10% and “the crisis in knowledge”

Writes Jonathan Mayhew:

Knowledge is under attack from several fronts at once. In science itself, it is due to corporate corruption and the inherent bias toward interesting but possibly false results. There was that paper about how most scientific findings are false. 

In social science, there is a replicability crisis in social psychology and various forms of p-hacking and statistical overstatements. Then there are entire fields that just don’t seem that rigorous in the first place, the typical things people look down on like management studies and education. Economics is corrupt because of its upholding of the economic status quo.  The humanities have their own well-known problems.

What all these things have in common is that institutions are self-perpetuating, and that there are greater incentives for various stake-holders in having the system we have than in having a system guaranteed to produce a better variety of knowledge. Sturgeon’s Law would say that only 10% of everything is going to be of value, so in order to have the 10%, we need to reconcile ourselves to the 90% of crap.  We can’t just cut out the 90% because then we wouldn’t have enough critical mass to even keep going institutionally.

Good scholarly habits

My dear friend Tierney Wisniewski, this website’s cofounder and coeditor, has started up a new blog devoted to her scholarly work and how she gets it done. I love her inaugural piece, “Good Scholarly Habits.” Tierney writes with great clarity and openness. It is a wonderful gift to have in her field (and in any field). Tierney describes a back-and-forth she had with scholar Raul Pacheco-Vega regarding … time, basically, how much time is spent on reading, how much on writing, how much on thinking.

I had always struggled with getting myself to do things, and even to know what it was that I wanted to do. What I learned from my theoretical framework (self-determination theory) was that you can’t make yourself do anything. Oh sure, you can for a short while, but it always falls apart. You’ll find a way to cheat the system, as I did when I hid a book inside my textbooks to drag out my homework. You’ll skip the parts of the process that are crucial but that no one will reward you for. And you will never be happily productive.

That’s why reading productivity books never made me more productive; I was targeting the wrong part of the process. I first had to find a meaningful-to-me reason to be productive, and then I would willingly experiment and adopt whatever habits and methods seemed right for me. And I had to continually reinforce my own reasons over the “pressure trap,” which is (I realize now) why GTD [Getting Things Done] incorporates a frequent review of visions and goals.

Why are we really doing this? Surely it isn’t to get straight A’s, get into a grad program, or get tenure. Surely it’s because, deep down, we love this work and we want to keep doing it. We should start by making sure we keep the work lovable.

One thing that seems to help is the idea of prep work as streamlining, and this is what Raul was getting at with his admonition to read lots and write only as much as you have to.

Peers

Clarissa has a couple of words:

In a way, the censorship in US academia is worse than the Soviet kind. The Soviet censors were mostly dumb, uneducated people, and it wasn’t all that hard to pull wool over their eyes and make them think you are saying the opposite of what you were. Writer Vera Ketlinskaya, for instance, created a very realistic and poignant depiction of the horrors experienced by young people in Stalin’s industrialization projects. It was investigative reporting of the highest caliber. And she got Stalin’s Award in literature for it because she was smart about how she framed the story.

We don’t have any dumb bureaucrats censoring our work. We censor each other during the peer-review process. This means that the people keeping you in tune with the party line are very smart. If you hide your ideas so well that even they can’t find them, then nobody else will find them either.

Transformative learning and student autonomy

No Contest co-founder Tierney Wisniewski has written a beautifully conceived and composed Master’s Thesis. Here’s the abstract. [I’ve added some paragraphing for ease of online reading, because abstracts by requirement are very, very fat.]

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a well-established theory of motivation that posits that we grow optimally to the degree to which our contexts afford us autonomy support, the collective term for the ways in which others afford us opportunities to satisfy our basic psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Although Ryan and Niemiec (2009) suggest that self-determination theory can be “critical and liberating,” I trouble their assertion, making use of literature on student voice, student-faculty learning partnerships, and radical collegiality, and propose that redefining the student role is an essential form of autonomy support if we wish to follow through on SDT’s liberating possibilities.

To that end, I undertook a narrative inquiry into five students’ experiences of transformation through role redefinition in a set of non-traditional university courses.

Participants described their experiences and relationships with peers and instructors before, during, and after this set of courses. A thematic analysis revealed that students experienced their post-secondary courses as largely controlling, with concomitant negative effects on their engagement and well-being, while they experienced these non-traditional courses as highly autonomy-supportive, with concomitant positive effects.

Analysis also revealed that students underwent two transformative processes: an incremental process of integration and a more epochal process of role redefinition. This latter process in particular was fostered through persistent messages that students’ educations belonged to them, through de-emphasis on the instructor-student hierarchy, and through being supported through their struggles with transformation.

Once students redefined their roles, they took more responsibility for their peers’ well-being, offered them autonomy support, and engaged more agentically in other courses by expressing themselves more, taking more risks, and even standing up to and defying miseducative instructors on their own and their peers’ behalves.

They came to perceive themselves as agents of change not only in their institutions, but also in other arenas, following through on the critical and liberating potential of SDT that Ryan and Niemiec had envisioned. This study has broad implications for how educators engage with students and how our institutions are structured, as well as how SDT research is conducted, if we wish to capitalize on this potential.

You can read the whole thing.

I am so very proud of you, dear friend.

No plagiarism foul

A super-smart student in my Advanced Professional Communications class asked me whether using an app that generates a citation for you in proper APA, MLA, Chicago style was plagiarism. My first thought was “I doubt it,” but in my line of work I’m surrounded by plagiarism hounds so I wanted to be sure. I consulted some expert Facebook friends.

My friend Leigh, a high-school librarian working in England whom I’ve known since fifth grade, posted first: “Haha. No. It’s just a tool, wouldn’t you think? Most journal databases (jstor, etc.) provide all variations of citations to use, as well.”

No Contest Communications cofounder Tierney was emphatic: “Goodness no. If you are doing citations correctly, it is not a creative project; it should produce a uniform result. These tools simply help automate that process. I copy and paste mine from Google Scholar, but I also verify their content (sometimes page numbers are missing.” She added this excellent analogy / rhetorical question: “Is it plagiarism to use a tool like SPSS to run your stats and produce your diagrams instead of doing it all by hand?”

Author and retired university librarian Suzy chimed in on a related issue: “There’s nothing wrong with using a citation-generator app to find citations. All journal-content databases make it easier to ‘find’ citations than ever. But a student shouldn’t cite those in a paper unless s/he has actually consulted those sources. I still wouldn’t call it plagiarism; that’s just a failure to check your own sources before citing them – no different from citing a source from a bibliography (the old-fashioned way) without consulting the source.” Suzy noted that the formatting of these automated citations “isn’t 100% accurate, so a student (or professor) should always double-check. For what it’s worth, in my experience, faculty make plenty of errors in their citations!”

Writing in the Sciences

“The more that you take care with your writing, the more you might explore uncertainties in your thinking,” suggests Stanford University Environmental Earth System Science Professor Julie Kennedy in this excellent Writing Matters video. Kennedy helpfully stresses the primacy of “owning” your topic before putting pen to paper. There’s no short cut.

Elitism in the classroom

Professor Mayhew’s recent take on the topic:

terminal1Teaching is transactional. The instructor is not feeding information to the students, teaching them that information, but interacting with them. A third element is the text in the class. The text is not inert, but active as well. For example, yesterday we were reading Olvido García Valdés, one of the best Spanish poets of the day.I could see the students rise to the intellectual level of the poetry itself, and it was wonderful as their comments got more and more brilliant. 

One student brought up the idea that this poetry was “elitist,” because it required a certain level of education to read and understand. Well, we are an elite, even to be in a graduate classroom reading anything at all, even non-elite poetry. For me elitism would be despising those who are not in the classroom with us, feeling that we are special because we get to spend our time like this.  To call ourselves “elitist” for this is a wretched sentiment.

Elitism is a theme in his online life. His many posts on this subject are illuminating.

Battle

In the New York Times obituary section recently I came upon one for Jacob Neusner, a scholar (and polemicist) who published more than 900 books in his lifetime. I calculated – on the back of a napkin, as it were – that Professor Neusner wrote approximately 10,000 publishable words every gosh-darn day for 50 years – over and above all the other words he wrote, including professional and personal correspondence, of which there must have been a ton. And he did this while mastering numerous complex disciplines (and languages) and raising a family. 

The Times obit quotes an admiring detractor:

[Neusner] is perhaps most widely known for his irascible, sometimes quite nasty and often pugnacious personality, his famous excoriating reviews, sometimes book-length critiques, and his fallings-out with almost every institution he worked in, almost every teacher who taught him, many of his students — as well as the errors that scar his many translations and publications.

A friend notes:

It seems that it would be better to be known for writing only 450 books, without the nasty and pugnacious part.

I doubt that Professor Neusner would have taken that deal, for many reasons. Here is the main one, I think: Along with study Neusner seemed to learn about topics via contention with others, which, happily for him, also fertilized his prose. (Churchill is said to have learned about a topic primarily by writing about it.)

Decades ago I had the pleasure of working with the formidable philosopher Sidney Hook. Up until his death at 86 he was still picking fights with both luminaries and unknowns. I have thought a lot about why he took aim at the latter, when there was little clear imperative, and even less interest among his readers, for Hook to do so. I believe he wanted to stay sharp rhetorically, and, as important, he wanted to make sure he had not missed anything.

More on Clichés …

From professor Jonathan Mayhew:

One of Orwell’s sillier pieces of writing advice is “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” Orwell advises “scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness.” But then wouldn’t he have to also scrap the metaphorical use of the verb “scrap” and the cliché phrase “has outworn its usefulness”? My point is not that Orwell is a hypocrite, that he himself breaks his own rules: that would be all too easy. Rather, the advice is simply incoherent and impossible to follow. Words tend to fall into statistical probable clusters, and part of being a language-user is to fall into some of those patterns along with everyone else. We scream in agony, or are “abundantly clear.”

We don’t just have a vocabulary of words, but a vocabulary of idiomatic expressions. As a teacher of a foreign language, I am constantly correcting unidiomatic Spanish, things that would make no sense at all to a native speaker of Spanish. What Orwell calls dead metaphors are just idiomatic phrases. We call them clichés because of old printer’s jargon. You could keep the moveable type for a particular phrase together in one place so you didn’t have to reset it every time. Another word for this was a stereotype. Knowing clichés or idiomatic expressions and using them correctly is part of being competent in a language.

I’m not saying that you should reach for the cliché as your first resort, or that you should never try to reduce your unthinking usage of them. I try not to use the phrase “makes a valuable contribution to the field” in a book review, for example, because that is THE cliché phrase in that genre. But generally speaking, clichés are simply the way things happen to be said in a particular language.

In linguistics this is known as “chunking.”