Our local public radio station, WNYC, generates quite a few excellent shows, including Radio Lab. Although Radio Lab “is heard around the country on over 150 stations” as they put it, their episodes can be accessed anytime via the web or as a podcast, if you’re like me and into that sort of thing.

On my way to work today I listened to a show of theirs from 2005 entitled “Emergence” in which the two hosts try to unpack, in a remarkably sophisticated and subtle way, how larger-scale order arises out of smaller-scale randomness and chaos, how a whole bunch of dumb things (like individual neurons or ants) can somehow coalesce or cooperate into a smart thing (a conscious thought or an effecient ant colony).*

This is a great episode of a great show. It goes a long way to communicating the wonder and difficulty of problems in consciousness and brain research, how even the simplest examples of the mind at work quickly leave us unsure exactly how to ask the right questions.

*Disclaimer: Though I don’t know Christof Koch personally, I’ve been rather involved in an organization he’s helped to create and to maintain, namely the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness. Not trying to shill or to promote, though. And the section of the show where he’s interviewed is really quite touching.


I just came across an interesting exchange on the Chronicle Forums regarding what to do when you receive a Revise & Resubmit response to a submitted article. It’s a good question and the advice contained in the responses is quite valuable. Well worth the read.

The summer swallowed me whole, as I suspected it would.

Knowing me as I do, I’ll probably get going again soon.

I’ve been thinking about the recent revelations involving (now former) MIT Dean of Admissions, Marilee Jones. As more or less everyone now knows, Jones actually had in fact fabricated her own academic credentials, right down to her bachelors degree, which she completed at a school she never listed on her CV.

(Aside: There seems to be a lot of the karmic/ironic flu going around — e.g., Wolfowitz dedicating his World Bank to rooting our corruption when he himself engages in more than a little to place his girlfriend in a silk-lined sinecure; Randall Tobias, administrator of the Agency for International Development that tied aid for AIDS assistance to denouncing prostitution, resigned due to his involvement in the current D.C. prostitution scandal; Jones sitting in judgment of the academic credentials of young hopefuls despite not having them herself, etc.)

One obvious response triggered by the incident is: So what? If she did her job well, who cares whether she had various degrees from top-shelf institutions?

Well, setting aside the decades of lying (which is difficult to do), this type of response implicitly assumes that what’s important in most professional instances is whether a person can do a job as opposed to whether a person (appears?) capable of doing it. Or, as James Fallows from The Atlantic Online wrote regarding Jones’s case (and the included links are his):

Like Matthew Yglesias and Ross Douthat, I agree that the scandalized reaction to news that Jones faked a college degree is way, way out of proportion. Clearly she could do her job; no one has ever suggested that she was anything but inspiring in it. Back in 1985, I even wrote a cover story in the Atlantic about exactly this sort of nuttiness. It was called “The Case Against Credentialism,” and it argued that whenever performance really mattered — when you were fighting a war you really had to win, when you were running a business struggling to survive, when you were coaching a team for the big game — people quickly learned to ignore pedigree and degrees and concentrate on what someone could actually do. (Think: Ulysses S. Grant.) It’s only when you have the luxury of a genteel, not-really-measurable- or-crucial level of performance (Think: foundations, many parts of academia or civil service) that you could afford to be picky about whether someone had “prepared” in the proper way.

Yglesias makes essentially the same point — namely that we need to find a way to “spread” the skills college credentials supposedly signal as opposed to getting distracted by the credentials themselves.

I have much sympathy for this line of argument, though I do basically agree with Fallows that regarding the Jones case in particular:

All that applicants for admission can be judged on, really, is their previous performance and preparation. Those are important mainly as proxies for potential achievement, but since they’re the only things colleges can judge, the person in charge of assessing them can’t afford to have been dishonest about her own background. Marilee Jones’s sin was trivial in the big view; unfortunately she held the one job where it was more like a grave offense.

Still, Fallows’s example of academia (among a few other places/occasions) where pedigree matters more than performance, didn’t quite sit well with me. He’s careful, of course — he says “many parts of academia” instead of simply “academia,” and he’s not (ostensibly) denying that progress occurs in those “luxurious” realms. Nevertheless, the basic oppositions prove a little distasteful — viz., where performance really matters and where it doesn’t, possessing a pedigree or degrees and being able to do something.

Fallows is a serious guy, so I wanted to hear more. In his recent Jones post, he links (included above) to an old article of his called “The Case Against Credentialism.” I’m off to have a look, and I’ll say a thing or two about it if it turns out to be relevant or revealing in some way or other.

is that you can be fired at any time for just about any reason. Example: Nicholas Winset was recently let go from his adjunct position at Emmanuel College in Boston, with only two weeks remaining in the semester, for discussing the Virginia Tech shootings in class. In doing so, he pretended to shoot some of his students (and one student pretended to shoot him). According to Winset, the college’s administration had encouraged faculty, as the Globe puts it, “to engage students on the issue.” Winset (allegedly) did as he was told:

The five-minute demonstration last Wednesday included a discussion of gun control, whether to respond to violence with violence, and the public’s “celebration of victimhood,” he said.

Why was he dismissed? The Globe reports:

The college said on Monday that Winset’s firing “had nothing to do with academic freedom” but rather “his insensitivity toward the students who were murdered at Virginia Tech” and “his use of obscene and discriminatory language which is not tolerated from students, faculty or staff at this institution.”

Winset was “disparaging the victims as rich white kids combined with an obscene epithet. He did not do this as part of an open debate with his students,” the statement said.

Many have come to his defense (e.g.) crying academic-freedom-foul (and a late call, at that). And his students don’t seem to have been upset by the incident (though one wonders how the administration came to know about his demonstration).

As always, though, things are no doubt more complicated: True, the administration can’t encourage its faculty to “engage” students on this topic without granting some freedom to broach potentially explosive topics such as gun control, violence in America, and even victimhood as such. Winset, however, doesn’t really need to make his point, whatever it ultimately was, using obscene epithets (whatever they were).

More important, it’s questionable in the first place whether a lecturer specializing in financial accounting should be devoting any of his class time to unpacking cultural issues. Academic freedom, traditionally understood, shields academics from external political whim when they pursue their expertises where they lead. My guess is that Winset hasn’t published or taught that much on American violence, gun or otherwise, and its victims.

Sure, he says he only took five minutes for discussion. Okay, but if that’s true, he wasn’t really engaging students in any meaningful way, instead either glancing off the deeper issues or asserting a position without leaving much time for student rumination. Which gives a little purchase to the administration’s claim that Winset didn’t frame his comments “as part of an open debate with his students.” I wasn’t there, admittedly, so I don’t know.

In any event, one clear lesson is that if you’re an adjunct these days, you’re better off not pointing a dry-erase marker — or probably anything else for that matter — at your students.

(Hat tip: My own students for drawing my attention to this incident.)

Gotta respect the cigarette and the horn-rims. Presentation is everything.

(Hat tip to E Hayot at Printculture.)

It’s somewhat anemic but there it is.

And as, I suppose, an “elite academic” I can’t help but point out a confusion contained early on in the entry between the way academics might view each other and the way academics view non-academics.

I’m starting this blog as a space to work through some of my ideas about what an academic actually does and the difficulties of trying to make one’s way in academia. So there.

Interestingly, perhaps, I wondered for a while what would be an appropriate name for the blog and project, and “Almost Academic” seemed to fit as neatly as any. In looking to launch the blog, I first went to Blogger (primarily because of familiarity, I suppose), and found the domain name for almost academic already taken. Turns out that an overworked academic already homesteaded there, though she’s only managed to put up two posts in something like three years. Teaching nine classes plus finishing a dissertation might explain the sparse archives.

The fact that that blog exists—and is in the shape it’s in—speaks to what I’m going to be talking about here. Is what I’m saying.

And WordPress isn’t that bad: look at them with a theme that includes Very Old Books.

You said it:

"That the data from controlled experimentation should be accepted in preference to subjective reports can hardly be questioned."

—Norman R. F. Maier, "Reasoning in Humans: II. The Solution of a Problem and Its Appearance in Consciousness,"Journal of Comparative Psychology, 1931, 12, 181-194.

Copyright © 2007 Roblin Meeks. All rights reserved.