Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Scholar's Creed

Drawing from my new book:

Bottom Line Up Front (=BLUF). 
    Where's the beef (the contribution)? 
    Everything is Like Something Else.

Do what you are supposed to do, now. 
    Perform at your personal best, 
          or the competition may bury you. 
    Force the evolution of your work, 
          and sell it to the world.

Beware of oncoming trucks. 
    Never give weapons to your enemies.

Would you buy a used car from this dean or chair? 
    Deans can count, but they don't read.

Living well is the best revenge.

Excellent Work

When I am reading a promotion dossier or a scholarly paper or a student's paper, I am first asking if the work is good. Does it meet sensible expectations? Is it well written and supported? Is it fishy--plagiarized, unedited, ...

As I am reading, I may discover there is lots more there than I would have expected. The contribution to scholarship is significant. The student paper could have been written by a distinguished colleague. (It has no gaping holes or problems, although that is also demanded for good work.) Perhaps the work violates all the conventional rules, but stands on its own, and is manifestly outstanding--rare but possible. I discover that the work or the paper is excellent, and I want to share it with colleagues.

Excellent student work in my university context is impeccable scholarship and exhibits consistent critical thinking. Excellent faculty work makes a strong contribution to the scholarly enterprise.

In the world of Harry Potter, there are passing grades: Acceptable, Exceeds Expectations, and Outstanding. For me, excellent work really is outstanding. Sometimes excellent work just exceeds my expectations, and I am grateful for it.

Scholarship and Critical Thinking

The scholarly enterprise is a dialectical one, where people make arguments presumably based on evidence and earlier work, and where others take apart those arguments and also make counter-arguments. One refers to the scholarly sources to show that one is in touch with this conversation, and is aware of its subtleties.

While plagiarism is a recurrent problem, the main purpose of references to the scholarly literature is to indicate your being in touch with that literature. Definitions and notions are sophisticated, and it is likely that even an authoritative dictionary won't settle the meaning of terms in scholarly discourse. (My favorite example is the use of "collaboration" as in collaborative planning. Used in that context, its meaning is clear. But all I can think of is Nazi collaborators, highlighted for me by the famous Robert Capa photograph of an alleged French collaborator after WWII, her hair cut off. I should note there is now some criticism of these photograph and what was done. There are many such photographs.)

Critical thinking skills mean that you not only know how to make an argument, but you indicate you are aware of the problems with your argument. That may be explicit, it may be in notes. You know that history is likely to be presented with a certain bias (but professional historians readily acknowledge their orientations, and that is part of their argument), so that simple stories of progress are surely nonsense. You know that an argument that has an uncritical or unscholarly section is likely to fall apart no matter how strong are the other parts.

Moreover, in scholarship and in critical thinking the idea that one might quantify everything, or most things, is generally thought to be a mistake. Judgments can be justified, but not always or often quantified. On the other hand, Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow points out how often quantified judgments might well be powerful, but what is then quantified is very different than what most people pay attention to. (Think of the movie Moneyball.) Clinical judgments might well be replaced by statistical tests, the diagnosing psychologist by an Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) or its more recent successors.

One of the most interesting phenomena these days are automatic grading of essay questions, and the correspondence of those grades with those of readers of the essays. What you need to attend to are the poorly corresponding cases, to find out if you are missing important stuff: very poor essays that pass, and excellent essays that are missed.

More generally, you want to ask;

Who says? Who disagrees? Why?
Are there interesting analogies with other cases?
What are the specific meanings of notions in this field or discipline?

Here is what I wrote to one student:

There are two features of doctoral work that distinguish it from work done earlier in one's education:
     a. Reference to and acknowledgement of the scholarly literature. In other words, when you write a paper, you must deal with those who support your position and those who do not, and in particular you must be fair to all of them. By "fair" I mean that you have to represent their positions adequately, and deal with their support and objections to your own position. You may have strong feelings and an articulated position, but you must be able to deal then and there with objections. 
    b. You must think critically. This is a bit more general than a. Namely, you want to be twice as critical of your own position, so that you can be able to see its flaws and indicate how you might deal with them. 

Most popular writing on a position may present strong arguments, but usually it does not deal adequately with the scholarly literature and often is much less critical than it is advocacy. 

When you want to write a rationale for changing public policy, you would need to deal with the current orthodoxy and why it might make sense. On the other hand, were you being an advocate with no claims to scholarship, you will surely leave gaping holes in your argument but also be much more emotionally convincing.

As for procedures: If you have a problem with a course, your first recourse is to see the instructor. The university rules say that administrators come in afterward, if you are not satisfied with the resolution. Students should be empowered to deal directly with their instructors. (Of course, you are welcome to seek counsel from whoever you wish.) I don't want you to give up a proactive stance.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Is ace-ing a course, getting an A, about real excellence?

1. I just got a call from a student who said more or less, "My goal is to have a 4.0 average in my graduate work. I've always received A's. Why did I get a B+?" He wanted to know what he had needed to do to get an A, and told me he had done everything I had recommended on his draft. What was missing that he did not get an A?

{I have been going through the page proofs of the book drawn from my blog: The Scholar's Survival Manual. What is striking is the recurrence of certain problems. So my description here is much like my earlier description in that book. I think of a blog as a diary, and hence I do not worry much about repetitions in entries. Of course, once you set it up as a book, you try to cut repetition.

{My other discovery was that when I ask colleagues' and staff for advice about the university rules, they look knowingly at me, as if they too have encountered this situation. Now Pride Goeth Before The Fall. But I would rather think of this as a matter of not getting driving tickets and so keeping your insurance rates as low as possible. It's unlikely that your not getting a ticket over a multi-year period is a matter of your flawless driving and scrupulous traffic officers, although I am sure there are such people. You just finally get caught, for something minor, perhaps. Similar issues come up in criminology, where perpetrators get caught because they keep taking risks rather than just stopping. This stopping problem is a nice exercise in probability theory.}

I try to help students get stronger and do better work.  A's are for excellent work, and I take that to mean that I am proud to show the work to my colleagues. B's are for good work. My goal is to make it possible for all students to get at least a B, and when I fail at least a B-.  Only if they are negligent do they earn lower grades.

I have no problem changing a grade if I am incorrect in my assessment of the work, having reread it at the behest of the student. I try not to give a lower grade if the work is worse than I originally thought.

2. As to what is missing: If you choose a topic that won't allow you to excel, it's hard to do A work. If you have a mechanical notion of school work, it is unlikely that you will do well. Put differently, if you do not have a critical sense, you are unlikely to do a excellent work. For example, if you give an account of the history of participation in urban planning, and treat it as a story of progress and positive "evolution," you miss just what's interesting, including backtracking, and you mistake the notion of evolution for the notion of gradual change. Evolution does not go anywhere, it just goes--at least if we are Darwinians.

3. As in life: Talent matters. Inventiveness matters. Thoughtfulness matters. But you can learn to be a critical thinker. It's just what you don't learn when you do well in high school and often in undergraduate school (this is terrible, but it seems true).

4. By the way, I can't figure out what grades have to do with anything in doctoral work. People want to see your thesis work, and figure out how you can help them. Grades are the last thing on their minds. For master's candidates, who want to enter a doctoral program, or enter a professional school, I can see how they might be concerned about their grades. Most crucially, they should be concerned about the letters of reference that will be written by their teachers, and one might go:

     "Mr. Potter did B+ work in my class, but I was impressed by his inventiveness and industry, the quality of his thinking, and his knowledge. I would choose him over most of the A students because what is needed in our discipline is that inventiveness, industry, and thinking."


      "Mr. Malfoy did A work in my class. He writes well. However, I would be reluctant to have him join my research group, his formal excellence does not extend to independent research work. I am sure he will graduate with a 4.0 average. I am sure that he will thrive in the right doctoral program. But I doubt that he would thrive in ours given its demands for independence and inventiveness."

5. I have been thinking back to my college life, 1960-1964 at Columbia. I was a klutz, and in effect I half sleepwalked through my education. There was no way I would get a 4.0 average: I did not know how to use Cliff's Notes and their equivalents, I took courses that I thought were important and knew that it was quite unlikely I would get an A, and some of the time I really did not know how to study (surely in the humanities, but sometimes in science and mathematics).  The legal scholar Richard Epstein was in one of my classes and he was sophisticated and smart and interesting. And one of my classmates who did not stand out in physics, as far as I knew, went on to a very distinguished career as an experimental physicist. So I had a sense of where I stood, and it was good but nowhere at the top. Of course, everyone knew that "the top" predicted nothing about your future, at least when compared to slightly below the top.

I had some idea that I wanted a liberal education, so study of political theory, social theory, great books, literature, etc, all seemed appropriate. I had to figure out what I would major in (mathematics, philosophy, physics), and I studied physics because it was something I could do well, and liked--one learned how the world worked!, while mathematics was "too hard" and seemed to require a gift I did not have. (In retrospect, my teachers could have given me the training so that I could have had more of that gift, but it was sink or swim. It was a matter of election.)

I am sure some students had 4.0's. We were allowed to get A+, so it was possible to be imperfect yet have a 4.0. I have no idea if they turned out to have great futures as professionals or whatever. I had this crazy idea that I wanted an education.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Collected Years

senior prom, 2013

Some things in life are instantaneous. Some good and some not so good. Most things are a process though. Motherhood is this way. We seem to constantly be in the process of something with our children. And it can be so painful. Sometimes I, well, maybe often, I feel so lost, wondering what all I have done or not done that has helped or hurt her.

When they are little, it's more physical things, like how many inches they grew since their last check-up. Or when the next tooth is coming in. As they grow up not only do they not need us as physically anymore; playing in the sandbox or running around the backyard with them, but we begin a different process. Wondering when we'll see if the foundation we've given them has taken root. As our kids start to grow in their "grown" years, and they start detaching and finding independence outside us, and exploring with self-expression, they need us more than ever around the clock emotionally and mentally. It can be exhausting but we know that relationship is key in guiding them. But still we wait. It's a process.

Then you start to see your kid is loved genuinely by all "cliques" in school and their teachers because you taught them when they were in pre-school to befriend everyone and that we are all created equal. You see their leadership skills in action because you taught them to get involved in grade-school and to help others who might need it. You told them to let their light shine, so they could be a blessing to others. You see them immersed in activities because you encouraged them to do whatever they wanted and to try new things, and to follow through. You see them thriving with community because you showed them your whole life how important it was to do life with others. You see them loving God and others, and worshipping God because when they were 4 you told them how loving He is but that it was their choice to love Him back and to give Him their heart, because He is a genuine God and wants our love to be real. It's when you see your daughter wear a purity ring at the age of 13 because you taught her that she doesn't have to conform, and you see her have courage and no shame in wearing it and standing for something that is important to her. You see her interact with adults so nicely because you taught her manners are timeless and to say "please and thank you" at the age of 6 months, and to be social. These are the sorts of things we wait so anxiously for, wondering what their next heart move will be. And when you see it, you are blown away in amazement because it's so beautiful. You are profoundly humbled, not by what you have taught them or instilled in them, but because of what they chose to do with what they were given. I've waited nearly 20 years for this.

I will see my daughter graduate in 2 weeks, and she will take her collected years, moments, teachings, and guidance into her new life and I will be sitting there at the commencement with every possible good thing overflowing in my heart, ready to spill out because this girl has done my heart and soul, so so good.



Last week, a fascinating report landed in my email inbox.

Published by the Carbon Trust and Shell UK, “Low Carbon Entrepreneurs: the new engines for growth” looks at the critical role that small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) can play in the low carbon sector. This includes both nuclear and renewable power, transport and activities within various manufacturing and services industries that essentially contribute, either directly or indirectly, towards reducing environmental impacts or adapting to environmental changes.

Whilst some may believe that it is still a relatively small industry, it was one of the few sectors to grow during the recent recession and it is estimated that such green business accounted for over a third of the economic growth in 2011/12. Indeed, the low carbon economy is estimated to be worth over £120 billion to the UK and currently employs 940,000 people.

And the good news is that the market is set to grow, driven by small dynamic companies that are focused on international opportunities. For example, a survey from the report shows that almost forty percent of low carbon SMEs are already exporting despite the fact that the majority have a turnover of less than a half a million pounds. Given that the global low carbon industry is forecast to be worth £4 trillion by 2015, this is certainly a sector that demands further support in its development.

Yet, when we look at the five main locations for the growth of low carbon SMEs in recent years, the report shows that the most successful areas have been London, Cambridge, Oxford, West Yorkshire and Hampshire.This must be enormously disappointing, but something of a challenge, for North Wales, where Anglesey has not only been branded as the ‘energy island’ as a result of potential investments into nuclear and wind power but, more importantly, has recently been given enterprise zone status by the Welsh Government to drive forward this sector. In addition, the status of Bangor University as having one of the highest concentrations of environmental science students in the UK means that there is a local skill base already available for businesses in the sector.

However, all is not lost. According to the report, the most common reasons for a low carbon SME’s current location were access to talented people and support from the local innovation network, both of which could be developed locally if the new Science Park touted for the Menai area focuses specifically on energy and low carbon sectors. More importantly, two thirds of low carbon firms would move location if there was regional funding available to help the business. This is certainly a vital lesson for those who are putting together the financial ‘offering’ that the Anglesey Enterprise Zone will have in order to attract businesses to the island in the future.

But there are also opportunities to develop new dynamic businesses in the region. A survey of participants in the Shell Livewire programme, the biggest online community for young entrepreneurs aged 16-30, shows that almost a third say they would like to start a new low carbon business or get involved in the low carbon economy but don’t know how to go about doing it.

Given this, there is certainly a real chance for North Wales to focus its efforts on helping young people within the region to get into the low carbon economy and to help build up a cluster of businesses in this sector. Therefore, whilst North Wales has been slow in getting into this growing sector, it does have several competitive advantages that, if managed properly, could see the region emerging as one of the main low carbon areas of the UK during the next five years and creating hundreds, if not thousands, of highly paid skilled jobs in the local economy.

Monday, May 20, 2013


Last week, a report was published that, woefully, received little attention from the Welsh media but could, if implemented, have a transformational effect on the way that public services are delivered here in Wales.

Funded by NESTA, 'State of Innovation: Wales Public Services and the Challenge of Change' should be compulsory reading for every senior manager within government and the public sector in Wales. Authored by Matthew Gatehouse and Adam Price, the facts from the report were startling.

More than two thirds of our economic output comes from the public sector, a situation that is compounded by low private sector productivity, which means Wales remains the poorest part of the UK.

Nearly a fifth of the Welsh population is aged over 65, which is a higher proportion than the UK as a whole, putting pressure on an already stretched health and social care system that will only increase as life expectancy improves.

Pockets of Wales, especially in postindustrial areas, have some of the worse health of any parts of the UK, with 27 per cent of economic inactivity due to long-term sickness.  In addition, we also have higher comparative levels of child poverty.

Whilst in the past, governments have dealt with such issues by merely throwing money at them in the good times, that scenario is now at an end. Welfare spending is set to fall dramatically over the next few years and the funding that the Welsh Government receives from the Treasury will continue to reduce.

In the past, such government cuts have been accepted with largely a shrug of the shoulders, some industrial action but then a quiet acquiescence that we might as well accept it as there is little that can be done ‘in the current circumstances’.

However, this report blows that comfortable complacency out of the water by showing that stronger and healthier communities can be created if we embrace greater innovation within the public sector.

And we already have some strengths in place.

According to the report, Wales is big enough to scale beyond the purely local but small enough to organise a coherent national strategy.

Indeed, a radical programme of transformational change is possible because of this “Wales effect” i.e. the common sense of belonging, the strong personal relationships between the main players, the much shorter communication distances between national government and local delivery, and close connections between policymakers, practitioners and academic institutions.

This natural advantage, along with a dominant public sector, a strong academic base and close communities, means that there is a real opportunity for Wales to become a global leader in public service innovation.

And it is not that we are beginning from scratch.

There are already several cases of excellence of innovation within public services in Wales, including the “Your County Your Way” strategy led by Monmouthshire County Council; Time Banking Wales which is transforming local engagement in the South Wales Valleys; and the Gwent Frailty project which, as a partnership between five local authorities, Aneurin Bevan Health Board and the voluntary sector, is reshaping services in primary and community care around the care needs of people.

But despite such examples, there is more that can be done to ensure such innovation does not remain within isolated areas across the nation but becomes a normal part of the delivery of public services in the future.

There is also the opportunity to incentivise new partners in the private sector, such as technology providers, to turn Wales into a global test bed for those wishing to develop innovative solutions via digital technologies in areas such as health and education.

This of course, will require acceptance of greater risk within the public sector where innovation and accountability can go hand in hand, and failure is an chance to learn from mistakes rather than an opportunity to apportion blame when something goes wrong. With a new Permanent Secretary who, in his public statements so far, embraces such a culture, the Welsh Government could be leading such change across the public sector in Wales.

But it is not only the public sector alone itself that can make a difference to this agenda.
For example, with the creation of a new University of South Wales, there is an opportunity for this institution, with its roots in some of our most deprived communities, to become a catalyst for change in driving forward innovation within public services in Wales, especially by making innovation skills centre stage in management and leadership programmes in order to create a new cadre of innovators across Wales’ public services.

There is also a greater role that can be played by the third sector in Wales, especially in the creation of new social enterprises that can help deliver local services around their communities in a far more efficient way than many public bodies. Indeed, could the current review of mutuals and co-operatives by the former minister Andrew Davies herald a seismic shift in the way some public services are delivered in Wales?

In 2011, the economist Gerry Holtham wrote in an article in the Western Mail that instead of bewailing the fact that our public sector is too big, why don't we make virtue of necessity? As he noted at the time, whilst industries rise and fall, there will always be a need for good government in every part of the World.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Workloads in the Research University

In order to maintain a vigorous research program, faculty need time. They might buy out some of their courses through research grants. Equivalently, they may have professorial chairs that allow them to have smaller teaching loads. If they want to have a number of doctoral students, they probably need to be able to support them. What's happening in the background is often there are fewer regular faculty than traditionally, and so students in didactic courses are taught by adjunct faculty.

1. In many universities, the rules are that we can buy out a course for, say, 10-15% of 9-month salaries depending whether the sources of funding comes with federal overhead, little overhead, or no overhead. If you add in fringes, that is 13% to 19%, before overhead. Again, large research projects, or writing a book, demand that we have more time than is usually available in a regular teaching load.

2. The supervision of doctoral students is part of our regular workload as faculty members, and for many of us our research would not be possible without graduate students. What seems crucial is whether we support our graduate students with external grants, and for how many years.(In an engineering school, the teaching load might be smaller, but the demands for externally funded research are more substantial I believe. They might still allow course buyouts, but may have credits for PhD supervision and funding students. These credit systems can become byzantine.) 

3. In general, regular faculty numbers are now much fewer than traditionally, given size and budget.

    The question is the quality of instruction we provide and who provides it. For undergraduates, coming to a research university should mean they are exposed to regular faculty (including research and teaching as well as tenure-track) for the most part. We ask tough questions when we appoint tenure-track and teaching and research faculty, and those questions mean that the research university gives our students the best. 

        Adjuncts are always valuable for fieldwork or studio courses, but for didactic courses in the usual subjects it would seem that students should expect regular faculty. At the doctoral level, it is crucial that research and tenure track faculty teach the courses, since mentoring and modeling are what counts here.

        But, often, adjuncts teach many of the regular didactic courses at undergraduate and master's levels. As the university moves up, this will not be sustainable.  

        Now, adjuncts are much less expensive than regular faculty (tenure track, teaching, research) per course, so if we were to staff our didactic courses with regular faculty we would need a larger faculty and that would have budgetary impact.(Princeton uses regular faculty for all didactic and seminar courses, Chicago does not. Princeton's endowment/student is much larger than almost any other institution.)

        I have not addressed the issue of whether adjuncts are good instructors for these didactic courses. All the newspapers need to note is that the adjunct costs $6,000 to teach a course, and a professor teaches four courses (lets be nice and say half of time is research) and costs at least $15-30,000/course including fringes. If you don't include research time, and the newspapers won't, the disparity is much greater.
        I gather from some students there are some adjuncts who are not adequate teachers. I have no idea if this is the case. I am sure deans do the best they can. But, again, this is a potential time-bomb. Regular faculty might also be poor teachers, but then it is incumbent upon the office of the dean to have them get help.

Self Driving Car

Google has developed a self driving car that is practically flawless. This new technology can help alcoholics and the blind get around town safely. Here is a video of the car in action. Google gives a lift to a blind man. He goes to the dry cleaners and grabs a bite to eat. This car drives better then I do. Pretty Amazing!

Quality, Grades, Excellence, Compensation--vs. Working to Rule

In every course I have taught, in every class, at least one person, and usually more than one, has done excellent work. Their contribution to discussion, their papers, and their thoughtfulness are exemplary. And, usually, some students do much weaker work, often embarrassingly so--I would not want to share their papers, for example, with any colleague.

This is likely true in any institution. In any case, when I give a low grade to a student, the work itself is not good, but it is as well manifestly much less meritorious than those who do excellent work. If I give a B- to a graduate student, the work is more than deserving of such a grade. I work hard with students to avoid C's and D's, with drafts, etc, but in the end they do not deliver good work.

In a university, this is also true of faculty who are at the probationary stage. When the university tenure committee meets, some candidates stand out. They are spectacular. They've done what we would want, and done it excellently. (These are not external lateral hires, but those who were hired perhaps 6 years ago as new assistant professors.) And others, with all the help we might give them, do not deliver.

In between are all the intermediate cases. In classes, we can give intermediate grades. In tenure decisions, I have been told that if you have doubts about quality, vote NO.

There is an interesting problem when we consider compensation. If we have a bureaucratic system of salary determination, with movement between levels bureaucratically defined, then the issue does not come up much. Surely there are different scales for those in some fields-- business and law for example. The argument here is that we want to attract the best, and the comparative external salaries are much higher than we offer most faculty. (There is little consideration that perhaps teaching and research offer advantages over practice that are especially valuable.) But what is irksome is that some second-rate scholar in one of these higher-paying fields is paid vastly more than the strongest scholars in more conventional fields--often new assistant professors are paid more than distinguished full professors in the conventional fields. Perhaps the engineering and science faculties also have much higher salaries. If salaries are secret, one might not worry about this, but in general that information leaks out.

The perception of the excellence of the institution as a whole is almost always a matter of its conventional fields. So a university's first-rate history and mathematics departments, as evaluated by peers, may have faculty salaries that are much lower than their second-rate business or law schools. A provost might want to invest in conventional departments if they were concerned with the perception of excellence.

Of course there are other issues. Professors in "hot" fields are likely to be able to bid up their salaries, again their excellence as scholars being a secondary factor. Professors who work hard to generate external offers, will also be able to generate higher salaries for themselves (although the provost or dean might wish them well in their new institution!). On the other hand, professors who are doing what they really want to do, in teaching and research, might view all of what I have discussed here as interesting but missing the point. In pursuing their scholarly life, they are getting paid decently and they are getting away with murder.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Always Put Forth Your Best Work . . .

You are being judged all the time. All the time. So you want to be sure that you are showing yourself at your best. Of course, you will make mistakes, perhaps for "Freudian" reasons, perhaps for other reasons, perhaps because you are overworked or lazy. But in so far as you can do so, always put forth your best.

If you are going to submit work to your boss or teacher or a journal, be sure to read over the final version to catch any mistakes. If you are setting up a website, check that all the links work, and that they link to the right files or media. If you are giving a presentation, you want to practice and be sure what you say is both clear and within the time limit.

I have made just about every mistake one can imagine. That's why I write about these issues. I am not saying that I or anyone is a paragon here. Rather, you just want to keep in mind what you must do if you want to do something and go someplace.

Everyone knows just about everything I write about in this blog or in my other blog. I hope it is worth stating even what I am saying is a commonplace or moral cliche.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Dementors and Tormentors

As in Harry Potter: "Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them... Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself...soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life."

Remus Lupin to Harry Potter

In any organization, some people are dangerous--

"Of course they won't let go. They are enjoying it.

"There are vicious pitbulls that attack little dogs even after the little dogs show submission, unlike normal dogs. There are coaches who want to humiliate their opponents, such as Red Auerbach's smoking a cigar in sign of victory in the 3rd quarter.  There are murderers who will stab their victims dozens or hundreds of times even after their victim stopped breathing.

"They might just be getting started. I'm telling you this not to scare you, but so you can prepare yourself mentally and withstand even worse stuff that might be coming."

Keep in mind that some people are Dementors and Tormentors (a term invented by the above speaker).

On Escalation (vs. De-escalation): Writing and Your Teacher

Many years ago, Herman Kahn wrote a book on nuclear war spelling out a series of steps on the road to war, On Escalation. I have stolen his title.

I have offered students the chance to go through their final papers, but after Commencement when things quiet down and I have time to see them.  Many of the papers were not up to par and had writing problems--from grammar and diction to organization and focus. (See my earlier post.) The only way to help students is to go through bits and pieces of such a paper and show them, then and there, how to do better. Editing in front of them works. Just editing so that what they experience is a marked up paper allows them to escape their own problems. And many final papers are never picked up by students, and rarely do they come see you afterwards, and then usually for a grade concern, not to improve their writing.

In my experience, some or many students do not like hearing that their writing is execrable. They tell me that it works on their job or others have never complained.  Perhaps they are wonderful on the job, and others have never noticed the manifest problems I find.

For whatever reason, maybe one or two or maybe a larger group believe this was a requirement and that in particular it is after the end of the semester. Perhaps my notice to them should have said, "You don't have to let me help you. Pick up your papers, and you don't ever have to see me again."  I do not hear directly from any of those students, while the large number who have no problem with seeing me about their papers just tell me when they want to see me.

Escalation: Rather, the one or two or more who take my offer as a requirement go to a staff member, and that is how I hear of their concern. And that concern is cc'd, by the staff member, to the office of the dean. The staff members has further escalated their concern to the point where the staff member is in the middle. It makes sense for the staff to send the students to the professor to see if the professor might resolve the problem.

Whatever else, the first thing to do is to see your teacher first: email, phone, office hours, an appointment. Staff have little influence on professors' behaviors; deans sometimes wish the dean had some influence (especially on tenured full professors). Moreover, this puts the staff in an unenviable position between student and instructor--what a dean does as a matter of course should not be loaded onto a staff member or another professor. [In the case of mandatory reporting, as in sexual harassment, the university provides intermediates such as the Office of Diversity, to let the staff member off the hook.] If the staff member gets directly involved at this point, the students' concerns take a backseat to bureaucratic matters.

Of course, the staff member might convey the students' concerns informally.  But once the dean or the university bureaucracy is involved the staff member is in an untenable position and the students' work is not the focus. The most effective advocate for a student is the student, unless things must rise to the attention of the office of the dean or the university (unresolved matters of fairness, grading, mandatory reporting, retaliation).

Professors, like parents, almost always have in mind the best interests of their charges.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


Given the importance of tourism to Wales, it was fascinating to read the Welsh Government’s 2013-2020 strategy for the industry.

Of particular interest was their take on what actually differentiates Wales from the rest of the World and identifying the ‘magic sauce” that ensures tourism makes a growing contribution to the economy.

Not surprisingly, the natural environment is seen as a central reason as to why visitors choose to take their holidays in Wales.

Certainly, developments such as the opening of the 870-mile long coastal path will help to maintain this key advantage as will the growing importance of activity holidays, including cycling, horse riding, adventure sports, fishing and golf, which make full use of our coast and countryside.

Allied to the natural beauty of our nation is its heritage and culture which makes us a distinct destination. This ranges from castles, both Welsh and Norman, to industrial attractions, such as Llechwedd Slate Caverns and the Big Pit, which catalogues the nation’s more recent history.

There has also been a recent interest in so-called religious tourism, with American visitors being seen as a potential target for this growing segment of the market. To capitalise on this, a North Wales Pilgrim’s Way, which starts in Flintshire and continues across the coast to the Bardsey Island, was opened in 2011.

Events and festivals, such as Wakestock, the Hay Festival and the Kaya Festival, are also seen as being important in attracting a different, and younger, type of visitor to Wales. And whilst the sporting facilities we have in our cities are attracting big events such as the Rugby World Cup, Ryder Cup and the Ashes, one mustn’t forget the success of more specialist venues such as Pwllheli in hosting four World championships and thirty-two UK National championships in the last seven years.

These are all positive trends for tourism over the next few years that could make a real difference to many local economies across Wales. Yet there remain a number of other challenges which the industry faces and which need addressing quickly.

Leisure and tourism is one of the industries that has been hit hard by the reluctance of banks to lend to smaller firms in recent years and this lack of capital is preventing the industry from carrying out important improvements. Indeed, given that a key strategy of the Tourism Sector Panel is the improvement of better quality visitor facilities, particularly accommodation, this cannot be achieved without the right financial support, whether it comes from the banks or the Welsh Government.

The Wales Tourism Alliance has also pointed out the importance of upgrading skills within the industry and yet there is a lack of focus to achieve this. Given this, perhaps the time has come for a National Tourism College which would be industry led, be focused on excellence and would provide the upskilling critical to make Wales the best holiday destination in the UK.

Finally, the industry needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century to make sure it makes the most of the social media now used by potential visitors to not only book their holidays but, via sites such as TripAdvisor, to recommend them to their friends and peers.  In particular, greater use of mobile social media, via smartphones, could add real value to the tourism experience in Wales.

Clearly, Wales needs to make the most of its natural assets to grow the tourism industry over the next few years but to succeed the Welsh Government and other bodies must ensure that tourism businesses have the funding, skills and social media awareness to take full advantage of these opportunities.

Monday, May 13, 2013


Earlier this week, officials from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) arrived in London to undertake their annual review of the UK economy.

And there will be renewed optimism from the UK Government about the state of the economy, following the better than expected GDP growth figures for the first quarter of 2013, which confounded most economic commentators, many of whom had predicted no growth or even a slide into an unprecedented triple recession.

The question, of course, is whether this growth can continue after what can only be kindly described as a flat period for the nation? Certainly, recent data seems to suggest that the increase in GDP may not be a one-off and that we can look forward to a period of sustained growth in the immediate future.

According to the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, the UK economy grew by 0.8 per cent in the three months to the end of April. This follows a report from the accountancy body ICAEW that suggested business confidence was improving amongst firms and the second quarter of this year would see a growth in the economy of 0.6 per cent.

Of course, the dilemma for the UK Government is that it ideally needs all cylinders within its economic engine to be firing simultaneously to push forward growth.

For example, the services sector grew at twice the rate of the UK economy during the first three months of the year and seems set to expand further during the rest of the year. Yet depressingly for those wanting further growth, the other two important sectors, manufacturing and construction, both showed a decline during that period.

However, the latest data on output from the Office for National Statistics shows that factory output actually grew by 1.1 per cent in March following a further increase of 0.7 per cent in February, the first time since 2011 that manufacturing had grown.

And this recovery seems to be one that may finally be sustainable - a survey from Zurich Insurance showed that more than three quarters of Britain’s manufacturers are more optimistic about their industry than they were a year ago.

The disappointment remains the construction sector, which has declined by 2.5 per cent in quarter 1 of 2013. Given this, increased government incentives for infrastructure development and new housing cannot come quickly enough for the industry. However, there seems to be some glimmer of hope that it may be turning the corner and the Construction Purchasing Managers' Index rose from 47.2 in March to 49.4 in April. Whilst this indicator is still below the 50 level that indicates growth, it is better than most analysts expected.

So there are some mixed messages across the three main sectors but is there any good news from other indicators seems to suggest that the UK recovery is back on track?

Advertising spending, which is normally seen as a leading indicator of economic vitality, rose to £17.2 Billion in 2012, the highest level since 2007. More importantly, it is set to grow by a further 7.7 per cent over the next two years not only through online advertising but also through traditional media such as TV and national newspapers.

Another positive indicator was a forecast that house sales are predicted to grow by 7.5 per cent this year, with a million transactions to be completed, the highest level in six years. Confidence is also returning to the buy-to-let market, with 33,500 mortgages worth £4.2bn completed in the first three months of 2013, £500m higher than in the same period of 2012.

But perhaps the most important indicator for the economy is that of consumer confidence, which still remains fragile within the UK despite these more positive economic figures.

Indeed, a recent survey showed that the percentage of those with no spare cash once they have covered essential living costs has leapt from 22 per cent to 30 per cent, reaching its highest level since the second quarter of 2011. Another survey from Deloitte showed that even those with income are cautious about spending on holidays, short breaks and going out. For example, trends for booking holidays in the first quarter of this year showed that whilst 13 per cent spent more than in the previous quarter, 21 per cent of consumers actually spent less.

Yet, this seems to be compounded by data on the most expensive purchase that many people will make after their house. According to the latest figures, car sales in the UK are nine per cent higher in first four months of 2013, with sales to private individuals up by a third compared with April last year.

Therefore, there is some good news out there after months of doom and gloom over the UK economy and it will be interesting to see what the bean counters from the IMF make of the nation’s future prospects after their visit.

Certainly, one swallow does not make a summer and until we see further growth in the next few quarters, then the jury is out on whether we are finally beginning to emerge from the recent recession. We can only hope that the recent increase in GDP will finally bring back confidence over the next few months to both consumers and businesses.

That has been the magic sauce that has been largely missing during the last five years, and if this optimism does grow, then expect the UK economy to follow suit during 2013.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Reading Papers for "What's Going On": Where's the Beef? Is it Horsemeat?

I have been reading student term papers. At this point, having seen earlier drafts and given my best advice, I am humbled. Whatever I say seems not to work for most students, at whatever point in their school careers.

0. Whatever you learned in composition classes gets in the way of writing effective scholarly work and surely in the way of policy memoranda. Bottom Line Up Front.

1. I want to know the main points by the end of page 2 if not page 1.  At the beginning of each section, the main point of that section should be the first sentence. See #2. What's the BIG IDEA or Ideas? Lots of introductory material often hides the big ideas.
2. I don't want to discover the point of the paper in the conclusion. It should be on page 1.
3. Executive summaries are not essays. They need to be short, assert the main points.
4. Early on it would be helpful to have a roadmap of what is to come.

5. I don't want an account of the research and reading experience. I want something that shows how it all holds together, or does not.

6. Sections need to be headed  by a paragraph that lays out the argument to follow.
7. Subheads and divisions of the paper: If you are double spacing, put the next section heading on the next double-spaced line, in the same font as the text but underlined. Don't use bold or italics. If the paper has bigger divisions, using roman numerals: I, II, III, ...

8. I want sentences that scan so that I can just read rather than decode.
9. Make lists explicit and obvious. If there are, say, seven features of a phenomenon, I expect each one's name to be in italics or maybe numbered.

9. References should be authoritative. I don't need references for minor points unless they are quite special. The references to the main sources are important. In any case, unless you are surveying a literature, where the various writers are prominent, it's best to leave their names and works to the notes and just present the various positions.
11. Copyedit, spellcheck, etc.
12. Don't right justify. Don't use colorful devices to set off sections of your papers. Simple and clear.

      Namely, I want to be able to read the paper and not get lost, wondering "Why am I here?" I want to be able to consider the argument or case, rather than worry about how it is put together in terms of sentences and paragraphs. (I feel that it is not fair to have students in a graduate course needing basic writing skills. I want is to engage them in their analysis and argument.)

      I have told students that once they have what they consider a decent draft, they should go back and write the first two pages or so to fulfil my #1. And each section needs an introductory paragraph (#6).

      What's wrong with me? I have never had a semester where these concerns about writing were not first and foremost. Maybe this problem has always been present, everywhere, at all institutions. I recall that Bill Leuchtenburg (Columbia and UNC-CH, American history) used to edit his students' dissertations. But I wonder how bad the writing was to start out with.

My job is to help you do better and I take you as you are, at whatever level you are. Still, it would be good to be a clear writer before you enter graduate school.

My colleague David Sloane wrote me a propos of what I said above:
       Personally I think students write better now than in the past, but that may be my selected set. As I grow more experienced (ie older), I do find that I have less patience with the types of things you point out -- but in reality I am different not them. They have always viewed papers as mystery novels where the most important point is revealed in the conclusion, and really have no idea why they should source one thing over another. I do believe that as you read more and more of these things, one forgets the students are actually at the same place they always were, we just aren't. I would be happier if they would somehow accept the learning I have gained, but I also know that they will not!
        I like your number 1, and I think you should emphasize it, but you would have to decide. Then, when you read a draft, and they don't do it, take off 5 to 20 points. I would guess they would do it the second time. But the struggle is long and hard.
         Last, I do think that one problem is that few of us ever see them twice. I once had the experience of teaching students I had had in a freshmen class a Dartmouth a senior class in history. I must say the difference was pretty spectacular, and a few of them were kind enough to suggest that I had a small part in that difference.

Monday, May 6, 2013

My Face Is Changing

Making Peace with a New Face

What does your face show? As I look at photos of myself recently, I do see aging. And not in a negative way. After almost 40 years, I am starting to see a woman who is coming together, and standing in a lot of victory. But still has a long way to go.

As I am looking into how I am going to say goodbye to my only child in August (as she leaves for college), it's evident to me that it will be another milestone that I confidently will find victory in. I doubt myself-that I can't live without her. Hey, you try getting a kid at 19 or 20, you'll see the bond is so deep there aren't words to describe it. I've built my adult life around this child, around motherhood. The last 20 years.

But back to being victorious as a woman. What have you found victory in? I know as years to come I inevitably will age even more, and faster. And I will then, with God at my side, see more victory. Our faces hold so much--sadness, joy, pain, distress, confusion, happiness, laughter, despair, excitement, fright, relief, and so much more. My face has experienced all of those and a million others.

There is satisfaction in seeing how I'm aging in the last year or two. I look at a girl, who has been so broken and down and out for many many years, and who has faced so much hardship and difficulty. But then I  found my prince, and then was broken again for years. I see triumph in the trials I've faced, persevering through an illness that has fought to keep me down for years. I've had happiness, joy and severe pain. I'm constantly moving to my hearts beat. Always wanting to dig deeper, find the meaning, and grow in wisdom. I put my all in everything I do, and in all my relationships because I know that that is where life is found and where we feel complete and connected. Only to be burned. But who hasn't? We have all lost, loved, and started over. I feel like I'll be starting over in less than 4 months.

I am happy and feel peace that as I go forth with this new life waiting for me in the next 6 months, that I can confidently post of photo of myself on FB, or on my blog-- and my daughter will know that I think I am beautiful. And you're beautiful. That I stand in victory over much and more to come. To tell your child that you are finally to a place where you have self acceptance is probably your greatest gift to her. 

What victories does your face show? Are you seeing aging, but embracing it? Can you tell your son or daughter that you think you are beautiful and that you accept yourself? Flaws, perfect imperfections and all? 


Thursday, May 2, 2013

Stevenson/Wolfers on Statistics

Interpreting Statistical Evidence

by on May 2, 2013 at 7:31 am in Data Source, Economics, Science | Permalink
Betsey Stevenson & Justin Wolfers offer six principles to separate lies from statistics:
1. Focus on how robust a finding is, meaning that different ways of looking at the evidence point to the same conclusion.
In Why Most Published Research Findings are False I offered a slightly different version of the same idea
Evaluate literatures not individual papers.
SWs second principle:
2. Data mavens often make a big deal of their results being statistically significant, which is a statement that it’s unlikely their findings simply reflect chance. Don’t confuse this with something actually mattering. With huge data sets, almost everything is statistically significant. On the flip side, tests of statistical significance sometimes tell us that the evidence is weak, rather than that an effect is nonexistent.
That’s correct but there is another point worth making. Tests of statistical significance are all conditional on the estimated model being the correct model. Results that should happen only 5% of the time by chance can happen much more often once we take into account model uncertainty not just parameter uncertainty.
3. Be wary of scholars using high-powered statistical techniques as a bludgeon to silence critics who are not specialists. If the author can’t explain what they’re doing in terms you can understand, then you shouldn’t be convinced.
I am mostly in agreement but SW and I are partial to natural experiments and similar methods which generally can be explained to the lay public while other econometricians (say of the Heckman school) do work that is much more difficult to follow without significant background and while being wary I also wouldn’t reject that kind of work out of hand.
4. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking about an empirical finding as “right” or “wrong.” At best, data provide an imperfect guide. Evidence should always shift your thinking on an issue; the question is how far.
Yes, be Bayesian. See Bryan Caplan’s post on the Card-Krueger minimum wage study for a nice example.
5. Don’t mistake correlation for causation.
Does anyone still do this? I know the answer is yes. I often find, however, that the opposite problem is more common among relatively sophisticated readers–they know that correlation isn’t causation but they don’t always appreciate that economists know this and have developed sophisticated approaches to disentangling the two. Most of the effort in a typical empirical paper in economics is spent on this issue.
6. Always ask “so what?” …The “so what” question is about moving beyond the internal validity of a finding to asking about its external usefulness.
Good advice although I also run across the opposite problem frequently, thinking that a study done in 2001 doesn’t tell us anything about 2013, for example.
Here, from my earlier post, are my rules for evaluating statistical studies:
1) In evaluating any study try to take into account the amount of background noise. That is, remember that the more hypotheses which are tested and the less selection which goes into choosing hypotheses the more likely it is that you are looking at noise.
2) Bigger samples are better. (But note that even big samples won’t help to solve the problems of observational studies which is a whole other problem).
3) Small effects are to be distrusted.
4) Multiple sources and types of evidence are desirable.
5) Evaluate literatures not individual papers.
6) Trust empirical papers which test other people’s theories more than empirical papers which test the author’s theory.
7) As an editor or referee, don’t reject papers that fail to reject the null.


Last week, there was genuine surprise amongst most economists when it was announced that the UK economy had grown by 0.3 per cent in the first three months of 2013.

Many doomsayers had been talking down the prospects of growth and had predicted that we would fall into an unprecedented ‘triple dip recession’. Clearly that did not happen and we can now hope that this can be built upon over the rest of the year and that businesses and consumers will start feeling more positive about future prospects.

However, it is worth noting that this growth was driven solely by an increase in the service sector, with manufacturing and construction contracting over the period.

A high value added manufacturing industry is important to a competitive economy and therefore the lack of growth by Britain’s factories is worrying. However, given that around half of all exports are to the still depressed eurozone, this continuing decline should not be too surprising.

Many will continue to be dismayed that construction industry declined in the first three months of this year after a short-lived recovery at the end of 2012.

The fall of 2.5 per cent in the sector’s GDP demonstrates that much remains to be done to ensure that it remains one of the key levers for future economic growth across the UK, as suggested by the Chancellor in his recent budget. Indeed, it is estimated that if construction output had just remained flat rather than declining, UK GDP would have increased by 0.5 per cent.

Therefore, the industry still requires stimulus and support to ensure further expansion over the next few years. That is why it was somewhat puzzling that the Welsh Government recently stopped its plans for a new scheme to help homebuyers in Wales.

At a time when banks are reluctant to lend, NewBuy would have enabled anyone wanting to buy a new house or flat up to a value of £250,000 to do so with just a five per cent deposit. More importantly for the construction sector in Wales, it would have supported the building of 3,000 new homes.

One of the reasons put forward for not going ahead with this programme in June as originally planned was that, following the announcement of a similar scheme from the UK government, the housing industry in Wales had withdrawn support.

Yet is that really the case?

On the day that this was announced, I was sitting in a BBC Wales studio with the managing director of Redrow South Wales.

He was adamant that, in contrast to statements that had emerged from Cardiff Bay earlier that day, Welsh builders were in fact fully supportive of the NEWBuy scheme and that it was a total surprise that it had been scrapped.

In fact, given that the similar UK scheme was not starting until 2014, it was critical for the building industry that something was available for the rest of the year so to not only incentivise more housebuilding but also to get more first time buyers into the market and boost consumer confidence.
Redrow insist that they, and other housebuilders, still want NEWBuy to start in June and with research estimating that over 14,000 new homes are required every year in Wales for the next fifteen years, the general consensus is that it cannot start soon enough.

Indeed, such a misunderstanding could have serious consequences for the sector going forward and one can only hope that the Welsh Government will now make the effort to meet with representatives of the House Builders Federation as soon as possible to sort this out.

Certainly, something must be done quickly to boost the prospects for a construction sector that could and should be making a more significant contribution in delivering economic recovery.