A Little Something to Fight the Poison

Saturday, April 26, 2003

It's been a bad week for T.O.

The W.H.O. has blacklisted us, yes, but more importantly: our beloved Maple Leafs were thrashed by Philadelphia in Game 7, Tuesday night. It seems as if playing an extra 7 periods over the course of the series finally took its toll on Toronto's ageing cast. Key players such as Gary Roberts and Owen Nolan were never able to get it going, and Tomas Kaberle had an uncharacteristically gaffe-prone series.

To make matters worse, the scrappy Edmonton Oilers succumbed, yet again, to Dallas (a charter member of the Axis of Evil American hockey teams).

On the bright side, Ottawa and Vancouver are off to good starts in Round Two; and the following photo should make all Leafs fans chuckle...

Not if they're laughing at you...

A spokesman for Toronto's Mayor Mel Lastman, after Hizzoner's comic performance on CNN regarding the SARS outbreak:

' "...our intention is to get out the word that Toronto is safe, and in 48 hours we've changed a Toronto story into an international story, and people around the world are now talking about Toronto," [spokesman] Mr. Magnish said.'

I see. Having Jon Stewart call your mayor "a dick" on The Daily Show is exactly the kind of impression Toronto wants to leave with the world. For context, Lastman expressed concern a few years ago about traveling to Africa; he was concerned about him and the lady being placed in a pot of boiling water by cannibals. Incredibly, the purpose of Lastman's junket was to grub for votes, for Toronto's failed Olympics bid. Needless to say, his wit and wisdom was less than helpful.

Mayor Mel is thankfully leaving office in November -- sadly, seven months too late.
Wednesday, April 23, 2003
MARKING (HOW WE ASSIGN) MARKS: One of my pet issues in academia is how grades are assigned. Over in the Invisible Adjunct's blog, I got sucked into a discussion about grading. In particular, I found myself at odds with the position staked out by Liz Lawley, a multimedia and IT professor at RIT.
"I start most of my classes (as you well know) with the warning that if you do everything I ask of you, and do it properly, you've earned a B. To get an A, I tell them, you must go beyond the basics of what I've asked. This mystifies many of them, who have apparently developed the expectation that an A is their reward for showing up and completing assignments on time."
I have always been deeply worried by the reasoning behind making a "B" instead of an "A-" the baseline expectation for competent work done in the social sciences, and perhaps in the humanities as well (I hope that Liz doesn't object that I am interpreting the very interdisciplinary field of multimedia studies as part of the social sciences). This may be a result of my background: although I'm now in a field that's officially in the social sciences but is pretty close to the humanities (political theory), for a long time, I had a foot in the natural sciences as well. Now, I know that all of these different disciplines are entirely distinct herds of cattle, but when it comes to evaluation, I worry about the disparity between the methods used in them. This is especially important when we consider that grades have a distinctly pragmatic, as well as an evaluative/symbolic, face. It seems impossible to detach the reality of grades from their use in the workplace and by admissions committees.

So my concern is that in undergraduate math and natural science courses, there is in general not much of a subjective "going beyond the basics" component on their assignments. You can get an A--in fact, you can often get 100%-- for doing "everything that your prof asks of you and doing it properly." Granted, many math and science professors will want undergraduates to display a mastery of the material that exceeds "the basics" of what has been presented in the classes, but when it comes down to it, the standards of this mastery are in general transparent and predictable: if you can internalize, synthesize, and apply the facts, principles, or equations taught in class in a logical manner, then you get an A.*

In contrast, the "going beyond the basics" that humanities and social science instructors often demand as a necessary condition for an "A" (or "A-") is not easily explicable in cut-and-dried terms. Usually, to describe what is required, they will have to resort to rather flexible adjectives such as "interesting" and "creative." As a result, grading in these disciplines tends to seem opaque, unpredictable, and highly subjective. Although humanities and to a lesser degree social science courses have different aims than do natural science courses, I question whether the correct place to express the differences between these aims is in their evaluation methods. Because institutions perform arithmetic operations with grades (e.g. averaging them), they should in principle be cardinally comparable. Having qualitatively different types of standards between disciplines destroys this comparability--and, I may add, systematically disadvantages strong students who pursue the humanities and social sciences, as compared to mathematics and natural sciences.

In my view, evaluation is a means (and a necessarily corrupted one, since it is infused with non-academic imperatives) for aiding teaching and should never become an end in itself. And I am skeptical whether setting evaluative standards that aren't as transparent and predictable as possible really helps the ends of education. This is why I'd rather encourage students to develop the "something extra" that we hope the humanities instills in them in informal arenas and through informal means--through discussion and creative in-class activities, for example. What about fields that are based entirely, or principally, on creative expression? Multimedia design seems to have a pretty significant creative component, after all. Well, in these cases, I wonder as to the propriety of assigning grades at all, but this may be another kettle of fish entirely...

Lastly, I worry that such disparities may result in unfortunate incentives for students. We should expect students to have one eye on learning for the sake of learning and the other on advancing their career aspirations and design educational institutions to provide appropriate as opposed to perverse incentives. And from the point of view of a student who's equally good at both the arts and the sciences, courses with opaque standards are something to avoid: if I know that my abilities will earn me an A every time in the sciences (by meeting baseline standards of competence), but only sometimes in the humanities (because, in addition to meeting standards of baseline competence, I also need to obtain the professor's judgement that my work is "something special"), then it's not hard to see which I way I'll be encouraged to lean. Indeed, in my high school, the vast majority of my academically high achieving peers went into engineering or the natural sciences--I'm sure there were many other reasons for this besides the methods of evaluation, but if what I describe contributes to this very problematic trend, I think it's something that can concern us.

I also want to add a personal note: I'm a child of first-generation immigrants whom I remember repeatedly encouraging me to concentrate on the maths and sciences and discouraging me from pursuing the humanities because the latter are "subjective." My mom actually told me on many occasions: "Stick to math and science because there you can always get 100% no matter what your teachers think about you, as long as you can give them right answer. In English, your teacher can give you a lower grade for any reason he wants, maybe because he doesn't like you or because you're Asian, and you can't do anything about it." I doubt any of my teachers ever gave me a lower grade because of their personal feelings for me or my race, but I think it's important to recognize that my parents' sensibilities are hardly uncommon.

Anyway, I should get back to preforming some actual academic labour...

* I have heard that there are a minority of math and natural science professors who use the "math contest"-type system of testing--they give out assignments on which all of the questions are of such a high level of difficulty that they can only be solved with significant creative leaps. As a result, the marks come out very low--often even the top 10% of students might score below 35%. Then the prof uses a curve or some other formula to redistribute the grades into something human-looking. I personally think that this is a good way to create very irritated and perpetually twitchy human beings.
Sunday, April 20, 2003
NO INVASION FOR YOU, ONE YEAR! Or longer; or at least justified in a far less mendacious manner. This, I take it, is what Timothy Garton Ash means when he single-handedly declares America on probation. If only the opinion of thoughtful centre-left academics had enforceable jurisdiction over international affairs! Ash's verdict still makes a good read, though:
America can still prove, by what it does over the next few years in the Middle East, that it was right in what it did during this last month of war. On what I see at the moment, I fear that the United States will show itself to have been wrong. Not grotesquely, criminally wrong, but prudentially, politically wrong. Then "the judgment of history", invoked by Tony Blair in the House of Commons on Tuesday, may come in the famous words of Talleyrand: "It was worse than a crime; it was a mistake."
(via Brett Marston)
KINDLY CHECK OUT this thought on fascism from the always chamingly lower-case skippy. The lead-in by itself is worth more than the five seconds it'll take to surf to it:
let's get one thing straight. nobody wakes up and says, "hey, let's make this a fascist country." it comes in teeny tiny increments, too subtle to be noticed, until, suddenly, it's difficult to speak your mind in what you heretofore thought was a free country.
Something to remember, next time you hear a conservative pooh-poohing Ashcroft and the PATRIOT act or other assorted measures that are potentially dangerous to civil liberties.
WOULDN'T HAVE MADE THE NEWS IF IT HAD HAPPENED IN WASHINGTON: A great headline for an interesting "slice of post-traumatic Baghdad" story from The Globe and Mail:
Iraqi inmate finds himself running the asylum