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



<< Home
"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 :-)



Powered by Blogger