Practitioner testimonies

Through the magic of podcasting, I've been able to listen to a number of pre- and post-game interviews with baseball players and managers as I go for my morning run -- subscribe to the daily MLB podcasts through iTunes, plug in my iPod, and when I get up in the morning there they are, ready to go. (Of course, now that the baseball season is officially over -- congratulations, White Sox, even though I wanted the Astros to force a game 5 so that we could see Roger Clemens try to pitch despite his hamstring injury -- I'll need to find some new podcasts to listen to on those runs. I wonder if MLB will start podcasting winter ball reports. Hmm.)

In any event, one of the things I have been noticing a lot lately is the fact that sports reporters invariably ask players and managers to produce causal speculations. How much did the condition of the field affect your performance? Does having the stadium's retractable roof open affect your play? How much difference does it make that you have a well-rested bullpen on which to draw? The sheer frequency of the questions leads to the unavoidable conclusion that reporters ask managers and players about these issues because of a presumption that players and managers have some kind of privileged authority to pronounce about these matters.

The general principle here seems to be: practitioners know about causal relationships specific to their particular field of activity. And this principle extends well beyond sports: players and managers know about baseball, diplomats know about diplomacy, activists know about activism, government officials know about government. In fact, the notion that participants have special access to knowledge about their domains is often elevated to a methodological principle in the social sciences: "we may not care at all about the views of revolutionaries, but if their answers to our questions are consistent with our theory of revolutions, then the theory itself will be more likely to be correct," as a recent methodological manual has it.

Pardon my bluntness, but I think that this kind of reasoning is downright absurd. In fact, the idea that practical experience gives one some kind of unmitigated access to causal knowledge strikes me as downright misleading in at least two respects: it mis-states the relationship between knowledge and practice, and it forecloses the possibility of generating new knowledge(s) by taking a step away from personal experience.

Allow me to elaborate.

1) there's a long-standing error (well, I think it's an error, but lots of people disagree and have done so over the years) in conflating practitioner-knowledge with detached-social-scientific-observer knowledge. Practitioner-knowledge is all about how to accomplish something, and consists of rules of thumb, operational practices, and in general a "feel" for situations. Bent Flyvbjerg draws on Aristotle in characterizing this as phronesis: practical wisdom, a kind of context-specific local understanding that produces results (in the form of successful, even virtuoso, performances of some task or tasks). Phronetic knowledge is neither rule-based nor reducible to rules, since much of it's tacit and experiential.

Social-scientific knowledge, on the other hand, is by definition not primarily about how to accomplish something; it's about how things are/were accomplished. Social science is all about systematizing practice, even for those of us who are quite enamored of messy contingent styles of explanation; by contrast to those outside of the social science fraternity, we're all inveterate systematizers. Systematizing practice means stepping away from it, and not practicing the activity in question, so that one can get a different kind of grip on it -- a theoretical grip, a conceptual grip, a necessarily more abstract grip than a practitioner has. The drawback is that the social scientist loses the immediacy of practice; the advantage is that they gain a broader and more general point of view.

Think about it like this: I know a fair bit about baseball because I've studied it, and I know that in most situations it makes no sense to attempt a stolen base -- a runner on first is worth more than the expected value of stealing second (unless you have Rickey Henderson, the all-time major league leader in stolen bases, on first base). But I couldn't for the life of me actually steal a base, which some people can. Ditto for plate appearances: I know that getting on base is the most valuable thing that a batter can do. But put me in uniform and give me a bat and I can virtually guarantee you that I won't get on base against any professional baseball pitcher.

So there's knowledge and there's knowledge. They're not the same. And just because I know when to take a pitch does not mean that I know that on-base percentage is the biggest component of run production. Nor does it follow that a good hitter is the best source to talk to when trying to see whether on-base percentage matters so much, because he may not know. And that's okay. Batters are paid to bat, not to analyze at-bats in a systematic way. Asking them to speculate on causal relationships is really asking them to pontificate on something that they have no special expertise in.

We get this in IR scholarship all the time, usually in a form like this: "my theory is that X matters, practitioner Y said in his memoir/speech/letter/interview that X matters, hence X matters and my theory is a good one." Non sequitur, in the precise and technical sense: the parts of the claim have nothing, logically speaking, to do with one another. A very good negotiator may not be able to articulate what it is about her negotiating style that is so effective, and if you ask her she may say something -- and even earnestly believe something -- that has no bearing whatsoever on the positive outcomes that she continues to produce.

Oddly enough, although social scientists and sports beat reporters don't seem to get this, Claire Danes does:

"More people see movies with men in them than they do with women in them."
Right. So -- why is that ?
"I'm not in a position to say," she snaps. "I mean, I'm just not."
Danes spent two years at Yale. Where's the conversational brio? Where's the analytical discourse that even half of an Ivy League education would seem to confer? Do we really have 35 minutes left of this? This is, after all, her career we're talking about. Her milieu. Her life. She can't "say" anything about the gender breakdown of filmgoers? If she can't say, who can?
"Someone who really studies that," she says. "Or thinks about that."
Wisdom can be found in the most interesting places. Maybe that Ivy league education did precisely what it was supposed to do, and prevented Ms. Danes from speculating on things that she doesn't really have any expertise in.

2) so what's the point of social-scientific knowledge, if it's not practitioner-knowledge and doesn't directly tell you how to do something? I am skeptical about the version of the "social science project" that would try to discipline practice by forcing it to conform to the systematic knowledge that detached observers produce; in fact, I think it's the opposite relationship, and systematic knowledge should be (with apologies to David Hume) the slave of practice. All of us producing our systematic analyses are dependent on practitioners to, you know, do stuff, so that we can observe what they do at a (relative) distance, systematize it, and perhaps reveal aspects of practice that are obscure to the practitioners themselves. Perhaps. Even if not, there's a value to systematicity for its own sake, since the world's messy and obscure and doesn't always simply tell us how it works. Being systematic allows us to generate detailed accounts of situations based on particular value-commitments, and thus to ground our critiques in something other than mere partisan opinion. And that strikes me as a good idea.

But it still won't help me raise my batting average. That takes a whole different kind of knowledge.

[cross-posted at Duck of Minerva]

[Posted with ecto]


Small n

After updating my post-season analysis with the results of last night's game, so that we now have a World Series victor for 2005, it appears that:

1) the wild card team is still not significantly more likely to make it to the World Series or to win it (chi-squares: .727 and .866).

2) the team with the best record in its respective league is significantly more likely to make it to the World Series (chi-square: 3.96, significant at the 5% level) . . .

3) . . . but is not significantly more likely to win the World Series (chi-square: .866).

4) wild card teams are not significantly more likely to win a division series, but the team with the best record in its league is (chi-squares: .97 and 3.88).

Of course, none of this tell us how much more likely these outcomes are. That would need a degree of analysis that I haven't the time to undertake at the moment.

The punchline: n=80 is not a very big number at all, and n=88 isn't either. We'll need several more years of the modern post-season before we can actually draw any really important conclusions about the wild card's effect on baseball's seasonal results.

[Posted with ecto]


Call the Groundskeepers

The lesson for the day is that equipment matters. Not something I didn't know already, but something that I was rather forcibly reminded of last night at the end of class.

My "Masterworks" course is taught in an evening time-slot on Tuesdays that runs from 8:10-10:40pm. because of the fact that we are covering a lot of ground quickly, and because of the fact that I run the class largely as a free-form discussion but still want to give out some information to contextualize the readings, I divide each class session into two pieces: a discussion that runs until about 10pm or so (sometimes longer), and then a brief lecture setting up the next week's readings. This means that the class switches from low-tech to high-tech in a flash: discussion (old school, with books open on desks and me walking around managing the speakers' queue and trying to press points and pull out parallels and controversies) is followed by break which is followed by presentation (new school, Keynote slides, digital projector, wireless USB click-y thing so I can walk around the room and talk, iPod in pocket recording the lecture for podcasting the next day).

Of course, this also means that if there's any problem with the tech in the room I won't find out about it until about 10:10pm -- far too late to really do anything about it. Usually this isn't a problem; my Apple PowerBook doesn't break (unless I mess it up myself by mucking through with low-level geekery), I just changed the battery in my wireless click-y thing…but the one thing that I am dependent on is the room's digital projector. We're fortunate that almost every classroom on campus is equipped with a digital projector, but sometimes they fail to work…which is what happened last night. Open PowerBook; plug in adapter (DVI -> VGA) and VGA cable; and -- well, first a distorted image of my desktop picture, then a lot of green flickering, and finally blackness. On the wall screen, mind you, not on my computer's screen; that was fine. I even restarted my computer (first time this month!) on the off-chance that something had gotten frelled up with my continually unplugging and reconnecting of external displays as my PowerBook journeys from home to office and back. No luck.

During the 2002 ALDS, the Yankees were in Anaheim playing the Angels; it was game three, I think, and Mike Mussina was on the mound. He didn't look comfortable at all, and started giving up hits and runs almost immediately. Not a good performance. Afterwards, he indicated that he felt uneasy on the mound, since it was packed a bit strangely and was, although within regulations, a little flatter than normal. Hence, a poor pitching performance. That's about how I felt last night: my rhythm was off because of the technical glitch, and not having the slides and not being able to walk around (I use the slides as projected to keep me on point; I had to look at my laptop screen to see them, which basically wedded me to the desk in the front of the room) meant that I was not pitching anywhere near the way that I am accustomed to pitching.

I was not pleased.

This morning, I e-mailed the office in charge of maintaining the projectors -- the groundskeepers for our peculiar baseball fields -- and reported the problem. They were quick and professional, getting back to me almost at once and proposing an alternative solution (a portable projector to replace the installed one) as well as promising to check out the faulty projector as soon as possible. This is encouraging; a good groundskeeping crew is downright essential to my work in the classroom, and having such a quick response spoke well of their commitment and competence. Hopefully the problem will be cleared up by next week; I'd hate to have to go and pitch off such a mound again.


The Jeter Hypothesis

Derek Jeter, Yankee icon extraordinaire, once (I have not been able to find the original source) made a comment about how the wild card team is more likely to make it through the post-season since they're "hot" going into the playoffs. I think he made that comment after the Yankees were eliminated by some wild card team. Sour grapes or perceptive observation by an elite practitioner? Because I have nothing better to do with my time (okay, not really), let's put it to the test. To the statistical test.

A little background: since 1995, major league baseball's post-season has included not just the teams that amassed the best record in their divisions, but also a "wild card" team defined as the team with the best regular-season record that did not win its division. This means that the post-season includes eight teams: six division champions (three American League, three National League) and two wild cards. We're now in the eleventh post-season under these rules; since it's still ongoing I have not included it in the analysis that follows, but even so we have ten post-seasons of data to use in constructing a test of the Jeter Hypothesis.

To give away the punchline: there's no support for the notion that the wild card team is either significantly more likely to make it to the World Series (the end of the post-season) or to win the World Series. Of course, this hasn't stopped popular commentators (including the folks at Fox Sports, purveyors of baseball misinformation since 1996, and Joe Morgan, Hall of Fame player and ESPN commentator who is overly enamored of "small ball" and "post-season experience" and "clutch players" and other such statistically unsound silliness) from deploying the claim, perhaps reading too much into the fact that the 2002, 2003, and 2004 World Series were won by wild-card teams. In fact, if my analysis is correct, they definitely are reading too much into this.

How did I arrive at this conclusion?

The basic idea was to look at the ten full post-seasons to see whether any systematic relationships emerged. Step one was to simply collect the numbers and make two tables: one showing how many wild card teams made it to the World Series, and another showing how many wild card teams won the World Series.

Wild CardDivision Champion
In World Series614
Not in World Series1446

Wild CardDivision Champion
Won World Series46
Didn't Win World Series1654

On their own, these tables don't tell us much. In order to see whether or not there's any significant relationship involved, I ran a chi-square test on the matrices. [You can actually run this test using a web-based interface like this one, but being something of a baseball stats geek I coded my own Excel spreadsheet to do it for me.] The chi-square tests how far the observed values in a matrix differ from the values you'd expect if there were no systematic relationship between the categories; in order to do this it basically corrects the values by taking the proportions of the population in each category. So the fact that there have been 20 wild card teams, as compared to 60 division champion teams, in the post-season over the past ten years means that if there were no systematic relationship we'd expect that wild card teams would be in the World Series, and win the World Series, about one-fourth of the time. Wild card teams have been in and won the World Series slightly more than this.

But significantly more often? The chi-square value for the first matrix is .356; it would have to be 3.841 in order to be significant. The second matrix has a value of 1.371; again, it'd have to be 3.841 in order to be 95% likely not to be the result of sheer random chance.

Just for the sake of completeness, I also ran a series of tests to see whether the wild card team was more likely to make it to the second round of the playoffs -- perhaps the "hotness" of the wild card team only lasts through the short first-round series. No dice there either: chi-square was 1.067.

What does this all mean? Ultimately, I think it means that there haven't been enough post-seasons under the contemporary arrangement for us to really know whether the wild card makes that much of a difference. At the moment, there doesn't appear to be any significant relationship, but if the Astros win the World Series this year (which they won't -- White Sox in seven, I say), the population size is small enough that it might make a significant difference. In a week or so I'll update the numbers and we'll see then. Sorry, Derek.

More interesting, I think, is the fact that there's almost a significant relationship between having the best regular-season record and appearing in the World Series (chi-square: 3.2), even though the wild card system introduces more noise into the system by making it possible that a team that finished well behind in its division might win the championship. Maybe the best will out after all…but I'm not quite prepared to make that claim without further analysis.

[Posted with ecto]


Time and timing

It seems that inevitably class discussions follow an ornery pattern: as time gets short, they get really really interesting. This places me in a bit of a bind: shut things down so that we end on time, or let them run even at the cost of exceeding our scheduled boundaries. This gets even more pressing when the course in question is a night class, and "running over time" means that students are filing out of the classroom close to 11pm.

Okay, that doesn't happen every time. But it did on Tuesday evening, when we had the best class discussion we'd had thus far this semester -- and about Kant, of all people. Maybe it was the week off for Fall Break, or maybe it was my repeated warnings that Kant is Very Heavy Drugs and has to be consumed slowly with lots of food and water and really deeply pondered, or maybe it was the excellent student presentations that began the class session -- or maybe it was all three -- but for whatever reason the discussion was going very well indeed. We didn't have to spend too much time on first-order ("what is the author saying? what's the argument?") questions, but were able to leap fairly quickly into the second-order ("does the author's claim make sense? do I buy it? what's at stake in accepting or rejecting it?") issues that are the really fun part about discussing philosophical works. Relativism vs. universalism; idealism vs. pessimism; whether there is a real conflict between theory and practice -- heavy stuff for a Tuesday evening, but precisely where I would have wanted us to go had I been able to choose it.

So we were bopping along, collectively wrestling with core issues, when BANG -- 10pm. I know that we need a break (since we've been going since 8:10), and after the break I need to talk for a few minutes about next week's reading. So going to break means the end of the discussion. But it's going so well…so I let it go. Until about 10:15. Then we break, and then I give my mini-lecture…and then it's 11:00pm. Oops.

Part of my rationale for making podcasts out of all of my mini-lectures for that course is that next year I won't have to spend scheduled class time delivering the lectures -- I can just post them someplace, let students download them, and use the time saved to really allow the discussion to flourish. In my experience it takes about an hour or so for things to really get revved up, and a well-timed break about an hour and a half in can give people a chance to recharge and regroup -- making the second half of the session even better. Dropping the mini-lectures, or rather, externalizing them onto a website someplace, makes it possible for me to actually do that in the future. And then I can facilitate those great discussions without holding people on campus until 11pm.


Management Lessons

Phil Garner, manager of the Houston Astros, gave a press conference the day after the epic 18-inning game that the Astros won last week over the Atlanta Braves. During the course of the questions, he was asked about his managerial style, and in particular whether his making of particular decisions was "a seat of the pants kind of thing . . . a gut feeling." Garner's response is instructive, both because of the ground that it covers and because of the place where it ends up. I think that there are some lessons to be learned here, lessons with applicability beyond baseball -- dare I say it, lessons about what social science is for and how it relates to social practice.

"Without knowing exactly which moves you're talking about it'd be hard to say," he began, noting from the outset that particular moves have particular rationales and implying that no single kind of decision-making captures or explains all of the choices that one makes in the course of managing a baseball game.

"I do -- sometimes by the gut, but most everything's calculated." Here Garner introduces two specific grounds for making particular decisions: gut instinct, and rational calculation. He is honest about the fact that some moves that he makes are simply the product of instinct; presumably this instinct stems from experience, so it's not entirely random or mysterious, but it's not directly capturable in rules or procedures. Contrast this to rational calculation, which is a type of decision-making based explicitly on rules and procedures -- what works in situation X and what doesn't.

If everything stemmed from rational calculation, then there'd be no point in having a manager at all; a book of procedures would suffice, and if there were someone called a "manager" involved at all his job would just be to look up the situation in the book and apply the appropriate response. Any agency that the manager has would disappear, as he would become merely the throughput for a set of factors over which he exercised no influence or control. Indeed, in such a situation the manager's only effective exercise of agency would involve ripping up the book, going off course -- acting on instinct rather than according to the rational plan.

The conventional Social Science Project, I think, involves making as much as possible calculable, eliminating the element of uncertainty that comes from not really knowing what the result of some move or decision will be. Garner's abstract comments to this point remain within that conventional project: social science would be the "calculating" part, leaving only the manager's "gut instinct" to serve as a ground for going off the planned course.

But when Garner starts to describe concrete particular moves that he made during the course of the game, this absolute opposition between instinct and calculation vanishes in favor of something else: Garner's specific knowledge of what his team can and cannot do.
We have interchangeable parts, moreso, I think, than most of the teams in the playoffs. We have a guy -- Bruntlett -- that can play every position, so if I take any one guy out, and I want to maneuver around the lineup in some way, I have him that I can just keep moving to any position on the field. And he'll play a great defense. And he's actually probably saved three games for us because he's made phenomenal defensive plays. Not to mention the couple he's won with his bat for us in the course of the season.
Here we see a subtle combination of calculation and instinct at work, as Garner is able to derive possibilities from his experience with particular players on the team and to formulate different strategies as the game unfolds and the situation changes. The relevant basis here is not rule-based knowledge of which move belongs where, but the kind of practical wisdom that allows the expert manager to grasp conditions of possibility and then work to actualize them. And doing this doesn't mean that one abandons calculation or advance preparation, as Garner's discussion of one of his other moves makes clear:
The other day in our 18-inning game, [Brad] Asmus goes out from behind the plate because I wanted to keep both catchers in because, in case we get into a drawn-out affair and I had to bring Clemens in I want Asmus to catch Clemens, so it predicated a move to keep him in the ballgame at first base and put Chavez in and then flip-flop the two when Clemens came in. But that's not a difficult decision. I'm confident with both of them playing out there because both of them do a good job, and they practice it all the time: they take ground balls, all year long. And I even put Brad at shortstop one game, and first base -- or second base one game I believe it was -- in preparation for something just like this. So they're mostly all calculated.
"Calculated" has subtly shifted its meaning by the end of this example, and now means "based on experience" rather than "in accord with an abstract specification of rules." Because Asmus and Chavez have practiced taking ground balls at first base, Garner knows that he can put either one of them there and expect that they'll do a good job, but there's no necessary line from this fact about the two of them to the observed outcome. Instead, something else intervenes: Garner's experience-based sense of what he wants to accomplish and how he might best accomplish it, given the resources available to him.

Could this decision-process be automated, and replicated by a machine -- or by an abstract decision-making procedure, in accord with the conventional Social Science Project? It could probably be simulated, certainly. And we could probably build a baseball-managing machine that would apply formal rules to situations and arrive at outcomes similar to those that Garner arrived at. But I'm not at all certain that doing so would prove that Garner was really making rational calculations all the time that he was on the field. Just because I can retroactively narrate some situation in particular terms doesn't prove that the situation was really that way; it just demonstrates that we can describe that situation in certain ways. Period. We could describe Garner's decisions as entirely calculated, as he seems wont to do himself, but in so doing we'd miss a lot of the way that those decisions are being produced -- and the subtle ways that Garner keeps redefining "calculated" as he discusses situations.

This is nowhere clearer than in his conclusion, in which he explicitly denies having put Chris Burke in the game in order to hit the game-winning home run that he did hit in the bottom of the 18th inning:
I would say that there are some things that I feel good about, some things that I don't feel good about but I feel like I have to do -- I didn't want to take Berkmann out of the game the other night, but figure this one out for me: Everybody in the world would say, why would you take Berkmann out 'cause he's the guy that's gonna win the ballgame for you, and the guy I replace him with is the guy that hits a home run to win the ballgame! Now I didn't figure that was gonna happen. But I figured, based on Atlanta's outfield, if we get a base hit there, they're aggressive, they all have good arms and they're accurate, and if we don't take a chance to score I'm not gonna like myself very much the next day, so you gotta do things, in my opinion, that way. So most of it's calculated.
Note the sudden emergence of a third ground on which to place decisions: a logic of identity, based neither on instinct nor on calculation. "Because I am X, or because I want to be X -- because I think of myself as X and want to continue doing so tomorrow -- I need to make certain moves, take certain chances, go in certain directions." Here we have a kind of active self-crafting, in which Garner basically produces his identity and his team's identity by going in one direction rather than another. The removal of Berkmann from the game flies in the face of rational calculation, but it isn't an instinctual move -- it is instead based on Garner's sense of who he is and who he wants to be. "I'm not gonna like myself very much the next day" isn't a preference held by a fully-formed rational actor; it's what John Shotter would call "knowing from within," sensing the potentials inherent in a situation and acting on those potentials in such a way as to craft a certain sense of oneself. I get the feeling that if the Astros had lost, Garner would be defending the decision in very similar terms: it may not have worked out quite right but at least we gave it a shot, played our kind of baseball, kept our integrity intact.

So: three grounds for making decisions, and no simple formula for integrating the three in specific situations. In the gap between these different logics we have agency, understood as the capacity of the manager to have done otherwise than he in fact did. We have responsibility, because Garner can't deflect what he did onto any more solid or objective grounds than his own actions. And we have the subtle combination of art and science that makes baseball such fun to watch.

In this case, what is true of baseball is most likely true of other areas of human social action too. Rules, instincts, and identities concatenate in unique ways in every instance to produce particular decisions; reducing a decision to any one of these three deprives the actor in question of effective agency, as well as making it impossible to meaningfully attribute responsibility to her. If one is going to analyze decisions -- which is not something that I usually do in my work -- or if one is going to make decisions -- which is something that I like everyone else do all the time -- one should keep Garner's comments in mind, and work to develop all three of these capacities.


Why I blog, and why I'm not about to stop

Dan Drezner, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and one of the best-known of the current crop of academic bloggers, was denied tenure last week. His very dignified and professional reporting of the fact has apparently touched off a minor panic in the blogosphere, and even made it into the mainstream print media. Suddenly many academic bloggers seem to be wondering whether they should keep doing what they're doing -- whether blogging is, in effect, a bad career move.

The debate is perennial, and it isn't just about blogging. Academia is an odd profession in that there are few if any clear expectations about how one should allot one's time on the job; there are also very few clear signals about whether one is doing a good job or not. Tenure decisions are cloaked in mystery, and pre-tenure reviews are most often written in language that is suggestive but not binding (perhaps so as to prevent lawsuits if someone expected tenure and didn't get it). I have no idea what things are like on the other side of tenure -- I am myself in the same boat as Dan Drezner was until last week, anxiously awaiting a judgment on the massive tenure file that my graduate assistant and I assembled and submitted for review back in September -- but speaking from the Assistant Professor position I can certainly say that I think I've been doing a good job but I have less confidence in that assessment of my performance than some of my friends in non-academic jobs do in theirs.

So the question "should I blog?" is in that way little different than "should I consult?" or "should I protest?" or "should I make a lot of media appearances?" The answer is: I don't know, nobody knows, and it all depends. Depends on what? Well, to be blunt, it depends on your research productivity in the first instance, and on your not pissing people off too much in the second instance. Publishing books and articles in highly-rated places is the central factor in just about every tenure decision at every research university (teaching colleges are different, by definition -- teaching matters much, much more than it does in research universities, even relatively teaching-centric ones like mine). So the basic decision rule for a tenure-track Assistant Professor goes something like this: does doing X take away time from my getting another article or book out there? If yes, then don't do it.

[Obviously, that rule isn't always absolutely followed, since taken to an extreme it means that one shouldn't eat or sleep or go to a baseball game…but the categorical character of the basic rule probably helps to explain why Assistant Professors as a group walk around with very high anxiety levels and nagging feelings of guilt when they're doing almost anything but publishing. It's like being a graduate student, but you get paid more and you get/have to teach classes too. I never maintained that going into academia was a rational decision.]

As for the second decision-rule, well, let's just say that Assistant Professors have to be kind of careful not to really annoy senior colleagues. It's no different than any other profession in that respect; what is different is that there are so many more opportunities to do something that confounds someone's expectations, because those expectations are often idiosyncratic and almost invariably tacit rather than explicitly articulated.

How does blogging stack up in terms of these two criteria? I think that Dan Nexon got it right when he pointed out that blogging doesn't take away from research-and-writing time, but constitutes a part of recreation-and-relaxation time. And lately my wife and I have been sitting down after the kids are in bed to watch the Yankees play, computers on laps, surfing the 'Net, trading observations, and blogging; that time wouldn't be spent in research-and-writing anyway. In addition, there is the fact that the things that I post to my blogs [yes, plural -- this one, Duck of Minerva, and more rarely on Progressive Commons; still trying to figure out exactly what kinds of posts belong where] are both extensions of and elaborations on my scholarly research and my pedagogical practice. Ideas that inform my scholarly writing get floated and debated (for example here and here), so at least some of my blogging is directly related to my research productivity. And I often blog here about science fiction, which is directly related to the "Social/Science/Fiction" seminar I offer once every couple of years.

So blogging doesn't detract from my output as a teacher and a scholar, and might actually enhance it. How about the other criterion? Obviously a blog gives one more of an opportunity to say something publicly that annoys someone else; the blunt nature of the blogging genre, combined with the lack of editorial screening, makes such an occurrence perhaps pretty likely. But it's possible to annoy someone in a faculty meeting, or a public lecture, or while chatting in the hallway, to say nothing of the potential for annoyance involved in allowing oneself to be publicly identified with a political program or agenda. Once again, blogging is no different.

So why are people so concerned about it? Might it be the generally technophobic character of academic practice? As we can see from the resistance to the use of digital projectors, e-mail, IM, and even computers in general by many many members of many many university faculties around the country, academics are a pretty conservative bunch when it comes to their research and teaching practices. (The politics of academics themselves are a wholly separate issue.) Blogging might be getting caught up in a general skepticism about information technology. I can't tell you how many times I've been told that I should cut out the flashy tech and just make presentations the standard way, me alone in front of the room speaking from notes…no, literally, I can't tell you that, because I've only ever heard those comments from senior colleagues and as I said before, rule #2 of getting tenure is Don't Piss Anyone Off Too Much. [I will only say that "colleague" is an expression that refers to any academic, not just to those at one's own institution. And my university is big on teaching with technology, so I face few if any obstacles around here. You do the math.]

So I'm going to keep on blogging. And I'm even going to try to blog in this space more regularly, so keep a watch -- or, better yet, subscribe to the rss feed.



On Friday evening my wife and I went to see the best science fiction film I have seen in a movie theatre in a very long time -- possibly since the first Matrix film came out in 1999. [Yes, I am well aware that Revenge of the Sith came out this summer; no, I don't consider any of the Star Wars films science fiction, for reasons detailed here.] The film is a spectacular piece of storytelling, much as you'd expect from Joss Whedon, and I'm happy to report that the film also extends the television series (Firefly) on which it is based in intriguing ways. After the shoddy treatment that the series received from the idiots at Fox who ran the episodes out of sequence and then refused to even air them all, it's nice to see a little vindication.

[Of course, the vindication is more artistic than commercial, since the film has only made about $18 million and is currently at #8 on the box office gross chart, having been at #2 the previous weekend but losing about 47% in the intervening period. Why more people aren't flocking to see this film is completely beyond me.]

Whedon is a magnificent writer and director -- he can tell a story primarily through dialogue without getting wrapped up in needless explication or didactic delivery. He's not really a visual director, although there are some visually stunning sequences (particularly the close combat episodes). Instead, what is most compelling about Whedon's art is the way that he develops his characters; he draws you in to the lives of the quirky people he depicts, and manages to sketch their portraits quickly with just a few turns of phrase. The early exchange between Mal and Jayne about taking grenades on a job, combined with the later allusion to that situation near the end of the film, tells you almost everything you need to know about their relationship. Zoe's professionalism and her firm deference to Mal suggests the back-story without having to explicitly go into it. And so on.

The most interesting thing for me -- besides the fact that the movie was basically a chance to go and visit with some people on screen I hadn't seen for a while, and whose lives and fates had become quite important -- was watching Whedon basically wrap up the unfinished first season of the series with the budget and script control that he really needed. Given Whedon's penchant for single-season arcs, I suspect that he would have done something like this if the series had been able to continue, answering some of the questions about River and leaving a few things to be developed later on. I found it pretty satisfying, abrupt deaths of main characters aside . . .

It's also interesting to me that both Whedon and Lucas were grappling with similar themes (the problems of a politics oriented towards an absolute ideal) in their films this year, but going about it in almost opposite ways. Lucas, telling an epic, mythic story, focuses on the fall of a particular individual; Whedon, telling a character-driven story largely about a small group's struggle to survive, ends up focusing on a large impersonal set of forces and institutions. We meet none of the perpetrators of the great idealistic project in Whedon's universe; we get an impassioned speech from Mal, but there is no corruption arc in the same way that we see in Lucas' epic. In the end both films take the same (anti-idealist) side, but they get there in very different ways.

There are rumors of more films set in the Serenity universe. I really hope that they get made; I want to see what happens next!

Sympathetic magic

The fact that today is Columbus Day, so the university is closed -- coupled with the fact that today the Board of Trustees is meeting to (hopefully) make a decision on the fate of President Ladner -- have allowed/encouraged me to stay at home today. (Untenured junior people should not, IMHO, be on the front lines of faculty protests involving the Board or the higher levels of the administration. Self-interest? You betcha. One of the things that goes along with tenure is a certain freedom and flexibility, and with those a certain responsibility, to take the lead on things that one's junior colleagues cannot. Bravo to those of my colleagues who have really stepped up the plate over the past couple of weeks.)

One of the nice things about staying home is that I can try my damnedest to do my part in helping the Yankees win in Anaheim tonight, and thus advance to the ALCS against the White Sox. What's my part? Well, like any fanatic, I believe (with the completely a-rational part of my brain) that by dressing the part I can help to pull my team to victory. I mean, why else would they sell all that merchandise? It's for focusing the sending of positive energy to the guys on the field, right? ;-) So my wife and I are dressed to the hilt in Yankees gear today; I'm typing in a Mike Mussina jersey (Moose pitches tonight, and he's one of my favorite modern Yankees and favorite modern pitchers, so my clothing choice is completely overdetermined today), ball-cap firmly on head, while my wife puts away groceries while wearing a "2003 AL Champions" t-shirt and a blue Yankees hooded sweatshirt.

Yes, even professors (perhaps especially professors) have their irrational streaks.

And the worst part about the whole thing is that we're not even really in the baseball season anymore. It's the "post-season" now, and the modern post-season is nothing but an emotionally manipulative carnival in which our loyalty to particular teams, nurtured and tested and developed over the course of a long season, is mercilessly exploited for a series of contests that bear very little resemblance at all to regular-season baseball. I mean, the regular season is long enough that random fluctuations, by and large, get filtered out, but the post-season is so short and each individual game matters so much that a pair of errors and a bad start by a pitcher can pretty much doom you.

If regular-season baseball is a marathon, the post-season is a long-distance sprint. But a fan can't not watch, can't not care how her or his team is doing; team loyalty doesn't just turn on or turn off as the conditions of the game change. So even though rationally, intellectually, I know full well that the post-season is basically a crap shoot and the best team rarely actually wins in the end, it'd still be terrible to be eliminated by the Angels and not go on to play the White Sox -- and ultimately to play in the World Series. (Because, you know, I'm somehow a part of whatever happens to the team. So "we" are playing in Anaheim tonight, and "we" will go on to play in Chicago tomorrow, and so on…)

I feel emotionally exploited, but you can bet I'll be glued to the television tonight. First pitch, 8:19 EST.


Bang-ZOOM go the fireworks

At the end of each home game that the Washington Nationals won this year, fireworks were set off at RFK Stadium. Charlie Slowes, one of the Nationals' radio broadcasters, invariably let loose with a dramatic "bang-ZOOM go the fireworks!" call, which just punctuated the excitement of the Nats having emerged victorious.

I feel like setting off some fireworks and having that call applied to me right now, as I just performed the academic equivalent of pitching a perfect game. It was one of those presentations where everything just worked, from the tech accompaniment to the delivery to the audience response. I imagine that it was what a pitcher feels when they're pitching a perfect game, when all the pitches are just working, and you can't seem to make any mistakes: the curveball curves, the cut fastball darts, the change-up fools batters, and that marginal pitch right on the outside corner of the plate? You get the call, and the batter strikes out.

Obviously, a presentation isn't precisely the same as pitching a baseball game. It's less explicitly oppositional, for one thing; the goal is to reach the audience, not to retire them in order. But there's a similar sense of "being in the zone" when all the pitches are working, so that when questions (which might be thought of as swings of the bat) are tendered, they aren't anything that derails you.

I've only given presentations like that very rarely. One of the most memorable was my job talk back in November 1999, when I was campaigning for the job that I currently hold; another was the talk I gave to the Council on Comparative Studies about "civilizations" maybe four years ago. In all of these cases, once I start into the presentation, it's as if something other than myself takes control of the performance, and I'm just sitting back and watching what happens, as amazed as anyone else at how well things are working. It's an experience of being in form, performing well enough that everything seems both inevitable and wholly contingent at the same time: it felt as though I could have done anything and it would have worked out just as well as though it had been inevitably destined.

In that way I can't completely claim credit for the performance. Yes, I practice presenting; yes, I prepared this talk; yes, I went out there ready to give it my all. But the results -- those I feel like I can only be grateful for, grateful that everything went so well and that I was able to deliver a compelling performance.

And there were Apple people in the audience, several of whom said that they enjoyed what I did and that they were interested in having me do it again in the future. Me? Pitch for Apple? Hell yes. Sign me up. No compunctions whatsoever -- Apple is a company and obviously is interested in selling products and making profits, but I like what they produce and I'm more than happy to tell others and to show them what I have been able to do with Apple hardware and software. If my telling people produces more sales for the company, so be it. And it's not like pitching in that way would require me to make any compromises or to alter the content of what I'm doing, so why the heck not?

I'm not sure how well my perfect game translated to audio, but you can (if you're interested) download the podcast I made of the event during the event here.

[Posted with ecto]