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Performance measurement and social goals: Onoro O’Neil and The Wire

The next two weeks we are discussing Season 4 of the Wire, and one of the things I wanted students to notice throughout concerns how performance measurement is used as currency within the institutions, their employees, and their service populations. There are 2 important instances just in the first part of the season.

1) the “September day” scenes, when truant officers just pick up the kids who need their “September Day”…because funding organizations are counting whether a child was there in September and October for one day at least, so that, essentially, the truant staff and the kids have a vocabulary around meeting just that requirement, and no more, in attendance;

2) the Major Crimes Unit encountering the “new broom” captain who is obsessed with his statistics: all he cares about are checking boxes. He micromanages; he steps on the entrepreneurial, risk-taking, and successful detectives in major crimes and promises to change the focus of the department. And he does. This is a group that had been able to make long-term commitments to arresting and convicting Avon Barkdale.

Our discussions prompted one of my students to share this essay on a middle school cheating scandal from the New Yorker. There is so much here that will make you want to throw your computer in a fury, but this paragraph takes the cake:

Every fall, the district held a convocation ceremony, which was usually in the Georgia Dome, where the Atlanta Falcons play. Schools that met their performance targets were seated on the field, while schools that fell short were relegated to the bleachers. Teachers spoke nervously all year about whether they would “make the floor.” At Waller’s first convocation, in 2005, he was humiliated by his seat in the bleachers. “It’s almost like having leprosy in the Bible,” he told me. “No one wants to associate with failure.

How #@#$@# petty can you get? Really? You think the other teachers are going to get failure cooties or something, if they all sit together as a group with common goals? Grrrrrrrrrrr!

This discussion has got me asking my students: are we doing more harm than good with performance metrics in service provision? Philosopher Onora O’Neil has devoted quite some time on working on issues of trust and metrics, so I sent this around:

I love the idea of intelligent accountability.

It takes them awhile to get started. She hots up about 8 minutes in.

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What if academic conferences occurred biennially?

There are different kinds of academics: there are good networkers that schmooze their way into things. These are academics who are great believers in going to conferences.

Then there are people like me, who are terrible in most interpersonal situations, find conferences paralyzing, and who, to the degree we have an academic reputation at all, have it because we write things that interest people. I am always being shoved into going to conferences, and I really don’t know why.

ACSP allows us 15 minutes to give our papers. 15 minutes. Have you ever tried to deliver a theory paper in 15 minutes?

The year-by-year duty of going to conferences is a money free-for-all; few universities cover enough travel for more than one conference, so people wind up paying for a bunch of travel out of their own pockets (because networking! Community!) and young scholars, in particular, can’t really afford it. It’s all done to maintain the coffers of a credentialing organization.

Then there’s the year-to-year drag of presenting bits, which tempts people to present work that isn’t fully mature (and how would you know, based on your 15 minutes of air time.) You spend a lot of time in the shallows.

I wonder if having conferences less frequently would be a good idea. You wouldn’t be able to get through as many papers, which might actually be a good thing if we thought the process would cull in favor of fewer papers with greater quality and higher impact.

Of course, I say that being an established scholar would likely be able to get my papers in that club now, but not when I was a younger, unpopular scholar. (Now I’m an old, unpopular scholar.)

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Multicast (@niftyc) breaks down Eco’s guide to writing a thesis

I’m more than a little excited about Umberto Eco’s How to Write A Thesis, originally published in 1977, and recently re-issued in English by MIT Press. Christian Sandvig over at Multicast discovers that the book is a mite dated in various parts; I haven’t gotten my copy yet, so I can’t verify, but here’s his evidence:

I was thinking of assigning it in doctoral seminars, but I regret that a great deal of the book involves scholarly practices that are no longer relevant to anyone. For instance: Is it OK to insert an unnecessary footnote in the middle of your text so that your footnote numbering matches up correctly with what you’ve already typed? (Meaning: So you don’t have to re-type the entire manuscript. On a typewriter.)

It turns out that it is not OK to insert unnecessary footnotes.

And there’s a whole bunch of things about index card management, diacritical marks, and library union indices. And some stuff about the laurea.

Ok, but still: regardless of whether one is tempted to add a footnote to save one typing (amazeballs: how did anybody finish anything back then?), the art and science of footnotes still strikes me as a reasonable discussion, as I read plenty of things where I am shaking my fist because the author has not footnoted something they ought, or have caused me to dig about in the endnotes for a lame-ass note when I really didn’t need to. This is coming from somebody with drafty drafty book plodding along with lots of janky, awful notes in it so far.

And while not even I am such a Luddite that I refuse to type on a computer, can I just say: KIDS TODAY. Um, I STILL USE INDEX CARDS.

Wanna make something of it?

My index card management usually entails throwing them into a pile and then arranging them when I finally get down to write, but it’s hard going in a book-length project, so I could probably stand some guidance there.

And while one probably isn’t terribly worried about the laurea in the US, I still like the idea. At least that way you learn where baccalaureate comes from.

Sandvig notes that Eco’s witty and direct advice is helpful in other ways, and he boils down Eco’s advice to 15 maxims. Go read.

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Groupon staffers show us how interactive customer service online is done

Knowing full well the Banana Bunker is vulnerable to, shall we say, internet mocking, but contractually required to feature the promo, Groupon customer service rep hands out a lesson on how to deal with the inevitable sport that ensued.

Some of my favorites:

Distractify Groupon Posted This Product On Facebook And The Comments That Followed Are A Masterpiece

Distractify Groupon Posted This Product On Facebook And The Comments That Followed Are A Masterpiece

Distractify Groupon Posted This Product On Facebook And The Comments That Followed Are A Masterpiece
Distractify Groupon Posted This Product On Facebook And The Comments That Followed Are A Masterpiece

Note, while much is funny and silly, real customer inquiries were treated seriously, in case of sale, and the authors got in a few factoids on the plight of the Cavendish.

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Aristotle, the judge-y philosopher

So as I noted the other day, I’m going back to re-read all of Magna Moralia (MM), Ethica Eudemia (EE), and Ethica Nicomachea (EN) by (roughly) Aristotle after approximately 20 or so years, in order to reclaim this guy from my decades-old impressions that I didn’t really love Aristotle’s intellectual project. In the interim, he’s become quite en vogue again, due in part in my field to Bent Flyvbjerg’s Making Social Science Matter.

I’m working on the EN right now*, and while I am finding much that of value–I’ve taught bits of the EN for years–I am still running up against the same problem that I had even as a callow 17 year-old trying to read this guy even as my classmates dissed me doing it: he’s a judge-y fellow, and it’s not just his reasonable rebuking of over-indulgence in his “incontinence” sections. It’s all over the book. For all the beatings Plato gets for his loyalty to aristocracy, Aristotle again and again returns to the idea that being high born and well-taught are precursors to virtue.

This is fine, I guess, in an ancient, except that it does not really answer the question of whether somebody might be low-born and desirous of virtue, but ill-taught because of his or her context, might be able to acquire abilities to recognize what is fine and good.
Quite early on here, we have:

καὶ εἰ τοῦτο φαίνοιτο ἀρκούντως, οὐδὲν προσδεήσει τοῦ διότι. ὁ δὲ τοιοῦτος ἢ ἔχει ἢ λάβοι ἂν ἀρχὰς ῥᾳδίως. ᾧ δὲ μηδέτερον ὑπάρχει τούτων, ἀκουσάτω τῶν Ἡσιόδου:

οὗτος μὲν πανάριστος ὃς αὐτὸς πάντα νοήσῃ,

ἐσθλὸς δ᾿ αὖ κἀκεῖνος ὃς εὖ εἰπόντι πίθηται·

ὃς δέ κε μήτ᾿ αὐτὸς νοέῃ μήτ᾿ ἄλλου ἀκούων

ἐν θυμῷ βάλληται, ὁ δ᾿ αὖτ᾿ ἀχρήϊος ἀνήρ.

And the man of good moral training knows first principles already, or can easily acquire them. As for the person who neither knows nor can learn, let him hear the words of Hesiod:

Best is the man who can himself advise;

He too is good who hearkens to the wise;

But who, himself being witless, will not heed

Another’s wisdom, is worthless indeed.

Sigh. I’m having trouble with the ἀχρήϊος bits. Irwin translates as “useless”; Rackham, the translator for the Loeb Classical edition I cribbed from above, uses the word “worthless.” Those strike me as defensible translations, both, but capturing different ideas about what a person who doesn’t listen to wiser fellows failing really is: is he of no use to them, or is without value as a person (…because, perhaps, he’s of no use in general, no use to them, no use to society, or no use to anybody, even himself ? Aristotle doesn’t allow for happy fools.)

This is in a big section where Aristotle is banging on about how teaching is somewhat wasted on callow and immature learners, which anybody who has spent time with recalcitrant undergrads can tell you, is true (I just imagine a bunch of rich young male Greeks lolling around ignoring Aristotle while they scroll through…scrolls…or some other ancient version of Yik Yak.)

Back to my original point about Aristotle McJudgypants, it’s not clear to me from worthlessness to uselessness how one ever acquires virtue or knowledge of the good and the right if his precursors are not met, and that mets one must be older and experienced to know what is right and wrong, and that’s fine to some degree, but at what point does one get to push off the ground and say “I’ve got the practical wisdom, y’all listen” and by which mechanisms even those of us with grey in our hair should be expected to keep revisiting and revising our ideas of the right and the good.

And if anybody of good breeding and nurturing can acquire good morals easily, then what do we need study for?

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Wheat bread sucks: a (particularly childish) manifesto

Ok, I have a million ideas today, and I have to work on the book, but I have recently moved to eating a vegan diet as much as possible* because I just hate the animal exploitation that goes into meat. And it’s not good for me, and my state has no water, and so forth, and so on. It’s not about you. I’m not judging you. Ok? We can start there.

Now, I know that the picking and choosing of what food to eat and not eat is a signal of socio-economic privilege, and I understand that, and I’m usually among the first to roll my eyes way the heck on up in my head when dealing with a Californian who needs to be all ordering off the menu with a dozen requirements for every silly thing from what shape plate they want to switching out cilantro pesto for regular pesto even though the restaurant doesn’t have any damn kind of pesto to begin with.

With that kind of silly crap going on, lines at a sandwich counters stretch on forever, with spoiled brat Californians happily blithering on about their whatever intolerance while the rest of are starving to death in line behind them, desperate to go back to work, while they turn getting a stupid sandwich into a transaction that takes longer than refinancing your mortgage when you have bad credit. I normally love me some Californians, but never, ever, in a sandwich line. It’s a sandwich. it is not a life-changing experience. CAN WE MOVE ON HERE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD?

It is thus a matter of some personal (albeit silly) pride of mine that I just ask for a #5 on white, or whatever. On white. Because I hate wheat bread. I always have.

A recent sandwich line innovation, however, has them picking the bread for you. #5s in the world now come on various and sundry buns, and if you don’t want whatever bread product they have chosen, for reasons of economy and to make it clearer to everybody on the sandwich assembly side of things just what kind of sandwich they are supposed to be making here, you have to issue a dreaded special request.

So it is with a great deal of irritation that my self-satisfied, low-maintenance sandwich line rule of never fussing about with special requests during a lunch rush hits up against the hard brick wall of that fact that every single damn vegan sandwich in the world comes on $@!#!! loathsome wheat bread. While you meat eaters are granted rosemary focaccia and Dutch “crunch” buns, BBQ tofu or a simple pile of stupid vegetables always, inevitably, have to be served on wheat effing bread.

I’m dying inside a little inside here anyway: I’m not one of those vegan converts who recoils primly in horror at the very idea of polluting this here temple with animal flesh. This here temple is already way the hell polluted, and I’ve had a jolly good time doing it, thank you, and giving all that up as a concession to age is no small loss.

There are days when I look up, and instead of my students’ faces, I see a whole classroom of cheeseburgers instead, with side helping of biscuit and sausage gravy. Ok? So when I am ordering my whatever little pile of yummy, yummy, healthy raw (or cold slimy cooked) vegetables, I’m already feeling somewhat deprived by the whole deal. The last thing I need to have is my little pile of vegetables served on stupid wheat bread.

I’m Ron freaking Swanson trapped in a body that won’t let me eat what I want.

I get why restaurants do this sort of thing. They are playing the odds, and the odds are that a person who, when confronted with lovely, savory, delicious meat will choose the pile of flavorless veggies is also a person who is going to burst into rapturous praise of -effing wheat bread. “It’s sooooooooooooooo much healthier, like ZOMG, it’s so much more like what our caveman ancestors ate” and “It has sOOOOooooOOOOOooooOOOOooooooooo much more flavor” (yeah, bad flavor) “How can anybody eat that insipid white bread?” blah blah blah. You can find both my husband and my mother in this group, and I wish they’d shut the hell up. (Well, about wheat bread and how I should like it.)

My choice in life is now to eat my sad vegetable sandwich (no cheese, even) made even more disappointing by yucky wheat bread, or become one of the legion of special request whiners cluttering up the world with their ever-so-special demands, thus lengthening every sandwich line I join and forcing all others, who just want to grab a sandwich and get back to freaking work, to wait while I say, “Can I have that on (insert bread that doesn’t suck), instead?” and the minimum wage slave assembling sandwiches has to either explain that yes, I can, or no, I can’t.


*I say as much as possible because it’s hard, and I’m not perfect, so if you see me in an airport grabbing a slice of pizza, please don’t come up to me and say “I thouuuuught you saiiiiiiiid you were a vegan, but this just proves you’re a hypocrite, so there!” Remember: not about you. Trying to forestall the triple bypass here. Ok? Trying to feel less bad about dead animals. You work your program, I’ll work mine. Or not. LIVE FREE OR DIE DAMMIT.


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Launching on my special study of Aristotle for a few months

I’m going back to the Nichomachean Ethics after a 20-year break. I’m going to spend the next couple of months doing a special study of this book, the Eudemian Ethics, and the Magna Moralia.

Don’t ask how the book is going, just don’t.

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Christian Matheis on justice, race, and public policy

As many of you know, I was fortunate enough to be a Virginia Tech for awhile, and one of the most wonderful features of Virginia Tech is their ASPECT (The Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought) group that draws together researchers from fields across the university in conversation about social, political, ethical, and cultural thought. By far, ASPECT had for me the most in-depth and interesting intellectual engagement at VT.

I still follow their activities, and one that caught my eye this morning comes from PhD student , whose wonderful website can be found here. (I have got to get going on a website. I am the world’s most disorganized person.) Christian’s blog post appears at RE: Reflections and Explorations, and his piece is entitled: Public Policy, Racial Justice, and Liberatory Thought:
By what criteria can we call public policy properly ‘anti-racist’?
. There is much here worth reading, including:

When informed by liberatory thought, individuals and groups engaged in social movements advocate for wholesale change: ethical respect and due moral regard, institutional shifts that broaden access to shares of political rule, and for the feasibility of governance by those formerly oppressed, marginalized, targeted, and otherwise deemed unworthy or incapable of fair and decent conduct as the primary architects of politics.

Go read.

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I’ve been reading about vaccines

I recently butted heads with a person making excuses for the anti-vaxxers, with the typical “Big Bad Pharma” routine, and I suddenly realized that I had really strong opinions on the subject.

This story from Australia reinforced my views.

This child died for no reason, just like every kid who dies in car crashes. At least with cars we have the utility associated with high levels of mobility–like that’s commensurate, somehow, but at least it’s something. In the case of vaccines, the utility is in free-riding.

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“Nourishing the spirit” versus “Fostering one’s career”

I won’t pretend that I don’t think William Deresiewicz’s evidence for his book, Excellent Sheep, is thin and overstated. Nonetheless, I don’t disagree with the problems of neoliberalization of higher education he highlights. I’m just not sure what to do about it.

This review by George Scialabba in Foreign Affairs strikes me as actually more insightful than the book:

College, in Deresiewicz’s view, is supposed to be the place where one discovers an allegiance to something larger than oneself: service to a community or a cause, the practice of art or science or scholarship. The problem is not merely pedagogic but political: unless American elites are dedicated to something larger than themselves, an American commonwealth is impossible.


Deresiewicz notes the mass migration of elite college graduates to careers in finance and consulting: at many Ivy League universities, at least a quarter of all students go into those fields after graduation. Deresiewicz believes that these shifts have occurred not because students find economics, finance, and business intellectually or morally fulfilling but because they fear that holding out for more interesting work would be too risky, or because they must pay off student loans, or simply because, in a winner-take-all society, who wouldn’t want to be one of the winners?


Many readers will have murmured to themselves by now: “Yes, I’ve heard all this talk about souls and individuality and self-creation before: very inspiring. And I’m well aware that severe economic inequality is a feature of contemporary American life. But what does Deresiewicz propose? If he had the authority and the resources to change American universities, how would he go about it?” 

I guess I don’t think that it’s impossible to both nurture the spirit and help a young person get ready for a career. I think it’s possible to learn Excel and Aristotle. Why not?

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