What happens when people with partial knowledge start talking about college costs in Arizona and elsewhere

One painful thing about knowing a complex politicized subject fairly well is that most of the commentary on it looks pretty dumb because the commentators don’t really understand it. The latest edition of that malady comes from A Dismal Picture For Higher Education in Arizona, which someone forwarded to me because a) I’m a grad student at the University of Arizona and b) I write about academic novels. The problem with the link is that while some of it is somewhat accurate, some of it less so, and a lot of it is taken out of context. For example, it shows a table demonstrating that a surprisingly high number of people working in low-skill professions that don’t require a college degree nonetheless have one—but that probably says more about the graduates than it does about college.

The next item quotes the conservative Goldwater Institute saying that the number of administrators has grown:

Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent. Inflation-adjusted spending on administration per student increased by 61 percent during the same period, while instructional spending per student rose 39 percent. Arizona State University, for example, increased the number of administrators per 100 students by 94 percent during this period while actually reducing the number of employees engaged in instruction, research and service by 2 percent. Nearly half of all full-time employees at Arizona State University are administrators.

(You can read more in this vein via Why So Many Administrators?, but although it asks “Why so many administrators?”, it doesn’t answer that question.)

Problem is, the Goldwater Institute study is specious for two reasons: 1) It doesn’t deal with changing definitions of “administrator” over time, and although it implies that more administrators equal more waste, it doesn’t actually talk about which administrators it wants cut. Job services offices are new and science grants often require administrators. Everyone is against bureaucracy unless it’s the bureaucracy they need. Hell, I’m against administration, bureaucracy, evil, simple carbohydrates (except for carrot cake), and the coyotes that ate my neighbor’s cat. So do we want the administrators in the beefed up jobs office cut? The ones in the disability resource centers that’ve opened widely? The ones that offer counseling to students contemplating suicides? The ones hired to manage science grants? You tell me.

Productivity among universities isn’t increasing—see College Costs: The Sequel for more on why:

College cost, and cost in the other similar industries, is rising for three broad reasons. First, over time we have found ways to reduce the number of labor hours and kilowatts of power needed to produce most manufactured goods and agricultural products. By contrast, many services remain artisan-like. The time of the service provider is the service itself, and labor-saving productivity gains are very hard to achieve. As a result, the cost of a year of college or an hour of a lawyer’s time must rise compared to the price of a ton of steel or a bushel of wheat.

This is “cost disease,” which is sometimes called Baumol’s disease, and a comment by Al zeroed in on it quite accurately. Rising productivity elsewhere in the economy generates this “disease,” while creating the growth that pays the costs for these more artisan-like services. The college-centric view of the world does not accord this argument the central place the data say it deserves.

[. . .]

A number of our critics noted that distance learning has the potential to revolutionize higher education. We wish we were as sanguine as the distance-learning optimists. The best evidence suggests that course work that blends face-to-face instruction with distance components yields the best outcome. The best courses for this are introductory classes with relatively static knowledge. Many universities already are well down the path of incorporating these approaches.

In short, we haven’t really found an effective way to increase the productivity of education because we can’t find good ways of educating mass numbers of people save through having them sit together with more experienced people who are supposed to be experts in their fields and having those “experts” (who we call “teachers” or “professors”) impart some of what they know. This doesn’t scale easily because the prof / teacher : student ratio remains approximately even. Although digital utopians want the Internet to replace teachers / profs, it appears that the vast majority of the population prefers watching porn and computer games to figuring out what the hell Hegel is talking about or how mitochondrial DNA works.

Then there are comments like this: “Arizona State University’s four-year graduation rate is a shocking 28 percent. Low standards and easy loans are a recipe for disaster.” There are two obvious ways to raise the graduation rate: raise the admissions bar so better students get in or make it easier to graduate. Grade inflation has already done the latter to some extent. ASU and UA will effectively take almost anyone, which they apparently need or want to for budgetary reasons.

An aside about grade inflation: one of the most useful efforts I’ve read about recently comes from A Quest to Explain What Grades Really Mean, which discusses UNC Chapel Hill’s effort “to add extra information — probably median grades, and perhaps more — to transcripts. In addition, they expect to post further statistics providing context online and give instructors data on how their grading compares with their colleagues’.” This would be incredibly welcomed, because at the moment there’s a strong incentive for professors to give higher grades, which lead to higher evaluations, but don’t have any immediate cost for the profs involved.

The harder way to raise the college graduation rate is to make classes smaller, track each student more carefully, increase the number of advisors, and so forth. All this will decrease “productivity” (it’s very “productive” by simple measures of productivity to have one prof lecture 1,000 students). In short, big schools would need to become more like Clark University, where I went to undergrad, only with tens of thousands of students, and this would raise costs, ceteris paribus.

The biggest problem with this article is that it acts like college administrators and professors aren’t aware of the kinds of issues raised. They are, and there’ve been endless books written about them. A recent winner: Why Does College Cost So Much?.

There may be a “A Dismal Picture For Higher Education in Arizona,” but it isn’t for the reasons stated or implied in this article.

A meta point: most big, complex social systems (think healthcare, education, government, military, companies) don’t exist as they do because they’re the theoretical best. They exist the way they do because they’ve evolved thanks to reactions from social, financial, and other pressures into the beasts they look like today. Most people don’t have the historical knowledge necessary to understand why and how they evolved they way they have.

My overall political feelings are usually captured by The Onion, mostly because so much day-to-day political discourse looks like parody. Two examples from America’s Finest News Source: “Barack Obama – Either Doing His Best In One of The Most Difficult Times In American History, Or Hitler,” since we all know politicians must be one or the other, and “Jan Brewer – Not Afraid To Do What The Federal Government Won’t And Shouldn’t,” which basically describes what Arizona politics are like:

By demanding that police check any suspicious- looking individual’s immigration status, Brewer stood up for the kind of racial profiling that other politicians wouldn’t, and under any circumstances shouldn’t, have the guts to support. Refusing to bow down to sense or reason, Brewer also made it possible for citizens to sue police officers who fail to carry out the troublingly vague terms of the new law, no matter how much it might tie up the state’s court system—a bold stance the federal government simply couldn’t be bothered with.

Efforts to solve big, institutional problems tend to suffer from unintended consequences. They tend not to respond well to ideologically driven solutions, whether those preferred by the left or right. They tend to to require a lot of strenuous effort if you’re even going to understand them, let alone propose to fix them, and the problems are much easier to identify than possible solutions to those problems, which might be worse than the problems themselves. Note one such example above: a simple way to improve the graduation rate at Arizona universities is to raise the admissions bar. But doing so means that some deserving though marginal students won’t get a shot at college at all. They’ll be more likely to steal the car of the people who write “A Dismal Picture For Higher Education in Arizona.” And so on.

This is the place where I’m supposed to propose solutions to the kinds of problems universities have, but I don’t have any that are short and easily digestible. Beware people who say they do.

Late December Links: Robertson Davies' stock falls, science fiction, typing speed, Jane Austen meets pornography, censorship, and more

* Does Typing Speed Really Matter For Programmers? Answer: probably not, once you reach a relatively low level of speed. I suspect the same is true for writers: I tend to be more limited by my brain than my fingers.

* Steampunk and the origins of science fiction, which go in directions different than the ones you’re probably imagining.

* Anarcho-Monarchism, Tolkien and Dalí.

* A great comment on blogging:

I think there are two ways to blog: altruistically or narcissistically. If you’re blogging altruistically you’re blogging for others primarily and yourself secondarily. If you’re blogging narcissistically you’re mostly blogging for yourself.

Which am I?

* Possibly NSFW but hilarious: Porn and Penetration, an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

* Literary reputations, with Melville falling and Tolkien gaining. Sadly, Robertson Davies is “falling off a cliff,” which I find distressing because I think he might be the most underrated writer I know, and most people I’ve recommended The Deptford Trilogy to love it; they ask why he isn’t better known, but I have no answer I wish to share publicly.

* The [Unjust] war against cameras:

Police across the country are using decades-old wiretapping statutes that did not anticipate iPhones or Droids, combined with broadly written laws against obstructing or interfering with law enforcement, to arrest people who point microphones or video cameras at them. Even in the wake of gross injustices, state legislatures have largely neglected the issue.

* New York Magazine’s Chris Rovzar speciously asks of Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal, Why Must We Pretend It Is Not Strange When Adult Celebrities Date Underage Celebrities? There are a couple obvious answers:

1) Taylor Swift, at 20, is nowhere near underage; the fact that she “isn’t old enough to legally drink alcohol” (emphasis in original) says more about U.S. law than what it means to be an adult.

2) Most women appear to want to date men of higher status than themselves. If you’re a celebrity, the only way you can effectively do this is by dating another celebrity.

This assumes the post is serious, which it might not be, or that it’s not merely trolling, which it might be.

* Eminent domain now effectively has no limits, and that’s definitely a bad thing.

* Arizona State makes 30 Rock.

* Amazon’s Kindle censorship. This is a great danger, since we’re moving toward a world in which a handful of companies (Amazon and Apple, most probably) may effectively control the vast majority of electronic books.

(See too the Ars Technica take.)

* Shortage of Engineers or a Glut: No Simple Answer. The real answer: there is always a shortage of smart, motivated people at the top of their field and a glut of people at the bottom of any field.

* Not Really ‘Made in China': The iPhone’s Complex Supply Chain Highlights Problems With Trade Statistics. The short version: beware trade statistics, especially those related to manufacturing.

Late December Links: Robertson Davies’ stock falls, science fiction, typing speed, Jane Austen meets pornography, censorship, and more

* Does Typing Speed Really Matter For Programmers? Answer: probably not, once you reach a relatively low level of speed. I suspect the same is true for writers: I tend to be more limited by my brain than my fingers.

* Steampunk and the origins of science fiction, which go in directions different than the ones you’re probably imagining.

* Anarcho-Monarchism, Tolkien and Dalí.

* A great comment on blogging:

I think there are two ways to blog: altruistically or narcissistically. If you’re blogging altruistically you’re blogging for others primarily and yourself secondarily. If you’re blogging narcissistically you’re mostly blogging for yourself.

Which am I?

* Possibly NSFW but hilarious: Porn and Penetration, an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

* Literary reputations, with Melville falling and Tolkien gaining. Sadly, Robertson Davies is “falling off a cliff,” which I find distressing because I think he might be the most underrated writer I know, and most people I’ve recommended The Deptford Trilogy to love it; they ask why he isn’t better known, but I have no answer I wish to share publicly.

* The [Unjust] war against cameras:

Police across the country are using decades-old wiretapping statutes that did not anticipate iPhones or Droids, combined with broadly written laws against obstructing or interfering with law enforcement, to arrest people who point microphones or video cameras at them. Even in the wake of gross injustices, state legislatures have largely neglected the issue.

* New York Magazine’s Chris Rovzar speciously asks of Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal, Why Must We Pretend It Is Not Strange When Adult Celebrities Date Underage Celebrities? There are a couple obvious answers:

1) Taylor Swift, at 20, is nowhere near underage; the fact that she “isn’t old enough to legally drink alcohol” (emphasis in original) says more about U.S. law than what it means to be an adult.

2) Most women appear to want to date men of higher status than themselves. If you’re a celebrity, the only way you can effectively do this is by dating another celebrity.

This assumes the post is serious, which it might not be, or that it’s not merely trolling, which it might be.

* Eminent domain now effectively has no limits, and that’s definitely a bad thing.

* Arizona State makes 30 Rock.

* Amazon’s Kindle censorship. This is a great danger, since we’re moving toward a world in which a handful of companies (Amazon and Apple, most probably) may effectively control the vast majority of electronic books.

(See too the Ars Technica take.)

* Shortage of Engineers or a Glut: No Simple Answer. The real answer: there is always a shortage of smart, motivated people at the top of their field and a glut of people at the bottom of any field.

* Not Really ‘Made in China': The iPhone’s Complex Supply Chain Highlights Problems With Trade Statistics. The short version: beware trade statistics, especially those related to manufacturing.

Noticing the detail in James Wood's How Fiction Works

 

Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practise on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on. You have only to teach literature to realise that most young readers are poor noticers. I know from my own old books, wantonly annotated twenty years ago when I was a student, that I routinely underlined for approval details and images and metaphors that strike me now as commonplace, while serenely missing things which now seem wonderful. We grow, as readers, and twenty-year-olds are relative virgins. They have not yet read enough literature to be taught by it how to read it. 

You only have to read How Fiction Works to realize you haven’t been as a good a noticer in life or in literature as you once thought you were. This is why I’ve reread it once a year or so since it came out in 2007, and each time I notice different things about it—like in this passage, where the adverb “serenely” is so appropriate despite the many admonishes to avoid adverbs whenever possible. We know precisely what the twenty-year-old is like, mostly like because we’ve met him and her, perhaps been him or her.

I also notice Wood’s phrase “relative virgins,” which is funny because virginity is supposed to be a binary thing: you are one or you aren’t. But in a post-Bill-Clinton age when nominal “abstinence pledges” make the parsing of the relation of act to word important to a surprisingly large number of people, virginity feels a lot more relative than it used to. Maybe I wouldn’t be as aware of this if I hadn’t read Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher, which in turn cues me into the kinds of things I hear from undergrads at the University of Arizona—which may in turn feed my own fiction, in the kind of virtuous cycle Wood describes here. And since I have taught literature, I know precisely what he means about “poor noticers,” except that he should probably add that relatively few people become the kinds of dramatically good noticers who really love literary fiction as they get older: hence some of the popularity of the Dan Browns of the world.

Finally, because How Fiction Works is so delightful, one more quote: “The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it.”

Noticing the detail in James Wood’s How Fiction Works

 

Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practise on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on. You have only to teach literature to realise that most young readers are poor noticers. I know from my own old books, wantonly annotated twenty years ago when I was a student, that I routinely underlined for approval details and images and metaphors that strike me now as commonplace, while serenely missing things which now seem wonderful. We grow, as readers, and twenty-year-olds are relative virgins. They have not yet read enough literature to be taught by it how to read it. 

You only have to read How Fiction Works to realize you haven’t been as a good a noticer in life or in literature as you once thought you were. This is why I’ve reread it once a year or so since it came out in 2007, and each time I notice different things about it—like in this passage, where the adverb “serenely” is so appropriate despite the many admonishes to avoid adverbs whenever possible. We know precisely what the twenty-year-old is like, mostly like because we’ve met him and her, perhaps been him or her.

I also notice Wood’s phrase “relative virgins,” which is funny because virginity is supposed to be a binary thing: you are one or you aren’t. But in a post-Bill-Clinton age when nominal “abstinence pledges” make the parsing of the relation of act to word important to a surprisingly large number of people, virginity feels a lot more relative than it used to. Maybe I wouldn’t be as aware of this if I hadn’t read Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher, which in turn cues me into the kinds of things I hear from undergrads at the University of Arizona—which may in turn feed my own fiction, in the kind of virtuous cycle Wood describes here. And since I have taught literature, I know precisely what he means about “poor noticers,” except that he should probably add that relatively few people become the kinds of dramatically good noticers who really love literary fiction as they get older: hence some of the popularity of the Dan Browns of the world.

Finally, because How Fiction Works is so delightful, one more quote: “The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it.”

What people want and what they are: religious edition

Shankar Vedantam’s “Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are?” dovetails with my theory of why so much political discourse is so unsatisfying: a lot of it is actually about signaling values:

Beyond the polls, social scientists have conducted more rigorous analyses of religious behavior. Rather than ask people how often they attend church, the better studies measure what people actually do. The results are surprising. Americans are hardly more religious than people living in other industrialized countries. Yet they consistently—and more or less uniquely—want others to believe they are more religious than they really are.
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Religion in America seems tied up with questions of identity in ways that are not the case in other industrialized countries. When you ask Americans about their religious beliefs, it’s like asking them whether they are good people, or asking whether they are patriots. They’ll say yes, even if they cheated on their taxes, bilked Medicare for unnecessary services, and evaded the draft. Asking people how often they attend church elicits answers about their identity—who people think they are or feel they ought to be, rather than what they actually believe and do.

And if you ask Americans about their sexual habits, you also find that straight women consistently report fewer partners than men; the most fascinating study on this subject, “Truth and Consequences: Using the Bogus Pipeline to Examine Sex Differences in Self-Reported Sexuality,” finds that women who believe their answers about sexual histories will be observed report the fewest partners, while those who believe they are hooked up a lie-detector (which actually does nothing) report the most—a number that puts them on par with the men in the study. The men’s answers do not change much. In both the case of religion and sexuality, “questions of identity” may be at stake. In the case of religion, as I note above, I suspect that religion becomes closer to a political question for many people, and political questions often aren’t really about the costs or benefits or desirability of the policy at hand. They’re about what the person espousing an opinion believes about themselves.

Or, as Julian Sanchez puts it, “a lot of our current politics has less to do with actual policy disagreements than with resolving status anxieties.” I think his overall post is right, but I suspect that people pick their preferred policies (beyond patriotism, which is his example) to signal what they’re really like or want people to believe they’re really like.

Take my favorite example, gun control: the pro-gun types want other to think of them as capable, fierce, tough, and independent. And who isn’t in favor of those things? The anti-gun types want others to think of them as community-oriented, valuing health and welfare, and caring. And who isn’t in favor of those things?

You could extend this to other fields too (tax cuts, health care, whatever the issue du jour is), and they don’t always map to a neat left/right axis. Anyone can have an opinion that signals values on complex political topics in a way they can’t about, say, theoretical physics, mostly because complex political topics often don’t have correct answers. So they can be easily used to signal values that are often divorced from whatever real conditions on the ground look like. Almost no one uses their opinions on vector calculus to signify what they most believe.

Richard Feynman noted this tendency in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!. A princess says to Feynman that “[. . .] nobody knows anything about [physics], so I guess we can’t talk about it.” He replies: “On the contrary [. . .] It’s because somebody knows something about it that we can’t talk about physics. It’s the things that nobody knows anything about that we can discuss. We can talk about the weather; we can talk about social problems; we can talk about psychology; we can talk about international finance—gold transfers we can’t talk about, because those are understood—so it’s the subjects that nobody knows anything about that we can all talk about!”

That was the end of his discussion with the princess. But I think Feynman is on to something, and that something has to do with how people use political issues as means to show their values. Since very few people will change their fundamental values over a short period of time (if they ever will), arguing with most people about Republicans and Democrats (or whatever) is usually not about policy, but about belief.

Since picking up on this idea, I’ve become far less interested in political arguments, which are often cover for values arguments, and it’s very hard to change people’s fundamental values. Unless people acknowledge that political and religious debates are often about values, instead of the surface phenomena being discussed, you won’t get good conversation. This is probably one reason why so much political discourse is so unsatisfying: no one will even acknowledge what it’s actually about!

And maybe Americans adopted religious status, as Vedantam has it, because we don’t have as many inborn status markers, as Andrew Potter notes in The Authenticity Hoax:

When most people think of status, they think of the rigid class structures of old Europe. In contrast, North America is considered to be a relatively classless society. Sure, we have various forms of inequality, income being the most obvious and socially pernicious, but we have no entrenched class structure, no aristocracy that enjoys its privileges explicitly by virtue of birth, not merit. Nevertheless, urban North Americans live in what is probably the most status-conscious culture on the face of the Earth. The reason we don’t recognized this fact is that most of us are stuck in a model derived from the old aristo/bourgeois/prole hierarchy, where status is linear and vertical, a ladder on which one may (or may not, depending on the status markers that are in play) be able to move either up or down.

Now, in contrast, Potter sees that hierarchy as “obsolete,” since we now focus more on being “cool” or alternative, not driven solely by money, and known more for what we like than what we have. Forms of status change, but status doesn’t. The “rigid class structures of old Europe” might not apply, but the somewhat rigid ideals of religion might still, even if we’re still shifting towards consumption and opinions as status markers. Religion often functions basically as an opinion—or an “identity.” And people will not readily alter their identity—except for me, of course, because my identity is built around being able to alter my identity.

I’m still not sure why people glom onto politics and religion to signal their identities, but I think Feynman is on the right track: we like things that are large and complex enough that only a very small number of experts can really afford to even understand the domain but that nonetheless lend themselves to sloganeering and the like.

Some slang, like skeezing, goes way back — an example from Ulysses

In her soliloquy, Molly Bloom thinks: “hes mad on the subject of drawers thats plain to be seen always skeezing at those brazenfaced things on the bicycles with their skirts blowing up to their navels” (emphasis added, as they say in the trade). Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated helpfully tells us that skeezing is “Slang for staring at covertly.” Urban Dictionary, meanwhile, tells us that “skeezing” may have definitionally drifted somewhat, with the top rated definition being “doing the nasty,” and definitions of “skeezer” that impinge female sexuality like about 10,000 other words.

The modern term “creeping,” in the meantime, appears to have taken some of the voyeuristic connotations that Gifford assigns to “skeezing,” albeit in a way that is digitally enabled: “Following what is going on in someone’s life by watching their status messages on Instant Messengers such as MSN. . .”, whereas in the old days you had to do such things in the flesh. Other commentators, however, have such disparate definitions that “creeping” might not actually mean much of anything, other than being a catch-all words of opprobrium.

The Oxford American Dictionary included with OS X doesn’t include an entry for skeezing, and its entry for creeping says “move slowly and carefully, esp. in order to avoid being heard or noticed,” while the noun form does list “a person who behaves in an obsequious way in the hope of advancement,” which seems rather far from what Urban Dictionary thinks.

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