "racing" it, it's a matter of avoiding an accident by staying ahead of it until you can get out of its path. Putting safety above the letter of the law is not "Driver-entitlement"..

It's also about obeying the spirit of the law, not (just) the letter - driving slower than the posted limit when that's what's needed for safety, rather than sticking to the posted limit in such circumstances.

*I say this as someone who's a pedestrian and cyclist mcuh more of the time than she is a driver.

#641 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 08:35 AM:

Avram @ 634... Speed and Velocity, or is that covered by "relative"?

Known as Einstein's In-Laws?

#642 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 09:18 AM:

David Goldfarb @ 635 ...
My personal experience with those speed suggestions is that they tend to be very very conservative. (Another way of looking at it, is that, so far as I can tell, the suggested speeds are speeds that will be safe in all road conditions short of glare ice -- which means that most of the time you will be able to go noticeably faster [i.e., about 10-15 MPH] with perfect ease.)

I've noticed that warning signs on freeways tend to have a fair amount of leeway, in relative terms. Warning signs on country highways and backways OTOH -- boy do they ever mean it!

#644 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 11:04 AM:

In my experience, I'd say in the UK we could raise the legal limit on motorways to 80 or 90. Motorways are (mostly) designed for easy curves and clear vision and avoidance of too steep or not. Therefore doing 80 isn't really that dangerous, providing, and here's the point, road conditions are good. When visibility is 50 feet or it's 0C, I have no problem with the speed limit being wound down to 50 or such. At the moment variable speed limits seem to be used to try and control traffic flow, eg an accident up ahead means limited passing space, so if they can slow approaching traffic down it will get there more slowly and thus jams will hopefully have time to disperse.
Also, the police really don't care much about people doing 80 (in normal conditions etc), they'll mostly pay attention at 90 or above.

#645 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 11:35 AM:

letting your dog foul a public pavement, parking across a fire-hydrant, blocking an emergency exit, waking your neighbours with loud music

Two of those things are not like the others. Injury is not equivalent to annoyance.

Speed limits are *often* in the injury-preventing category -- but there are exceptions, several of which have been mentioned already, including attempts to *avoid* accidents.

There ought to be a word for people who cling to rigid rules and refuse to recognize edge cases that undermine the reason for having the rules in the first place. (Other than "sphexish", which is too obscure.)

#646 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 12:14 PM:

Serge #642:

Einstein's Theory of Relatives.*


*It was a punchline to a shaggy-dog story. I'll spare you; I first heard it many years ago and if I tried a retelling, I'm bound to get it wrong.

#647 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 12:26 PM:

Soon Lee @ 647... Go ahead. C'mon. You know you wanna.

#648 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 12:31 PM:

643
Warning signs on California freeways are serious. If the sign says 25, that's as fast as the engineers think is safe, and you probably would rather do 20 around that curve, after the first time you go around faster.

#649 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 12:36 PM:

Alex@639: Thanks for the responses to my provocation. As I thought, there are plenty of people who just don't take the privilege of driving huge hunks of lethal metal seriously enough.

The only thing more annoying than a deliberate act of trolling is a deliberate act of trolling with moral smugness on the side.

#650 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 12:42 PM:

PJEvans @649 -- Warning signs on CA freeways vary just about as much as warning signs everywhere. Some are conservative, some are not. I've driven a lot of CA (and other) freeways in my time, and I have noticed this from personal experience.

#651 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 12:54 PM:

guthrie @ #645 suggested
In my experience, I'd say in the UK we could raise the legal limit on motorways to 80 or 90.

Not Nessie Celery. Part of the reason for speed limits on motorways is the impact resistance of the crash barriers. This is a trade-off between cost (and space required) and the maximum momentum that the barrier can accept without failing. ISTR it's designed around maximum gross vehicle weight and speed limit + 20%. There are three basic styles of barrier: the "standard' pressed steel one used on the central reservation to try and prevent cross-over collisions, a more 'box section' type to deflect vehicles away from bridge supports and other obstructions, and a multi-rail box-section 'fence' used to stop vehicles falling off bridges or into cuttings.

Increasing vehicle speed means the barriers are less likely to contain a collision to the actual carriageway, with rather more serious consequences.


Why are you all looking at me like that? I'm a moose, not a highway engineer.

#652 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 01:08 PM:

Tom, that's the 118-east to 405-north ramp. It's the tightest curve that I've ever seen in an interchange. (I can't say that the K-rails around the outside of the curve help any.)

#653 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 01:14 PM:

DNFTT.

#654 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 02:05 PM:

That particular curve -- not one of the conservatively posted ones, yes, P J Evans.

#655 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 02:34 PM:

alex isn't a troll. But I don't know why he's being so stubborn about our refusing to accept the validity of his absolute statement: in this crowd, we're bound to think of exceptions to any postulated absolute rule...

Cadbury Moose @652: Thank you for that information - very interesting. And yes, containing the incident on the original carriageway is definitely to be preferred. Also, of course, while it might be safe to drive at 80 on the motorways (in good conditions, if you're properly alert and free of distractions), if the posted limit was increased, some idiots would take that as a licence to go even faster...

Peaope being sensible story: travelling up from London to Manchester, we'd left the motorway to escape a jam (I'd rather drive at 40-60 on the back roads than sit and steam). When we rejoined, as we came down the curving sliproad we saw all the traffic was coasting at about 40 and for a moment our hearts sank, thinking that we'd not got to the other side of whatever had been holding us up. Then we came round the last bit of the curve into sparkling, blinding, sun-shining-off-wet road. Amazingly, it seemed everyone had had the sense to slow down in the reduced-visibility conditions.

#656 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 02:44 PM:

alex @639:
Driver-entitlement syndrome really pisses me off, can you tell?

Yes. But put a leash on it next time, because "provocation" is not the point of conversation on this site. We don't run Making Light in order to allow you to set verbal traps and pick out enemies. Find common ground, build bridges, persuade, or go talk about something else on another thread.

We're not here to vault over your hurdles, earn your respect, or listen to your disrespect.

#657 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 03:23 PM:

FX: Moose sends virtual cocoa-dusted truffles to Abi for being Abi.

#658 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 03:50 PM:

Cadbury moose #652 - thats a good point. Are they designed however for cars or cars and lorries?
I suppose the other question is whether raising the speed limit would increase the amount of traffic at that speed, or merely ensure fewer tickets? I don't know. It is possible to drive politely at high speeds, and I've seen ugly driving from people doing 30mph in a 40 or on a motorway or wherever.

#659 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 03:56 PM:

C Wingate @644:

I'm not sure it's just that; I think this might be involved as well. Americans are kind of an ornery bunch about laws. They have to prove themselves useful or they get scorned.

(And long may this suspicion live. American culture is set up on the expectation that we doubt laws and authority; I worry that we're doing it too rarely these days.)

#660 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 03:58 PM:

Well, thank you, Moose! I have weaknesses for both admiration and chocolate.

#661 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 04:32 PM:

I agree with this product and/or service: Yum!

#662 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 05:01 PM:

guthrie @ #659

Are they designed however for cars or cars and lorries?

Um... (pause for research) yes, but it depends on the application.

EN 1317 is the standard the barriers have to meet. The small "Armco" ones are designed to contain cars, and are the typical "central reservation" barrier on the principle that lorries and coaches should not be in the adjacent lane. The heavier barriers are used to protect bridges, etc. and those are designed to resist lorries and coaches.

EN 1317 test parameters

Brochure on barrier junctions (pdf)

I think that's enough research for tonight.

#663 ::: tykewriter ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 05:55 PM:

I've recently become a driver again after 10 years. One thing I've noticed following a few journeys between Bristol and Derbyshire/Yorkshire is that people respect speed limits much more than previously. Not only on motorways, not only where there are speed cameras, but generally.

#664 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 06:15 PM:

tykewriter, you astonish me. We do Sheffield to Bristol and back regularly, and I can't remember the last time it was possible to drive in the middle lane at 70 without some idiot in our boot and other idiots flashing by on both sides at 85.

#665 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2010, 10:32 PM:

abi and Lee: Good point about different cars having different centers of gravity. And Tom W. makes a good point about some signs being more conservative than others -- I remember one exit off of 880 in the Bay Area that I would often take for work-related deliveries, which had a curve so sharp that it was rated at 10 MPH, and that one was really not conservative at all.

#666 ::: Russ ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2010, 05:52 AM:

chris y@665

If there's room on your left for idiots to flash by at 85, why are you in the middle lane?

#667 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2010, 07:54 AM:

Russ @667,

While you're generally correct that motorway drivers in the UK should use the leftmost clear lane, Large Goods Vehicles are limited to 60mph and use the leftmost lane, and if you use that lane you can be trapped by faster-moving traffic. There are also motorway junctions where the leftmost lane is allocated to traffic going in a particular direction. The M18/M1 junction, south of Sheffield, is one such. As I recall, there is rather over a mile of road marked out in such a manner.

I'd be unsurprised at a Sheffield-Bristol run having quite a bit of that sort of division by lane. And I see enough of the 80-85mph traffic that I'm wary of dropping into the leftmost lane if I can see slower-moving traffic ahead.

In the end, it's a judgment call. Some of the crazy stuff I've seen comes from obviously bad calls, including three-lane shifts at the last minute for an exit.

#668 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2010, 08:45 AM:

re 660: The level of orneriness goes up and down. My recollection from the time is that before the embargo, people were more inclined to pay attention to the speed limits on major roads. Now the farm people I knew at the time paid little attention to the speed limits on the back roads, but I think that was largely because they had been driving those roads since they got their land from Lord Calvert and knew every inch; my parents simply couldn't keep up with them. But on the interstates, people largely drove the limit. After some years of being stuck at 55 on roads designed for 55, though, people chafed at the limits. Taking 25% longer or so to get anywhere wasn't something that people were willing to put up with in the interest of Safety (and it didn't help that Joan Claybrook had a hectoring and superior manner). So it came to pass that people went back to driving the designed speed of the highways anyway, which is why people tended to keep speeding even when the speed limits were finally raised.

There's no real correlation between traffic deaths and speed limit laws. A lot of people think the economy is the most important factor, but the long term trend of fatalities per miles driven is steadily downward.

#669 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2010, 10:47 AM:

668
That's been my experience in California, also (slightly complicated by sections of highway where there's only two lanes in each direction, so you have a slow lane and a speed-demon lane).
(I have seen cross-lane dashes to get to the exit, not including one location where it was designed in. Once it was a school bus dashing across the road....)

#670 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2010, 11:05 AM:

re 669: that should be "...stuck at 55 on roads designed for 70".

#671 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2010, 01:40 PM:

C. Wingate, #669: It did not help that the 55 MPH law was being bolstered (in PR advertising) by obviously-false math. I still remember a magazine article which claimed (without showing the work) that the difference in travel time between 55 MPH and 85 MPH over the course of a 300-mile trip was 9 1/2 minutes. NOT. That offended me much more than claims about safety or fuel economy, both of which had at least some truth in them.

#672 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2010, 02:15 PM:

PJ Evans @ #670, "(I have seen cross-lane dashes to get to the exit)"

Were you behind me trying to get from West LA to Alhambra that day?

I don't remember which freeway it was, but my cousin's instructions to get to her house included "Take Exit X from the named freeway" (rather than its number, which doesn't help the non-resident Angeleno a damn bit). She neglected to tell me that Exit X was all of a half-mile up the road on the right from where I had previously entered Named Freeway in its far-left lane.

#673 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2010, 04:01 PM:

Jeremy Leader@612: my brother went to Caltech and said he knew a guy who was the sole history major in his day. Apparently he bailed on physics and such pretty early, but liked Caltech enough to stay, and was very happy being made much of by the history professors.

#674 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2010, 09:58 AM:

OK, I apologise for coming over like an asshole, but I do respectfully submit that my original point stands, in the following form:

1. Cars are dangerous: they're big, heavy and move fast;
2. Ordinary people like you and me are far too confident in our ability to control cars at high speed - something for which we have, in general, no formal training and very patchy experience: the Dunning-Krugerarity of the situation is profound;
3. Governments, with some possible exceptions, set speed limits as a public good, with safety in mind, and with the force of law;
4. Given 1, 2 and 3, the pushback against the proposition that one should obey speed limits, period, is remarkable. Indeed in some social circles, it appears to be the norm to treat such limits with contempt.
5. Given that there are, for example, around 40,000 traffic-related fatalities in the US alone each year, it is my view that [almost] anything which pushes back against that pushback is merited: embedding each vehicle in a foot-thick layer of foam, and putting a six-inch spike in the middle of the steering-wheel might, perhaps, be going too far; but then again it might not.

And so, again, respectfully, I submit that none of the 'edge cases' mentioned here merit overturning my proposition. Given the tremendous risks involved, you, and I, are not in a position to make a valid decision to exceed a speed-limit. We all do it; but we're all wrong.

#675 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2010, 11:30 AM:

673
I'm thinking of the 210-to-whatever in Pasadena, where you're in the left lane (to avoid the exit-only for Colorado) and there's incoming traffic between you and the Del Mar exit. (I end up getting off at California and fighting the traffic through CalTech. That's when I'm trying to get to Arcadia and the normal exit is jammed.)

Sometimes CalTrans does a real number on the drivers....

#676 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2010, 12:18 PM:

Alex@675: We're probably not going to fully agree, in the end; but this message looks remarkably like an attempt to reason about the subject, and I fully support that.

1. Seems to me clearly and obviously true.

2. Certainly true overall. I am definitely part of the 95% of the American population (98.7% of the American male population*) that considers themselves above-average drivers, and the odds are pretty strongly that most of us are wrong.

It is nearly universal in the USA for people to complete a "driver's education" course while in highschool, before they first get their license. The one I took, at least, was not particularly good; I didn't feel I learned much about being a driver from it. Still, it is formal training. So I think the majority of drivers in the US have some formal training.

3. True. But there are those cases where they're clearly not primarily considering safety. And those of us who lived through the great double-nickel debacle are perhaps overall rather cynical on the subject.

4. Speed limits are indeed not well-respected, through very broad segments of society. The vast majority, in fact.

5. We've been steadily reducing the fatalities per person and per mile driven (remember that the population is rising!). And over half the victims in the vehicles weren't using their seat belts. Alcohol seems to play a big role too (and our social attitudes towards that and driving have changed drastically during my lifetime).

Speed may well not be the most productive place to focus in attempting to further reduce the accidents -- especially considering the social situation you describe in #4. It seems remarkably hard to find graphical representations of the numbers; I find that strange.

In terms of what might constitute a "valid" decision to exceed a speed limit -- what first comes to mind is that people value their time very differently. You're essentially suggesting that the government knows best, and that's simply not a usable rhetorical position in the USA.

* 88.3% of all statistics are made up on the spot for rhetorical effect.

#677 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2010, 02:48 PM:

P J @ #676, that might be it. I was coming from Santa Monica. If I had to do it on a regular basis I'd probably learn to get off an exit or two earlier and struggle with "surface streets," (a term I first heard in LA which has recently migrated here, because our single freeway route through town offers so many alternatives [snark]).

#678 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2010, 03:10 PM:

678
The approach from that side does have its moments. Mostly the kind that make you wonder why you wanted to take that route, and how many points you get towards your space pilot license ('Graduate, Han Solo School of Asteroid Belt Navigation').

#679 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2010, 03:13 PM:

On whether engineers cheat in college - they don't cheat, they collaborate :-) One of the most valuable classes I had was a programming course where we worked in groups of 4-5, and much of what the professor wanted us to learn was how to divide up projects, and work together, and identify boundaries between sections and what needed to happen at them, and learn to test each others' code.

I did waste a couple of humanities distribution electives on economics. The micro professor understood that he had a mixture of students who'd had calculus and students who hadn't, so there'd be occasional days where he'd introduce a topic and then tell the engineers to go to sleep for 15 minutes because this was just an integral. I was taking the course with about half a dozen of my fraternity brothers, and we'd trade off who had to stay awake and take notes about any assignments or important topics or wake the others up when the prof was done with the non-calculus version. The prof was Chicago school, and it was a lot more useful than the macro course, where I mainly learned that if you get a Nobel prize in econ, you can come out with a new version of your book every year or two so that undergrads have to buy new copies instead of used, without having to actually write much new content, and that Democrats like to think they know what they're doing when they manipulate the economy, unlike Republicans who'd like you to think they know what they're doing. (This was the Nixon/Ford/Carter years, when it was obvious they were all clueless.)

#680 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2010, 03:21 PM:

P J Evans, #676: We've got one sort of like that here, too. If you're eastbound on I-10 downtown and need to transfer to Hwy 59 southbound, you have to first stay left to avoid the Nance Street exit-only lane, and then fight your way thru 2 lanes of merging traffic from the feeder street to get over to the exit ramp, in a matter of a few blocks' distance. It's not bad late at night, sort of iffy with normal traffic, and fuggedaboudit during rush hour.

#681 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2010, 03:42 PM:

681
I just looked at the map. I think I'd try some other route, even if it meant going the long way around. (TXDOT is, apparently, no better than CalTrans.)

#682 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2010, 05:42 PM:

ddb @677

Re: #5 Fatalities per person seems a trifle hard to change. Unless some of us are cats.

#683 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2010, 06:26 PM:

The use of speed traps is also remarkably corrosive to respect of the law. We want such laws to at least tell us what we need to do, or not, in order to avoid punishment. Conversely, when punishment becomes random and unavoidable, it loses much deterrent power, becoming a "background hazard".

(This message found stranded in a comment box -- may be out of date.)

#684 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2010, 07:38 PM:

alex, #675, so, how old are you? I learned to drive when the highway was 75mph. I've never had any problem with speed.

#685 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2010, 03:19 AM:

@685 - old enough to remember when I thought I was a better driver.

As for whether 'government knows best' in a country that's supposed to be a democratic republic, let's just let that one lie, shall we? The rhetorical contradictions of the American public sphere are too much for me to handle.

#686 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2010, 04:01 AM:

alex @686:
As for whether 'government knows best' in a country that's supposed to be a democratic republic, let's just let that one lie, shall we? The rhetorical contradictions of the American public sphere are too much for me to handle.

Watch it; your lethal irritability is rising again. It seems to come out in the habit of sneering at people you disagree with, and it's quite grating.

Besides, Britain deals no better with the tension between trusting and mistrusting the government. I learned the term "nanny state" in the UK, not in the US. But Parliament is elected, too.

#687 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2010, 04:10 AM:

Alex @ 675
"Governments, with some possible exceptions, set speed limits as a public good, with safety in mind, and with the force of law"

Governments also set airport security regulations as a public good, with safety in mind, and with the force of law. You ready to get groped?

Speed limits change. Someone upthread asked if you thought that meant that last year, 75 was unsafe, but now that the limit's raised it's safe? I don't think that's an edge case, I think it's central to the bit of your argument others here are finding problematic.

You've pointed out that people drive too fast, and that there are a lot of traffic fatalities. I think those are straw men: I don't see anyone here arguing that no one should ever obey speed limits, or that everyone should drive faster, or that none of this matters. Most of the counterexamples and disputes have centered around "never" and "posted speed limits."

#688 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2010, 09:48 AM:

re 675: The state of Montana once refused to set speed limits for daytime driving. I have been unable to find any evidence concerning accident rates during this period and after they were coerced by the feds into setting limits (which from what I can tell largely go unenforced); the bigger issue there has always been drunk driving. The thing is that out there, on the interstate, there is very little risk of driving at pretty much any speed that is reasonably fast enough (too slow and you are something that has to be maneuvered around at speed). I've been up to 100 on the interstate north out of Great Falls; there's nothing to hit and not a lot of steering even to be done.

Of course back in the 1970s when you weren't allowed to drive over 55, safety was not a consideration. Around here, the interstates were generally designed to a 70 mph limit, and curiously, that's what people try to drive. The truth is that there is a great deal of arbitrariness in the setting of interstate limits.

#689 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2010, 10:23 AM:

In 1989, I drove cross-country on I-80. There were long stretches in Nebraska-Iowa with very little traffic; I'd see one car every half-hour or so--going in the other direction. The highway was completely straight, with slightly rolling hills. My speed had a tendency to drift up to about 85mph. When I noticed (by glancing at the speedometer), I'd slow back down; I tried to keep my speed under 75*, but it was hard.

*I'm fairly sure the speed limit was 70, but it could have been 65.

#690 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2010, 10:29 AM:

My understanding of the Montana speed limit laws, as told to me by someone who drove through there at the time:

The rationale for the federal law was that it saved gas. If your state didn't have a 55 speed limit, your state didn't get federal highway money.

The Montana solution: If you got a speeding ticket in Montana, it was $10, for wasting gas, and if you already had one for that day you didn't get another [presumably you were still wasting the same gas]. Apparently the police were also very courteous, if they pulled you over near a border and headed for it, about telling you where there might be a policeman watching the road in the neighboring state.

They could still pull you over for unsafe driving if you were going, in their judgement, recklessly fast.

As far as the ongoing discussion:
Alex- with that six-inch spike, your rhetoric may be running away with you. Or else you really wish 80% of the people I love had died early. Please let me know which, so that I may deal with you appropriately.

People who are not Alex- do we have any statistics on number of accidents, severity of accidents, and number of fatalities? I don't know if the accidents we are getting into are more severe or less; as mentioned, we have much better safety equipment once the accident happens.

#691 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2010, 11:12 AM:

I had not intended to sneer at anyone, and was not aware that I had done so. I apologise for having inadvertently given the impression that I might have been sneering.

I gave up driving to work when I realised it was costing me five times as much as using public transport; now I sit on the bus and watch the cars go by, the tons and tons of metal, each with their one inhabitant, burning up the earth's resources at a terrifying rate, just to get the drivers to their daily grind. Every so often we all sit for half an hour or more - accident - and I hope someone else's child isn't dead. I have lost friends and acquaintances to car-crashes: most people have. Thanks to the wonders of the free market, and an awful lot of government money, we have built an infrastructure that ties us to the car, and its enormous social, material, environmental costs, and we comfort ourselves with the illusion that it gives us freedom.

I cannot accept that it is right to treat driving as if it were the normal and natural thing, and limitations and restrictions on it as aberrant, irksome and meriting evasion. That is the tone I thought I detected in some earlier comments, and so I reacted sharply. Clearly, the consensus is that I was wrong to do so, so once again I retract any statement that someone may have found personally offensive.

#692 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2010, 07:25 PM:

When my wife and I go to visit her mother-in-law, we spend 1/5 as much on car travel as air travel, get there twice as fast as by train or bus (for less money) [1], leave when we want, return when we want, take any side trips that suggest themselves on the way there, the way back, or while we're there. We can bring up to several hundred pounds of presents and luggage each way, at a near-zero extra cost.

Clearly this illusion of freedom is very cleverly designed.

You're entitled to dislike cars; I myself dislike salad dressing.[2] If you want to convince other people, though, you're going to have to put some work into it.

[1] Those travel costs and times don't count the time, expense or inconvenience of getting to or from the airport, train station or bus depot, by the way. I'm willing to concede that in a car-free existence I might live somewhere with more direct public transportation linkages to these things. )

[2] And pickles. And cats. And several entire genres of music.

#693 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2010, 07:44 PM:

I like the bus, too, alex, and I've been riding it a lot the past year. I even ride the bus when I visit other cities, if possible. But for a good 75% of my life I have lived no closer than 5 miles to the nearest bus stop--when I even lived in a place with bus service. You might take that into consideration when contemplating the people driving cars -- they may have no other choice.

I don't argue that this is a good situation. Reliable and widespread public transportation is a thing to be desired. You're fortunate to have access. I'm fortunate right now. Next time I move I may be back to driving every day. It won't be because I think it's the only way to go.

#694 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2010, 07:58 PM:

alex @692: "I cannot accept that it is right to treat driving as if it were the normal and natural thing..." -- and yet, by your own description, you did so for some time. Can you at least understand, and act as if, other reasonable people do accept that? Or do you think you were just completely unreasonable when you did so? Would you have listened to yourself-now speaking this way, back then?

I applaud your choice, as clearly being right-for-you. I know from experience that trying to get others to believe that choices that are right-for-me are necessarily right-for-them is a mug's game, and destined to annoy. It may feel righteous, but it's ineffective.

#695 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2010, 08:50 PM:

Tom, #695: We used to have a round of this every year or so on alt.callahans, and it was nearly impossible to explain to our European friends exactly how much of American culture is designed to make anything BUT automobile travel as difficult as possible, starting with zoning and ending with inadequate public transportation. It sounds as though alex (who may not be a troll, but is definitely putting on a good impression of one about this particular topic) doesn't even have that excuse. The targets at which his ire should be directed are city planners and the automobile-industry lobby, who are STILL making it impossible for many Americans to abandon their cars, and have been doing so since at least the 1950s.

alex, where do you think all the inter-city passenger rail lines went? Why can't you live, shop, and work in the same part of the city? Why do many city bus routes (1) not cover large sections of residential areas and (2) frequently stop running in the early evening, making it difficult for anyone who works second or third shift to commute that way? Why do so few American cities have real bike lanes, and why are so many of the ones they do have actively dangerous to ride in? Why is Texas planning a new intra-state toll road instead of the light-rail shuttle that the people who live along the proposed route have been clamoring to get for decades?

This is not a matter of "if you were really committed, you'd do it even though it's inconvenient". WHY is it not being made convenient enough for more people to do it? That's the real question you need to be asking, and not of us.

#696 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2010, 09:17 PM:

Thank you, Lee, you articulated it so much better. Yes, I live in a college town with bus service. Which is designed to go through neighborhoods with a high density of student apartment housing. Want to live in a house outside of these areas? Maybe out in the country? Want to ride the bus after midnight? On a game day? In the summer or on weekends, when it's on half schedule and comes every hour instead of every half hour? Want to go shopping instead of to campus, or maybe to the doctor or hospital? Good luck. I do what I can and probably average 4 days a week by bus, less when the weather is good enough to bike and in the summer, when I have the choice of being at work either 15 minutes before the library opens or 15 minutes late. At least now I don't live in the country, 5 miles from the nearest bus stop, which no longer even runs that route due to budget cuts.

#697 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2010, 09:17 PM:

696
Add to that
Why do some states have laws that mandate raising speed limits when enough people violate them? Even in residential neighborhoods?

#698 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2010, 11:27 PM:

P J Evans@698: That's easy. Because enough voters (nearly all of whom are drivers) feel that speed limits are improperly set that it's a winning political issue for legislators.

I've been down residential streets with a 20 MPH speed limit, and that seems to me totally absurd. If I had a chance to vote to force them to raise it, I would.

#699 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2010, 11:41 PM:

dcb, I live on a street stub, and I dearly wish the people who try to attain as fast a speed as possible between Armour and 36th St. (Armour is what should be 35th ST. and our neighborhood does not have any 'Terrace' or other intermediate streets because I'm' in urbia) would forget there is a 4' wall on the south side of 36th St. and hit it. Our speed limit, posted, is 35, which is a little too fast for such a short road. But the folks (always those at the north end of the street, which means apartment dwellers, tend to try and drag race down the street to get out. It makes me crazy.

We have kids on our block, we have a couple of unruly dogs that regularly climb out of their yards, etc.

Otherwise I'm all for faster speed limits on longer roads.

#700 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2010, 11:44 PM:

ddb, I've been on residential streets where 20 is about as fast as it's safe to drive, and that's under the legal limit. Most of them have room for one vehicle in the middle, when others are parked on both sides. (Not to mention the other streets with 40 mile limits, and crosswalks (without signals) that access elementary schools on side streets.)

This is what traffic engineers are supposed to be able to explain to the @#$%^&* politicians.

#701 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 09:58 AM:

Yours truly used Public Transportation this morning. The bus stop is only 500 feet away from home. It took 10 minutes before the bus showed up, and it was cold, but it's not yet the dead of winter, so that was ok. Not even halfway to the office, the bus stalled and it looked like we'd have to get off and wait in the cold for the next bus. The driver was able to restart the bus. Further along, a kid pulled on the 'stop' cord, which didn't work, so he missed his dropoff point. The driver let him off at the next stop, half a mile away. Luckily the kid had no apparent mobility difficulty. Did I mention the cold? As we resumed our ride, one could hear that the engine was on the verge of stalling again, but we kept going. I made it to the office.

#702 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 12:00 PM:

Sandy B. @ 693: "When my wife and I go to visit her mother-in-law, we spend 1/5 as much on car travel as air travel, get there twice as fast as by train or bus (for less money) [1], leave when we want, return when we want, take any side trips that suggest themselves on the way there, the way back, or while we're there."

I'm guessing that 1/5 as much includes gas, but does it include wear on the vehicle, wear on the road, insurance premiums, or averaged accident/injury costs? Does it include the damage that results from emitting CO2, the health care costs and environmental pollution from exhaust fumes? Does it include the costs of maintaining parking structures at each end? Have you factored all that in?

The True Costs of Car Travel

#703 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 12:42 PM:

Elliott Mason @358: Co-opt her as ghost-writer, maybe? ;->

#704 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 01:01 PM:

There are a multitude of reasons why public transport is not as popular in the US as it is in other countries. Ranking high on the list, though, is history.

Most cities in Europe had the bulk of the their development before the automobile came about. On the other hand, a lot of cities in the US had the bulk of their growth after the automobile was developed. The geography of those cities reflect this.

Cities such as NYC, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia do have fairly robust public transport systems, but there again, the bulk of their growth was before the auto took hold.

As far as national rail systems, look at geography and population density. France has a great rail system. But France is also the size of Texas. Just as a totally wild guess, I would think that building a US passenger rail system to match France would cost on the order of a trillion dollars.

I'm not holding my breath.

#705 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 01:30 PM:


This is seriously double-counting costs, as gas costs include taxes sufficient to fund road building and maintenance, as well as on-street parking (generally included in road building and maintenance), and insurance costs and accident/injury costs should be measures of the same thing as well.

#706 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 03:03 PM:

Steve C @ 705:

In a number of cases existing transit systems were dismantled, in some cases with the help(?) of the oil and auto industries.

Philadelphia had an extensive electric trackless trolley system up until sometime in the 1950's when the tracks were ripped out and the distribution wires removed.

Portland, OR had a trolley system connecting downtown and the suburb of Beaverton, which was removed something after WWII. Replacing it in the late 1980's with a light rail system tunneling through the hills that the trolley went over cost several hundred million US Dollars.

And, of course, Los Angeles had quite a good light rail system in place until it was replaced by free(hah!)ways in the 1950's.

#707 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 03:19 PM:

gas costs include taxes sufficient to fund road building and maintenance, as well as on-street parking (generally included in road building and maintenance)

I believe Donald Shoup would strongly disagree with you about the parking.

#708 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 03:30 PM:

Honolulu is now in the early stages of developing a rail system to run from Waikiki west to Kapolei (Barbers Point on the western end of the island). We've been car-centric since the 1950s, but per Wikipedia "Honolulu Rapid Transit operated streetcars from 1901–1941, motor buses continually from 1925 onward, and trolley buses from 1937-1957."

The current plan is heavy rail.

#709 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 03:39 PM:

I think car vs mass transit has a lot of tradeoffs that aren't easy to measure against one another. For example, with a car, you have enormous freedom to change your plans and route, to stop and go when you like, to make side-detours as the spirit moves you, etc. But you can't really drink much if you have to drive home, it's unsafe to drive somewhere when you're very tired, any number of medical conditions (many brought on by age) will keep you from driving, cars cost a lot to maintain, etc. Mass transit coexists well with relatively high population density and walkable neighborhoods surrounding the mass transit; cars coexist well with relatively lower population density (and thus generally quieter neighborhoods), with more separation between residential and commercial districts. You can more easily have a big yard and a house close to the woods in a place without much mass transit.

Different people want different things. It's not at all obvious that most people who now live in low-density neighborhoods with lousy public transit would be happier if they were moved to high-density neighborhoods with good public transit. I suspect one part of this may involve your willingness to believe that some shared system will be well-maintained over time. Otherwise, you might end up in the situation where you have no yard and lots of close-in neighbors but you still need a car, because the mass transit system is poorly operated and maintained, or has been taken over by criminals, or is otherwise not useful.

I haven't tried to untangle the costs, but my understanding is that mass transit systems are almost always heavily subsidized. This is a problem with the way we run our society--we cross-subsidize pretty much everything, in a tangle of special favors and lobbyist-facilitated back-scratching. This makes it rather hard to weigh the costs of different alternatives. I would love to see this change, but in general, whenever you start talking about eliminating one set of subsidies, special breaks, tax deductions, or other goodies, the beneficiaries of those goodies come out in force to fight you, while the majority who would be made slightly better off by getting rid of this small drain on their well-being yawn and ignore you.

#710 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 03:53 PM:

I seem to remember reading that the John Birch Society sees public transportation as a conspiracy by the govt to eventually be able to control our movements.

Another conspiracy that didn't quite work out...

#711 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 04:53 PM:

Lee @ 696: "...it was nearly impossible to explain to our European friends exactly how much of American culture is designed to make anything BUT automobile travel as difficult as possible, starting with zoning and ending with inadequate public transportation. It sounds as though alex doesn't even have that excuse."

Sorry, but how does "Thanks to the wonders of the free market, and an awful lot of government money, we have built an infrastructure that ties us to the car, and its enormous social, material, environmental costs, and we comfort ourselves with the illusion that it gives us freedom" not demonstrate a perfectly clear understanding of the structural factors that encourage and necessitate and normalize driving in the US? alex's point, rather, is about the importance of remembering that these structures are human structures, and that treating them as commonsensical and natural is a fallacy--though only slightly more fallacious than thinking that city planners and policy makers can be swayed without simultaneously challenging how the average driver looks at their vehicle.

Bruce Cohen @ 707: "In a number of cases existing transit systems were dismantled, in some cases with the help(?) of the oil and auto industries."

All inspired, I think, by the redesign of New York City by Robert Moses? While there are plenty of geographic reasons why the US will never have a rail system as thorough as France's or Japan's*, the current sad state of American mass transit is the result of a consistent design philosophy that favored the car over any other form of transportation.

*But the truth is, if you go to hinterlands Japan you find pretty much every family has a car there too, because the population density won't support mass transit. Which is fine--it's not about taking every car in the country and putting it to the torch. But when there's a high enough density to cause traffic jams and there still isn't a sensible mass transit option, then you're not talking geographic realities; you're talking ideological ones.

#712 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 05:01 PM:

ddb @677, Point 2:

Driver's Ed varies from school district to school district, mostly depending on how much money said districts have access to...

My high school had 1 car for a class of 18-20 students and 2 teachers. One teacher would take 3 students out to practice driving during class, the rest of us would be in the simulator.

The similator was in a trailer outside the school building. It contained about 18 stations, each one fitted out with a steering wheel, brake, accelerator, clutch, gear shift (on the column), and dashboard display. In front of the room was a screen which showed the road you were "driving" on.

The instructor would roll the film, and the voice-over would take you through the steps to perform various moves -- K-turns, how/when to shift, parking, and so on. I swear they had film for almost every possible situation you'd encounter in real life.

Each station was also connected to a computer that evaluated how well you executed the lesson, and told you what you needed to do to improve. Part of the final exam for this course was done in the simulator.

At my school DE was a half-year course. There were also classroom sessions on laws and we also learned how to replace a flat tire, jump a dying battery, and change the oil.

#713 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 06:15 PM:

j h woodyatt @600: "[...] Harvard MBA did not need to know anything about company operations was accepted as doctrine."

My experience tracks with yours. I've worked at more than one company in silicon valley that would make excellent case studies in business management failure. Two of which are notorious examples. Both were riddled with Harvard MBA graduates.

I find it puzzling that nobody would have, like, noticed this phenomenon...? I mean, maybe the people in charge of picking the managers?

(I know, I know, I'm being silly. I can't help it.)

#714 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 07:18 PM:

Bruce Cohen 567
"The original concept as developed at Harvard was that a manager need not and in many people's minds should not know anything about the particular work that the people managed are doing."
(and other comments responding to that)

Well, that makes me think of a few things:

+ Once, I went to an Agile user's group meeting. I couldn't fathom what they were talking about. I kind of gathered that this was a layer of abstraction over the actual work that was being done, and I couldn't see what the actual work was.

+ Every now and then education people get annoyed that the government appoints administrators who don't have a background in education, apparently on the theory that if you have a management background you can manage anything.

+ What do you get when you combine a manager who doesn't know the details with the "just following orders" principle?

#715 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 08:11 PM:

alex, #692, in the DC area, it's cheaper in some places to use a car than public transport.

Lee, #696, I'm gonna guess about the Texas toll -- someone else will own/lease it and pay TX money. We have some like that in NoVA.

heresiarch, #703, my insurance premiums are lowered because I've never caused an accident.

#716 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 09:35 PM:

713 Jacque: And what degree do you think the people in charge of picking the managers have?

alex, generally (although I agree with you in general, it would be good if more people followed the laws, but of course, it would help if the laws were sane in general as well): this weekend's drive (1 West through Rogers Pass, 97 South, 3 East through Poulson, Kootenay, and Crowsnest passes) reminded me that if I'm between one of these and one of these when the first needs the second, you bet that excessive speed will be the option of choice if opposing traffic or blind corners preclude moving over and unpassing it. Sure, the trucker might have failed to do the brake check, or didn't do it aggressively enough - or it might have just been failure time.

Also, I think that using "never" to mean "never intentionally" or "never, except in edge cases which do, in fact, come up in real life", here, will get you a reaction like the one I see. People here tend to use the language precisely. "I didn't mean 'never' never, obviously, I'm not counting the once-in-a-lifetime cases" - well, actually, yeah, it sure sounded like you *did*, and were expecting unthinking agreement - which also tends not to happen here.

And I *do* think I'm a better-than-average driver. Just from seeing the idiots on the road this weekend, or in general. Please note, I did not say "good" or "expert" - just better than average. I also know that at least three times this weekend, I used up all of my (I thought generous) safety margin. Either that means that I judged it right, or I got lucky, or I shouldn't push the envelope so hard. I realize that only one of those is a plus in the "good driver" category, and that it's a good bet that it's the least likely explanation.

#717 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 09:53 PM:

Erik Nelson @714, Bruce Cohen @567

I had taken a rudimentary educational course, and the conceit there was that if you had a good lesson plan, another teacher who knew nothing about the topic should be able to teach the class following the lesson plan.

I suppose the point was to write a detailed enough lesson plan that a substitute teacher could step in and cover the lesson. But I was extremely skeptical how well you could teach out of ignorance.

#718 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 09:59 PM:

714 Erik Nelson: Agile programming: yeah, that's about it. An abstraction layer over the job of programming that is designed to Get Stuff Done, avoiding the typical pitfalls of IT Projects Fail.

From what I can see, it's self-consistent, self-correcting, productive, useful, and highly efficient - if used correctly, and with all-level buyin. It *looks* highly inefficient and unmanageable if you are not steeped in it, and it's so interdependent that it's as fragile as a house of cards to interference - so in real life, with "we can outsource IT to India1 for half the cost of even one of you" managers, Gantt chart maniacs that can't handle the "it's done, why are you working on it now", and the rest, it does tend to be at best as effective as traditional programming.

It works very well for open source projects and full-geek implementations where the entire project/company can be on board. It fares less well when non-geek Humans get involved.

(Caveats: IT person who has studied, but never worked in, Agile Programming. Will talk to Manglement2, understands the reason for it, but can't speak it)

1: which you can, as long as you only want them to follow instructions and procedures; they have Feynman's Brazilian Physics department's attitude to training - "problem"<=>"solution"; it's too hard to punch out the magnitude of IT workers they do if they have to teach them to think, as well. I feel for the Indians stuck in that world who can, in fact, work with the flexibility we expect here (and frequently don't get).
2and has been known to use that term in conversation with them. Maybe not so bright, he is.

#719 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 10:01 PM:

When I'm in the Bay Area, I enjoy taking BART, and did anybody else notice that the futuristic trains seen in "THX-1138" are BART's?

#720 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 10:14 PM:

Mycroft W @ 718: I've worked in a company using the Agile software development process*, and it worked very well. Of course, any team can mess up any process, so using Agile is no guarantee of success. After years of doing software in a variety of different ways, I believe that a good team doing Agile will out-perform a good team using any other development process. Where "out-perform" means deliver working software that does what the users wanted, and which doesn't have a lot of bugs.

Part of what makes it so effective are (1) regularly demonstrating working software to internal users to get feedback on the latest changes, and (2) regular retrospectives by the team to identify what is and isn't working in the process. That constant course-correction of the software under development, and of the process used to create it, helps you keep getting better.

*Scrum planning process, and Extreme Programming development methods, e.g. continuous build system, test-driven-development, pair programming. Also plenty of QA people doing exploratory testing, and talking to the internal users about exactly how the changes in this two-week iteration are supposed to work.

#721 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2010, 11:05 PM:

heresiarch, #711: If he understood that, he wouldn't be trying to shame other people for driving by using troll tropes.

Marilee, #715: Worse. The people who would build and operate the toll road are personal friends of Governor Goodhair. The state may not see any money from it at all -- but his buddies will get rich.

When I was living in Nashville, I did prefer to ride the bus to and from work when I could. It was only feasible when I had a job in the downtown area, and on the last of those jobs, it meant I had to have a day's notice if they needed me to work late because the last bus that went anywhere near where I lived left downtown at 5:15. And if I hadn't been paranoid enough to drive in on the day the tornado hit*, I'd have been SOL, because no buses were running that afternoon -- but that's not a common hazard.

* Weather said high tornado risk; I decided better safe than sorry, and I was right.

#722 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2010, 12:38 AM:

OK, you punched the Agile button, be prepared for the consequent rant.

Agile development methodologies, as Mycroft W and janetl testified, work very well when applied by organizations which understand them, buy into them, and use them properly. I would be very surprised were this not the case, as they were created by software developers who had spent years trying to find ways to enable developers to do what they should be doing: develop software that fulfills the customers' requirements with the minimum of fuss and overhead1.

However, the term "agile" is used by many IT organizations that want an excuse not to do formal design, requirements, testing, etc. without having to give up the waterfall method (just not calling it that). I've worked for several such places, and I'm not happy about having done so. Just because you call it agile doesn't mean your management isn't busy tying your shoelaces together.

I am reminded of the joke that went around the industry in the 1990's about the new, high-productivity methodology being taught by Peter Coad and Ed Yourdon:

Code; You're Done


1. OBName-dropping: I learned OO programming and design from Ward Cunningham and Kent Beck at Tektronix in the mid 1980's; every year or two after we went our separate ways from there I'd run into them and they'd tell me what they'd been doing, or I'd organize a seminar by them for wherever I happened to be working at the time. Agile, pair-programming, design-for-testing, etc.

#723 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2010, 12:47 AM:

Digression to Mycroft W@716: The drive through Crowsnest Pass on 3, eastbound, at dawn, is the most spectacularly beautiful bit of driving I've ever seen. I turned around and drove it again so my sleeping passenger could see it -- westbound just wasn't the same. Did it on the way to the Conadian. I'll bet it's even more beautiful in winter -- so?

#724 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2010, 01:34 AM:

Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) @ 722: Agreed that the term "agile" gets (ab)used an excuse to be fast and sloppy. And then they wonder why they don't get good results!

#725 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2010, 05:37 AM:

Have those revolutionary approachs to software design ever worked? In my opinion, the best approach is to involve people who know what they're doing.

#726 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2010, 10:50 AM:

Mycroft W @716: And what degree do you think the people in charge of picking the managers have?

Oh. Right. "Nevermind" </latella>

#727 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2010, 12:57 PM:

Bruce (StM), janetl: Yes, that's exactly what I mean by "efficient, but fragile". The most common failing I've seen is "testing is overhead" - management likes the increase in LCPD they get, and figure it would be even higher if they minimize "overhead", not understanding that "writing to tests" is what generates the high LCPD and low bugs-per-KLOC.

I would guess next would be pair-programming - "but we're paying this guy to do nothing".

723 Tom Whitmore: Unfortunately, usually I'm leaving from Creston or Cranbrook, so unless I left at 0300...

#728 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2010, 05:48 PM:

Lee @ 721: "If he understood that, he wouldn't be trying to shame other people for driving by using troll tropes."

Are you claiming that using "troll tropes" is incompatible with understanding a subject? That's rather silly: it's quite possible to have a flawless understanding of the subject matter and still be a troll, and it's equally possible to be utterly mistaken about everything in a not-at-all trollish way. Using rhetoric as a measure of content is a fool's errand.

#729 ::: Steve Downey ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2010, 06:50 PM:

Agile grew out of, and is a response to, the Methodology Wars of the 80s and early 90s. The processes that it reacts against are even more like the Harvard MBA ideal, where you the goal was to be able to run the process and get working software by concentrating on the process itself. If you had the right process, tools, negotiated all the contracts correctly, and had a well thought out plan, you would get results.

So, yes, it is all sort of meta. But Agile generally presumes a high degree of competence in the practitioners. Or at least, in theory, makes a lack of it easily detectable.

Software engineering is trying to come up with a better model than hire someone brilliant who will learn all about your business, and automate what needs automating. There's a distinct shortage of brilliant programmers, and convincing them that your business is interesting in some way is a tricky proposition. So how can it be done with people who are 'merely' competent 1, and don't really know your business. Similar to the MBA model.

Of course, the problem is that the MBA model isn't completely wrong. There are a lot of commonalities among all businesses. Learning about them and applying them to a particular business is worthwhile.

There's still a shortage of competent programmers. I know my company has unfilled junior positions every year, and many open senior positions. It has become a little better in the last few years in terms of percentage rejects as the perception of a CS degree being a gold mine has waned. But I've still interviewed a huge number of candidates who seem surprised that I want them to actually demonstrate the skills and knowledge their coursework implies they have.


1. Not knocking competency. It can be in astonishingly short supply. And competency now >>> brilliance too late.

#730 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2010, 08:09 PM:

Steve Downey @ 729:

One of the common promises of the Methodology Wars was that some mix of methods, processes, and tools would allow the production of correct software by incompetent (or at least not very competent) programmers. Needless to say, no such mix was ever created, though many were offered. Some of that hype is still in the air today, as so many educational programs, even in four year science colleges, offer what amounts to vocational training in programming particular languages, as opposed to education in underlying principles and general techniques.

Personally, I have never recommended hiring someone who didn't know at least 3 programming languages well, where at least one of them was not basically a 3rd generation imperative language, possibly with a hint of object flavoring (yes, I'm looking at you, Java, and you too, C++).

#731 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2010, 09:47 PM:

DC area Metro buses and rail are both losing riders and money because prices went up.

#732 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2010, 10:01 PM:

730
Old habits die hard: I still tend to describe some kinds of numeric formatting as 'F6.2'.

#733 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2010, 11:17 PM:

heresiarch@703: Certainly calculating the "real" cost of things is difficult. And highly political as well.

For many of us, the wear and tear on the vehicle of pleasure travel is neither here nor there; it won't cause us to replace the vehicle materially sooner than we would otherwise. Where I live, mileage in general is not how vehicles die; they die from rust. For others, it's the main reason they own a vehicle, and should bear the major part of the charges.

I've seen this argued over repeatedly, and it appears to be the case that vehicle taxes and fees (including gas taxes) almost exactly pay for road construction and maintenance. So most people are thinking of those costs.

The CO2 emissions from 5 people taking a car vs. 5 people flying nearly certainly strongly favor the car. ("Favor" meaning less CO2 is emitted).

And people's time and money matter, of course.

#734 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2010, 11:29 PM:

albatross@710: Then again, a lot of disabled people can't do the half-mile walk at each end that's pretty standard in mass transit; they can only get around if they have a car. For that matter, in rain or at 20 below zero F, I'm not too keen on it.

I've never had a job that kept really stable hours; this makes car-pooling and some mass-transit (fringe routes with infrequent buses; that seems to be where all the jobs are). Not being able to stay if I needed to would be a political problem, as well as frustrating. I remember people in van pools at Dec who had to leave at a set time to catch the van were somewhat annoying to people trying to work on a problem that needed their participation.

I do like being able to combine errands with commuting, or for that matter with each other. Also, I've carried office equipment home on the bus (a spirit duplicator), and don't like it much. Carrying some of my hauls from Home Despot on public transit is right out (they have short-term rental trucks for that particular problem, though).

#735 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2010, 11:39 PM:

One of the other problems (with bus systems, in particular) is their lack of speed.
Taking a bus somewhere can mean hours in transit: I estimate, for a bus trip, a speed of 15 miles an hour, plus 20 minutes for each transfer involved. A system like the one in Los Angeles, which seems to try to maximize the number of transfers needed to go anywhere, is a PITA to use.

#736 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 01, 2010, 12:44 AM:

heresiarch @729:
Are you claiming that using "troll tropes" is incompatible with understanding a subject?

I'm not Lee, but there's a difference between [u]sing rhetoric as a measure of content and what she's actually saying, which is that if alex understood the reasons why people in the US drive, he wouldn't just call them entitled (implied noun: "assholes") and expect them to change.

He'd have to make a more complex argument about how to actually cause people to drive less, or differently. And I would expect, in the process of coming to understand the problem of US public transport as it looks to the people dealing with it, that he'd have some compassion or empathy for the people negatively impacted by it.

Personally, though, pace the tone argument, if someone has to resort to troll tropes, yes, I'm a heck of a lot less likely to expect much expertise or actionable information from their conversation. Because the process of acquiring that level of understanding is likely to lead to a more nuanced approach.

#737 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: December 01, 2010, 08:36 PM:

this seems apropos:
http://content.perspicuity.com/?q=node/225

#738 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: December 01, 2010, 09:11 PM:

abi @ 737: "there's a difference between [u]sing rhetoric as a measure of content and what she's actually saying, which is that if alex understood the reasons why people in the US drive, he wouldn't just call them entitled (implied noun: "assholes") and expect them to change."

There is I think an important difference between insisting that people change their behavior and insisting that they not deceive themselves about what their behavior entails. An important difference, though the two are often jumbled together in the minds of listeners and in the mouths of speakers. In alex's posts the two were certainly confused, but Lee is seeing only the behavior-policing part, to the neglect of the (to my mind, substantially more) significant behavior-flagging part. Instead of engaging with what alex was actually saying, she's shoehorning his argument into her handy pre-labeled box so she can write him off. In doing so, she's also dismissing the importance of every driver being aware of the problematic nature of driving--which I think is rather important.

(I did a search for "entitled" and the only hits I got were you and Sandy B. Where did alex use that word?)

"Personally, though, pace the tone argument, if someone has to resort to troll tropes, yes, I'm a heck of a lot less likely to expect much expertise or actionable information from their conversation."

Oh, there's a correlation. But it's circumstantial evidence, not, as Lee would have it @ 722, a smoking gun.

#739 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: December 01, 2010, 09:21 PM:

heresiarch, I too saw only the finger-wagging holier-than-thou aspect of alex's rhetoric. For what it's worth.

#740 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: December 01, 2010, 09:37 PM:

ddb, #735, the DC Metro has a service for disabled folks, but every company they've hired for years has had to be fired because their drivers don't come in time. Or don't take you home in time. There was a point some years ago that I was told not to drive for a few weeks and I was also required to go 15 miles for a doctor's appointment. The car picked me up on time at home, but was an hour late to pick me up at the clinic, and added on people on the way home so I was gone for eight hours. My appointment turned out to be 10 minutes and if I'd known that, I wouldn't have gone.

#741 ::: James Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 01, 2010, 09:38 PM:

The nearest public transportation to me, the end-of-the-line bus station, is 55 miles from my home.

That's too far to walk. That's too far to bike. Without a car, I'm limited to whatever is within about three miles of my house.

#742 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 01, 2010, 11:32 PM:

James, this is why many people say that n people living in an urban area is a greener proposition than n people living in a rural area.

I just heard on the radio the other day that New Yorkers use something like 30% less water and half as much energy as the average American. Half of all subway stops in the United States are in New York City. I don't think these facts are unrelated.

Of course, while that's an argument for expanding public transportation to more areas, it's not to say all rural areas should be abandoned!

#743 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 12:11 AM:

I was all excited about ditching my car and commuting to my new job by public transit, until I found out it would increase my daily commute from 30 minutes to 90. And I live and work in San Francisco.

#744 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 12:47 AM:

heresiarch @739:
(I did a search for "entitled" and the only hits I got were you and Sandy B. Where did alex use that word?)

Try searching on "entitlement". It's in 639.

Instead of engaging with what alex was actually saying, she's shoehorning his argument into her handy pre-labeled box so she can write him off.

Actually, with quotes like this in 692:

I cannot accept that it is right to treat driving as if it were the normal and natural thing, and limitations and restrictions on it as aberrant, irksome and meriting evasion. That is the tone I thought I detected in some earlier comments, and so I reacted sharply.

I think it's alex who has been shoehorning people into handy pre-labeled boxes. I went back and read the subthread he was reacting to, and not one person had said anything that could translate to considering "limitations and restrictions on [driving] as aberrant, irksome and meriting evasion." Albatross came closest in comment 596:

The problem is, there really are good reasons for speed limits, and there really are speed traps and localities here in the US that use them as revenue sources. Living in a world with human-created, human-enforced laws means working out when the rules deserve respect and when they don't, and when they're actively evil. That's as true in driving as in other parts of life.

But that's nowhere near what alex claims to have seen in the thread. Basically, the "I think you people provoked me, so of course I insulted you all back" trope is mostly contagious under bridges. And it's not the first time alex has come out in a rash of it.

Sorry, I think Lee's ear on this matter is true.

(I also think your point in 712 is excellent and interesting:

the importance of remembering that these structures are human structures, and that treating them as commonsensical and natural is a fallacy--though only slightly more fallacious than thinking that city planners and policy makers can be swayed without simultaneously challenging how the average driver looks at their vehicle.

But I think that's as much you reading your own beliefs into alex's comments as something that was really there, waiting for someone to tease it out of the animosity and hostility.)

#745 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 01:45 AM:

Also:

Oh, there's a correlation. But it's circumstantial evidence

When someone manages to mistake Making Light for any kind of a driver-advocacy site that encourages scofflaws, I think I'm entitled to question the reliability of their judgment on a wider scale.

#746 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 02:42 PM:

FWIW, I've been car-free for three and a half years now and consider myself a militant pedestrian and bicyclist, and I still found myself wanting to argue with alex just based on his tone.

If somebody who can go into an extensive impromptu rant at the slightest provocation about cager behavior and the structural problems in how we've* set up our societies that encourage driving (*cough* like me) thinks you sound excessively judgmental when you talk about drivers and driving, you've got the anti-cager rhetoric dialed up to 12.


*For the values of "we" that include "societies whose cities were mostly designed & built after the invention of the automobile".

#747 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 05:24 PM:

@744 --

Indeed. My own commute tolerance is approximately 30 minutes. If I can walk to work in 30 minutes, I'll walk. If I can take the bus to work in 30 minutes, I'll do that.

Neither of those are doable in my current situation, so I drive. Well, usually I carpool with my spouse, whose office is in the same building: a sprawling repurposed digital chip factory on the outskirts of town.)

There is no subway here. Bus service is limited and erratic (there are no regular scheduled local service routes, for example.) I live in a location that has both Hills and Winter.

Driving is what makes this situation workable. Before cars were common - and this town is older than car transport; my house, built in 1920, is about as old as the automobile - people still managed, but here's the thing: the resources that made living here, with hills, and winter, but without cars, do-able are not here anymore. The building within two blocks walking distance of my house that used to be a small corner store is now a garage apartment; the others in the neighborhood house offices or laundromats. The building across street from the big Catholic church used to be a family grocery but is now an antiques-and-junk seller. When this neighborhood was settled, it was mostly French-Catholic mill workers; the church was right there in the neighborhood, between the houses and the mill that burned down ten years ago and wasn't rebuilt because heck, it wasn't being used anyway. Downtown was within walking distance and that's where the railway depot was that would take you to anywhere else you might want to go. You might never go more than three miles walk from your home, but pretty much everything you needed (residence, employment, food for the body and for the soul) was right there.

There's no rail depot now. The intercity bus lines - there are two - don't stop in any of the residential areas; one stops at the airport, and the other has a shiny new building on the outskirts of town near the freeway. All the new development is out near the freeway - the fast food restaurants, the big-box discount and grocery stores, the warehouses and office buildings. We are perhaps better than average at repurposing old buildings here (we have a lot of them) but parking is limited downtown so the shops have moved out into the strip malls along the highways, leaving offices above vacant storefronts.

It would take a lot of money to make this part of this town agreeable for carless lifestyles, and money is one thing nobody seems to have very much of these days.

#748 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 02:30 AM:

Still noting that people are well rewarded for attaching their name to stuff other people wrote, even when it's known by the people paying them for the faked product:

Christine O'Donnell just got a book deal from St. Martin's Press.

Perhaps SMP got it cheap because the Christian publishers weren't bidding on it-- that witch thing and all.

Or maybe they think that witches and ghosts are going to be the next hot trend in fantasy novels, now that vampires and zombies are getting played out.

#749 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 05:33 AM:

abi @ 745: "I think it's alex who has been shoehorning people into handy pre-labeled boxes."

Perhaps we can compromise and agree that there was shoehorn abuse happening on both sides? That alex's comments have more than a whiff of eau du troll about them isn't something I'm contesting--but he's trollishly making an argument that's substantially (though not entirely) right. No small number of people have rightly objected to alex's foolishness and then gone right on to reject the good stuff* for no greater sin than proximity.

This can be seen quite clearly in the responses to alex's 692, which I think is a rather different beast than his previous contributions. Yet Sandy B. treats the comment like pointing out the illusion of freedom conferred by car-ownership is some kind of radical intrusion, and Lee asserts that alex ought to save his rage for city planners, not the drivers who demand that the city planners design car-centric cities.

This is the problem. If we leave out of our critique of car culture everything that alex said, we end up with a hollow, incoherent critique that misses the importance that driver's choices play in creating it. Driver entitlement is pandemic in the US: not too long ago someone confessed/bragged to me that he drives his SUV two blocks to buy a pint of milk. When confronted with trolls, we need a finer level of discrimination than "everything you say is wrong." Otherwise we're just mirroring their foolishness back at them--opposite, but just as wrong.

*i.e. the existence and perniciousness of car-centric culture and driver entitlement.

#750 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 05:52 AM:

heresiarch @750:

I do not think it was shoehorning to call alex's comments trollish; I will not agree that it was even in the spirit of compromise. These two sentences from comment 692, though not as immediately rude as previous ones, still occupy two or three squares on the troll bingo board.

I cannot accept that it is right to treat driving as if it were the normal and natural thing, and limitations and restrictions on it as aberrant, irksome and meriting evasion. That is the tone I thought I detected in some earlier comments, and so I reacted sharply.

As I said before, that's a drastic misstatement of anything that had been said on the thread (one square), then used to justify bad behavior (another square). Said bad behavior is understated as "react[ing] sharply" (a third square).

If a person wants to persuade people, they should try being persuasive. And as someone whose primary interest in this is good conversation*, I'm not going to demand that people hold their noses and search for a gem in a midden. First of all, it's not going to happen—this is a leisure activity, not a work or academic setting, and very few people on Making Light find that kind of conversation fun—and if it did, it would be an unfortunate encouragement of behavior I don't want to see any more of.

You want to argue that we should address drivers' attitudes as well as those of city planners, architects, and housebuilders? Go for it. Do it civilly; you know how.

But don't expect me to reward, condone, or agree with alex's approach, or disagree with the people who said he was trolling and walked away.

-----
* I'm fairly sure I don't need to present my non-automotive credentials here.

#751 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 06:14 AM:

Tim Walters @ 744... I found out it would increase my daily commute from 30 minutes to 90

It gives you the chance to catch up on your reading.
:-)

#752 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 08:50 AM:

Serge (752): Assuming that Tim is fortunate enough to be able to read on moving vehicles. I, for one, cannot. Not unless I want a raging headache for the next week, anyway.

#753 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 09:14 AM:

Mary Aileen @ 753... That would take the pleasure out of reading.

#754 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 10:26 AM:

Coming back to this after a few days off:

Heresiarch@703: In the specific case: I drive toll highways (going from New Jersey to Montreal, you go almost straight the whole way, up I-87, much of which is toll highway) so I figure that the $8.00 or so in tolls probably covers the wear on the streets. I could be wrong; I haven't done the math. I did include both gas and vehicle wear in my 20% number. I did not include insurance and parking. I did not include any costs that I do not directly pay. Perhaps I should have shown my work.

I've tried to write something on "why so many people like cars" for about half an hour and it keeps coming out incoherent and hostile. Blaming people for spending their time and money on what they want, instead of what you think they should want, is not necessarily a good idea. How's that?

#755 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 11:08 AM:

Sandy B. @755 had a hard time writing about 'why people like cars'.

As a lifelong anti-car, pro-transit person (I only learned to drive in my late twenties, and then so I could chauffeur my grandmother around after she was no longer able to do it herself), I am increasingly troubled to find I'm driving a looooot more lately.

Partly because, when travelling with a restive toddler, it is just plain relaxing to be able to strap her into the carseat, provide snack and water cup and music, and then largely ignore her for the rest of the trip. Does this make me a bad parent? I dunno.

But I know that it's a lot less effort -- even with as much real effort as highway driving/merging is for me, which is nontrivial -- than bringing her home via subway and el train, or train and bus, in our carrier. She used to be a transit trouper, but now she gets sick of being carried about halfway through and starts insisting that she wants to get DOWN and EXPLORE now, and dealing with that (while, hopefully, not terminally annoying the other commuters on the packed train/bus) is exhausting for me.

So lately I'm picking her up from daycare with the car almost exclusively, which is about a 10-mile round trip and takes nearly 30min each way. Not counting the jockeying in the (completely inadequately-sized) pickup area, and feeling guilty for continuing to take up valuable real estate therein if she decides she wants 5 minutes' nurse before she'll let me strap her in the carseat.

I feel like such a bad activist, but each time when I grab the carrier and think about hitting the train (which takes longer, end-to-end, by the way: about 45min per leg), I just get this huge overwhelmed urge to cry, so I get in the car instead and turn on NPR.

Of course, I also live in an urban 'food desert' (and most other kinds of retail that aren't liquor or cellphone stores ... oh, or used car lots), so any groceries or other weekly supplies are at least 2 miles from my house. So we drive that too. Which makes me feel even guiltier for destroying the planet with my profligate ways -- I was raised by someone who desperately wanted to be a hippie, so the conditioning goes deep. :->

#756 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 11:34 AM:

heresiarch, #750: Lee asserts that alex ought to save his rage for city planners, not the drivers who demand that the city planners design car-centric cities.

My point was that it is not primarily drivers who have historically insisted on car-centric planning. It's the automobile and oil industries, who spent (and continue to spend) large amounts of money making sure that public transport is crippled, that cities have zoning laws to discourage genuine neighborhoods, that residential areas have NO FUCKING SIDEWALKS, that bike lanes are nonexistent or a joke*, all that sort of thing. That unholy alliance is what needs to be broken before we can expect anything realistic in the way of a greener driving environment; the situation in Texas is a perfect example. alex is naive; he hasn't done his background research.

Mary Aileen, #753: Reading in a moving car is one of the things that can still give me motion sickness. Not to mention that 3 hours a day is a genuinely unreasonable time to expect someone to spend just going to and from work; that's why most people try to live near their jobs.

* We have a bike-friendly mayor in Houston, who has pushed for the establishment of bike lanes. Some of them are reasonable. Others... I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to ride a bike lane that was barely wider than my handlebars, on a 4-lane major artery where the automobile lanes are also scarcely wider than a Monster Pickup.**

** It would also help a lot if law enforcement took automobile-bike incidents seriously. As it stands, there's little or no incentive for drivers to treat people on bikes safely.

#757 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 11:39 AM:

Glenn Hauman #749: Perhaps a novel about a were-sheep that was taken for a witch: "I'm not a witch, I'm a ewe."

#758 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 11:57 AM:

I wonder if "My Mother the Car" is available on NetFlix.
(looking)
Nope, but the search brought up a link to Charlize Theron.

#759 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 02:08 PM:

I listen to a lot of old time radio. Something that isn't often mentioned when talking about how in the Olden Days people mostly did without cars? Deliveries.

In pretty much every radio show from the 30s and early 40s, all grocery stores mentioned delivered. So did the butcher, the baker, the druggist, the laundry, the ice man; almost anything that needed to come to the house was brought there by the merchant, not the customer. My mother told me that when she was a kid, the grocer would bring the groceries right into the house and put them on the table if the family wasn't home. They had one guy who would even put them away. (And the "butcher's boy" might well be a man in his 60s; it was a job title, not a personal description.)

I suspect that this changed because of WWII, gas and tire rationing, and labor shortages.

I know that when I worked at my dad's hardware store in the '70s (which had been in continuous operation as a hardware store from the '20s or '30s) we still had a panel van and delivered hardware (we didn't sell big stuff like appliances; just the usual paint and nails and tools and some housewares) to customers when asked. Do hardware stores do that any more? Does anyone other than specialized services like Peapod?

Going carless is much easier if you don't have to deal with constantly hauling Stuff.

#760 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 02:49 PM:

The deliveries, and the food desert, reminded me of another thing or two. Maybe I can be reasonable about this.

The "corner store" mentioned by Thena? What do you do if your particular corner store sucks? Move? I've lived pedestrian in Cambridge [England] and in downtown Montreal, and it really circumscribes your lifestyle. Or maybe I was doing it wrong. You get food from where you can reach. You add 40 minutes on the round trip to get to something a mile away. Hauling, as Cally said, Stuff is a job of work and planning. (In college, I remember walking up the hill to the McGill residences with a case and a half of beer. Someone saw me and said "But it's a good heavy." )

And, of course, let us not forget the joys of a pedestrian or bicyclist in a good hard sleet. Bracing!

@Elliot, specifically: a friend of mine had a useful concept. He wasn't 100% vegetarian: if he wanted meat, he ate it. He tried to be reasonably vegetarian. Perhaps "reasonably anti-car" is a livable position for you? Perhaps not.

@Cally, specifically: Lumber yards definitely deliver. I got a yard and a half of gravel for the edges of my driveway last year. Hardware stores MAY deliver; I think I've seen a van for our local hardware store around. Another pedestrian story: I walked to the local diner once, and on the way back passed that hardware store and impulse-bought a 50 lb. bag of driveway salt. 3/4 of a mile with something that heavy and amorphous is not an experience I'd like to repeat any time soon.

#761 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 02:55 PM:

When I spent a summer in Phoenix in 1971 there was a family-owned market at the end of the block on which my grandmother lived: central Phoenix, 15th Ave. and McDowell. Directly across from Mr. Landy's store was a Circle K. A year or so later he sold out (retirement, probably, to take the cash out of the real estate). Who bought it? The Circle K corporation. It promptly put up yet another one of their stores, right across the street from one it already owned (one wonders, or I did, at the attitude the owner/manager of the first store took toward that decision).

Naturally, all options for fresh meat and fresh produce disappeared from that neighborhood with that sale. My grandmother had to get into a car and drive a couple of miles to a supermarket to get those items from then on.

Sometimes other events besides car-centrism push people into using them.

#762 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 03:32 PM:

Linkmeister @762, up until now, I'd thought Circle K was a fictional convenience store invented for Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.

I guess this is how my college dorm-mates felt when I told them that Just Lamps and Just Bulbs were real stores in Manhattan, and not an invention for the Letterman show.

#763 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 04:10 PM:

Lee (757): For me, it's not just cars. I can't read on trains or buses, either. I can read on airplanes IF there is absolutely no hint of turbulence whatsoever, which is vanishingly rare. For airplanes, I do crossword puzzles or watch DVDs on my portable player; on long train trips, I listen to music and/or stare out the window. But a subway/bus commute would just be dead time for me. (Please don't anyone suggest audiobooks; I know it would be kindly meant, but I *hate* audiobooks. :)

#764 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 04:18 PM:

#758: Fragano, which do you think would be worse to Evangelist voters, being a witch or being ewe-ish?

(Good, it's sundown, the people who'd really be offended by that joke won't read it for 24 hours.)

#765 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 04:22 PM:

Mary Aileen @764, have you tried motion sickness meds? I get sick if I try to read on a car or bus where I'm facing along the axis of travel, but taking a Dramamine (or generic dimenhydrinate) lets me read on the bus trip between Boston and NYC.

#766 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 04:43 PM:

Lee @757:

Not to mention that 3 hours a day is a genuinely unreasonable time to expect someone to spend just going to and from work; that's why most people try to live near their jobs.

True, but that's not always feasible. My current commute is just over an hour, each way (on transit), while my wife's is about half an hour each way, driving. There's nowhere we can live that's close to both -- the jobs are on opposite sides of the DC area -- and I was job-hunting from 3000 miles away and couldn't be picky in this economy. Sure, my medium-term plan is to find a shorter commute, but it seems like lots of the solutions centered around "live where you work" implicitly assume only one person is doing the living and working, and that jobs are stable.

For some types of jobs, telecommuting is one way of dealing with these issues, but not for all jobs or all the time.

#767 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 04:53 PM:

Some years back the Chronicle reported on Houstonians that had the worst commutes. They found one fellow who lived in Katy (wayyyy out west) and worked in Beaumont (90 miles east). Two hours each way.

I heard that a lot of Californians had similar commutes in an effort to find affordable housing.

I read a bit of trivia that said that historically, 45 minutes is the maximum commute length that people will typically endure. That's going back to horseback and walking as well.

#768 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 05:08 PM:

Glen Hauman #765: My suspicion is that a number of the more fervent Evangelical types might know more about ewes than most.

#769 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 05:36 PM:

Avram (766): Thanks for the suggestion, but it's not motion sickness, it's eyestrain. Trying to hold focus on a book in a moving vehicle gives me a terrible headache.

#770 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 06:23 PM:

Serge @ 752: It gives you the chance to catch up on your reading.

If I can get a seat (which I usually can), or if my current book happens to be a mass-market paperback (sometimes). But most of the 90 minutes is actually walking time (there's a bus I could try that would change that, but that would probably increase the total time a bit).

I should clarify that my times (30 for car, 90 for public transit) are round-trip, not each way.

#771 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 09:09 PM:

Steve C @ #768, when I was working in Culver City, Ca I worked with a woman who commuted from Diamond Bar, out near Pomona. Google Maps says it's 37 miles, but the commute is "40 minutes; 2 hours 10 minutes in traffic."

No wonder she was always grouchy.

#772 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 09:13 PM:

abi @ 751: "But don't expect me to reward, condone, or agree with alex's approach, or disagree with the people who said he was trolling and walked away."

That's more than fine with me--I don't condone or agree with alex's approach either, nor do I disagree with the people who walked away. My criticisms are strictly for the people who engaged with alex and in doing so made bad arguments.

Sandy B. @ 755: "Blaming people for spending their time and money on what they want, instead of what you think they should want, is not necessarily a good idea. How's that?"

That would be, and is, a sensible position to take on issues where other people's behavior doesn't affect me, like their choice of marriage partner or ice cream flavor preference. Driving affects me in a number of ways, from distorting the shape of the cities I live in to putting my life in direct danger to polluting the air I breathe and overheating the atmosphere I depend on for life. That feeling you have that you can jump in your car and drive wherever you like, affecting no one but yourself? That's driver entitlement.

(It's no mystery why people like cars: their advantages accrue immediately and obviously to the owner and their disadvantages are distant and distributed across the population.)

Lee @ 757: "My point was that it is not primarily drivers who have historically insisted on car-centric planning."

Of course they have. Americans love cars. We've loved them for ages. There are more cars in the US than there are people. We're the country that invented the drive-through restaurant and the drive-in movie theater. You think those cultural institutions are a nefarious oil company plot? You think every one of the approximately one point five zillion car-based movies and pop songs were commissioned by Ford and GM? You make it sound like Americans drive under duress, helpless victims of an environment they had no part in building. That's foolish--the reason why malls are surrounded by acres of free parking is because customers won't come otherwise. The growth of suburbia, predicated on the assumption of car-ownership, was driven by people eager to live that lifestyle. Americans are by and large eager participants in the (re)production of car culture.

There is no doubt that oil and automobile companies have also played a substantial part in creating America's car-centric culture--they were instrumental in putting forward the interstate system, for instance. At some times and places they've been instrumental in blocking the development of alternative forms of transport. But to claim that they are the only contributor to the car-centric nature of the American built environment is laughable. The needs and desires of car-owners have played at least as important role.

Cally Soukup @ 760: "I suspect that [grocery deliveries] changed because of WWII, gas and tire rationing, and labor shortages."

It's also an artifact of consumer psychology: stores that the customer drives to don't have to pay the costs of delivery and therefore can sell the same products for cheaper. Even if it costs just as much to drive to the store as it would to have it delivered, people don't notice because they don't pay that part of the price at the register.

Linkmeister @ 762: "Sometimes other events besides car-centrism push people into using them."

The lack of walkable neighborhood groceries is car-centrism. It's car-centrism embodied in the built environment.

#773 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 10:24 PM:

Chris @ 646 I didn't know the term "sphexish", so I looked it up. I found this definition, which leads me to ask, if "sphexish" describes the wasp checking its burrow 40 times, what's the word for what the researcher did 40 times?

#774 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 12:29 AM:

Jeremy Leader @ 774:
what's the word for what the researcher did 40 times?

Research grant report writing?

#775 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 02:13 AM:

hereseiarch, when the walkable neighborhood grocery leaves the neighborhood, that immediately confers car-centric status on the neighborhood? I disagree. The physical layout of the neighborhood hasn't changed a bit; one of its amenities has.

#776 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 05:49 AM:

I can buy bulk Cheerios over the internet these days, but trying that with milk is still a bit problematic.

#777 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 07:04 AM:

There is a massive chunk of unseen privilege in the suggestion that we just have our stuff delivered, instead of everyone driving individually to pick up their Stuff. It's the privilege that assumes the household has someone available to stay in all day to receive the Stuff, and/or somewhere secure to leave the Stuff if there isn't anyone home to collect it.

Which sets my teeth on edge, because that's ultimately based on a model that assumes that a woman's place is married and in the home. Or possibly simply an assumption that everyone has a job where they have the freedom to take the day off whenever it's convenient to them. I've got plenty of annual leave entitlement, but I don't have the freedom to just tell my boss I want to take the day off tomorrow -- and those places that do deliver on a Saturday or in a specified late evening slot guaranteed to be after I get home from my 70 minute commute by bus and Shank's pony charge a hefty premium for doing so.

As for butcher's boys who just walk in and leave the stuff on the kitchen table when the family is out -- dream on. We were burgled via brick through glass kitchen door within a month of moving in here, and this is a nice neighbourhood.

We don't own a car, and just hire one when we need one. But that's only because we were in a position to live somewhere where there is a real high street within ten minutes walk, a bus past the end of the road every 5 minutes (literally), and a weekly bus ticket costs less than parking would. And I still spend around 2 1/2 hours a day on my commute. There aren't many areas in this city outside the student areas where being carless doesn't have a major effect on quality of life in terms of time spent simply going to work, and most of them are either not affordable for the average worker, or not places you'd live given a choice.

#778 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 12:25 PM:

Julia @ 778

Indeed, there's been a lot of cultural change (largely, though not entirely, for the good) that make home delivery of everything impractical nowadays. As you say, people can't count on having someone home to take delivery, and nobody would dream of leaving the door unlocked for the butcher's boy. I just wanted to point out another, often-overlooked, way pre-WWII infrastructure was different. It wasn't just zoning, and it wasn't just streetcars. It was also the ubiquitous delivery man.

I've thought of another specialized delivery vehicle that survives: the glass truck. One can still get glass delivered, mostly because it REALLY helps to have a properly-designed way to carry it. You wouldn't want to put a sheet of glass in the trunk of your car. Lumberyards and places where dirt or gravel or mulch is sold by the cubic yard or ton have similar constraints.

#779 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 12:33 PM:

Linkmeister @776

I was very sad a few years back when we lost our walkable grocery/drug store. There was some sort of dispute over ownership when the attached (as in under-the-same-roof) drugstore chain was sold, if I understand correctly, and in the resulting kerfuffle the head office of the grocery chain decided the store was too small anyway and closed it. I have hope that when they get around to tearing down the 100 year old school building down the block (they built a new school elsewhere without the serious flooding issues the old one had) they'll replace it with some sort of commercial/residential development which will include another grocery store.

In this economy, though, that's likely years away.

I miss being able to walk to the store.

#780 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 01:45 PM:

Cally @779: I have seen far too many green puritans seriously suggest the return of the delivery round for a wide range of goods as a realistic option for the population at large. They invariably can't understand why this might be problematic, because they have plenty of money or plenty of free time during the hours that delivery services work, and frequently both.

Now, I used to get my milk via doorstep delivery, and I made a deliberate choice to pay the 20% extra it cost me to do that rather than buying in bulk at the supermarket, because as a single person I could afford it and it was in some ways worth the convenience, and because I thought the milkman was a social good I wanted to support. But the only reason that it was feasible for me to do was because my milkman started his round at 2 am, in order to have it completed by the time his customers got up for breakfast, so that the milk wasn't left standing for hours in hot weather. And even so we suffered from pilfering by night shift workers who enjoyed being provided with free milk and orange juice by the mugs who paid for doorstep delivery. (I had to stop getting orange juice in my delivery because of this -- I probably got targeted because I was the last house before the bus stop to have it.)

Friends who get organic veg boxes ask why I don't. After all, it's so much better for me and for the environment, and for small business as well. I can always get it delivered to work if I don't have somewhere safe for the van to leave it at home, and take it home in the car on the journey I would do anyway. Except that I am not allowed to receive deliveries at work, and... I commute by bus with a 10-15 minute walk at each end. And I get rather annoyed at being lectured about this by friends who commute by car, so the suggestion of delivery rounds hits a nerve.

#781 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 02:58 PM:

Linkmeister @ 776: "when the walkable neighborhood grocery leaves the neighborhood, that immediately confers car-centric status on the neighborhood? I disagree. The physical layout of the neighborhood hasn't changed a bit; one of its amenities has."

Firstly, I don't think that things like walkability or car-centrism are binaries, present in one instant and absent in the next: they're tendencies. And yes, I do think that losing a neighborhood grocery makes a neighborhood less walkable and more car-centric. To me, walkability is a sum of how convenient, safe, and useful the built environment makes walking, and the location of amenities clearly impacts at least two of those. The spatial distribution of things is part of what constitutes the environment, and if they change then the character of the environment will certainly change.

#782 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 03:14 PM:

When we moved to our present house in 2004, one of the prime factors in the choice of location was access to public transit and some level of walkability. There is a bus line that stops in front of our house during rush hour on weekdays, and a town center area about 1/3 mile away, with a stop for 3 other bus lines that run seven days a week. There are also a library, a post office, at least 8 restaurants (3 of them really excellent), a bakery/coffee shop (not Starbuck's), etc, etc.

And then a couple of years after we moved my back started getting worse, and Eva's CFS also flared up, and we found that a good part of the time we couldn't walk even that 1/3 mile. So we went back to being car-based. WIth luck that will change in the next year as our health improves, but it's important to note that what constitutes walkability is relative to a person's health and circumstances, and can change without notice.

#783 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 08:05 PM:

Julia Jones, #778, I can set delivery times and dates (in fact, I use one that's not used as much and get a delivery fee discount) so as to be here when it comes. I have food and stuff delivered every two months with things that are too heavy or bulky for me to bring home from the store. I still shop at the store every Monday for more immediate things.

Wal-mart plans to put four stores in DC to make walkable stores including food more available. Now, the labor unions are unhappy, but a lot of the people are happy.

#784 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 08:47 PM:

You can get a walkability rating for any U.S. location at WalkScore. I get 78/100, which seems a bit low, but I do believe that "81% of San Francisco residents" have better walkability.

#785 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 10:05 PM:

I would very much like to detach my life from my car. I can't figure out how to do it. In fact, I just bought a new (used) car. I live in a residential neighborhood, and though I could walk to at least one of the stores I buy groceries at, I could not walk to all of them, and there is not a bus that will take me to them. Some of my work is at home but some of it is 4 miles away from home, not on a convenient bus line, and most of the traveling to and from work would have to be done at night. I drive less and less -- I strive to drive less and less, I plan my trips so that I can make as few as possible, but I still can't figure out how to do without my car to get to my dojo, to food stores, the vet, my various health care providers, etc. When I lived in Cleveland, and Chicago, and San Francisco, I didn't own a car. But now I need one.

#786 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 10:22 PM:

@785

That thing is cool. My current home location rates a 46 Car Dependent, which I described above.

I was surprised that my old apartment in Oregon only rated a 65 - Somewhat Walkable, given that I was without a (functioning) car for approximately a year when I lived there, and managed okay.

The house I grew up in, though, where my parents still live - that location rates a 31. And every business shown on the map and list within a mile radius of the location has sprung up since I moved away.

So, yeah.

#787 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2010, 12:59 AM:

My current location rates an 89, which is apparently in the 99th percentile for Houston. (Although there seem to be a number of listings on the Google Maps page that have no relation to reality...such as the steakhouse on the corner, which has been a vacant lot for over two years.)

#788 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2010, 01:47 AM:

The walkability score doohickey seriously overestimates my neighborhood ... because it counts all the marginal bizarre businesses as if they were actually assets to walkability. It counts as 'grocery stores' the laughable one-store-front candy/liquor/soda shops, which are barely viable in terms of sales at the moment, and don't actually sell anything I'd buy.

It counts us as a 65. It also counts in for walkability the fact that if you walk .6mi to the train station and go several miles either way, there are grocery stores THERE. Which, yes, is better than not being able to use the train for it, but still ends up with grade-inflation for my own neighborhood.

I get a 65, for the record. At least it admits that I'm below the whole-Chicago average of 78, though it still rates me as 'good transit'. And I do have good transit -- if you want to go to downtown Chicago or downtown Oak Park. If you want to run everyday errands closer than that, not nearly so useful.

It says 83% of Chicago residents have a higher walkscore than I do, which is interesting -- there are huge, well-populated swathes of the city that are significantly farther from any useful transit than I am. I would have thought they held more than 17% of the city's population, but maybe I'm wrong.

#789 ::: Janet K ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2010, 08:55 AM:

My WalkScore is 97. I live in Washington DC's Adams Morgan neighborhood. The DC average is 74.

Before I retired, I walked to work (two miles) or took the bus when the weather was bad,

I confess to having a car. I probably wouldn't if I didn't also own a parking space. Having a car let's me easily do things that I really enjoy, such as nature walks not accessible by public transit.

#790 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2010, 10:09 AM:

The WalkScore for my office is 71, that for my home is 0. Oddly, the subdivision has sidewalks. What it doesn't have is a single shop.

#791 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2010, 11:46 AM:

The walk score for my home is 66 and for work is 71. But they do, for example, list gas stations as actual grocery stores and stores that sell ground coffee as coffee shops, so it's not all that accurate. Still, on a good week, I can go 6 days without using my car and only fill up my tank once a month. (Much better than when I lived in the country -- walkability was zero and I could fill the tank once a week if I didn't mind driving on fumes the last few miles.)

#792 ::: Nancy C. Mittens ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2010, 12:18 PM:

We have a walkscore of 78, which is completely unsurprising because walkability was a criterion when we bought the house.

#793 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2010, 12:25 PM:

Walkability is variable. In Houston in August, I'll think twice before walking to the mailbox on the curb.

#794 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2010, 02:00 PM:

David, #788: Yeah, your neighborhood is reasonably walkable -- depending on your tolerance for heat! I've tried walking to the local post office a few times (it's only about a mile round-trip) and during the summer, that just wipes me out. In cooler weather it's a nice walk, with sidewalks most of the way.

#795 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2010, 03:49 PM:

I can't get a WalkScore from that thing. It hangs while the Public Transportation widget turns and turns and turns.

This may be due to disbelief (or sympathy?) that there are only three buses in the morning and three in the afternoon which go up and down this one-mile-long hill. The latest shuttle in the evening arrives at 6:00pm. If you work downtown and bus home you'd have to leave at 4:30pm to catch it at the bottom of the hill.

#796 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2010, 04:08 PM:

Bruce Cohen @ 783: "With luck that will change in the next year as our health improves, but it's important to note that what constitutes walkability is relative to a person's health and circumstances, and can change without notice."

That's very true--walkability is a subjective and variable measure. It also brings to mind some interesting resonances between the walkability/car-centrism debate and the Social Model of Disability.* The design of car-centric environments normalizes and assumes car-ownership in a parallel way that other spaces normalize unimpaired human locomotion and thereby construct disability. It's important to make sure that in trying to make spaces less car-centric we don't inadvertently just shift privilege to a different group.

* I wanted to link to a great blog post explaining the Social Model I'm pretty sure I first saw on ML, but neither my memory nor my google-fu was strong enough. It introduced the Social Model via a thought experiment where most humans could fly, and spatial layout reflected that--disabling anyone who couldn't fly. Does anyone remember where that was linked?

Tim Walters @ 785: That's a fun little tool! I got a 78, which wouldn't be a bad measurement of walkability (unlike Elliot, the grocery store nearby is a real grocery store)--except that my partner works twenty-some miles in a direction the buses rarely venture. So regardless of the local amenities, carlessness isn't really a viable option.

And one of the things about having a car is that there's a big binary built into it: either you've got one, or you don't. If you need one for any reason, then well, why not use it to buy groceries? Why not drive up to see relatives instead of flying or taking the train? Why not use it for lots of things which you could avoid using it, but it's just easier to do in a car?

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