Robot rights

From the "the distinction between social science and science fiction may not be all that great" department:

Robots could demand legal rights.

Courtesy of the BBC (of course).

The UK's chief science advisor commented that ""We're not in the business of predicting the future, but we do need to explore the broadest range of different possibilities to help ensure government is prepared in the long-term and considers issues across the spectrum in its planning." Where have I heard something like that before? Oh yes, here:

“All they’re [science fiction authors] trying to do is tell you what they’re like, and what you’re like—what’s going on—what the weather is now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight, look! Open your eyes: listen, listen.” (from Ursula LeGuin's Introduction to her marvelous novel The Left Hand of Darkness)

In both cases, we have imaginative extrapolation for the sake of shedding some light on the present -- and perhaps helping us prepare to face the future by revealing possibilities and potentialities that we weren't aware of before.

Food for thought.


Grading strategies

1) take breaks. I mean, my attention is going to wander anyway, so trying to just do nothing but grade for eight or nine hours is not really feasible. Hence, a number of timed breaks to browse the web, eat, etc. makes for a more productive grading experience overall.

2) switch courses and assignments. After a morning dealing with the blogs from one of my classes, I am now switching over to the final papers from another. This is good because a) the topics of the courses are somewhat different, so there's no sense of fatigue from remaining in the same intellectual place for too long; b) the formats of the assignments are different, so reading the final papers is a different experience than reading the blogs -- also helps me stay focused; and c) the cast of characters is different -- different students -- so there's a diminished likelihood than while grading student X's paper I'll be wondering whether student X's blogging or class participation was in fact as good or as poor as I graded it, and thus not be focused on student X's actual paper that is in front of me on the computer screen.

3) set aside several days. Sleep is a good thing -- kind of a system-reboot that allows me to start fresh the next day. Of course, the first thing I do at the start of a new grading day is to look back at the last thing I graded the night before, just to make sure I wasn't unfair (either unduly harsh or unduly generous) because of tiredness.

4) remember that it will all be over soon . . . especially in my case, because I am going on sabbatical next semester so I have zero teaching responsibilities until July. That's the prize on the other side -- the chance to read, to reflect, to catch up on some things and start some new ones. I love teaching -- it's the most important part of my vocation -- but sometimes even I need an extended break. (Not a "vacation"; those I get sometimes. No, I mean a break: a time to, as the ancients put it, let the fields lie fallow, and see what emerges.)

Everything changes in a couple of weeks, then -- it's hard to have "course diaries" when one isn't teaching a course. Got to do something about that. But first, more grading.


Virgin (lizard) births

Thanks to the magic of rss feeds, this little gem from the BBC:

"We will be on the look-out for shepherds, wise men and an unusually bright star in the sky over Chester Zoo."

Apparently, Komodo dragons are capable of parthogenesis. Who knew?

Scary Mary!

This is quite awesome:

Mashups are such fun.

Courtesy of Infocult.



This is hysterical, especially for those of us of a certain age who can remember incessantly playing Zork and other text-based adventure games:

And then I was eaten by a grue.

(It's about grading, really it is -- hence the post title.)

Courtesy of PTSD.

Shaking it up a bit

I'm redecorating here at ProfPTJ's blog. Why? Because I can, and because I have considerably more pressing things to do.

Blogging: useful, productive, and also potentially a major time-suck and way of avoiding actual work.



Interesting article in today's NYT about college tuition. It seems that many people are more interested in attending a college with a higher tuition than in attending a college with a lower tuition -- or even the same college with a lower tuition. Places like Ursinus College in Pennsylvania -- a place where I interviewed for a job once upon a time -- have discovered that by raising tuition, they can increase the number of applicants and enrollments. They increased their enrollments by 35% over four years.

Now, most of this increase is illusory, because the colleges that have made this work end up increasing student financial aid by a comparable, or even greater, amount than than the tuition increase itself. But the strategy seems to be working. Among other things, the article reports on "a study asking students to choose between a college charging $20,000 and offering no aid, and one charging $30,000 and offering a $10,000 scholarship. Students chose the pricier option." I find this fascinating both because it's strictly speaking irrational (both institutions cost $20,000 out of pocket) and because of what it implies about what people are looking for in a college: some kind of prestige label? A demonstration of Veblen-eqsue "conspicuous consumption"? Or is this just another demonstration of the consumerist logic that more expensive products must be better, otherwise they wouldn't be so expensive? [This last is a very misleading claim, actually, since it implicitly rests on the idea that the market sets fair prices for goods…which is precisely what is not happening in this case, even though the belief that it is seems to be driving the consumption behavior in question.]

This little bit of "creative accounting" also says, distressingly, that a certain group of Americans seem to believe that higher education is the exclusive province of rich people. There's something inherently daunting about a tuition in the $30-$40,000 a year range, even if a not inconsiderable amount of that figure comes back to the student in the form of financial aid and other credits. And let's be honest: the vast majority of universities don't need to take in anywhere like that much in tuition. Yes, faculty salaries have to be paid and facilities management have to be paid for, but in many places the endowment and other categories of alumni giving are sufficient to cover a lot of those expenses. So why not cut tuition and just make the whole endeavor more affordable? Apparently, the reason is in no small part so that a university isn't perceived as offering a discount or cut-rate product.

I wonder what it is about education that prevents the "normal" logic of the market from working to drive prices down to the lowest level commensurate with continued operations. In almost any other market, if one could offer a quality product cheaper then one could reap major benefits until the other producers either lowered their prices or produced demonstrably better-quality products. Maybe it's the lack of a standard metric for evaluating the output of an educational process -- and by "lack" I mean less "regrettable absence" than "fortunate ambiguity about what it means to be educated." [I say "fortunate" because although I have my own ideas on that subject, ideas that revolve around a kind of critical disposition, I know that not everyone else in higher education shares them -- so the absence of a standard metric means that I can keep on making the case for my definition rather than having to conform to an established definition.] Or maybe it's the fact that so much of what one buys when attending a pricey, prestigious institution of higher education is the brand name rather than any particular educational experiences. Or maybe it's the fact that the market for higher education is divided into oligopolistic cliques, a situation that prevents genuinely open competition.

In any event, these kinds of perverse pricing strategies seem to work in the academic marketplace. But even if they work, they make me uneasy; raising tuition and simultaneously raising financial aid seems to me to be entirely too ethically questionable a move. I'd greatly prefer that colleges and universities develop better ways of communicating their distinctive take on the educational process, so that students and their parents could be informed shoppers (as it were). The question shouldn't be "how much are we paying for this?" but rather "what are we getting for our money?" There are obviously a lot of answers to that question, and I think it incumbent on a college or university to accurately set expectations up front when recruiting and publicizing. We should talk more about the experience, and let the tuition figures take care of themselves (which means: let tuition bills be set based on operating expenses and the like, and not on watching peer institutions and trying to charge as much as they charge). An institution of higher education ought to be more about embodying a vision than about turning a profit -- or about charging as much as it can get away with charging, just because it can. Better to attract students through an innovative program than through duplicitous tuition bills.

[It occurs to me that "ProfPTJ's Course Diaries" may not be an accurate or representative title for this blog, because I talk about more than just my course experiences here. Hmm. Have to give that some more thought.]



Interesting article by Robert O'Hara over at insidehighered.com entitled "Hogwarts U." O'Hara runs The Collegiate Way, a treasure-trove of anecdotes and resources devoted to advancing the movement towards residential colleges in American higher education; he calls for a rather radical transformation of the undergraduate experience in a surprisingly ancient direction -- away from administratively-centralized universities, and towards smaller colleges, even if several of those colleges co-habitate the same university space. The basic idea here is to divide up the undergraduate population of a university into several smaller colleges, thus creating a more intimate community for the students (and faculty) to participate in as they engage both in courses and in extracurricular activities. It's a British house system, in effect, and since such a system is most familiar to American undergradiates from J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels, O'Hara alludes to that model when making his case for smaller residential units.

O'Hara puts forth "four organizational principles: decentralization, faculty leadership, social stability and genuine diversity" that should govern the establishment and management of residential college units. Decentralization gives us the intimate connections that a large centralized organization often lacks; social stability gives us a set of rituals and traditions that help the community (re)create itself over time; genuine diversity gives us a microcosm of the whole population out of which community can be (re)created. All of these are indeed, to my mind, critical. But the most vitally important of O'Hara's principles, I feel, is the principle of faculty leadership, without which a small college can turn into a kind of extended summer-camp. After all, the really distinctive thing about higher education is its educational character, and the bearers of that educational character are -- no surprise here -- the faculty, since that's what the faculty (ideally) does: they think about things, and then teach students what they uncover in the course of that thinking. And they facilitate student encounters with rich material, and with one another, and with the faculty-members themselves.

I'm not saying -- certainly not -- that no one else can bear that educational function. But to try to construct a residential college without faculty leadership would strike me as a waste of the best educational resource that one already has on a university campus. As O'Hara comments, residential colleges "return the management of campus life to the faculty" because "as faculty-led academic societies, are consciously crafted to provide a wide range of informal educational opportunities for their members day and night, week after week, year after year. Their object is to ensure that students’ formal learning in the classroom is integrated in every way with their external life in the world." Obviously this takes collaboration with the capable managers of the physical facilities, and with the rest of the administrative apparatus that ensures that students' needs are met. But I agree with O'Hara: the faculty have to lead it, because the faculty have the clearest sense of what that educational function is. It is, after all, their vocations.

Our University College is something of the kind of college that O'Hara advocates. It's still a pilot project, but it does decentralize certain aspects of the university and provide ample opportunities for collaboration and outside-of-the-classroom learning encounters. What it has not done, as yet, is to build much in the way of a group consciousness or awareness; there are all-University College events from time to time, but not the kind of continuing sense of participation in a common enterprise that, say, Gryffindor House provides. Perhaps it's because we don't compete with other houses for points throughout the year. Perhaps it's because the various members of University College don't live in the same place (although those enrolled in each course do live together). And maybe it's because we don't have an Albus Dumbledore -- or, indeed, any Headmaster.

All of these things would be useful at enhancing the sense of University College community, but in some ways I almost think that the appointment of a Headmaster would be the easiest and most significant. Someone who could be a living representative of the College, both a visible symbol and a permanent advocate. That, and a quidditch team, is perhaps all that stands between us and Hogwarts.


Saving the best for last

Sometimes, one needs a whole semester of class in order to get to the point -- intellectually, socially, culturally -- where one can have a really outstanding discussion. Something that just catches fire and overflows the banks, something that appears to have no order or logic to it at all because it's just rushing along like a river sweeping up everything in its path, going every which way at once…but somehow still connecting, both in the sense that the points seem to hang together and in the sense that everyone participates and contributes and helps out.

I was fortunate enough to have two of those class discussions in the past two days -- and one other really nice small-group session on Hegel. Actually, all of them were yesterday; not that today's discussion in World Politics wasn't quite good, but the tempo of it was somewhat subdued. These other discussions were wild, frenetic, in ways that my World Politics class has been at other times during the semester. But apparently my other two courses were waiting until the end of the semester to really let loose.

1) the most eclectic, bizarrely energetic discussion I've had in any classroom in a long time was in yesterday's sci-fi seminar. The starting-point was Iain M. Banks's brilliant novel Look to Windward, which is about liberal empire and suicide bombing and faith (among other things). Okay, that was the book we read, but the real starting-point was a student presentation on "World of Warcraft" that began with a demonstration of how to create a character and run around killing wolves and stuff, which was followed by a longish conversation about the differences between the "real" and "virtual" worlds -- and, naturally, some wrestling with the question of whether religions were in some sense virtual environments. (I say "naturally" because if you've read the novel, it's an obvious leap.) Then we had a break, and during the break a student drew a mathematical puzzle involving a triangle divided into parts on the chalkboard, and when we got back no one was really concentrating on the discussion as they tried to figure out the puzzle…so I stopped the discussion, and we collectively worked on the puzzle, which required a detour into trigonometry and plane geometry, which somehow got us to a discussion about fractals and mathematical truth and scientific truth and religious truth. And then Iraq, and a long bit about the oddity of copyright law and socially established standards of all kinds…then some more about Iraq and intervention and certainty in/and politics, which ended up (several minutes after class was supposed to end) with my blunt statement about the role that faith plays in Banks' novel, and how it is about surpassing knowledge and leaping into an abyss. Exhilarating.

2) neat little session on Hegel, during which two students and I spent some time ruminating on the legacy of the Enlightenment and the persistent drive to "make sense of it all" -- and whether, perhaps, that drive itself wasn't actually our perennial cultural and political problem? A bit more subdued, but high quality.

3) and then, the nightcap: in Masterworks, where we were dealing with Michael Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars, we spent a bit of time tossing things back and forth about the book when all of a sudden things kind of clicked and we really got into the low-level operation of the text, the way that the argument proceeds without really spelling out the logical steps involved but instead presses its points by appealing to sets of commonplaces (WWII good, My Lai massacre bad) with which it is hard to disagree, but then knits those commonplace images and shorthand references into a compelling chain of propositions that, nevertheless, doesn't stand up to criticism on empirical, logical, or methodological grounds -- but which is still oddly compelling nonetheless. "You can pick it apart, and pick it apart, and pick it apart, but there's still something there," I remember saying at one point. "It's not a disciplinary something, but it's not that easy to ignore." It either bothers you or it reassures you, but either way, it has an effect without being, strictly speaking, defensible by the standards of more specialized scholarship. This led to a longer meditation on the difference between disciplinary scholarship and the works of a public intellectual, which eventually got us to a point where we were worrying over the universality of claims that don't insist on their strongly universal character but which still aren't satisfied by being thought of as one person's opinion.

Excellent experiences all. And none of them were planned. I had no idea where we were going when I walked into any of the three of them; I just did my usual thing of pressing points as they arose, following threads as they presented themselves, weaving strands together somewhat freely and trusting that they'd turn out all right somehow…which they did. Brilliantly. It was true joint action at its best: no one of us did it, but we all did it collectively.

In the end, that's why I love teaching.


In the light of yesterday's discussion in my sci-fi seminar about MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, let me point out this new brand of crack that "they" are busily concocting in a lab someplace:

Firefly Reborn As Online Universe

All I can say, mixing cult sci-fi universes for a moment, is "frack me." That, and: "remember, kids, the first hit is free, but then you have to start paying by the dose." No one should ever let me anywhere near this game, because I might never come back out into rl.

But surely one hit wouldn't be so bad, right? No. NO. Keep that sh*t away from me.

But man do I want to dive in and play it when it's released.

Peanut butter and jelly

Taking off my jacket in my office after class yesterday, I was surprised and mortified to encounter a glob of something sticky on the inside of one of the lapels. Upon closer examination, it was revealed to be a dollop of peanut butter and jelly, which had presumably been deposited there when I ate my sandwich during one of the most amazingly eclectic class discussions I have ever had the good fortune to officiate in my teaching career (I'll say more about that in another post later today). Now, I ate my sandwich during the first hour or a two-and-a-half-hour class, and then got into my car and drove back over to the parking lot and then walked, accompanied, to the residence hall in which my office is located. And I didn't take off my jacket for several minutes after arriving, spending that time doing a few administrative tasks in full view of more than one student. When I did take off my jacket and found the offending smear, I also discovered that the substance had managed to get on both jacket lapels and on my tie, necessitating the dry cleaning of the whole outfit (since a little water from the bathroom sink was insufficient to dispose of the mess).

But here's the really important question: why did no one point this out to me? Why didn't someone say something? Was it because:

1) no one else saw it;

2) people saw but didn't think it appropriate to mention the fact that I was wearing part of my lunch;

3) people saw but figured that I had some kind of bizarre good reason for having a pb&j suit-and-tie combination;

4) people saw it but thought it was just completely normal and in-character for me to have food on my suit?

Puzzling. Intriguing in an ethnomethodological sense, too.


Watchmen parody

Okay, this is a bit twisted, but i found it hysterical:

Inkblot Confronts The Black Heart of Humanity

I suspect it's considerably less funny if you haven't read Watchmen -- and if you haven't, please go and do so now. Now. NOW.

I know I am running a couple of days behind on my 15 minutes of daily blogging. I'll try to make it up tomorrow. Now, more grading to do. Sigh.

World Politics Question #11, er, #12

Call this a "time machine" question: try a thought-experiment, thinking yourself ahead one hundred years to 2106. Will "introduction to world politics" courses still begin with a discussion of sovereignty and the system of sovereign territorial states? Will world politics be organized into such a system a hundred years from now, or not? Why?

[Yes, this is actually question #12. Sorry.]


Fifteen more minutes

I did my fifteen minutes of blogging yesterday -- more, in fact. And more than fifteen more minutes this morning. The result is over at Duck.