This Academic Life
  Anger, aggression
Bill Amend -- modern sage -- produced a very funny comic this Sunday, at least a comic very funny to those of us proud to self-identify as Star Wars geeks. The basic set-up involves speculations about why Anakin Skywalker turns to the Dark Side of the Force in the forthcoming Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. [Note that such speculation is actually unnecessary now that the Episode III novel and comic-book has been released, so that anyone who wants to know the answer can just go read the book. I have purchased the book but have not read it yet and do not plan to before seeing the film for the first time.]

But Master Amend missed one important possibility: Anakin turns to the Dark Side because of a conflict involving the methodology course at the Jedi Academy, the one in which he is told -- to his great chagrin -- that there is only one correct way to pull the ears off of a Gundark, that his investigations into the lived experiences of citizens getting the short end of the stick in the decaying Republic aren't valid empirical claims because of the unrepresentativeness of the sample, and that sitting around meditating on the nature of the Authentic Self is an appropriate way to confront evil. "Fuck THIS," Anakin cries in class one day, and charges the professor with lightsaber drawn, "and how's this for a representative sample of PAIN AND SUFFERING??"

Cosmic balance tilts. Lord Vader, rise.

I know how he feels.

Today I have twice had to deal with the kind of narrow-minded intellectual incompetence that might well have pushed Anakin over the edge; I know that several times I had to restrain myself from letting loose with the verbal lightsaber blows. Probably a good thing, given the contexts in question.

The first one was the (in)famous Committee where we are debating the methodology requirement(s) for our Ph.D. program. Yes, today was round three (or four, depending on how we count "rounds") on the perennial problem of whether the students should be taught things other than statistics, and whether all of these things should receive equal weight in the program as a whole. My proposal, which I rather like, involves replacing the current one-semester stats course [which some of my colleagues persist in calling a "quantitative" class, completely and perhaps willfully ignoring my repeated insistence that there are non-statistical quantitative techniques and that what we actually teach here is not a quantitative class but a statistics class and that statistical inference is about case-comparison, not about whether you use numbers or not] with a year-long, multiple-methodology course which would equip students to make intelligent choices about which broad research methodology was most appropriate for their specific research question, and to be able to defend that choice on the only grounds that such choices can be meaningfully defended: philosophical, conceptual, ethical grounds. And after this course students could go out and get advanced methodological training in whatever approach was most appropriate for their dissertation research.

The Committee is largely deadlocked because those with a variety of hesitations about my proposal have formed a loose coalition. This is very weird because most of the people opposed to my proposal seem to actually be just raising some legitimate questions about the details, but when they discuss my proposal as a whole certain misunderstandings seem to creep in (e.g.: my proposal is to "drop statistics from the Ph.D. curriculum" -- not so, not so at all, I simply want to make sure that it is one tool in the toolbox as opposed to a dominating Master Logic). It is as though there were an unacknowledged position at work here: only stats count as social science, and only stats should be required of all students; if they want to do that other stuff they can do it on their own, but when it comes to their proposals they'll have to make them somehow conform to the logic of statistical inference because that's the only thing that constitutes "rigorous social science."

This seems to me to be an indefensible position, given all of the work that has been done in the philosophy of science over the past few decades. If I hear one more person say "well, we just need to have a qualitative methods course alongside the quantitative methods course," I will in fact go ballistic -- since "qualitative methods" in such a context means "small-n statistics." Rounding out my top-five list of frustrating comments that I keep hearing in this discussion:


Actually, today reached new lows, since the Committee actually asked me -- can you believe this? -- to develop an alternative proposal so that the we would have more than one reform proposal to consider. My initial inclination was simply to snap "are you high?" or something equally dismissive, since this maneuver seemed a rather transparent bit of parliamentary delaying-tactics. Like I would do their work for them or something. So I refused, telling them to articulate their own proposal; they are now going to do so. But the sheer audacity of their request still stuns me, since it represents an abdication of the basic requirement of a deliberative committee process: people bring their points to the table and discuss them, whereupon the committee votes or otherwise comes to a resolution of the issue. It's not my fault that they hadn't articulated their own counter-proposal yet; we've only been talking about this for months. Ample time for them to have come up with something.

But now we're in a holding pattern to give them time to formulate an alternative counter-proposal. Maybe at that point we can have what I really think that we need: a situation in which clear positions are spelled out, and we have a debate and then put the issue to a vote and get some resolution on the issue. I am a much bigger fan of clearly-defined lines of disagreement than I am of a less frank discussion of the serious conceptual and philosophical issues involved -- issues that cut right to the heart of the Ph.D. program's identity. So let's have it out and come to some kind of resolution, instead of continually re-treading the same ground and getting nowhere…which is wont to happen in committee meetings.

Almost turned to the Dark Side completely then. Almost did so again reading the reviewer's reports and the editor's decision on a piece that a co-author and I have been trying to get published for a while now. There was a split among the external reviewers, with the second reviewer saying "these revisions are absolutely fine, I look forward to seeing the piece in print" and the other fundamentally not getting what we're doing in the piece and disagreeing with those things that he or she did get. Decision: reject. And this for a piece that has already been cited in several publications by people (not us), and generally praised in a number of quarters.

The common thread here -- besides my repeated temptation to pull out a lightsaber and start chopping people to shreds -- is the general lack of understanding of philosophical issues in the social sciences. Reviewer 1, who hated/misunderstood the piece, seems not to have had the conceptual and philosophical equipment to really appreciate our argument, and the absurdly short length of a journal-article does not give us room to provide enough of the background. And in any event, why is it our responsibility to tell people what their argument is before we array ourselves against it? Shouldn't they, you know, understand what they are arguing? Is that really too much to ask? "Sure, we should teach multiple methodologies, as long as everyone gets the basics of articulating falsifiable hypotheses" is a contradiction in terms. "The authors can't possibly be arguing what they say they're arguing, so I'm going to assume that they are actually arguing what I think they ought to argue and then take them to task for not doing it well enough -- and ignore those places in their piece where they directly confront misreadings like mine" is a strategic misrepresentation. "No one could possibly disagree with these obvious and self-evident truths" is liberal conceit.

I tell you, it's enough to drive anyone to the arms of the Sith. Plus, no Ewoks.

[Posted with


  O you who turn the wheel
T.S. Eliot must have lived on an academic calendar:

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
April really is the worst in the American academic calendar, I think. All of the projects that students have been working on all year start to trickle in as rough drafts needing comments -- just about the same time that book orders and other course design stuff for the Fall are due, and typical end-of-semester things start to happen (suddenly everyone wants to come to office hours to talk about their final papers, and the backlog of in-semester grading that has been piling up starts to look more ominous as the date for turning in final grades looms). It's worse for me this year because I also have an end-of-the-month conference to help plan and coordinate, an ongoing committee battle to fight, two side projects that involve extra meetings with administrators and other colleagues, and oh yes, two summer courses (have to each in the summer in order to make the mortgage payments) to prep for.

April is the cruelest month, indeed.

[The full text of Eliot's brilliant poem The Waste Land -- which is of course not about anything as prosaic as having a lot of work to do in a short amount of time -- can be found here.]

[Posted with ecto]
In the same interview, Robinson declares: "Numbers don't win you ballgames, I don't care what they say." Sure. Last time I looked, numbers don't even play ballgames, so they can't win or lose the game in any event. Player statistics aren't actors; they do not exercise agency; they can't be responsible for anything. Players, and teams, and umpires, and ballparks, and even the weather can be responsible for a particular game being won or lost, in that we can attribute responsibility and actor-hood to those factors without committing the kind of category confusion associated with praising or blaming "the numbers." Josh Beckett pitched a lights-out game against the Nationals yesterday; Beckett's numbers didn't do that, although they record it. Antonio Osuna has a season ERA of somewhere north of 43 (!); his ERA didn't do anything, although it certainly records the fact that he's having a very shitty year thus far.

Statistics doing things would be like structures doing things. Both baseball statistics and accounts of system structure are ideal-typical depictions of past actions; one can use these analytics to interrogate and perhaps account for specific occurrences in retrospect, but projecting them into the future -- assuming that "global capitalism" will endure or that guys who are now batting .500 will still be doing so in September -- is an assumption for the sake of argument, a kind of thought experiment that may help to illuminate certain dynamics but doesn't actually produce knowledge about the future in any definitive sense. I can account for Beckett's performance yesterday by noting that he performed up to his usual excellent level, and explore this by delving into the specific statistics about how opponents hit (or, in this case, didn't hit) against him, etc. But the fact remains that his performance, measured statistically, is just an ideal-typical abstraction useful for making sense of concrete individual events.

Numbers don't win you ballgames. True. But if you are winning ballgames, you'll have good numbers, since the numbers are just a more precise way of analyzing how games are won and lost.

Analysts always run after practitioners, analyzing what they do and trying to put it into some sort of meaningful context. That's our job. And those analyses -- particularly the ones that raise uncomfortable facts -- can hopefully provide the raw material for producing more informed, more internally consistent and more morally defensible practices.

But they still won't make you, the analyst, any better at getting the bat on the ball.

[Posted with ecto]
  Fantasy baseball
I have been playing fantasy baseball in a league involving some of my colleagues and former students for several years now; I never win. I usually don't come in dead last, but I've never ended up in the top three or four. (The Dean is in the league, and I usually beat him, which is the only part of the standings I ultimately care about.) I've ben thinking a bit about why, especially since the season has gotten underway and some of my high draft picks have gotten off to slow starts; while not entirely unexpected, it has caused me to reflect on my strategy and wonder about my relative lack of success.

Part of my problem, I have come to realize, is in the initial stage of a fantasy baseball season: drafting players for one's fantasy team. It's not that I don't do my homework; I know which players I want, who looks likely to do well, and what kind of balance of scoring categories I'd like to have. What I have zippo clue about is how to arrange my draft picks (this year we had a live draft; in past years we've just ranked players and let the computer make the actual selections for us) so that I get what I want. This stage requires not just knowing about baseball players and their records, but knowing something about how others in the fantasy league are likely to arrange their picks. Why? Because otherwise you can end up wasting a draft pick by selecting a player earlier than you had to. If I know that no one is likely to select Mike Mussina until the ninth or tenth round of the draft, I can wait until then and he'll still be available, which permits me to use my fifth-round pick to get someone else.

But my problem is that I have no clue what other people are likely to do. So to be on the safe side I draft people like Mussina and Rivera [his two blown saves at the beginning of the season, while a little unexpected, aren't cause for concern yet; Mo is human, after all, and does occasionally blow saves] higher than they probably needed to be drafted, leaving me with slimmer pickings when we get further down the draft order. Which is how I ended up with Milton Bradley and Doug Davis (although Davis has done pretty well thus far -- opening against weak teams will do that for you), among others.

So there's part of my problem: a lack of a "theory of mind," or an intuitive grasp of what other people are likely to be thinking or are likely to do. Individual human behavior, even individual human social action (i.e. meaningful behavior), is profoundly puzzling to me, which is partially why I'm a social scientist rather than a psychologist; psychological accounts of why an individual person did the specific thing that they did seem to me to be the slimmest obfuscation or the purest grasping at straws, and so theoretically I'm far more comfortable leaving individual behavior/action in the hands of sheer randomness and focusing on the patterned environment(s) within which that behavior/action takes place. This is not an asset in playing games, however, as I can play the board fine but am horrible at playing the other people involved.

Of course, this is not my only weakness as a fantasy baseball player. I am also needlessly sentimental in my choices, sticking with players after they cease to perform at the same level as previously, and excluding any member of the Boston Red Sox from my fantasy team (which cuts off several excellent hitters and at least one lights-out pitcher -- if Schilling actually recovers from his ankle surgery). Usually I end up with a fair number of Yankee position players; this year I decided to play the game more efficiently, didn't really rank many Yankees that highly (save Rivera and Mussina, sentimental high picks both) and ended up with a fantasy team with only one Yankee position player (Posada at catcher; would have picked Joe Mauer instead, did last year, but I was worried about his knee problems). And part of me feels bad about that! I'd almost rather have lots of Yankees and lose than have few Yankees and win -- almost. What I'd really like is to have lots of Yankees and win, obviously :-)

My final weakness as a fantasy player is that I like to imagine that I have a "feel" for baseball, a sense of who is likely to do well on any given day, a knack for putting just the right person in at just the right time … which is bullshit. Oh, I check batter-vs.-pitcher stats for some of my more marginal players, and rotate people out when they're facing someone against whom they're hitting .073 in 41 at-bats, and that kind of thing. And I play hunches sometimes, and they pay off just often enough that I keep doing it sometimes (even though they usually don't work out at all). But who am I kidding? Frank Robinson, manager of the Washington Nationals, can say things like "This game to me is done on sight and feel and knowing your personnel and having some idea about the players and the people that you're competing against." Of course he can; he's a legendary player, and he has been around long enough to develop an intuitive sense of which move is the right one at a given point in time. And I would develop such an intuitive sense how, exactly? Studying the numbers does yield insight, of course, but I certainly haven't put in the time that would really generate such a virtuoso grasp of possibilities. So I have something half-assed instead: just enough knowledge to get dangerously cocky from time to time, and make stupid moves in full confidence that I have a clue what I'm doing.

The point? Don't quit my day job ;-) and remember that fantasy baseball is a game that can be enjoyable even if one doesn't play it to the fullest.

I wonder if something similar might be true of academia-as-a-vocation. Somehow that doesn't feel right to me. I can see playing fantasy baseball "for fun," but not a performing a vocation -- not that my vocation isn't exceedingly fulfilling, but "fun" doesn't seem like the right word to describe it. I enjoy fantasy baseball, but it doesn't fulfill me. Not like my day job does.

[Posted with ecto]
Sometimes you just gotta bitch. And where better to do so than on an anonymous (or at least "discreet") blog?

1) I hate inconsistency. The ongoing methodology struggles around here -- which are actually about to end, because the important Powers That Be have already weighed in on the side of methodological diversity instead of forcing students to suffer through irrelevant statistics courses that have no relevance to their research projects -- seem in part fueled by a characterization of me as the evil corruptor of the youth. You see, somehow having me around here diverts people from the True Path of Science-with-a-capital-s-and-a-large-quantitative-data-set. And this comes out in very odd ways, such as in the following scenario: a student presented a summary of her work in progress, work that involves a method of data-collection not unlike mine (find documents, read, take ethnographic reading notes, study for emergent themes and commonplace tropes/gestures). Opponents of methodological diversity have a tendency to say that I don't do "empirical work" because I don't run regressions on large data-sets. But the audience made no such comment about the student's work. My students, and I, are regularly accused in this ridiculous manner, so I am perplexed as to why this student (who is not one of my students) was able to do basically the same kind of work and not be similarly confronted. I wonder what it is that I am doing that seems to strike some of my colleagues as "unscientific."

2) trying very hard to get out from under the massive backlog of work built up from earlier this semester, and increasingly frustrated by a) how little time I have to do anything during a given week except the things I have already scheduled (classes, office hours, outside of class time spent working on class-related stuff, basic triage of academic e-mail) and then by b) how much more crap builds up in the meantime. It's April, so all those "get me a rough draft by the end of the semester" papers are starting to pour in; plus the "can we have this review by the first of May" commitments from months ago are looming, along with the "it's recruitment season and since you don't have tenure you're kind of required to participate in the ongoing effort to convince kids to come here" luncheons and appearances and the like. I can't quite shake this feeling that if I had more time I could do this better…but then I look at it in a more detached manner and realize that I'd need so much time that I'm never going to get it. Let alone get enough time to spend the time reading that I really want to spend, and then write some stuff…there isn't enough time, period. There's never going to be "enough" time. I wonder if there'll be more time one of these days/semesters/years?

3) fucking Yankees spent way too much money on Jaret Wright, and he didn't get out of the fifth inning, and now the Yankees are being clobbered by the goddamn Orioles.


All right, enough bitching for now.

[Posted with


  Bill James, f**king genius
Perhaps the best concise explanation of "analyticism" as an approach to knowledge-construction that I have ever read:

"I believe in a universe that is too complex for any of us to really understand. Each of us has an organized way of thinking about the world—a paradigm, if you will—and we need those, of course; you can’t get through the day unless you have some organized way of thinking about the world. But the problem is that the real world is vastly more complicated than the image of it that we carry around in our heads. Many things are real and important that are not explained by our theories—no matter who we are, no matter how intelligent we are.

As in politics we have left and right—neither of which explains the world or explains how to live successfully in the world—in baseball we have the analytical camp and the traditional camp, or the sabermetricians against the scouts, however you want to characterize it. I created a good part of the analytical paradigm that the statistical analysts advocate, and certainly I believe in that paradigm and I advocate it within the Red Sox front office. But at the same time, the real world is too complicated to be explained by that paradigm.

It is one thing to build an analytical paradigm that leaves out leadership, hustle, focus, intensity, courage and self-confidence; it is a very, very different thing to say that leadership, hustle, courage and self-confidence do not exist or do not play a role on real-world baseball teams. The people who think that way . . . not to be rude, but they’re children. They may be 40-year-old children, they may be 70-year-old children, but their thinking is immature."
Read the complete interview here.

In other baseball news, the Yankees returned to their usual form of beating up on the Red Sox last night, led by the bat (3-for-5, 1 HR, 3 RBI, and a 1.8 OPS) and the glove (stole a two-run home run from Kevin Millar in the second inning with a perfectly-timed jump at the left-field wall) of Hideki Matsui, behind a typically impressive outing (6.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 6K) by Randy Johnson. God's in her Heaven and all's right with the world :-)

[Posted with ecto]
"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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